Rules aim to get devices talking

By Eric Smalley, 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 schemes.

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 strengthened.

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 engender trust.

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 to Gershenson.

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, he said.

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," he said.

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," he said.

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 (FWO).

Timeline:   3-7 years
Funding:   Government
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


June 2/9, 2004

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