User heaven, techno hell?

User heaven, techno hell?

User heaven, techno hell?

Last night at the Dana Centre in London I facilitated an event debating whether pervasive computing is going to lead us towards user heaven, or techno hell. If computers are embedded into everything from our phones (now) to our furniture, clothes and even bodies (coming soon), what will this mean for our lives?

As an outsider, I had loads of tantalising questions of my own – although (ahem) was naturally full of determination to let the evening’s audience have their say too. What about techno haves and have-nots? Will we end up with more citizen empowerment or more government control? Can we have the beauty of something like Google Street View, for example, without companies gathering screeds of additional data that they conveniently forget to delete?

The room filled up nicely with an audience busily chatting and/or using their laptops, iPhones, Blackberries and so on. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room with so many geeks all using technology at once’ tweeted a participant. And so we were off.

In conversation with Dr Jeremy Pitt

In conversation with Dr Jeremy Pitt

Dr Jeremy Pitt set the scene, giving a flavour of current happenings in intelligent, adaptive technologies. He is a computer scientist in the Intelligent Systems and Networks Group, Imperial College London, and in conversation we raised issues about privacy, responsibility, the question of who is driving progress at the moment, and what we have to learn or fear from countries who deal with personal freedom differently to us.

Jeremy is working on a book called This Pervasive Day, a collection of viewpoints on the possibilities and pitfalls of pervasive computing, inspired conceptually by a 1970 science fiction novel by Ira Levin, This Perfect Day. The novel sees a future controlled by Unicomp, a global system that dishes out soothing drugs, chooses everyone’s careers, tracks everyone by means of a personalised wristband, and polishes people off by the age of 62 or so, for the general good. A nightmarish vision for many – but, as Jeremy told me, his mother could always see the positive side of the system, too. After all, there was no crime and no poverty, no earthquakes, and it only rained at night.

Dr Alois Ferscha talked from his perspective at the Institute for Pervasive Computing, Johannes Kepler University. As sensors and processors have miniaturised and become essentially invisible, the opportunities for pervasive computing have multiplied. His team, for example, has been working on glasses with a subtle web display, a belt that tells you which way to run in the event of fire, shoes that save you electricity by intelligently turning things on only when you’re nearby, and a chair that knows whether or not a seated student is really paying attention. While all these gadgets would look at home on the Fetish pages of Wired, Alois was quick to recognise that, with convenience and personalisation often seem to come a loss of privacy and a surrendering of personal control.

Dr Oli Mival, a member of the Institute for Informatics and Digital Innovation at Edinburgh Napier University (organisers of the event) underlined this sense of unease when he showed a map logging the recent locations of his wife’s iPhone, data that she had unwittingly shared with him during routine syncing to their laptop. OK, so if we’ve nothing to hide, maybe we don’t mind our loved ones being able to track us – but what does it say about us if they choose to do so? Or if we then choose to hide the information?

Dr Oli Mival (left) and Dr Alois Ferscha join the debate.

Dr Oli Mival (left) and Dr Alois Ferscha join the debate.

Oli illustrated his own people-centred approach to pervasive computing by showing a future meeting room they’ve created at Napier. Tech-stuffed it certainly is, with its multi-touch table that can cope with 80 simultaneous touch-commands, plus interactivity on every other surface too. But the idea is not to get away from pencil-and-paper, which people inevitably end up using anyway. It’s to make technologies that are as intuitive as possible – not which require hours of training and shelves of user manuals.

User heaven or techno hell? Oli created a new category of ‘user purgatory’, which seemed to capture the mood. Pre-recorded films gave us the opportunity to consider some of the best and worst potential outcomes of pervasive computing, from a Big Brother scenario to the shopper’s dream of being able to buy the exact dress you want in the perfect size. We then voted on the impact of pervasive data-gathering and personalisation and the room split almost 50:50 on whether new technologies were beneficial or scary.

The evening’s questions and discussion focused on choice, privacy, whether controlling data about yourself is a basic human right, whether embedded technology should be forced to request permission to track or keep your data, whether legislation can have any impact on controlling data, and how to engage more people in the debate.

But there did seem to be a sense among some in the audience that just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should – or at least that we as consumers or technologists need to influence exactly what technologies are developed. The idea that ‘technology is neutral and it’s just what you do with it’ didn’t wash. Similarly, some people seemed to want to know how we can make sure the technologies are used to solve important world problems, not just whether I can get shoes in my size. Who will take responsibility for making sure industry, universities, and society at large actually think about the implications of what’s developing? Events like this are only the start.

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