March 3-5, I attended ACM'97, the annual conference of the Association for
Computing Machinery. This year, ACM is celebrating its 50th anniversary,
so this year's conference was devoted to reflecting on the past fifty years
and predicting the next fifty. The conference was in San Jose (CA). They
reported 1100 attendees.
The conference was organized in an "all-plenary" format: strictly
sequential, with everyone in the same room. There were no panels, only
The main topic of most talks was predicting the next 50 years of computer
technology, but many of the speakers talked about the social impacts of
computing technology as well as about the technology itself. Science
journalist James Burke was moderator, and he asked speakers pointed
questions after each talk. Bruce Sterling (science-fiction writer) was
supposed to talk on the last day about the dark side of the future, but didn't
because he was "having so much fun" speculating about bizarre new forms
and uses of computing, he didn't get around to saying much about possible
There was an exhibition of advanced computer technologies in a nearby hall. It
was open to the public. The layout was clever: it was made up look like an
archeological dig, where all the advanced technology being shown was supposed
to look like it had just been dug up in the year 2047 (fifty years from now).
Some exhibits were interesting: A giant screen projection of the world that
let you zoom down to street maps. A medical station where you could get a
video medical consultation with a doctor on the East Coast. A interactive video
of Albert Einstein (played by an actor) that would answer (some) spoken
questions. Lots of virtual reality demos.
My main complaint about ACM'97 was that it was a very sterile,
non-interactive conference. The only audience participation was that we got
to hold up reflective paddles to vote on Y/N survey questions posed by the
moderator about future technology (see example tallys at end of message).
There were two bomb threats, causing everyone to have to leave the building.
It was not a cozy conference.
I missed the talks by Carver Mead (Prof of Engineering, Caltech), Fernando
Flores (CEO, Business Design Associates), and William Perry (U.S. Secretary
of Defense). I heard the talks by:
- Gordon Bell, Senior Researcher, Microsoft, general networking guru
- Joel Birnbaum, VP of R&D, Hewlett-Packard
- Pattie Maes, C.S. Professor and AI Researcher, MIT Media Lab
- Nathan Myhrvold, VP of Applications and Content, Microsoft
- Bran Ferron, Executive VP, Walt Disney Imagineering
- Vint Cerf, Senior VP, MCI, "Father of the Internet"
- Brenda Laurel, CEO, Paper Moon (game/education spinoff of Interval
- Elliot Soloway, C.S. Prof, Education Prof, U. of Michigan
- Reed Hundt, Chair, Federal Communications Commission
- Bruce Sterling, SF writer and Electronic Frontier Foundation Co-founder
- Raj Reddy, C.S. Professor, AI Researcher, CMU
- Murray Gel-Mann, Physics Professor Emeritus, Caltech, Nobel Laureate
Below are my notes from the above-listed talks, in order.
Gordon Bell, Senior Researcher, Microsoft, general networking guru
- Regarding predicting: "When all else fails, bet against the optimists."
Quoting Bob Lucky, head of Bellcore: "If we couldn't predict the Web, what
good are we?"
- Listed failed predictions about computers, some too conservative, others too
- Prediction: "Anything that can be cyberized will be in cyberspace," but
not sure if this is our goal or our fate.
- Prediction: "ACM'47 won't be in physical space; it will be in cyberspace."
Joel Birnbaum, VP of R&D, Hewlett-Packard
- "Technology advances by replacing old technologies with X-less Y, e.g.,
horseless carriage, wireless phone."
- "At the time of Eniac , predictions of the future of computing were very
conservative compared to what has happened. If transisters and integrated
circuits hadn't been developed and we were still using tubes, the predictions
might have been closer to correct. Transistors and integrated circuits were
'disruptive' technologies, meaning that they changed the future
- Prediction: Three new computing technologies by 2047: quantum computing,
DNA computing, and optical computing. All will be disruptive and make
today's predictions look silly.
- Speculation: "Could we build auxilliary brains? Could we use them to change
how we think?"
Pattie Maes, C.S. Professor and AI Researcher, MIT Media Lab
- "Software Agents are the Significant Other of the 21st century."
- "Artificial Intelligence (AI) hasn't really paid off. Maybe we should work on
Intelligence Augmentation (IA) instead of AI", i.e., computational/mental
- Why do we need mental prosthetics? "Because people have poor memory,
limited attention, can only be in one place at a time, are bad at logic and
probability, and generally because life is getting too complex for our
- "We don't want to replace what people are good at, e.g., judgement,
creativity. We want to use computers for tasks they are good at, e.g.,
remembering facts, large searches."
- Her graduate students now all live with "wearable computers": computers
that are on them at all times, and that record most of what they do, say,
where they go, and act as an augmented memory and reminder. It has a GPS
in it so that if they walk past a bank, it knows where they are and can
remind them that they need to get a money order. If they want to know who
told them something, they can search the record.
- Developing an automated "yenta" that watches you and learns your interests,
then talks to other online "yentas" to try to match you up with people having
similar interests. Not just for romantic relationships, but
relationships of all
kinds, e.g., interest groups.
- Developing software agents that buy and sell on your behalf. You
describe what you want to buy or sell, they go out on the net and negotiate
with other similar agents, then tell what deals are possible so you can act.
- Design challenge for all of this is to build agents that people trust and that
- Question from moderator: "Won't people's memory wane if they use remembrance
Answer: "We should try not to replace what people are good at."
Nathan Myhrvold, VP of Applications and Content, Microsoft
- Big steps in history of information: 1) invention of writing, 2) Gutenberg's
movable-type printing press, 3) first electronic computer, 4) microprocessor,
- Nathan's Laws of Software:
1) Software is a gas: it expands to fit the size of its container.
2) Software grows until it hits the memory and processing limits of the
current computer technology; it brings old machines to their knees just when
the new model is ready.
3) Software growth drives hardware growth. People buy new models because
their old ones are bogging down.
4) Software is limited only by human ambition and expectations.
- It is often said that we are today in a software crisis. But this has
been said throughout the history of computing. Many software technologies
were supposed to solve it but didn't: high-level languages, object oriented
programming, component software.
- Future software technologies: genetic programming, software husbandry.
- Prediction: Comparing Windows 2.0 with Windows 2047:
WINDOWS 2.0 WINDOWS'47
Virtual Memory Virtual Me
GUI You and I
- Wild speculation: By 2047, people will be able to upload their minds onto
Bran Ferron, Executive VP, Walt Disney Imagineering
- "Computers are storytelling devices."
- "Engineers work from requirements; storytellers work from 'big ideas',
intuitions about what people like. Both are creative and problem-solvers,
but the language is different."
- "Storytelling requires a professional to do well. Professionals know how
to reach people, and how to get around technological limitations. Storys
told by amateurs will always be amateur quality."
- Changing visions of the future:
- 1960s: "The Jetsons was the vision of the future. Artificial was considered
- 1970s and 80s: "A greener future: A little house in the country.
- 1990s: "A little house in the country that's wired discretely, e.g., the
picket fence is a phased-array antenna that tracks satellites."
- "Entertainment is becoming a bad word. Why? Why shouldn't education be
- "The dangers of cyberspace isn't and won't be the technology, just as the
main danger of driving isn't the car itself. It's the other people who
are out there."
Vint Cerf, Senior VP, MCI, "Father of the Internet"
- Prediction: "VCRs won't blink 12 because they'll get the time off the net."
- Hope: "My pager, cell phone, laptop, hearing aid, etc. will all get coalesced
into one device."
- Prediction: "There will be more devices than people on the net."
- "If we went back in time fifty years, we'd bang our noses on certain things
because they wouldn't do what we'd expect them to. What would people of
2047 bang their noses on if they came back to 1997? They will expect
objects to accommodate to them and help them run their lives."
- Question from moderator: "When it's 2047 for us, what will it be for the 3rd
Answer: "The 3rd world is now getting cellular phones, bypassing wires. By
2025, most of the world will get telephones."
Brenda Laurel, CEO, Paper Moon (game/education spinoff of Interval
- "The computer is used in cultural mythology as a projection surface for our
- Pessimistic about future society: forsees "intolerance, poverty, pollution,
- "Stories are content, storytelling is relationships."
- "To avoid bleak futures, need interventions. But most interventions fail.
Need interventions at the level of popular culture, but you have to avoid
activating the 'immune system'."
- Believes that the way you change people's values and/or behavior (e.g.,
to bring about a less violence-prone or more tolerant society) is by
those values into games, TV shows, movies, storybooks, etc.
- The "immune system" is everyone's natural reaction against changing or
being told what to do. She talked about a father complaining about "values"
being promoted in Purple Moon's educational software. She asked him what
values are portrayed in games like "Doom" and he replied that those games
are value-free. She concludes that people are more aware of values in
story-telling games and books than they are of values in action games and
- "Storytelling raises red flags with parents because it is seen as promoting
values. Whose values? But in fact, values are in everything."
[Note from JJ: This was, in my opinion, the best talk of the conference.]
Elliot Soloway, C.S. Prof, Education Prof, U. of Michigan
- Prediction: "What will happen when the Barney generation grows up? They'll
think a house comes with a computer."
- "The old pedagogy educated only the top 20% and trained the rest to be
obediant and punctual. That's what the manufacturing economy needed. Now,
we need to educate everyone, because that's what the information economy
- "We need to stop didactic instruction and teach sustained inquiry. We need
computer technology to do it. Not the Web... that's just a replacement
for the old copying things out of the encyclopedia."
- Outlined four elements of education: school, community, learning, and
teaching, and how computer technology can or can't help with each. Doesn't
think computers will replace teachers, because teachers provide interpersonal
relationships, which is very important for learning.
Reed Hundt, Chair, Federal Communications Commission
- FCC trying to become more open. Has new 888 number: 1(888)call-fcc.
FCC website gets 14K hits a day.
- "The number of people who tried the Internet and gave up is equal to the
number of Internet users. No other popular technology has that drop-out
- Questions he posed for technologists:
- "Most kids in the U.S. don't have computers. When will we have an
Internet-capable computer for under $500?"
- "When can we have larger, better-shaped monitors?"
- "When will computers be easy to use? I'm willing to put up with some
information push if it makes it easier to find things."
- "Bandwidth should be orderable as-needed, but this is difficult to convince
infrastructure providers of."
- "The FCC will vote in May on whether the FCC will tax telecom revenue to
set up infrastructure for schools." Telecom providers oppose. Hundt
thinks the FCC should do it.
- Question from moderator: "Is the Internet spreading around the world like
Answer: "I think of it as an antibiotic."
- Question from moderator: "How do we bring the rest of the world into the
- Answer: "It isn't acceptable in today's small world to be in a world where
2/3 of people have never made a phone call."
Bruce Sterling, SF writer and Electronic Frontier Foundation Co-founder
- "Technology has destroyed the privacy of the rich and famous."
- The darkest and scariest future scenarios are about information warfare.
He's not very concerned about information warfare. More concerned about
"real, physical, no-kidding warfare."
- "The computer revolution turned out OK because we've never known what we
- "Computation isn't thinking. We don't even know what thinking is. And
we don't do much of it, compared to feeling and emoting. We need to stop
trying to get computers to think and get serious about computing, which is
different from thinking but interesting anyway."
- "Computation is simulation and toy worlds, not intelligence."
- "Some people say the net doesn't make business sense. Well, the net is
happening, so maybe that means the business models and assumptions are
- "Instead of designing tools, let's evolve them in computer simulations. For
example, we could throw modern day car-jacks as seeds into a computer
simulation, cross-breed them, try them out on billions and billions of cars,
and evolve a new kind of car jack. It might not look like today's car jacks,
but it'll hold up a car like nobody's business!"
- Ended by scolding the audience for being workaholics.
Raj Reddy, C.S. Professor, AI Researcher, CMU
- Prediction: Accident-avoiding cars.
- Prediction: Glut of information will prompt development of summarization
and editing technologies.
- Prediction: People will record interactive videos (or holographs) of
themselves for use by future generations.
- Question from moderator: "How do we get this out to the 3rd world?"
- Answer: "Cell phones are growing there faster than here. I come from the
3rd world. It's not so different from here: they have many of the same
concerns: health care, education."
Murray Gel-Mann, Physics Professor Emeritus, Caltech, Nobel Laureate
- "Rewards in science tend to go to narrow research rather than to synthesis
and summaries of information."
- "Misconceptions are widely propogated by media, especially computer media."
- "How do we extract wisdom and knowledge from all the data?"
- "We have a greater need than ever for skilled intermediaries to filter and
summarize information. The marketplace won't do it."
- "We need to overcome peoples' natural tendency to think of 'us' vs. 'them'."
Audience Response by holding up reflective red/green paddles in response to
moderator's questions. Results were tabulated and graphed in real-time by
a (newly patented) scanning system.
By 2047, will:
- we have eliminated war? 91% no
- computers have dehumanized us? 61% no
- computers have improved the quality of life? 89% yes
- we be under surveillance? 91% yes
- we telecommute? 61% yes
- we have eliminated paper books? 60% no
- participatory democracy replace representative democracy? 50/50 split
- computers pose a threat to privacy? 88% yes
- we have eliminated cash? 80% yes
- computers be as intelligent as people? 90% no
- everyone speak English? 84% yes
- computers be self-replicating? 60% yes
- we have eliminated religion? 90% no
- virtual reality have replaced all other forms of entertainment? 90% no
- Gary Kasparov be the last human chess champion? 55% no
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