Chief toy maker


15 min read
CNET News.com Newsmakers
September 25, 1996, Mark Weiser
Chief toy maker
By Margie Wylie
Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM

There's something eerily familiar about Mark Weiser. At 44, the twinkly-eyed, elfin researcher smiles calmly as he explains how computers will soon surround, cushion, and, if we're not careful, watch us.

The chief technologist at Xerox PARC, Weiser brings to mind another chief toy maker, the elf honcho who lives on the North Pole. From floor to ceiling, his office is stacked with gadgets and goodies in the works, from bare circuit boards and video cameras to a talking teddy bear and palm-sized computers. Like good ole St. Nick, whose bounty comes only because he "knows when you've been bad or good," there's something a little sinister about this toy maker's job, and he knows it.

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Ten years ago, Weiser saved from extinction PARC's computer lab--best known for inventing, then giving away, the essential ingredients of today's computing--with the idea of "ubiquitous computing." Since then, Weiser has been working to solve the problems that we'll encounter when all the computers around us learn, as he puts it, to use us better.

PARC, and Weiser for that matter, are cultural refugees in Silicon Valley. In an age when corporate myopia has induced companies to hack research in the name of short-term profits, PARC still employs philosophers and artists and values teamwork above individual stars. Perhaps most odd is that its chief technologist, while inventing the means of ubiquitous computing, is allowed to warn us of his creation's ethical muddles.

Still, Weiser is hardly a computer-smashing Luddite. In fact, he probably thinks he's the luckiest nerd alive. In his spare time, he's the drummer for Severe Tire Damage, a band that has been mentioned in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire and the comic-strip Doonesbury. (The band also plays live on MBone streaming video to Internet audiences each week and has won the dubious distinction of being called "The worst rock and roll band to ever play on the Internet.") So, he knows the allure and the pure fun in technology. Maybe that's what shapes his optimism. He warns that any technology can be turned to bad ends once it's loosed on the world, but, in the end, he has hope that we won't all get a lump of technological coal in our virtual stockings. That, however, is up to us.

NEWS.COM met Weiser in his Palo Alto, California, office and discussed PARC's unique mission, the next wave of computing, and its impact on society.

NEWS.COM: You mentioned there was something completely different between the way Bell Labs runs and Xerox PARC runs.
Weiser: PARC is different from almost every other place in the world, both universities and other research labs. I've been a professor and I've been at other research places. At PARC, there's wonderful collaboration. We have here philosophers, we have anthropologists, we have psychologists, we have computer scientists, we have physicists, and we have electrical engineers. We also have a lot of respect for one another. We work on a lot of things together. Or, at least we bump into each other in the cafeteria and are willing to talk, unlike any university where there's more diversity but no one talks to each other. Even in the same department, two professors won't talk to each other even if they're both in computer science.

So we have a much more collaborative, cooperative environment. We discourage single-person projects. That's sort of the opposite of Bell Labs, where they encourage the one-person project; each person is supposed to be an ivory tower if you're at Bell Labs. We have some great people here, but part of what makes them great is they are great collaborators. That's a very important value for us.

NEXT: Life at PARC

Mark Weiser

Age: 44

Claim to fame: Ubiquitous computing

Other life: Drummer, Severe Tire Damage

CNET News.com Newsmakers
September 25, 1996, Mark Weiser
Life at PARC

For people who don't know, what is PARC?
PARC is one of Xerox's many little research labs. It's the one that does work in computer science and systems and stuff like that. It's situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, where all the people are making lots of money in those things. So we're in the perfect place and we're known as the place that invented windows and then gave them away to Apple, the ones that invented mice and gave them away to Microsoft, and gave it away to everyone. But we do more than just give things away, in fact.

Tell us some of those things.
I like to think that about 20 percent of what we do is really relevant to Xerox. About 20 percent of what we do is completely useless to everyone, and about 60 percent, we're kind of not sure. Xerox PARC has been around 25 years. The 20 percent that's relevant to Xerox is really, really relevant. Xerox makes billions of dollars every year off of PARC's inventions and we don't cost them nearly that much. So Xerox is really happy with that 20 percent.

In the mid-'80s, they tried to squeeze us down and try to make the 20 percent be 100 percent. It turns out that if you do that, the innovation stops. So if you want a lot of great innovations, you have to be willing to accept the fact that a lot of the inventions aren't going to be very relevant to what you're doing. We have a great relationship with Xerox in which they want the innovations, as long as the 20 percent doesn't go to 10 and they make billions of dollars every year. Then we have all the other stuff that goes on. So it's a good relationship.

So it's not "publish or perish?"
It's have high impact or perish.

One of the ways to have high impact is to publish great papers, and we do some of that. So publishing is encouraged. But another way to have high impact is to have a great product idea and to do something with it, either take it into Xerox or spin a successful company out of PARC, which we have done many times. For instance, PARC Place Systems is a spin-off company from PARC that went public a year and a half ago and had about a $500-million market capitalization the last time I looked.

What's your part in all this? Are you chief toy maker?
Yeah, chief toy maker [laughs]. I have the title of chief technologist at PARC, sort of like chief troublemaker is how I like to think of it. I've been at PARC for ten years. I came as just a researcher after eight years of being a professor. Then I ran the computer science lab here, which is the lab that historically did the Ethernet and the end-user interface work and had sort of fallen on a little bit of hard times. Twenty people who had done a lot of that work had left a couple of years before.

NEXT: Ubiquitous computing  

CNET News.com Newsmakers
September 25, 1996, Mark Weiser
Ubiquitous computing

Those people who left PARC, those were the people who went to Apple in its early days?
Yes, some went to Apple and some went to Digital. That lab really needed something new to do. I started the lab on this program of ubiquitous computing and we took a couple of years to evolve it. Ubiquitous computing is the next thing after the personal computer.

Before the personal computer, lots of people shared one computer. That was the mainframe era. Now we're in the personal computer era; it's one person, one computer. In the next era to come, it will be lots of computers sharing each of us, so it will be the inverse of the mainframe. They'll be nice to us [laughs].

You promise?
Yes. We'll be in charge. I say "sharing us," but right now lots of words share us, if I can make that analogy. There are lots of doorways in houses. Around us, around me in this room, there are lots of words and pieces of paper and information technology of the old style of chopped wood and ink, but it's not overwhelming. In fact, it's kind of comforting to have these words around, especially on the expressway telling me where to get off and so forth.

So the world of ubiquitous computing, where lots of computers share us, I think of it as a similar world, except with the newer technology, not pulped trees, but pulped sand [silicon].

So the Internet is the first indication of ubiquitous computing?
Well, all new technology sort of proceeds by little tentacles that are harbingers of the future. Of course you never know which tentacle is the right tentacle, but when a whole bunch of tentacles are all pushing forward, it's a sign that maybe that's where the future is going. So the Internet is one of the harbingers of ubiquitous computing. Everything is connected together and suddenly there are standards for connecting everything together, which is the real breakthrough: TCP/IP and HTTP. Other harbingers are the fact that every Timex watch has a 6502 computer in it, even the $20 ones. There's Timex watches that download from the screen, PDAs, and little hand-held computers. You just see more and more computers in our lives and they are more and more invisible. I went through my house and I counted 40 microprocessors. Only 4 of them had screens attached, and the other 36 were in the alarm clock, remote control, kids' toys, microwave oven, and so on. So it's happening. The big problem, if we're surrounded by hundreds of computers, is how to not be overwhelmed by them, how to reverse the trend of technology that makes us more frantic and move to a trend of technology that helps make us more calm. These days, I sometimes call ubiquitous computing "calm technology" to give it a different name and really focus on what the key problem is.

But all these processors have separate and cryptic interfaces.
The problem with computers is not the interface. I don't think of it that way. It's just they are so bad that we think of it as an interface problem. The real problem is they have interfaces at all. That's where we need to move to.

Let's take trees and grass and books or other people, things, whatever is important to you, and look at its interface: It doesn't have one. It has just an interaction. It has a "co-dwelling" in the world. You're walking around in the woods, or you're opening the book and you're absorbed in the story, or you're there with another person. You don't think, "What's the user interface of this person? What should I say now to get them to do this?"

Yeah, but that interface has also been millions of years in the making, right?
No time to waste. Let's get started on the process of getting rid of the interface! The whole concept of interface is the problem. As soon as you say "interface" you say there's something here, something there, and something in-between and I have to move the right levers to make it do what I want. But the things that we're really comfortable with are things that come close to us and feel very natural and you don't have the feeling that you're somehow working through an interface to make it work. It's just here with you.

The car interface is very much like that. It doesn't feel like an interface; you turn and the car turns, and with a little practice you can drive a car, eat a cheeseburger, fiddle with the radio, and talk to your partner in the car, all at the same time.

So the best interfaces are the invisible ones, the ones you don't even know are there. The car interface achieves that and you can tell because you can do other things while driving a car. Most people can't do anything else while they're driving their spreadsheet. It takes all your attention. That's how you know it's a bad interface.

How do we get rid of the interface altogether? It reads our thoughts or ...
No, see that's still an interface if it reads our thoughts. Sorry!

The way to get rid of the interface is to fit the information technology into each situation. Part of what creates the interface concept is the general-purpose computer, the one that's supposed to do everything. It has to adapt to all these situations. So when you make an information technology that is built into a room, the walls, a car, or into a notebook so it's specific to a certain situation, you can make progress in having it disappear and be invisible in that situation.

How do we get there?
Ubiquitous computing is happening, so we're going to get there. It is zillions of details, zillions of details not just done by traditional technology people, but also by artists, designers, and people with work to get done, who are too busy to do computing but need a computer to help.

I think it's probably going to sneak up on us. There's a little company north of here called Diba that makes sort of little kitchen appliances with computers in them. Their slogan is, "the plastic is the application," which means that you look at it and you know what kind of information you can get from it. So this looks like a recipe book and that means it's the computer to get your recipes from. There's something right about that. A microwave oven sort of looks like an oven. You know the door's going to open, and you can put something in it. Then you can never figure out how to turn it on.

I think a lot more philosophy in computer design would be helpful; a lot more humanity and humility in computer design would be very helpful. I'm a big proponent of simplicity.

Don't get fancy with artificial intelligence. Like if I drive downtown now, will I be able to find a parking place? That's an information technology issue. It involves remote information, so it's Internet-related; it involves a real problem that everyone has multiple times a week, and it would make all our lives a little bit better. It's these simple things in the future of ubiquitous computing that we will have sort of trivially solved for us, and we'll forget that we even had this problem, just like today it's hard to imagine what it would be like to not know anything about the rest of the world. Today we assume that we'll know what's happening in England, Bosnia, China, etc. We just live in this cool place. We know what's happening in Bosnia, but we don't know whether there's a parking place downtown! The local problems are going to get better with ubiquitous computing.

NEXT: Dangerous technology

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CNET News.com Newsmakers
September 25, 1996, Mark Weiser
Dangerous technology

From the sense of convenience, ubiquitous computing certainly seems like a wonderful thing. But I already feel surrounded.
The problems of privacy and keeping information about yourself private in the future are going to get worse and worse. The more computers there are looking at you, the worse it gets to the first approximation. There will be different expectations of what can be kept private, and I think it's too soon to know exactly how it's going to play out. What's certain, I think, is there will be a shift and everyone needs to be a lot more aware of what can be tracked about them.

There's going to be brand new privacy problems that today we can hardly even imagine. For instance, the one that is starting to become important is location privacy: who can find out where you are physically. This never was an issue in the past because those who physically knew where you were, you knew where they were because they were probably in the same room with you, unless someone was a private detective or something peeping on you with a telescope, and that was always sort of frowned upon. Only shady people would do such a thing.

But now, everyone who uses a cellular phone is, in fact, being tracked. If you're a cellular phone user, your location is known at least within three kilometers, and with a small amount of work, within ten meters. So O.J. Simpson was caught on the expressway because he used a cellular phone and the cellular company called up the police and said, "We know where he is." There was no question about a privacy violation, and no court order needed to be issued. Location privacy is not a recognized right in the Constitution, in any laws, in any court cases, and yet where you are can be pretty important. A thief would like to know, "Is everyone out of this house so it's okay to rob?" That's one example.

We try to do a certain amount of ethical thinking in the work we do here, and we wrestle with this again and again. So one of the questions is, suppose you're developing a technology that might seem to be dangerous, like the atom bomb, or technology that can track people all over the place and so thieves know when you're out of the house. Those are both dangerous things. The question is, should you not do it? If I'm an engineer and I've just developed this great technology [and it] might be dangerous, should I not do it? We thought about that, and said maybe that's right; each person has to individually decide whether to do it or not. But just not doing it is certainly not enough because someone else may do it.

So let's suppose you decide to do it because you're personally, ethically, willing to do it. Now, you'll probably do it with a lot of attention on how to make it a safe system and preserve the rights of privacy so it takes a password or something to get at my information. Fine, that's good. Even if you're a slightly ethical engineer, that's how you'll do it. That is not enough, and here's why. Because I'm the engineer, I'll develop this ethical technology with all the right safeguards and the passwords and the privacy and so forth. Then I'll sell it to company Z, they'll take out all the safeguards, use it to monitor employees and do mean, awful things to them, and it will be bad. One more step is necessary. That step is to warn people that dangerous technology is being built, that the future will not be all wonderful and light. If your employer wants to install little badges on you that beam out signals, here are some questions you ought to ask: Where is the information going to be stored? How long will it be stored for? Who has access to it, and so forth? Eventually, laws will need to be passed as well that will lock in some of these safeguards. But meanwhile, I think if you're an ethical technologist, you have to take responsibility for telling the world the potential dangers of your work. This is generally not in the technologists' ethic. We traditionally leave it to someone else to say the bad things about what we're doing and we tell you all the good things. That just won't do anymore if we're doing ubiquitous computing and invading the world with hundreds of computers per person, I don't think.

What do you see happening in the next few years with privacy?

I see a lot of the privacy conventions shifting around. They always do with the new technology. Before the telephone it was very common to have people drop by, and you were not expecting them. They would come and knock on the door and you would have to invite them in; this is how you visited. Very uncommon now. You always phone first and so forth. The telephone changed that expectation of the privacy of one's own home. Similarly, before the telephone, generally if someone dropped by for you, you knew who they were. But with the telephone, you get calls mostly at dinner from complete strangers trying to sell you something. That didn't happen before the phone. So again, it's another kind of privacy or violation of personal space that technology changed.

One of the things that I see changing with regard to the Internet already is a lot of information that you would generally not tell someone you just met, such as the different places that you've worked, or papers you've written, or sort of your resume history, you can find out all sorts of things like this about people on the Net. It's becoming easy to find out things that might be hard to find out with someone you just met. On the other hand, things that you might tell someone that you just happened to meet at a party, or something like, "Are you married?" and "Do you have kids?" and "Where do you live?" you won't find on the Net because you don't want strangers finding out your kids' names or where you live. So there's a complete reversal of privacy expectations on the Net, with the Net and without the Net.

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