The Unfinished Revolution

Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do For Us by Michael Dertouzos

by John Biggs


The Future of Computing

In the future, wrote former director of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science, Michael Dertouzos, human-centered smart machines will bend to our every whim. Need a cappuccino? Send out your intelligent agent to price cups of joe in your direct vicinity. Where can you get a recharge for your Ginger IT 2010 Personal Transport Unit (GI2K10PTU, for short)? Right down the street, sir, your ubiquitous personal digital assistant/massager/pill dispenser/PDA/doctor-in-a-box will chirp. In Dertouzos’ world, we’d probably end up floating in jugs of protein bath all our lives, like in The Matrix, and our Palm Pilots will go out to wash the SUVs we never drive and order more frozen peas for the homes we “live” in. Who needs war and famine when we have eBay?

Dertouzos, who died last August, was one of the hunky-dory school of technologists and used his book The Unfinished Revolution, as a sounding board for his Oxygen project, a pervasive-computing “system” that allowed computers and humans to interact seamlessly. He was a techno-fetishist whose one overarching wish is for the user interfaces we currently use to play games and look at porn were perfected to allow us to do those same things from any position, anywhere around the world. He wanted doctors to be able to sit in on operations and see virtual organs painted over a patient’s abdomen during an operation. He wanted an ever-vigilant “guardian angel” to spill its guts to your shrink, podiatrist, and pharmacist (My master hasn’t been flossing, your PDA will squeal.) He wanted your bank account to talk to your credit card and both of those to talk to your mutual fund, leaving you out of the loop entirely. How’s that for efficiency?

cover art

The Unfinished Revolution

Michael Dertouzos

Human-centered Computers and What They Can Do for Us


So what was Dertouzos really trying to say in his book? He believed that we are being controlled by computers and the crappy programs people are writing for them. He envisioned a day when he the computer can follow a conversation, supply pithy commentary and carry out the mundane tasks associated with being a Director at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science, namely making airline reservations. That said, who hasn’t? From Wells to Orwell to Gibson, utopian and dystopian visions of the future have always included the ever-present advisor-genie in handy hand-held form, who understands and dotes on our every whim.

Other than putting a smart face on the jolly art of science fiction, Dertouzos described little that is new or incredible. Voice recognition is advancing, storage space is getting cheaper, and it’s only a matter of time until Microsoft starts selling us back the rights to our private medical and financial records, so his futuristic vision delivered to the programmers and computer manufactures of the world is sure to arrive in a few years, anyway. Like the shaman/scientist who predicts the next eclipse, mystifying the dumb natives, Dertouzos played us for fools, saying that the future will bring the world closer together through shared resources and magical digital connections that will spring up like kudzu.

And, like kudzu, these connections will choke us. The folks who have guardian angels and up-linked vehicles will be cocooned away from the lower caste of info-have-nots, who will be once again relegated to data entry and basic service job. The ones dishing out the bandwidth and organizing, and protecting, the information will be the info-elite. They will be the bumbling “wizards” behind the curtain of ubiquitous computing. Dertouzos, who had friends in high places like WWW-inventor Tim Berners-Lee, had a rosy outlook on the “unifinished revolution.” Those in the trenches, victims of the dot-com bomb and the programmers who are going to put his vision into place, aren’t so excited. First off, has the revolution really started? Is the internet more than just a collection pages featuring poetry about cats, cheap toasters, and get rich quick schemes? What if the computerized world Dertouzos envisioned broke or those it was designed to help rebel against it? We already see that techno-phobia, just like techno-filia, is alive and well in this world.

Ultimately, Dertouzos will have his way. His book is a roadmap to the future, one that everyone and their wired grandmother agrees on. So then, why read this book when we can live it? Call up TellMe. Ask for the weather in Madison, Wisconsin. Order movie tickets online. Convince a VC to pay you to start on online service delivering online astrological advice to nervous hausfraus in all of the sainted suburbs of this great nation. Read the book and see your future. Viva la revolucion!

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