The Invisible Ball and Chain: Q&A with Michael Dertouzos

By Debby Young, CIO |  Networking

WITH WIRELESS DEVICES taking over the world (last year Nokia alone sold almost 120 million cell phones globally), CIO went looking for a visionary who could tell us how wireless will change the way we communicate, do business and conduct our lives. We found Michael Dertouzos, director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science and the man behind the Oxygen Alliance, a consortium of big-name companies and brilliant academic minds that are collaborating to make computers "as natural a part of our environment as the air we breathe." In his latest book, The Unfinished Revolution: Human Centered Computers and What They Can Do for Us, Dertouzos deplores the unfriendly nature of current machines -- wireless included -- and advocates for simpler, more humancentric computing.

During a recent visit to his MIT office, Dertouzos, 64, demonstrated some of the friendlier devices his lab has in mind. First he asked Jupiter, the MIT lab's weather information system, for the next day's weather forecast. A slightly stilted, digitized voice promptly gave us the forecast and then graciously inquired if it could help Dertouzos with something else. Voyager, another voice-controlled system, told us the traffic pattern on Storrow Drive, one of Boston's busiest thoroughfares, up to the last 5 minutes. And a third device, aptly named Pegasus, replied to Dertouzos' request for any flights from Chicago to Boston that day, arriving around 11:00 a.m. with, "There is only one flight that meets your specifications. United Flight 504 from O'Hare landed in Boston at 10:42 a.m. local time. It is 17 minutes ahead of schedule." But even Dertouzos, who paraded these technologies with the pride of a father showing off his children, concludes that wireless is not going to radically change the world as we know it; although the new technologies may bring in their wake some less than welcome trends.

CIO: In your book, you write about the confusion and frustration growing in proportion to the gadgets that surround us. And yet you're such a strong advocate for the power of IT to better our lives. Is wireless technology making the world better or worse?

Dertouzos: Wireless' best attributes match the human ability to move and can convey information, regardless of where and when. And that's important. Wherever you are and whenever you need to be reached, information can be conveyed to you. You can access the Internet, or you can talk to your child. At the technical level, the primary disadvantages are that wireless is not very high-speed, the screens are too small, and the amount of information is limited. At the social level, there are some disruptions and changes when you start to have human beings at the tentacles of communication pipes, because now they're reachable all the time. You're out there enjoying the sunset and the damn thing rings.

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