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NPUC '95 Speaker's Round Table

Ted Selker: I want at this point to invite up for very short statements some panelists, some people that have spoken in the past years, and I will also invite up Kim Brown from DataQuest. Can you guys come up here? Unfortunately, since we are running a little late, we will try to do the logistics quickly. I am just going to take a moment to tell you about these badges. Last year we had Dave Kelly of IDO speaking, and I care a lot about industrial design, too. And so you are going to see out in the foyer these badges -- these badges are not just badges. These badges go on top of a trackpoint and measure physical motion and position. So you can use this paper clip to hold something and to weigh it. It's good to about half a gram. If you put a quarter in this slot, you can use it as a seismograph and the frequency of course goes up as the thing goes down. And take a look at the user interface. The software is downloadable from the new paradigms workshop sight. If you blow on it, you can find out if you have emphysema. The way you construct these things, is you break off the back of it, and you insert it crossways in the bottom. That way it will hold on to the Trackpoint top. These are not just badges. Inert things can also be thoughtful. Okay, I guess this is a lot of people to talk in a very short time. I want to start off with John McCarthy, who is sitting closest to me. He is going to think about how things have progressed in the last while.

John McCarthy: I have notes on this but I think I won't be using them. What I thought I would talk about is a little bit of the future -- the 1961 model world of the future, and compare that world of the future with the present slightly. Well, I was promoting the idea of timesharing and computer utility and was imagining that in some short time, in 1965, or at worse 1970, everybody would be on-line with terminals. I did not have in mind personal computers, but terminals on public access systems, and was imaging the universal library, where everything that was published would be on-line, and everyone could publish merely by putting it into a file and declaring it public and declaring of price to read it if that was what they wanted to do. In 1972, I got a great idea on how to handle this business of getting this library stuff onto the computer. I went to see Ed David, who was at the time a science advisor to the president. My appointment with him was for four o'clock, but he actually saw me at seven-thirty. It was clear that his idea was "how soon can I get rid of this guy and go home." But anyway, my thought was this, the U.S. happened to have 250 billion dollars that it didn't know what to do with. Namely, we had in 1966 because of a shortage sent India a fifth of our wheat crop and sold it to them for "rupees" which we couldn't take out of the country. So I thought, why don't we use all of these rupees to hire Indians to type in the Library of Congress and they can develop whatever OCR technology might work. "Well," he said, "I don't have any power." And that was sort of the end of this idea, seeing this big shot might have done some good. Well, where do we really stand with regard to the 1961 world of the future? Partly we are there. The web has brought us there. On the other hand, there is this six million dollar NSF project for digital libraries. I asked people how many documents do you expect that this project will put in a library that is universally available. And people make various estimates, but the actual number is zero. Namely, that is not what the purpose of the project is, the purpose of the project is not to use today's technology to put things in the libraries, but to develop some yet fancier technology. Well, my opinion is that is too bad, and that of course has to do with politics. Now I want to talk about the future from looking ahead from today and consider the Web. If I want to read a document on the web, I click on it and it will appear before my eyes, maybe take two or three clicks. But there is nothing in that that couldn't have been done before using the things that the Web uses, FTP and so forth. If you wanted to read a document from three years ago, it was a simple nine-step process provided you remembered and in my notes I put down what all those nine steps were. Now I had the following experience yesterday trying out this WBI device, but the particular experience hasn't got to do anything with WBI, it just has to do with the net with the Web. I was looking at CNN and it mentioned somebody having been washed over Niagara Falls, and it offered a reference to the Niagara Falls web page, and I went there, and it offered a Quicktime movie. I clicked on the thing for the Quicktime movie and it said "Your computer doesn't have Quicktime for Windows 95, and shall I get it?" And I thought that is really great, and clicked on that. Then I got transferred an Apple site, and I could have if I knew how to install things, have installed Quicktime. Whereas what I had hoped was that where it said "shall I get it" it meant that I had to wait a little while, but then it would play the movie for me. Well, it seems to me that with regard to computer services, we are today where we were with regard to documents five years ago. Well, I will stop, I could continue but I will stop.

Ted Selker: Thank you John. As you know, John is known for various things, responsible for many things, not transferring microphones! but inventing time-sharing.

Kim Brown: Let's see, I'm with DataQuest. We count things but we also watch a lot of what people do. We are very much apprised of where a lot of OEM's are going to be in six months, a year out, and I am really excited. The Internet to me is astounding. My sister, for instance, two weeks ago had never used a computer and yesterday she was telling me websites I have found tremendously useful for my work. It is astounding. Two factors have really come along and really made this happen, and I am afraid it is Intel and Microsoft. They've brought a singular interface, they have brought a way for people to buy these things. If Microsoft takes over the Web, we are going to face what we saw in the early 90's from Microsoft, virtually nothing. Once they came out with Windows, they just dropped the ball. Maybe you've seen more innovation out of these guys in the last year, and you will over the last year or two, just because they have finally been challenged. Somewhere along the line we've got to get rid of a couple key problems with this monopoly that has been unfolding, and one of them is fatware. We saw the first Internet Explorer at a meg and a half, second was three and a half, new one is eight. Every time you are downloading your morning news, it is a meg or two. It is pretty out of hand. We've got to get to the point of some kind of a ROM-able system, something that gets rid of the darn disk drive. There are all kinds of problems in that, being able to use little applets, getting our job done, the Java thing sounds great, I hope it happens. But hopefully NetScape won't get buried here. We need competition in this market, and one of the keys that is going to make this happen is what the user sees or feels. He doesn't care what is under the hood. The overwhelming reason that Microsoft and Intel have been so successful is the end user is hugely served by the conglomeration of this pair of companies. And we have got to look at the user first, and this is the workshop to be doing that. We have to find ways to bring people to what they want to do in terms of pulling down information and reading things and looking at things and communicating without touching anything -- without dealing with the nine steps he was talking about, let alone getting down to one or two. This stuff has to get automatic, and user interface is key to keeping the innovation and competition in the market, so whatever we can do, we should be helping NetScape in any way possible, we should be helping create smaller and smaller kinds of software, not getting enamored with this stuff. Got to pull back from that, and user interface can really change this dramatically. Good Luck!

Danny Bobrow: I was very glad to hear that. Actually I will talk about moving away from just thinking about the computer because John talks about the problems of technology, and then of course I extrapolated from 65-70 and with the technology coming, it would work. It is not the technology. It is not even just the user-interface, that will just make it good for the individual. The thing that I see happening out there which I find the most exciting, but changes your sense of time-scale, is something I'd rather call communityware. That we are not talking about building things for individuals anymore. We are not even talking about just making it possible to connect a small group here to a small group across the country. We are trying to build communities. And to build communities it doesn't just take the hardware. I've been talking to teachers and they say Net Day is wonderful. It gets a lot of people into the schools. But if they don't stay around the schools, it is not worth anything. So you have a lot of wires in the schools, who cares? What is really important is to build the community around the schools. And if you are going to build the community, you have to build a whole set of systems that support that community. And we have to be thinking about what kinds of things support that community. And it will be more than just what is inside of the computer. For example, we are doing a lot of work with an inner-city school in Phoenix. We've gotten some computers in the school and things looked like they were failing. Why? Because teachers are very busy people. They actually have to get the marks out, they have to talk to the parents, they have to go to the PTA meetings, they have to do all sorts of things. And they don't have time to take something new and adapt it into their community. It is only as we have provided extra services, extra facilities, not just "here's a program that would really be neat, don't you want to do some simulation of a piece of science and get your kids to experiment?" But when we start helping get people in the outside community, like the senior citizens, the grays, to come in and interact and work with the people and find ways of connecting them into the community, we are building that sort of social system that matches the user system. That I think is sort of where we are going in the future. It is enough that we have computers for individuals. John has had a computer that he could do more things on than he could think of for the moment, since the early 50's, and then he thinks of some more stuff. But John is an individual, and somebody else will tell the man from DataQuest "look, you can do this as an individual." We have to be thinking about what it is we are going to do to support the communities. That takes time, it takes effort, it takes a whole process.

New Panelist: Like Kim and Danny, I want to talk a little bit about community responsibility. Are we warmed up yet? Sort of. I want to do a little rabble-rousing. When I was in graduate school, I believe there was a book called, "Architecture without Architects" or "Concept of the Owner-built Home." And I think in the field of ergonomics, we have come to that again. Basically, this is a website I am putting together, our tools are crippling us. We can no longer afford to delegate responsibility for whether the interface device is going to damage us or not to somebody else. The purpose of this website is to offer examples of cases where users have taken things into their own hands and modified things until they didn't hurt them, or maybe even felt good. It may seem like I have been superseded by time, that is that we have this new generation of equipment that is going to solve all our problems, and the keyboards look like this now, and you can buy them and not have to worry. And I say, "yeah, these are the same people who say wrist pads were going to solve all of your carpal problems, too." So what I submit here is a couple of examples of people who have in fact done this. The first is a man named Bob Horne who might be here today, or not. Before you could buy these things off the shelf, he decided he wanted to be able to type like this. He simply got two Apple keyboards, and daisy-chained them together, okay? with velcro, and put his mouse in the middle, and he was going! Now, what is interesting about this is that he then left a place for his mouse in the middle which if you notice, all of the existing off-the-shelf things have not yet got to, you still have the mouse over here. It is also interesting that the person in charge of system I/O at Apple came up to him later when he had described this system and told him that it wouldn't work -- that as far as he knew the software would not permit two keyboards to be chained together in this way. So, watch out because they may have fixed it for the next release. And here is another example, sort of one of my favorites, a friend of mine at SRI had lower back pain, and no chair was going to do the job. If you talk to people like chiropractors, they basically tell you that the human body was made for lying down or standing around, but sitting was not one of them. So he simply pointed his monitor toward the floor, lays down, he's got a phone headset, he's got the mouse, the keyboard, he is ready to go. So I think that if I want to say anything, is that freedom, the price of freedom from pain, the price of having our interfaces not damage us is probably eternal vigilance. And no matter what they tell you how good it is going to be, you still have to be ready to change things as best you can, and I'm done.

Don: A couple years ago I said something called Hyperlook here, which is a way of putting user interfaces together as components with cut and paste. I was working with Arthur Van Hoff at the Turing Institute on that, and he has gone on to do Java. What I want to point out is that browsers are a red herring and a distraction, and they are placeholders just to get everybody's attention focused on the network for component software that eventually is just going to blow it away and it is going to take care of this bloat problem, and then the whole operating system would be bloated. So, there is no browser battle, it is really a component software battle, and it is Ole' ActiveX and Open Doc, and Java Beans is coming now as a third entry in this war. But anyway, it's down to that, and it is really where people will be able to assemble their own custom browsers, your home page will be your browser. It is like a company that wants to make a consumer product that, for example, say some company that had a good Java distribution packaging technology like Nestles' could make their own browser and call it NetScape'. My big project now is an artificial intelligence marketing language. Now our detractors say it is the Lisp community's last ditch attempts to sell Lisp, now I think, well, you want to put more interesting things than leaving animations on your home page. So, what we will do is replace, we will make it so you can represent knowledge as links, just perfect for the Web, and you will have your virtual head space and people can come and have a conversation with your Web page. That is all I have to say, we will be starting a newsgroup.

Ken Kahn: I'm Ken Kahn and I will be real brief, too. I just wanted to put in a little bit of pessimism here, everybody seems so optimistic. Actually, in the long term, I am very optimistic. I think about, mostly I get this pessimism from all of the little stories of people that like five years ago when I just showed them net news, they were so excited, and for six or nine months they were spending hours a day, and a year later you ask them, and they say, "well I haven't done it for a few months." I even run into people that after 20 years stop reading their e-mail for reasons I don't completely understand, and so on. There was a very nice article in the Wall Street Journal about a month ago about a reporter who tries to buy some jeans and audio CD's and so on and tries to use the Web, and tries to go to the mall, and the experiences were so different, but not surprisingly, the mall was a lot more effective. So, I expect that some of these same things will happen with the Web, that people will just find that it isn't as exciting as the hype makes it out. But on the other hand, I sort of still believe in this vision of where it's going in the longer term, much more exciting. But in terms of where it is at today, it doesn't quite justify all of the hype.

Mark Davis: Hi, I'm Mark Davis from Interval Research. I talked here last year about some work I did at the MIT Media Lab, a system called Media Streams, which is a system for annotating and retrieving and marking up digital video and audio. In the year in between, a lot of interesting things of course have happened. Many people here have talked about the Internet and the Web, and what's been going on with communities. What I wanted to say is that I think the main challenges for new paradigms for using computers, especially as media processing and media communication machines, are no longer technological. And we are really facing an era where legal and economic structures are very outdated in relationship to the types of technologies we have. And as technologists, we really have to engage other forms of expertise and other forms of relationship to bring about the changes that we want. John McCarthy was talking about a world where there is a digital library where I can get at anything I want. Well, if that stuff is owned by other people who are very afraid to have it digitally available, we are not going to be able to get at that material. Similarly, if we want a world where people are consumers and producers and share information where we have peer-to-peer and many-to-many networks, streaming video all over the place, cameras all around the world, we have this very rich media universe. We also need to have technologies, and legal and economic infrastructures to make that possible. I know some of the talks this afternoon are going to speak to that, Ted Nelson and others will talk about it. But I see that as the main challenge which is facing us. And if we look historically, it is pretty interesting. You look back at the invention of the printing press, and the tremendous fear about non-skilled people being able to read and write. And I think we are encountering similar sort of historical shift right now in relationship to the production of moving images and sound. The people who know how to do it and are able to do it, are very worried about that technology and that expertise being much more available and much broader. And I think that as technologists, we have an interesting set of issues to deal with, and the future does look bright but it going to be a set of interesting times for the next five to twenty years as we sort out what the nature of digital media really is -- how people produce it, how they share it, who owns it, how do I buy one one-thousanth of a movie, or one ten-thousanth of a movie, how am I able to use that and share it with another person, how much do I charge for my list of favorite sites on the web, and how can I get reimbursed for it every time someone accesses it? A lot of these issues are much more economic and social and legal than technological. I think that we have solved a lot of the technological problems although there are many others that will come up. And my hope is that the rosy future that a lot of us are pointing towards, we will get there, and I think we need to get there by bringing about the types of changes that are not strictly technological. So that is my rant for now.

USER System Ergonomics Research Lab
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