The Next Wave
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Image by Andrew Pelling
The atomic-force microscope, modeled here,
is fast becoming a valuable PC-driven R&D tool used in everything
from metallurgy and nanoengineering to the physical and life sciences.
It works by measuring atomic-scale forces between the ultra-sensitive
tip of its cantilevered probe and the object being studied.
The beginnings of how
this personal and spatial computer interface is being reshaped can be
seen in the proliferation of wireless ports for PCs at cafes; the extensive
public surveillance systems dotting metropolises like New York and London;
and the growing use of wireless “Blackberry” devices that
can send out beacons in a crowded area, allowing people to find each other.
But the most visible examples come from the household domain: smart homes
that have refrigerators and washing machines with remote Internet connections
for maintenance access; microwave ovens with integrated Web-pads; even
instrumented coffee pots and clothes.
PerC will revolutionize our lives in a number of ways.
Think of the millions of baby-boomers, many of them ailing or living on
their own — PerC devices will make it possible for relatives to
monitor whether they’ve taken their medications or, indeed, eaten
Or think of a crisis such as the one following 9/11,
when emergency-response systems in Los Angeles were overloaded and campus
e-mail badly jammed. With PerC, information about evacuation and safety
could be available to anyone with basic wireless access.
But PerC isn’t without serious ethical issues,
such as the use of biometric scanning to ascertain people’s identities
and then matching the data to relevant financial, marketing or criminal
databases. Whether or not PerC eventually comes to be seen in a positive
light will be the subject of great intellectual interest over the coming
decade, predicts Cuff, who is also a professor in the Department of Architecture
and Urban Design. Meanwhile, she and her colleagues have the challenging
task of acting as a bridge between what Cuff describes as “privacy
activists wary of every new technology and technologists who rarely recognize
the ethical issues their work embodies from the very outset.”
Ajay Singh is a senior writer for UCLA Magazine.