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A TCI Book Review

What Will Be ­ How the World of New Information Will Change Our Lives

Michael L. Dertouzos
HarperCollins, New York, 1997, ISBN 0-06-251479-2

Michael Dertouzos is the Director of the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT, and thus reasonably well qualified to predict where computer technology will be taking us in the future. His book discusses technological changes that are occurring now and that are on the horizon, and shows how they will impact us on a day-to-day basis.

This book has three parts: Shaping the Future, which explains the new technologies so that readers can judge unfolding events for themselves; How Your Life Will Change, which imagines how and justifies why our lives will be recast; and Reuniting Technology and Humanity, which assesses the impact of these changes on our society and our humanity. (p.xv)

Central to Dertouzous' vision is the concept of the Information Marketplace, which he defines as the "...collection of people, computers, communications, software and services that will be engaged in the intraorganizational and interpersonal information transactions of the future. These transactions will involve the processing and communication of information under the same economic motives that drive today's traditional marketplace for material goods and services." (p.10)

This Information Marketplace will be made possible by a communications infrastructure that will be built by the telecommunications and software industries. The Information Marketplace and the infrastructure upon which it is based exist today in an embryonic form, but are not yet at the state where the are totally flexible and user friendly. This is in contrast to other infrastructures such as the electrical grid or the highway network, where anybody can use them very easily, they are very widely distributed, and they are very inexpensive to use. Dertouzous sees that in the future the communications infrastructure will be the same way ­ very easy to use (computers will respond to voice commands, for example, and be able to interpret requests for information or services easily), ubiquitously available to everyone, and totally incorporated into our daily lives.

The first part of the book identifies new technologies and products that will emerge. Some of the more significant and interesting of these that he discusses are:

  • virtual reality, and other 'augmented interfaces', with applications for learning (e.g. simulators) and entertainment
  • haptic interfaces, which combine manipulation with touch sensing, and will make virtual reality experiences even more lifelike ­ the applications range from the erotic and sensual (use your imagination) to devices to enhance the abilities of the physically challenged, and cover most things in between
  • avatars, which are electronic 'personalities' that individuals will create to represent themselves in the Information Marketplace (probably having different avatars for different roles that an individual may play: businessman, game player, lover, etc.)
  • Guardian Angels, which would be data bases on the health-care history of a given patient, and which would accompany that person throughout their life ­ its capabilities (in addition to furnishing doctors and medical personnel with a complete medical record) could include an ability to recommend the kinds of drugs and treatment that might benefit an individual
  • a whole range of automation tools, using voice recognition software (which will greatly expand the accessibility of the infrastructure, bringing it into the reach of just about everyone)
  • continuing reliance on e-mail as a major shared communications tool (albeit with better controls for info-junk and offensive mail)
  • a range of products to enable groupwork and telework (akin to Lotus Notes, these will facilitate a team of individuals inputting to a project)
  • a range of tools for finding and organizing information ­ called hyperfinders by Dertouzos, these will search through the Information Marketplace for data that meets the user¹s specifications (likely dictated through voice recognition procedures)
  • new theories, systems and products to ensure computer security

The second part of the book discusses how the emerging Information Marketplace will affect our lives in six areas, which are:

  1. Daily Life
  2. Pleasure
  3. Health
  4. Learning
  5. Business and Organizations, and
  6. Government
He makes extensive use of little vignettes in illustrating how the Information Marketplace and the communications infrastructure will influence our lives in each of these areas. The predictions he makes are basically examples of the application of the kinds of tools that he has discussed in the first part of the book (the use of 'Guardian Angels' by the health care system, for example).

The third section is devoted to an overview of what Dertouzos sees as the major changes that the Information Marketplace will bring to humanity. Here he introduces two new concepts: that of electronic bulldozers and electronic proximity. 'Electronic bulldozers' refers to the tremendous power of computers to do massive work in finding, organizing and presenting data and information to individuals; this ability to assemble huge amounts of information is unprecedented in human history. A companion notion is that of 'electronic proximity' ­ communications technologies will enable us to break free of purely geographical boundaries in interacting with people, and which will bring us into contact with potentially hundreds of millions of people across the planet. Yet just because we will have these capabilities does not mean we will be able to handle them appropriately; human beings are, after all, still limited by our mental abilities to process data and to manage relationships with people. Thus the challenges will be how to educate individuals to maximize the potential of the Information Marketplace with care and reason, and not to become overwhelmed. He ends this third section with a vision of how the availablility of information in this manner may help to bridge the traditional gap between the arts and the sciences, where both communities see the value in the other.

Despite being written by one of the leading visionaries behind this emerging Information Marketplace, What Will Be is a relatively dry and uninspiring book. There's not much in it that we haven't heard before. Dertouzos does present his information and predictions in an interesting way (through the use of vignettes), but even this device gets stale after repeated use. However, the way he says it in no way should diminish the importance (and fundamental correctness) of what he is saying.






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