IN 1896, Henri Antoine Becquerel discovered that small flecks of uranium could fog photographic plates. Around ten years later, Einstein wrote his Special Theory of Relativity and demonstrated that mass and energy were equivalent: E=MCsquared. Forty years on, Oppenheimer showed what happens when you mix the two ideas.
I'm looking at a publicity shot of Mew, a new chip from Hitachi. It's a tiny speck of silicon less than half a millimetre on each side, and it doesn't do much except squirt a serial number into the ether on request. Yet combine it with the Internet and it has the potential to change society just as radically as Einstein's mass-energy equivalence, because Mew can make information and objects one and the same.
Let's step back a bit. For all that the world of the Internet relates to the real world we live in, it's not the same. If you send an email to a pal you won't know where he is when he gets it, and a picture on eBay is no guarantee that Earle in Wyoming actually has a stuffed wombat for sale. Information slips around the world as freely and as untraceably as water, and from this freedom come the joys and the sins of the Net.
But tie physical objects into the system, and things look a lot different. Hitachi says that one of the big uses of the Mew chip will be to prevent counterfeit currency and other high-value, very portable items. The chip is so small and lightweight it can be inserted into a banknote and be detectable at a distance of around thirty centimetres.
Let's imagine that this happens, ostensibly for checking the ID of notes in banks and shops. This is wireless, though, so you can do it anywhere at any time without the owner knowing. Once there are public sensors, each note -- and each car, wallet, set of glasses, book, whatever --- that passes within range will be known to the system, both position and identity.
The world will be such a different place when this technology is fully developed that it's hard to imagine what it will be like to live there. How could you steal something if the owner just needs to ask his computer and it will be found? How can you fake something if you can't give it the same ID as something else -- a duplication will sound alarm bells -- or a different ID to everything else? There'll be central registries, and if an ID isn't legit then the system will know. People will hack the system, sure, but once detected it'll be desperately simple to find the offenders and stop the problem.
So our world -- and ourselves -- will exist online, in a way that makes today's Internet seem like a pale shadow. Our current worries about privacy will pall compared to what might happen if not only ourselves but every item we own is just another node on the network.
Is there any reason to think this will come about? Very much so. We've been prepared to countenance security cameras that recognise our faces when we walk down Newham High Street, and cameras that report back to HQ when we drive our cars up the M1. The advantages to the state, and to us, of having God-like powers of omniscience are far too tempting to pass up. Little things like income tax could go away, when every transaction of money or goods can be monitored and a rate of tax calculated -- and the money taken -- that's appropriate for who's selling, who's buying and what's being bought. Why go to the hassle of a yearly return, or having separate sorts of taxation when you can just have a single transaction tax that's automatic?
There's plenty of new technology needed before we get there, but none of it is unthinkable. We'll need ubiquitous radio networks, but we're building those. We'll need tiny, flexible power supplies: these, too, are on their way. We'll need a way to identify billions of unique objects and use that information to build up databases of what, where and when -- just the sort of idea that the Internet's been playing with.
Most of all, we need to think about what this new world will be like, and what rules we want in place to cope with the radically different ideas of personal and state power it implies. The old contract between the subject and the state will be as inadequate to the task as the old copyright laws are at coping with peer-to-peer music sharing. The Internet itself will just be the driest of dry runs for the big bang to come.
World changing technology in a grain of metal -- and we have no more idea of where we'll be in fifty years time than Becquerel could foresee Hiroshima. Welcome to the future.
Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the ZDNet News forum.