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The Age of Automation

Peeking at cutting-edge research, CNET's Michael Kanellos imagines a world with machines that will solve problems for us rather than serve as problem-solving platforms.

The '60s and '70s were the decades of the mainframe. The '80s made up the decade of client-server computing. The '90s were the Internet years. Now we're entering the decade of the electronic butler. Instead of developing computers that we can use to solve complex problems, researchers are dedicating themselves to the task of inventing machines that will solve problems for us. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), for instance, is holding a contest called the DARPA Grand Challenge.

For this contest, inventors will try to develop fully automated, off-road robot cars that can make it from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 10 hours--or about the same time it takes a Greyhound bus full of gambling senior citizens to make the trip. Instead of two rolls of nickels and a pass to a buffet, the winners will receive $1 million.

Automation is also on the minds of researchers at Siggraph, the annual computer graphics conference held by the Association for Computing Machinery, which takes place this week in San Diego.

A consortium of European universities is working on the

Have we really become so lazy that we need this kind of help?
The sensor technology is being developed in universities in Finland, England, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, but the furniture itself is available now.

"We bought it at Ikea," said Gerd Kortuem of the University of Lancaster. "It is about turning existing artifacts and actuating them."

Another group, stationed at New York University, showed off a prototype of a decorating application at Siggraph. It is designed to arrange the various pieces of furniture in a room at the touch of a button, using a complex network of light-emitting diodes, motors and position-detectors mounted on the pieces. (Right now, it's a model: The furniture is only a couple of inches high, but Siggraph crowds oohed and aahed.)

The munch machine
On top of this, researchers at the University of Tsukuba in Japan have devised a "food simulator" that reproduces the biting force that's required to chomp through different types of food.

So far, they have created two orally inserted devices for people who need chewing help--one that simulates the pressure needed to go through a cracker, the other through mushy vegetables. (Simulated flavor may come later.) Lots of people at Siggraph lined up to put the devices--which look like jumper-cable attachments--in their mouth.

"Taste is the last frontier for virtual reality," said project leader Hiroo Iwata.

Have we really become so lazy that we need this kind of help? Not entirely. These new machines are part of a trend toward what I call "extroverted computing."

Even the crazy gizmos dreamed up by Jules Verne and Rube Goldberg remain a mainstay of popular culture.
Word processors, the Internet and e-mail have revolutionized the world of communications. But, as a result, people find themselves inundated with cell phone calls, spam and viruses; overwhelmed by the selection of Web sites when doing research; and faced with increasing pressure to balance home life and work life.

Robots and automation technology essentially take much of the risk and drudgery out of the daily grind. If a robot existed that could weed out junk mail, rearrange furniture or drive into combat carrying a bomb on your behalf, you'd buy it.

The movement toward extroverted computing is also quite common in the virtual world. Google made it much easier to search for information by using queries that were naturally phrased. In addition, researchers at Microsoft and other companies are working on applications that will track you down when an urgent communication comes in while keeping unwanted communication off your phone line or out of your in-box.

Invite Michael Kanellos into your in-box
Senior department editor Michael Kanellos scrutinizes the hardware industry in a weekly column that ranges from chips to servers and other critical business systems. Enterprise Hardware every Wednesday.

It's all interesting stuff, which is part of the reason researchers are gravitating toward this kind of work. Computers on their own can be quite dull: No city held a World's Fair to celebrate the microprocessor or the graphical user interface.

By contrast, suspension bridges, skyscrapers and space voyages were heralded with huge fanfare. Even the crazy gizmos dreamed up by Jules Verne and Rube Goldberg remain a mainstay of popular culture.

And who knows? Your future computer might even end up making wisecracks like the robot from "Lost in Space."