They might just be the tastiest-looking computers I’ve ever seen.

Mik Lemming, principle scientist at HP Labs in Palo Alto, Calif., says they’ll be about the size of M&Ms, and if they were manufactured in colours other than blue and grey, you could almost mistake them for those melt-in-your-mouth

candies. But they’re not M&Ms, they’re “Minders,” concept devices that could not only change the way we use technology but how we view the relationship between man and machine.

Minders, as Lemming described them, are small wireless sensors that are designed to work in pairs. He showed two larger prototypes, about the size of snow globes, to demonstrate. When they sit next to each other, Minders don’t do anything. When he picks one up and walks far enough away, though, they both start to light up. Not exactly a breakthrough technology — it reminded me of electronic keychains that make noises in response to clapping when we misplace them. Minders, however, would be much more sophisticated in how they relate to one another. A Minder would not only take notice when separated from its mate, but also when its mate is affected by a change in temperature, orientation (if it was turned upside down, for example) or other forms of movement.

HP is imagining a world where we litter our homes, our offices and even our clothes with Minders, which would be always-on devices that last a long time, possibly up to a year or more. “You’ll be able to buy them in packs of 100 at Wal-Mart,” Lemming said. Once deployed, we would use the sensors to self-monitor our own activities.

Alzheimer’s patients, for example, would live with the devices long enough that they come to recognize certain patterns. Minders could learn, for example, how long the patient usually spends in bed, how often he or she goes to the bathroom or eats. When these patterns are disrupted for some reason — the patients gets up and starts wandering in the night, turns on the stove for no reason or falls down in the bathroom — the Minders in other parts of the house would sense the change. They would then alert a caregiver who lives in the house but who might be sleeping. The caregiver could then check in on the patient, and perhaps prevent something terrible from happening.

Lemming was vague about how all this would work — it’s not clear, for example, how much of the intelligence is built into the wireless sensor and how much of the behavioral data is stored in a network somewhere. But he stressed that the data was to remain private, owned by the users and those close to them. He also said the technology would not necessarily be limited to those with dementia but everyday people whose occasional forgetfulness gets the better of them. Think of the times we go to the grocery store to buy milk, for instance, only to leave carrying everything else but. Minders could also be programmed to help us remember the name of someone we recently met the next time we run into them, or keep track of appointments.

“Alzheimer’s patients are proxies for all of us,” he said. “What this leads to is a paradigm shift where we are no longer the ones attending to the technology — the technology is attending to us.” When personal computing is this personal, it’s no longer a question of being a good IT manager, but of making sure the IT is a good people manager.

Those who don’t suffer from dementia might find a house full of Minders kind of creepy, but we are already surrounded by technology that regulates our timetable and our movements within it. We have clocks that tell us when to get up or when our food has finished cooking, as well as lights that tell us when to cross the street or when our elevator trip is coming to an end. It’s a question of how comfortable we would be regulating ourselves 24 hours a day, and the means by which we would free ourselves from self-monitoring and indulge in an occasional healthy break from the routine.

There are a lot of other mobile projects going on in Palo Alto related to RFID, which seem prepared for real-world implementation. For the moment, Minders probably belong in the labs. Maybe once we’ve fully mastered the art of tracking goods flowing in and out of our warehouses, we’ll be ready to improve the way we manage the supply chains we call our lives.

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