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Information, Technology, and Innovation: Resources for Growth in a Connected World by John M. Jordan

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CHAPTER 23

Sensors

Sensors are critically important building blocks of the digital world yet in their ubiquity are often invisible. Not only are they worth appreciating for the elegance and cleverness of their engineering, but also sensors are on their way to generating a truly unimaginable proportion of the planet's information. What held true for code is doubly true of sensors: Value judgments, future possibilities, and economic interests are represented in architectures that typically operate beneath the threshold of human consciousness.

Historical Roots

To understand the current sensor landscape, let us step back for a moment to see its antecedents. Originally, a variety of sensors were invented to augment human senses. Examples include the telescope, microscope, ear trumpet, hearing aids, and other devices. With the advent of electro-optics and electromechanical devices, new sensors could be developed to extend the human senses into different parts of the spectrum (e.g., infrared, radio frequencies, measurement of vibration, underwater acoustics, etc.). Where they were available, electromechanical sensors:

  • Stood alone
  • Measured one and only one thing
  • Cost a lot to develop and implement
  • Had inflexible architectures: They did not adapt well to changing circumstances

Let's discuss each of these points in turn. Sensors traditionally stood alone because networking them together was expensive and difficult. Shared technical standards were rare, so if one wanted a network of, say, ...

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