We Live In The Future

I grew up on science fiction.  I loved reading stories of The Future, where space travel was commonplace, where all energy was generated cleanly, and where we worked side-by-side with machine intelligences to accomplish tasks.

Of course, that wasn’t what most of the books were about; space travel, clean energy, and A.I. were just part of the background.  And many of the books I read had issues– most of them failed to properly predict the role that women play in society (or often failed to credit them at all, aside from being a love interest for the hero), quite a few were somewhat racist, and all of them glossed over problems of everyday life that couldn’t simply be resolved with technology– but in the background areas of space travel, A.I., and clean energy, they were quite prescient.

“But Ryan, none of those have happened yet,” I hear you saying.  And you’re right, none of these have yet reached their full potential.  But in a world where SpaceX, Blue Origin, Rocket Labs, Virgin Galactic, and so many others are all working to bring affordable spaceflight to the masses (and getting pretty darn close), I think it’s safe to say that space travel will soon1 become far more commonplace than it is today.  We won’t be living in Star Trek, but costs will come down and won’t be the same barrier that they are today.

And in a world where renewable energy continues to make great strides, I think it’s safe for me to predict that we are well on the way to moving the bulk of our electrical generation away from fossil fuels– there are some problems to solve with electrical transmission and energy storage, but we keep moving closer to to a solution.  As more companies compete for a slice of the renewable energy pie, prices will go down, efficiency will go up, and an increasing percentage of electrical generation will be from renewable resources.  Energy will increasingly be stored in batteries of one kind or another, whether they be chemical (such as Tesla’s Powerpacks), mechanical (such as hydropower or compressed air), or thermal (such as molten salt paired with a concentrated solar tower).  Those batteries will allow more and more of the baseload supply of energy to come from renewables, reducing dependence on fossil fuels, and paving the way for those to be slowly phased out.

Lastly, we already work incredibly closely with machine intelligences, though that intelligence isn’t quite what was predicted (at least, not yet).  Work is increasingly done on computers with incredibly complicated error checking algorithms, designed to reduce mistakes that cost money and lives.  Our data is sorted and analyzed by powerful computers that can correlate information thousands of times faster than we can, letting us build more complicated and accurate models to help us learn even more about the world we live in.  And most impressively (for me), we can now literally talk to our computers and ask them to do things for us.  I know that the first two examples are far more impactful to society, but I still can’t quite believe that I can just talk to my Google Home, have it correctly interpret what I’m asking for, and then give me an answer that makes sense and fulfills my need.  It still feels like magic.

The science fiction writers I read in my youth may have written about a world that was full of more straightforward adventure than the one we live in today.  But what our world lacks in swashbuckling heroes with laser swords, it more than makes up for with the amount of sheer technical wonder that we have at our fingertips each day.  Fifty years ago, for me to write and publish this article would have required a bulky typewriter, a mimeograph machine to create copies of the typed article, a bunch of paper, and a stapler to staple my article up on random light poles for people to read.  Today, I wrote most of this post on my Chromebook connected to the hotspot on my phone, while waiting for my car’s inspection to be finished.  To publish it, I hit the big blue “publish” button at the top of the page, and trusted it would be sent out to your screen when you wanted to read it.  The amount of time and effort saved by modern technology for this article alone could probably cover my grocery bill for a week.  And if that’s not evidence of us living in the future, I don’t know what is.

Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

  1. Assuming a generous definition of “soon”

Moving to Ubiquiti Unifi

It’s no secret that I enjoy working with new technology and figuring out better ways to do things.  For the last couple of years I’ve been dissatisfied with how my internal network was configured; I was using a basic, off-the-shelf, all-in-one consumer-grade router/wireless access point, and while it normally worked okay, it didn’t always give me the insight or visibility into my network that I really wanted to have.  “If only there was a way to take a commercial-grade wireless networking system, and set it up in my apartment,” I complained to everyone would listen. “Then I could configure everything the way I want, isolate devices on specific networks, and conquer the world!”

I knew I didn’t need a solution as expensive in-depth as Cisco’s enterprise WiFi system, but wanted to graduate beyond the basic consumer networking solutions.  When I found the UniFi system in an Ars Technica review, I was hooked– but I was also still in college, and my meager budget was still too small to support a more advanced networking system.  It wasn’t long, however, before I graduated, moved to a new apartment, and suddenly had some disposable income I could throw at my home network.

I started my network with the smallest and most basic component: a UAP-AC-Lite, the cheapest wireless access point in the UniFi line.  I plugged it into my switch, installed the controller software on my computer, setup my wireless networks, and… it worked!  It was easier than I expected, which was almost disappointing.  I mean, here I was, with a fancy access point, and it didn’t even require hours of tinkering to get it to work the way I wanted?  Where’s the fun in that?

I left the WAP in place for a couple of weeks, and then decided I needed more.  I went out and bought the UniFi Security Gateway, or USG, so I could fully replace my all-in-one with some more advanced tech.  The USG required some more hand-holding to get up and running, but soon that wasn’t enough, either.  I bought a Cloud Key, and then a PoE Switch, and before I knew it I was running UniFi for basically everything on my network.

“That’s all very well and good,” I hear you say. “It’s always fun to read about somebody else spending money when they technically don’t need to. But what does UniFi actually do for you? What problem does it solve?” That’s a good question. UniFi gives me a couple of things I wanted to have; first, it gives me a network that I can expand as my needs shift. If I’m not getting WiFi in an area, I can just plug in a WAP, adopt it into the system, and voila! I have signal. Secondly, everything’s managed in one place, the UniFi Dashboard. All my equipment, and anything I add to the system, can be managed through the dashboard in real-time– and I can do it from anywhere, since I connected my Cloud Key to my Ubiquiti account.

The UniFi Dashboard

This means I don’t need to worry about remembering passwords for each of my devices, which is a major plus for anyone, even if you use a password manager.  UniFi also gives me some basic deep packet inspection, which lets me keep an eye on what’s talking out to the rest of the internet from my network.

It’s not as detailed as I would like, it’s true.  I haven’t found a way to select a specific device and view all traffic from it, for example, but it’s mostly adequate for my current needs. If something pops up that might be a problem, it’s easy enough to explore and inspect to see if anything is truly amiss. As an example, the traffic stats show that remote access terminals have transferred nearly 1.25TB of data to somewhere off-network. If you don’t know what that might be, that’s a problem– a remote access terminal moving lots of data could be an indication of a compromised computer being used as part of a botnet, or could be something spying on you.

Looking at the specific DPI card for that category shows that that entire amount of data has been through SSH, which again could be an indication that something on the network is infected and is phoning home.  UniFi lets us drill deeper, however, and I can see that almost all of the traffic is from one specific machine on my network, which is configured to perform incremental syncing to the cloud via rsync. But if this had actually been a compromised machine, the dashboard could have been my first indication that something was very wrong on my network.

UniFi also lets me setup and configure a guest wireless portal, so no more needing to give guests my WiFi password.  They can just connect to my open network (named Ankh-Morpork in honor of Sir Terry Pratchett), accept the terms and conditions which warn them that their connection may not be private and to not carry out illegal activities using my WiFi, enter the password I have posted in my apartment, and voila! they can access the web on whatever device they may choose.  If they start causing issues, adding bandwidth limits and filtering specific sites is easy, as is managing which devices are connected to the guest network.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with UniFi. I have more I’d like to do (like building out vlans for my various servers), but for now the network is stable, speeds are faster than they were, and my WiFi coverage is great. I’ve been talking up UniFi with everyone that I know, and I’m slowly building out a network at my parent’s house which will let me troubleshoot remotely while increasing their speeds and security.  It costs a bit more than my previous solution, but I’m glad I made the switch.

Listing image by Thomas Jensen on Unsplash