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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 December, 2003, 09:07 GMT
Caution over 'computerised world'
Alfred Hermida
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Computer circuit board
Circuit boards can contain up to 400 different materials
A future where everyday objects have computer chips in them will have a dramatic effect on our lives.

But we should know about the potential risks from technology, say researchers.

The team in Switzerland looked at the health, social and environmental implications of what is called pervasive computing.

"We should reflect on how we use technology," said Swiss professor of computer science, Lorenz Hilty, "and society is not reflecting enough."

Smart paint

The idea behind pervasive computing is that everything around us contains some sort of electronic device.

In their report, the Swiss team talk about a future where computer chips, remote sensors or radio transponders are scaled down to microscopic size and built into just about anything.

You could have a pint glass that sends a signal for a refill when it is empty.

Professor Lorenz Hilty
People should be critical of technology. We are not saying don't use it, but there should be a public discourse
Prof Lorenz Hilty, EMPA
Or even have paint that contains electronic dust particles that could control a room's temperature or turn a wall into a big screen.

"The idea of pervasive computing is that you are no longer aware of the electronics," explained Dr Hilty, Professor of Computer Science at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research, EMPA.

In 10 years' time, predict the researchers, a trillion objects all linked electronically could be available to a billion people.

But before we get there, we should consider the risks of blindly stumbling into a technological advanced future, they say.

"People should be critical of technology," said Professor Hilty told BBC News Online. "We are not saying don't use it, but there should be a public discourse."

Surveillance city

One of the main areas of concern is the possible health implications of a world where every object is emitting some sort of low-level radiation.

"There is no proof of negative health effects," said Professor Hilty, "but you can never be sure. There could be long-term health effects."

Pint of beer
Fancy a computer chip with your pint?
"Mobile phones are a huge field experiment in which we are the sample."

He said we simply do not know what the risks are of prolonged exposure to low-level radiation from devices close to the body, like watches, or perhaps even chips under the skin.

The ubiquity of radio sensors could also have a lasting impact on the way we live. A world of chips and sensors everywhere conjures up an image of a world of surveillance.

"Privacy could be an inhibiting factor in the development of the technology," warned Prof Hilty. "Pervasive computing means that we would have to change our view of privacy."

Similarly, it could change the way we deal with waste. Coping with piles of discarded mobiles, computers and the like is a growing problem in many countries.

Pervasive computing could simply add to the problem, if every household product has some sort of electronic component built-in.

"What happens if people don't know what is electronic or can't separate it manually, especially if every milk carton has a radio transponder?" asked Professor Hilty.

"I am not saying I am against technology," he insisted, "but we should be aware there is a price to pay."

The study by the EMPA team, entitled the Precautionary Principle in the Information Society, was commissioned by the Swiss Centre for Technology Assessment.

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