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Little Brother will watch you!

Of some interest to the list.


Electric Dreams
Weekly column for The Asian Age by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh
#30, 26/September/1994: Lamplighters in cyberspace

After diving into cyberspace for a while, people are often
relieved to temporarily return to brickspace - which is
what I call the 'real world'. On the other hand, it would
be nice if the knowbots and electronic agents that will
one day cater to all your information needs could do the
same for your lights and thermostat. Maybe they could
learn your personal lighting preferences for different
hours of the day, and adapt to your activities and moods.
Technology is a decorated excuse for laziness.

When you have the information superhighway at your
doorstep, why not invite it inside? Let software reach
beyond the World Wide Web into the World Wide Lamplighter,
let programs change more than your accounts or your
photographs, and you've opened up a whole new area of
information technology - appliance control.

Gadgets have been controlled by computers long before the
infobahn was even dreamt of. Large, cumbersome gadgets
that manufacture jet engines or process iron to steel. But
your bedside lamp still waits for you to turn it off.
Appliance control devices basically help you turn your
bedside lamp off for you - they control the resistance in
a light dimmer, or the current to a motor that opens a
door, or the thermostat of an air conditioner. Appliance
control devices are themselves controlled by software. The
software could come from anywhere - even an electronic
network. Cyberspace meets refrigerators.

Appliance controllers could be attached to everything. One
for each lamp, power point, door, window shade and chair
leg. All the controllers will be networked, so that they
can talk to each other, to the set-top box on an
interactive TV or to a notebook computer at the other end
of the world. To intelligent agents, the digital butlers
trained to learn your preferences as you work in the realm
of information, talking to an appliance controller would
be as natural as searching for a book in an electronic
library. Feedback sensors associated with appliances could
inform the agents how you like your pizza, or when to
darken the room as you fall asleep, reading. They would
also switch things of as you leave the room, saving you
the trouble as well as the pangs of guilt. Of course it
would be like living not with Big Brother, but dozens of
little Lilliputian ones, watching, listening and working
for you.

To realize this dream, in 1988, Apple Computer co-founder
Mike Markkula started Echelon, a company to promote and
manufacture networked appliance controllers. Echelon's
controller, the Neuron chip, is a little device that talks
to the universe through radio. Echelon hopes that its
product will become the standard and start appearing just
everywhere, but for the moment the major market is
industrial. Manufacturers long used to computers
controlling devices that build cars and trains are
beginning to place appliance controllers within them.

A Motorola study suggests that the average home in the
year 2000 will have a little under 250 controller chips,
but currently homes have only 50 or so, mainly in VCRs,
microwave ovens and other hi-tech devices. So until twenty-
first century consumers are ready for synchronized lights
that turn on as you enter the room, and are willing to
trust the complex software that will drive large
controller networks, cyberspace pioneers will just have to
dream on.

Blurring the boundaries between cyberspace and brickspace,
between information and reality, appliance control devices
and networks can greatly increase the efficiency of
living. They can save energy, improve security, and make
you feel quite pampered in a comfortable home. Unless,
that is, your sulking apartment refuses to let you in.

Rishab Aiyer Ghosh is a freelance technology consultant
and writer. You can reach him through voice mail (+91 11
3760335) or e-mail ([email protected]).
--====(C) Copyright 1994 Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved====--
 This article may be redistributed in electronic form only, provided 
 that the article and this notice remain intact. This article may not 
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