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transparent computing

Transparent computing is a characteristic of pervasive computing , the possible future state in which we will be surrounded by computers everywhere in the environment that respond to our needs without our conscious use. In this context, transparent means invisible. A long sought goal of computer science, transparent computing would involve systems so subtle and responsive that they could, for example, solve various user problems without any knowledge on the part of the user of what was taking place. As a simple example, an invisible computer could respond to a glance at a particular Web site URL by calling up similar Web sites and listing them unobtrusively nearby.

John Seely Brown, chief scientist at Xerox, writing in MIT's Technology Review , suggests that, in appearance, the future will seem like the pre-computer past: computers will merge with the background and eventually seem to cease to exist. Although computers are not expected to be visible in the environment, virtually all man-made elements - as well as many organic ones - are likely to include smart matter and to feature transparent computing abilities. With embedded devices seamlessly incorporated, an environment could transform itself to suit the user at any particular time, a capacity reminiscent of Star Trek's holodeck.

Although transparent computing offers a myriad of benefits that can yet be hardly imagined, it also engenders a great deal of concern about privacy issues. According to Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, "Soon you won't only be able to capture how many people stopped by, but who they were." Furthermore, he added, "Once identity is established it will be cross-referenced to capture that person's income and buying preferences. It's only a matter of time." If, in the future, humans are being constantly monitored by computing devices, and not only their whereabouts, but their behaviors and even their emotions recorded, personal privacy could become as much a thing of the past as the personal computer.

This was last updated in September 2005

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