In this article, the Economist explains that "sentient computing systems are likely to be everywhere within five years -- listening and watching, and ready to anticipate their users' every need."
By adding sensors to today's computing and communications technology, sentient computing seeks to take account of a machine's environment in order to make it more responsive and useful. Sentient computing systems are always on, ubiquitously available, and can adapt to their users. In short, they seek to become real help-mates. To quote a European Commission report, the aim is to create “convivial technologies that are easy to live with”.
According to Emile Aarts at Philips Research in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, these convivial technologies will emerge in a number of ways. User interfaces, for example, will move from "cognitive" to "intuitive."
Mr Aarts believes that the availability of technology and infrastructure, plus people's desire for simpler and friendlier user interfaces, is what lies behind the surge in interest in sentient computing. But beyond such factors lies a significant change in the way business is done -- a shift to an "experience-based economy."
Here is an illustration of how a sentient office would look at you, according to the Economist.
There are already many initiatives to develop sentient computing, like the MIT's Project Oxygen. (For more information about this project, please read "A fresh breath of Oxygen for the MIT.")
ACM TechNews also wrote an analysis of sentient computing.
Challenges to sentient computing include the seamless integration of wireless networks, the spread of sensors throughout products and the environment, the accurate provision of location data, and the ability of sentient systems to merge vast volumes of widely disseminated data and customize its delivery for users. Other problems researchers will have to tackle include scalability, the development of cooperative file systems, and sentient applications' ability to find screens and network devices in close proximity to users.
Another big issue is privacy. Here are the conclusions from the Economist.
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.
Sources: The Economist, June 19, 2003; ACM TechNews, June 26, 2003
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