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The Sciences

Of Hackers and Batmen

Science Not FictionBy Stephen CassJuly 22, 2008 1:58 AM


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Despite the huge hype, The Dark Knight was definitely notoverrated. The movie has heft and complexity, while never letting its momentum flag. And while everyone is raving about Heath Ledger's (admittedly brilliant) turn as The Joker, spare some props for Aaron Eckhart, whose performance as Harvey Dent/Two Face brought a convincing depth to this tragic character. Batman, being a regular (if insanely fit and wealthy) human, rather than a mutant or an alien, has always had to rely on a collection of gadgets and other machines when battling his foes. In The Dark Knight, Batman relies on a distributed sensor network to track The Joker, an idea which is rapidly becoming science fact. In fact, within just a few hours of watching the movie, I found myself enmeshed in a location tracking network at the HOPE hacker conference hosted by 2600 magazine over the weekend in New York City. (The word "hacker" is sometimes taken to be synonymous with "computer criminal," but it was hackers who, for example, built large parts of the digital infrastructure of the Internet and the World Wide Web and brought personal computing to the masses.) The sensor network in The Dark Knight relied making regular cell phones emit and receive precisely timed supersonic signals. This sonar data from each cell phone gets sent to the Batcave, where it is combined to create a detailed, real-time, 3-D picture of the entirety of Gotham City. While the idea that regular cell phones can be hacked to have such capabilities may be pure fantasy, the idea of networking sensors together to create powerful aggregates of data is not, even when those sensors are themselves relatively primitive and distributed haphazardly.


At the HOPE conference, hackers were testing this idea out in practice. Many attendee badges had a low-power radio transmitter circuit built right into the badge. This radio transmitter simply broadcast a serial number over and over. An array of receivers spread out throughout the floors of the Hotel Pennsylvania where the conference was being held picked up the badge's signal. Each receiver was networked to a central processor. Using data from multiple receivers, the location of the badge could be triangulated. A web site was set up that allowed anyone to see where every badge was at anytime during the conference. Popular talks or vending tables were easily identified as badges clustered around particular locations. New ways to mine the data kept being added on throughout the conference by caffeinated coders, creating rich features from the complex aggregate of simple data. In the future, even more complex networks may fundamentally change how we interact with the world around us, as the sensor laden terrain becomes "smart." Some futurists have even predicted that this could be one possible path to the Singularity, a point in time when our technology becomes so advanced that it is impossible for us to even imagine what kind of powers and abilities would be open to us. But here I'm swinging back into the realm of science-fiction--for now.

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