The Future, as it Looked from 1987

An oldie but goodie has resurfaced on YouTube, at least for people who were in Boston in 1987 and attended MacWorld Expo (or were followers of Apple Computer, as it was called back then). At that event, then CEO John Sculley showed a ‘The Knowledge Navigator’, a short film produced by The Kenwood Group for Apple that communicated his (and Apple’s) vision of what it would be like to work with their products in the future. He didn’t say how far in the future it was, but it was clearly a time we would be able to relate to.

Besides the 100% correct prediction that we would be concerned with the deforestation of the Amazon area and its effects on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere (although it didn’t go the next step to foretell that this and other human activities would wreak havoc through climate change*), The Knowledge Navigator also demonstrated some aspects of computing that did in fact come to pass, others that are not quite there yet, and a few things that we probably won’t see for a long time to come. For those who weren’t lucky enough to see it in 1987 (or would like to take a brief walk down memory lane), here it is:

Here’s what they got absolutely right:

Touch Screen Interface
This year seems to be the year of the touch screen, whether it’s Apple’s own iPhone or Microsoft’s Surface computer (see previous posting). Tablet computers that use a stylus for input have been around for quite awhile, but the intimacy and immediacy of a finger as an input device seems to have truly taken hold in 2007.

Voice Synthesis
Despite the fact that the demo computer’s synthetic voice is a bit smoother than today’s synthetic voices, we are getting pretty close to this. (I myself went the extra mile to purchase a voice that sounds a bit like a Butler with a British accent that my computer uses for alerts and other notifications.) There are times when many have called for some service over the phone and mistaken the synthetic voice on the other end of the line for a human.

Videoconferencing
Here the film hits a home run and almost exactly the way it was shown. In fact, in a few hours I’m going to be using it to talk to my parents on the other end of the continent, back in the US. Next year, the example of the other professor sharing a screen with the local computer will be quite common, as Apple’s iChat AV will then include not just videoconferencing, but presentation and screen-sharing.

Telephony Integration
While not widespread, talking on the telephone through the computer is growing by leaps and bounds. There are several packages for integrating voice mail using the computer as the processor and storage medium for messages, and the widespread adoption of VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) will only hasten this trend. The iPhone’s ‘visual voicemail’ is surprising in that it does exactly the opposite of the demo (lists voice mails as messages, like an email), rather than announcing calls missed or the caller ID of an incoming call.

Intermingling of Professional and Personal Data
While this may be seen as a trivial detail, it’s worth remembering that in 1987, only true geeks kept their calendar and to-do lists in their computers, and everyone else continued to use day planners, faxes, snail mail and post-it notes for much of their personal organization. Only with better screens, faster processors, and software that got smarter and better designed about these tasks (and much of it has quite a ways to go), did the marginalia of personal lives find their way onto personal computers in offices. Still, this trend isn’t finished yet, and one can still find plenty of Daytimers and postits in most homes and offices.

Here’s what they were a little too optimistic on (although not completely missing):

Speech Recognition
The demo goes to great lengths to show that the professor is mumbling, giving partial information, and not talking to his device as a computer, but as another human. At one point during his telephone conversation, he even pauses and the computer fills in with an appointment time, as if it had been following in on the conversation! While speech recognition on computers has reached the point where it is common to be able to dictate an email, letter, article, or even a book to your computer and have it type the entire thing out as you speak it, one still has to speak clearly and the computer still does make some mistakes (although a lot fewer than it used to). I once saw a great T-Shirt slogan on someone who was on the team at Apple working on this technology: “I helped Apple Wreck a Nice Beach” (If you didn’t get it, say it out loud).

Full Colour Mapping of Geological Data
Google Maps and Google Earth, along with mashups of data from a variety of sources has started, but there are few simple, easy ways of doing a geo-plot with any data source without some massaging of the data (although this may not be as much the case in certain circles). There are hundreds of companies in the field of GIS (Geographical Information Systems), and it’s possible that some standards for interoperability will start to arise, especially with the rise of XML-based data sources. RSS feeds of Real Estate listings have already been mashed up, and traffic management and weather forecasting have both employed computer-based mapping for years. It’s only a matter of time before geophysical data is also available to the general public in an easy-to-assemble format.

Form Factors and other Hardware details
While there has been a move by most computer users to laptops from desktops, there are still a number of things in the demo (Speech recognition, perhaps) that are doable on a desktop but that most laptops still don’t quite have the horsepower for. This will change in the next 2 to 3 years (if not sooner). It’s surprising that there is no keyboard visible anywhere, but that is probably more to make a point (as is also the case with Microsoft’s Surface demos). Also, there is the conspicuous (at least for me) absence of wires for the connection to the phone, and no clear microphone. While wi-fi connections to the Internet are a reality, a wireless (voice) telephone interface built into a laptop would probably only work for Skype or some other VOIP solution. Still, perhaps there is an interesting potential product for people who want to use their computer as a cell speakerphone with omni-directional microphone.

Here’s what we are still a long way from:

Artificial Intelligence
Wow, did they ever miss on this one! AI is the flying car of computing. The idea that there would be an ‘agent’ as they referred to him, living in your computer, responding to you intelligently and with knowledge of both you and the outside world… well I suspect we are still a few decades away from this. There are many points in the demo where I said ‘Nice try’, imagining how today’s technology would make a mess of searches, taking calls, connecting you to data, etc.

Still, that’s not a bad hit rate for 20 years. John Sculley should give himself a little pat on the back for some impressively accurate vision, and the computer industry (and Apple in particular) should be pleased that a lot of this has come true. Now, it will be interesting to see when the next generation of college professors (and others) use these tools as much and as easily as the actor in the demo did.

*At the very least, one has to give Sculley credit for being one of the very first people in public life to sound the alarm about this ecological issue. It’s very appropriate that 20 years later we find Al Gore on Apple’s Board of Directors. It’s also perhaps a little ironic that Al Gore’s office setup — 3 huge screens plus a dedicated flatscreen TV, mountains of paper and bookcases filled to overflowing) is absolutely nothing like the climatology professor in the video.