From Smartphones to Smart Spaces: SRI’s Vision of Computer Evolution

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getting the gist of what went on—not a transcript, but something that said “here are the key points discussed and here is an action item you were given in this meeting.” Then I could get the system to take me just to that part of the meeting, just that four minutes that I’d be happy to listen to.

Those are work examples. But take the point of view of a schoolroom for a moment. A schoolroom has seen kids come and go for years. If it’s seventh-grade algebra, the room has seen kids being taught the same material pretty much year after year. What if the room could help teachers based on what has gone on before in that environment? Imagine that the room could recognize, “Oh, from the mistakes this kid is making on quizzes, this is a pattern I’ve seen and this is a kid who is not understanding this particular principle of algebra, so I’m going to tell the teacher to prove other examples that have helped in the past.” That’s just meant to be a perspective on the problem. I’m not going to say it’s easy and cheap to create environments like that, but I think it’s easier than some of the other smart space concepts, and inexpensive microphones and cameras can go a long way.

Roush: To me, it seems like many of the types of assistance you’re describing could just as well be delivered by a mobile device like a tablet computer. At what point does it make sense to transfer that kind of smarts to the room itself? Which, by the way, is one of the themes we want to explore at the “Beyond Mobile” event.

Mark: It all comes down to the kind of experience we want people to have, and does it feel natural. There has been enormous emphasis on mobile devices, and it’s been great. As many have predicted, computation has become mobile, and our smartphones are getting to be as powerful as our desktop machines. But the fact of the matter is, most of the time, I’m not truly mobile. I’m either at home or I’m in a meeting. If I’m not mobile, why am I using a mobile device? The answer, right now, is because that’s what I have. But mobile devices are distracting and annoying to many people. Using a mobile device or laptop during a meeting can be bad social behavior, because you’re focusing on something other than interacting with other people. So one overarching reason to embed this stuff in the environment is that it’s not intrusive. It hears what people say (with their knowledge, not eavesdropping) and it’s not in the way.

Roush: I’d like to end by rewinding to where we started, with the idea of the virtual assistant. One of the science-fiction ideas that has really stuck with me is from William Gibson’s book Mona Lisa Overdrive, which features a computer named Continuity. It’s this massive, cloud-based artificial-intelligence character who talks to the main character via a little microphone implanted in her ear; it’s her omnipresent advisor and caretaker. Do you think projects like Siri and the dialogue-based interfaces might eventually lead us to that scenario of hyper-personal assistants, which feels like it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from smart spaces?

Mark: Do I think the personal advisor belongs in the spectrum of the computer help that we are going to get? Absolutely yes. The embodiment of it is the question. We are not doing any research into implanting devices into people. But the fact of the matter is that a lot of people carry a mobile device like a smartphone with them almost all of the time. It’s not an implant, but it’s almost part of their person. And people do get cochlear implants to help them hear, so I would guess that implants will be quite feasible. But if you back off from the implant idea—which I think is pretty scary to a lot of people, including me—and talk about mobile devices, then yeah, I’d love to have something like that.

You were saying that this is at the opposite side of the spectrum from smart spaces, and I agree, but there is a linkage. Think about the schoolroom. Kids walk in with all kinds of mobile devices these days. They’re told to switch them off, and I hope they do. But you could think of the devices that kids walk in with as being part of the computational space of the room. Maybe it belongs to the kid, but it’s using the knowledge that the room is in charge of keeping. So there’s plenty of overlap between these visions.

See Bill Mark, Larry Smarr, and Dan Reed in conversation with Wade Roush at Beyond Mobile: Computing in 2021, May 17 at the SRI International Campus in Menlo Park, CA.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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