Systems that keep track of individuals may sound sinister but, says Jane Bird, the possibilities that they offer for improved communications are almost endless.
Big Brother is at hand. Soon intelligent telecommunications networks will know where we are most of the time, and recognise us whenever we attempt to make a telephone call or access a computer. But unlike the figure created by George Orwell, these global electronic brains are intended to be friendly and helpful - servants not masters. By wearing infra-red badges or electronic tags we will be able to keep the networks constantly aware of our movements. Or we might tap personal identification numbers (PINs) in to telephone handsets and computer keyboards to identify ourselves, just like using a cash dispenser.
Computers will also become much easier to use. By knowing precisely who is at the keyboard, they will be able to deliver a personal service. The same familiar screen will greet you, whether you switch on in Sydney, Seville or San Francisco. If you prefer touchscreen menus, or spoken commands, the machine will invite you to point a finger or begin speaking in the language of your choice. Graphics, software commands and special functions will all appear according to your chosen style. The same will apply to telephones.
Hidden somewhere in these intelligent networks will be each subscriber's personal mailbox. Here messages will be stored in voice, video, fax, computer data or text form. Whenever you pick up a phone or switch on a computer, the network will tell you what has arrived. If you are on the phone, text-to-speech processors will be able to read your text messages down the line. You might then choose to have them stored, deleted, forwarded to your partner or faxed to your nearest fax machine. Thanks to your electronic transmitter, the system will know which is your closest output device and can make sure that printers and faxes are sent there.
If you have access to a screen, however, you may wish to view your video-mail - probably consisting of 30-second transmissions from friends and business contacts. Video is not yet possible on desktop computers because it needs so much processor power and memory. But by the year 2000, ordinary workstations equipped with a video camera will be able to create, store and transmit instant video film at 25 frames a second, says Andy Hopper, managing director of the Olivetti Research Centre in Cambridge. "This will produce the same quality as a cinema or TV screen," he adds.
"Video-mail is a very personal form of communication which is faster than writing a note. Most people find it much easier to speak a message than to write it down. And they'll be able to stop and edit it as they go along."
The biggest advantage of video-mail is its ability to convey body language - a raised eyebrow, pursed lip or shrug of the shoulders is something that computers have so far been unable to communicate. Businessmen believe that it will promote faster decision making.
A system that tracks individuals may sound sinister, but it already exists, says Hopper. "The cellular telephone operators know where their subscribers are, but no one worries that the fact they went to Manchester three times one week might be passed on." Electronic cash dispensers also record our movements.
But there are other issues which need to be addressed, says Hopper. For example, everyone will want to be able to switch off their phone handsets and have all calls directed to a voice-message box. But how will they decide when to use this facility?
"At first it seems easy. Of course you wouldn't want to be disturbed if you were in the boss's office, but how about other meetings? The further you go trying to predict the circumstances when you might want calls to be blocked or forwarded, the more difficult it gets."
The fact that everyone will have their personal phone numbers, possibly allocated at birth, raises other implications, says Hopper. "If a school child gives somebody their number, that person might be able to get back in touch for the rest of their lives," he points out.
Despite these issues, Hopper is confident that by the year 2000 it will be commonplace for your computer to switch off and lock automatically when you shut your office door. "Meanwhile, in the car park, your vehicle unlocks and runs through its warm-up routine, checking that the driver's seat and mirrors are correctly adjusted for you. During the journey your electronic notebook phones the office computer and tells it you're heading home so it can transmit your files," says Hopper.
"You get home, kiss your partner, kick the cat, and what you left at the office has reincarnated itself on your home computer. You might want to ignore it and kiss your partner again, but the choice is yours."