MIT project seeks to make PCs invisible

A $50 million research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology aims to banish computers into thin air.

3 min read
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--A $50 million research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology aims to banish computers into thin air.

The Oxygen Alliance is a five-year project designed to make computers as ubiquitous--and invisible--as oxygen. At least 250 MIT researchers will be involved in the project, which is getting funding from the federal government and six corporations.

Desktop computers and keyboards would go the way of the abacus--replaced by small, handheld devices and out-of-sight units embedded into walls and ceilings that respond to voices, not the click of a mouse.

"People should be able to communicate naturally with a machine, the same way that they do each other," said James Glass, one of the principal researchers working on the language aspect of the project.

The project envisions a largely invisible computer network permeating homes, offices, cars and every other place where people live, work and play.

It would be a tapestry of technologies. The project began last fall with funding from the Defense Department and was to be expanded Wednesday to include Acer Group, Delta Electronics, Hewlett-Packard, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, Nokia Research Center and Philips Research.

Many questions related to logistics and technology remain.

"I'm very anxious to see machines that cater to human needs," said Michael Dertouzos, director of the Laboratory for Computer Science, which is working with its sister lab, MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

"For 30 years plus, we have catered to the lowly needs of the machine," he said.

It was Dertouzos and four other researchers who proposed Oxygen to the Defense Department last year.

The ultimate goal is to unhitch people from the desktops to which they must now turn for their computing needs, according to John Ankcorn, the project's technical coordinator.

It would work with several devices:

  Enviro 21s, units of sensors, microphones and cameras built into homes, offices and vehicles to gather and send information.

  Handy 21s, handheld devices with video screens, a camera and possibly a global positioning system to interact with the Enviros. It would combine features of cellular phones, handheld computers, radios, televisions and remote controls.

  A network, Net 21, to allow users to share information.

A key element to making the technology usable is speech. The Spoken Language Systems group at MIT has been working to create speech recognition software that allows users to talk with computers as they do with each other.

The system also would involve customized software. For example, one set of software would help run a doctor's office, while a factory would have another.

The Artificial Intelligence Lab is working on technology to help the computers identify people by their facial features, track where they go and determine what people are looking at.

Lab director Rodney Brooks admits the project presents thorny issues of privacy and security.

"Some of these solutions may have privacy issues that make them undesirable," Brooks said. "How do we feel about having microphones listening to what we're saying, and cameras looking at what we're doing?"

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