Gerald Q “Chip” Maguire
Always onlineIf Gerald Q. “Chip” Maguire’s vision of the future becomes reality, the way we interact with each other and with the devices around us will change dramatically. He thinks even ordinary telephones will soon become extinct.
The U.S.-born Maguire, a professor in the Department of Teleinformatics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, says the computer and communication devices in our future will come as “wearables,” small electronic devices in the shape of an earring or a button.
And, he predicts, the wearables themselves will prove too cumbersome; users will soon crave more.
If I think I always want it with me, then why not implant it?” Maguire asks casually, as if connecting a microchip to your body wouldn’t cause much fuss.
Well, perhaps it won’t, or at least it may not in the future. The future is what Maguire deals with on a daily basis, which could be one reason for his relaxed approach.
Another reason could be his sheer size. He’s well over six feet tall, with a beard proportional to his height. Few things seem likely to rock this gentle giant.
Maguire’s job is to research what kinds of data networks are necessary to enable the services provided by devices like wearables and implants. “We have to understand how the communication will go to and from people to be able to do the right design,” he says.
The challenge is building data networks for users who are always on the move. One way to identify the requirements is to try to foresee what the services will be. To that end, Maguire and two fellow researchers developed the Smart Badge. This is a small portable unit that communicates via a wireless local area network (WLAN) using Internet Protocol (IP).
To show what it looks like, Maguire produces a fabric pouch. He finds it easily, although his office looks just as you would expect an information technology professor’s room to look. Shelves are piled with electronic equipment; the desk is covered with files, brochures and sundries.
From the pouch he pulls a circuit board the size of a typical ID badge and points out the components: processor, tilt sensor, sensors for temperature, humidity and light, audio in and audio out. The Smart Badge uses infrared light to reach the local area network.
The unit is one of 50 prototypes built in 1997 and financed out of Maguire’s pocket. It and later prototypes were made possible only with significant help from his research partners, who contributed their time and some parts.
“It meant I didn’t have to do a lot of paperwork to get the project going,” Maguire says with smile, referring to the bureaucracy of research funding and his general attitude toward paperwork. Maguire avoids paper documents. If he gets something on paper, it goes straight into the scanner for digitalization. Then he stores it so he can access it from a computer wherever he may be.
That’s in keeping with a digital lifestyle that Maguire has developed, partly to keep his family together. He’s in Stockholm and his wife, also a professor, lives in New York. The couple even has networked cameras in both apartments. “We’re a two-workstation family,” Maguire says.
But what can you actually do with the Smart Badge? Maguire decided to pass that key question on to his students. As their answers suggest, when a computer knows who you are and where you are, a lot can happen.
For example, your computer knows it’s you sitting down in front of it and retrieves your documents and personal settings before you even touch it. The copying machine automatically charges the copies you make to your account.
When you visit a hotel, you don’t have to check in at the reception desk. As soon as you walk in, the in-house computer knows you have arrived and guides you in your own language to your room. When you get there, it opens the door for you and lets you in. The heating and ventilation are adjusted to suit your pre-selected preferences.
The latest generation of Smart Badge, expected to be ready this year, will use a wireless LAN to communicate with the network.
It also will be equipped with a Compact Flash Card, an accessory that could be used to attach a GPS receiver (Global Positioning System, used to determine the location of an object or person) or some other device.
If the network cells are small enough to keep power requirements down, the transmission speed would be enough to permanently surf the Internet. Speed would vary depending on the location, but it would be fast enough to support CD-quality radio or streaming video with the network technology available today. A wireless LAN can handle 8 to 11 megabytes per second, far more than a GSM mobile telephone system can offer. Even outdoors there would be coverage, although available bandwidth would depend on how radio systems evolve.
If you were always online, possibly with an earphone and display screen mounted in a pair of glasses, walking down the street would never be the same again. If you passed a shop that sells something matching your pre-defined personal profile, the product would be presented to you both on screen and in the earphone. If a potential partner (based on your personal profile) crossed your path, a light would flash on his or her “wearable” to give you a chance to introduce yourselves.
As Maguire describes the communication technologies of the future, the enthusiasm and optimism in his eyes intensifies. But his fascination with the opportunities is tempered by the risks, some involving privacy. An online personal profile is one example. Will it always be protected? Should Big Brother be allowed to know your current location?
“I don’t think governments should know that, except under very special circumstances,” says Maguire.
The issue gets even more sensitive when we speak of the next possible step – computers implanted into the human body. Assume that it is possible for a computer to communicate directly with the body’s brain and nervous system. Once such direct access has become an integral part of someone’s body, who has the right to remove or modify it?
Maguire encourages debate on the ethics regarding these issues, although he notes that it will be at least 20 to 30 years before computer implants that communicate with the brain become reality. Meanwhile, he concentrates on the development of data networks and on teaching.
“I’m a third-generation teacher. I was brought up to be a teacher,” he says with a serious tone. “That’s why I’m at a university and not at a company.”
And serious about his teaching he must be. The worst bottleneck for digital development, he believes, is the lack of people with the right education and imagination.
Åke R. Malm
managing editor of Evolution
photos Camilla Sjödin