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Celebrating 50 years of computing at CMU
From: "David Farber" <dave () farber net>
Date: Tue, 25 Apr 2006 14:01:30 -0400
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From: Newmedia () aol com
Date: Tue, 25 Apr 2006 11:54:13 -0400 (EDT)
Experts see computers getting bigger and smaller at the same time:
Celebrating 50 years of computing at CMU
Sunday, April 23, 2006
By Mark Roth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When pioneering professors Herbert Simon and Allen Newell began
working with the first computer at what is now Carnegie Mellon
University in 1956, they had no clear vision of how their research
would reshape the world 50 years later.
So it's no surprise that the experts visiting the campus last week to
celebrate the 50th anniversary of computing at Carnegie Mellon shied
away from predicting what the digital universe will look like in 2056.
They were more than happy, though, to share what might come out of
their labs in the next five to 10 years.
As they talked enthusiastically about electronic books and wall-size
computers, the corporate and university researchers charted four major
compass points for the future.
GETTING BIGGER. Rick Rashid, the head of Microsoft Research and a
former Carnegie Mellon professor, said it's now possible to buy a
terabyte of computer memory for about $700.
A terabyte, 1,000 gigabytes, is enough memory to "store every
conversation you ever have from the time you're born until you die,"
Dr. Rashid said, or a full year's worth of full-time video.
Dan R. Olsen Jr., a computer science professor at Brigham Young
University, said he could now store every academic paper he's ever
written, every set of software code he's written, all his e-mail, and
family genealogy information and photos, and it takes up barely one
third of the memory space on a simple iPod.
Now that people can store vast amounts of information on their
computers, the two men said, the real challenge is how to find what
they need quickly, especially when they're not sure where they put it.
Microsoft is working on a project called Stuff I've Seen that's
designed to help with that.
If a person can't remember when he created a certain document or even
what is in it, Dr. Rashid said, he might be able to remember what
month it was, or with whom he talked that day, or even what the
weather was. By correlating a user's documents with his computer
calendar, e-mail, automated weather information and more, Stuff I've
Seen will produce a set of documents that might include the one the
person is looking for.
Stuart Card, a senior research fellow at Xerox's Palo Alto Research
Center, said the other thing that's getting bigger is computer
Dr. Card has evidence of that in his own office in California, where
he has six large computer screens attached to each other. "It has the
surface area of a 5-foot table," he said.
He can use the screens as one large screen or several smaller ones and
can easily move information from one area to another. Research
suggests that having more information arrayed in front of them can
actually help people have "bigger ideas," Dr. Card said.
Mary Czerwinski, a senior researcher at Microsoft, is working on large
computer displays that could double as art in people's homes.
The displays could post personal information on the edges that people
might want to consult quickly, and that can be removed if there is a
visitor, she said.
"We can make these displays very, very beautiful. Maybe when it is not
showing information on the periphery it will just be art on the wall."
GETTING SMALLER. The processing power of computers today also means
they can go into smaller and smaller devices.
At Microsoft's SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) program, the
first prototype that's been developed is a computerized watch, which
Dr. Rashid wears.
By getting signals on an FM frequency, the watch can display the
correct time and weather for the part of the nation where he's
located, Dr. Rashid said, as well as his daily calendar and other
At the Xerox research center, the phenomenon of packing more
information into less space is embodied in the 3Book, a digital book
that mimics its traditional counterpart but contains a slew of bells
The 3Book has the appearance of a real book on the computer screen,
and a reader can turn its pages by touching the corner of each page or
touching the edge of the display to flip through pages quickly.
Still in the developmental stage, it also contains features that no
regular book has, Dr. Card said.
It has a searchable index that can be expanded to show all other parts
of the book related to the search term. Using semantic processing
software, it can create a CliffNotes version of the book which
highlights selected passages.
Most importantly, it could store or download thousands of other books
onto its pages, Dr. Card said.
"People say, 'But I still want to take my paperback to the beach,' "
Dr. Card said. "I completely agree with them on the one book you take
to the beach, but you don't want to take your whole library to the
beach," which is something you could do with 3Book.
MORE PORTABLE. iPods and cell phones show that computing has become
much more portable than standard computers themselves.
James Landay, laboratory director for Intel Research in Seattle, said
"the real potential for computing in our lives is all the rest of our
lives that goes on when we're not in front of the computer."
One experimental demonstration of that is Aware Home, a project at the
Georgia Institute of Technology.
The idea behind Aware Home is to fill a house with sensors and
specialized computer programs to help an older person remain healthy
and stay in the home longer, said Elizabeth Mynatt, a computer
professor at Georgia Tech.
One project she's working on is a glucose monitor that attaches to a
cell phone to transmit blood sugar information directly to a computer.
Motion sensors in the house keep track of how active the occupant is,
and a computer diary lets her record what she's eating and how she's
Radio frequency tags on medication tell the computer when pill bottles
have been removed from a cabinet and replaced, and prompt the computer
to ask the person on a nearby screen whether she has taken her drugs.
By combining all this information, the computer program can tell which
combinations of diet, exercise and medicine have the best results, Dr.
Mynatt said. "It gives people the tools to understand that one
particular pattern is leading to feeling pretty good 24 hours down the
line," she said.
At Microsoft's lab in Cambridge, England, researchers are developing
SenseCam, a wearable digital camera that has a 180-degree field of
vision and motion and infrared sensors.
SenseCam can keep a record of everything you've seen or done during a day.
In an unexpected twist, it has turned out to be useful in helping
brain-damaged people with memory problems.
One woman couldn't remember anything on her own after a two-day
period, and diaries kept by her husband helped only for a few days.
But when she viewed one day's worth of pictures from a SenseCam she
had worn a month before, she was able to remember much of what she did
that day, even if it wasn't depicted in the photos, Dr. Rashid said.
QUICKER TO CHANGE. Ben Bederson, a computer science professor at the
University of Maryland, said the most popular new Web sites are being
driven by the quicksilver tastes of young people.
Sites such as MySpace and Flickr are easy to use, he said, and often
are built around one primary niche, such as Flickr's photo-sharing
The sites embody two other features, he said: democracy -- "These
sites are bringing together communities of millions of users"; and
"users rule"-- customers quickly move to another site if the first one
doesn't satisfy them.
These hot Web sites are an example of how computer and software
designers will have to focus on what consumers want and need, the
It might lead to more products such as Microsoft's StepMail, an
experimental program in which people use their feet to open and send
e-mail, employing a pressure pad on the floor from the game Dance,
Other examples, Dr. Rashid said, are new photo programs that allow
someone to remove a person or object from a photo and fill in the
background automatically, or stitch together a family photo montage
using the best shots of faces from different photos.
In some rural villages in India, people have set up small shops to
enhance digital photos to make people look better or fill in a
different background, he said, "because, fundamentally, people want
keepsakes, and they want to look as good as possible. It's a very
It's possible all this technology will start to change the way
people's brains work, said Judith Olson, a computer professor at the
University of Michigan.
Young people learn to type earlier than ever, can do several things at
once but have trouble concentrating on a single task, are comfortable
with waiting until the last minute to plan social gatherings and don't
have as much expertise because they rely on the Web or their social
network to find the answers they need.
Put it all together, she said, "and it may lead to a permanent change
(Mark Roth can be reached at mroth () post-gazette com or at 412-263-1130. )
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- Celebrating 50 years of computing at CMU David Farber (Apr 25)