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As easy as breathing

MIT's Michael Dertouzos envisions a day when computers will do our bidding without any effort on our part

By Robert Weisman, Globe Staff, 2/4/2001

ichael Dertouzos is moving about his office at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science, speaking commands into a wireless mike.

''Open the drapes,'' he says quietly in a voice tinged with the accent of his native Greece. He watches them part with a tight-lipped smile and squints at the light outside his window.

Dertouzos closes the drapes, rolls down a film screen and projects first television images and then PC files all through spoken words activating computers tucked into a cabinet and under a conference table. His voice then sets off speech systems with names like Jupiter, Voyager and Pegasus; in response to his queries, they describe the traffic on Storrow Drive, forecast the next day's weather and give the status of the morning's flights from Chicago to Boston.

''It is still on the ground at O'Hare,'' reports a quite unrobotic female voice, referring to a flight scheduled to arrive at Logan International Airport within the hour.

Dertouzos (pronounced dur-tew-zose) is clearly having fun. There is a childlike glee to the 64-year-old, six-foot-four-inch director of the computer science lab that is renowned for its pioneering work. Its big research project now is in ''human-centric computing.'' The project is named Oxygen because, Dertouzos argues, computers are an enabling tool that should be as invisible and unconscious to people as the air we breath.

''I don't want us to be slaves to our machines,'' Dertouzos says. ''I want our machines to serve us.''

The concept is simple. Dertouzos spells it out in his forthcoming book, "The Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do For Us." Getting there from where we are now is anything but simple.

Dertouzos' vision of human-centered computing has far-reaching implications for business and society because it seeks to supplant the current state of technology a state of slow connections and frequent crashes, choking with pop-up spam, piled-up emails, mystifying systems messages and manuals as thick as a Tolstoy novel. Ironically, in this user-hostile environment, technology has been deified; in Dertouzos's view, it is time to make the technology more intuitive and celebrate what it allows people to do.

Getting the business world to buy into his idea may be his biggest challenge. Though the jacket of his new book is lined with accolades from captains of the high tech industry Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Nobuyuki Idei of Sony Corp. and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, among others many of today's companies have a vested interest in software and hardware overloaded with more features than most consumers need. If anything, the landscape is getting further cluttered with the proliferation of new beepers, cell phones, personal digital assistants and other handheld devices.

Yet Dertouzos believes that, within 10 to 20 years, many of today's limitations will be overcome and human-centric computing will be a reality, though one that continues to evolve. That will mean more intuitive and customized products that communicate with one another and help people collaborate.

Early-stage research and experiments in these areas are underway at the Lab for Computer Science, underwritten by private industry and the Pentagon. Between 150 and 200 researchers will be involved in the five-year, $50 million project, including some from the adjoining MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, headed by Dertouzos's colleague, Rodney Brooks. They are being joined by a global team of industry collaborators from such companies as Acer Group, Delta Electronics Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., Nokia Research Center, and Philips Research.

What is likely to result from this Oxygen Alliance? Dertouzos's book describes several concepts being explored, each carrying the promise of new products and applications.

One is the Handy 21, a handheld device that would be wireless phone, television clicker, planning calendar, and information retriever, all in one. In essence, it would seamlessly combine all of the applications of the many palm-size devices now on the market as well as new ones, and could be freestanding or used on a computer network. The second is the Enviro 21, a room- or office-size computing environment, wired with microphones for speech recognition, cameras for face recognition and motion sensing, and wall-mounted displays. (Dertouzos is turning his ''Oxygenated office'' at MIT into a kind of prototype.)

The third concept is the N21 Network, the infrastructure that enables all the other elements to work together. This network would provide high-speed Internet access and wireless support for the Handy, and it would connect all the hidden computers, cameras, and mikes in Dertouzos's office. All of these concepts are subject to change along the way, Dertouzos says. Unlike their industry collaborators, he says, MIT researchers welcome ''a change of concept as well as a proof of concept.''

But for the industry partners, the goal can be summed up in a word: commercialization.

''We don't want [MIT researchers] to do products,'' says Fred Kitson, director of the Client and Media Systems Lab at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto, Calif. ''We'll do products. But we want them to think about the world as it really is, not just the way it is in Cambridge.''

By the world as it is, Kitson means accountability to shareholders eager for new products to deliver to customers. The tension between that commercial impatience and the academic tolerance for slowly incubating ideas came to a head at a mid-January feedback session where Kitson, representing all of the industry partners, urged Dertouzos to steer the Oxygen research toward creating a ''pervasive computing ecosystem'' for specific products on the drawing board in private labs around the world.

Hewlett-Packard, for example, is working on image-capturing technology. The technology would enable corporate road warriors to point a Handy 21-type device at a building and identify where its pay phones were located, or hikers to point the device at a three-leafed plant and determine whether it was poison ivy.

At one point in the feedback meeting, Kitson recalls, ''I did make a comment to Michael [Dertouzos] that, as a function of time, the gap should narrow - the gap between commercialization of technology and the vision of the way life should be.''

Dertouzos, for his part, sees technology heading inexorably in the direction of the way life should be.

''From now on, computer systems should focus on our needs and capabilities, instead of forcing us to bow down to their complex, incomprehensible, and mechanistic details,'' he writes in ''The Unfinished Revolution.'' ''Human-centered computers are not a fantasy. They can be built, right now, with current and emerging technologies. We can even begin with the computers we already have, merely by changing the way we use them.''

And Dertouzos thinks commercialization should be part of the process of making technology invisible. ''You will know it has become human-centered a decade or two in the future when the technology vanishes, [when] you can't see it,'' he says.

Not all techno-seers, even those advocating simplicity, share Dertouzos's notion of invisible technology as the ideal.

Jakob Nielsen, a Web usability guru from Mountain View, Calif., prefers products with which consumers can be at ease and gain self-reliance through mastery of the technology.

''Consider existing tools, whether a piano or saw,'' Nielsen suggests. ''The best musicians and the best lumberjacks know about their tools and know how to use them. It's not as if the tools vanish and trees just fall on their own or music plays itself. This could happen, but would make for an empty human experience. Empowerment feels better for most people.''

But the Dertouzos approach has many defenders.

''Initially it will be difficult because it requires taking a customer-centric rather than a technology-centric point of view,'' says Adrian J. Slywotzky, vice president of Mercer Management Consulting in Lexington. ''One of the things Michael is right about is that most of the products used now are designed for the producers, not the consumers.... But consumers will respond to innovation.''

Dertouzos himself is an example of the empowered individual Nielsen lauds. The MIT lab director is enamored of technology and comfortable with just about any machine, from the myriad computers in his Weston and New Hampshire homes to the 37-foot cruiser, Rosana, he keeps moored in Boston Harbor.

Salt water is in the Dertouzos blood. His father was an admiral in the Greek navy and later governor of the island of Crete. Dertouzos was born and raised in Greece and came to the United States as a Fulbright scholar. After earning a doctorate from MIT in 1964, he joined the MIT faculty, where he is now a professor of computer science and electrical engineering.

During his early years at MIT, he founded and sold one company, Computek Inc., a maker of graphical display terminals based on a Dertouzos patent. And he has since been involved in several other high-tech start-ups while consulting for more established technology companies such as Siemens Nixdorf and BASF. Dertouzos has authored or co-authored seven books. He is a dual citizen of the United States and Greece and says he feels equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic.

''America was the best customer of the Greek ideas of freedom, democracy, and the power of the individual,'' Dertouzos says. He and his wife, Catherine, have two grown children, a son and a daughter, in New England. But they have not ruled out buying vacation property on one of the Greek islands.

After he sold Computek, Dertouzos accepted the directorship at the computer science lab. Over the past quarter century, the MIT lab has helped birth many of the key inventions of the computer age, from the spreadsheet to the NuBus (the protocols that allowed the expansion of the Macintosh computer) to the Internet. Its members include such notables as Ron Rivest, inventor of RSA encryption technology, and Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. (He invented it in Switzerland, however, before Dertouzos recruited him to join the MIT lab.)

Dertouzos himself has had an uncanny track record in forecasting technology trends. Shortly after he took over the computer science lab in 1974, he predicted in a magazine interview that desktop PCs would be in every third home by the mid-1990s. In 1980, he wrote about the ''information marketplace'' that would spring from a worldwide system of networked computers.

The lab, under Dertouzos's leadership, has helped to bring many of these innovations into being, of course.

He ''sets a remarkable tone: to encourage people to reach for the impossible,'' says Anant Agarwal, associate director of the lab. ''He wants you to do back-breaking, wild and crazy things. And it's all right to fail.''

A couple of years ago, when they were preparing the Oxygen grant proposal to the Defense Department, Dertouzos was ''pulling near-all-nighters'' fleshing out the key concepts of human-centered computing, recalls Agarwal.

''I remember the first time I met Michael,'' says Victor Zue, another associate lab director, who wrote the software for the voice-activated computers in Dertouzos's office.

''He was trying to recruit me to the lab. And he had this Greek saying that translated loosely as `one hand reaching for the stars and the other playing in the dirt.' It's much more poetic in Greek.''

Zue reciprocated that gift of folk wisdom years later when, returning from a trip to China, he brought Dertouzos an ideogram containing the Chinese word for ''crisis.'' The first two Chinese characters in the word mean ''danger'' and ''opportunity.'' Dertouzos keeps it framed on his wall.

For someone whose advice is sought after at the highest levels of business, government, and academia, Dertouzos has kept a remarkably low public profile. (By comparison, his colleague Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, has garnered widespread publicity for his work and writing on the Internet.)

Dertouzos entertains a steady stream of visitors to his office, including Gates, the Microsoft Corp. founder and chairman, and former vice president Al Gore, both of whom he admires. Dertouzos has a copy of a letter from Gates framed on his office wall, and a picture of himself with Gore.

Dertouzos says he has known Gates for 16 years, but their relationship is complex. Dertouzos denies a magazine report that Gates calls him almost daily. But Gates did donate $20 million to build a computer science lab as part of a larger MIT complex. When Gates asked him to give expert testimony in the antitrust suit brought against Microsoft by the Justice Department, Dertouzos agreed to do so but declined the offer of coaching from Microsoft in preparing testimony.

In his deposition, Dertouzos offered a much more nuanced view than Microsoft would have liked. Essentially, he argued that the Web browser was currently a discrete technology though it could eventually merge with the PC operating system as software boundaries shift. His words were parsed and cited by both sides to support their arguments. Dertouzos says he and Gates are still on good terms, noting he recently visited Gates at his lakeside mansion in Medina, Wash. (Gates declined to discuss his relationship with Dertouzos for this story.)

Dertouzos says he has taken no formal position about who is right in the Microsoft antitrust case. But he observes that the two pillars of American dominance in today's world are freedom and technology. And being a student of Greek tragedy, Dertouzos says he finds it ''very Greek'' that the US government has been bearing down on the most successful company in the industry that is driving the American boom.

For all his faith in technology and its ability to help people, Dertouzos ends his new book with a warning against worshiping at technology's altar. He fears technology will replace God in the 21st century and calls for restoring a balance between technology, humanity, and spirituality.

''The human-centric technologies will bring computers closer to us and give us power to do more by doing less,'' he writes. ''But the highest meaning of `human-centric,' and its biggest benefit to us, will be determined by what we do to achieve the human goals we set. We will be better off and we will be finishing the ultimate Unfinished Revolution if we reach for these goals using all our human dimensions in concert, standing once again in awe before the sunset, the wheel, and what may lie behind them.''

Robert Weisman can be reached by e-mail at weisman@globe.com.

This story ran on page H1 of the Boston Globe on 2/4/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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