Buzz’s Blog: On Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web

Jun 2 2009   4:53AM GMT

Ambient intelligence: empowering the new Web

Roger King Roger King Profile: Roger King

This blog concerns advanced Web technologies that can be roughly described as being part of the Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web efforts. Most recently, we’ve looked at technology that will either buttress new Web development technology or take advantage of it. In particular, in the last posting of this blog, we looked at the Internet of Things and ubiquitous computing, and how they might interface with advanced Web applications to produce a combined, more powerful computing environment. We’ve also looked at New Songdo City – the u-city – and how it will at least indirectly serve as a testing ground for new Web technology.

Ambient Intelligence: A Powerful Enhancer of Advanced Web Technology.

In this blog entry, we’ll look at another new technology and how it might dovetail with the new Web. It’s called “ambient intelligence”. Like other software advances, although it is not directly related to the Web, it will dovetail beautifully with new Web technology.

We consider how ambient intelligence will make the Web radically better at serving individuals.

Ambient Intelligence: Just What Is It?

The term refers to computerized devices that tailor their behavior according to the nature of each user. First of all, though, we should make it clear that this is not a particularly new term, that it does not have a highly specific definition, and there are lots of other terms that have been used to describe similar concepts. But there is something focused that is emerging under the banner of this name.

Ambient intelligence is commonly discussed in the context of embedded devices, machines that have processors in them and that perform specific information-based tasks, as opposed to being general purpose programmable computers. Embedded computers are in cell phones, our automobiles, and “smart cards”. Sometimes, they can indeed be programmed to do almost anything, like the ones inside cell phones. But even then, it’s assumed that very few people will do so. The point is that they generally do not have displays, keyboards, or mice dedicated to their use. They are found inside small and large devices, as well as in the smarts of complex systems, like assembly lines. Mass produced, but sophisticated items like insulin meters have computers in them.

As an example, you could imagine that the vending machine you put money into tomorrow might already know that you drink nothing but 20 ounce Pepsis. Maybe every vending machine in your complex at work knows your habits. Maybe if you switch to Sprite on one machine, it will tell the rest. Maybe the machines will offer you one or the other until a new pattern seems to emerge and it appears that you will never again drink Pepsi. Or you might be able to enter your “favorites” on the corporate website, and declare what you prefer to drink. The machines will know – and so will the company that services those machines. All of this could happen without human intervention.

Ambient devices don’t have to specifically target individuals. You could imagine a computing system in an airport that can smoothly transition between human languages, customs, and regulations, to better serve a global audience. We’re very close to this sort of thing right now, actually.

Ambient Intelligence at the Fingertips of the Web.

But wait. Let’s get back to that vending machine. How do they communicate with each other to pass on the critical news that you’re a Sprite person now? How do you enter your favorites? How does the vending machine company get the news so they know what to order?

The Web. Those ambient vending machines use the Web.

On the Web, embedded devices can be engaged by web applications and
web services. (Remember that web services are programmatic interfaces to services;
i.e., they don’t have to be activated by a human using a browser.)
Embedded machines can also initiate web services, as well as trigger “push” tasks,
whereby a user on a client machine somewhere is told that something is happening and itʼs time to get to work. The embedded device and the user could be on opposite sides of the world, thanks to the Web.

RFID Technology: Tracking Things.

We’ve already looked at RFID technology.

As a reminder, the goal of RFID-based systems is help us coordinate and carefully control the use of various objects. Of particular interest are mobile objects. One of the key components behind this idea are RFID tags. RFID stands for “radio frequency identification”. A tag can be attached to almost anything. After they are deployed, an RFID reader can send out a signal, which is picked up by the RFID tags, and then respond. As things move around, as things are used in concert to perform tasks, they can be carefully tracked and managed.

An Example:

There’s another aspect of ambient intelligence. When people talk about a device that has ambient intelligence, often they are referring to a dedicated devices with a simple display, not a general purpose computer. By this quality, the soda machine example is a bit rudimentary, in that it probably doesn’t have any true native display at all, and the indirect way of accessing it, at least according to our example, is too general purpose – a website that is accessed with a full blown computer.

Consider something that is a major topic of discussion now, and a subject we will return to in this blog in the near future: electronic health records. The idea is that we would have life-long electronic medical information bases that would be accessible to medical providers (with our approval). This way, the fact that I had some disease as a child that makes us vulnerable for some other disease
later in life would become apparent to my family doctor, and the necessary screening exam would be scheduled periodically. Otherwise, how am I supposed to know about the consequences of something that happened when I was a toddler? My “EHR” would also hold prescription records, imaging data, and anything else related to my health. It would, of course, be a web-based app.

But various sorts of doctors – not to mention non-medical types like me – need information displayed and abstracted in special ways. My family doc might want to see everything is its raw form, if for no other reason than my doctor would be expected to know my medical history, if it were readily available. (And yes, if I had a chronic disease or were the caregiver for someone with a chronic disease, the immense size of the EHR would be truly overwhelming. I imagine that doctors might be afraid of being expected to process huge EHRs belonging to new patients.)

Now, consider an emergency room doctor. If I was lying on a bed in an emergency room, not conscious, having just collapsed and complaining of a terrible pain from a horrendous headache, and from nauseous, and unable to answer questions, the doctor needs data fast. The display that the ER doc uses would not be on a general purpose desktop computer, would not provide that massive raw data view, and would present information in a highly readable form.

Most importantly, that computer would have to be instantly adaptable to suit the needs of an emergency, and then later, go back to a non-emergency mode, to be of help in further treatment.

Or, it might be that the web server and not the machine in the ER, contains the ambient software. The machine in the ER might be a very simple client. But either way, the combined web application and local client would have to be capable of searching my online EHR, to look for possible problems, and to display them. It might deliver up the fact that just this morning, I had minor surgery on the baby finger on my left hand – and since I was so squeamish, I was given general anesthesia.

Boom. The ER doc figures out that my headache is from high blood pressure, which, along with nausea, is a common side effect of anesthesia, and it can hit hours later. The doc now knows that if I’m given a blood pressure reducing drug, I’ll be fine. But I might have to first be given an anti-nausea drug, and obviously, I wouldn’t be able to swallow that and keep it down, and so it would be administered at the other end of my food processing subsystem.

Wait, one more thing. What about RFID tags? Maybe I have one around my neck, and that’s how the doc figured out who I was in the first place, since I was stumbling around with no driver’s license. The machine in the ER scanned the tag – and voila.

The Reach of the Web.

If you think about it, by leveraging the Web, ambient devices can be empower in incredible ways – and in the years to come, we’ll see a new generation of such web applications emerge.

(Finally, if my medical scenario is ridiculous, and you are a medical professional, then I’m sorry.)

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