How mobile computing & ubiquitous devices conquered the world as we know it

Mobile and ubiquitous devices are everywhere around us, and I do mean everywhere. Anyone trying to avoid the contact with them these days would need to go to great lengths to actually succeed. Portable devices and computers are present everywhere, sometimes hidden so well (ubiquitous computing) that we don’t even realise they’re there.

Ubiquitous Computing & Devices

Just think about some of ubiquitous computing applications you may be in contact with every day, e.g. air con automatically adapting room temperature; embedded systems for cars or airplanes, automatic doors. Yes, they don’t always have a screen or I/O devices, yet they can still have processors, memory, network connectivity. In fact, there are over 9 billion embedded processors around the world working today. That’s more than one per each human being.

Just ask yourself – how many computers can possibly be embedded into a modern car? In fact, modern cars, for example BMW 745i, can run Windows CE and has 53x 8-bit processors, 11x 32-bit processors and 7x 16-bit processors. It’s also fully equipped with networking capabilities.

Four Waives / Paradigms in the History of Computing

The evolution of computing as a whole can be divided into four waves and paradigms. In 1960’s-70’s, mainframe computing meant that we had massive computers to execute big data processing applications. That required a lot of people to run very few computers.

In 80’s-90’s, the introduction of desktop computers meant that there was one computer at every desk to help in business-related activities. Computers were connected in intranets to a massive global network (internet), and were all wired.

Due to the number of reasons, in 90’s-00’s, the mobile computing exploded. The trend has completely reversed, meaning that there are few devices for every person, small enough to carry around (devices connected to cellular networks or WLANs).

The most current trend, the ubiquitous computing (also known as pervasive, deeply embedded, sentient computing or ambient intelligence), expands on the concept of mobile computing, and means that there are tens/hundreds of computing devices in every room/person, becoming “invisible” and part of the environment. They can use WANs, LANs, PANs, anything really to ensure reliable networking in small spaces. It makes a computer so imbedded, so fitting, so natural, that we use it without even thinking about it.

Enabling Technologies

Mobile and ubiquitous computing didn’t happen just like that. There is a number of technological advances that our civilisations had to come up with in order to even realistically consider developing commercially viable products.

Firstly, there is Wireless (data) communication technology providing higher bandwidth, lower power consumption and commodity (readily available and secure). Secondly, there are small form factor devices based on ever shrinking electronics, better displays and new input methods. Then there is the personalisation factor coming from the advances in IA and machine learning science. Other important factors include: automatic identification (RFID, numbering schemes, network information services), sensing and actuation (mechanical, chemical, electric, bio sensing), context awareness (physical, informational and social), and finally ambient displays and tangible interfaces.

All those factors enabled the human kind to come up with some of the greatest inventions, not only gadgets but also medical breakthroughs and some very useful applications. There are now fully functional computers of the size of coin which can transmit data in and out. There are special plasters for diabetics which automatically assess and release insulin to the body. There are RFID tags smaller than a pinhead and bio tags which can be easily injected under the skin.

Security, Privacy & Trust in Ubiquitous Computing

Technologically, people are now capable of building a global identification system which can be embedded in every CCTV camera in the world and which will include all information about everyone, e.g. purchase trends and histories, health predictions, habits, etc. Practically however, technological advances are being halted by many privacy issues. Yes, if anyone thinks their privacy is not shared anywhere is totally mistaken, but where are the boundaries, how far can we push personal trust for people we’ve never even met? These are probably the biggest issues ubiquitous technologies and computing face these days. For once, the problem is not the lack of knowledge, but how we apply it to every single, yet different, person?

Gieves & Hawkes

Artur Jach Written by:

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