Now for the mobile phone call that can tell when food has gone off in the fridge

STRESS from e-mail overload is just the tip of the iceberg with a future in which we will become swamped by increasingly intelligent household equipment trying to contact us, an expert has predicted.

Professor Paddy Nixon, who is giving the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Science and Society Lecture today, warns demands on our time could be taken up by pervasive technology aimed at enhancing our lives.

Prof Nixon, of the University of Strathclyde’s department of computer and information sciences, said that, while many of us are struggling to cope with intrusions from mobile phones and e-mails clogging up our inbox, the day is not far away when we will be receiving information from the fridge that our food is out of date.

He said: "There is a fundamental shift in technology, with it increasingly being applied to wider aspects of our lives. For instance, it can be used for paint that we put on walls, with applications telling us when there are cracks in the building.

"The computer will no longer just be the box on our desk, with a keyboard and mouse, and everything will involve interactive devices.

"There are lots of positive aspects to developments, such as care in the community of the elderly and infirm. For instance, people do not want cameras in their bathroom, but pressure sensors could tell us if they fall after information is put in so they understand the difference between somebody standing up and somebody lying down.

"Radio frequency identifiers are currently used to set off an alarm if someone walks out of a shop with a CD they have not paid for. These could be stuck on other things, they only cost about a penny, so that if you put a tin in the fridge, the fridge could then relay information about when it is out of date, or when the food is going off, as it would be able to tell how long the tin had been open for.

"The information could be received through e-mails or mobile phones, or even through interactive tables in coffee shops, and people could carry around chips in credit cards to access it. The company Intel already has the view that we will have our own personal server, a tiny disc containing all the information of our life on it.

"However, there would need to be a fundamental design of the information technology structure, as the fundamental architecture that today’s technology is built on would not be able to cope with such a level of complexity. And also there is the issue of ensuring privacy to stop a world of sensors and computers sounding like Big Brother."

Prof Nixon will say that one of the important factors in emerging technology is that we are not bombarded with information at inappropriate times, such as being told food in our fridge is out of date when we are in a meeting with our boss.

He said: "In the next ten years, I see a complete change in the map of information technology, and certainly in the next five years we will see big changes in the multifunctions of mobile phones. Already in America, every phone has to contain a global positioning system, meant to help emergency services locate callers.

"And my vision for 2020, as a computer scientist, would be to see a world where the computer as we know it has disappeared, as I do not like being tied to the desk, but if everything is embedded with microchips that you can access then it does not matter where you are."

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