Nicholas Negroponte on the computer as a theatrical experience

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser May 1989 (guess) - scanned

A few weeks back, I had the good fortune to listen to Professor Nicholas Negroponte, founder and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. His theme was that the desktop metaphor, so popular today, will be replaced in the next 10 years by a theatrical metaphor. He anticipates three technical developments will bring about this change: speech input and output, animation, and a society of intelligent agents inside your computer.

Ten years ago, Negroponte was working on the recognition of connected speech. This is a problem which still taxes the best minds in the industry. After all, how does a computer differentiate between a 'grey tape' and a 'great ape'? It's not easy.

Negroponte and his team found that the computer had difficulty understanding people if their voices changed - exactly the kind of thing that happens when under stress. And, typically, they were under stress when the people funding the research turned up for a demonstration. You can guess what usually happened.

One student had the bright idea of programming the computer to wait for pauses in the user's speech and to respond to them with a quick 'uh-huh'. Users relaxed in the presence of such an amiable machine and the accuracy level shot up.

Negroponte pointed out that these discoveries aren't made by speech recognition researchers, they're only interested in transcription of information. He said that they don't actually care about communication, which is really the whole point of the exercise.

Experiences like this led to the creation of the Media Lab. The Media Lab looks at both technologies and their applications. It has several divisions, each specialising in a subject such as the human interface, music and cognition, movies of the future, school of the future speech research, vision and modelling, holography and computer graphics and animation. The Lab is a dual culture establishment, comprising both techies and application specialists such as doctors, artists, musicians and cartographers.

To give a flavour of the Lab's work its 'The School of the Future' project has an alliance with a school some five miles from the laboratory. The Lego company decided to put an Apple computer into some of its bricks and Media Lab took them along to this school in which, according to the teachers, many of the pupils had severe learning difficulties.

Whether by accident or design, one of the least bright children discovered that if you mount a propellor eccentrically on a revolving shaft, the structure holding the assembly vibrates, and moves across the floor. He also discovered that the direction of movement depends on the direction of rotation. He then added a couple of outriggers with optical sensors. When either optical device sensed black, it reversed the direction of the motor. In this way, the child taught this crude Lego assembly to follow a thick black line painted on the floor. This same child who was previously labelled 'learning disabled' is now a model student. Negroponte suggested that schools might actually be 'teaching disabled'.

Returning to computer speech, Negroponte believes that this will be the primary channel of communication with computers in the future. He says speech has obvious overlooked values. In the future you won't have to be within an arm's length of a computer to get it to do something. A sub-carrier in the tone of voice conveys additional information. Its form factor is negligible - a microphone and loudspeaker are a fraction of the size of a keyboard and screen. And it can work in the dark.

Negroponte gave the example of motor car navigation systems. "Twelve companies are all working on these systems, and they're all doing it wrong," he said. They all have some sort of display between the front seats. He reckons that what the driver really needs is a substitute passenger who's good at reading maps, gives directions and will warn of upcoming junctions and hazards. In this way, the driver can keep his eyes on the road and accept information through his ears which are under-used when driving.

He thinks that your future computer or agents within it, should get to know you well. He likens the situation to that which exists between a husband and a wife. If the husband winks at his wife across a restaurant table and she smiles back, many paragraphs of information are recalled by each of them, although only one bit is actually passed in each direction. Agents will work in a similar way, a small request from you will generate a significant amount of work from them.

The computer of the future will contain the 21st century equivalent of maids, secretaries, butlers, gardeners and drivers. You will have these little characters hanging around just waiting to perform specialised tasks for you.

This is why Negroponte suggested that the theatrical metaphor will displace the desktop metaphor. People would rather not directly manipulate data. They would rather delegate to someone they trust. Today, a secretary will find the last letter from Professor Spence, even if asked to find one from 'that Spencer fellow at Imperial'. According to Negroponte, this beats 'mousing around' your own computer. In his future though, an electronic agent will rummage around in place of his secretary. Computers won't just be easier to use, most of the time we won't even be aware we're using them.