Somehow, I suspect they don't get the point. --MW >From WiRED: http://www.wired.com/news/news/technology/story/10297.html NSF Sets Up Smart-Infrastructure Shop by Gene Koprowski 4:00am 16.Feb.98.PST What if roads were wired so they could email the state transportation department whenever a sinkhole started to emerge? And what if a water main, with an embedded operating system, could send a warning to a utility's computer before it was about to burst? Such is the futuristic vision behind a new project just under way at the National Science Foundation (NSF) - one of the institutions that created the digital infrastructure that became the Net - in partnership with a group of top-flight universities. Called the Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems (ICIS), and funded with a five-year, $5 million grant from the NSF, the organization aims to create a national network of interrelated, smart transportation, water supply, electric power, and communications systems. "Civil infrastructure represents all the systems that are built, systems that engineers have designed and the construction industry have put in place which deliver service, and information," says Priscilla P. Nelson, acting senior engineering coordinator in the engineering directorate at the NSF. The technological think tank will link engineers and social scientists, to discuss the development of better infrastructure systems for the 21st century. The institute will be located at New York University. Other schools, like Cornell University, Polytechnic University of New York, and the University of Southern California, are partners in the project. "We tend to forget about [infrastructure systems] until there is a water-main break, or an ice storm that topples over power lines," said Nelson. "But civil engineering has a period of evolution for itself. What we've created is a civil infrastructure which was a dumb infrastructure." Nelson notes that a new infrastructure needs to be designed that can communicate with those who operate the system, and interface with other forms of infrastructure. In some developing countries, for example, the idea is emerging that infrastructure does not have to be designed to last forever, but for 20 years or so. Then, if the usage changes, the infrastructure can easily be modified. "We're trying to bring time into the design approach that engineers will have in the future," said Nelson. "And we can build smarter systems that can gauge their own performance. And that can be instrumented to anticipate failures, and in many instances can self-repair." In the long term, these wired roadways and waterways would be like the self-healing Synchronous Optical Networks (SONET) rings and network infrastructure seen on many telecommunications networks. They may also be similar to the machine tools in many factories that warn manufacturing managers when the tools are breaking down. "Building smarter systems and learning how they perform while they are in use, is a more risky, but very intelligent way of making the investment in infrastructure," said Nelson. "We can find out how much performance deteriorates over time, and find out how to deal with it." The pattern of investing in infrastructure - pouring concrete, putting pipes in the ground and then forgetting about it all until a problem arises - has to change, said Richard Schuler, professor of economics at Cornell University, and one of the participants in the project. Schuler anticipates the eventual creation of an interlinked infrastructure, connected digitally around the nation. "One of the remarkable things about infrastructure in the US is that it is fragmented. Different people at different levels of government or businesses provide infrastructure. There is an incredible institutional hodgepodge," said Schuler. "It wouldn't be bad if there weren't all these people digging holes and laying cables with the potential to disrupt other people's projects. There needs to be coordination, and an early warning system." What will come in the near term from this technological think tank? The project is just starting, but organizers expect to issue statements about digital infrastructure policy and priorities in the coming year, and work with the government and private companies to push the agenda. When the Clinton administration first came to power in early 1993, some of the policy aides that followed him to Washington, DC, wore T-shirts that boasted "Infrastructure is Sexy." Maybe not sexy, just yet, but at least smart.
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