Everything you ever wanted on an immortal machine

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The Independent Online

"They're like... these immortal machines."

"They're like... these immortal machines."

Immortal machines: what an evocative pair of words. The scene from Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis played itself in my mind's cinema. A worker is struggling to keep up with the machine's demands, but falls ever farther behind, collapsing as the machine overheats and explodes - morphing into a vision of hell.

But here, we're talking about machines that serve humans. The speaker is a 20-something Linux programmer in full uniform: long hair, stubble beard, red-rimmed eyes: I sat listening to him, astride a wobbly chair in the kitchen of a Silicon Valley flat that houses a nascent company called Workspot.

An open, half-full case of server mother-boards lay at my feet, its missing components presumably already installed in the racks. Bright blue, category-5 networking cable snaked around behind the machine. A couple of red LED lights glowed on a very serious-looking bank of hard drives. Nearby, coffee mugs were neatly lined up on the sink. The immortal machine itself, was taking shape on a counter to my left, housed in black rack-mount cases.

In the near future, people are going to want to get to their stuff - their information, their phone numbers, their word processing documents, pictures of the kids, their e-mail, stock quotes, music, even scenes from Metropolis, whatever they want - wherever they are: at work, at home, in the car, on the beach.

The people I was visiting were working to make it so.

The best way to do it is to keep everybody's stuff - their data, their application programs, their software tools for communicating - on a server somewhere. The people will get to it all over public networks, and increasingly those will be wireless networks. People could adopt new technologies, new platforms, and new application software over time but their data and apps could persist on servers "out there" somewhere.

Contrary to the cinematic fiction, it will be the servers, not the people, who will be expendable - machines and technologies will come and go, but if the administration is deft, the users will never know. The machines will appear to be only "immortal" servants. The applications will always be the latest version, the data will be painstakingly backed up and security will be state of the art - it better be or no one will use the system.

Or that's the theory anyway. Just at the moment, the state of the art requires that you be pretty computer literate - and patient - to master the plethora of devices, connections and services necessary to even approximate ubiquitous data access.

I count myself among the Valley's legion of mobile workers: a cell phone and Palm Pilot are as indispensable as a wallet and keys. I also tote a PowerBook laptop almost everywhere I go. Nevertheless, I'm forever needing to dig out and boot the PowerBook because something I need isn't on the Palm. And I need the Palm because I can't keep all the phone numbers I'm likely to need on the cell phone. And one of the most-used numbers on the cell phone is the one for a colleague, who looks up and connects me to the people I need when I just don't have the time to get to the right device and dig for the data - like while in the fast lane of Interstate 280. In fact, the only time I'm truly master of my universe is when I'm sitting at a machine on a fast network.

But in the future, I and you and everybody may be able to get to anything, any time. One vision, espoused by researchers at University of California at Berkeley, is called the Endeavor Expedition, another at MIT, is called Oxygen. Both projects envision a global, server-resident data soup where all our "stuff" - everything from my shopping list to the data stream representing the film Metropolis to the full text of this newspaper - resides.

We'll invoke machines - some will be the size of cell phones, others will be embedded in room walls and autos and maybe even our clothing. Need the shopping list? Want to watch the movie? Read the paper? No problem.

This seamless matrix of data and machines - in place, some say, by 2010 - would allow us to work or play, or do anything in between anywhere we happen to be. It might also allow others, like governments and the boss, to always know where we are, and what we're up to. Indeed, Matrix is the name of a recent science fiction film where humans once again serve those darn machines - as batteries. The Matrix is the ubiquitous virtual reality which keeps humans from realising they're being kept in holders like so many 'AA' cells for a planet-size Walkman.

It will be best to think this one through very, very carefully. Maybe digital signature and fully anonymous technology, like Zero Knowledge systems espouses, will be a really good idea a few years from now.

But the people at Workspot are just trying to make it easier for some people at the moment - mainly Linux users. On my way out, one of the workers looked up - on the machine next to her, eerie glyphs from the film Matrix coursed like a waterfall down a workstation screen.

A screen saver, right?