Section: Science Life
Perspectives, technologies and effects of the ubiquitous computer|
Computerisation of everyday life
Sensors and computers get increasingly smaller, better, cheaper and more ubiquitous. A two-day symposium on the perspectives, technologies and implications of the computer in the 21st century (1) and of the computerisation of everyday life took place at ETH Zurich last week in the main lecture hall. The roughly 250 participants discussed not only the underlying technology, but also the social consequences of such a development, especially with regard to privacy protection.
By Jakob Lindenmeyer
"Following decades of linking as many computers as possible together, we are now beginning to link the things in the world," said ETH Professor Friedemann Mattern in his opening talk by way of introducing the subject of the conference. In the long run this will create an "internet of things", with vast consequences on economic processes and our everyday lives. Mattern is professor for computer science and head of the ETH Institute for Pervasive Computing (2), which organised the symposium at ETH together with the Gottlieb Daimler- and Karl Benz-foundation (3).
The symposium began with introductory visions from the organiser Mattern and Alois Ferscha from the University of Linz. Both noted that, in the coming years, not only would computers continue to become increasingly smaller, cheaper and more ubiquitous but that they would also–equipped with built-in sensors–be able to survey their surroundings and communicate wirelessly.
When things start chatting to one another...
Ferscha presented the lab prototype of a smart suitcase that knows to whom it belongs, where it's located, what objects it contains and, moreover, can communicate all this knowledge. In future, things would also communicate more autonomously with each other. The unwashed shirt, for example, will note that it needs washing and make an appointment with the washing machine for next appropriate programme. Or the TV menu in the deep freezer will programme the microwave itself so that it can be cooked to perfection.
Computers disappear in everyday outfits
Practical applications were the focus of the next part of the programme, for instance for medical and health-care applications. Professor Gerhard Tröster from the ETH Institute of Electronics demonstrated a computer hidden in a belt, as well as health check sensors integrated into the clothes he was wearing. During his talk the data of these sensors that showed his pulse and other parameters were projected on a screen. In coming years, a sensor network woven into the material of a t-shirt could recognise threatening tension in the back, or treat tumours with prescribed radiation. The computer will disappear into our everyday clothes, disguised as a shirt button or a belt buckle.
Measure against theft and fraud
The economic point of view on the computerisation of everyday life was presented in the afternoon. ETH Professor Elgar Fleisch from D-MTEC focussed on the importance of RFID technology in business and commerce to combat theft and fraud. It is estimated that fraud constitutes around seven per cent of global trade today, and that this is a particularly big problem for the medical drugs market.
Peter Welzel from the University of Augsburg used an intelligent trip recorder in a car to show the reactions of insurance companies and drivers in a world of ubiquitous computers. A demonstration project in the break followed on from this theme.
"Pay per risk"
In the breaks and in the evening, Vlad Coroama, Marc Langheinrich and other assistants from Mattern's Distributed Systems Group presented some practical and easy-to-understand demonstration projects in front of the lecture hall (4). Via sensors and the satellite navigation system, GPS, for instance, the intelligent trip recorder for cars that they presented was continuously kept informed of place, time, speed, driving conditions, visibility and conditions of the motor of every car. In addition to automatic debits for speeding, it was also possible to carry out interesting insurance calculations. "Pay per risk" is how Vlad Coroama describes the principle in three words. In future, insurance rates could thus depend on the driver's style of driving. Every speed infraction or other risky behaviour or driving not appropriate to current conditions would result in them paying higher insurance premiums.
Smart playing cards
An application for leisure time activities met with a great deal of interest: the RFID card table. This table is equipped with a computer and RFID readers. It includes a special deck of cards (for Schieber Jass), each marked with an RFID tag. The table can thus continuously control moves and shows which player takes a trick. If a player doesn't follow suit, the clever table releases the "cheat" alarm, thus communicating a break of game rules. The most important part happens at the end of the game; there is no need to keep the scores because the table does that for each player.
Smart medicine cabinet
The further development of the standard example of a fridge that fills itself by means of an internet connection has been extended to the development of a smart medicine cabinet. Via RFID it continuously knows what medicine is stocked in it and can react automatically and autonomously to possible recalls from the supplier, products that have passed their sell-by dates or are running out and can either order new supplies over the internet or sort out exchanges itself. Moreover,the smart cabinet also warns its owner if he or she forgets to take prescription medicine or takes too large a dose.
Chatty products in the super market
The aim of the project "chatty environment", presented Vlad Coroama and still in the process of development, is to help visually impaired people lead a more independent live, for example by doing their own shopping. Navigating by the means of their stick makes it possible for them to hear, via radio network, information from a server of every marked food product. Is there in Switzerland a shop with an open wireless network? "One should rather ask, 'Where in five years time will there still be a shop without WLAN technology?'", says Vlad Coroama and explains. "At our institute we're not only developing products for tomorrow but endeavouring to look a few years further into the future."
Perspectives and visions of the computerisation of everyday lives was also the subject of the second day of the conference (1). In addition, the effects of ubiquitous computing on the privacy protection were analysed and discussed.
Conflict between security and privacy
Because, as Friedemann Mattern already emphasised in his introductory vision, due to the new technologies the private will increasingly become public, easier to copy, saved forever and easily found. The price for all this is likely to be paid with a loss of privacy, says Marc Langheinrich. Privacy stands in conflict of interests with security, comfort and efficiency. It is important that in the future all societies take conscientious decisions on the degree of privacy that has to be guaranteed.
"The vision of ubiquitous computing–brave new world or fairy tale illusions?" is the title of Mattern's review on past scenarios that looked into the future. The question in the title was not something he wanted to give an answer to, emphasised Mattern at the conclusion of his talk. Nonetheless, "We can all look forward to the future with anticipation."
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