"Time to sharpen up those bricks-and-mortar brains", Times Higher
"Essex researchers are determined to make buildings more intelligent - but watch
out, they could make your computer disappear, Sue Sharples explains.
"Intelligent Buildings" have existed for years - haven't they? While the
integration of systems such as heating, ventilation and lighting has undoubtedly
increased energy-efficiency and security within buildings, the promise of
human-like intelligence has not yet been fulfilled. Even today, the majority of
systems involve only simple pre-programmed control of devices, giving minimal
flexibility and little actual intelligence. At Essex University, we have set out
to change that.
Our research is centred on the vision of a world composed of billions of
networked devices, ranging from those that are electronic (such as household
appliances or mobile phones) to those with no obvious electronics (such as
clothing or paint pigment). This vision, which involves the "disappearance" of
the computer into the fabric of our everyday life, is the subject of massive
investment by governments and industry; it incorporates many area of computer
science, ranging from hardware and device-design to programming and
Intelligent buildings involve a vast infrastructure of networking, sensors
and devices. Consequently a wealth of data is available - such as temperature
levels, rooms occupied or the status of applications. This is a rich source from
which one can learn about the occupants of the building - their behaviour,
habits, lifestyle and preferences. Rather than having humans interpret and
analyse this, a more interesting solution is to use artificial intelligence (AI)
- computers that are programmed to "think" like us, and are capable of
reasoning, learning and adapting to new circumstances.
At Essex, in the intelligent inhabited environments group, we are developing
a learning algorithm specifically suited to this: evidential learning. It is a
solution that unites three fields of AI.
The first is classical case-based learning, in which scenarios are presented
to the computer and it gradually buildings up a database of required responses.
The second is fuzzy logic - a means of describing the world in imprecise,
human-like expressions, such as "the room is warm" rather than "the room is at
The third is behaviour-based control, taken from the field of mobile
robotics: this is an area in which software is required to give quick, online
responses as the robots continually react to an unpredictable and rapidly
By combining aspects of these three fields, we have a system that can react
quickly to immediate circumstances but that is also continually learning from
the building's occupants and adapts its own behaviour and responses over time as
Behaviour-based design generally relies on intelligence being distributed
around the system rather than contained in one core central computer. With the
increasing miniaturisation of hardware, tiny processors called agents, each
containing some embedded intelligence, can be incorporated easily and
inexpensively within the physical infrastructure of a networked environment. The
system as a whole continually "monitors" the behaviour of inhabitants, through
sensors and devices on the network, and over time can build up patterns, or
evidence, of behaviour that is repeated or occurs regularly. Over time, it can
then perform these actions itself.
The system contains some fixed behaviours for safety and efficiency, such as
how to respond to a fire; but the majority of its behaviour is learnt from the
occupants. It is unique in that it will continue to adapt to suit the occupants
even if they or their preferences change - without any need for the system to be
We have already implemented several prototype environments - the most
successful being the iDorm, which is intended as an example of student
accommodation. We have been particularly keen to expand on the use of this
technology to help vulnerable members of society, such as those with physical
disabilities or learning difficulties.
Systems such as this can provide simple applications, from a carer or
relative being able to "log in" to the home of an ill person to see if they need
help through to a complex, fully supportive habitat for an elderly or severely
In time, the technology could possibly replace the need for some 24-hour care,
or at least remove the burden of mundane tasks from carers, allowing them to
spend more quality time with the recipients, while giving the recipients greater
The benefits are not limited to the care sector. Many environments, from
domestic to industrial offices, factories, hotels and leisure centres, could be
enhanced. And it is not just applicable to buildings, either: this type of
system might well be used in transport (we already see cars with on-board
computers controlling environmental settings). In fact, it seems possible that
almost every area of our lives may one day benefit from this revolutionary
Sue Sharples is a researcher at the Department of Computer Science at
Robotic Football Team.
Granada TV filmed the team in action at the London Science Museum, following the
successful demo in the recent BBC Tomorrow World Show. We are part of their new
film "What's the Big Idea". Soon to be shown on the Discovery Channel.
Intelligent Inhabited Environments Group
Essex Rovers Robotic
made an appearance on BBC Tomorrow World Show
Robot team mirrors
England's injury crisis, Ananova
Best invention, Essex Chronicle
A slug-eating robot invented by a computer scientist from the University has
been voted one of the best inventions of 2001 by Time magazine.
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