Remote Controlled

Will a new generation of curbside sensors end our parking problems -- or help the government monitor our every move?

In the future, the world's surface may be salted with billions of synthetic brain cells, each sensing its surroundings and communicating with neighbor cells. This multilayered sensing and networking ability is, in the mind of some artificial-life computer researchers, the pith of intelligence. So, once it's covered with a perceptive neural network, the planet's surface might develop thoughts and feelings of its own.

My introduction to this looming scenario came a couple of weeks ago, after I had circled the blocks near 18th and Valencia streets for a while, looking for a place to park my wife's minivan. I was on my way to drinks with my friends Gabriel Metcalf and Elizabeth Sullivan, the couple who founded San Francisco's nonprofit rental car company City CarShare, which aims to reduce the number of autos on our streets and thus ease parking problems in places like the Mission neighborhood.

They passed the successful City CarShare operation on to its board of directors a while ago to focus on day jobs and kids. Now, I learned, Elizabeth is involved in a start-up company called Streetline that's ostensibly aimed at helping cities further ease parking woes. But if I read the implications of its technology and mission accurately, Streetline has the potential to lead us toward the aforementioned conscious-planet scenario, which, Gabriel facetiously predicted, might end up with a newly sentient Mother Earth rising up against her human overlords.

Streetline hopes to install thousands of sensors along city streets and use the information they gather to adjust parking meter rates in a way that makes street parking easy to find -- for those willing to pay.

"These little sensors -- which are a lot like the Botts Dots that mark traffic lanes, or it looks a bit like that -- they're very nondescript. They're every 10 feet, close to the curb, in a very nondescript way," Elizabeth said of Streetline, noting that the company will soon announce a pilot project for a Bay Area organization. "They turn on and gather information -- very simple information. It's a tool for traffic engineers to manage city streets."

City streets and, eventually, a great deal more, I'll wager.

Elizabeth went on to explain that her new start-up will be using unique sensor networks developed by a company called Dust, which, in an odd coincidence, was co-founded by my genius electrical engineering Ph.D. cousin, Rob Conant. The sensors are an outgrowth of a project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and aimed at exploiting University of California research into microtechnology for possible military use. The basic idea is that if an army could drop millions of tiny temperature, pressure, sound, and other sensors -- preciously called "motes" -- over hundreds of miles of battlefield, and if these sensors could radio information to neighboring sensors, enemy footsteps could ultimately be relayed to a supercomputer and analyzed by a general, who could then bark exquisitely informed commands.

It turns out, however, that the most practical application for this technology can be found in mundane realms such as the exquisitely precise monitoring of a grocery store's freezer case temperatures, to cut energy use. Or the technology could be used to create an all-knowing/all-being warehouse security system that senses everything about every moment of even the pettiest security breach. Or, in the case of Streetline, it could precisely monitor activity in a city's parking spaces, so a computer might figure out how much parking meters should charge so 15 percent of the spaces remain empty -- the optimum amount, research has shown, for making it convenient to shop by car.

Tod Dykstra, a co-founder of both Dust and Streetline, would not elaborate on San Francisco-based Streetline's capitalization, products, or client base. "We have working prototypes of systems that have been demoed, and we are producing hardware, and we have had conversations with cities," he did say. "We're around where a start-up wants to be around now. We've been in business six months.

"If we lay this out for parking, that will be a backbone. On that, you could put a gunshot sensor, or sensors that tell when the gutters are overflowing in the rainy season. These are low-cost things that will make information more efficient and improve the quality of life."

Improve it for a while, that is.

If cities, companies, armies, and other organizations seize on the logic behind Elizabeth and Rob's expansive sensory neural networks, it's easy to imagine a future in which information about battlefield dust devils and downtown tire tracks is networked in the world's collective computer consciousness, the way financial and other data are now. Weather satellites and fire alarms could become obsolete. Perhaps even telephones would, too. Just speak a friend's name into the Potrero breeze, and she'll hear your voice's unique frequency in Budapest.

Clearly, this much sensing and networking and calculating could produce a day on which we're confronted by a once-submissive foe, as in Planet of the Apes.

Not so, Dykstra says: "Extended intelligence, that may be something they're working on somewhere. But it's just science fiction."

But because he's family, Conant, Dust's director of product development, responded to my fears more gamely.

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