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Intelligent “spaces” usher in Swiss Science Week

The futuristic project, Gulliver, will greet visitors in Zurich. INI

Zurich's central station is this weekend hosting "Gulliver" - a prototype of an "intelligent space" or "smart room," which can interact with people. The aim is to show how machines will one day share many of the qualities which make us human.

Gulliver’s creators, at the University of Zurich, hope the space will make people feel more comfortable with “smart technology” and encourage them to think about the future impact of interactive technology on society.

Gulliver will eventually be displayed at Switzerland’s national exhibition, Expo.02, under the name of Ada. The futuristic project is the brainchild of Paul Verschure, the group leader of Zurich University’s Neuroinformatics Department.

“Ada is designed to show visitors that each individual human brain is a unique and creative organ,” Verschure told swissinfo. “Unlike other intelligent spaces, which tend to focus on performing utilitarian tasks, such as turning on the lights or making coffee, Ada is designed to demonstrate that technology will one day be similar to us.

“We want to create this space which communicates with us as a living entity.”

While the concept may sound rather like a mad scientist’s dream, Verschure and his team insist that it won’t be long before humans are interacting with machines on a regular basis.

“Imagine a room in your house that can sense when you’re upset and try to cheer you up, a traffic light with common sense or a television set with an opinion,” said Verschure. “These things may not exist today but they will in the future.”

He cites Ada as an example of a room that can actually gauge people’s moods and interact with them.

Visitors to the Gulliver and Ada “space” will discover an unusual, even organic, experience. In fact, the entire space – which has human characteristics and features – behaves like a living organism.

For example, Ada’s skin is made up of sensitive floor tiles, which can sense movement and weight. Her eyes are sophisticated video cameras, or gazers, which are mounted in the ceiling and can track, record and even predict movement.

Her brain is a complex matrix of computer and display systems and her fingers are made up of circles and beams of light, which point visitors in any given direction.

Ada even has a heartbeat, which pulses slowly in the background and her voice comes in the form of futuristic music.

What is perhaps most striking about this intelligent space is that despite being surrounded by technology, wires, cameras and computers, the visitor perceives the experience as something very natural.

According to Verschure, this organic element is what makes Ada unique in the world. “I don’t think there are any other projects like it,” he told swissinfo.

Verschure admits that for people who view technology as nothing more than a mechanical slave, it may be difficult to grasp the point of Ada and Gulliver.

However, he insists that the aim of these projects was never to be strictly practical. Rather, the goal was to show people how to interact with machines and to demonstrate that technology can indeed be intelligent.

Verschure and his team argue that Ada is rationally intelligent in the sense that she can gather information from her environment, assimilate it and express how she feels based on that information, through the language of light and sound.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the games Ada invites visitors to play. Those people who respond to her invitations to follow beams of light and step on her tiles, will be rewarded with soothing music and more invitations to interact.

For visitors the experience of interacting with Ada and Gulliver is a matter of harmless fun and games, but might they be harbingers of something more sinister? Verschure insists that visions of evil computers, like HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s and Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001 Space Odyssey” are to our society what demons and ghosts were to past generations.

He is emphatic that intelligent machines and spaces are nothing to be afraid of. “Technology can always be abused,” he said. “But this whole fantasy about machines taking over the world or doing bad things is really irrelevant.

“I hope that Ada teaches people tolerance and that although she may be unfamiliar to us, Ada is not threatening.”

The Ada project was named after Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, who was one of the 19th-century pioneers of computer science.

The researchers at Zurich University hope that, like her namesake, Ada will serve as a precursor to the future and that she will inspire both practical and academic applications for smart technology.

The neuroinformatics team believes there is a wide range of potential uses for spaces like Ada and the technology that has been developed as a result of their research. For instance, Verschure points out that the technology could give disabled people more freedom or serve as a learning tool for autistic children.

He adds that the potential commercial applications for homes and public spaces are also very exciting.

“The type of communicative floor that we’ve constructed could be helpful in large public spaces such as the airport. It would be pretty useful to enter the airport terminal and get your personal symbol to guide you to your plane.”

by Anna Nelson

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR