Tech Pioneers Preview the Future

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Predicting the future is risky business, and even visionaries turn conservative when facing that challenge. But the four winners of this year's Draper Prize from the National Academy of Engineering are as qualified for the task as anyone.

Bob Taylor, Alan Kay, Charles "Chuck" Thacker, and Butler Lampson were recently honored for their groundbreaking research at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California 30 years ago. Among their accomplishments: accurately envisioning the office of the future that most of us now use daily.

Alan Kay
The four winners shared with PC World their views on the future of computing. Their predictions are rather general and surprisingly near-term, but they're bolstered by examples of current research. As Kay says in describing what he calls the power of the context: "Point of view is worth 80 IQ points."

Clearly, visions sometimes take time; the PC was first envisioned in a July 1945 Atlantic Monthly article by Vannevar Bush, who headed technologies development for the military in World War II. And we still haven't caught up to the Jetsons' robotic vacuum cleaners and personal commuter jets. But these four visionaries have a better batting average than most tech seers.

Only the Beginning

Butler Lampson
"I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who think that there's not much more to do with computers, [because] actually, the computer revolution has only just begun," Lampson says. The other three Draper Prize winners concur.

"Personal computing is far from ubiquitous," Thacker says. "After all, there are only a few hundred million PCs [today], and there are 6 billion of us. There are a lot of areas--for example, primary education--where computers are still little used."

The four expect that several hot areas of research and innovation will become even more important when combined: wireless technologies, ever-higher-speed communications, speech recognition, improved search engines, and management of huge volumes of related information. These segments' total impact could be much larger than the sum of their parts.

Chuck Thacker
"I think wireless will make a fundamental difference in the way people use computers, since for the first time people can carry portable devices that give them access to the network, as well as all the things they have on their desks, [and] this will cause a wide variety of new devices to appear," says Thacker, who worked with Lampson on Microsoft's Tablet PC designs.

Tired of your PC's messy, pesky cables? The solution may be wireless. "I think that short-range wireless will take over for nearly all connections between computers and peripherals, because it's much more convenient," Lampson says.

Next Step: Disassembly

Bob Taylor
In fact, look for the traditional PC--keyboard, screen, hard disk, network adapter--to become "disaggregated." The pioneers expect that the components will become separated but will continue to work together. Many computer research groups at universities, and at private and corporate labs, are working on this assumption.

As wireless access becomes common and cheap, as chips and communications get faster, and as prices continue to drop, there is less reason to tie a disk to a keyboard and screen--it could sit in a closet or a car trunk. So could processors and memory. The network will be everywhere, both wired and wireless.

A PC's screen could also change radically: It may become whichever display device is closest. Current research includes such examples as flashing advertising panels in the grocery store checkout line. Or you may pause to check data on an office hallway's "video" wall that displays a computer's output using special electronic paints already in development. Another future display in the works is a laser-powered holographic system that shows text and video in the air using tiny programmable actuator chips called MEMS (micro electro-mechanical systems, already used in many commercial products). Or the display you use simply might be a piece of "electronic paper" that you crumple when you're through.

Input and control could be via a wireless keyboard, a handwriting recognition device, or an array of microphones embedded in the surface of your desk or your car's dashboard. With voice recognition technology, such input devices are always listening in the background for you to "wake up" the computer.

Embed and Spread

Fundamentally, most computers may simply vanish from view, either through disaggregation or by becoming embedded into walls, appliances, and even your clothes--or a combination.

"My wife, who doesn't use PCs or Macs at all, says, 'The best computer is an invisible computer,'" Thacker says. "Although putting computers into things like toasters and refrigerators seems a little silly today, it is becoming increasingly less silly." Indeed, some consumer electronics stores already sell early versions of computerized appliances.

Cars already have dozens or hundreds of computers built into them to control everything from the steering wheel's angle to the DVD player, as well as to monitor gas consumption or to power the wheels, brakes, and suspension.

Lampson wants to see that go a giant step farther. He envisions cars that drive themselves, primarily for safety reasons. In fact, he'd like to see all cars always on autopilot.

Meanwhile, expect the way you get telephone service to change. Wireless, as well as high-speed communications from your cable company (and perhaps your electric utility), will cause that change, especially with the advent of Voice over Internet Protocol. This high-quality version of Web phone technology is expected to take off as network backbones get faster and more reliable. The phone company's old copper wires will finally prove too slow. The holdup is the so-called last-mile problem: the expense of rewiring that last few hundred yards from the network in the street up to your door.

Room for Improvement

Also still early is speech recognition technology. A number of products are out (in fact, Lampson dictated his responses to PC World using voice input to Microsoft Word), but the technology is less effective when tasks are complex, such as correctly recognizing and responding to voice commands. Even relatively simple speech dictation usually requires positioning a microphone near the mouth to cancel extraneous noise.

"The larger problem of speech [is that it] requires human-style commonsense reasoning to be pretty well done by machine," Kay says. "I can't think of any good reason why this won't happen. It's just a difficult problem to [deal with] outside of restricted contexts."

Lampson concurs: "Getting the computer to understand what you say to it and behave intelligently is an entirely different matter" from speech recognition.

Even after 60 years of development, computers are still basically machines that can only crunch an endless stream of ones and zeros. While they are blindingly fast at math, there are many things they don't do well at all. Reasoning and making commonsense decisions without human decision-making is still difficult, because life is not easily boiled down to mathematical equations, no matter how complex.

Although several research projects are focusing on imbuing computers with such cognition--one has been under way for 20 years--that remains a holy grail for computer science. But as more information becomes available in digital form, better search technologies may combine with satellite technologies to become accessible through portable devices such as Tablet PCs. The result? The entire Library of Congress may become available in a Third World village.

The four pioneers say that fundamental shifts are ahead, as we change both the way we think and the way we view the universe.

"I don't think anything really important has happened yet," Kay says. "If we compare [the PC and other technologies] to the printed book, the printing technology preceded the big changes in thinking [and] argumentation by about 150 or 200 years." He predicts that changes will come as computing "co-evolves with the users, especially children, until a new kind of fluency will be able to happen. And then, those after us will see some big changes."

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