Virtual world will soon become reality

“Virtual” nursing homes, where the health of elderly people living at home is monitored remotely, and roads with only driverless cars could be a reality sooner than previously thought, Scottish scientists have claimed.

Cars with drivers will become problems as more driverless vehicles appear. Picture: AFP/Getty

The increasing use of the web in day-to-day life is helping to speed the arrival of the “Internet of Things” – where a large number of objects are connected in a “smart” society.

Connectivity is aiding the rise of smart machines, where everyday objects, such as washing machines, central heating boilers and cars, will use the web to connect with users and with each other to operate efficiently and smartly.

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Artificial intelligence (AI), where computers can take over everyday tasks for humans – in its infancy with “virtual assistants” such as Apple’s Siri function on the iPhone – is also on the cusp of commercialisation, experts said.

David Robertson, professor of applied logic at Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics, will join Dr Gautam Shroff, chief scientist for Tata Consultancy Services Research in India, in an exploration of artificial intelligence at the Edinburgh International Science Festival 
tomorrow.

Prof Robertson said that computers were already on a par with humans in performing routine tasks.

“Artificial intelligence is not a new concept, but we are at the stage of making big developments in smart machines – and the new ingredient in the mix is us,” he said.

“People are connected across the globe like never before, and society is becoming part of the solution to the challenge of developing ever-smarter technologies and tools.”

He said that technologies such as driverless cars could be adopted quickly as the technology begins to emerge.

“A lot of it depends on how society adopts and embeds the technology,” Prof Robertson said. “Once you have some driverless cars on a road, it makes it hard if there are still some with drivers. So that could change very quickly.”

However, concerns have been raised about privacy issues surrounding the Internet of Things as more and more data about individuals becomes available online.

“Because you can tell so much from the bits of data people leave around the internet, it is starting to break down a lot of the privacy barriers that we held dear in the good old days,” said Prof Robertson.

However, he insisted that the technology could bring many benefits, arguing that healthcare and coping with an ageing population could be a major use of the Internet of Things.

“It will be necessary because there will be so many people that there will not be room for in hospitals or care homes,” he said. “Apps could monitor things like if they’re moving normally or suddenly go very still, or even their heart rate.”

Edinburgh-based entrepreneur Simon Montford, who is holding a conference about the Internet of Things, called 
IOTEDI (Internet of Things Edinburgh), in the Scottish capital at the end of next month, said that the “new” internet could transform day-to-day life.

“Connectivity will become the default,” he said. “No matter whether it is a high-value industrial asset like a wind turbine, or a fridge freezer, they will all be connected as standard. In the future, AI assistants will monitor things like energy deals and shopping prices – humans will no longer need to do it themselves.”