HSE Horizon Scanning Initiative. July 2006.
In our view computing and sensing devices will soon be small and cheap enough to make their integration into the environment commonplace. Connectivity will probably be based on radio waves (WiFi) using internet service protocols. Reliability issues could give rise to liabilities, on the other hand, better control of the environment and operating systems could reduce liabilities.
HSE use the term to describe the embedding or integrating of computers into the environment so as to increase access to computing power and to allow occupants to interact more efficiently with the environment and control systems. Other suitable terms might be ‘ambient intelligence’ or, ‘distributed computing’. Current examples include GPS navigation, tracking devices for subsurface glacial flow, and location tags on packages in storage and, parts in assembly.
Wireless communications allow ready interfacing of user and devices.
The technology will increase exposures to radiofrequency emfs and although most probably harmless there could be public concern about this.
More problematic would be breaches of security, fraud, sabotage and organised crime. At a personal level, the psychological effects of being continuously monitored may not be good for everyone.
Data errors could give rise to liabilities. It may be that use of ambient intelligence reduces data and action errors or, if the technology is vulnerable, reliance on it could increase them.
The likelihood of direct physical harm from WiFi technology is very low indeed but a thermal event could occur if power is absorbed very efficiently by something in proximity to a transmitter. It is likely however, that the ambient intelligence devices would be passive, deriving their energy from radio waves or turning off when not being interrogated.
There are two firms in the US specialising in the manufacture of distributable environmental sensors.
Distributed (cheap) sensors would improve exposure assessment in epidemiology and would allow rapid detection of high exposure events at work.