If All the World's a Computer. Privacy: When Technology Hooks Us Up in One Enormous Network, Will We Have Any Secrets Left?

Article excerpt

Any time, anywhere: that is the promise the captains of technology make us, even as we struggle with our existing machines, our cranky software and our creaky Internet. They mean it too. Imagine this: computers that enfold you, like a second skin. Rooms that come alive with sensors, cameras and embedded chips, allowing them to "know" you and adjust to your preferences when you arrive. Cars that monitor not only traffic but also your vital signs, and tell you when you're not fit to be on the road.

These all belong to a family of devices on the drawing board at places like IBM, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology. Some are in advanced stages of prototyping. They include such things as microchips farmers till into the soil to measure moisture and acidity; building materials that adjust resistance to wind and earthquake; insulation that changes according to weather conditions. The idea is simple: computing must become ubiquitous, pervasive. And nowhere will it be more pervasive than when it is closest to us. As Michael Hawley put it in the mission statement for his Things That Think project at the MIT Media Lab, "We wear clothes, put on jewelry, sit on chairs and walk on carpets that all share the same profound failing: they are blind, deaf and very dumb. Cuff links don't, in fact, link with anything else... Glasses help sight, but they don't see."

They will if the engineers have their way. Eyeglasses are the medium of choice for an idea variously called BodyNet and the Personal Area Network, or PAN. You would wear glasses with a camera in the frame, a photodiode sensor to monitor your eye movements, a voice transmitter in the earpiece and a short-range radio connection to a pagerlike device worn on a belt or in a handbag. That device would contain whole libraries of personal information, about both you and everyone you've ever met while wearing the BodyNet.

One effect would be to displace at a smaller size the multiple electronic devices we carry today, such as laptops, mobile phones and personal digital assistants. But BodyNet goes further. Thus equipped, you could be prompted with the name and business of an acquaintance approaching on the street. (The device would compare the image with its database, and your glasses would whisper the result in your ear.) You could, with the help of a phased array of microphones embedded in the fabric of your jacket--what Hawley calls "underware"-- respond knowingly to conversations: if your acquaintance mentions an investment opportunity, your device could connect to the Internet and call up all relevant information about the company in question, using your glasses as a display screen. Dinner parties would never be the same.

Sound good? It certainly does to the digerati. They are prone to such statements as "If computers are everywhere, they better stay out of the way" (Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, senior scientists at Xerox PARC), and "The idea is nothing less than to make the world itself programmable" (Alan Daniels, then of Georgia Tech).

In their view, computing will, by the year 2005, shift decisively from domination by the personal computer to reliance on a variety of "information appliances." At first most of these devices will be handheld: Web-ready telephones and palmtops, for example. Increasingly, though, they will be embedded in the background in ways almost invisible to us. …