by Andrew Arnett

Consider a speck of dust, so small as to be practically imperceptible to the naked eye. So tiny you can load it into a needle and have it injected into your bloodstream. But this dust is ‘smart’ and in fact manufactured, for instance, by HP Labs. Here’s the idea: each Smart Dust particle is part of an intelligent network of billions of nanoscale sensors designed to listen, see, taste, smell and feel. Smart Dust, when sent out into the world, will gather and transmit information to computing engines which will crunch the data for use by governments, businesses and the civilian sectors.

Not long ago, Smart Dust was strictly the stuff of science fiction. First conceived of in the novel The Invincible (1964) by Stanislaw Lem, which features an antagonistic swarm of insect-like self-replicating micro machines capable of incapacitating any enemy with a powerful electromagnetic surge.

The theoretical premise for Smart Dust is based on Moore’s Law (1965) in which Intel founder Gordon Moore predicted that the number of components that could fit on a single computer chip could double every two years. How time flies. Development on Smart Dust began in the laboratories of RAND in 1992 and then fast tracked by the government for its potential military applications.

In 1997, Kristofer S. J. Pister of the University of California, Berkley, secured status of inventor of Smart Dust when he and colleagues Joe Khan and Bernhard Boser’s proposal for Smart Dust was selected for funding by DARPA. They built wireless sensor nodes varying in size from one cubic millimeter (smaller than a grain of rice) to the micrometer level.

The U.S. military started conducting tests with Smart Dust in 2001. During the test, thousands of Smart Dust sensor nodes were delivered by helicopter, covering a wide area, then used to track 142 vehicles for a number of days whilst transmitting data via video, audio, etc. The test was deemed a success.

from Smart Dust Research Proposal, courtesy of University of California, Berkeley

Dr. Pister went on to found Dust Networks in 2004, which was acquired in 2011 by Linear Networks, who then shifted the focus to commercial applications. Other companies, like IBM, Cisco Systems, General Electric and Cargill, saw the technologies myriad potential applications, and have begun investing in research.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) launched the Central Nervous System of the Earth (CeNSE) project, utilizing billions of Smart Dust sensors strategically applied to the environment, providing real-time information for management of infrastructure in airplanes, manufacturing plants, buildings, roads and bridges as well as health and safety issues concerning disease control and food and water contamination. For example, the sensors can track the spread of a flu virus, monitor volume and speed of freeway traffic, smell gas leaks, and sense wear and tear on bridges.

There is, as well, much interest in potential Smart Dust applications for medical purposes, especially in the fields of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and Smart Dust integration with human augmentation. Elon Musk launched Neuralink in 2016 with an eye on human-biotech enhancements and the treatment of brain disease.

All this is very well and good but, one has to wonder about the coming antagonistic swarm of insect-like self-replicating micro machines. After all that’s said and done, isn’t that where this is all leading?

No doubt there are concerns to such powerful all-encompassing technology. First and foremost has to be privacy issues. It’s bad enough we have our phones and Alexa listening to everything we do but, billions of microscopic sensors placed all over the damn place? It would give new meaning to the phrase, “All the world’s a stage.”

Then there is the matter of a billion tiny electronic devices floating all over the place. Oh, did I mention that already? Well then, what kind of impact would that have on our already over-vexed environment? How do we keep track of them, and what happens when they become obsolete? This stuff will eventually end up in the food chain, right? Yummy.

No doubt, there is much potential for this technology to better society, especially in the right hands, like doctors, elected officials who we can trust and, Elon Musk? But what if it gets in the hands of that nameless hoard of evil doers and bad hombres? How are we going to deal with a worst case scenario? Someone is going to have to invent a smart broom, of course.


Click to access SmartDustBAA97-43-Abstract.pdf