PITTSBURGH The computer-human interface of the future will be wearable and implantable, according to a group of science-fiction writers who spoke at the plenary panel of the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 99) on Tuesday (May 18).
Writers Elliot Soloway, Bruce Sterling, Michael Swanwick and Vernor Vinge envision a world where computers worn on smart glasses will broadcast information into a person's eyes, and "aspirin-like" computers that have been implanted under the skin will feed data directly to the brain.
They foresee an age of embedded and ubiquitous computing in which computers and machines will have human-level intelligence and personalities; will be capable of forming relationships with humans; and will possess electronically generated personalities that will allow dead people to speak from the grave.
The four science-fiction authors, two of whom are also math and engineering professors, debated the future of user interfaces at the CHI 99 panel, "Science Fiction Authors Predict Future User Interfaces."
The panel was moderated by Aaron Marcus of Aaron Marcus Associates Inc., who has worked with Apple, AT&T, Motorola, MCC and NCR on advanced user-interface designs.
"However compelling and creative Star Trek's and Star Wars' action narratives are, they don't seem to focus on human-computer communication innovation much beyond Stanley Kubrick's Hal 9000 talking to people and a few antiquated text screens in all caps," Marcus noted in his introductory speech.
"We can benefit enormously by listening to these masters of human-human communication tell us about their visions of human-computer communication in the future."
Most of the science-fiction authors on the panel have a background in science and technology, or closely follow technological developments.
Vernor Vinge is an associate professor in the Department of Math and Computer Science at San Diego State University, and is a science-fiction author, best known for his books, True Names, The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime.
Vinge believes that over the next 15 to 20 years Moore's Law will remain in effect, and engineers and developers will continue to take advantage of it. Soon after the development of machines with human-level intelligence, machines smarter than humans will be developed. That milestone event will mark the end of the era of human dominion.
"Then everything is up for grabs," said Vinge.
Vinge and others believe machines will become so human-like there will be man-machine marriages.
But no matter how smart they might become, Michael Swanwick, author of In The Drift, Vacuum Flower, Griffin's Egg and other novels, believes machines "won't be able to express emotions" the way people do.
As machines and computers become more intelligent, they will also take on personalities, the panelist said.
"I think we'll begin to see identity and behavior changing so we'll see artificial entities," said Vinge.
Bruce Sterling, science-fiction writer and Austin, Texas, journalist agreed. " I am not a big fan of artificial intelligence, but computers are already beginning to take on identities such as Furby and intelligent agents in software, etc. We'll see human-style interfaces as icons come to life. Computers will take on identities, they'll be friendly, will interact with people, they will sell products, etc."
There may be a dark side to such developments, Swanwick warned.
"The flip side will be that people will take the technology and use it to try to change themselves and even destroy themselves," said Swanwick.
"People are already using the Internet to disguise themselves."
In Swanwick's novel, Vacuum Flowers, the characters buy tapes of people they admire and load the tape into themselves to become a virtual copy of the other person.
Like the world portrayed in his book, Swanwick imagines a world where people inject "aspirin-like" computers subcutaneously to feed information to their brains. He said such devices will be embedded in you "like your own pet tumor."
"While you walk through a graveyard," explained Swanwick, "the computer, which is connected to a mature, Web-like network, feeds you information so that you can identify all the plants, soil and birds in the graveyard and get a biography of the people buried there, and how long they have been dead and what the decomposition process was like."
Injectable computers, Swanwick and the other authors contend, will evolve out of such wearable computers as smart sunglasses that are able to broadcast information onto a person's eyes, with pull-down menus that can be manipulated with hand gestures. Applications for those smart glasses might start in an industrial arena like car repair shops, where the goggles would allow a mechanic to see a diagram of a car with all of its parts identified.
Wearable computers will eventually enable "combination entities," said Sterling, author of Schismatrix, Islands in the Net, Heavy Weather and Holy Fire. This would allow "a bedridden, retired person who has a lot of experience to direct the activities of a younger person without experience, and they can function as a single entity to perform a task" via a wearable computing device and a wireless connection.
Going a step further, the authors envision the implantation of such a computer into a person's brain, enabling that person to see what another person sees. Employers could use such technology to make sure employees are concentrating on work, and husbands and wives could use it to make sure their spouses aren't cheating.
In addition to wearable and implantable computers, there will be computers distributed throughout the environment, the authors believe.
"Virtual reality is out, and distributed computing is in," said Sterling, who believes computing will move off the desktop, laptop and even the palm pilot, and move out into the real world where it will become embedded in all kinds of objects.
In this scenario, "everything solid has a hot button on it and you press it and it tells you what it is," said Sterling.
The technology to make all of that possible isn't quite there yet, however. High-resolution, head-worn displays need to be developed and embedded with positional intelligence, software is needed to drive the display and audio would help enable a person to interact with the world without being there. Devices would be needed that allow computers to know where they are located in space in relation to other distributed computers. And advancements would also be needed in battery technology and brain research.
Such devices won't be available next week or even next year, but Swanwick has no doubt the technology will be developed in the not-too-distant future.
"I believe people are alive today who will be buried with implantable devices that will allow them to speak from the grave to tell their life stories," he said.
The writers predict institutions like MIT Media Labs, Xerox PARC, IBM's T.J. Watson Research Lab and the Victoria Institute in Sweden will play a role in bringing such technologies to life.