HELSINKI, Finland – Technological advances could tempt phone-makers to play God in our lives and that’s why scientists at Nokia Research Center are thinking beyond the capabilities of your next handset. Nokia Conversations met one man who can see the future, good and bad, and his vision will astound you.
One day we could be using telepathy to operate our phone, says Dr Leo Kärkkäinen from Media Technologies Laboratory. Our handsets could also become virtual medics, guiding us through daily decisions that affect our health.
These are just a couple of ideas, way beyond most people’s horizon, that the distinguished scientist can see as a reality. But whatever concepts he might dream up, he has one guiding principle.
“We have to deliver the magic,” says Dr Kärkkäinen. “We have to look at what is impossible now and what can we make possible.”
That pretty much sums up the challenge facing Nokia Research Center, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. And Dr Kärkkäinen, is a great example of someone within the 500-strong team who meets that challenge. With a background in theoretical physics, he’s better qualified than your average Joe, not only to think about the issues of making a phone, but to think around the subject, about the consequences and social impact of making a phone.
And this is what impresses me most about the man, he answers your questions first and foremost as a human being.
No sign of a white lab coat. He’s wearing a Tweed jacket. And he’s leaning across the desk to engage me, to get his message across.
But academically, he is from another world to most of us.
“I started off in quantum chromodynamics. My research was on the early part of the universe, when it was so hot that quarks and gluons were only just starting to form protons and neutrons.
“I worked out code to study these phase transitions.”
Making a note to self to look this up on Wikipedia after the interview, I find myself asking if it wasn’t it a bit of a step down to move on from studying the secrets of the universe, to researching the physics of the humble mobile phone.
“No, I now work in a place where what I do is affecting billions of people. The challenges are just as grandiose, even if they are more down to earth.”
Leo came to Nokia 16 years ago to work on acoustics. He and his team devised the design tools for creating the acoustics that we take for granted on our phones.
His lab has worked on how to compress the bits from the sound spectrum that we don’t hear or need and how to block out background noises, to make our phone calls clearer.
And they will have a huge influence on the future of acoustics.
But it’s his thinking on the bigger aspects of our mobile future that impresses most.
“Even today, phones are magical,” he says. “But if you told someone a hundred years ago that you had invented a device for talking to anyone, anywhere in the world, they would have asked: ‘Who do you think you are, God?’ ”
So are phone companies now playing God, I ask.
“No,” he says. “We are looking at the possibilities. It’s what you actually do with them that counts.”
“I believe Nokia is the type of company that believes in doing things the proper way.
“Here at NRC we are giving people tools. And how people use them is governed by norms and rules in society.”
But the good Doctor, who received his PhD from the University of Helsinki, Department of Theoretical Physics in 1990, demonstrates that he is clearly always thinking of inventing phones that will be used for good.
Using the example of speech recognition, he takes me on a little journey that illustrates the breadth of his thinking.
He acknowledges that we can speak to our phone and it can get to know us.
But there are two problems with that. The first is that there are many tasks we perform on our phone that we don’t want other people to know about.
Being good enough
“What if we could talk to our phones silently by mouthing what we are saying? So that the phone could recognize muscle movements and know what we meant, that would be interesting.
“The other thing is that there is always a threshold of being good enough that new technology has to cross before people will adopt it.
“We have done plenty of research into voice recognition but the best interface for me that works is one button, like turning on a light.”
And that for me is a lightbulb moment. Until we can combine many functions into one reliable voice command, recognizable in any regional accent, the technology has limitations.
“It may be that one day we will all be able to take our phone, put it on the table and tell it to take a picture in 20 seconds,” he says.
But what interests Dr Leo far more is the predictive aspect of the phone interface.
Let’s say that you are having a conversation and you tell someone you will jump in a cab and be there in half an hour. Your phone recognizes that you need a cab and presents you with a number for a cab when you have ended your call, or has even started dialing it.
“The question is, to what extent do you go,” asks Dr Leo. “Do you make your phone analyze which pages you go to on your browser to see what clothes you like.
“Will it analyze the pattern about how you move around? There has already been a study by MIT of how people behave in San Francisco. It shows that you can break people down into tribes.
“Certain tribes will eat in one kind of restaurant between certain times, and maybe we could use that information to make sure there are enough cabs to meet their needs.
“But what if we go beyond that? You know what kind of foods people are eating, so you know what kind of diseases they will get.
“Then you can work out what kind of health insurance they should pay. Do we really want that?
“And who would buy a phone that gave away their secrets like that!”
But Dr Leo can see huge benefits for everyone by moving away from the idea of a phone and a web system that effectively spies on us.
As more sensors are added to our phones, they will learn more and more about us. One day it will be able to take our pulse and temperature and obviously that information could not only be very useful to us, but to humankind in general.
“If we could take that information and aggregate it in some way and share it while keeping it anonymous, think of the benefits.”
For example, if health officials had live data of the population’s heartbeat and temperatures from their phones, they could spot an outbreak of disease, locate it and treat it quickly to stop it spreading. And who knows what longer term studies could detect about society’s health needs.
“In order to do this we need to make sure the device is more private and trusted.
“I want to see Nokia produce these trusted devices.”
He sees no reason why we couldn’t have a phone which advises on lifestyle choices, by combining location, our web searches and how much we move around.
“I would like to see the next wave of devices warning you that you’ve been eating too much of the wrong kind of food,” says Dr Leo.
“But we must never lose sight of the playful aspect of developments.
“For example, if your phone can record your heartbeat, it can detect how your feel. So what if it records your heartbeat at the time you take a picture?
“There would then be a way of getting a timeline of relevant pictures. Looking back at your pictures, you could tell what really had an impact on you, creating a journal of life with real meaning.
“And you might get some real surprises in there. If all this enables something that was not possible before, that is making an impact.”
I mention the GEM concept that impressed so many of you, wondering when that will become a reality.
Dr Leo laughs. “I’m glad you like that,” he said. “We invented that five years ago. We are beyond that now.”
Now he is more interested in developing the health theme, so that one day you will have a doctor on your device.
Or a phone that works by telepathy.
“There are already machines that can figure out what you are thinking in certain respects,” he says.
“We could make a telepathic system controlled by your thoughts. But then how do you do that and avoid letting your thoughts go everywhere?
“With nanotechnology, we can start making these things possible. And sometimes these things happen faster than we imagine they might.
“For example, we started working on speech recognition 50 years ago and we’re still not there. Nanotechnology has been here for a relatively short time, but its benefits could be just around the corner.”
Referring to the Morph concept of a phone which folds into any shape according to your need, Dr Leo says the only obstacle is overheating.
“All of these ultra thin, flexible electronics create a lot of heat,” he says.
“It looks very cool. But actually keeping it cool is very difficult.”
Dr Leo can’t help chuckling at the irony of what he has just said.
Still, reassuring to know that Nokia Research Center’s main focus is making the cool phones of the future.