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BLOG: The rise of the machines and the internet of things

AvantiKumar | April 25, 2011
The field of brain-computer interface (BCI) reaches a practical stage.


I was recently reminded of a quote while reading a piece in the UK's Observer that 'those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make infatuated with their own ingenuity.' 

In the last three to four years, the hazy notion of the internet of things - where devices such as monitoring, transport and humdrum domestic appliances - join humans and tradition IT tools in a connected 'intelligent' network.  One of the drivers behind this is that sensors and actuators are increasingly being embedded in physical objects - from phones to roadways to pacemakers - which are linked via the internet. A recent report from consultancy firm McKinsey talked that when 'objects sense the environment as well as are able to communicate, they become tools for understanding complexity and responding to it swiftly.

What's revolutionary in all this is that these physical information systems are now beginning to be deployed, and some of them even work largely without human intervention.'

In industry, the possibilities afforded by the internet of things include the utility industries, such as electricity. Utility companies around the world are now installing smart meters. In the world of motor vehicles, the S-class Mercedes, I am told, has more than 20 million lines of computer programme code to help control many up the functions; and of course can be connected wirelessly to the internet.

It seems as if nirvana is complete when chips can also be installed into the human organism. Our brain-body machine, after all, according to the visionaries is driven by minute electrical charges. I was intrigued and slightly alarmed by a new technology called BrainGate. Its founder, John Donoghue said the technology helped paraplegics move their limbs by thought. Yes, you read that right. A demonstration showed a robotic arm, controlled by a completely paralysed woman in a wheelchair, pick up a glass and swung it over a series of coloured dots that resembled a Twister gameboard.  We have now entered the amazing era of the brain-computer interface (BCI): it's a branch of science that is trying to merge computers with the human brain.

On the whole, such things will be welcomed, rightly, especially by those whose minds are trapped inside bodies that can no longer move. The technology plugs into the brain, picks up neural signals and than translated these into actions through the intervention of our friendly computer.

The human computer - the brain - speaks in a language comprising electronic impulses controlled by billions of neurons. Biological computer meets man-made computer. We are on the road to a new age when we can walk around with an artificial brain system filled with connectors and chips. But there is the other side: right now, our brains control our computer (we won't go into the lengthy topic of who controls our brain) but will there come a time when we won't be able to tell the difference between man-made and natural machines?

AvantiKumar covers the ICT industry in Malaysia as Fairfax's Country Correspondent for Fairfax Technology Brands & Deputy Editor, Computerworld Malaysia.


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