October 18, 2004

the cyberspace files

I had completely forgotten about unums until this morning, when I saw that Chip Morningstar has blogged about and posted the Electric Communities Cyberspace Protocol Requirements from a decade ago. ("Unums" were the world-objects in a cyberspace system, as distinguished from the programmatic notion of object-oriented objects, and from real-world objects). If you're a cyberspace romantic or a distributed systems geek and you've never seen this, you really should go plow through it. Chip, Randy and Crock were way ahead of their time on a lot of issues we're still wrestling with.

In brief, the Global Cyberspace Infrastructure architecture must be:

Scalable - The technological and institutional components should be sufficient for a system that includes every person and computer in the world.
Open - Cyberspace is open to new providers of services (or of the network itself) without regulation and at low cost.
Decentralized - There exists no singular privileged technical or administrative nexus.
Traversable - Data and objects can move between users, between services, and between machines.
Commercial - Cyberspace contains a complete foundation for economic activity of all kinds.
Social - Cyberspace contains the components necessary to support community life.
Secure - The technology facilitates making good decisions about which entities can be trusted and protects users from the untrusted ones.
Portable - Protocols and service features are logically independent of the technical details of the physical network.

But what I really want to know is, whatever happened to the design for the cyberspace flag? There was even a motto that played off the French "liberté, egalité, fraternité", it went something like "Securité, Distributé, Communité", although my memory may have garbled the message somewhat. Ah, those were heady days, or so it seemed at the time...

Posted by Gene at 11:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 23, 2004

yet another vision of the ubi-future

Not sure how old this is, but Vodafone has put together a very slick, high production value Flash site showing their R&D lab's vision of the mobile, ubiquitous computing future. It's definitely worth a look, although you'll need some patience to get through it; there's a lot of moving parts and the designers are overly enamored with animated transitions.

So far I've gone through the entertainment scenario, and I haven't seen anything truly novel. It appears to be yet another variation on the theme of context-aware/situation-aware computing, spontaneously federated devices, new I/O peripherals, ubiquitous connectivity, and social media. Maybe I'm a bit jaded, but it's all starting to sound suspiciously like received wisdom. Is the pervasive computing/ubicomp vision held by so many researchers our modern version of the "personal jetpack" from the '50s?

So there's a good challenge to consider, for which Vodafone's vision is simply a convenient stalking horse: Given what we know about the tremendous advancements in the underlying technologies of computation, communication, I/O, etc, combined with our collective understanding (ahem) of human culture and society, can we create more imaginative, more insightful, more believable scenarios of the future? Can we articulate a world where ubiquitous golly-gee-whiz technologies become dull and commonplace, and the resulting long-term patterns of change in people's lives become evident? Can we take a step beyond shiny happy corporate sales tools, to consider the complex and ambivalent nature of ubicomp's impact on our lives, as these new technologies become truly pervasive and embedded in the fabric of the world?

I think it's time to re-evaluate assumptions and goals.

Posted by Gene at 09:55 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 09, 2003

a stroll through computer history

Image(16).jpg Image(18).jpg

Tuesday's Silicon Valley 4.0 gig was held at the new Computer History Museum in Mt. View, in what was once the SGI Silicon Studio complex at Shoreline and 101. While the museum is still in beta, it is already a very cool and worthwhile place to visit. I had a chance to wander through the exhibit of computing artifacts, where they have such gems as the Digital PDP-1 (pictured). I nabbed a few more photos, including a piece of an ENIAC, an IBM360, and IMP #10 from BBN.

Posted by Gene at 11:03 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 03, 2003

The future ain't, part last

The final installment of dusty prose from 1994. "Abstractly, we might think of context as a vast hyperspace of information, present at our sensory periphery and changing in response to the focus of our attention." Cool! ...but still far out of reach, sigh.

Connecting with People
gb 10/24/94

What is the architecture of social structures -- of families and communities, corporations and nations? Arguably, it lies in the human capacity and propensity for communication among individuals and among groups large and small. We are social creatures; driven to express and comprehend, we create languages to speak and write with, we take up pen or brush or musical instrument, we build vast interconnected networks to carry our ideas to others. Facilitated by the symbolism of spoken and written words, we create abstract structures -- organizations of people -- through which we build artifacts and systems beyond human scale. Through these organizations of interacting individuals, we become acquainted with the meson and the moon. But communication is hard, and despite our remarkable facilities of speech and abstract thought, despite millions of miles of fiber optic cable and billions of bits per second, despite our best intentions, we often fail to understand, and we fail to be understood.

A great deal of energy is being spent in laboratories and garages around the world, trying to recreate the experience of physical presence over electronic networks. This extension of the reach of communications will soon yield reasonable renditions of our faces and voices at a distance; eventually we will simulate and recreate the local environment, so that non-verbal cues such as body language, surroundings and background activity become part of the interaction mix. These will be remarkable achievements, but by themselves they will only scratch the surface of possibility for interpersonal connection.

Information theory is an objective science. Human communication of information is by contrast deeply subjective. When we speak we leave much unsaid; when we write there is meaning between the lines, and our meaning is tightly bound to our unvoiced assumptions about the world, the context of our communication. Context is the environment of the thought, encompassing place, time, goals, experience, culture, values, identity and more. Because context is rarely explicit, we often find a crevasse between our intent in communicating, and the meaning perceived by those we are trying to reach. Finding a shared context helps to close the gap. The shared context among individuals becomes the basis for real communication between them, such that cosmologists with years of immersion in their field may communicate regarding the origins of our universe, while complete strangers tend to talk about the weather. To ignore the importance of context is to risk the breakdown of communication, and the loss of understanding.

In an age of ubiquitous communication networks, we may imagine a more explicit linkage of context and content in people’s lives. Abstractly, we might think of context as a vast hyperspace of information, present at our sensory periphery and changing in response to the focus of our attention. In interactions with other people, some aspects of context become mutually available, perhaps in a very subtle manner or perhaps quite directly. With contextual augmentation, hidden phenomena may become clearer: The social interactions of power and influence in an organization. The ebb and flow of people in cities, their backgrounds and cultures and beliefs. The interests of others around us and the chances to make connections that aren’t obvious. The relationships among contexts which underlie the relationships among people.

In the arts, we speak of a talented and communicative practitioner as a virtuoso. The virtuous performer combines technical mastery of her medium with a great depth of human expressiveness, communicating with her audience at symbolic, intuitive and emotional levels. Can we imagine a similar kind of virtuosity of communication, applied to domains that are not traditionally considered art? Can we further make this possibility accessible to more people, allowing a richer level of discourse in the walks of everyday life? What would constitute such virtuosity -- A large vocabulary? Mastery of foreign tongues and written languages? Rich use of metaphor and allegory? Perhaps command of the subtlety and nuance of body language and vocal intonation? Other non-verbal or non-language cues which do not exist today? An artist must practice her craft and receive feedback to improve; so too must a talented communicator.

When groups of musicians play together, they establish communication channels among themselves through the give and take of listening and leading. Great ensemble players know how to establish a state of flow, a groove, where the music takes on a vitality and life of its own, greater than the sum of the individual rhythms, pitches and timbres. What are the conditions that make such a group ‘chemistry’ possible? Could we capture that essence and apply it to the work of organizations, the building of communities, the life of families?

What are the artifacts that support the individual virtuosity and the group chemistry of communication, and the augmentation with context? Today we have books and letters on paper, telephones and TV and radio and yes, computers, displays, scanners and printers. These media and devices serve as the mediators of our communication with others. These will all evolve and coexist with new communication artifacts and media. What will a language translator look like? How might shared context be experienced? What channels will people use to provide the immediacy and intimacy of personal contact at a distance?

(Yes, that's the rather abrupt end. Guess the art of a clean concluding paragraph eluded me in those days ;-P

Posted by Gene at 09:07 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 27, 2003

The Future Ain't, Part 3

The third part of my vision piece. I don't believe we've made much progress on these issues over the last 9 years; if anything we are further than ever from a human-centered model of computing.

Appliances of the Mind
gb 10/31/94

Perception, reasoning, memory, communication: these powerful abstractions of the mind comprise the core of what defines us as individuals and as a species. Our experiences and ideas, beliefs and identity are inseparable from the ways in which we perceive the world, think about it, remember it and tell stories about it. Yet for all the depth and richness of our cognitive processes, we are nonetheless limited in our ability to deal with the increasing complexities of the world we inhabit. Through the onrush of globe-circling media and the shrinkage of time and distance through high-speed travel and telecommunications, we find ourselves beset with choices, half-paralyzed with possibility. The systems and situations we must deal with have grown beyond human scale, and the evolution of our native capabilities have not kept pace.

We may attribute much of this effect to the advance of computing and communications technologies focused on tasks, rather than on people and their needs. Perhaps this focus is now changing. In the same way that the machinery and appliances of modern life serve to augment and extend the capabilities of our bodies, a broad range of electronic information tools are beginning to raise our mental faculties to new levels. To help us deal with the barrage of external data, the technologies of information may plausibly become as ingrained a part of our mental activities as automobiles and electric power are in the physical sphere. The telephone, the television, the personal computer, the printed page; these examples of today’s information media are but an inkling of what we may see in the coming decades.

In an age where access to and use of information imparts a kind of competitive advantage, the animal or the organization which assimilates, uses and disseminates information most effectively will enjoy a margin of success over its competitors. Assimilation -- the ingress of information to the mind -- involves the appropriate matching of the message to the sensory ‘impedance’ of the receiver. Use -- application of information to an end -- encompasses learning, synthesis, judgement, memory and related processing. Dissemination -- the communication of information to others -- requires a different form of impedance matching, and invloves dimensions of intent, meaning and expressiveness.

In a limited sense, the mind and the computer share common ground. Both can be thought of as processors of information received through input channels; both maintain transient and persistent forms of storage; each one employs output channels to communicate or effect actions upon the external world. The computer is of course more precise, more rigid, with an inexhaustible appetite for repetition; it may also be upgraded, scaled up, connected to new channels, reprogrammed. The mind, by contrast, is organic -- unpredictable, forgetful, easily distracted, subject to emotional tides -- and notoriously difficult to reprogram. The mind excels at analysis of problems, synthesis of ideas from disparate influences, learning from new situations, and generating flashes of insight; these are things no computer is currently capable of, nor will there be one soon. But the mind’s talents are overmatched when confronted with the complexity of an internet, an economy or a global enterprise. With too many inputs, too many variables and too many possible actions, the scale of such systems exceeds our ability to form a rational mental model. Without a workable model, we have no solid basis for analyzing problems or deciding what to do. ‘Gut feel’ becomes less and less useful. Synthesis has no context in which to occur; learning is blocked. We believe technology offers a way forward. Computers excel at modeling and simulating complex phenomena. Algorithms for optimization, visualization and ‘what if’ scenario generation in non-linear dynamic systems have the potential to provide ‘impedance matching’ between the person and the system. The depth and persistence of digital memories allow us to remember in great detail over time, and to tap the knowledge and experiences of others than ourselves. The emerging field of self-organizing, evolutionary systems points to the possibility of a more organic, less mechanistic approach to computing, in which the processes of our tools become more suited and matched to the processes of our minds.

Humans build large scale abstractions through social cooperation. The workgroup, the community, the corporation, the institution all depend on the concerted actions of groups of individuals. We may even think of a group of people as an entity, with a unified set of objectives and tools to reach its goals. In this context, it is not unreasonable to consider the augmentation of the group’s mental processes -- assimilation of information, learning, analysis, decision making and memory. Again, the technologies of information offer possibilities. Here, the problem is compounded by the need to coordinate among many individuals, or by extension among many subgroups.

As information technologies increasingly become integral to our activities, the information we use, even to our ways of thinking and perceiving, we must confront some difficult, elusive notions about the relationships between people and their tools. For instance, in what sense can the technology enhance creative, playful thinking -- are we having fun? What about beauty, inspiration, spirituality, mystery? These are qualities for which humans have striven over our entire history; shall we subjugate them in the name of efficiency, convenience and immediacy? Do the artifacts we make allow people space for reflection and insight, or merely add to the numbing cacophony of digital voices demanding our attention? Is it strange to ask such questions? Not at all. The economics of information technologies seem to dictate a future where more and more of our lives will be mediated by networks and interfaces and assorted other paraphernalia of progress. We must recognize the importance of such uniquely human concerns and integrate them into our vision, or risk further dehumanization in our already fractured society.

Posted by Gene at 11:27 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 21, 2003

the future computer, circa 2013

I just caught up with Jim O'Connell's question from last week:

So what do you think will be your "computer" in 2013? I'm guessing that I'll still be sitting in front of a QWERTY keyboard looking at a screen pretty much the way I do now - no voice or pen input and no artificial intelligence.

I've done some recent thinking in this regard. I'm going to assume mainstream users in the developed world, and I'm going to ignore most of the zillion embedded computers which will increasingly be inside virtually everything. Having said that, ten years from now I'll be quite surprised if we don't have at least 3 significant computerish environments in our daily lives -- a PC-like device, a personal ensemble that we carry/wear, and a digital home system.

Like Jim, I think the PC will look pretty familiar in 2013 from a user perspective. QWERTY keyboard, mouse, speakers, LCD screen, sit in a chair to use it. No speech interface, no gesture interface, no eye tracking, no pen, no AI butlers. Architecturally it will probably be similar as well; the biggest difference will be the speeds, feeds and capacities, which will seem enormous by today's standards. I'm guessing core CPU speeds in excess of 50GHz and 1 TIPS, 16GB RAM, 10TB primary storage, gigabit ethernet NIC, and integrated WLAN which will either be pretty fast (54Mb/s) or really fast (500Mb/s) depending on UWB's success. What we'll do with all that zorch, I have no idea. Maybe solitaire?

The nomadic ensemble is going to be interesting, and a bit hard to predict accurately. I'll leave aside laptops and tablets, which will certainly exist and be almost as damn fast as the PC, and maybe will have become the primary PC for a majority of folks (like my kid today). I believe our bodily specs will include figures like 10GHz, 1 TB, 10 megapixels, 2Mb/s WAN, 54Mb/s WLAN and 10Mb/s PAN. We'll also be thinking in terms of sensing: GPS, RFID, 3-axis accelerometers, biotelemetry. All these capabilities will be served up in a wildly diverse array of devices: superphones, ubercameras, wrist computers, personal servers, media players, and so on. However, I don't expect to see digital eyeglasses/HUDs in this timeframe, nor do I expect neural implants of any sort, sorry. Some wild cards that could make things even more nuts include flexible/foldable displays, and hydrogen fuel cells -- I don't expect them in the mainstream, but I won't rule them out completely either.

The 2013 digital home is still going to be pretty conventional looking, but it will likely be chock full of tech gear. Your TiVo will hold 2400 hours of standard def video, enough to record 10+ channels 24 hours a day for more than a week (if they put enough tuners in ;-) Your home server will hold 10-20TB of movies, music, pictures, blog posts and spam, and be connected via 1Gb ethernet to the outside world (not DSL/cable, I'm hoping!)... Multiple laptops, fast WLAN, full audio/video networking, digital picture frames, okay I guess I should quit, you get the general idea.

Oh, and I think we'll start to see physical hyperlinks show up all over the place.

Do you think I'm an optimist, a pessimist, or that I just missed?

Posted by Gene at 04:27 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 15, 2003

The Future Ain't, Part 2

The second segment of my old ramblings. The prose is kind of overwrought, but IANAW so what do you expect?

Extending the Senses
gb 9/27/94

What is the relationship between perception and reality? The human sensory spectrum is rich; the phenomena of the world’s workings are yet richer. If life is complex and multi-textured as experienced through the five senses, what exists beyond the boundaries? The electromagnetic spectrum is mostly beyond our ken. The realms of the extremely small and the extremely large are out of reach. Our perspective of time is a point in the present; our lifetimes are too short to absorb the vastness of the universe. Even the complexity of our own bodies is perceived only in the vaguest of terms. Technology may be seen as a means to extend human perception, opening us to a more complete understanding of ourselves and the context of our surroundings.

We humans create tools to help us transcend the limits of our senses, but the telescopes and oscilloscopes and other-scopes, the models and abstractions and mathematical constructs and the associated paraphernalia of computation and measurement and discovery, all are the province of the very few, the trained specialists. As the tools become digital and succumb to the inexorable logic of integration and connectedness, this will change. From the laboratory, the hospital ward and the factory floor, the direction is outward: to the office building, the vineyard, the living room, the wrist.

The extension of the senses may occur in many dimensions, motivated by a variety of desires. We may imagine the amplification of existing modalities in fairly linear ways -- greater dynamic range and spectral response in vision, better selectivity and spatial resolution in hearing, finer granularity in the sense of touch, identification of chemical compounds as part of the sense of smell. We may further imagine a lowering of the barriers of time and space, and integration over them -- chronovision and teletouch are not words in our lexicon, but the ability to perceive and understand phenomena at a distance or over periods of time is likely to be broadly useful. The capability to ‘zoom’ in and out in space and time may provide a powerful means of gaining perspective. We may conceive of synesthetic combinations, where the power of human visual processing is brought to bear on auditory, olfactory or tactile phenomena. Finally, we may envision entirely new senses to perceive complex or abstract dimensions, e.g., the behavior of a financial market or a social system.

The objects of extended perception will be natural and human-constructed, in combinations of varying degree. They will include large scale entities such as hydrological systems, communication networks, agricultural lands and disease transmission patterns; also human scale entities such as automobiles, buildings and bodies; likewise small scale entities such as circuits, molecules and viruses. Extended perception of such entities will lead to greater understanding of and control over their structure, their behavior and their impacts on individuals and societies.

The technologies of perception will be distributed. Very small structures based on electronic, optical, micromechanical and biochemical principles will enable webs of interconnected sensors embedded in the fabric of systems. These sensory webs will feed vast streams into interconnected utilities of information, combining with abstract information forms and interpersonal communication in a unified context. In this way, measurements in the physical domain will become a pervasive and inseparable aspect of our knowledge about the world.

The technologies of perception will be personal. Developments in the physical sciences combined with extraordinary resources of computing and communication made commonplace, will enable synthetic sensory ‘display’ appliances that complement and augment the capabilities of the individual. In much the same way that eyeglasses enhance sight, such appliances might be considered to enhance insight by providing views of the world inaccessible to people with their standard-issue senses.

Posted by Gene at 04:33 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 12, 2003

the future ain't what it used to be

Okay, it's time to get serious ;-)

Some time ago (in 1994) I wrote a series of short essays that were an attempt to paint a vision of where information technologies were headed in the next 10 or so years. They were never published, but it's nonetheless fun to look back on one's old perspectives. If any of this seems accurate today (and some of it does), consider it a sign of how long it takes for ideas that seem natural and obvious to move from genesis to reality. The four pieces were titled:

Foundations (a prologue of sorts)
Extending the Senses
Appliances of the Mind
Connecting With People

Here's the first one, I'll try to post the rest over the next few days.

gb 11/8/94

Some things about the technological landscape of the future are fairly certain, mapped out by the trends we see today. While we cannot predict the precise manifestations of products or their impact on society, we can extrapolate along fairly straight lines to imagine the lay of the land.

Microprocessors, semiconductor memory and magnetic storage will continue to plunge headlong down the spiral of shrinking dimensions and expanding performance. The central processing element of the personal computers of 15 years ago is now the central processor of your coffeepot. Fifteen years hence, a device of that complexity may well be the central processor in your credit card while the RISC and CISC marvels of today’s desktop workstations power learning toys and portable entertainment products. We understand this trend, and we fully expect it to continue.

Networks for communication among digital devices and systems will continue to proliferate. The imperative to connect and communicate will drive organizations and individuals alike to go ‘on-line’. Islands of disconnected computers will evolve to isthmi, peninsulae, continents of computing. Home PCs will aggregate into community networks. Enterprises will resemble Internets; Internets will become Meganets. Developments occuring in research laboratories right now will lead to low cost, low power wireless components, enabling a fabric of invisible connections among people and between devices.

Information will continue to move toward a digital lingua franca. Images, sounds and words are well on their way; film and video, coming soon. Tactile, olfactory information next, perhaps? Even a semblance of virtual experience is already becoming available in digital form. The physical world literally radiates information, much of it beyond human sensory capabilities; physical, biological and chemical sensors will increasingly translate the world into binary representations. Paper, canvas, real life -- these media are not dead, but their roles stand to be augmented and reexamined due to the rapid incursion of digital bits into their traditional domains. In an era of television, radio survives and thrives, movies are still shown in theaters, newspapers are still delivered, books are still read. In the coming era of digital media, we will experience even greater richness and diversity of form.

Many aspects of the future of technology are rather more uncertain, yet they carry vast potential for change. The ability to model, fabricate and manipulate structures at molecular scale leads to new conceptual approaches for the chemical and biological sciences, and indeed for electronics, optics and mechanics as well. The mathematics of nonlinear dynamic systems and complexity, still in its infancy, begins to describe a world view where the future is undetermined but the brushstrokes of the next few seconds might be predictable, and where systems behavior emerges from the undirected interaction of individual entities.

Where does all this lead? The future is uncertain if nothing else. We can merely speculate that this backdrop of pervasive digital technologies and media will weave a dense fabric of information through our lives. Much as electric power snakes invisibly through every wall in the developed world, an information utility may become an expected part of the backdrop of day to day life, with information appliances providing the interface to its users. Perhaps ‘gratuitous computing’ describes a world where ordinary objects sprout features like consumer appliances run amok and mumble to one another in vague digital whispers as we pass. Perhaps the loose associations of people and places, objects and ideas and experiences which make up our identities will coalesce into a tangible web facilitated by technology. Perhaps people’s lives will be markedly improved by technology. Perhaps not. The world will continue to change, and the outcome is far from settled. Our part is to advance the state of the art, to foment change and forward progress, and to maintain a clear perspective on the value of our work to society.

Posted by Gene at 11:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack