[EAS]Living with Smart Stuff

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Mon Dec 17 17:30:30 EST 2001

Subject:   Living with Smart Stuff

[Comments at the end.  --PJK]
(from NewsScan Daily, 17 December 2001)

      Vint Cerf, widely known as "The Father of the Internet," says in
the  new book "The Invisible Future: The Seamless of Integration of
Technology  Into Everyday Life" (ed. by Peter J. Denning):
      "The merging of computing, communication, and nano-machines
suggests  to me the beginning of an age of local and remote services
whose scope I  find very hard to imagine. One has no trouble in
today's world imagining a  discussion with a computer-controlled voice
mail system ('Hello, I'm Vint's  voice mail. Would you like to leave a
message?' or 'Hello, Vint, would you  like to hear your messages?')
But trying to imagine clothing that carries  embedded computing and
communication on board seems harder ('Hello, this is  Vint's shirt
speaking. Vint isn't wearing me right now. I'm in the shirt  drawer,
and I was last cleaned on October 3, 2034'). One could even imagine 
interrogating the sock drawer to find out how many black socks are in
it.  And perhaps such technology will solve the perennial missing-sock
problem  (you can ask where it went!).
      "The idea that appliances can be controlled and managed locally
or  remotely and can even appear to engage in conversation leads to
notions of  services that truly do seem a product of science fiction.
Refrigerators  that know what is in them and can search the Internet
for interesting  recipes that match the ingredients. Getting paged by
the refrigerator while  you are shopping to remind you to pick up the
marinara sauce. None of this  is much different from the pages we
received today from news and  stock-reporting services. Or sending an
e-mail from a two-way pager or a  voice mail to a multimedia mailbox
from a mobile phone. In fact, one would  expect a great deal of
cross-platform interaction as a consequence of  Internet-enabling
almost everything. There is no reason why you should not  be able to
page your VCR (or its mid-twenty-first-century equivalent) to  ask it
to record a program. Of course, by the mid-twenty-first-century, the 
need to record anything will probably have completely died away and
been  replaced by on-demand streaming over whatever the Internet has
evolved to  by that point."

See http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0071382240/newsscancom/ for
"The  Invisible Future: The Seamless of Integration of Technology Into
Everyday  Life" -- or look for it in your favorite library. (We donate
all revenue  from our book recommendations to adult literacy action

(from INNOVATION, 12 December 2001)

Researchers at Xerox PARC are developing cheap, smart sensors that
could  wirelessly connect a variety of devices in a so-called sensor
network. " I  think 'sensornet' technology is a key element in the
post-Internet  revolution," says senior researcher Feng Zhao, who's
been leading the  collaborative sensing project. "The key challenge
here is to instrument our  physical world with all these tiny,
dirt-cheap sensors wirelessly  connected." The current crop of sensors
that are found in thermostats and  cars are "dumb" sensors, says Zhao.
"They don't really have onboard  processing, don't network with each
other. Sensors coming 'round the corner  are smart sensors." This
next-generation batch will be capable of things  like monitoring
highway traffic flow and suggesting alternate routes, or  contacting a
central repair unit to service appliances. "Another area we've  been
looking at is manufacturing and equipment service," says Zhao. "It's a
 huge area. For example, your washing machine in your house might
sound a  little bizarre, a vibration sensor might be able to pick up
the sound and  signal a repair service to bring the parts to your
house before the machine  breaks down... My prediction is that 5-10
years from now the sensors will  be ubiquitous, we can expect sensors
in refrigerators, microwaves, garden  fences, tires in your cars.
That's the sensor-rich world that I'm  predicting." (BBC News 8 Dec


My reluctance about these propositions stems from their rendering me
progressively more passive. That's not good for my self-esteem or my
physiology. The theme of 'passivation' via technology is certainly as
old as the beginnings of home automation proposals at the 1939 World's
Fair. I've always felt that becoming a more passive manager or even
just observer of what technology does for us is an alienating
influence and makes us feel helpless. Even simple things in life that
we still do ourselves, like using an extension cord, will soon need an
instruction manual.

The high-tech enablement I feel the happiest about in recent years,
because it offers me a new _activity_, is digital photography combined
with ink-jet printing. Primitive though my skills may be, I am
actually prompted to concentrate on how I see, to try to identify the
'vocabulary' of a visual situation, and to express my view in an
image. The wonderfully rapid feedback via a printed image actually
encourages me to learn to see and capture the primary image in the
intended form, rather than monkeying around with PhotoShop at length
afterwards. I do intend to get to know PhotoShop, because important
issues such as minimum perceptible differences are more easily learned
that way.

The urge to make our surroundings ever smarter, to have us live in
high-tech 'space ships,' is strongly economic. Unless we each consume
many millions of transistors each year, Moore's "Law" will falter. 

A second, subtler, factor is part of the shift of technology
consumption toward personal comfort, where the future big markets are
said to be. The dimensions of personal comfort need to be made
formally desirable for the technology of improvement to be
intellectually respectable. In a perpetuating cycle of technology and
personal need this raises personal comfort to the level of ideals and
philosophy, where artful craft may well have been adequate previously.
The term 'improvement', properly applied to technology, then is also
applied ever more automatically to us in the quest toward our cyborg

If you want something high-tech this Christmas, get yourself a digital
camera. You'll have fun seeing what _your_ eyes and brain can do.


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