Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fashionable Computers Disappear and Things Start Thinking

In the long ago days of 1998, my Mom bought her first computer, an iMac. At the time of her purchase, the fact that it looked cute and didn't require a mess of wires to hook-up was more important than all that megahertz and RAM stuff that she still does not nor care to understand.
Gateway soon introduced a line of radically slimmed down desktop machines, as did Sony and other manufacturers. Intel was showing off prototype computers that looked like brightly colored Aztec pyramids or sleek modern sculpture. A company that made a popular line of web servers was packing their industrial electronics in a blue cube barely bigger than your hand. At the same time, AOL and Microsoft wanted to be everywhere anywhere via a new generation of handheld and TV set-top devices. Palm Computing’s then current offering came in a sleek aluminum case that would not have been out of place on a Klingon Warrior, sheathed next to his Bat’leth.
Today, such design consciousness in digital devices, from computers to gadgets that had not existed in 1998 (WiFi hotspots and routers, digital music players, inexpensive consumer digital cameras, etc.) is the norm. As with an older tech, the automobile, consumers are making buying decisions based as much on a machine’s look and feel, as on the technology inside the box.
So what? Well, there are smart folks, such as the  MIT Media Lab’s near futurist Andy Lippman, that believe this tells us that we are witnessing both the first and final two or so decades of the personal computer as an Everyman's status object and fashion statement. They contend that when a technology gains more attention and confers more status as a fashion statement than its work-a-day purpose, it's probably about to disappear. That's "disappear", as in to be removed from view.
Confused? Let's look at an analogous situation. When was the last time you thought of the multi-gigawatt power plant on the other end of the wire that connects it to the motor you never hear in the compressor that you never think of in your fridge? All four pieces of technology just mentioned used to be big deals in the marketing of electric power, as well as the industrial design of fridges. Remember those old machines with the fat, round compressors on top? If you've never seen one for yourself, look for one in the background next time you're watching a 1930's vintage movie.
Today, the most important thing about picking a place to keep the beer cold is how well it disappears into the decor of our faux colonial kitchen. The last thing that we want from a reliable, ubiquitous technology is for it to call attention to itself. It should just be there, and be working the next time you feel like having some ice-cream. Thus, we hear the prediction that after the current phase of computer and telecom product design, the devices will begin to fade into the background of our environment. Their services, though, will still be there, but more reliably, like the light that comes on when you open the fridge.
What will emerge from this reinvented model for computing and telecommunications? Individually, many services will seem trivial from our present point of view. Milk cartons may access the internet-grocery store when they get low, and order replacements for themselves. A necktie might tell a business associate’s electronic rolodex what your email address is, as you shake his hand. Through the same tech, tablet computers distributed freely across the office will know who is holding them and what documents will be required for the next damn meeting. Pages in electronic books and catalogues, made with electronic paper, will update themselves when new information is available. Web-based information will be accessible from not only from hand-held devices, but previously "dumb" objects such as the tread of your car's wearing tires. 
Other services will seem less triffling. Your tee-shirt may contain processors woven into its fabric and a web-connected cardiac monitor to let the hospital know to send an ambulance when you’ve eaten more heart arresting calzones than you can jog away. That shirt and it’s wireless connection will be subsidized by a changing assortment of ads for the hospital’s services displayed on flexible video screens over your chest and back. Your own exertions will supply the power for the “smart” shirt’s connectivity and computing.
Devices like mice and trackpads, even keyboards, will truly disappear, and not just from view. They will be replaced by an intelligent environment that knows where you are looking and understands your facial and other gestures, as well as speech via cameras, microphones, and machine smarts. You may be wearing a hat or headband that puts you in direct connection to your outboard “brain”. The ubiquitous screen that we’ve been peering at for almost seventy years will disappear into your contact lenses or stylish shades, and they will also be your computer interface.
We are at the threshold of some truly remarkable tech. It will enable the things around us will seem to think, and we will think little of that, as the machines fade into the background and do their work invisibly. This prospect brings both promise and peril, of course. Do we really want our very environment to know all of our comings and goings, where our eyes wander, what stimulates various sectors of our neocortex… the host of our self and self awareness? Will the last bastions of privacy fall with this new generation of hidden tech? Can a society and culture function without secrets be kept from not only its denizens, but their own machines?
Interesting questions to ponder on the high speed ride to the near future!