IBM: Pervasive computing is the future

The computing giant sees more and more aspects of 'smart' technology becoming part of people's lives, pointing to the success of mobile phones and other devices

Pervasive computing is here and it's going to enter most aspects of your life, according to IBM.

There were 325 million pervasive computing devices in 2002, and this will increase to one billion by 2005, claims the software giant. IBM defines pervasive computing as any computing device that is not a personal computer, stretching from Internet fridges to mobile telephones.

Michael Karasick, the director of embedded development for the IBM pervasive computing division, denies the credibility of the area has been hampered by the relatively slow takeup of innovations such as "smart houses" and "Internet fridges. "In certain areas it has taken off," he told ZDNet Australia, citing smart cards, mobile phones and cameras as some examples of non-traditional computing devices. "I judge how successful [pervasive computing] is by how busy I am," added Karasick. "We have been, as an organisation, growing in this area and have had more opportunity than we can deal with over the past year."

Some aspects of the smart house are already in use in colleges across the US. In a project IBM calls eSuds dormitories in colleges allow their students to make reservations for washing machines with their mobile phones, pay using the mobile phone, and be notified when the washing is done.

Another example of where microchips will enter your life in ways you may not have expected is the automobile industry, which is embracing the technology. In the 2002 version of the Honda Accord, the technology will allow you to interact with the car using natural language statements, such as "where is the nearest restaurant?" The car will then load the information on the navigation system.

The software will also link to the antilock braking system, the airbag system and the navigation system, and will send information on an accident back to base, which can determine the extent of the accident and what level of response is needed.

"That piece of information changes the entire structure of the automotive industry," said Andrew Dutton, vice president of IBM software group, Asia-Pacific. He said car companies can now branch out into tow truck companies, panel beaters, finance and insurance in a far more comprehensive way than they are currently.

If that image sends chills down your spine and you begin uttering phrases such as "invasion of privacy" and "Big Brother", you're not alone. The improvements in technology that allow the location and habits of individuals to be tracked and collated may have strong business and consumer benefits, but also has the potential to remove people's privacy on a scale unprecedented in history, a fact which concerns many people.

Dutton said that IBM had a very strong drive on privacy, but conceded there is a long way to go. "If we don't address this issue up front it will slow the industry down, and that's not in our best interests," he said. "This is a set of issues we're going to have to face as a community."

"The car example is a good example of the issue," said Dutton. "There's a clear difference between a crash alert system and a tracking system."

According to Karasick, the issue of privacy is two-fold. First, how long the information survives, and second, what the companies have permission to do with it. "It's a legal issue more than a technical one," he said, adding privacy policies needed to be created to control the flow of personal information.

"The most important thing to do in privacy policy creation is putting the control in the customers hands, setting the default to 'there is nothing you can do with my information' and letting you decide what information you will allow to be used," he said.

Who's watching you? Get the latest on spy networks such as Echelon and Carnivore, as well as privacy issues for companies and individuals alike, at ZDNet UK's Privacy News Section.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom.