The Future Looks Familiar

A Microsoft adviser offered a New Haven audience a glimpse of the future of computing: A pen and paper. And a desk lamp.

That’s an electronic pen, virtual paper, and scanner/projector that allow people in different parts of the world to work together on the same document.

Craig Mundie, a senior adviser to the CEO of Microsoft, shared those technological breakthroughs during a Wednesday afternoon lecture on the future of computers. He spoke to a packed auditorium in Yale’s Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall.

Mundie drew the most murmurs of amazement from the crowd with demonstrations of new ways to interface with computers. For years, the computer “desktop” has been a kind of metaphor, manipulated at some remove by a keyboard and mouse. But it won’t be long before your actual desktop is a computer, manipulated directly and intuitively with your hands.

Mundie demonstrated with an enormous touchscreen tablet, the size of a drafting table. He opened documents, paged through them, and annotated them using only his hands and a special pen. Click the video above to watch.

Computers are moving toward an interface that’s closer to the way we handle objects in the real world, just like using basic tools we’ve used for centuries: pencil and paper. Computers promise to give people all the advantages of our ancient tools plus many more, Mundie said.

With the desktop tablet flipped up vertically like a white board, Mundie drew a circle with his pen. The tablet immediately recognized he was making a pie chart, and made it for him, with pre-loaded global population data in a rainbow of colors. He made a big L-shape and a graph appeared. He started to write “population” on the vertical axis and the tablet finished the word for him, entering the data on the chart.

This was a demonstration not only of new interface techniques, but of “machine learning.” More and more, computers can learn the habits of a user. Computers will become more like a personal assistant who learns your habits, making them more and more valuable overtime, Mundie said.

He said Microsoft now has a smart email inbox that learns what you do with your email. The inbox learns which emails you’re likely to delete and groups them together to be trashed quickly. The inbox will also learn what emails you’re likely to respond to and will even draft responses for you, based on what you tend to write.

Mundie demonstrated what computers can do when you add “machine learning” to “big data.” He loaded up census data on income levels, a swirl of dots until, with a couple of taps, he organized it by latitude and longitude. The dots coalesced into the shaped of the United States. With a few more taps, the dots reformed into a graph that Mundie further analyzed by circling particular data points.

Tech advances will also erase geographic obstacles to collaboration, Mundie said. He demonstrated this with two desk lamps set up at opposite ends of the stage. The lamps both record and project onto regular plain white paper on the desks. Mundie sat at one and an assistant sat at the other, and both were able to virtually draw on same piece of paper. Click the video above to watch.

With massive amounts of data within easy reach and very intuitive ways to access it, Mundie said he anticipates a day when a farmer in India can say into a mobile device: “What day should I fertilize?” And the answer will come back immediately: “Thursday.” It will be just as natural as consulting a trusted human colleague. 

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posted by: Stephen Harris on April 4, 2013  5:38pm

And I remember when an answering machine was a big deal.

This is all very cool but just remember that all technological leaps require even greater technological solutions to solve the problems they create.