Shrinking chips and other new technologies are spreading computer power all over the body and then out to the network.
Consider HAL. The artificially intelligent computer in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey knew where every crew member was on the spaceship Discovery, what he was doing, and even how he was feeling. From a distance, HAL’s ubiquitous red eye, attached to a mainframe network, watched its subjects with curiosity, empathy, and eventually disdain.
Now forget that once-believable vision of the future, says Steven Schwartz, a research scientist in the Human Design Group at MIT’s Media Lab, who, among other things, has designed augmented reality systems for the International Space Station and the first primitive wearable computers by Xybernaut (see “Quain Tries the Gear,” link in the right column). The coming generation of PCs, Schwartz says, will know everything HAL knew, but they won’t be remote from us. Instead of residing in a box or being tethered to the wiring of a ship, they’ll be intimately laced into the fabric of our bodies and day-to-day lives.
“I don’t think about my shoelaces all day long,” says Schwartz. “Neither should I have to think about my computer. It will become a part of me.”
If that’s the next wave of computing, clearly little that’s come before fully prepares us for it — a time when it will be impossible to distinguish where the PC ends and the person begins. We’ll wear networks and technology the way we wear clothing; we’ll have personal software agents that will do our bidding even while we sleep, exploring both the Web and real-world venues for things we need to know, and keeping us prepared for even the most unlikely incidents. Our skin may be a constant swirl of invisible data and computing activity; our vital functions will be tracked continually, both by implantable health monitors and
devices woven into our shirts; and purchasing items in a supermarket may become as simple as putting them in a bag and walking out the door as they’re automatically scanned and debited from the personal ID system in the computer lodged in our sleeve. We already hang cellphones, PDAs, MP3 players, wristwatch messaging systems, and heart monitors all over our bodies. But as technology inexorably becomes smaller and more powerful, these devices will shrink so as to be indiscernible. In the 1960s, enormous computers were kept in clean rooms behind glass. Today they’re tiny enough to drop in a pocket. “By 2010 we’ll routinely wear PCs that are so small that we won’t be able to see them,” predicts Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence and a leading PC-is-the-person proponent.
The Thrill is On
Schwartz’ latest project, MIThril, hints at what life may be like when PCs and people are indistinguishable. A full-fledged personal computer network woven into an individual’s clothing, MIThril will learn the preferences of its owner by watching behavior and taking note of habits. It will manage a personal datebook and know where its owner should be even before departure. And by preemptively scouring Web sites, it will constantly be updating the best way to tackle the next task. Suppose a beach party is on the schedule. MIThril will know this because the event is in the calendar and there’s a note on a to-do list that says, for example: Pick up beer.
When the system observes its owner getting on a bike, it immediately seeks the best directions to the party by way of a packaged goods store — taking into account that its owner hates heavy traffic. After calculating all of this information, MIThril displays a map to the beach on the owner’s glasses without even being asked.
Still in development, MIThril will contain a computer with an advanced microprocessor; an Ethernet card and modem for communicating with networks on the body as well as external Internets; and a camera with GPS capabilities to monitor where the person is — all strung into a vest and imperceptible to anyone but the wearer. A low-voltage wireless network will connect the system’s eyeglass-mounted display and pocket input device to the main computer on the body.
Significant research and design hurdles must be overcome before such a system or dozens like it in development at places such as Carnegie Mellon, IBM, and Xerox Palo Alto Research Center become reality. There’s the question of how to make the keyboard, mouse, and display simultaneously unobtrusive and comfortable to use. And the technique for conducting the network’s current over the body — through hidden wires or skin, for instance — has to be puzzled out. What’s more, these systems could be prone to mistakes, insisting that you have an appointment, for instance, and persistently offering a map for getting there when the meeting was cancelled a week ago although never changed in the calendar.
Have Your Agent Call My Agent
But even with these obstacles, the recent successes in what could be called invisible computing are so tantalizing that the promise is inspiring a concerted effort to surmount any shortcomings. Take software agents, for instance, which are essential to integrating the PC with a person. An agent is a personal high-tech servant who keeps track of your most private information — calendar, bank accounts, credit records, relationships, likes and dislikes — and issues a warning when something is wrong or alerts you to something you may want to take advantage of. There are already numerous prototype agent programs that automatically negotiate airline tickets, find the best prices of items on the Internet, seek out like-minded people on the Web, or find needed information to complete a difficult task. Typical is Expert Finder (EF), developed at MIT’s Software Agents Group, in which a software agent, aware of your levels of expertise in any given subject, surfs the Web for a specialist in a topic that is stumping you. To do this, the agent talks to other EF agents, getting their owners’ profiles. After reading these profiles, the agent puts together a list of people it thinks might be able to help you solve a problem. Another MIT agent — her name is Letizia — constantly reads over your shoulder as you’re browsing the Web. Staying one step ahead, Letizia unobtrusively scrambles to find other pages that are related to what you’re looking at and that tie in well to your interests as revealed by prior Web sessions. When she comes up with links, Letizia explains why you might like the page she found and, if you like, guides you there.
Currently, these agents are invisible — nothing more than extremely active programming code. But in the future, agents will reside on your PDA, smart card, or perhaps the display of your wearable computer. These agents will likely sport avatar-like personas to make themselves more pleasant to deal with. Your agent might talk to you and look like someone you know — or wish you knew. And if, for example, she sees you dive into your favorite pub with your co-workers when she knows you’re 15 minutes late for a Valentine’s Day dinner with your wife, she might pop up on your glasses, shaking her head with a shameful look and redirecting you to the romantic restaurant down the street. (Of course, such an intrusion might incite you to grab the device, throw it to the ground, and crush it beneath your feet.)
The agent could be busy in supermarkets as well when companies like Alien Technology in Morgan Hill, California, figure out how to affordably build radio frequency tags as identifiers embedded or attached to everyday objects. For software agents, which are voracious information sinks, scanning RF tags would be a way to monitor the brands you choose and to learn more about your preferences. With this data in hand as well as other information gathered from more widely dispersed searches, the agent could alert its owner when a favorite product is on sale at this store or is 50 cents cheaper at another grocer a mile away. And it could tally the items being purchased and pass the total seamlessly to the store’s own software agent located unobtrusively in a red light at the top of the exit door. This amount would then be subtracted from the shopper’s debit card, which could be sewn into a collar, carried in a pocket or contained in the threads of a shirtsleeve.
Do You Have an Aura?
Software agents will never be able to fulfill their potential, however, until there is an undetectable merger of human and technology. And while it’s possible to hide a PDA in a pocket or a microprocessor in a shirt, something still has to be done about the interface equipment, such as keyboards and mouses. Even if a keyboard were built into clothing, people would still have to type on it. Voice input and output are possible, but that requires walking around talking to someone who isn’t there. Research is under way that will teach computers to interpret hand gestures — with embarrassing social results if you’re spied in public. The best way to hide the interface is to minimize the need for it by making the computer smart enough to know the next thing you want to do.
MIThril’s answer is mounting small infrared beacons, like mobile phone cells, throughout cities. These would communicate with the cameras and GPS systems in a person’s vest to tell the computers on his body where he is and what he’s doing — and then let the computers decide what they need to find out next to direct him adequately.
Another approach, being developed at Carnegie Mellon, would offload the thinking power to an external network. With this system, called Aura, people would carry a unique identifier — in either a miniscule PDA or a chip-enhanced ID card — that connects them to the Net, which is constantly running through wireless Webs beamed from telephone poles, streetlights, conference rooms, airports, restaurants, and even offices. The network would be the tracking system and people would be the target. This could, for instance, alert you on a train to view a document that is already displayed on a flat electronic 8- by 11-inch tablet-folded, it’s the size of a credit card — because an e-mail scanned by Aura identified the document as urgent. “The system knows where I’m going at all times and moves my information with me,” says Dan Siewiorek, director of the Carnegie Mellon Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
There are a host of theories about how to power a PC network located on a person. Initial efforts like MIThril weave electronic circuitry directly into clothing. But since it doesn’t require a lot of current to send information from, say, a camera in a pocket to a microprocessor in a collar button, the natural conductivity of the skin is considered a good alternative to more traditional wiring. Some piece of the body network, however, would need to touch your skin at all times. With normal movements, that could be impossible. “We were never able to get around that,” says Daniel Russell, senior manager at IBM’s Almaden Research Center. “We stopped working on it.”
Russell believes that a low-power wireless connection is the best option — something that IBM recently demonstrated when it successfully powered a handheld cellphone with a battery the size of a grain of rice, hidden in an earring.
Display problems need to be tackled as well. The first wearable computers use head-mounted displays that are uncomfortable, bulky and silly looking, instead of slick and almost invisible. The next evolution of head-mounts is expected to be a huge leap forward, likely using a laser display that paints the image directly onto the retina. A tiny device that sits in front of one eye projects the text or graphics through the wearer’s pupil, arranging the pixels in a raster pattern on the retina. This does not obscure the view but merely superimposes material over it. The result is a very high-resolution image with adjustable contrast ratio and luminance. The low-intensity display uses very little power, so it will not harm the eye and can be quite small.
But anyone wearing a head-mounted display is not likely to be inconspicuous. And that means a lot of people probably won’t wear them — unless they become the next rage. Predicting fashion, researchers hope, is not a precise science. “When the Walkman came out,” says IBM’s Russell, “people said nobody would wear them in public. Yet 200 years ago, men wore white powder wigs and silk stockings. I have no idea what people will wear. And neither does anyone else.”
That notion notwithstanding, developers hope by the end of the decade to get rid of the head-mount altogether and embed the display apparatus in a normal-looking pair of glasses.
How Do You Feel, Dave?
HAL used tricky psychiatric evaluations to ascertain people’s feelings. But when the computer and the person are essentially one, such tactics will be unnecessary. The network monitoring your heart rate and breathing would find out for itself.
That’s the idea behind LifeShirt, from Ventura, California-based VivoMetrics. Sewn into the fabric of this washable bike-shirt-like vest, which mountain climbers and race car drivers have already used, are electrodes and conductive bands that monitor heart rate, breathing, and even posture. It won’t be long, says Bill Cary, VivoMetrics senior vice president of healthcare, before “health-conscious consumers might wear this and log onto the Web to upload the data it collected as well as compare their progress to an ideal or get advice from an expert.”
As medical sensors evolve, so do the possibilities. Implantable sensors to monitor everything from bladder function to heart valves and blood pressure are under development by the DARPA-funded Integrated Sensing Systems in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Eventually, these minute devices could radio their findings out of the body — to, say, the computer in your shirt. If you have a chronic ailment, an internal sensor could monitor it and distribute a regular stream of statistics concerning your body to the network, which could broadcast it to your physician. This would give your doctor a real-time film of your organs. And if something required immediate attention, an alert could be sent out to you, your doctor, even a rescue squad. Your software agent could also make an appointment with your doctor — through his agent, of course.
When we become this intimate with computers, they will certainly become something we put on and wear every day. If your computer also sports a pretty face, dulcet voice, and the grace to keep quiet when you’re watching a movie or making whoopee, it will be hard not to give it a name and call it a friend. It might even be hard to tell where you end and it begins. Whatever you do, though, don’t call it Hal.
Whether Joe Smith is doing rounds, shopping, or jogging, it’s difficult to tell where the PC ends and he begins. Here are some personal computing devices currently under development.
Text will either be displayed on eyeglass lenses or projected directly onto the retina. Dr. Smith’s PDA, for example, will constantly check his schedule, then use advanced display technologies to tell him where he needs to go next.
A combination telephone, voice-text pager, GPS device, and scheduler, the watch keeps track of where Dr. Smith is at all times. If necessary, the hospital can instantly locate and contact him. A beeping alert will tell him where to go and provide a map.
The skin might be a good alternative to more traditional wiring for conducting the low-grade electricity needed to power the computing devices on Dr. Smith.
A computer in the sole
of Dr. Smith’s sneakers senses the speed of his gait in the emergency room. When he is running, the shoe automatically increases support; when he slows to a walk, it lessens the support to increase the cushion.
Electrodes and conductive bands monitor heart rate, breathing, and lung performance. In the future, implantable sensors might distribute a stream of real-time information directly from internal organs to the shirt. All of this data can be broadcast directly to Dr. Smith’s home computer and to his office.
The size of a credit card, it will store reams of personal information-calendar, financial records, details about friends and family members, likes and dislikes. It might also automatically tally the price of items Dr. Smith picks up at the supermarket, letting him bypass the checkout line.
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