Intel CTO looks ahead to “context-aware” future

“Context-aware” computing could be the next revolution in computing devices, according to Intel CTO Justin Rattner.

In the closing address of the 2010 Intel Developer Forum, he predicted that future devices would make use not only of “hard sensing” – direct input from accelerometers, cameras and so forth – but also “soft sensing”, based on user data such as diary entries, web histories and the contents of personal documents.

He even suggested that, in a few years’ time, computers might be able to monitor our brains directly to determine our moods and desires. “That’s one for IDF 2020,” he joked.

What context can do

To demonstrate the potential of context, Rattner called first on Tim Jarrell, vice president of Fodor’s Travel Publications. Jarrell demonstrated how a mobile device could combine information about its user’s interests with location-specific information to act as a personalised holiday guide.

Contextual computing vs. privacy

Rattner acknowledged in his speech that the data generated and used by contextual computing would be highly personal, and would need to be tightly controlled. But will commercial service providers voluntarily give up the chance to exploit the data? Strict legal and technical protections may be needed before contextual computing services can be trusted.

Rattner was later joined by Intel engineer Lana Nachman, who showed how such a system might work in a home or work context. One example was a mobile phone which, by combining “hard” and “soft” input, could detect when the owner was likely to be driving, or in a meeting. It could then adjust its behaviour based on the user’s past actions, such as automatically switching to silent mode or diverting phone calls to voicemail.

Cross-device context

Rattner emphasised that his vision of context was not device-specific.

“We really want context to transcend devices,” he explained, “so as you move from the TV to your car, or you’re walking around with your phone, your context goes with you.”

To achieve this, he envisaged a cloud-based model, where personal information was stored on a remote server and shared across all registered devices. He acknowledged, though, that such a model would require a “release” policy, allowing the user to control what information was shared and when it would expire.

Intel fellow Genevieve Bell, joining Rattner on stage, confirmed that context would be a major long-term technology shift:

“Context is what will distinguish the current generation of ‘smart’ devices from the next generation – which will be even smarter,” she declared.

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