Siewiorek Gazes Into 2020 in IEEE Spectrum


September 17, 2012

"If you think that people can't seem to make a move without consulting their phones today, well, you ain't seen nothing yet."

So says Buhl University Professor of ECE and Computer Science Daniel Siewiorek, who offers a glimpse into the technology of the future in this month's IEEE Spectrum cover story, "Generation Smartphone." In it, Siewiorek leaps into the year 2020, when the fictional Tom and Sara are expecting their first child, Tommy. Even before Tommy's arrival, they use their smartphone (dubbed "SmartPhone 20.0) and its sensors and machine-learning algorithms to create light and sound "fingerprints" of each room. When Tommy comes home from the hospital and takes his first nap, SmartPhone 20.0 and its Sudden Infant Death Syndrome application are there to monitor his heartbeat and respiration, while the Baby Position app analyzes live video to make sure that Tommy doesn't flip to his stomach.

And so it continues throughout Tommy's (eventually "Tom's") life. At age 16 he uses the Driving Instructor app to learn to drive. His parents know that his phone, or even just their smart car, will alert them if Tommy begins driving recklessly. He goes on a business trip in his 20s and twists an ankle. His phone gives him the nearest treatment location, then later tells him he's using his crutches incorrectly and instructs him on proper technique. When his own son arrives, he uses a virtual coaching tool kit to develop his own baseball batting app — one that captures the tips his own dad taught him. Even as he ages, Tom relies more and more on his SmartPhone, which now monitors his health and transmits data to his doctor, including information about his daily activities and if any of those differ from his norm.

While Siewiorek's tale may sound like science fiction, he assures readers that most of this vision is based on today's science fact. "Geo-fencing, for example, is already a standard part of the iPhone operating system," he says. "Several smartphone apps can use GPS to identify and bring up targeted advertising. Research focusing on improving location accuracy indoors, as well as software that 'fingerprints' ambient light and sound, will soon make these apps able to accurately identify rooms in a house."

In addition to offering other examples of current technologies that will influence smartphones of the future, Siewiorek also discusses Carnegie Mellon's own contributions to Generation Smartphone. Tommy's driving app and smart car, for instance, have roots in the driver-monitoring tools now in the lab in Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh's Quality of Life Technology Center (QoLT), where the DriveCap project uses in-car sensors to track driver behavior and how attentive, tired or overwhelmed the driver is. The application that will help Tom notice his improper crutch technique and offer tips to correct it relates to work researchers at the QoLT Center are doing to help wheelchair users avoid repetitive-use injuries to their wrists and rotator cuffs through accelerometers that classify arm movements and encourage patterns that reduce stress on the wrist and shoulder.

The smartphone, it seems, is here to stay. Or, as the article asserts, its role in our lives has really just begun.

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Illustration: James Provost / IEEE Spectrum

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Daniel Siewiorek