Voices From The Frontier

Computers haven't had a major overhaul since PCs burst on the scene in the early '80s. The computer-science community says information processing is ripe for a revamp. BUSINESS WEEK asked a group of prominent computer and communications scientists what sort of changes they expect to see over the next 15 years. In the following quotes, you'll hear their voices--the voices from the cutting edge:

"What we need is a transportation system for linking minds, the electronic equivalent of the Vulcan mind meld from Star Trek, where you crawl into someone's head. We can aspire to this, even in 15 years."


Director of the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Lab

"Today's computers are pathetic in some senses. They are not as smart as my dog: He can listen and respond.... If I have a computer that smart, I can change the world."


Microsoft's top research director

"The question is, do you have confidence in the software industry to design a machine that people can use easily?... Do you want to devote your life to reading the user manual?"


Yale University computer-science professor

"As [network] costs come down to almost nothing, thousands of appliances around the house will be on the Internet. The scales you step on would send your daily weight to your doctor. Your refrigerator will get your weight and think about what to feed you. The savings from networked water heaters and clothes washers that cut back during peak power demand could be quite dramatic."


Senior vice-president at MCI Communications

"An ant colony is a great example of a complex adaptive system. The worker ants live three or four days, and you can explain about 95% of their behavior with a dozen rules. But the colony probes its environment in sophisticated ways, survives for years, performs maintenance functions, repairs the nest.... Looking at the dozen rules, you would not infer that you could get all that sophisticated behavior from the colony."


University of Michigan computer-science and psychology professor

"Online auctions will start to carve middlemen out of transactions. There will be enormous resistance to this. Think about business travelers. They're good customers who actually pay more than people who fly only occasionally. That can't happen if you have real-time auctions over the Net. Networks give people access to what things are really worth, defined by what people will pay at that minute."


Founder and Vice-President for Research, Sun Microsystems

"In computers, all information is written in a string of digits of zeros and ones. In biology, it's almost the same. The question is whether it's possible to transfer some of the properties of living creatures to artificial silicon circuits. With enough complexity, our systems could get a certain degree of autonomy and consciousness. Machines could do tasks similar to ours--and program themselves. I don't know if this is dangerous, but it's part of our future."


Head of logic systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

"If you look at the old telephony model, there were big switches and transmission lines. Now the network is becoming a large, global, homogeneous kind of thing where computation and storage take place everywhere. It's collaboration of all the different parts that leads to the result. The complexity is so great that at a micro level, it is impossible to know really what is going on. As engineers, we don't like this kind of thing too much. But we have to tolerate ambiguity."


Vice-president for research, Lucent Technologies Inc.'s Bell Labs

"The digital revolution is far more significant than the invention of writing or even of printing. It offers the potential for humans to learn new ways of thinking and organizing social structures. Right now, we're evolving without much vision. But if we could boost our collective IQ [with computers and networks], maybe we could see where we're going."


Inventor of computer mice, windows, videoconferencing, and hypertext; now at the Bootstrap Institute in Fremont, Calif.

"The continuing explosion of networking around the world is going to cause the entry price of computers to resume their downward trend. How will the next 1 billion network connections be created, and what will they look like? The Internet today is a faint outline of the globe-girdling network we'll have. The growth rate for the Internet is ahead of all the technology curves for components."


Vice-president for research at Digital Equipment Corp.

"Electronic commerce is starting, but it needs lots of work. The home-computer user wants something better than an online catalog. If I'm an online shopper, I want to know if the shoe will fit my foot. The basic problem is digitizing the description of the shoe and of the foot. And it can't cost $10,000. If you could do all this, you could really sell something."


Executive Director of the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California

"The fundamental problem: Programming is hard. There is no current breakthrough that makes programming easy. It's a large, deep ocean with just a few islands--very specialized domains and tools to query databases. But for large numbers of applications, there are no tool sets. It takes a long time to build new systems when you just have general purpose programming languages."


Professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia

"I think voice recognition is virtually impossible. Years ago I did research in this area and realized how difficult it is. Now it has a very limited use. Doing it will be even harder in Japanese. I think over the long term that typing is easier than dictating. [Voice] will be used for simple commands.... I don't think the keyboard will disappear. It's the simplest man-machine interface."


Executive Advisor, ASCII Corp.

"A robot that cleans your house seems a reasonable thing to expect. And I'm sure that silicon intelligence is going to evolve eventually to the point where it'll get harder and harder to tell intelligent systems from human beings."


Co-founder and chairman emeritus of Intel Corp.