Big Brother tracking device that will help to save lives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 March, 2006, 12:00am

Spy technology right out of a James Bond film has been brought to life and will soon help save lives, or - to the horror of the inventors - supply Big Brother with its ultimate tool.

Artificial-intelligence experts at the University of Science and Technology have created a device of tiny sensors and a computer program that interprets data to track a person's every move, and even see what they are doing.

'It is the ultimate dream for any science fiction fan. Using these sensors we can tell the temperature of a person, the brightness of their surroundings, whether they have come into contact with any machinery, how fast they are moving, and hear what they are hearing,' said Yang Qiang, a professor.

'It is like GPS for the indoor environment. All you have to do is put sensors on a person and along the path inside the building. Data is sent to a computer and within a second you know exactly what is happening to the person.'

The professor began by using wireless LAN signals sent to a PDA to help him manoeuvre through the maze-like building at the university. The system was able to track his precise location and provide information on the professors whose rooms he passed accurate to 5 square metres.

With the new radio frequency system, it will be accurate to 1 square metre. 'Of course, it can be used by a wife to track her husband or by police to track criminals, but at the moment we are planning on using it to help doctors get to patients who have taken a turn for the worse quicker,' said Dr Yang. 'The closest doctor to the patient who has the most appropriate expertise can be alerted right away. The system will even advise the doctor of the shortest route to the patient and the patient's medical history.'

For now, the sensors - which are capable of communicating with each other, with the computer and from the subject to sensors placed in a building - are the size of a one-dollar coin and cost about $2,000 to $3,000 each. Work is under way to reduce them to the size of a single grain of rice so they can be built surreptitiously into clothes, and reduce the amount of energy they use by putting them to sleep when they are not needed.

'If you place one on someone's shoulder, one near their waist and one on their leg, you have enough information to interpret every move they make. The information is sent at the speed of light,' said Dr Yang.

Traditional methods of tracking people using GPS were useless indoors because satellites cannot penetrate buildings and a GPS fix requires a clear view of at least three satellites. GPS is also incapable of penetrating outdoor areas with dense buildings like Hong Kong.

Having completed the central part to the system - a computer program capable of learning as well as understanding events that it has never encountered before and differentiating them from noise - Dr Yang is now working on business-oriented uses.

He has scheduled a meeting with a local museum designer to discuss the idea of using his system to provide visitors with information on PDAs about each piece of art as they approach it.

As for the technology's Big Brother implications, Dr Yang is working with a local security company to monitor security guards' rounds to make sure they are not slacking.

He said the same idea could be used by advertisers to track which shops consumers visit so as to send them appropriate discount coupons or product information.

'I hope it does not become a Big Brother tool. But if it is, I will just come up with a way to block the sensor's signals.'