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Making sense of the world

Dr Oliver Hadeler

Programme Manager CamBridgeSens, Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, University of Cambridge

Sensors are fundamental to life. The cells in our bodies sense the amount of oxygen available to them. Bacteria perceive their chemical environment and react to it by moving towards or away from what they have detected. We use our own senses to protect us from danger; whether it is smell and taste to alert us to harmful chemicals in the air or in our food, or our hearing to warn us of an approaching animal or car. Numerous animals have developed sensors specific to their environment, e.g. fish able to detect electricity in the deep sea.

Humans have invented an abundance of artificial sensors over millennia, e.g. measuring temperature, telling the time with sun dials and atomic clocks, imaging the very small and the very large with microscopes and telescopes.

Metrology, the science of measurement, has developed alongside these scientific and technological advances. More accurate, faster and cheaper measurements have enabled technological progress.

Today we are witnessing a paradigm shift in sensor technologies and applications. Sensors have become pervasive as an increasing number of products and services include or rely on sensors. The Internet of Things, smart devices and artificial intelligence are recent developments which have been made possible through the miniaturisation and mass production of sensors. Personalised health care and driverless cars are prominent examples.

The societal changes we are likely to experience as a result of these advances in sensor technology are slowly emerging. Social scientists, policy makers and sensor developers are asking: "Who owns the data which is collected by all the sensors, how do we protect our privacy?"