C3 The Ubiquitous Computer


This chapter describes how miniaturization has led to the computer becoming embedded into a variety of electronic and mechanical devices. Examples discussed in this section include: RFID tags, computers used for the monitoring of the infirm or elderly, wearable computers (I use the example of spectacles developed by the company NEC and RFID tags), computers used in science, and the convergence that is occurring between the phone, the MP3 player (iPod), and the computer (the example I use is that of health applications being implemented on the iPhone).

There is a temptation to see the computer just as something that occupies your desk or as a laptop which you lug around on your travels. I would hope that this chapter would provide you with enough information that shows, for example, that as you sit at your desktop computer you are surrounded with a number of other computers, for example those in your television, TV recorder and cooker.

I also discuss the crisis that science is undergoing with respect to the computer. The point has been reached where I believe that both software and data from published scientific experiments should be released and that we should not just rely on the contents of academic papers for reproducibility; subject of course to any intellectual property rights. For the record all my non-industrial software from the last ten years is available.

Chapter Links

Supplementary Links

  • The book Spy in the Coffee Machine can be found at Amazon here.
  • A BBC news story on the NEC spectacles, a form of virtual reality.
  • A BBC news story on the ship tracking technology.
  • The University of California study on information overload.
  • An early article on the privacy aspects of RFID tags.
  • David Pogue’s article on health apps.
  • More on the Pan-STARRS telescope.
  • More on the Australian National Data Service (ANDS).
  • A book on Jim Gray’s ideas. It contains a series of essays. It is free and can be downloaded from this page either in its entirety or by chapter. I found it an excellent read. One of my gaps in knowledge is of scientific computing and this provided an excellent introduction. It is rather technical. If you want an overview then a chapter of the book based on a transcript of a talk that Gray gave before his death would be the best part to read.
  • Wearable computing is an interesting sub-branch of the ubiquitous computing area. It has gone very quiet recently. Here’s an example of the computer in the underpants. Here’s an example of wearable computers in the battlefield. The International Symposium on Wearable Computers is the yearly showcase for research in this area. This was the programme for 2011. You can explore many applications just by googling the names of the participants.

Blog Posts

Citizen science

In this chapter I described how scientific data is becoming more and more available through the Internet. This has meant that scientists now have access to huge amounts of data. Clearly that provides major problems; however, one of the spin-offs is that it has enabled non-academic researchers access to both data and tools and empowered them to carry out research. I recently wrote an article for the Times Higher Education Supplement on this phenomenon of citizen science. Staff writers at the THES added a number of amazing case studies of non-academics achieving so much.

Climategate – the Last Act

I regard the Climategate incident as one of the most important events to hit science over the last twenty years.  If you want to read the full story this is a history from Fred Pearce taken from a number of his articles and a longer history again from the Guardian. It is important, not because it showed the East Anglia scientists to be fraudulent- an independent scientific inquiry certainly cleared them of this; but it shows the real problems that large computer-generated data sets have.

Recently the Information Commissioner asked the University of East Anglia to hand over the last data set that they had. This surprised me as some of the data in the set was proprietary and I assumed that the University had a solid case. This seems to be the last act in this saga.

This incident is now over. However, the impact means that scientists, certainly in the United Kingdom, have become aware of the technical challenges of maintaining large data sets and the exigencies of the legal framework that determine the conditions under which they are released.


One of the major trends over the last few years is that of the convergence between the computer, the MP3 player and the mobile phone. An example of this is given in the book of the use of medical programs using the iPhone. For example, if you look at the facilities provided by a smart phone and an MP3 player there is quite a degree of overlap. This should continue over the next few years with the standardisation of operating systems. One particular example of this is the Android operating system that is embedded within phones and small computers known as tablets. The latter are a cut-down version of a computer and offer the user the ability to carry out tasks such as emailing, browsing, keeping contacts and maintaining a calendar. We are approaching the day when there will be little difference between the mobile phone and the computer apart, of course, from size. This is an interesting article on convergence from Forbes Magazine. It’s four years old but there are still some interesting things in it. Here’s a more recent article.

Natural Language and the Medical World

In this chapter I describe the increasing crisis in science where, over the last decade, there has been a major explosion in data, software and research publications. The explosion of the latter being particularly serious; researchers just don’t have the time to scan all the research results associated with their specialism.

A technology known as natural language processing has come to the rescue of cancer researchers.  Natural language research has a long pedigree: it involves developing computer programs that access free text, for example the text of a newspaper article or research paper, and then tries to understand what the text means. One application of natural language processing is to reduce long texts to a much smaller text which still contain the essential message of the former. Another application is that of trying to understand the text in some way.

Researchers at Cambridge University have developed a system that ‘reads’ medical papers and tries to understand them. Already there seems to have been a major breakthrough. Here’s the link to a Daily Telegraph story.

If you are interested in reading further this web site is a good start.

The Bionic Lens

I came across this article in IEEE Spectrum on the use of bionic contact lenses. A recent BBC article can be found here. I was amazed at the ingenuity of the researchers.  The BBC article tends to concentrate on the science fiction aspects of the lens (think Terminator), but it is worth looking at the IEEE Spectrum article for some very serious health applications.

Not the Final Act

In a previous post I stated that the final act of the hack on the University of East Anglia server seemed to have occurred. I was wrong. There was a further release of emails a few days ago. See here for a description.  I have not read though any of the emails, but have noticed in the media coverage that there are many more to be released. One interesting aspect of this this is the fact that over two days 1.8m web references (retrieved by a Google search) have been generated. Again an indication of how news has become viral.

Minority Report Coming Closer

Some of you may remember the film Minority Report.  It was based on a story by the science fiction writer Phillip K Dick.  I thought it an excellent film.  A few of the scenes involved the character played by Tom Cruise using hand gestures to control a computer. This idea is now coming alive. Microsoft has developed an interface based on their Kinect technology.  MIT researchers have already worked on this problem earlier, so it may be coming to a computer near you soon. My suspicion is that it may surface in the future first with tablet technology, where a mouse tends not to be used and where users touch a screen.  I find using hand contact a little awkward so this could be the answer.

Pissing up the Wall. The Next Challenge for Windows

One of the sources of information for the blog entries that I write is Google Alerts. This is an excellent tool for letting you know when a topic of interest has come up over a specified period (I ask for the previous day’s results). It works by keyword search, for example if I wanted to find out about entries on the web about autism research I would type in the words ‘autism’ and ‘research’. However, I was defeated yesterday in that a major news item occurred which I hadn’t catered for. If only I had put in the keywords ‘urinal’ and ‘computer game’.

It seems there is a public house in Balham that is trialling a computer game attached to a urinal where the movement of the game is not controlled by a mouse or some kinetic means, but by the flow of urine. Here’s the BBC coverage. It has also attracted the attention of newspapers not normally associated with cutting edge technology and science coverage, here for example (I love the headline.’The snowboarding game that really makes a splash’). It clearly has a serious intent: to reduce the amount of unpleasant cleaning that a pub has to carry out.  There are, however, a number of points worth making:

  • First I wonder whether there will be some disappointed punters who fail on the game and then leave the pub immediately. Perhaps a cheering final message such as ‘nice try big boy’ would cheer them up to the extent that they would remain in the pub, buy a drink and bask in some priapic glory.
  • It represents the conquest of the final frontier of ubiquitous computing. Is there anywhere else the computer can go? Probably best not to think about this.
  • Does it represent an endpoint to urino-technocentricity? Is there, perhaps, scope for multi-player games?
  • I notice in the BBC article there was scope for a female version.
  • It brings to the fore a little-known, very pleasant part of London known as Balham. This has suffered from an appalling comedy sketch narrated by Peter Sellers. The fightback for Balham begins!

We know what you are doing

The blogosphere is buzzing with news and views about software that seems to be embedded in smartphones that is capable of monitoring your use of the phone. Here’s an article from Fox News. Here’s the take of a writer for The Daily Beast.  I did not have much space to discuss privacy in the book apart from RFID tags. This is a related example to that.

Give the Razor Away and Sell the Razor Blades

The Kindle Fire has arrived. It’s a tablet computer that is being sold by Amazon and acts as a sort of electronic front-of-house to Amazon offerings and functions as an Android tablet computer. There are two interesting features of the Fire. The first is that it is cheap. Amazon has priced it assuming that it will drive more sales of books, DVDs etc. This is an example of the old sales strategy: ‘give the razor away and sell the razor blades’, where the profit was made on the latter. It’s an example of freebie marketing.

The second interesting feature is that it completes the transformation of Amazon from simple online store to a hugely vertically integrated company that publishes, sells and provides a shop window.  For an easy-to-understand description of what vertical integration catch this article in The Economist. Although it discusses the concept in terms of two companies integrating it can easily be applied to one company such as Amazon which grows upwards and downwards along the supply chain.  A year ago I was asked who were going to be the three giants of the early 21st century. I replied: Google, Apple and Microsoft. Amazon needs to be added to this list.

The Dark Internet

There’s an interesting article on the BBC business news site. It describes a secret part of the Internet not indexed by the search engines and used mainly for criminal activity. I was genuinely surprised by this as I thought the whole of the web was indexed.

The Release of Computer Programs

Along with two colleagues I have published a paper in the science journal Nature that makes a case for the release of program code to other researchers. It’s not as technical as you think it is. Here’s the link.

Blogs and Spam

This blog has been going since late November 2011. During this time I have got comments which have very little to do with the content; the latest concerned an advert for an electronic cigarette that would enable a tobacco addict to give up. Happily I have configured my blog so that I have to OK any comments before they are published. If any of you are keen to set up a blog then I would advise you to do the same.

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