How our virtual and real worlds are merging

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The line between technology and our physical world is becoming increasingly blurred. The virtual world is filtering with the real one, and the two are connected in an internet of things, data and services. While humans aren’t in any danger of becoming cyborgs just yet, there are tech systems all around us that sense and understand the physical world and our behaviour within it. These systems are called ‘cyber-physical’.

Robots are a classic example of cyber-physical systems. They have the ability to perceive themselves and their environment and to act in response through their understanding of this data. Other examples are self-driving cars, which sense the road and traffic to navigate, or intelligent manufacturing lines, where a machine can perform processes by communicating with the components. ‘These are systems that are connected to the real world, but involve the computing world as well,’ explains Dr Wilkin from the School of Information Technology at Deakin University.

Using sensors and small, low-power computing devices, cyber-physical systems augment everyday human activity with the capacity to extract valuable information about their operation, or our interactions with them. The cyber-physical world has the power to influence human behaviour, according to Dr Wilkin. He explains that as technologies with the ability to ‘sense, reason and act’ are embedded within clothing, appliances, homes, entertainment systems, vehicles and even infrastructure, our future might be shaped by our interactions with and behaviour within them.

The rise of cyber-physical systems

‘Devices that are aware of their environment and the way humans act within them are increasingly available to people, to help them understand their behaviour,’ Dr Wilkin explains. He uses the example of smart meters that enable people to understand their power usage and the usage of other consumers around them. He cites products such as Nike’s smartshoe, which can track your distance run, time, calories burned and so on.

Dr Wilkin believes that ‘capturing data and transforming it into something meaningful helps us make more informed decisions’. However good cyber-physical experiences must ‘create trust in the user experience’, Dr Wilkin says. It’s essential if the person is going to engage with the system and rely on the information provided by it, or the actions it takes. For example, ‘an autonomous car has to interface with people and make decisions on their behalf,’ he explains. So those decisions need to be safe, helpful and reassuring for the human user.

How they will change our lives

On a broader scale, the data collected through cyber-physical systems can help people to understand how existing systems can be changed and improved, according to Dr Wilkin. He points to collated data from transit agencies around the world that enables practical applications such as Travic, which provides a moving visualisation of global transport operations. By seeing this data holistically, analysts can find efficiencies to speed up or simplify transport.

‘When we obtain data across communities we can extract more meaning about how communities are operating,’ he explains. When governments make data collected from their communities transparent, it can support the design of better systems that are more user friendly. Dr Wilkin also highlights The City of Melbourne’s Open Data Portal, which shares data to enable and support development of a better, more liveable city.

All this data collected about personal and community behaviour raises ethical issues, though. ‘There will likely be unscrupulous organisations that will use this data for their own means,’ Dr Wilkin admits. For example, data collected about highly trafficked streets in a city might be used to advertise products more heavily in those spaces, rather increase ease of movement through them. But, he maintains that overall we can expect to see cyber-physical tools increasingly enhancing our lives, rather than detracting from them.

On Thursday 5 May 2016 during Melbourne Knowledge Week, Dr Wilkin will present the ‘Life in the cyber-physical world workshop, being hosted by Deakin University.

This event is part of Melbourne Knowledge Week, 2 – 8 May 2016, proudly presented by the City of Melbourne. To find out more visit www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/knowledgeweek.

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Dr Tim Wilkin
Dr Tim Wilkin

School of Information Technology, Deakin University
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