From Smartphones to Smart Spaces: SRI’s Vision of Computer Evolution

4/29/11Follow @wroush

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it has to be the kind of machine you would want in your home. You’re definitely right that people focus on care for the elderly, not just in Japan but around the world, and that leads to the question of what kind of help is that, and what embodiment of a robot is acceptable.

The image that some people have is of this robot that assists an elderly person into or out of a chair. That’s not a bad idea, but there’s also the whole question of social interaction. So many elderly people are lonely. They would love to be interacting with their friends and family. We hope to put them in situations where that is exactly what they can do, but that’s not always the case. You’ve seen the first examples of things like robot dogs as companions, but that is a very far cry from what you want. There is this idea of having [a robot] that a human being would be happy to interact with, not just one that silently does things for them but us part of the household. I believe that’s the right vision. Will we see robots like Rosie from the Jetsons in 10 years? Maybe not, but certainly things will be a lot different.

Roush: Let’s move on to smart spaces, which is your own area of research. But before we get into the role they might play in the future—how do you define “smart spaces” in your own mind, and what’s the state of the art? I’ve been following this area for a while, at least since the days of Project Oxygen at the MIT AI Lab, and frankly the first prototype systems seemed pretty clunky and impractical.

Mark: There are all kinds of different ideas of what smart spaces are and what they’re going to be. The fundamental insight was the realization at a number of institutions—and it seems quite obvious now—that computation was becoming pervasive, in the sense that small and relatively inexpensive devices could be embedded in the environment. Today, smart spaces exist and we use them every day, and in some ways we’re not even conscious of that. My favorite trick question is, what’s the most important human-computer interface in your life? And the answer is, the automatic brake pedal in your car. You just push on it, and it brakes the car better than you could. Cars are a lot smarter in other ways too—they have all kinds of sensors to know when somebody is sitting and when to nag them to fasten their seat belt. So that is one example of a smart space.

Most of the work I’ve seen in smart spaces is an extension of that—an environment that senses you and does good things for you. You used the word “clunky.” The way I think of it is, we are still trying to think of the right use cases. Some people’s reaction to being in these environments is “Wow, what a great thing just happened.” But other times, it’s just weird, and you think, “Is this something I really want?” So we have to figure out what people really want in this area. And then there is getting it into the infrastructure. People buy new cars at relatively high frequency, but that is not true of homes and office buildings, which don’t have a smart infrastructure built into them right now. So there is a long cycle of getting this into real environments that’s gating things.

Roush: Say the gates were removed—in what ways could spaces be smarter 10 years from now?

Mark: I’m interested in spaces that understand human interaction. How can my work environment make me more effective in the way I interact with other people? How can my home environment provide a better experience for me and my family, and how can schoolrooms provide better experiences for students and teachers?

In a work environment, to get concrete about it, we have meetings. We draw stuff on the whiteboard. We might be looking at a PowerPoint presentation. What if the environment understood what we were talking about and could make proactive suggestions? It could say “I see you are looking at this PowerPoint and I happen to have noticed that Pam created a newer version of this, would you like to look at that?” Then there’s the whole idea of meeting summarization. I can’t go to every meeting I’m supposed to be in, and I go to meetings that I don’t want to be in. It would be great if I had some way of … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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