Do you get sudden flashes of recall for no obvious reason?  Last week  I recalled a moment forgotten for a decade, and found it raised a question that I really wanted to ask. I remembered a panel at an MIT seminar in the mid-nineties. I seem to recall that Stewart Brand was one of the experts, and also Arno Penzias (who kindly signed my copy of his book) but despite my research efforts on the web I have lost the actual event and what was said. But I do recall my question (why do one’s own infelicities get remembered?) and the answers. Having spent a few years watching lawyers interface with primitive online services, I asked whether it was true that the keyboard was the greatest barrier between the internet and mass usage, and whether we would make much progress before it was abolished and replaced by a more sympathetic way of getting into networked communication.

And, yes, I am blushing slightly as I write this on my keyboard. But I have at least, in some arcane memory reflux, remembered their answers. The three gurus agreed that the keyboard was a problem – all about speed, the crazy survival of Qwerty as an organizational principle, and the then low-status of keyboarding (only for clerks and secretaries). One said that voice was the obvious answer, and that perfecting voice recognition and, alongside it, linguistic exchange, was the only reasonable step forward. After all, merely going to another interface without solving the great problem that users do not understand each other’s languages was pointless. The next guy up said that we were entering the age of the sensor and the camera, and that all interfaces would be driven by video and image, with minimal input from choice keys on a selection device. And the third quoted William Gibson and insisted that we would be actors on our own stage, avatars within individualized interfaces where we could simply select the services we needed and “physically” go where we wanted to go in the networks.

Well, it was a long time ago, and billions of people are now using hopeless Qwerty to communicate in the network. But the predictions came to mind, and having uttered them, it also occurred to me that they need updating. For example, wearable computing seems like an effort to merge the man into the machine and this implies a wonderful world where, as Sergey Brin demonstrated to the  New York Times, even the Google inventor can become 60% machine on a transient basis. While the Singularity University always seems a bit like Silicon Valley at its most crackpot ( we are steadily interfacing with thinking computing in a way hard to envisage a decade ago, and we shall see the output of this first in workflow and process solutions.

The area of Media Lab work that most intrigued me all that time ago was Seymour Papert and LEGO. We were going to make such strides in education so quickly, but like our work on replacing this keyboard, progress has been agonizingly slow. But, soft, here comes Hope from South Korea, bearing a robot called EngKey who recognizes English and will replace all those gap year students in South Korean classrooms who are now, in the new austerity, too expensive to import. Anyway, humans were never so very good at teaching: you want something endlessly patient and wholly repetitive, as well as accurate in assessment. Robots are far better equipped.

So as it happens we were looking in the wrong direction in this discussion on interfaces. The key to change was not what we needed to do to interact better with the machine, but what the machine could be developed to do to work more sentiently with us. So only when the machine recognizes our facial expressions ( and listens to our speech intonations will progress be made. Progress today, in terms of helping autistic children or pre-schoolers (the RUBI Project at San Diego), and progress tomorrow in terms of the productivity gains that robotics will deliver in workflow and information handling.

This is all a long diatribe to encourage all of us to keep reading science fiction and going to conferences where you don’t understand what is being said: if my experience is anything to go by, you one day will. And then you will be much more able to understand why some things happen immediately and some things seem to be going backward rather than forward. On the latter topic, I saw today (an event like the first cuckoo of Spring) my first report on what has happened at The Times following the imposition of the paywall: Experian Hitwise reports that during the five weeks when readers were asked to register their payment details, visits to the site fell 33%, and that they are now off by 66%. So where will they go when the introductory special offer comes off? You soon won’t even be able get your robot to read it.


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1 Comment so far

  1. Mike on July 22, 2010 20:37

    Small correction. It was ‘LOGO’ that Papert gave to all us young programmers. Not ‘LEGO’

    Which brings about a fundamental question about computers that seems to divide people into two camps. Do you use the computer to create things? Or do you use the computer to consume things?

    The blogging software of today is the LOGO of the past. Teaching us that anyone can create on a computer (content or software) with the right tools.