Ubiquitous Computing: Blurring the Mind and Machine Gap

16/05/2012 16:48 BST | Updated 15/07/2012 10:12 BST

When humans, machines and the internet get together, what will the future look like? Michael Chorost's fascinating The World Wide Mind takes us through a journey of all the possibilities. The book informs us that humans and machines share a seamless connection, with the internet acting as a facilitator. No longer will the mind and the machine function as two distinct units. A two-way relationship will emerge as the norm, posits the book. And machines would have developed the ability to read human minds. Computing makes way for invisible computing.

Networked computing as we know it is far from perfect, with barriers between systems and users. For instance, our understanding of the machine language or the capabilities of machine processing is not necessarily as advanced as we tend to assume. As of now, the computer is a black box, and we know that there are some software and applications underneath. Hence, the computer for the 21st century would be a machine which can be programmed by both the users as well as the programmers. Virtual reality and ubiquitous computing is something everybody is writing about. Technology can blur away into the background, and be barely noticeable, as the mind of the machine is drawn out of its electronic shell.

For instance, electrical appliances help us get through the day, from lighting our rooms or heating our food. Ubiquitous computing takes it a step further by integrating machines and humans, and making computing a part of our life, in more ways than we can imagine. By reading machines, like they were reading minds, people can do more with these machines than the programmers intended. Artificial intelligence is the key to this paradigm shift, with machines resembling humans - the stuff that Sci-fi legends are made off - making human and machine integration, finally, real. Take for instance this innovation - humans will transfer files from machine to machine, with their fingers. No more external hard drives required. Pranav Mistry, India born, and largely educated in that country, works at the MIT Media Lab, where he developed the model. Models and innovations such as this are meant to do away with connectors that bind machines and humans together. What is being done, is the kind of stuff we've all seen in moves like Mission Impossible, where the human body develops new sensory features. New models of computers will now have the ability to recognize commands from humans. Another example is the Apple iPhone's (4S) voice-activated Siri. It recognizes voice commands and does the action required.

The philosophy of invisible computing is thus spurring intelligent thinking in machines, while ensuring that their image as black boxes melts away into history. Perhaps, we should all be welcoming each other into a world of invisible computing, where machine and mind of the human are one. Where we are never apart from the power of computing, and where computing will not need human skill to function. After all, so far, we did need to understand the working of machines, of software or applications to know how to work computing. Not for long, say experts. Perhaps, at the most, we may need to be acquainted with basic workflow software programs, like the MS Office. The human body, and its voice, gestures and touch can replace computer commands that need complex programs and software applications. The systems itself could well be within us. Computers will be everywhere. And yet be invisible.

Imagine, freedom from booting systems, loading software and applications. That is the very essence of ubiquitous computing. They would be omnipresent. They would be everywhere, except their presence would blend in completely. Some say, rather disparagingly, like the English butler! Although, only time will tell if computers will be servile or we will be so to them! They're quite powerful, even in this era; just imagine their hold over us in the future.

In fact, invisibility is the very premise of ubiquitous computing. It is going to provide us with an unprecedented ability to work without even being conscious, at least for the most part, of the computers the quietly buzz away in the background. It is the penultimate evolution of computing, moving from the earliest mainframes, which were the size of an average living room. The tablet PC, as we all know fit into our hands and into our pockets. It is not hard to imagine how smaller they could get. Advances in nanotechnology each year, ensure that though they get smaller, the computers get more and more powerful.

As per Moore's law, which seems to become more significant with every passing year, computing power doubles every two years. Ubiquitous computing is leading us to the next stage of computing evolution, a revamp or the emergence of a new era is the use of machines. No longer will we need computer or perhaps, we may even be able to detect their presence. There's a good chance that these machines will just detect our presence. And they will be able to sense our presence. In fact, this is not a distant prediction. We're at the cusp of this realty. The ongoing innovation research in the area suggests that we will arrive at this state of ubiquitous computing, much sooner than later. Innovators like Mistry and imagineers like Chorost are pushing the boundaries, making the day not too far away when we'll think of something and a machine we can't see, will make it happen.

The computer though, will probably continue to exist. It will continue to be omniscience and omnipotent. Except that computing will pervade our lives in far more subtle ways and to an extent that will make detecting computers difficult. The point of invisible computing is to blur the physical distance between human and machine. To integrate them in an absolute, seamless fashion. The question to ask is if we will embrace this seamlessness or will we resist this new networked era?

Perhaps, only a Luddite would fear this utopian, technological vision. And yet, perhaps, those eager to rush into the new era must question the lasting influence of ubiquitous computing. Over the last few decades, new computing trends have emerged only to disappear a few years later. So, one can't predict the future of ubiquitous computing and invisible computing with utmost certainty. Irrespective of the outcome though, we must admit that we live indeed in times that are exceedingly interesting from a technological perspective and the extent to which it is influencing our lives. No matter how much technology advances, if it cannot alleviate human misery, make the world a better place and our lives that much better and fulfilling, it could be termed as failure. The hope is that while computing interface evolves to be integrated into human sensory systems, it will do us a world of good, and can be used for the better. The internet has made the world better in many ways, perhaps invisible computing could change the world for the better too.