The sentient office is coming

  • The | COMPUTING – The sentient office is coming.

    Though still in their infancy, sentient computing systems are likely to be everywhere within five years–listening and watching, and ready to anticipate their users' every need

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    With such usefulness in mind, research on sentient computing has become increasingly active in information technology (IT) laboratories in Europe and America. Projects under way at the University of Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Philips and elsewhere are attempting to stake out the territory by delving into such topics as “ambient intelligence”, “ubiquitous computing”, “aware environments” and the “intelligent home”. In fact, groups such as Andy Hopper's at Cambridge have been working on sentient computing since the late 1980s. But the swell of interest caused by developments in mobile communications and entertainment has attracted lots of others to the field.

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    A number of issues need to be looked at, however, if sentient computing is to be brought into everyday life. Wireless networks will have to merge so that users can roam seamlessly between Bluetooth and WiFi connections at home and mobile networks when travelling. Accurate location information will be important, not only to pinpoint users in the landscape, but also to position them in rooms. Sensors will have to become ubiquitous in products, as well as the environment, to provide the vital contextual information. And the systems driving sentient applications will have to be able to integrate massive amounts of widely distributed data, so they can be presented to each user in a personalised way.

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    Is privacy something we will trade off for convenience? Sentient computing, with its reliance on knowing where users are, could certainly make the loss of privacy more serious. Dr Hopper at Cambridge University advocates acceptance and debate. Like it or not, he says, “the future is Big Brother–so let's talk about it.” But Dr Hopper has been wearing a location tracking device for the past 12 years–and has learned to live with the loss of privacy and to appreciate its benefits.

    Instead of users being tracked constantly, how about using “permission-based” sentient applications, where users have to opt in if they want the benefits? Purists such as Dr Hopper argue that this breaks the sentient computing paradigm. But Dr Zue at MIT likens permission-based systems to having a telephone in the bedroom. We opt to have it because it delivers a useful service, despite the fact that it could also be used to monitor us while we sleep. Perhaps, ultimately, sentient computing will show that privacy is not all it is cracked up to be.  [Privacy Digest]

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