POWER IN OUR HANDS
The smartphone has become the gateway between you and the world.”
associate professor with the science and engineering faculty of the Queensland University of Technology Karl Wilson
There was a famous ad campaign once for American Express that used the phrase: “Don’t leave home without it.”
When credit cards were introduced, the little pieces of plastic that slip so neatly into the wallet or purse helped to replace cash in our pockets.
Today, our smartphone could well be advertised as something “you can’t leave home without”.
Not all that long ago, phones were simple handheld devices that allowed us to make and receive calls. But now, smartphones have become indispensable to our lives.
Sensors in our phones allow us to take videos and pictures, navigate where we are going, locate people and read our heart rate, among many other things. Every day, apps are being produced for just about everything, and there is no end in sight.
Richard Yu, CEO of the consumer business group with Chinese telecom giant Huawei, said in a speech last year that the next generation of smartphones will see the relationship between the phone and human beings become “even closer, evolving towards a synthesis of man with his world”.
Yu said the next-generation phone will be the “superphone” and predicted that we should see it around 2020.
“The superphone will be a living organism, like our families and friends, recording our behaviors and habits, and understanding our likes and preferences.”
He said that through the development of sensors such as object recognition technology and 3D scanning, the superphone will “enhance its perception of humans, objects and the environment, creating a virtual reality which mirrors the physical world”.
“In fact, many sensor technologies are similar to the senses of humans and animals. In the future, gustatory sensors will be able to differentiate tastes, and auditory sensors integrated with artificial intelligence will be able to identify the source and distance of sounds,” Yu said.
Dian Tjondronegoro, an associate professor with the science and engineering faculty of the Queensland University of Technology, said: “Sensors are taking us to a whole new level.
“The smartphone has become the gateway between you and the world.”
The technology website Venture-Beat said that each sensor opens the door to new possibilities.
“Chemists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently developed a smartphone sensor that detects when food has gone bad,” the website said.
“Imagine using your phone to check if the rotisserie chicken you brought home three days ago is still safe?”
The article went on to explain that sensors collect raw data that make our phones more aware, and putting that data to use requires machine learning.
“By searching for patterns in the data, intelligent apps can figure out whether you are tall or short and even guess at gender. It may sound spooky at first, but not so when you consider how useful apps will become.”
The most intelligent apps will use sensor-based data to provide contextual information.
Fitness apps, such as Fitbit, track how fast and how far you are walking or running. And many apps such as OpenTable for reserving restaurants and Uber for transport use GPS as their main component to serve information based on the user’s location.
Some apps today are even crowd-sourcing sensor data for traffic and weather forecasts.
Tjondronegoro said nobody predicted that smartphones would become smarter and smarter.
“They are no longer just devices used to talk to one another with. They have become the gateway to virtually everything we do.
“They tell us when to get up, what we are going to do, who we are going to meet, how to get to places, they entertain and inform, they have replaced wallets and the list goes on and on. Even in health they are becoming indispensable.”
According to Marcel Fenez, president of the Hong Kong consultancy Fenez Media, the consumer will think “smartphone first and last for every aspect of his or her life”.
“Every consumer activity will be supplementary to smartphone communications. If we think of any critical aspect of our lives, whether it be health or simply getting from point A to point B, it will be facilitated by smartphone technology.” Fenez said location-based services are key to the new mobile world.
“So much of this is already in place, and over the next few years the kinks in those services such as consumer concerns over intrusiveness, privacy and trust will be resolved so that adoption becomes universal.”
On a macro level, Fenez believes that a strong smartphone ecosystem is key for urban planners at all levels in their quest to be the “smart cities” of the future, “with government services and security systems access already interlinked”.
On a day-to-day basis, Fenez observed that for many people health is already being monitored through wearable technology that checks vital signs to provide warnings to medical workers and reminds them to take medication.
Meanwhile, the ground has already been cleared for the widespread adoption of digital wallets, for third-party payments and peer-to-peer transfers.
“Smartphone commerce and all banking services are already central to so many areas of economic growth,” Fenez said.
The concept of a “digital home gateway” has long been promoted as a key access point for all communications entering domestic premises: Delivering telecoms, data and video to homes via a single set-top box, modem or router, Fenez said.
Tjondronegoro said the rise of the Internet of Things, a network of physical objects linked through online connectivity and big data, has given “all of us an incredible insight into everything we do in our daily lives”.
“This is leading to selfquantification technologies that will enable us to not only better manage our health but our daily lives as well.
“What started out as a concept has now become a movement, and our smartphone will be at the center of it,” he said.
The tech magazine Wired said the self-quantification trend of monitoring exercise and daily routines will evolve beyond physical health to “encompass all aspects of people’s daily lives, including time spent at work”.
“Just as individual consumers have embraced wellness self-quantification data, including minutes spent moving and calories consumed, employees will embrace technologies, such as people analytics, at work to better inform individual and team performance trends.”
The magazine said that data gleaned through feedback and people analytics technologies will provide “unprecedented insights around workplace habits, including time spent on e-mail, collaborating with others, walking to meetings and even chatting with coworkers”.
Today’s top-end devices already carry massive processing power and at least 128 GB of storage space, supporting high-definition video displays.
According to Gartner, a technology research and advisory company, 1.5 billion smartphones are expected to be sold worldwide this year, 7 percent more than last year.
Most of us take for granted the things we can do with our phones. But where does all that data our phone collects on us end up? “That is the big question,” Tjondronegoro said. “The problem for the future is not so much what is on your phone but what it is connected to and who has access to it … and that is the scary part.”
This was something Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, touched on at the World Business Forum in Sydney in May.
He was asked about who we should trust when it comes to our data: The companies or government?
Negroponte referred to the recent court case in the United States, in which the FBI tried to force Apple to unlock an iPhone used by an assailant in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, last year.
The FBI abandoned the case, but as Negroponte pointed out: “What interested me is Apple said it would not open the phone, which is very different to could not. Would not means you can, but will not, which means we have to trust them (enterprises) more than government. And that bothers me.”
Contact the writer at karlwilson@ chinadailyapac.com
An exhibitor shows how to control home appliances using smartphone apps at a smart city exhibition in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.