Page Two

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2004-10-25 Print this article Print

Nicholas Negroponte may have been among the first to talk about smart personal objects, with his scenarios of cufflinks and earrings communicating with each other: note well, with each other, not with the person wearing them. The crucial point is that Negroponte envisioned connecting devices, not to feed us more information—sports scores? seriously? —but rather, to reduce the glut of mostly irrelevant and largely undesired demands on our attention. For example, we might someday have telephones that act in concert with other devices to decide when to ring for any incoming call, when to filter out all but immediate family calls (the TV is showing a live event) and when to filter out all but emergency communications (theres weight on your side of the bed).
I want to emphasize, though, that this is immensely difficult to do in a way that doesnt add more annoyance and distraction to our lives than it subtracts. Ive recently had a chance to think about this challenge in concrete terms: Three weeks ago, I took delivery of a car that has a keyless entry system, using a transponder that can stay in my pocket but still let me unlock doors or start the engine just by pushing a button on a door or the dashboard. Its a reasonably smart sort of object, thanks to well-placed sensors and well-considered software: The feature is implemented well enough that my normally gadget-shunning wife actually likes it. Even so, its the subject of several paragraphs of warnings in the owners manual for the car.
The instructions cover special cases, such as trying to lock the doors by one method while accidentally holding the handle that unlocks them; they warn against potential mistakes like storing your transponder too close to the car, running down the batteries in the device. There are warning signals that the car will give you when you screw up: long beeps, double beeps, continuous beeps. And all of this is just for two variables: lock and unlock the doors, and start or dont start the engine. Imagine the combinatorial explosion of states and interactions that wed have in Nick Negropontes dream house. If we want to have larger constellations of objects doing much more interesting things, were going to have some studying to do. It takes a great deal of work to model the paths that users take through different states of intention and behavior, and to make sure that the right information is available to the system—but not too readily available to anyone else. After all, we wouldnt want to have a situation in which someone can go war driving through a neighborhood, interrogating the cyber-butlers and finding out which homes are unoccupied. If you think people are unhappy about the security leaks between their PCs and the Net, wait until they discover that their appliances are telling anyone whos interested about their owners personal habits. Developers can anticipate continued improvement in the hardware that makes these things possible. There are already plenty of ways for developers to get an early idea of new hardware capabilities, and to give each other reality checks on which things are ready to go to market, and which are still just Stupid Digital Tricks. For now, though, Im more interested in what it takes to put more intelligence in a development team—not a wristwatch. Tell me what kind of smarts youd like to see in the objects around you at To read more Peter Coffee, subscribe to eWEEK magazine. Check out eWEEK.coms Application Development Center for the latest news, reviews and analysis in programming environments and developer tools.

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Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developersÔÇÖ technical requirements on the companyÔÇÖs evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter companyÔÇÖs first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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