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UFOs (Ubiquitous Findable Objects)

by Peter Morville, author of Ambient Findability
11/17/2005

The term ambient findability describes a world at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the internet, in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at any time. It's not necessarily a goal, and we'll never achieve perfect findability, but we're surely headed in the right direction.

A clear sign of progress is the emergence of ubiquitous findable objects (UFOs). GPS, RFID, UWB, and cellular triangulation enable us, for the first time in history, to tag and track products, possessions, pets, and people as they wander through space and time.

Of course, not everyone is happy about this brave new world of UFOs. While Bruce Sterling raves about spime, Katherine Albrecht rants about spychips. Which focuses our attention on the UFO subclass of "ubiquitous findable organisms" that includes wild animals, pets, friends, suspects, shoppers, patients, prisoners, employees, kids, and ourselves.

Ubiquitous Findable Organisms

The UFO application space invites a richer feature set than we may think. Major tasks include identifying, tracking, observing, communicating, and interacting. Consequently, the enabling toolset includes networked video cameras, acoustic sensors, satellite constellations, smartphones, radio-guided missiles, and other emerging technologies that afford a different kind of close encounter, and myriad new ways to reach out and touch someone.

But we rush ahead of ourselves. The future present of UFOs is best illustrated with real examples. Consider, for instance, the fourth-generation GPS GSM collar for ungulates, which lets us track (on a Treo 650) the physical location of lions, elephants, and toy poodles as they roam the wilds of Africa or the streets of Ann Arbor.

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Or the GPS Personal Locator Watch for Children, a water-resistant, cut-resistant, abduction-prevention device that locks onto a child's wrist and allows parents to track (and communicate with) their children 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, the battery only lasts four hours, the enhanced GPS is useless indoors, and the product has been discontinued in favor of the Wherifone.

But make no mistake. The UFOs are coming. Alien Technology, Digital Angel, WaveMarket, OnStar, Networkcar, KinderCam, and Legoland are just a few of the organizations that identify, track, and monitor "high-value assets." And while some activists worry these spychips will be used by corporations, governments, and terrorists to track our every move, the process of chipping products, possessions, passports, pets, and people is well underway.

For while subcutaneous implants are mostly just for pets, it's quite possible there's an RFID tag in your left shoe. Of course, with a read range of only a few feet, it's not very useful. But once shops, libraries, and schools have upgraded their anti-theft and security portals, and governments have embedded readers in roads, the tag in your shoe (or your loyalty card) will have real value. In concert with the GPS and triangulation capabilities afforded by your BlackBerry, location-based services will become a reality.

Anti-Social Software

Activists argue we won't willingly sacrifice privacy, but loyalty cards have been a huge success, and early adopters of opt-in surveillance, like my friend Ed Vielmetti, already manually share their coordinates via Plazes, Dodgeball, and Meetro. In fact, the number of startups in the mobile social software space is astonishing. Major corporations are placing big bets that we'll want to share our whereabouts (and our profiles) with family, friends, co-workers, friends of friends, and potential friends, so they can stop in and say hello.

Of course, as a convicted INTJ, I'm more interested in using services like Introvertster to prevent close encounters of the undesirable kind. Soon, I'll be able to rely on a mashup between Google Maps and my personal blacklist to avoid running into undesirables in restaurants. It's even possible the airlines will let me specify the types of people I'd prefer not to sit near. And I'm sure that solitude optimization algorithms will soon help me avoid traffic on the roads, crowds at the mall, and other types of UFO swarms.

On a voyeuristic note, we'll all be secretly interested in collision detection. Most likely, Google Alerts will notify us of brief or sustained meetups between two or more individuals from within our social networks. In fact, we'll all come to rely on anomaly detection to highlight meaningful deviations in individual habits or in the flocking behavior of crowds.

Body Tags

To make this global panopticon a reality, unique identification tags are necessary but not sufficient. As we know from library science research, known-item searches account for less than half of total demand. Most users will also want to perform exploratory subject searches.

So, in a world of UFOs, personal metadata that describes our interests, histories, possessions, and relationships will be very important. We'll require a balance between factual data (e.g., credit rating, medical history) and descriptive metadata (e.g., personality, politics) to support multiple ways of finding.

And, to assure the veracity and authority of this personal metadata, our body tags should reflect a sociosemantic balance between the controlled vocabularies of experts and the folksonomies of the masses. Each of us will require a bibliographic record, like a product page in Amazon, that connects the formal hierarchy of trees with miscellaneous piles of leaves.

Fortunately, we're already accumulating body tags like barnacles on a ship. Every article, blog post, and comment is indexed by Google. Every email we send or receive is tagged by Gmail. Google Desktop tracks the contents of our computers and every website we visit. And Delicious Library has begun to inventory the contents of our homes. When you combine these public sources of personal metadata with the massive databases of Acxiom and Wal-Mart, we're well on our way towards the Memex vision of MyLifeBits.

Of course, we'll need roll-back capabilities to manage reputation vandalism, AI filters, and challenge-response systems for limiting body-tag spam, and some means of recourse for Googlebomb attacks on our personal aboutness. Hopefully, the lessons being learned now by del.icio.us, Flickr, Wikipedia, and the Memetic Web will inform our approach to body tag management.

The Truth Is Out There

There are conspiracy theorists, like the authors of Spychips, who fear a complete loss of privacy and view RFID implants as the "mark of the beast." And while their fear of Big Brother and his Patriot Act is understandable, I'm not yet ready to join the neo-Luddites in their fight against IPv666.

How can we decide how we want to use technology, before we've even figured out how we can or might use it? I agree with the EFF's stance that we should proceed cautiously, given the enormous potential for unforeseen consequences. But in the long run, I would prefer not to choose between privacy and freedom, and I'm inspired by David Brin's vision of a Transparent Society:

"The cameras are coming. You can rail against them, shaking your fist in futile rage at all the hovering lenses. Or you can join a committee of six billion neighbors to control the pesky things, making each one an extension of your eyes."

Brin argues that "people of bad intent will be far more free to do harm in a world of secrets, masks, and shrouds than in a realm where the light is growing all around, bit by steady bit." And he asks probing questions:

"Will average citizens share, along with the mighty, the right to access these universal monitors? Will common folk have, and exercise, a sovereign power to watch the watchers?"

I certainly hope so, and I have a practical suggestion. Just as the government has historically purchased private land to establish national forests and public parks, the government should now purchase, on behalf of the public, the rights to access a vast swath of databases and data streams currently accessible only to those with power and wealth.

As we wander down this path paved with silicon chips and findable objects, give us all the eyes and ears, so we may know what's going on. The next-generation internet of objects will require billions of networked sensors that stir our senses and enrich our collective intelligence. It will make the world a better, more interesting place. It will prepare us for The Singularity. And it will help us all when the real UFOs arrive.


Resources

Peter Morville is president of Semantic Studios, an information architecture, user experience, and findability consultancy. For over a decade, he has advised such clients as AT&T, IBM, Microsoft, Harvard Business School, Internet2, Procter & Gamble, Vanguard, and Yahoo.


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