Networking has invaded everything from the hospital to the factory floor. But along the way it's sparked lawsuits, standards fights, and a new breed of warfare
Illustration: Richard Tuschman
This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Always On: Living in a Networked World.
Welcome to the networked world: your heart rate is available on-line to your physician; your work is going great, since you've got access to supercomputers and databases around the world; and you've just surfed the Net and downloaded a favorite song to your cell phone, which was made in a factory controlled from a laptop thousands of kilometers away.
The trouble is: you're not quite sure you downloaded that song legally, those databases are full of records that may well be in different languages, your own hospital hasn't figured out a way to share your medical records on-line with the one you were just wheeled into on a stretcher, and your country's information infrastructure is subject to persistent attack from foreign and domestic terrorists.
In the following section, IEEE Spectrum explores how networking is changing consumer electronics, biomedicine, industrial automation, supercomputing, and the military.
Networking and the spread of the service economy seem to go hand-in-hand, and service is now the name of the game in consumer electronics, writes Tekla S. Perry. The most visible form that service is taking is in downloadable digital audio files, but such downloads have sparked a host of legal and technology battles that have yet to be put to rest.
Health care lags behind many other industries in its use of information technology. However, in the United States at least, hospitals are on the brink of a mandated wireless network overhaul, writes Samuel K. Moore. In the medical research arena, the big news of the year was a substantially complete human genome. Scientists are busy putting that data into perspective by integrating geographically dispersed databases and coming up with a more systematic way to build those databases in the future ["Harmonizing Data, Setting Standards"].
Medicine may be slow to catch on, but industrial automation is making big strides in networking. With the advent of Ethernet-enabled sensors and controllers, companies are hooking the factory floor to the executive offices and beyond, writes Gadi Kaplan in "Ethernet's Winning Ways".
Science has become an industrial-scale activity, and in "Super Nets for Supercomputers," Stephen Cass writes that modern experiments generate so much data that having access to just one supercomputer isn't enough anymore. Networked supercomputing is the wave of the future.
Finally, in "The Web As Weapon," Jean Kumagai writes that our growing reliance on computer networks makes the networks themselves likely sites for attack. What is more, civilian and military networks are becoming increasingly intertwined, and so the U.S. military's focus has shifted from protecting every network to securing mission-critical systems. Current efforts include software agent-based systems (for real-time detection and recovery from a cyber attack) and network-level early-warning systems (for monitoring suspicious on-line activity).