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Ubiquity: Here, There and Everywhere

Sensing the increasing intensity of the sunlight, your curtains open, and the bedroom radio switches itself on. As you shower, the daily news relevant to you is projected onto the bathroom wall, your microwave oven reads the RFID tag on your food wrapping and cooks you breakfast. And to ensure you don’t run out of your favourite meal, a message is sent from the refrigerator to the nearby store to order more.

This may sound like science fiction, but in the near future, the digital revolution will take on an entirely new dimension, with the development of networks and computing based on technologies like RFID (radiofrequency identification) and sensor networks. In this digital future, the world’s networks will not only connect people and data, but also everyday objects. Mundane daily tasks will become increasingly automated, and the technology behind them will fade from the perception of the user. This means we can expect a very near future where the Internet is still the fundamental tool of the day, but we will rarely need to sit at a computer to use it.

We are heading into a new era of ubiquity, where the users of the internet will be counted in billions and where humans may become the minority. Instead, most of the traffic will flow between devices, creating a much wider and more complex “Internet of Things”.

If humans continue to be the only internet users of the future, then the total user base might conceivably double, but it is unlikely to go beyond two billion active users. On the other hand, if “things” become active internet users on behalf of humans, then the number of connections could be measured in terms of hundreds of billions. Fridges communicating with grocery stores, laundry machines with clothing, implanted tags with medical equipment, and vehicles with stationary and moving objects. It would seem that science fiction is turning into science fact in an Internet based on ubiquitous network connectivity –truly “anytime, anywhere, by anyone and anything”.

 

Technologies That Will Power the Future

And it’s not as futuristic as it sounds. An expanded internet already exists that can detect and monitor changes in the physical status of connected things, through sensors and RFID, in real-time. Developments in miniaturization have enabled technological ubiquity, and networks and the objects they connect are also becoming increasingly intelligent, through developments in “smart technologies”. In the industrialized world, advances in RFID have focused on supply-chain efficiency. However, remarkable initiatives in Asia bring a whole new world of potential. The Blind Navigation Project currently being trialed in Tokyo to assist visually impaired people to move through the city streets is being monitored and mimicked in similar schemes in the USA. Near-field RFID communication enables mobile phone handsets to make payments, and shoppers to be alerted to the nearest reduced price bargain.

Digital technologies are fast becoming indispensable. A growing array of devices and technologies are on offer today, making users much more mobile. These range from slimmer and faster laptops, to MP3 players with video capabilities and mobile phones with high-speed internet access. It took almost 21 years to reach the first billion mobile users, rapid progress when compared with 125 years it took fixed lines to reach a similar figure. However even this pales in comparison with the mere 3 years it took the second billion mobile users to sign up. The evolution from second to third generation mobile networks is arguably just as important as the jump from analogue to digital and is proceeding much more rapidly. And at the same time, broadband networks and media convergence are generating new avenues for distributing digital entertainment. User devices are now multi-functional and increasingly personalized. In the future, advances in connected computing will enable millions of things to use the internet.

How we use technology has changed and computers and mobile phones can be used for purposes as diverse as recording audio and video, to gain political power, for prayer, for entrepreneurship, and to create and build social networks. Digital innovation is rapidly expanding to all aspects of daily living. Digital homes, with sensor-enabled blinds, online security systems, customized entertainment systems, and intelligent appliances are all already on the market. With contact-less payment systems, seamless digital transactions are possible online and via mobile devices. And content can be delivered depending on the preferences and location of the user. Such context aware services have become a priority for service providers as the need to keep abreast of constantly mutating user lifestyles is becoming ever more essential. It is expected that the computer as a dedicated device will disappear, as eventually even particles and “dust” might be tagged and networked. These kinds of developments will make what are seen today as merely static objects into newly dynamic things, embedding intelligence in our environment, and stimulating the creation of innovative products and entirely new services.

Getting started on the road to a ubiquitous networked society does not even require too major a financial outlay. The cost of putting RFID on a product carton is 5 US cents – and the case for doing it compelling enough to encourage many major US retailers to tag everything from a yoghurt carton to a pair of socks. Already RFID is constantly feeding individuals and things with information. Never before has information been so available and so accessible. And soon there won’t be anywhere that you won’t be connected. And not just you – but your watch, your pen, or even your evening meal. Stroll around a supermarket with a RFID-reading phone and receive information about any product, link to an internet-full of information and find out if what you’re buying is right for you. And as you’re doing it you’ll be providing the store with information about how you move around the aisles, what you purchase and what offers attract you.

 

Life-Changing Potential

Needless to say all these developments will have important implications for society and individual lifestyles, and will impact business strategy and policy priorities. From the individual human user’s point of view, will people suffer from information overload? Will addiction to online living take a rise as the virtual world seems to offer more than reality? Identity Theft? Big brother surveillance? But what about those human users that have yet to connect? One in three humans in the world (man, woman and child) currently owns a mobile phone. Those resident in the developed world, with the ability to connect but not the desire, may well suffer social pressure and miss out on services and information. A new class divide could emerge; between those online and those offline.

 

Ensuring Access is Truly on a Global Scale

Choice is one issue. But access is another. The impact of technology, particularly mobile communications on the developing world is significant. There are one billion poor people who lack access to phone services and are willing to pay for them. Studies have shown that people in some of the poorest countries are ready to spend a significant part of their income on ICT to help improve their social and economic well-being. In Namibia, Ethiopia and Zambia, for example, households spend more than 10% of their monthly income on phone services because it helps them save money in other areas. The estimated average technology spend in developed countries is about 3% of monthly income.

In 2004 alone, the African continent added almost 15 million new mobile cellular subscribers to its subscriber base, a figure equivalent to the total number of (fixed and mobile) telephone subscribers on the continent in 1996, just eight years earlier. But it is not enough to look at the growth of mobile subscribers to understand the impact that the mobile phone has made. Besides providing many rural areas that used to be excluded from any form of communication with access, the mobile phone has improved people’s lives in many ways. In Uganda, for example, farmers can use their mobile phone to find out about the latest crop prices. Instant and direct access to market prices increases their revenues, provides them with valuable information to negotiate and protects them from being cheated by middlemen. In South Africa, the Compliance Service uses SMS to remind tuberculosis (TB) patients to take their medication. TB patients must follow a difficult drug regime over an extended period but often fail to do so simply because they forget. Non-compliance with the drug treatment has exacerbated TB cases and been a burden on the local health care service by wasting precious medicines. The project, which started in Cape Town in 2002, has substantially decreased the number of treatment failures.

The prospects of the ubiquitous networked society are limitless but it is vital that efforts are made to understand and educate users and businesses about the opportunities and the tradeoffs. One of the core aims of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is to minimise digital exclusion and maximise digital choice. There is no one-fix for every country’s issues. But there is best practice that can be shared.

Meanwhile, in a not too distant future, watch as evening falls, the electric lights switch on and as you move from one room to another, the ambience music level adjusts, the room temperature changes and your dinner cooks itself. You scan your room for a missing sock and receive a message that the present you ordered overseas has arrived in the country. Meanwhile, your garbage-can is talking to your local council.

 

 

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Updated : 2007-07-12