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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 August 2007, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Sensor rise powers life recorders
By Liz Seward
Science reporter

CCTV camera
There could be one million sensors per UK resident by 2057
A person's entire life from birth to death could one day be recorded by a network of intelligent sensors, according to a senior scientist.

By 2057, Martin Sadler of PC firm Hewlett Packard, said there could be at least 1m devices for every UK resident.

Predicted advances in storage and cameras coupled with decreasing costs would allow this explosion, he said.

But, he warned, the amount of personal data that could be collected would lead to difficult ethical dilemmas.

"Maybe the first time you know you are pregnant is when a targeted piece of advertising comes through on your computer screen offering you some baby clothes because somehow the smart toilet, or some other aspect of your environment, leaked that information," he said.

Life recorder

Already we live in a world surrounded by sensors and recording devices, said Professor Sadler, director of the Trusted Systems Lab at Hewlett Packard.

Current uses include CCTV, wildlife monitoring, mobile phone cameras and GPS devices.

(copyright Roy/MIT)
An MIT researcher is recording his son's life

A 2002 study calculated there were around 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the UK - one for every 14 people.

Professor Sadler said: "The average Londoner may be viewed as many as 300 times a day."

The growth in the number of devices would continue to grow, he predicted.

"If you go forward 50 years, you are probably talking about one million forms of sensor per person in the UK," he said.

This was a conservative estimate, he said. "More aggressive" calculations suggest there could be 20m sensors per person.

Already some researchers at Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and MIT have developed devices that record a person's every move.

Research like this, as well as advances in sensor technology and manufacturing techniques, would see a continued "slow and incremental, year-on-year" growth in the number of devices that surround and monitor people, he said.

This would result in a world where "everything we want monitored can be monitored," he added.

Future use

A lot of the applications would be "innocent and harmless", he said.

Casual Capture camera (Hewlett Packard)
HP researchers have developed an "always-on" camera

"We imagine by 2057 our motorways, rivers and coastal defences, farms, businesses, homes and neighbourhoods and bodies will all be highly instrumented," he said.

But, he explained, there would be potential to misuse the networks and the data they collected.

"We will hit some of these scenarios when people suddenly think, 'Oh, I didn't really intend to go there'.

"I'm sure there will be a lot of after-the-event working out what we do about some of the more invasive uses of the technology."

As a result, he said, people needed to make decisions now about the future use if the technology.

"We have some real choices that we can make over the next few years about how much we benefit from all this information... or how much it presents some sort of dark future for us."

Public debate

Professor Sadler's predictions were shared by Oliver Sparrow, a scenario planner who has advised the UK government and international organisations.

He said that advances in technology and a more complete understanding of physics would lead to a new breed of devices that are "too small to see, that permeate your body, permeate the space in which we exist, record everything, know everything about you, transmit your reputation wherever you go."

Both Professor Sadler and Mr Sparrow believe that there needs to be a greater public debate about these technologies and how they are deployed.

"These kinds of things will be possible, whether we permit them, and which societies will permit them and which will not, and how this will polarise things remains completely unplottable," said Mr Sparrow.

Both were speaking at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the British Computer Society.

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