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The rise of the machines

By Simon Hooper for CNN

Tom Cruise
Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, portrayed a society transformed by pervasive computing.
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- In the future, computers won't be bulky, desk-based objects, but a seamless network of chips and microprocessors integrated everywhere into the environment around us.

That, at least, is the vision behind "pervasive computing," whose proponents imagine a world in which information processing and communication capabilities are built into the clothes we wear and the buildings and rooms we inhabit.

The term itself has a relatively recent history, dating back to the technology boom of the late 1990s, yet in many ways pervasive computing is already with us.

"We are producing approximately 150 million chips that go into computers, but something like eight billion processors that go into everything else such as cars or televisions," Professor Morten Kyng, director of the Center for Pervasive Computing at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

The aim of pervasive computing, however, is to use those microprocessors in radically different ways and to give people greater control over them, says Kyng.

"You might have 40 or 50 processors in a car but you don't get radical new functionality. You get better brakes. Your drive in just the same way as you did 10 years ago."

While objects such as cars, television and freezers have remained essentially unchanged by the incorporation of computer chips, Kyng believes a new generation of devices such as mobile phones and wireless communications technology such as Bluetooth are already pushing the boundaries of pervasive computing.

"I think everybody expects a dramatic change in things when different components start to communicate," said Kyng.

"Technology like Bluetooth is an important step in getting components that can be blended in a simpler, more understandable way."

Another example of pervasive technology that looks set to become commonplace is radio frequency identifiers (RFID).

These tags, which can be as small as a grain of sand, are already being used as an alternative to barcodes in some hi-tech supermarkets. Whereas bar codes have to be visible to a reader, RFID chips can be read anywhere. As well as having security benefits, they can also help shops and suppliers handle their logistics more efficiently.

For example, a carton of milk could be tagged with a chip carrying information about its sell-by date which would tell the supermarket when to take it off the shelves. Once purchased, the same chip could be read by a fridge, which could order a new carton over the Internet before the old one goes off.

The cheap price of microchips means that even everyday objects such as bricks would be fitted with RFID chips, allowing surveyors to see an image of a building's construction on a laptop as they walk around it. Chips in the road could send traffic and navigational information direct to your car.

That vision remains years, and possibly decades, in the future. But the Center for Pervasive Computing is already working towards putting the infrastructure in place, leading a 13-million euro ($16.7 million) project to devise a European standard for pervasive computing systems.

"The lesson we have learned with this kind of technology is that people overestimate the impact in the short run and underestimate the impact in the long run," said Kyng.

A further teething problem for nascent pervasive computing is "data pollution" -- with computers everywhere sending a constant stream of information into the air, devices could be overwhelmed by signals and struggle to identify which one to connect to.

"When we substitute wireless for wired connections it's often difficult to know what is connected," said Kyng.

"One area we are looking at is the healthcare sector. One of the things medics would like is wireless biosensors, so they can get rid of all the wires when they transport people.

"But you have to be very careful when you're designing a system so you're absolutely certain that the data you're looking at is from the patient you think it's from and not from someone lying behind you."

Pervasive computing also raises questions of security and privacy. Like the Tom Cruise character in "Minority Report" who is bombarded by personalized advertising as he moves through a shopping mall, we could be constantly monitored via the chips we carry around in our clothes or everyday objects.

"There are a number of privacy issues and I think that a sound handling of those is important for this technology," admits Kyng.

"On the other hand, mobile phones really are surveyed and people don't seem to care about that much."

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