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Monday, March 19, 2007

Our daily lives will be run by small computers

Forget the icon of the white, box-shaped computer, think networked processors, collaborating with each other to perform defined tasks, without human intervention. This is pervasive computing."

This explanation is the introduction to a document brimming with insights, ideas and future scenarios on the significant developments in information technology in the next few years and how these will have an impact on the social and economic aspects of society.

This text has emerged from a series of workshops held during 2005 to explore the potential social and economic impacts of pervasive computing. The participants were drawn from the international networks of the IBM Research Laboratories, the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue, and Ta-Swiss.

Pervasive computing sees the next stage of man-machine interactivity as letting the machines get on with things themselves, collaborating with each other and being able to understand the different contexts in which they operate. It is a challenging vision that moves beyond current models of human interaction with computers and communication devices.

Pervasive computing is:

• Small: Ongoing miniaturisation of components, moving to invisibility;

• Embedded: Components are placed on or within other devices, objects or living beings;

• Networked: Flexible capacity to exchange data and software components with other devices and platforms;

• Context sensitive: Collect and exchange data on their environment and the host object via sensors;

• Adaptive: Implement changes and modifications at the software and object level;

• Collaborative: Ability to discover other objects and interact with them to establish cooperation on the software or information level;

• Network Volume: Sufficient in number and regularity of interaction to create network behaviours.

"This list of characteristics is interesting in how unremarkable it is. It indicates the extent to which the trajectory of the technology used in pervasive computing has already been determined, even if the implementation remains problematic. In this sense, pervasive computing is not about the introduction of a single technology, but about a potential qualitative change that may arise through an increasingly integrated technological environment," explains the document.

The document also provides different scenarios where pervasive computing is at work in our daily lives.

One of the scenarios is the office of the future. "Jamie Johns has his own office. When he walks into it the electronic name plaque on the outside wall switches from 'Jamie is out' to 'Jamie is in' and a signal light turns from blue to green. An electronic sensor, picking up signals from a chip embedded in his ID card, adjusts the desk chair, the table, even the temperature, according to his preferences.

"Urgent memos -'Jamie, I need you for a presentation in five minutes' - flash on the wall or, perhaps, on the table top. Nearly every surface can operate like a computer screen. As he logs onto the computer he sees which members of a work team are available. If he does not want to be bothered he simply touches a screen, and the outside sign shifts to 'Jamie is busy' and the outside signal light changes to red.

"The overhead lights and technology controls are embedded in a movable structure that holds a projector with a 180-degree range to beam memos, spreadsheets or any other image onto the wall, table or floor."

Another scenario, from a more leisurely sphere of life, is the ski resort.

"A ski resort lends itself well to pervasive computing," the document explains. "There are a lot of optimisation problems, such as how to queue most effectively, especially for the long cable car trip up the mountain. There are issues of tracking people and equipment for safety, payment and to avoid theft. Finally there is also a desire to hide all this computing because people go to ski in order to experience a 'natural' environment, even if it is within the infrastructure of mass tourism." In a pervasive computing ski resort equipment will be "tagged" with the individual's identity. It will check with its owner's other processors (mobile phone, credit card) before unlocking the bindings, and sound an alarm if the boot is not applying full pressure to the ski due to a fault or snow stuck to the bottom of the boot. According to the type of ticket bought, the equipment will give access to the services available.

At the top of the cable car there may be a group of teenagers in the snowboarding park reviewing their jumps on a giant screen. Another board could be flashing red dots against the mountain. On approach, two dots expand and text appears indicating the dots are your two children, out with their ski teacher. The identity check indicates they have no avalanche training and have not cleared the trip with the authorities or their insurer. A ski guide is already on his way to indicate the dangers.

Special ear implants are available and a wireless system allows you to choose what type of music you want from Mahler to Dolly Parton, Eminem to Kool and the Gang. It is now time to ski.

In the evening, on returning to the hotel, the data house system transfers information collected and stored in the ski boot through the day. Lying in a steaming hot bath it is possible to review the day. Data has been collected through the sole of the boot indicating that dehydration is an issue, due to the dry cold and that there is an imbalance in leg strength that is affecting the ability to ski. It makes some suggestions about exercise to correct this. It also correlates this information with the chip monitoring long-term blood pressure and indicates that the altitude is having a good effect. It must be time for a fondue.

However, there is a darker side.

"Is loss of privacy the price that must be paid for the benefits of pervasive computing?" asks the document after explaining the potential benefits of this new technology stream.

"There was a consensus that there is much work to do to improve our understanding of what is worth fighting for within the current framework of privacy, and of how pervasive computing will influence this framework. It is also clear that the better the implementation of pervasive computing, enabling clear standards and generating clear benefits, the easier it will be to exploit technologies to protect existing privacy concepts and principles," the document concludes.

This article is the last in a series reporting on the recent visit of a Maltese delegation, including i-Tech, to IBM's Industry Solutions Lab in Zurich, Switzerland. This was organised as part of the vertical strategic alliance between the Maltese government and IBM.


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