Experts see computers getting bigger and smaller at the same time
Share with others:
When pioneering professors Herbert Simon and Allen Newell began working with the first computer at what is now Carnegie Mellon University in 1956, they had no clear vision of how their research would reshape the world 50 years later.
Bill Wade, Post-GazetteRick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft, visits Carnegie Mellon University for a conference on the 50th anniversary of computing.
So it's no surprise that the experts visiting the campus last week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of computing at Carnegie Mellon shied away from predicting what the digital universe will look like in 2056.
They were more than happy, though, to share what might come out of their labs in the next five to 10 years.
As they talked enthusiastically about electronic books and wall-size computers, the corporate and university researchers charted four major compass points for the future.
GETTING BIGGER. Rick Rashid, the head of Microsoft Research and a former Carnegie Mellon professor, said it's now possible to buy a terabyte of computer memory for about $700.
A terabyte, 1,000 gigabytes, is enough memory to "store every conversation you ever have from the time you're born until you die," Dr. Rashid said, or a full year's worth of full-time video.
Dan R. Olsen Jr., a computer science professor at Brigham Young University, said he could now store every academic paper he's ever written, every set of software code he's written, all his e-mail, and family genealogy information and photos, and it takes up barely one third of the memory space on a simple iPod.
Now that people can store vast amounts of information on their computers, the two men said, the real challenge is how to find what they need quickly, especially when they're not sure where they put it.
Microsoft is working on a project called Stuff I've Seen that's designed to help with that.
If a person can't remember when he created a certain document or even what is in it, Dr. Rashid said, he might be able to remember what month it was, or with whom he talked that day, or even what the weather was. By correlating a user's documents with his computer calendar, e-mail, automated weather information and more, Stuff I've Seen will produce a set of documents that might include the one the person is looking for.
Stuart Card, a senior research fellow at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, said the other thing that's getting bigger is computer displays.
Dr. Card has evidence of that in his own office in California, where he has six large computer screens attached to each other. "It has the surface area of a 5-foot table," he said.
He can use the screens as one large screen or several smaller ones and can easily move information from one area to another. Research suggests that having more information arrayed in front of them can actually help people have "bigger ideas," Dr. Card said.
Mary Czerwinski, a senior researcher at Microsoft, is working on large computer displays that could double as art in people's homes.
The displays could post personal information on the edges that people might want to consult quickly, and that can be removed if there is a visitor, she said.
"We can make these displays very, very beautiful. Maybe when it is not showing information on the periphery it will just be art on the wall."
GETTING SMALLER. The processing power of computers today also means they can go into smaller and smaller devices.
At Microsoft's SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) program, the first prototype that's been developed is a computerized watch, which Dr. Rashid wears.
By getting signals on an FM frequency, the watch can display the correct time and weather for the part of the nation where he's located, Dr. Rashid said, as well as his daily calendar and other information.
At the Xerox research center, the phenomenon of packing more information into less space is embodied in the 3Book, a digital book that mimics its traditional counterpart but contains a slew of bells and whistles.
The 3Book has the appearance of a real book on the computer screen, and a reader can turn its pages by touching the corner of each page or touching the edge of the display to flip through pages quickly.
Still in the developmental stage, it also contains features that no regular book has, Dr. Card said.
It has a searchable index that can be expanded to show all other parts of the book related to the search term. Using semantic processing software, it can create a CliffNotes version of the book which highlights selected passages.
Most importantly, it could store or download thousands of other books onto its pages, Dr. Card said.
"People say, 'But I still want to take my paperback to the beach,' " Dr. Card said. "I completely agree with them on the one book you take to the beach, but you don't want to take your whole library to the beach," which is something you could do with 3Book.
MORE PORTABLE. iPods and cell phones show that computing has become much more portable than standard computers themselves.
James Landay, laboratory director for Intel Research in Seattle, said "the real potential for computing in our lives is all the rest of our lives that goes on when we're not in front of the computer."
One experimental demonstration of that is Aware Home, a project at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The idea behind Aware Home is to fill a house with sensors and specialized computer programs to help an older person remain healthy and stay in the home longer, said Elizabeth Mynatt, a computer professor at Georgia Tech.
One project she's working on is a glucose monitor that attaches to a cell phone to transmit blood sugar information directly to a computer. Motion sensors in the house keep track of how active the occupant is, and a computer diary lets her record what she's eating and how she's feeling.
Radio frequency tags on medication tell the computer when pill bottles have been removed from a cabinet and replaced, and prompt the computer to ask the person on a nearby screen whether she has taken her drugs.
By combining all this information, the computer program can tell which combinations of diet, exercise and medicine have the best results, Dr. Mynatt said. "It gives people the tools to understand that one particular pattern is leading to feeling pretty good 24 hours down the line," she said.
At Microsoft's lab in Cambridge, England, researchers are developing SenseCam, a wearable digital camera that has a 180-degree field of vision and motion and infrared sensors.
SenseCam can keep a record of everything you've seen or done during a day.
In an unexpected twist, it has turned out to be useful in helping brain-damaged people with memory problems.
One woman couldn't remember anything on her own after a two-day period, and diaries kept by her husband helped only for a few days.
But when she viewed one day's worth of pictures from a SenseCam she had worn a month before, she was able to remember much of what she did that day, even if it wasn't depicted in the photos, Dr. Rashid said.
QUICKER TO CHANGE. Ben Bederson, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland, said the most popular new Web sites are being driven by the quicksilver tastes of young people.
Sites such as MySpace and Flickr are easy to use, he said, and often are built around one primary niche, such as Flickr's photo-sharing technology.
The sites embody two other features, he said: democracy -- "These sites are bringing together communities of millions of users"; and "users rule"-- customers quickly move to another site if the first one doesn't satisfy them.
These hot Web sites are an example of how computer and software designers will have to focus on what consumers want and need, the researchers agreed.
It might lead to more products such as Microsoft's StepMail, an experimental program in which people use their feet to open and send e-mail, employing a pressure pad on the floor from the game Dance, Dance Revolution.
Other examples, Dr. Rashid said, are new photo programs that allow someone to remove a person or object from a photo and fill in the background automatically, or stitch together a family photo montage using the best shots of faces from different photos.
In some rural villages in India, people have set up small shops to enhance digital photos to make people look better or fill in a different background, he said, "because, fundamentally, people want keepsakes, and they want to look as good as possible. It's a very human desire."
It's possible all this technology will start to change the way people's brains work, said Judith Olson, a computer professor at the University of Michigan.
Young people learn to type earlier than ever, can do several things at once but have trouble concentrating on a single task, are comfortable with waiting until the last minute to plan social gatherings and don't have as much expertise because they rely on the Web or their social network to find the answers they need.
Put it all together, she said, "and it may lead to a permanent change in cognition."
First Published April 23, 2006 12:00 am