If a new concept called sentient computing takes hold, computers, telephones, cameras, software and other everyday technology tools will automatically know who you are, where you are and what you need.

Designed by AT&T Laboratories researchers in Cambridge, England, sentient computing uses a server and common object request broker architecture (CORBA) database software to create precise maps of the places in which people live and work. Using a series of ultrasound radio sensors called ‘bats’ that are attached to devices and people, the system can detect the location and status of objects to within less than an inch throughout a 10,000-square-foot office. “Each person and object has a defined space with associated characteristics similar to the way a computer can locate and direct a cursor,” says Pete Steggles, an AT&T Labs researcher.

One of sentient computing’s most intriguing applications is called the follow-me personal desktop. User-associated software and data can appear on any screen as employees walk around a building. Another handy application is a telephone system that automatically routes calls to workers based on the closest phone.

The technology can also be used to boost IT security. “Regardless of where it is accessed, the system will intrinsically know who created a document and who has the right to view it,” Steggles says. On a physical security level, a sentient computing system could automatically lock and unlock doors in accordance with a user’s assigned privileges.

AT&T Labs has installed a prototype sentient environment on the Cambridge campus. Steggles expects a “more packaged” version to be ready in about a year. “The biggest challenge will be convincing businesses that this technology is ready for the real world,” he says.