IBM Research Envisions Pervasive Computing

An IBM official at the Microprocessor Forum 2000 conference inn San Jose, California Tuesday presented a vision of "pervasive computing" that could entail computerising everything from refrigerators to earrings, and may require application of quantum mechanics and atomic physics to develop the storage and processing technology needed in tiny devices.

Detailing the evolution of computers from mainframes to time-sharing, and to personal computing and personal digital assistants, IBM's Dr. Robert Morris, vice president of personal systems and storage and director of the company's San Jose-based Almaden Research Lab, said pervasive computing would involve the same fundamental breakthrough in user experience that the browser brought to the Internet.

For example, Morris cited how PDA's were not widely used until they became more user-friendly. "It wasn't until we built smaller systems with a lot more power that we began to get adoption," Morris said.

Morris said communications technology, particularly broadband wireless, has lagged behind storage and processing. "We're already seeing [that] processors and storage [have] out-run communications," Morris said. But he added, "All I need to overcome the limitations of communications is storage."

Morris detailed a vision in which people could get messages on their refrigerators, or wear a jewelry combination in which a ring flashes when a message is received and the message is displayed on a bracelet or heard on an earring.

To provide the needed storage and power for its pervasive computing plan, IBM is working in its labs with concepts deployed in quantum mechanics and atomic physics to develop tiny systems with vast computing power, Morris said.

"Think of an n-bit quantum computer," Morris said. "I'd like to think about pervasive computing so that I might have a pervasive device that is not only a killer app, but a lifesaver," he added.

Jerry Coffin, a conference attendee and software analyst at Colorado Springs-based Taeus, a patent enforcement investigation company, said Morris's vision presented good technology, but that he disagreed with some aspects, such as Morris's contention that quantum computing could negatively impact RSA security.

Asked if pervasive computing could become invasive computing, Coffin noted there would be tradeoffs. "Being able to find out about DNA could lead to invasion of privacy but leads to faster treatment in emergency rooms," Coffin said.

Morris noted that culture will play into the deployment of technology. "There are amazing challenges around data replication and usability," including cultural challenges, Morris said. For instance, in Japan, it is impolite to speak on cell phones on a train but OK to send text messages, he said.

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