Ubiquitous Computing: Dangers and Benefits

By Daniel Kamen

Ubiquitous computing (ubicomp for this article), what is it? In its fully realized state, ubiquitous computing is having technology present in almost every aspect of our lives, while also being implemented so seamlessly, is invisible to the user. Another component of it is that there is no one ‘super’ device where everything is performed. The computing is split across multiple devices, and that is because ubicomp is about all-encompassing technology. There would have to be more than one device if the goal is to be everywhere. To better understand the good and bad aspects of ubicomp, I’ll be looking at two movies’ interpretations of ubicomp.

Image 1 description

The first movie I’ll be looking at is Walle. For those who haven't seen Walle, here is a brief summary: Walle is a movie set in the future on an abandoned and trash-covered Earth. The main character, Walle, is the last waste collection robot. Human life is contained on a spaceship, the Axiom, which is a technologically advanced spaceship with the amenities of a futuristic cruise ship. Due to the Axiom being a luxury cruise ship, much of the technology on it is there to accommodate guests. Everyone is equipped with automated reclining seats that can jet you across the ship, order food for when you’re hungry, cool you down when you get too hot, and direct automated umbrellas to follow you around when you’re too hot. AUTO, the ship's AI captain, maintains the ship so seamlessly, that the human captain becomes a figurehead with no real responsibilities

Image 2 description

The Axiom is a great example of ubicomp - the tech is ever-present but seamlessly integrated into the ship to where no one bats an eye to any of it. The Axiom also gives us an interpretation of what happens to those who rely so much on technology to perform basic tasks. We see the passengers become complacent with all the ship's amenities. Basic tasks like walking are difficult because, from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed, they’re on their recliners. At least in Walle, an overreliance on ubicomp created a group of individuals unequipped to live life without it. This interpretation of ubicomp brings up a very important and relevant question for us: how much outsourcing of our life is too much? If we give robots and other forms of technology permission to perform basic tasks for us like cooking, cleaning, feeding, walking, and thinking, do we also outsource our lives to something that isn't us? Does outsourcing these tasks give us time for ‘higher level’ tasks? To look more into the last question, I want to look at Iron Man (the movies specifically).

Image 3 description

Iron Man's suit has a built-in assistant, JARVIS, whose job is to serve Tony Stark as much as possible. It does many automated tasks within the suit to assist Iron man. But JARVIS extends beyond the suit - it's incorporated into other suits, cars, phones, and even Tony’s house. It's tailored to Tony’s figures of speech, vocal tone, facial expression, and behaviors. It can open doors just as Tony is about to walk through it and open the blinds in a room Tony is entering. JARVIS is everywhere, but he is nowhere. No one device stores him. Tony having a conversation with JARVIS in a suit can be continued in his living room while the suit is outside. This ever-present but invisible nature of JARVIS is what makes it an ideal example of ubicomp.

Image 4 description

Iron Man achieved many great things throughout what seems like a million Marvel movies. However, he wasn’t solely responsible for many of them. A suit as complex as an Iron Man suit would require hundreds if not thousands of micro-actions such as changing pitch, yawn, and velocity while flying. Instead of Tony manually changing each set to perform exactly as needed, JARVIS handles the interpretation of what Tony wants into what happens. In a fight, this could free up mental space to perform at the highest level. In this instance of ubicomp, JARVIS appears to be a net positive, rather than a net negative like for the passengers of the Axiom (although some can argue the cushy life they enjoyed was a net positive). In writing this article, I started realizing most of the futuristic technology we see in movies leans heavily towards ubicomp. “The Matrix”, “Minority Report”, “Her”, “Blade Runner”, “I, Robot”, “Tron” and many more sci-fy life films all seem to contain elements of ubicomp. Does it suggest that all technological advancements eventually lead us to ubicomp? Who knows, I certainly don’t. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

Image 5 description