Wired: Beast on Wheels

February 22 2004

This can't be a particularly original realization, but sitting here awake again in the middle of the night got me thinking.  There's an series of articles in the current issue of Wired on "Living Machines."  One in particular, called "Beast on Wheels", talks about how to make automobiles more responsive and adaptive.  Shades of HAL from 2001, I suppose.  And I started wondering about the interactivity of HAL in that movie, and how that might happen with automobiles.
We already have some implementations of talking cars.  The GPS navigation systems in many automobiles have voice already ("turn right in 30 seconds").  I like the feature in some European countries where a severe traffic or weather alert can interrupt any other audio program.  None of these seem particularly sophisticated to me today, so maybe the vision in the Wired article isn't that far off.
One thing that still seems like it won't happen quite as rapidly is adoption of voice interaction and response in all computing/machine applications.  A sci-fi staple, the technology is already here -- interactive voice response systems are a daily encounter.  But we still don't have the Star Trek vision of "Computer: Give me all the data on ...." kinds of interaction.  Why?  I guess there are a couple of reasons that I'm thinking about right at the moment.  
One is that it's not practical at all times.  I'm sitting here at 3:30 AM, can't sleep, but don't really want to disturb those who are in this house.  Do I want to be talking to this computer at the moment?  No way.
The second is the more interesting one to me.  It deals with conscious vs. unconscious thought.  I can type incredibly fast, and I constantly use keyboard shortcuts to navigate my way around my computer.  It's all subconscious activity -- I have been keyboarding since I was 9 years old, so put a set of home keys in front of me and I can be incredibly productive.  If I had to say "computer, open the mail message from Karen Lilla about Rational Software's first anniversary as part of IBM" as opposed to point and click, well, I might as well call it a day.  Nothing's going to get done, and that was a simple "open" command.
A few years ago, Lotus demonstrated technology that we internally called "speechcenter" at Lotusphere (I think Donna Carvalho did that part of the demo).  It made for an amazing demonstration -- I remember the all-company meeting where they showed it first, and what a rush it was to think that such innovative work was going on at Lotus.  Never came to market reality, though, because as interesting as speech commands are for demos and sci-fi writers, the need to bring thoughts into a conscious pattern, in order to tell the computer what it needs as input, mean that some things should best be left to other interfaces and interactions.
Which brings me back to the Beast on Wheels.  None of the ideas in the article seem to be much of a reach -- I think most could be done with today's technologies.  Just don't make me start driving by voice -- I'd rather use the subconscious instinct of the feel of the road, thanks.
Link: Wired: Beast on Wheels >

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