An Interview with the Center Director for the TerraSwarm Research Center

Edward A. Lee

Q: Can you tell what the TerraSwarm Project is about?

Lee: Sure, with pleasure. The project is about what people are calling "the swarm," which is the collection of millions of smart devices that are able to sense properties of the physical world around them and are able to affect the physical world around them. These devices are getting deployed in large numbers today, making measurements of temperature, humidity, and air quality, observing motion of people through video surveillance, listening for sounds, etc. But more interestingly, these devices are getting networked, either wirelessly or through wires, so that they can access each other's information, can interact with computers and hand-held devices, and they can interact with the computing infrastructure in "the cloud."

Q: What are the goals of the project?

Lee: The main goal is to unleash millions of creative minds to develop uses for swarm technology that will improve our quality of life, improve the efficiency of our use of energy, water, and other resources, improve our transportation systems, and improve our safety. Today, applications of swarm technology are pretty much self-contained; for example, a modern building may have thousands of sensors and actuators that control lighting and temperature and that track people for effective emergency response. But these capabilities today are built into a closed system that is not networked and accessible to third-party applications. Our goal is find ways to safely and effectively make the capabilities of these devices accessible to novel applications.

Q: One of the key themes of the project is "smart cities." Can you tell me what that means?

Lee: Yes, this term refers to the use of technology to improve the operation of our cities. It is about efficient transportation, efficient energy usage, and public safety. One of the key concerns of our project is that as we become increasingly reliant on such technology in our day-to-day lives, we could also become increasingly vulnerable to failures of the technology or malicious attacks on the technology. For this reason, in our project, a "smart city" is actually a tale of two cities. In the best of times, the technology does its job, and in the worst of times, after a hurricane, an earthquake, or a terrorist attack, for example, it adapts and delivers useful service despite the severe stresses on the system. Fortunately, swarm technology has very nice features that can help make it very robust. Many swarm devices are small, solar or battery powered, and wirelessly networked, which means that they can continue to operate and provide useful services even when most of the infrastructure around them has collapsed.

Q: As these sensing devices get widely deployed, won't we be giving up privacy and safety?

Lee: There is a great deal of potential for creepy and sinister uses of swarm technology. But it is worth remembering that sensors that are capable of spying on us are not a new thing. The eyes and ears of our neighbors are examples of such sensors. We have developed, over thousands of years, social, technical, and legal, safeguards. Some of the "technical" safeguards are decidedly low tech, such as walls and window dressings. But nevertheless, we have managed to build a society in which most of us are quite comfortable despite being surrounded by (human) sensors most of the time. The challenge with swarm technology, of course, is that it breaks distance barriers, and that we lose symmetry. It becomes hard to know who is watching us and who is capable of watching us. A key goal of our project is to build safeguards into the infrastructure of the swarm.

Q: Can you give an example?

Lee: We have been talking, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, about an "invisibility cloak," inspired by Harry Potter. The goal is not to literally make people invisible, but rather to enable people to limit the information about themselves that is available in the swarm. For example, you might, when walking down the street, not want the swarm to be able to identify you. It may not be reasonable to literally become invisible to sensors, of course, because then you might be run over by a self-driving car, but it is reasonable to want to be anonymous. The invisibility cloak would ensure that anonymity.

Q: Is that even technically possible?

Lee: To tell you the truth, I'm not sure. This is a research project, and we have ideas, but there are many unanswered questions. For example, any networked system that can identify you can also find you in a database that lists individuals who have asked to not be identified. But it has to identify you to find you in the database. Is there a way to ensure that the information that is transmitted over networks to make this connection cannot leak your identify to a third-party listener? We believe such mechanisms exist. But we have some engineering to do.

Q: Can you give me an example of a TerraSwarm application that your team is working on?

Lee: My favorite one right now is called the Marauder's Map, also inspired by Harry Potter. In Harry Potter, Marauder's Map is a paper map of the Hogwarts Castle that shows the location of people in the castle and tracks their movements. I believe that such a map would be hugely popular among young people today, where, augmented by social networking, it could create much more the feel of small and close community despite being set in a crowded city full of anonymous people. And in the event of a disaster, it could acquire incalculable value, helping us to reconnect with our loved ones and help our friends.

Q: Are you a Harry Potter fan?

Lee: Very much so. I'm an engineer, and I know a lot about the technology that my team is working on. But most of what my team can do is still very much magic to me. Engineers are today's witches and wizards.

Q: Where does the term "TerraSwarm" come from?

Lee: That's an interesting story. We were first inspired by visionary named Mikko Uusitalo (from Nokia) who has predicted that before too long, there will be thousands of smart networked devices per person on the planet. Given that there are billions of people on the planet, this takes us to trillions of swarm devices. "Tera," spelled with one "r," is a prefix meaning "trillion." But we decided to use "terra," spelled with two r's, the Latin word for earth, to reflect the global reach of the swarm and our key goal of making Earth a better place.