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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 March, 2004, 08:20 GMT 09:20 UK
Computers to be 'oxygen of the future'
By Tracey Logan
BBC Go Digital presenter

By the year 2010, scientists predict we will be immersed in a sea of miniature computers.

Headset computer
Current portable computing systems are cumbersome
Many of us carry three or four digital devices with us, according to Simon Moore of Cambridge University's Computer Laboratory, but soon that figure will be in the hundreds.

"They'll be woven into our clothing as identification markers during manufacture," he said.

"They might tell your washing machine what cycle to use, or monitor bio-signs to alert us to impending illness."

Those predictions came at the launch of the Cambridge-MIT Institute's Pervasive Computing initiative (CMI).

It is part of a transatlantic collaboration between information scientists and engineers at Cambridge University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

Intelligent agents

As well as ensuring the health of us and our clothes, those ubiquitous digital devices will, by default, be communicators. They will talk to each other and us, wherever we are.

Hot-desking may have been a big trend in the nineties, but future computer users will be truly nomadic, able to access information everywhere.

Umar Saif
We have this joke that we want to make computers as pervasive and as unobtrusive as oxygen
Umar Saif, MIT
The challenge for CMI researchers is to build immersive systems that automatically reconfigure data or voice call connections between the full range of digital devices, without getting cut off.

Keeping such systems secure from unauthorised use and attack, will be crucial, as will be the inclusion of intelligent filters that prevent the system pestering us with trivia.

This became patently clear last year when MIT tested a prototype system which monitored a person's location and, seamlessly, used the best available communications device to reach them.

A cell phone call turned into a video-conference call when the researcher entered his office and back to a cell phone call as he left for his car.

But the embryonic system noticed a problem with the researcher's office computer, according to MIT's Umar Saif.

"You couldn't escape from the system", he told Go Digital. "It would find whatever communications that was available and call you.

"The computer was just trying to be helpful, but it turned into the nightmare scenario because there was no way of shutting the system down".

Accessible information

Such pestering from not-so intelligent computer systems in the future will be a real turn-off for users, according to Lancaster University's Professor of Organisational Psychology, Cary Cooper.

"People already suffer from technological overload and it's our fault because we allow the technology to manage us, not the other way around," he said.

Display screens at CES 2004
Too much information can be overwhelming
"Some of the problems we have are because technologies are created by engineers trying to think of a really interesting tweak.

"Let the e-mail chase the cell phone if someone's away on business and if we can't get him that way, we'll get him some other way.

"But they should think more about the impact of these developments on our lives."

This is what the CMI researchers will be doing, said Dr Saif.

Ultimately, he said, the issue is not about information overload but making the power of computers more accessible to ordinary people with no special skills and with little money to shell out on the kinds of gadgets we rely on today.

Energy efficient processors running on wireless devices with vastly increased battery time will be essential to the CMI's pervasive computing vision, as will enhancements in computer vision and speech processing.

"We have this joke that we want to make computers as pervasive and as unobtrusive as oxygen", he said.

"We want people to use computers without even realising they're using them."

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