Monday interview: BT futurologist Graham Whitehead on why intelligent agents will roam in your connected home

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The connected home used to be a pipe-dream for the consumer tech industry. If it wasn’t internet-connected fridges / microwaves / nostril-trimmers, it was big firms like Panasonic, Microsoft or Orange showcasing their visions of future homes where every device would be connected to the network and able to talk to each other.

In 2006, this futuristic utopia is finally hoving into view. Broadband rollout is steaming ahead, gadgets of all kinds are having Wi-Fi stuck inside, and the prospect of triple or quad-play TV/broadband/phone/mobile bundling at least gives us hope that the devices on the end of those may work together more seamlessly.

Want to know what all this means? Talk to a futurologist like Graham Whitehead, who works for BT Exact, the research arm of BT. "We’re about to witness more change in the next 10 years than in the previous 150!" says Whitehead. "Things are going to move very fast indeed…"

As you may know, BT has been busily planning to rebuild its network for the 21st century, chucking out its existing Public Switched Telephone network in favour of a spiffing new internet protocol (IP) network. It’s being trialled in Cardiff this year, but by 2009 the whole of the UK should be hooked up to it.

"You’ll have this big core network, then DSL to your home to deliver everything, and then you’ll have Wi-Fi around the home so that everything can be connected," says Whitehead. "Your TV set will be Wi-Fi-enabled, your fridge…”

Tsk, those pesky internet fridges will still be around then. Advantages to the new network include better-quality voice calls and all manner of on-demand content services. But Whitehead is equally excited about the idea that human beings can “be extracted from the process of finding information”. No, this doesn’t mean robots doing your Google searches. At least, not yet.

Instead, it’s about ‘intelligent agents’ – small pieces of software that reside within your network helping you grapple with the huge mass of content and information that can be squirted down your broadband pipe. Whitehead gives the example of a TV agent.

“When there are 4,000 channels of digital TV coming to us, as stupid little humans we’ll be unable to cope!,” he says. “The TV agent will effectively sit next to you, learn what you like, and then sort, sift and pre-digest what’s coming in. For example, if it knows you like science programmes, it will see one that’s on, talk to your diary agent to see if you’re out, and if you are it’ll tag the programme for recording."

Okay, so it’s a supercharged TiVo in one sense, but it’s the ability of these agents to interact with each other and the wider network that’s interesting. Whitehead cites other examples – a banking agent, for example, that can interact directly with your e-banking service (presumably along the lines of ‘he’s out on the lash again tonight, if any debits come through from Stringfellows, DON’T authorise them…’)

Of course, these agents will also function as gatekeepers, ensuring you’re not overloaded by the sheer weight of information. And spam.

“Gone will be the ability for an advertising agency to do a piece of video, seed it in a TV channel and then have customers come back and find them," says Whitehead. "It will become more of a one-on-one relationship. As an advertiser, I’ll have to reach out and stroke you."

If the thought of a leering Michael Winner reaching out of your connected TV set to stroke you puts you off, don’t worry (although if it excites you, seek help). Whitehead’s vision is of a more benign form of opt-in advertising – the logical conclusion of current promotions where, say, Amazon might send you an email every so often alerting you to a new book by an author whose titles you’ve bought in the past.

"That’s not spam," says Whitehead. "In the future, your book-reading agent might go out saying ‘Any new books?’, and because your agent has gone out and touched, it gives permission for people to come back to me. I see spam decreasing in the network as this targeted specific stuff comes through based on your likes and dislikes."

"You’ll also have blocking filters," he continues. "If your book-reading agent goes out to Waterstones and Amazon, that gives those companies permission to come back into the system and give you information. But if a company comes back and is annoying, it would be deleted from the permission tables."

Naturally, all this throws up issues of privacy, security, and concerns that your book-reading agent might do a HAL, go mad and order the collected works of Barbara Cartland. But that’s the sort of stuff that will need to get worked out as the new IP network is deployed.

Check back on Wednesday for Part 2 of the interview, where Graham explains why the new network is safer. Oh, and why robots are our future too.

Stuart Dredge