TechWatch: Never Out of Touch and Never Alone

By Albert M. Erisman

A mother and child are walking through the mall, and the mother turns to look at something. She glances back and the child is gone. A frantic search begins. Did the child simply wander off in distraction? Was he abducted? Is he in danger? What to do?

An executive walks to the parking lot and sees her car is not where it should be. Did she park it in a different place that morning? Has the car been stolen?

A stray dog appears in the neighborhood. The dog is obviously important to someone, a well-mannered purebred collie. But it has no tag. How can we find the owner?

A boss quickly needs information from a co-worker. Walking into his office reveals that he is “out.” There is an indication that he is here somewhere because of the jacket tossed across the chair, but where is he and how can he be found quickly? Technology is available, and soon to be widely available at low cost, which would fundamentally change the way each of these scenarios could be handled. The microprocessor revolution first took us from the era of computers in the “back room,” the mainframe era, to today’s PCs. This change put powerful computers on the desk, in the home, and on the road. This transition was tough for some. Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, asked in the early 1980s “Why would anyone want a computer in their home?”

It is this second transition, from computers as separate, special purpose devices, to computers everywhere performing special functions, that is creating this third wave of computing often called pervasive computing. Both Hewlett Packard and IBM have set up pervasive computing business thrusts in the last two years.

A tiny computer chip can be embedded in a car, an employee badge, a pet, or even a person (see comments on The Bionic Man). These computer chips can communicate with each other through wireless networks. Their physical location can be known through GPS or internal building sensors.

The Bionic Man

Professor Kevin Warwick, in the cybernetics department at the University of Reading in Reading England, received a silicon chip transponder implanted in his arm in August of

1998. This enabled his computer to recognize him when he came into the room without requiring him to log-on or use a password. It had an unexpected side effect as well. “I did feel a sense of closeness to the computer with which I was linked. I didn’t expect that at all,” he said. The surgery was a fifteen-minute procedure with a local anesthetic, and the chip was removed after eight and a half days.

Exerpted from C/O Magazine, January 15, 1999, pp 21-22.

With all of this in place, the mother might pull out a palm-sized computer to identify the location of the child. He might have simply wandered to the play area, and this could be identified. The executive could use the same device to locate her car. If it is in another parking place, that can be identified. If it is moving south on the Interstate Highway, the location and identification could be directly linked to the police.

Actually the last three scenarios are already available in limited form. A computer chip linked through GPS is available as a security system for some automobiles. Your pet can be given an embedded chip as a universal identifier with a small surgical procedure. Companies, including Xerox, have experimented with adding a chip to their employee badges. A simple query from the computer will identify that the employee is at the coffee machine or in another person’s office.

Microsoft has been talking about the smart home. Already, many appliances have embedded chips to monitor and control their behavior, things like the furnace, the security system, the toaster, and the microwave. By using communications technology to link these devices, the nerve center of the home could manage and monitor everything that is going on. Extending the capability of the chips in the refrigerator could generate a warning when the milk is low. This could even be extended to automatically creating the next grocery list. Going a bit further, it could order the milk automatically.

All of these represent a small step toward a dream of research scientist Mark Weiser at Xerox PARC, the Palo Alto Research Lab. He coined the term ubiquitous computing to refer to computing that disappears from view, requiring no special devices at all. “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”
(from “The Computer for the 21st Century,” Scientific American, September 1991)

The potential applications for pervasive, and ultimately ubiquitous, computing are plentiful. Some are an invisible part of our life today. Many modern day cars have more computing power than was used to send the first man to the moon. Microprocessors are carrying out invisible tasks in many complex devices. We can imagine that these computer chips could be embedded almost anywhere, simplifying the location of parts in a factory, finding a particular book on a shelf, or even providing a continuous communications link with a friend.

Taken one step further, these computer chips can also drive tiny micro motors to adjust physical levers or shapes. An early, popular example of this so called micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) is the embedded chip on a snow ski designed to help it respond to pressure changes.

Because we are early in this pervasive computing wave, it is difficult to say exactly what will take hold as the next major applications. Lots of things are possible, but what makes a splash in the marketplace depends not only on the technology but something that captivates the buyers.

It is a small step to move from a pet locator to a child locator. A small chip attached to the child could enable the parent to know at all times where the child is. It is not difficult to paint a rather compelling picture of the wonders of pervasive computing. The child is never lost. The product can always be found. The directions I receive are always linked to exactly where I am. My appliances are smart enough to anticipate all of my needs. What can be wrong with this? There are issues on many dimensions that we ought to start thinking about, and I will sketch a few. Some call for a more complete treatment that we will deal with in later columns. We also will schedule an IBTE Conversation with Marc Weiser at Xerox to discuss some of these issues.

One area of concern is the introduction of complexity. A toaster is not something we normally think about. It makes toast in the morning, and if it breaks it can be fixed or replaced. If it were interconnected with other appliances, it could cause a problem for the furnace. The entire system could go down. Are the difficulties of running out of milk occasionally worth the price of managing yet another system to ensure that I don’t?

I was without use of my car for a day and a half on vacation last summer because one of the chips in the car malfunctioned. This chip was designed to help me by monitoring the functions in the car, but in fact became the problem itself.

Going back to the smart badge example, the researchers at Xerox PARC found their experiment was a technological success with an unanticipated side effect. People started leaving their badges on their desks because they didn’t want others to always know where they were.

A parent may find it valuable to always know where their child is. Certainly in the case of a kidnapping it would be valuable to locate the child. But would this lead to greater inattention on the part of the parent? Would the teenager always want to be found? How does this affect the dynamics of the relationship between parent and child? If being never lost means being never alone, is this an acceptable price?

We need to raise some of these questions while we are exploring the possibilities of pervasive computing.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.