Rules aim to get devices talking
Technology Research News
In the not-too-distant future, when nearly
all electronic devices in the home contain computer chips, it would be
nice if appliances could communicate with each other in order to coordinate
their activities to carry out complicated tasks.
Several thorny issues lurk beneath the much-hyped vision of ubiquitous
computing, including interoperability and adaptability. Researchers and
technology companies are tackling the problem in a variety of ways, including
vendor-specific communications protocols and multi-agent artificial intelligence
Researchers at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) in Belgium
have developed a set of ubiquitous computing communications requirements
aimed at allowing dissimilar devices to share information and divvy up
portions of complicated tasks.
The researchers' requirements follows the principle of self-organization,
which holds that if individual entities have the right properties their
unguided interactions will result in coherent behavior. Self-organization
is common in biological and social systems.
The researchers' goal is for smart devices to cooperate behind
the scenes to carry out users' high-level instructions even if the necessary
cooperation was not anticipated by the devices' manufacturers, said Carlos
Gershenson, a researcher at the Free University of Brussels. The researchers
have dubbed this scenario "ambient intelligence."
The central element of the protocol requirements is game playing,
a common strategy in multiagent artificial intelligence research. By framing
interactions between devices in terms of rules of a game, devices should
be able to learn the meaning of messages and learn which devices are cooperative,
according to Gershenson.
There are three parts to the ambient intelligence protocol requirements:
learning to communicate with other devices, determining which devices
to cooperate with and which to avoid, and finding ways to develop efficient
workflow and divisions of labor.
The communications problem -- for example, what it means to "play"
a file -- is addressed by a language game, according to Gershenson. In
the game, a pair of devices take turns communicating in an effort to come
to an agreement about meaning. The first device presents an example and
the second device answers with a different example that fits in the same
category as the first. If the first device recognizes the second example
as fitting that category, their mutual understanding of the category is
The problem of cooperation is addressed in two ways. First, devices
that have something in common, like a manufacturer, can recognize each
other as trusted. Second, devices that are dissimilar can develop trust
through the tit-for-tat game in which one device offers services to another
and records whether the recipient reciprocates. Devices that reciprocate
Division of labor is accomplished by delegating tasks to the most
appropriate devices. Workflow involves performing a series of tasks in
the right order, with the completion of one task preparing the execution
of the next. When devices do not know the necessary order, they randomly
attempt to perform a task. Eventually the overall problem will be solved,
and over time the system stabilizes into an efficient behavior, according
The communications protocol requirements are only part of the
problem of developing ambient intelligence, said Gershenson. Devices need
to be made with the necessary intelligence, they need communications channels,
and people need ways of communicating with devices or groups of devices,
The current challenge to building practical ambient intelligence
is convincing device manufacturers to agree on developing a ubiquitous
computing communications protocol, said Gershenson. "The technology is
out there... all companies have their own projects... but still fail to
address the problem of adaptability."
The researchers conjecture without really drilling down into the
fundamentals, said Larry Rudolph, a principal research scientist at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Ubiquitous devices need to be designed to work both on their own
and as components of more complex systems, said Rudolph. "My experience
has been that ubiquitous or pervasive applications are very fragile and
any design paradigm must include ways in which the average user can fix
problems," he said. "Ambient intelligence sounds wonderful until one cannot
turn on the television because one has not finished eating one's vegetables,"
Rudolph is involved with MIT's Oxygen ubiquitous computing initiative.
That project's main middleware efforts, Metaglue and O2S, include sets
of rules that dictate what can communicate with what, said Rudolph. "Our
approach is in the middle ground between explicitly programming the components
of a ubiquitous computing application and no programming at all, as in
a self-organizing system," he said.
The VUB researchers' ambient intelligence communication framework
needs to be refined based on feedback from researchers and developers
working in the field, said Gershenson. "Ultimately we would like to have
an open protocol which would support [standard] requirements described
in the paper, then devices implementing it would be able to adapt themselves,"
Gershenson's research colleague was Francis Heylighen. They presented
the research at the International Conference on Complex Systems in Boston
on May 20, 2004. The research was funded by the Flemish Science Foundation
Timeline: 3-7 years
TRN Categories: Human-Computer Interaction; Wireless Communications
Story Type: News
Related Elements: Technical paper, "Protocol Requirements
for Self-Organizing Artifacts: Towards an Ambient Intelligence," presented
at the International Conference on Complex Systems, Boston Massachusetts,
May 20, 2004
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