Future computers will have common sense and understanding, says Negroponte

At York’s 50+50 Symposium last Friday afternoon, digital guru Nicholas Negroponte looked at where computers started and where technology is going in the next half century in his talk "Technology: Change You Have Counted On".

Several decades ago, computers were mostly used by banks and the military, said Negroponte. “The idea that computers would be used by people was quite alien.” No one imagined that so many people would have their own personal computer at home and at work.

But the biggest change in the last 50 years, he said, "is we moved from a world of patterns to a world of bits. You can trace almost everything that’s happened whether it’s changes in the electrical properties, whether it’s changes in how you deal with people socially, whether it’s what the future of the newspaper or the book is…they all trace themselves to that statement of fact.” 

Right: Nicholas Negroponte

Negroponte, founder and chair of the One Laptop per Child non-profit association, said the world of technology has come so far that Marshall McLuhan’s mantra – the medium is the message – is obsolete today. “That’s the world of the atom and it no longer holds true. What’s happening in the world of bits is the message is the message.”

Where is the world of technology headed? “Certainly within 50 years computers will have common sense and understanding,” said Negroponte, who is currently on leave from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he was co-founder and director of the MIT Media Lab and the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Technology.

The second big change in technology, however, is already underway, Negroponte said. It is the world of open source and it will change the way people do things. Wikipedia, he said, is an active example of open source which is going to migrate in many other ways and will include things like blogs and Twitter. When they are all put together, they represent a huge change in how people find and use information and how they interact and work.

"If I came 15 years ago and said I have a proposition for you: Let’s make an encyclopedia where all of us write little captions and we’ll get other people all around the world to write little entries and, by the way, we won’t monitor it. We’ll just let people correct it. If you write something even purposely wrong, other people correct it and so on," said Negroponte. "If I went on and told you this, you would have laughed me out of the place. You would have gone home tonight and said, ‘You know I just heard this dingbat discuss some absurd thing.’ And yet Wikipedia doesn’t only work, I bet when you Google peoples’ names you are thrilled when it’s the first entry, which it normally is.”

Left: John Tsotsos

Negroponte, however, is hoping the next major change will be a return to simplicity. What has happened with technology is like a nuclear war in the sense of escalation. As technology gets cheaper and memory gets cheaper, programmers use more and more of it. So now “all of our laptops and computers have become SUVs in the sense that we are using most of the fuel to move this heavy car and very little to move the passengers.” Negroponte said he hopes technology will cease becoming more and more complicated and will instead ride the curve down to a more simplistic level.

Author of Being Digital (1995), Negroponte believes the fourth big change is the next wave of computer technology users. “I think you’ll see two to three billion more users in 25 years and most of them will be under 25.” Many of them will be children using the laptops from One Laptop per Child.

Negroponte first joined the faculty of MIT in 1966. At that time he was working in the field of computer graphics looking at the idea of using television technology as the computer graphics medium, which he says is technically what everyone does today. He then began to explore voice and touch. “It was generally assumed that you could not deal with spoken language, not just the ambiguities of the utterances when I say something like ‘kissing her’ or ‘Kissinger’…the acoustic difference is basically zero,” Negroponte said. The context of utterances is needed to understand what is said.

That is what spurred Negroponte’s interest in studying people’s gestures and how they could be incorporated into computer programming. Gestures include not just peoples’ arms and hands, but also their eyes – where they look and what they do. This morphed into research on vision and understanding how gestures and vision can be incorporated into computer technology so that in the future computers could have some semblance of a conversation with people by understanding more than just language.

“If a computer could do some of that, then interacting with computers is going be a much richer experience,” he said. “And something we would all find pretty interesting and easy to do.”

The talk was moderated by John Tsotsos, Distinguished Research Professor of Vision Science and Canada Research Chair in Computational Vision in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at York.