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Assessing the Human, Social, and Environmental Risks of Pervasive Computing

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The vision of Pervasive Computing is built on the assumption that computers will become part of everyday objects, augmenting them with information services and enhanced functionality. This article reports on the approach we have used to assess potential side effects of this development on human health and the environment, and the major risks we identified. Social risks such as the risk of conflicts between users and non-users of the technology were also included because of their potential indirect adverse health effects. Assessing a technological vision before it has materialized makes it necessary to deal with two types of uncertainty: first, the uncertainty of how fast and to what extent the technology will be taken up and how it will be used; second, the uncertainty of causal models connecting technology-related causes with potential health or environmental effects. Due to these uncertainties, quantitative methods to evaluate expected risks are inadequate. Instead, we developed a“risk filter”that makes it possible to rank risks according to a set of qualitative criteria based on the Precautionary Principle. As the overall result, it turned out that Pervasive Computing bears potential risks to health, society, and/or the environment in the following fields: Non-ionizing radiation, stress imposed on the user, restriction of consumers' and patients' freedom of choice, threats to ecological sustainability, and dissipation of responsibility in computer-controlled environments.
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Keywords: Pervasive Computing; ambient intelligence; qualitative risk assessment; risk filter; ubiquitous computing

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research EMPA, St. Gallen, Switzerland

Publication date: 2004-10-01

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