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Make way for the age of ubiquitous chips

Wednesday, May 19, 1999

By Michael Newman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Part of the beauty of science fiction, of course, is that it's not true. Unlike, say, engineers, authors need not bother with such worldly concerns as modem speed, disk space or how to remove cookie crumbs from the keyboard.

So it was fitting that the opening session of a conference on how to make computers easier to use was led by a panel of science-fiction authors. Maybe they didn't know as much about artificial intelligence as the 2,500 corporate and academic researchers in attendance. But they were far more entertaining.

Could machines, one member of the audience wanted to know, ever become emotional? The question might have prompted a lengthy philosophical rumination from an academic. But Michael Swanwick is a Philadelphia author of such sci-fi novels as "The Iron Dragon's Daughter."

"I suppose it's possible that machines will feel emotions some day," he said. "I hope not. Imagine being stalked by your old 286." It was the equivalent of a Klingon joke at a "Star Trek" convention, which is to say it brought down the house.

Yet the panel, which opened the "CHI '99" conference (it stands for "computer-human interaction") yesterday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, also had a serious point. Participants were far from unanimous, but their overall message was consistent: Technology, if not the computer itself, will soon be ubiquitous.

Through tiny chips or other devices, they said, information will become embedded everywhere -- in physical objects, intangible products, even other human beings. This information will be retrievable with a simple hand gesture or mere eye movement.

The scenarios the panel spun out may be fanciful. Then again, they may be no more implausible than expecting computer users to read 1,000-page instruction manuals.

Bruce Sterling, author most recently of "Distraction," spoke about "humanity's most basic task: housekeeping."

In a discussion of "the interface between humanity and its stuff," Sterling made a distinction between his two basic kinds of possessions: actual and virtual. He prefers the latter.

"I've been known to hunt for my socks or my house keys for almost an hour," he said. "This is because my actual possessions are very stupid. They don't know what they are, they don't know where they are and, most important, they don't know where they belong."

The solution: Make everything part of a network. If every device you own has some kind of "identifier" built into it, it doesn't matter where it is; its location can be easily retrieved from your computer or some other device.

Small chips on everything from socks to nail clippers would regularly convey their name, rank and serial number to a central source, which would keep track of all this "stuff." He imagined the transmission: "I am Bruce Sterling's left cowboy boot and here I am under the couch, where the cat dragged me."

By tapping into that source, Sterling would know where all his stuff was, even if it were all in a mess. Even better, every possession would be "protected" by the network.

"Everything I own becomes a police sting," he said. "I don't worry about my possessions any more than I worry about the particular segments of my hard drive."

In Swanwick's vision of the future, technology literally gets under your skin. He envisioned a tiny aspirin-like object injected into your body -- "think of it as your own pet tumor" -- exchanging information with other things, living and otherwise.

"Luckily we've already given up our sense of privacy." he said. Some uses of the technology may not be so welcome: Employers using them to monitor workplace behavior, for example. Or they might be used to somehow alter human behavior.

Not all uses would necessarily be sinister. Swanwick also spoke of traveling through an old cemetery, learning about the people buried there by virtue of his (and their) "embedded tumors." If he wanted to know more about a particular grave, the device embedded in the headstone, the casket, even the corpse could tell him.

"There are people alive today who will be buried with this in them," Swanwick said. Future reporters, he said, might be able to "dig them up and interview them," since so much information about their lives and personalities will be recorded on the chip.

Vernor Vinge, who teaches math at San Diego State University and is the author most recently of "A Deepness in the Sky," was slightly less sanguine about technology's possibilities.

Yes, computer hardware is getting ever faster, he said. But computer software is getting ever more complex.

It is possible that the "software complexity problem" will be solved in the next decade or so, he said. If so, the future will lie in "fine-grain distributed computing." (Translation: Tiny computer chips will be everywhere.)

Among other things, this could spell the "end of external design." After all, why spend time and money on fancy architecture if a building's appearance can be controlled by software? Certain basic physical features -- roofs, for example, or steps -- would need to be constructed. But the look of a structure would depend on how it was programmed, not how it was built.

"The problem with all this is, it involves solving software complexity problems that are enormous," Vinge said. If software is not simplified and made easier to use, he said, future generations may look back at our time and note that "the Y2K problem was just the beginning."

The last author to speak was Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan.

"Who cares?" he said, referring to all the predictions that preceded him. "All this connectedness -- we need it now." Technology, he said, was the last chance to save public education in the United States.

Soloway, who teaches in the university's schools of engineering, education and information science, also works with grade-school children in inner-city Detroit.

He had no future vision to share, though he did answer his own question about who cares about virtual architecture or communicative corpses.

The students he works with care about all this future technology, he said, and their needs are more immediate. "Have we heard [descriptions of] science fiction?" he said. "It better not be."



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