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Today's tomorrow

As the century turns, technology experts predict what tomorrow will bring.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 3, 2000


Say goodbye to checkout counters at grocery stores. A fond farewell to slow Internet connections. Good riddance to clunky, confusing PCs.

Prepare to talk to machines, and have them not only understand you but get to know you. Visit the doctor's office, where a computer instantly analyzes a culture, gives a diagnosis and makes out a prescription tailored for you. Imagine a world without keys, where a handprint or your voice lets you into your house or car.

Fantasy? For this year, certainly. But the technology to accomplish some of these things exists, even if only in research labs. Some of them may be on the market within five years; the rest will take longer. And these gee-whiz innovations will only heighten debate on technology's impact on our lives, particularly on what's left of our privacy.

Consumers have begun to glimpse things to come in technology through the omnipresence of the Net, cell phones that do e-mail and surf the Web and an army of handheld devices that have more and more functions and power.

From our perch early in the year 2000, it's clear that the cycles of change in technology are growing ever quicker. So has the pace of public acceptance.

Consider that it took 50 years for the telephone to reach about a third of U.S. households, a point of critical acceptance for a technology, according to the GartnerGroup consulting firm in Stamford, Conn. Radio reached that point in 38 years, and television in 13. The Internet? Just four years. The Web didn't make its appearance until 1991, and the graphical appearance that popularized it didn't come along until 1993.

But it has not been a flawless march of progress. Many VCR clocks still flash 12:00 because owners don't know how to set them. PCs hold the technology throne even though they're maddeningly complex and balky. Ask Paul Horn, senior vice president of research at IBM, about the state of PCs today and he almost sputters.

"I think we made at most a baby step in the '90s" on ease of use, Horn said. "These are still god-awfully hard to use. It's just so complicated to do all the things that you can potentially do on a PC. It basically takes a rocket scientist."

That doesn't dim our enthusiasm for technology.

"Americans clearly view the pros outweighing the cons," said Stephen Kraus, a partner with market research firm Yankelovich Partners. "The Internet has put so much power in the hands of individuals, made so much information available to the average person. That's really changing the expectations an individual has about marketplace relationships in their own lives. . . . It's a different kind of consumer with different expectations because you really can go and invent your own products and services that you couldn't do before."

Asked in surveys by Yankelovich Partners about which technologies they want to take into the 21st century, Americans said answering machines (82 percent), e-mail (81 percent), ATM machines (78 percent), the Internet (77 percent) and cellular phones (76 percent). They were less enthusiastic about some biotechnology and medical issues, such as cloning (22 percent). And they haven't lost their taste for comfort food; 86 percent want low-tech Oreo cookies to survive.

The next wave of technology is reflected in some terms that have started gaining prominence: information appliances, pervasive computing and "seamless" communications.

Information appliances are gadgets such as the popular Palm handheld computer and cell phones that also do e-mail and Web surfing. Pervasive computing will allow these gadgets to talk to each other, to PCs, to the Internet and to other devices so users will be connected anywhere, any time. And it will all be done so naturally and smoothly that the user won't even be aware of it -- that's "seamless."

Once you have the gadgets, says Steve Guggenheimer, director of Microsoft's consumer group, international marketing, the high-tech industry has to come up with a way to connect them -- and do it in a way that is easy and understandable no matter what someone is using. Then services are needed that give the user access to the same information from multiple devices. For example, someone who gets a call while driving home could store something he is told -- say a phone number -- on the phone, then find it on a home PC without having to enter the information twice.

"You don't want 10 graphical user interfaces for appliances, 10 places for e-mail," Guggenheimer said. "Those things aren't helpful to consumers. . . . The things that individual devices do today you'll be able to do on all devices because they're the same. . . . We're not always going to sit in front of a PC to get information."

The PC will stick around, Microsoft executives and others say, because it is capable of doing more and storing more information than other devices.

"With PCs in 50 percent of homes, people expect a higher level of ease of use," Guggenheimer said, something that will be achieved with software and hardware companies working together.

Talking to your computer might help. As in voice recognition, not yelling.

"Natural language is one of the biggest and most exciting advances you're going to see," well beyond current versions of talk-and-type software, IBM's Horn said. "It'll not just type but understand what you say and be able to provide you with various levels of support. And I think that's going to be a real change in the way people interact with technology . . . much more ease of use, much more the feeling that you're getting assistance from the technology rather than having to deal with it."

So how would some of these friendly technologies work?

The grocery store without checkout counters or people to bag your groceries would be outfitted with electronic sensors. There also would be sensors in, say, your wallet or your clothes that would tell the store who you are. The store's sensors would know what items you picked up and automatically print a receipt as you walk out the door, charging your account.

The visit to the doctor's office would depend on a computer that IBM will develop over the next five years in a project called Blue Gene. It will be 500 times faster than the top computers today. It will delve into how the body works, mapping DNA and proteins that may help unlock the mysteries of some diseases. A patient could go to the doctor, who would take a swab sample from the mouth. It would be analyzed by the computer, and a prescription for that particular patient would be written.

The vision that the high-tech industry has for homes and businesses of the future started coming into focus in recent years, revolving around computer chips in everything from refrigerators to clothes to cars, wireless communications, the Internet and voice recognition.

In Philips Electronics' recent exhibit La Casa Prossima Futura: the Home of the Near Future in New York, a home may look more like Ozzie and Harriet's of the '50s than the 21st century Jetsons'.

The electronics that clutter a house and the tangle of cords and wires that connect them will disappear into wireless and battery-powered objects, such as:

  • Emotion containers: They look like vases, but they electronically store photos, sounds and even familiar or favorite scents.
  • A smart breakfast tray: It has built-in electronics that keep the coffee hot, magnetic contacts to prevent dishes from sliding and a detachable display screen for your morning news and e-mail.
  • A smart mirror: The bathroom mirror turns into a TV at a touch, and a glass wand knows your preferences for lighting, music and water temperature.
  • Smart apron: Voice-activated, the apron allows the cook to control appliances, look up recipes and call the family to dinner.
  • Mobile entertainment: This portable loudspeaker system designed for children has touch-screen controls to connect to radio or TV anywhere in the house.

"It is very difficult to say which ones of these concepts will be realized in five to 10 years," Philips Design managing director Stefano Marzano wrote in an e-mail interview, "although technologically they could all become reality.

Marzano says it's important for the high-tech industry not only to understand what the public wants and needs, but also technology's benefits and drawbacks.

"What is technologically feasible is not always socially acceptable," Marzano wrote. "We should not accept all that technology offers us in a passive manner but decide whether the benefits that technology offers us are truly beneficial for us as individuals, for society and for the planet as a whole."

Author Steve Talbott worries that people are too accepting of technology, and the future as envisioned by the high-tech industry only increases those concerns.

"It not only will be less escapable but also less noticeable," said Talbott, editor of the NetFuture e-newsletter (http://www.oreilly.com/stevet/netfuture). "That's quite a dangerous combination. The computer has already proven to encourage in us a kind of sleepwalking, and the more we don't notice the way we mesh our lives with the digital logic around us, the less easily we notice, the more easy it is to engage in this sleepwalking."

Talbott scoffs at the time- and labor-saving promise of technology.

"It suggests time and work are our enemies, something we need to save ourselves from," he said. "If that's the case, that's the real source of the problem. If we're alienated from our own time and work, we're not going to be very happy under any circumstances. Simply casting around for new technology to deliver us from the problem won't help us either."

The future, he said, shouldn't center on the kind of gadgets we'll have but rather on what we choose for it. And talk of preparing children for a technology-laden 21st century is backward.

"The real need is to raise kids to be the kind of people we want them to be," he said. "We should not just train them to mesh themselves with what technology society happens to present them with."

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