March 30, 1979: The cooperative computer: People in the future may run out of things for them to do

March 30, 1979: The cooperative computer: People in the future may run out of things for them to do

Duke Castle 1979

Duke Castle of Hewlett-Packard says engineers have dreamed up more computers than people have uses for.

NOTE: The following article originally ran in "The Future: 1999????," a special section in the Friday, March 30, 1979 edition of the Albany Democrat-Herald.

Home appliances that talk? Houses that gossip over the back fence?

Ted Lewis doesn't think the day is too far off.

Lewis, an associate professor of computer science at Oregon State University in Corvallis, isn't buying any new appliances. He's afraid they'll soon be obsolete.

"I think that in five years you'll see talking appliances," he said. "You'll see refrigerators that have a built-in inventory system. You'll ask it, 'Do I have the ingredients to make beef stroganoff?' and it'll say, 'no' and give you a list of things you have to buy."

By the 1990s you will see computerized home entertainment centers with three-dimensional holograms projected through telephone lines, Lewis predicts.

Stereo systems will be at the cutting edge of computerization. There are already programmable turntables that allow the listener to choose which on an album to listen to.

Finally, he says, houses will have computers to take care of maintenance.

Consider this scenario: A man leaves for work in the morning. During the day there is a rainstorm. Sensors in the attic discover the roof is leaking. The computer contacts other home computers up and down the street to find out if their roofs have ever leaked before and and, if so, who they called to do he repair work. When the man returns from work, his house tells him what happened during the day and asks, "May I call Ace Roofing Service? They are highly thought of by other homes. Here is their estimate for the job."

Lewis has written two books about home computers: "The Mind Appliance, Home Computer Applications" and "The Electrifying, Streamlined, Blueprint Speedcode Method."

Duke Castle, who doesn't want to tip his hand, is also plugged into the computer market.

Castle, marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Corvallis division, won't say just what his firm plans to put on the market in the next several years.

"We don't talk about future product development," he says. "The technology is way ahead of the market."

What Castle means is that computer engineers have invented more things than people have thought up uses for. Castle's speculation about potential products might give other companies an idea. And in the computer industry, ideas are money.

Castle turns instead to an article in the company periodical written by science fiction writer Gordon Dickson.

The story involves Walter Jensen, a middle-management executive in the year 2025, whose flight from Melbourne, Australia, to London, England, lands in Jakarta, Indonesia, because of mechanical difficulty.

Fortunately, Jensen is carrying the Hewlett-Packard XX2050 autosecretary, which looks something like a handheld calculator. It is really much more. It is a portable computer terminal in a world where the drudge-work is done by benevolent computers. The device has a built-in viewing screen and communicates by voice.

It helps him find his way around an unfamiliar airport, notifies his London office about the delay and orders him a drink. The device also keeps track of Jensen's physical well-being, receiving signals from sensors implanted in his body, monitoring blood pressure, and looking for signs of infection.

During Jensen's trip, the computer orders meals for him, traces a lost briefcase and arranges for it to be returned without any interventions from Jensen.

Such devices are common in the author's vision of the future. They remember to do things people forget to do and make life much, much easier.

Castle can see it coming. On his wrist he wears a device that looks like a large digital watch. It tells time, computes, can tell you whether Sept. 28 will be a Friday (it will be) and can keep a running cost total of your long distance telephone call. And it has an alarm. And a stopwatch.

A lot of Castle's colleagues wear them. So it's no surprise that Castle would be charmed by the idea of a H-P XX2050.

Castle holds as much computing power on his wrist as could be packed into a couple of good-sized rooms in the early 1950s.

"The early computers were mammoth devices," he says. "They took up rooms of space. Now that computational capability is available in a hand-held device. Costs are going down and computers are getting better."

The secret lies in the "microprocessor" — the "computer on a chip." It is a network of microscopic lines etched on a flake of silicon. And it is as powerful as a whole building full of 1950-vintage wires and tubes.

Computers are no longer only the tools of scientists and major corporations.

"Microprocessors are being built into lots of things," Castle says. "Microwave-oven clocks and controls, for instance. Cadillac uses a microprocessor in a little trip computer -- it figures speed, mileage and time, and lets you know when you're going to arrive at your destination."

Chips are also at the heart of those games you play on your television screen and other, newer electronic toys.

The microprocessor explosion is predicted to put 10 million computers into circulation by 1982 compared to an estimated 500,000 to 1 million today.

Castle sees challenge in short-circuiting people's anxiety about computers.

"There are two kinds of people — those who feel comfortable with computers and those who don't. Some people feel intimidated by them."

Castle can't see any reason for that.

"The feeling I get ... is that people focus on things that intimidate them," he says. "They think a computer has some life in it. Well, that just isn't so.

"Everything a computer does, humans taught it to do."

There are differences of opinion, of course.

Gordon Ashby, manager of the University of Oregon Computer Science Center, predicts the really significant breakthroughs in computers will come in the area of artificial intelligence. But that won't happen by the turn of the century, he says.

Today's machines are literal-minded, doing exactly as they are told. Tomorrow's artificially intelligent devices will be more flexible, will be able to give a broader interpretation of the commands they are given. Ashby says such machines will be easier to use.

Sooner or later, he says, people will invent machines that appear intelligent even to their designers.

Computers could make offices obsolete. People could do all of their work on home terminals tied in to a central computer. People could send and receive mail by computers.

"The computer is going to change our lives," Ashby says. "But whether it's going to be enriching or dehumanizing is another question.

"I know I don't want a computer in my home. I'd rather have books. And I don't want electronic mail. If you have electronic mail you don't have a mailman to deliver things like Christmas cards."


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