Brussels, 28 Jul 2005
In the early 1990s, some years before the widespread proliferation of the Internet, Mark Weiser, chief scientist for Xerox Palo Alto Research, mapped out the transition from the large mainframe computers of the 1960s and 1970s to the personal desktop computer of the 1980s and 1990s, and towards the networked computing environment of the future.
His paper dubbed this third generation of computer systems 'ubiquitous computing', describing an integrated architecture of advanced computing devices, intelligent interface design, and anytime/anywhere data communications. At around the same time, Europe began promoting a similar vision to guide its research and development agenda. It adopted the term 'ambient intelligence' (coined by Emile Aarts of Philips), which was similar to the idea of ubiquitous computing but with more of an emphasis on human-centred computing.
While neither of these scenarios is a reality yet, the current proliferation of wireless devices and networks such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi is a sign that, despite significant technological challenges remaining, the future is not so far off. However, the example of the Internet, and in particular e-services, suggests that assuaging users' concerns on issues of privacy, security and trust (or confidentiality) will be key to the success of ambient intelligence.
Addressing these issues is a stated goal of EU policy. The provision of safeguards for ambient intelligence is an objective of both the IST priority and the broader Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), while both the eEurope 2005 and i2010 Action Plans call for a secure information infrastructure for Europe.
Helping to achieve this objective is the SWAMI project (safeguards in a world of ambient intelligence), funded under the information society technologies (IST priority of FP6. It aims to provide a state-of-the-art overview of existing projects, studies and roadmaps relating to ambient intelligence (AmI), analyse policy options through a process of scenario building, and make recommendations for future EU policy making in this area.
The project got underway in February 2005, and is due to run for 18 months in total. It brings together five European partner institutions, including the JRC's Institute for prospective technological studies (IPTS), under the coordination of the Fraunhofer Institute for systems and innovation research. In July, the partners published their draft state-of-the-art report, subject to final approval by the EU.
The report is unequivocal regarding the importance of safeguards for ambient intelligence: 'The success of ambient intelligence will depend on how secure it can be made, how privacy and other rights of individuals can be protected and, ultimately, how individuals can come to trust the intelligent world that surrounds them and through which they move,' it says.
The SWAMI partners see a future computing environment in which people are surrounded by easy-to-use interfaces imbedded in all kinds of objects, and an environment that is capable of recognising and responding to individuals in an unobtrusive and invisible way. However, as a recent roundtable of leading global security experts put it: 'Billions of devices that are always on and always connected [...] increase the complexity of our systems to the point where it is not possible to comprehend all of what we are using [...] we need to resolve issues of identity and authority when these devices conduct activities for people without human intervention, when no one is around to notice.' The same experts urged quick action to resolve these issues.
Security issues should be seen as enablers for the development of both ambient intelligence technologies and markets, according to the report. On the one hand, an awareness of security concerns will help to highlight various options that can be taken on board by projects of a scientific or technical nature. Equally, those seeking to develop new markets for ambient intelligence technologies will benefit from the ability to highlight security features in their marketing in much the same way that the automobile industry does at present.
Following an analysis of possible future scenarios, the report concludes that 'ambient intelligence technology violates most of [the] currently existing privacy-protecting borders'. For example, experiments in 'computer-supported collaborative work' using always-on video cameras to connect colleagues in different locations have already shown that people easily forget about them, threatening their personal privacy. The introduction of physiological sensors that are always attached (for health monitoring purposes, for example) could have the effect of making it impossible for a person to hide their true feelings, as these can be revealed through physiological changes. AmI could even have an impact on human nature, argue the partners, for instance by removing the need to develop one's memory or knowledge if technology can always provide a timely reminder or answer.
Based on their review of European projects in the field, the SWAMI partners identify a number of principles that can be applied to safeguards in ambient intelligence. For example, privacy considerations should be included in designs from the outset, rather than after an AmI technology has been developed or deployed; privacy enhancing technologies should be easy to use and understand; and the introduction of any new security measures should be assessed to determine whether they create insecurities elsewhere in the security chain.
On the crucial issue of generating user acceptance for ambient intelligence technologies, the report's authors wonder just how 'user-driven' many companies and industry associations are when creating new services and technologies, despite their claims. They suggest that in areas where companies collaborate, industry associations could conduct impact assessments and stakeholder consultations similar to those used by EU and some Member State institutions in order to allay public concerns about privacy, security and identity protection.
Ultimately, the report stresses that new technologies nearly always have the effect of changing personal expectations concerning privacy. While it is difficult to predict exactly how such privacy expectations may change with the introduction of ambient intelligence, the SWAMI partners point out that people's expectations are unlikely to change as quickly as the technology itself. 'Thus, one cannot help but wonder whether, in future, people will have secrets and whether it will ever be possible to be 'left alone',' they conclude.
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Remarks: The SWAMI partners would welcome comments on their draft state-of-the-art report