Pervasive Computing

By Tim Groenendyk

In an era when computers were only just emerging Alan Turing laid the foundations for many theories on computer science. Now, computers are everywhere, recording and collecting our data. Professor Judy Kay’s work on pervasive computing tackles how to manage all this data - our digital footprint.

Judy Kay

“We’re building an important way for me to be able to have my data kept over a very long time and made useful to the different applications that can use it.” Judy Kay, Professor of Computer Science at the School of Information Technologies.

The Turing Test is a machine intelligence experiment where a remote user types in a dialogue with a human and a computer. If the user can’t determine which is which, the computer is deemed intelligent.

But Judy Kay explained that in the age of ‘big data’ it’s just as important that computers are easy to use as aids in our daily life as it is to make them appear intelligent.

“My research is mainly focused on creating computing systems that complement people, augmenting people’s ability to do things,” said Kay, Professor of Computer Science at the School of Information Technologies.

“We’re really interested in big personal data because all of us produce lots of data. We call them ‘digital footprints’.

She continued. “Whenever you’re using your computer or you’re a website it is possible to track all the things you do.”

And with computers becoming more and more pervasive in our lives, data stored on any one device - smart phones, tablets, desktops and other devices embedded around the home - it’s becoming much easier to leave our digital footprints everywhere.

This poses a challenge for Kay and her research group, CHAI (Computer Human Adapted Interaction), in the storm of publicity surrounding major companies using your private data.

“We’re building an important way for me to be able to have my data kept over a very long time and made useful to the different applications that can use it.”

Although Kay’s work mainly focuses on controlling data in the private sphere, your computer still has to understand how and where to use your information.

“Because if I’m going to have some smart device on the wall that reminds me of things as I go out the door,” she explained, “then the application that does it has to be allowed to see only the parts of my information that I’m happy for it to have.”

Kay sees her work initially benefitting health institutes, especially special needs services.

“We’ve got lots of devices that can measure how active you are and we can bring that data together from several difference devices,” said Kay, listing exercise machines, activity diaries and pedometers.

“We can then have that either available so you can see how you’re going overall, over long periods of time, or have it remind you perhaps automatically.”

Her research also explores how to create new ways for people to interact with surfaces of tables and walls.

One application of her research is being used at the Australian Museum where students can upload their observations from tablets onto an interactive tabletop computer – developed by CHAI. The students then build a poster together that combines their shared experience at the Museum.

“In other tabletop work, we aim to help students learn collaboratively, since that has been shown to improve learning,” said Kay.

“At the same time, we analyse the data from their digital footprints to give feedback on the collaboration and help people learn collaboration skills.”

Kay points out that Turing's many contributions still resonate in computer science today and the Turing Award is the top honour in the field, recognising the important research that now pervades our lives.

Referring to the conundrum many have attached to the Turing Test - can a computer be as intelligent as a human - Kay said “You’ve got to ask whether that’s the question that’s really important. I don’t know if Turing ever said it was.

“It was just a way of saying ‘well if something’s intelligent, how would we decide whether that was so’. That was fair enough.

“But in practice maybe what we need to do is normally ask ‘what do we need to do, what do we need a computer to do’ and very often the thing that a computer is good at is things we are not particularly good at, or would happily delegate to the computer.

“We have very complimentary skills and so often human in-the-loop systems work really well.”