NOT EVEN A MOUSE

CHRISTMAS DINNER MEETING, CANADIAN INFORMATION PROCESSING SOCIETY.

OTTAWA CHAPTER. DECEMBER 12, 1985

As this is a pre-Christmas meeting, I felt it was worth taking a good look at one of the most popular Christmas presents – a personal computer. However, computers still scare the dickens out of most people. Even the Apple with its versatile mouse does not solve all the problems.

What do you do after you have put your Christmas card list on your PC?

In fact, the market for personal computers has been shrinking dramatically. In the November 11 Business Week, it showed the projections made in 1984 and those in 1985 differed by about $700 million in terms of shipments expected.

However, far from being a gloomy outlook, I believe that this slow down will force the industry to pay a lot more attention to really useful applications of micro-electronics and it is really in this area that I would like to tickle your imaginations

First, however, what is it really like to own a PC?

ONE PERSON’S PC.

As an old computer hand, I of course felt I had to be an early pioneer in getting a PC. Several years ago I ordered an Apple II with all the bells and whistles including a nice desk on which to put it. I still have the desk. The Apple II is long since gone.

It was not that the machine was particularly hard to assemble even for one who was recently referred to in Equity Magazine as being a mechanical nurd. However, I had bought the equipment without really thinking through why I might want such a conversation piece.

I set up a few demonstrations to show my friends but when they asked what I was really going to use it for, I lamely described my stock market portfolio and an updated address list.

In fact, I did use VisiCalc to set up a stock market program but in the days before you could get on-line stock market quotes, the updating of it was frankly a nuisance. Worse still, all the stocks were going down in value which made the whole process most depressing!

Further, I had always had a horror of actually using a computer for things such as a Christmas card list. A number of years ago, my wife and I used to carefully hand address and sign all our Christmas cards, usually also writing on a brief personal note. Gradually we ended up getting our name and address printed on the cards. This was followed by getting address labels on the SDL computer which completed the depersonalization process. Finally, we solved the problem by stopping sending Christmas cards.

The programming of the Apple was, however, a problem even with early packages such as VisiCalc. To begin with, these machines still operated like a large computer. One had to initialize discs and follow other procedures that were hardly designed for the computer neophyte.

The second problem was that because I really did not have a good application for the computer, I tended to use it relatively seldom. This meant that I constantly forgot how to use the various programs and had to constantly refer back to manuals. I am sure this can be attributed to my bad memory but it was a real frustration.

THE MARVELLOUS MOUSE

The Macintosh with its mouse was a great step forward. It provided the PC with the fascination of a computer game and at least solved a lot of the problems of having to go back to the manual.

However, not even the mouse could solve the fundamental problem for home use of personal computers – the lack of any real reason to have them – at least in their present form.

People buy most products to solve problems. The PC to date has tended to create more problems than it has solved at least for the casual user.

One of the useful applications when I had two daughters in university was to use the PC as a word processor. This unfortunately involved the investment in a letter quality printer. The word processing programs, e.g. Magic Window were very primitive relative to the programs available for office word processors. However, at least in this area the PC was providing a useful home service.

But where do we go from here?

THE SILENT REVOLUTION

I believe that the real move In the micro-electronics field will be toward specialized devices rather than general purpose PC’s. We already know that chips are being built in to everything from our cars to our microwaves. What people may have overlooked, however, is the very fundamental nature of this silent revolution of the last 4-5 years.

We are on the verge of being able to build intelligence into virtually anything we wish.

For years everyone from sorcerers to science fiction writers have been trying to make the inanimate world respond intelligently to our wishes. In fact, if we could arrange things ideally, the inanimate world would even anticipate what we want, e.g. to be fed, informed, entertained or otherwise served.

With the incredible shrinking computer, this is now becoming a reality.

Of more importance, this ability to put a complex set of instructions on a wafer about the size of a postage stamp is about to open up entire new industries. Essentially, we can now make “an intelligent anything”.

This goes beyond the devices for the home that now automatically monitor your furnace, heat pump and other devices. It certainly goes beyond a device that turns on the coffee pot before you get up. If we apply a bit of imagination we could see how a small intelligent computer could water the lawn automatically whenever required.

It would simply check the moisture level of the soil and turn on the sprinklers whenever required. In this water short world, such a device could become even more flexible by tuning in to weather forecasts so it would not waste water in the morning when showers were forecast that afternoon.

Mind you, it would also be helpful if this device were intelligent enough not to turn on the sprinklers when you were walking across the lawn. This of course is easy to do as I expect within a very short time, individuals will wear a small radio frequency transmitter which the computer could detect and allow you to get safely out of range to avoid dousing you with water.

Such radio devices are already in reasonably common use. Several years ago we were using a device called Protect-Alert which is a device about the size of a brooch or wrist-watch that can be worn by a person with a medical problem. All one has to do is touch the device and automatically a signal is transmitted through the home to a medical service.

Of course, such devices have some disadvantages. They will enable a spouse to monitor exactly where his or her partner may be and this of course can have a few disadvantages!

But let us go on generalizing. I said that with some imagination one could make any inanimate object more intelligent.

For example, one could have an intelligent chair. It would be quite easy for a chair to have enough built in intelligence that it would automatically roll back when you stand up. By detecting just who the user is, it could automatically adjust to a preferred chair height. It could even tip itself into one’s favourite reclining position.

Is this simply ‘gee whiz’ day dreaming? Not at all – while a thinking chair may be low on our priority lists, it is exactly that kind of thinking that will lead to one of the most exciting industrial development eras we can imagine.

Think of the potential of re-equipping doors that open automatically but only to certain people or animals.

Consider a flower pot that measures the correct amount of fertilizer after conducting its own tests of the soil.

An intelligent curtain could open or close itself depending on the amount of sunlight and of course, adjust the air conditioning to save power depending on the amount of ambient lighting.

A swimming pool could be automatically monitored to maintain the correct chlorine levels and could even clean itself when it detected a certain bacteria level or cloudiness in the water.

The potential is staggering. We have the opportunity to examine virtually everything that our industries make and by adding user friendly intelligence, can create entire new industries making what we use every day more useful.

And the nice thing about many of these new industries, is that they are clean, non-polluting and usually low users of energy.

A CHIP ON ONE SHOULDER

In future when someone says he has a chip on his shoulder, he may not be kidding. The important thing is to approach the use of in the home micro-electronics by examining real applications and selling solutions to problems rather than providing general purpose power that will likely sit unused.

Where do we go from here? One of the real disadvantages of the current PC’s is that they still require people to type. Voice interaction with the computers will be a major breakthrough.

I already have a car that talks back to me. The other day it in sequence reminded me that my windshield washer fluid was low, my door was open and I had left the keys in the ignition. I would have loved to talk back to it and tell it to mind its own business!

The computers that recognize your spelling mistakes are a step in the right direction. If they can do this, then the next step is to simply speak to the computer to give it instructions. At IBM’s Thomas J. Watson’s Research Centre, there is an experimental system that can handle a vocabulary of 5,000 common business words. The user must read a standard text into the system to train it to recognize his or her voice. As the user speaks, the words appear on the screen and words that are not in the 5,000 word vocabulary can be spelled out or can be added to the list if used frequently.

This is still a primitive device but many people are working to solve this problem. The other day, John Helliwell in The Globe & Mail, reported on a company in Woodbridge, Ontario, making a unit called VoiceLink which connects to an IBM PC. Evidently, this device can be trained to recognize up to 128 words in the basic $1,700 version.

This approach will ultimately be better even than the mouse.

In a few years, you may be able to give Christmas presents that you can talk to and will talk back to you without ever losing their temper. A nice thought for Christmases to come.

Happy holidays!