nanoscale-smart-dustWill people in the future sell real estate “information rights” as a separate property right?

October 2007
By Thomas Frey, Executive Director and Senior Futurist at the DaVinci Institute
“Science never solves a problem without
creating ten more.”
– George Bernard Shaw

The concept of smart dust has been around for several years now. Smartdust is a hypothetical network of tiny wireless microelectromechanical systems including sensors, robots, or other devices, installed with wireless communications, that can detect anything from light, to temperature, to vibrations, to chemical composition, etc.

The smartdust concept was introduced by Kristofer S. J. Pister at the University of California in 2001, although similar ideas existed in science fiction before then.

As an extension of this idea, I’ve become very intrigued with the concept of floating particles that emit signals, and some of the legal implications of who actually owns the particles and the information that

flows out of themI have no doubt that we will see a great variety of MEMS-size sensors powered by radio frequency signals within the next few years. These will undoubtedly get smaller over time and come with greater and greater capabilities.

Sensing capabilities will include GPS locator signals for geographical perspective and proximity, temperature, moisture, barametric pressure, sound, light, electrical activity, and various chemical sensitivitities. Smart dust particles will be linked into a mesh-type network, relaying information from point to point, sending small signals out in a small radius, in all directions.

Scientists are studying the use of magnetism at the nanoscale to monitor and control biological activity at the cellular and even the single-molecule level

Property that is imbedded with smart dust will essentially be glowing with information and, by extension, information-hacking possibilities.

Some of the first iterations of smart dust will be quite expensive and each particle will be carefully tracked. But a few innovation cycles later, the price will plummet, and their use will become ubiquitous.

If we consider the fact that real estate is sold today apart from the ownership of water and mineral rights, will people in the future sell “information rights” as a separate property right?

Smart dust will likely pose the ultimate intrusion into our personal lives. With particles that can be “sprinkled” throughout buildings, offices, parking lots, on furniture, and even embedded into our pets, the streams of information coming from all around us will, on one hand, be praised as our best friend, and almost in the same breath, condemned as our worst enemy.

Information particles that are able to predict coming earthquakes and switch water sprinklers on and off, will also be capable of tracking our every movement. Some scientists even envision the day when each individual plant will have a tiny built-in biosensor and clock that signals its exact needs at exactly the right time.

Another dimension to this is magnetism that switches intracellular activities like protein synthesis or color change on and off. If current work succeeds, what impact might this have on plants? Will farmers be able to boost the vitamin content – and economic value – of a vegetable overnight with a tiny jolt of magnetism?

But lest we assume smart dust only comes as loose, randomly positioned particles, new car models are already populated by sensors, similar to the ones now being embedded in clothing.

Smart dust may also be pressed or molded into building materials such as bricks, shingles, drywall, and concrete. It can be imbedded into our streets, sidewalks, parks and playgrounds. It can be forged into metals, plastics, and even placed into our water supplies and sewage systems.

With thousands of smart dust particles in the body of a car, owners will be able to track external temperatures on the outside of the car, metal fatigue and corrosive effects of street chemicals, proximity of other vehicles, and the overall comfort level of the occupants.

A house with smart dust embedded in the roof will be able to track the sun’s movement throughout the day and open and close vents inside the home to better regulate temperatures and airflow.

Trees embedded with smart dust will enable forestry officials to track moisture and nutrient levels, bug and disease problems, the effects of herbicides and pesticides, and monitor other growth issues. Sensors that tell farmers when to irrigate wine grapes are already being tested.

With all of these possibilities being contemplated the question arises about the difference in value between regular property and smart property. Is a property with rich and accurate data flowing from the ground worth more? Will it provide a substantially better rate of return on the investment than other property? And if so, under what circumstances?

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