Most readers recognize the term “WiFi” as the service that allows their computers, smartphones, tablets, digital cameras and other devices to wirelessly connect to the internet. We use WiFi at home, in the car, at coffee shops, in hotels and in many other places for convenient access to the internet while we save on expensive data streaming costs when watching movies or listening to music online. Basically, WiFi uses low strength radio waves to talk to and listen to your devices. Such information can include your online shopping order or a your news feed, but new innovations in technology are starting to let us do so much more with WiFi.
WiFi provides so much convenience and has set us free from the wires that chained us to certain rooms and places via our devices. Beyond this convenience, researchers at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT discovered a remarkable capability of WiFi to detect very specific details about the people and animals within the reach of the WiFi signals. Professor Dina Katabi and her two graduate students Fadel Adib and Zachary Kabelac introduced a new WiFi technology called Emerald. They discovered that the radio signals sent out by a WiFi device bounce off of objects and animals and return to the WiFi device. The WiFi device can, using some complicated mathematics, read the reflected radio waves and detect subtle things such as a person’s heartbeat, breathing, motion, or even whether the person is standing up, sitting down, or lying on the floor. The signals can differentiate between a person’s heartbeat and their dog’s heartbeat even through walls. The discovery has many potential breakthrough applications, so much so that Dr. Katabi and her students were invited by President Obama to the exclusive technology “Demo Day” at the White House in 2015.
With Emerald, WiFi liberates people again, but this time not from cables rather from wearable monitoring devices. Emerald provides real time information that supports independent living. Instead of having to wear monitors to provide information about heart rate, respiration and position, Emerald collects this information in real time. Emerald can communicate with a safety monitoring service if someone has fallen and cannot get up and can contact emergency services. On the same token, baby monitoring with Emerald goes past sound and visuals of today’s monitors. Since Emerald monitors respiration and heart rate it could help save lives of babies at risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). In some cases, infants may suffocate if they are on their stomachs in the crib, and the Emerald system could sound an alarm if the baby’s breathing stops without the use of some cumbersome wearable device that would be strapped to the baby.
Apart from the many positive benefits of Emerald, it does not take too much imagination to think of other uses for this technology in the areas of surveillance such as spying on people without them having any idea that they are being monitored. Certainly, with Emerald investigators could watch the respiration and heart rate of individuals being questioned about a crime. Furthermore, artificial intelligence as it improves at game playing could gain a significant advantage by “observing” its opponents. Recently, an AI program developed at Carnegie Mellon University called Libratus defeated champion poker players in a 20-day tournament of Texas Hold’Em. Before Liberatus computer poker players have not been successful because it is not easy to figure when someone is bluffing or when to bluff. Libratus was successful in part because it learned how to successfully bluff, ultimately winning over $1.7 million in fake chips from the professionals. Now, imagine if Libratus could also use Emerald to “look” around the table to know the breathing and heart rate of it opponents to better guess who is bluffing.
WiFi has literally liberated so many of our computer devices from certain locations in our homes and offices by alleviating the need for cables to connect us to the internet. The research from MIT by Katabi and her students has developed new uses of WiFi that liberates us from needing wearable devices like Fitbit or a respiration monitor. Beyond the convenience, the Emerald technology also opens the door for specific surveillance and spying that coupled with artificial intelligence may alter how people play games against computers or for interrogations in the future. With more technological liberation, there can be more technological oppression with the same tools.