Where humans and machines meet

Ray Kurzweil has some advice for you: take care of yourself for the next 10 years, because if you’re still around in 2011, you’ll have a good shot at immortality. So says the man who brought the world the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first flatbed scanner and the first music synthesizer capable of reproducing the sounds of a grand piano and other orchestral instruments.

And though Kurzweil’s pronouncement was perhaps the most intriguing made at the Association for Computing Machinery’s ACM1: Beyond Cyberspace conference in San Jose in March, he had plenty of competition.

The ACM hosts a gathering open to non-members just once every four years, and judging by this one, the 54-year-old “first society in computing” is determined to present itself as anything but staid.

The conference drew national news coverage and attention with a line-up of 15 provocative speakers and an exposition of head-turning technology fresh from university and corporate research labs.

ACM1 was an exploration of how IT is changing the way we live and gather data. A consistent subtext was the interface between humans and machines, and how each is transformed by the interaction.

Moderator Robert Metcalfe, Ethernet inventor and 3Com Corp. founder, kicked off the conference by noting that 8 billion microprocessors will be produced this year but that just two per cent of them will go into PCs. Some of the rest will go to the supercomputers that are powering scientific research. But most will end up as part of the ubiquitous, pervasive fabric of computing that’s being woven around and through our lives via a wide range of devices, some of which we don’t even recognize as computers.

“There’s been 40 years of people serving machines, and now it’s time to make the machines human-centric so they’ll serve people,” said Michael Dertouzos, director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, referring to the impending world of pervasive computing. Speech as a means to access and operate computers is crucial to making the machine/human interaction natural, he said, as is the need for computers to “ascend the gentle slope of meaning” instead of merely aggregating and structuring information.

Electronic environments infused with ambient intelligence will make them personalized, adaptive and anticipatory of human needs, said Martin F.H. Schuurmans, CEO of the Philips Centre for Industrial Technology. Schuurmans is one of Dertouzos’ corporate partners in MIT’s Project Oxygen to promote human-centric computing.

Although the processing power of machines may be growing exponentially, the intellectual capacity of the humans operating them isn’t, pointed out William Buxton, chief scientist at Alias/Wavefront in Toronto. He said the most important decisions about computer design are those about I/O devices, since that’s where humans meet machines.

Unlike Buxton, Kurzweil takes comfort in all the exponentially rising tides of technology and data. He noted that the lengthening of the human life span has been accelerating as well. We currently add 135 days per year to the length of time we can expect to live but will be adding a year in 10 years, making immortality at least a statistical possibility. Kurzweil also envisions nanorobots that will navigate our capillaries and download information from our brain cells to be copied later on to a “more stable medium.”

For researchers like Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York, the burgeoning power of IT transforms their work. “I’ll take all the Moore’s Law you’ve got,” Tyson told the crowd. The astrophysicist noted that due mostly to IT, as much research in his field had been published in the past 15 years as had reached print in all the years before that.

Inventor Dean Kamen, whose mysterious Ginger project has been getting a lot of attention, produced the most compelling images at ACM. On the last day, he rolled from the McEnery Convention Center to the conference stage in his IBot. The device runs on two wheels with microprocessor-controlled gyroscopes keeping it in balance, even when the IBot climbed the steps to the stage. Metcalfe greeted Kamen and then threw a 25-pound bag of sand at him. The IBot barely swayed. Kamen heaved it back at Metcalfe, who staggered under the weight.

Kamen spoke passionately about the need to raise the visibility of science and engineering among young people. “The modern world is in a race between technological competence and catastrophe,” he said, and then descended the stairs, trailed by fans and photographers like a rock star.