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Era of the intelligent dustbin poses as Utopia

Wednesday, January 12, 2000

By Richard Waters – Financial Times

Why do the futuristic visions of technocrats so often sound banal, like some 1950s B-movie about life in space-age suburbia?

Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chief executive, spent Dollars 60m (Pounds 36m) on a new home fitted with the latest gadgets: he can now walk into a room and have the lights come on automatically, or have his ubiquitous video screens display any film or artwork he chooses.

To listen to the visionaries at this, the dawn of the internet era, some of the everyday uses to which this new technology will be put appear extraordinarily trite.

“My dustbin should be able to scan things I’m throwing away and reorder groceries and have them delivered,” says Lew Wilkes, senior vice-president of Qwest Communications, one of the new high-speed communications companies that have recently sprung to prominence.

The internet-enabled kitchen appliance hardly sounds like a big step forward for human civilisation. Nor does it seem an adequate return, somehow, for the huge technological advances that are combining to bring it about. The biggest effects of developments like this, however, are likely to be felt far beyond the kitchen. The impact will reverberate in the economy and society at large.

The speed of change in information processing and communications has accelerated to a point at which advances that seemed unimaginable midway through the 1990s are now within reach.

Technocrats have always promised the Earth when it comes to making grand predictions, with mixed results. This time, though, there is good reason to heed them.

It is 30 years since Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, gave a form to the revolution that was to come. His prediction: the power of the computer chip would double every 18 months for the same price, or – put another way – the price of computing power would halve over the same period.

Moore’s Law has held, give or take a few months, and three decades of advances in silicon engineering have put the computer power that landed Neil Armstrong on the Moon on to the average corporate desktop.

Communications have now taken over as the driving force for technological change. The amount of information that can be crammed down a fibre optic cable is doubling every nine months. Thanks to advances in optoelectronics, a single strand of optical fibre today can carry the entire traffic that passed over the public telephone network three years ago.

The communications revolution is now taking to the air, bringing a new generation of mobile devices that will hook people into the networked world. In just two years personal computers running internet browsers – the dominant method of plugging into the online world at present – will account for fewer than half of all devices linked to the internet, says John Patrick, vice-president of internet technologies at IBM.

These advances will give the world a new communications “skin” within the next two or three decades, says Arun Netravali, president of Bell Labs, an organisation whose research drove many of the communications breakthroughs of the old century. The nearest node, or connection point, to this global network “will never be more than a wedge shot away”, he adds.

The uses of such a pervasive communications network are many. Like the human skin it will develop senses: ubiquitous devices to monitor things like pollution, climatic conditions and road traffic will feed a central nervous system that will be able to identify problems in advance, says Mr Netravali.

The network will also support a blizzard of chatter between machines, inaudible to the human ear, adds John Sidgmore, vice-chairman of MCI WorldCom.

With microchips and radio transmitters planted everywhere, machines that are now dumb and mute will develop intelligence and an ability to communicate.

“Within a few years every car will be internet-capable and will be sending information back and forth to the dealer and your mechanic,” says Mr Sidgmore.

There are still things that can stop this future from arriving – at least in the form and with the speed that its prophets predict.

Much depends on whether the technocrats can do a better job of meshing their products with everyday life, and in persuading people to embrace developments that may seem threatening.

The internet’s present shortcomings will take years to fix, says Mr Patrick. Users already have unrealistically high demands, expecting information to flow effortlessly and to produce instant results. Those expectations will continue to rise – yet the technology is struggling to keep up.

“Different bits of information don’t seem to be related to each other,” says Mr Patrick. Anyone shopping online has a reasonable expectation that the things they buy will be delivered, he adds – yet the web site they are buying from is probably not linked electronically to the warehouse where the goods are kept.

Connecting web site and warehouse, and linking them to the payment and shipping systems, are not trivial matters.

The technocrats also realise that they have to start downplaying the “gee-whiz” nature of their inventions and begin to make them fit more naturally into the lives of ordinary people.

“If the last several decades have been all about technology for technology’s sake, the next several will be about making technology invisible,” says Mr Wilkes.

Steve Case, chairman of America Online, agrees. His company – which on Monday unveiled a Dollars 164bn (Pounds 100bn) all-stock takeover of Time Warner, the US media conglomerate – has 10 times as many internet users as its nearest competitor, thanks to its success in making online use easy, even mundane. The key to making potentially disruptive technology acceptable to ordinary peoplewill be its invisibility, he says.

Assuming the advancement-by-stealth plan works, what will the networked world hold?

Like the motor car, symbol of 20th-century technology, ubiquitous internet access and intelligent networked devices may end up turning whole industries on their heads and bring a big step forward in personal freedom.

That is where the e-kitchen comes in. The staples of life will simply arrive at the front door when they are needed and there will be no need to keep track of them, says Mr Patrick.

According to this view, the most basic economic statement will become the click of a mouse. Consumers will be freed from the tyrannies of producers and distributors that have subjugated them by turning them into mere elements in a mass market.

By channelling their preferences through an online medium, individuals will have much greater power to influence prices, dictate the design of products and choose the level of service they receive.

The build-to-order method of manufacturing, directly linking individual preference to the finished article, is already being toyed with in everything from clothing to cars.

Intelligent software agents, working on behalf of each person, will accelerate this process. Life will not involve hours in front of a computer screen: instead, software agents armed with their users’ preferences will scour the network to find – and negotiate for – everything from groceries to the daily news, then arrange for them to be delivered. Faced with a shift in consumer power on such a massive scale, the structure of entire industries will change.

That, at least, is the vision that entrances technologists – and terrifies some traditional businesses – as the new century dawns. It carries with it a darker side: that institutions stand to benefit as much as individuals from the new wealth of information.

Armed simply with records of people’s online browsing and buying habits, some consumer marketing companies are already having surprising success in predicting how individuals will behave when faced with particular choices.

Nor is there any agreement about how much privacy people deserve in the online future, or how it can be assured. Personal economic and political freedoms are not a given priority in this new world.

For now, though, the old order, whether in business or politics, stands in awe and dread of the disruption that seems to lie ahead.

“Ultimately it’s about opening up ideas and the flow of information to people,” says Mr Wilkes. “It will change the way whole societies, and the emerging economies, relate to each other.” And that is something that will touch every individual, whether or not they ever use a mouse.