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Are our smart devices becoming too smart?

Nokia Oyj Lumia 900 smart phones sit on display during the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nev., on Jan. 12, 2012.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

What if your smartphone – or laptop, or remote control – could anticipate what you want and could intuitively respond to your needs?

It's called context-aware computing. Small sensors gather information about a user's location, preferences and environment, and your device learns about you.

Your phone could track your diet and exercise and help you improve your health. Your TV remote could offer program recommendations based on who is holding it. Search engines could display more accurate results based on a person's browsing history.

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Context-aware computing has been gaining steam as costs fall and technology improves. But it also raises serious questions about privacy that experts say must be addressed as these systems come to our homes and offices.

Ted Selker, one of the foremost experts on context-aware computing, joined us to talk about the possibilities – and the risks – of submitting personal information into such systems. Mr. Selker is the associate director of mobility research at Carnegie Mellon University, Silicon Valley campus. From 1999 to 2008 he was an associate professor and the director of the Context Aware Computing Lab at MIT.

This is an edited version of the live discussion. To see it as it appeared originally, just go to the frame at the bottom of the article.

Ross, from Waterloo: With the advent of context-aware computing coming into vehicles, how do you see a vehicle reconciling information and preferences of the driver vs. passengers while a vehicle is in motion?

Ted Selker: Indeed, the context does resolve many things; we don't want the music to drown out the firetruck siren, for example.

The goal of understanding the situation is so interesting in a car. I built a concept car in which we found that giving feedback - of any sort - too often was distracting.

By giving only a little positive feedback and much, much less negative, car coach can actually improve your attention to problems.

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Dave M, Globe and Mail: How fast do you think the tech industry will move on context-aware computing? Do they see money here?

Ted Selker: The automatic grocery store door opener that was first built in 1962, was wonderful in this way. It expects that a person leaving a grocery store has a basket in front of them and needs help opening the door; people loved and love it.

There is tremendous money in solving peoples problems without being inappropriate. Context is one great way to avoid being inappropriate.

Context sensing is creeping into everything. At first the phones require us to turn them off when in certain situations, soon, as my new Bluetooth, they will know when to be turned on. My Bluetooth, connects to my phone ... only ... when on my ear, saving it from answering calls from my backpack. That is contextually aware computing.

Chris: Could a smart phone on the Costa ship that just sank have helped passengers make better decisions about what they should have immediately done with no information from the captain and crew?

Ted Selker: Until they got wet, the phones could have told people that are on deck where they are, inside the ship, the Wifi could have helped people know where they are. People have been saved in avalanches using cellphones as beacons...

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Cellphones could have been useful in many other ways, starting with being used as flashlights, communicating information before it's too late, and even being part of some broadcast messaging if things were set up for that.

gmpartsman: Intelligence implies awareness or sentience. How could artificial intelligence even be measured? What appears to be intelligence is merely clever algorithms.

Ted Selker: Intelligence is measured behaviorally by the Turing test; can a person distinguish a person from a bot? The first time that a bot passed the Turing test was with a system called parry. Parry was an AI system that simulated a paraniod schizophrenic in 1973 at Stanford.

Jeff: I love the idea of this technology so much but it certainly straddles "the line" in terms of how much is too much? For example, I love using Gmail but the ads Google presents to me at the top of my inbox give me the creeps. How big a barrier is privacy for growth of this technology?

Ted Selker: Jeff, people's comfort levels with technology changed with cultural mores. When Google first had a bot read its employees e-mails to opportunistically give them advice for restaurants and stuff in 2002 or so, it gave them the creeps and Google did not release that product then.

I hope social acceptance is always what will inhibit or accelerate technology adoption.

Dave M, Globe and Mail: What will people be carrying around with them in ten years?

Ted Selker: People want to feel free and powerful. I think carrying something in one hand that requires the other hand to work it is not a powerful physical condition. It is a pickpocket-me position. In 10 years we will not have intrusive technology we have to hold.

We will continue to make things that feel more and more "zippless;" that is, not even noticeable to the user.

Heidiger talks of tools being ready to hand: the carpenter does not think about the hammer or the nail, he thinks about connecting the plywood to the studs.

We will be carrying our bodies around, hopefully joyfully using our strength perception and agility to enjoy the world; technology will help us do more better and enjoy the world and our friends.

Tom: Do you think Apple will get into these kinds of technological improvements?

Ted Selker: Apple does many context-aware things with its systems. We take for granted that its phone switches from landscape to portrait mode now. We take for granted that a phone will work hard to noise-cancel extraneous noise now. Context-aware systems are starting to help in many new ways.

Even Firefox, admonishing itself when it comes back from a crash with "well this is embarrassing" is a comforting contextual acknowledgement.

Chris: How will new devices learn to understand pattern recognition in the environment once quantum computing becomes affordable?

Ted Selker: Super fast and parallel computing is coming. I am not sure when the flexibility of algorithms, etc., will focus future computing on quantum computing. Still the huge pattern recognition programs being used today were unimaginable 5 years ago. It has become typical for systems to answer your queries knowing many, many things about you and why the answer should be different for you than others.

While we think personalization is new, even it is not. In the 1920s the Farmers Almanac published many different versions for different farmers and places. In 2002 I was told that Newsweek comes in 40,000 print versions with every printing ... they know you. The future will be your future, the things you want and want to share with others, those will be your experience.

Samantha: I'm worried about privacy. I feel marketing companies already know too much about me. Won't these devices simply give stores/firms/outsiders more information about me?

Ted Selker: The pendulum of privacy is an interesting one; when do we go out wearing a trench coat and sunglasses, and when do we wear rollerblades and a swimming suit?

It is important to worry about privacy when the people who are watching you might do more than watch the swaying of your rollerskating. We like it when they are scouting for a rollerblade movie, we hate it when they want the rollerblades and leave us barefoot 3 miles from home.

Apple recently got in trouble as it appeared that they keep all keystrokes and mouse movements of their users. I work on voting equipment. I don't want anyone knowing how anyone voted ... the private ballot is kinda central to the improvements in democracy as they get rid of a lot of kinds of fraud. The question about privacy comes down to how much we can trust others not to abuse our goals and needs. It isn't just about them "knowing" about me in the abstract, it is the possible limiting things I do in my life ... social, political, career limiiting things. We all do them all the time, but I don't believe in or like my permanent record to be besmirched.

Dave M, Globe and Mail: So which comes first, the hardware (sensors, for instance) or the software in the adoption process?

Ted Selker: What's really cool is how the Soviets, with very little hardware, did such a great job with space travel. Without hardware the software must be smarter. Hardware can be great but it is prone to many problems of the physical world.

Many of the most exciting things about smartphones to me have to do with how hard I have had to work all my life to make multi-sensor systems. Now everyone has a better sensor package in their pocket than any robot 10 years ago had access to at any price. The hardware can enable things but remember the Berkeley student who used a camera in a phone to measure movement in the world ... he made the camera give him acceleration, motion, mouse control all with a sensor that was not even designed for it, years before those other sensors got added to the phone.

Christina: Has this technology already been used to help people with disabilities?

Ted Selker: OMG, I was visiting the Federation of the Blind, in Baltimore last month. The guy showed me how his smartphone had a setting that trumped almost all the technology available. We were standing in a 3,000-square-foot room with hundreds of assistive systems for the blind... still the smartphone with its connectivity and location awareness, excellent portability ... is what people are reaching for.

I was even more impressed when in a meeting with a cerebral palsy victim. He had switched over to a pad ... 1/10th the cost of a mouthstick typing system he was replacing, but the best part is its spelling correction and stuff.

The new pads and phones bring so much context, they are online and allow following topics, people, place, they have your data to send. The mouthstick crowd is ecstatic.

Chris: Will encryption be a thing of the past with new smart devices or will Q Computing make it even stronger?

Ted Selker: Encryption is useful when some people can decode and some can't. If that doesn't work, many other techniques are needed for security. We can use private networks as the banking industry did for years to keep others from having physical access even to the signal. All notions of security that require more computing are friction that wears down the universe. But we don't have the best alternatives to making security a matter of how much computing power you have in all situations. Actually the government regulates how secure you can be ... once you are big enough to matter ... sigh.

George G.: It's one thing to worry about manufacturers and marketers knowing everything about you, but what about that information getting into the wrong hands? It's one thing to put a door on your house, but when we're dealing with technology the average person doesn't know much about, whose responsibility is it to develop protective elements?

Ted Selker: Protection is something of an illusion, As Helen Keller said, being open is more important than being safe ...(something about life being a bold adventure).

Chris: Who will know more, governments or cell phone companies?

Ted Selker: Even in a walled, gated community people have problems. NASA for example has a problem of people stealing laptops, inside two security gates, with only people who have been vetted to work there!!!

Cellphone companies will know about immediate and communicated things. Some things aren't as easy to know. The government has a lot of fingerprints, they have birth records, they have deeds...

The important things are choosing ways to make our world better, our work more valued, our friends happier... Worrying about the people that rarely touch our lives is harder. Security and privacy are great, but we don't need to live lonely lives.

Openness and freedom are great but we don't need to impose ourselves on everyone.

The balances of what society, culture and information value will give are always evolving.





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