Bite-size computers not so hard to swallow

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The Independent Online
TALKING DOORKNOBS, ingestible computers and telephones that do not ring if there is nobody to answer them are the shape of new technology in the next 10 years, according to an Internet guru.

Professor Nicholas Negroponte, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory, made his predictions when addressing an audience in London yesterday.

He said: "You may wonder about how computing could possibly affect something like a doorknob. But if you think about it, an intelligent doorknob would be a really useful thing.

"You would not need keys: it could identify you by your fingerprints, and perhaps confirm your identity by asking a question, `What's your mother's maiden name?' for example."

The smart doorknob could also accept parcel deliveries - and perhaps sign digitally for them; "and maybe it could let the dog out, and then let it back in while keeping out the other nine dogs following it", he said.

The technology required to do that is already sufficiently miniaturised, he said, and could pervade our world. "We will have thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of embedded chips around us, all intercommunicating," he predicted.

Professor Negroponte, author of the book Being Digital, espouses the view that anything that can be expressed as computer "bits" - including words, images and sound - will eventually be transmitted in that form across the world, speeding deals and cutting costs.

As computers shrink and become pervasive over the next decade, the sort of information they can access will grow, he forecast. "If you want a really futuristic product for 10 years hence, you'll have computers that you eat, one per day. [They] will contain devices and sensors which will record all your anatomical measurements, what's going on inside you, and relay them to a black box that you wear on your belt. If it passes through you, no problem - swallow another."

Such systems would be invaluable to doctors, he said.

Professor Negroponte also foresees telephone handsets becoming smarter. "Phones should be built smart enough to know if there's nobody there. And if there is someone there, they should be able to answer them, like a good butler, and find out who is calling and why, and only then decide whether to get our attention."

But there are still some giant steps to be made for the average user of computers, he admitted. "Who would have believed, ten years ago, that big segments of the population would spend between pounds 1,000 and pounds 2,000 on their own computers - and that those machines would reduce people to tears once or twice a week?"