Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Man-machine embedded intelligence

Man-machine embedded intelligence

From The Statesman
ND Batra

The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today (JCR Licklider in "Man-Computer Symbiosis").

Jobs in the future will be lost not to countries with cheap educated labour, but to networks with embedded intelligence. When I called my Internet service provider, a soothing female human voice asked my phone number, presumably to check my identification from its database, and then said: “Perhaps I could help you, if you tell me the problem.”

It was a shock because I was expecting a person with an accent who after taking some preliminary information would have passed me on to a technical expert. My curiosity was aroused whether it was an exception or an emerging trend in outsourcing, so I called my vendor and once again I encountered a female computerised voice eager to help me.

Since I was not sure why my laptop was acting crazy, the computerised voice at the other end said: “Please wait. Let me locate a technical expert for you.” In a moment I saw the future of outsourcing.

Harvey Cohn, president of Strategy Analytics, said in a report regarding its Emerging Frontiers programme: “In the next wave there will be an employment threat involving substitution of emerging systems with embedded intelligence for many first-level jobs in service industries, resulting a net loss of customer service, help desk, directory assistance, and related support function positions... Although today politicians and workers are worried about job outsourcing due to globalisation, the real future challenge to policy makers ~ and strategic opportunities for business investment ~ will come from machines with an increasing degree of embedded intelligence.”

On the bright side, many Indian technicians will be released from the outsourcing drudgery and eventually will take up more creative and value-added work for better wages. And no one is more eager to develop smart intelligent systems than the US Military’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency in order to upend the military’s first response capabilities and keep the personnel out of danger as much as possible. Many of these smart intelligent systems have been successfully put into operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Eventually the concept of first response capabilities based on embedded intelligence would find applications in business, law enforcement and anti-terrorism.

Technological innovations mutate and creep into other areas. A new world of sensate surroundings in which nothing would remain incommunicado is arising. Based on converging sensor and intelligent technologies, law enforcement and anti-terrorism experts are dealing with terrorism, among other problems, in altogether different ways and perhaps more effectively. The inside of the airplanes of the future would be embedded with sensors that record and transmit any unusual activity to a monitor and control centre for pre-emptive action.

Scientists at QinetiQ, a commercial offshoot of the UK’s Ministry of Defence, have developed a working model of sensor-embedded airplane seat that’s capable of capturing signals of physiological changes in a passenger and transmitting the information to a cockpit monitor. The signals could enable the crew to analyse whether the person is a terrorist or someone who is suffering from thrombosis of the deep vein, for example.

The smart seat would eventually be able to register signs of any emotional stress a passenger feels during the flight. Hidden seat sensors would provide unobtrusive in-flight surveillance and have the potential for actionable intelligence about the activities including the health status of in-flight passengers. More importantly, the information would enable plain-clothed air marshals to take preventive action in case there is a danger of terrorists contemplating blowing up or hijacking the plane. The cockpit would become an anti-terror cell.

Technologies are seldom stand-alone in this age of digital networking. They have a recombinant potential and tend to converge and splice with others to form newer technologies, which could be used in ways the original inventors never imagined. For example, if you combine QinetiQ’s smart seat technology with “sympathetic haptics” technology developed a few years ago at the Virtual Reality Laboratory at the University at Buffalo, New York, you would see how feelings of stress could be precisely transmitted via the Internet.

If a bomber fidgets or a person is having a heart attack, the physical movements that accompany the stress and distress would be transmitted to the cockpit monitor and also to the homeland secure monitors via the wireless Intranet. The two convergent technologies would turn an airplane seat into a virtual-reality surveillance system that would silently record every physical motion of the occupant for instant analysis.

Since we have become accustomed to various kinds of intrusive searches at the airports, we would not object to sitting in data collecting smart seats if the purpose is to enhance security. We know the security cameras are on us; but we do not feel self-conscious that we are being spied upon when we go to ATM or a bank teller for a transaction.

This is the price we pay for security and convenience. So perhaps we wouldn’t mind sitting in a sensor-embedded train or bus if that takes us safely to our destination where we can enjoy all the privacy we want.

Human beings won’t be replaced altogether but they would be integrated into intelligent systems. Of course it will be long before man-machine embedded intelligence could save a brazenly audacious politician like Benazir Bhutto in a public place from a suicide bomber.

(ND Batra, the author of Digital Freedom, is professor of communications and diplomacy at Norwich University, Vermont. )

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