The Future Is Here
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Why "Networked Matter" Is One Futurist Concept You Need to Know

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Just as there are political think tanks, there are also futurist ones — they offer wisdom about emerging trends to companies and other organizations who make long-term plans. And top futurist think tank Institute for the Future wants you to know about one trend that could change the very structure of reality.

They call this trend "networked matter," and it refers to the ways that computer networks and the so-called real world will become almost indistinguishable as technologies develop. At a recent workshop devoted entirely to the trend, IFTF explained:

Over the next decade, a confluence of breakthroughs will give us new lenses to observe the wondrous interconnections surrounding us and within us. The coming Age of Networked Matter is a world where everyday objects will blog, robots will have social networks, microbes will talk to kitchens, and forests will “friend” cities. We will look at the emerging technologies in computation, sensing and actuation, wireless, materials science, and even biology that will underpin this coming world, and interact with creators as they reimagine and reinvent the changing context and meaning of our lives.


What they mean is that all of our "smart" objects, from mobile devices to cars and sensors, will be communicating with each other tomorrow the way computers on the internet communicate with each other today. Though you never think about it, your computer has countless conversations with other machines just in the process of looking at this website. Imagine if your smart building were having just as many conversations with other buildings in order to figure out how much power it needed on a second-by-second basis. Or maybe your medicine cabinet would interact with your pharmacy to order a new prescription of your dwindling supply of meds.

But networked matter goes beyond smart technology. It also extends to a future where biological organisms are also wired to communicate with each other via networks. That's where the idea of forests and microbes "communicating" with our cities comes from. Already, engineers have created electrical circuits that can be integrated into your skin. Imagine what might happen if similar technologies were integrated into many kinds of living creatures. Forests could warn wind turbines about approaching flocks of birds, so the rotating blades could shut down in time to keep the birds safe. Or we could integrate the computational power of bacterial colonies into our data-crunching machines.


IFTF has also commissioned a group of science fiction writers, including Ramez Naam, Cory Doctorow, and Rudy Rucker to write stories about a future of networked matter. You can read them on the IFTF site. In the meantime, try to imagine a future where living things and cities have their own internet-like communications systems.