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MIT, Quanta cook up devices of tomorrow

University's computer science labs and Taiwanese hardware maker ink agreement to design future computing and communications devices.

Forget about laptops and handhelds.

Twenty years from now all you'll need to communicate, compute and gain access to your information is an authentication device that links up with your home-based back-end systems.

That theory, while yet unproven, is just one of the multitude of scenarios being considered for research and development under a new agreement between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Taiwanese hardware maker Quanta Computer. Signed on Friday, the five-year, $20 million joint research pact is aimed at creating designs for the next generation of computing and communications devices.

Dubbed TParty, the effort aims to combine research from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL, with Quanta's real-world experience in marketing hardware, specifically laptop computers and servers. According to professor Rodney Brooks, director of CSAIL, the ultimate goal of the partnership is to surpass conventional ideas about the manner in which devices will continue to converge.

"You have all these different devices today, going in all sorts of different directions. We're asking ourselves: How do we cut through all that into what the future sets of devices will really be like?" Brooks said. "Just as 20 years ago people didn't walk around with laptops, there's no reason to expect that 20 years from now people will walk around with the same sort of devices that they have today."

Specifically, TParty will try to merge existing hardware designs with new concepts on how to better manage information transfers, device configurations, security and more. Brooks said that the research, which will consist of 30 different projects at CSAIL run by MIT undergraduates, graduate students and faculty, will explore ways of unlocking people's "virtual computational environment" to make devices more flexible and adaptable.

TParty "transcends simple convergence and tries to rethink from the ground up everything from device design to the software models of how applications are written so that they can migrate around from processor to processor in mid-computation," Brooks said. "There are many layers to look at in making this dream into a reality."

TParty said its ultimate goal is to "create new systems for the development and seamless delivery of information services in a world of smart devices and sensors." The group said that to achieve this goal, it will experiment with re-engineering the "underlying technical infrastructure" of today's computers and communications gadgets, and explore new ways of managing and accessing information.

Brooks called an ideal partner in the effort because the company was founded in 1988 with the goal of making computers more portable.

"The real answer, we think, is that it's not one particular device," he said. "It's that whatever you're carrying with you can dynamically reconfigure itself depending on what else is around and what you're trying to do."