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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Staying Connected: Body of Technology


You never know when you plunk yourself down on a public mode of transportation just what will unravel before your journey ends. As the Long Island Rail Road chugged along during a hot, sticky day last summer, I chatted with a fellow commuter. He was an engineer for a big computer company in New York. Once we got acquainted, I knew he was doing more than helping me kill time and take my mind off the inconvenience (and my boss's face) as the train would prove late once again. This man was telling me about a future he was helping to design.

One key element of our conversation was the use of silicon chips. Chips, he explained, had been embedded in employee identification tags at his company. These tags were worn around employees' necks. The chip communicated to a corporate system that would clock in when employees arrived in the morning, when they left at night, and just where and for how long they went for lunch. His company already employed such devices, and he was certain that a majority of the big corporations would follow suite and employ similar practices within the next few years.

The tagging idea, at least from a corporate perspective, makes sense. Much like global positioning systems (GPSs) that allow companies to track their assetslike courier trucksat all times of the day through the use of satellite, ID tags with silicon chips are capable of tracking employees. Such corporations using these techniques, or those considering doing so, would likely point to an increase in productivity, a decrease in company stealing, and the overall safety and security that such a tracking technology provides.

I was explaining to my commuting companion that not so far back, I had a long conversation with Peter Cochrane, the director of research at British Telecom, one of the biggest telecommunications companies in the world and a partner of AT&T. As part of his position at BT, Cochrane was responsible for testing new technologies that would be the foundation for future services. He told me there will come a day when chips are not just worn around the neck, but are actually implanted under a human's skin. When I scoffed at such an idea as merely science fiction, Cochrane offered up that he himself would be testing out such a human chip and looked forward to the opportunity.

Not surprisingly, this revelation that I thought was mind-boggling, sci-fi movie material was met with much agreement on the part of my train buddy. Nodding emphatically, the computer company executive said that such practices will become common within a few years time.

As unbelievable as it seemshaving a silicon chip inserted in your bodythere are many signs this is becoming a reality.

To say the infiltration of machines into our lives is becoming pervasive is like saying the world is round. But it's equally undeniable that the shift is going from humans working around a stationary computer to the computer serving and following the human. Laptops, for instance, continue to get thinner and lighter, making them more portable. Landline phones are getting displaced by cell phones as they, too, shrink in size while growing in processing power. These tiny wireless devices can now connect to the Internet and act as a pocket-sized PC.


The project, dubbed Oxygen Alliance, aims to make computers as omnipresent as oxygen. These tiny computers would be embedded into a room and would respond to voices.


Everyday conveniences are getting mechanized. Cars are becoming smarter. This year, IBM inked deals with car manufacturers to install Internet connections in automobiles. Voice recognition techniques will likely be available, letting a driver speak commands to a computer so he or she won't have to be distracted from driving. And GPSs that let drivers know directions and orientation are also getting to be a standard option when buying a car. In fact, Time reported recently that Strategy Analytics predicted by 2005 about 42% of U.S. drivers will have some kind of personalized multimedia available in their cars. And smart highways that can communicate with cars are near development. Household appliances are getting smarter too. Like refrigerators that communicate to the nearby grocer that a supply of seaweed, sushi, and bottled water must be delivered by sundown. Or the stove that calls the service person itself when it's about to go on the blink.

The technology crystal ball does look like it's the beginning of the end for the chunky old desktop computer. With the popularization of handheld devices, PCs are becoming more and more cumbersome. Then there is the research project at Massachusettes Institute of Technology (MIT). Armed with $50 million, the project, dubbed Oxygen Alliance, aims to make computers as omnipresent as oxygen. These tiny computers would be embedded into a room and would respond to voices. The nearly invisible computer network could be strung in homes, offices, buildings or cars and change the way humans and machines interact.

Taking these developments and research-in-the-works a step further, it makes sense that as processing power builds while device size shrinks, computers are becoming more wearable, more meshed with the body. The power of the body in the future of communications was a message that came through loud and clear at the PC Expo 2000 trade show held in New York in June.

Biometrics, or the scanning of body parts for use in identification, garnered much attention at the show. According to the International Biometric Group, there will be six major areas of biometric measurement in the future. Scanning the iris, fingers, hands, face, or recognizing someone by signature or voice will soon reign as the way to provide a person access into a home or building.

Then there's companies like AuthTec Inc., that has a fingerprint sensor product, replacing passwords, PINs, access cards, and keys, providing security by identifying users by their unique fingerprint. The body is already the new keyboard.

So now that refrigerators and highways are getting IQs and cars can respond to conversation, maybe that chip-under-the-skin doesn't sound strange after all. But what kinds of information would that chip hold, you ask? Experts say it could carry all your personal informationmedical background, insurance, banking information, passport information, address, phone number, social security number, birth certificate, marriage license. Basically, it would replace the inconvenience of having to lug around your pocketbook, wallet, or safety deposit box.

Once you get over the initial horror of such a chip implanted under your skin, let your mind wash over the benefits. The aforementioned overflowing pocketbook and bulging wallet could be retired. Beloved pets could be tagged so they wouldn't wander away and end up on those depressing "missing since" posters. You'd always know where your children are. If you're a powerful executive or celebrity, the silicon chip would diminish the idea of getting kidnapped. If you've forgotten your health insurance information or if you can't explain your allergies or health care wishes because you're unconscious, the chip could communicate those vitals to hospital personnel with the scan of a decoder. And just like the EZPass in New York means no waiting in strangling traffic for the exact-change-only lane, a chip-under-the-skin would mean a breeze through customs at international airports.

Of course, there are worries such technologies may bear in the future. For one, getting mugged may mean more than just the inconvenience of canceling your credit cards. It could mean a loss of your identity (at least until you could get to the silicon chip repair center). And getting a virus may take on a whole new meaning if computer chips are placed in your body.

But don't doubt the oncoming of such technology. Convenience and time have been persistent tempters to us before. Who would have thought people would be taking phone calls in movie theaters, or checking portfolios on pocket-sized PCs in the supermarket? If technology past is any indication of the infiltration of technology future, it's likely that in no time at all, the whole idea of implanting a chip just might get under your skin after all.

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Author

Meg McGinity (meg_mcginity@zd.com) is a senior writer at inter@ctiveweek.


©2000 ACM  0002-0782/00/0900  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2000 ACM, Inc.


 

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