What does the future hold for computers?
Reading the average computer magazine over the past several years you may have become a little mesmerised by the monotony of the products on offer. 'Fastest PCs ever!' seems to be a regular headline. Articles talk about new SATA disks (a thin red cable to connect rather than the old wide grey one), more powerful graphics cards for gamers, or the latest version of Windows. Speaking as a computer user, my question is 'who cares?'. These magazines are obviously aimed at enthusiasts.
I should be an enthusiast. I have been programming computers since I was 12 (taught by my mother, oddly enough). I like to get things done quickly, so a faster computer should be better for me. But I don't care either. Once a week I rip a DVD and am pleased that my dual core AMD machine can do it in 30 minutes or so. The rest of the time, the computer is twiddling its thumbs.
Has my user experience changed greatly over the past 10 years? Sadly I have to answer that it has not. It has the same grey windows, the same mouse (but optical!), the same keyboard (with two new keys!) and it is still monumentally stupid. Only the other day I asked it to tidy up my home directory and it ignored me. I had to do it myself.
Files I create on my home computer have to be manually moved to my work computer. Changes made to a document on one computer go unnoticed by the other. When I email a document to a work colleague for editing, my computer doesn't bother to tell me what he changed. Sure the computers are networked, files are shared, but only in the most basic, manual way. No one could suggest that there is any meeting of minds, or in fact any minds at all. It is as if these mindless machines have no interest in each other. Even two dogs will arrange a sniff as they pass in the street.
When you think about it, computers are more remarkable for what they can't do than what they can. Can they change my milk order, tune my car engine or summarise my phone messages each morning? No, they can't even reliably remove the spam from my email inbox. Just getting a photo from my digital camera to print out via the computer is a major pain.
Do you hear the Mac fans loudly proclaiming that it is all Microsoft's fault? Well perhaps Bill Gates did lack understanding of the meaning of genuine innovation. But Steve Jobs (current CEO of Apple) upped and left the industry for years, hardly a better role model. Anyway, while Macs may be a bit more rational, easier to use and reliable, they are not fundamentally better at the sorts of tasks I have mentioned. Same for Linux in my book. I use Ubuntu Linux and it's great, but still at this same 'primitive' level.
Now that I have registered my complaints, what do I want? Speech and natural language recognition would be a good start. A unified view of all my files where-ever I am, including work, home, photos, other people's home videos, etc. would be nice. An electronic agent that could do my tax return or book tickets to the next game/event wouldn't go amiss. A service which could trawl the internet and write a concise and relevant page on any chosen topic would help me in my job. Speaking of which, a spare brain to solve the problems I find difficult at work would definitely find its way into my life.
Am I asking too much? Apparently so. Windows Vista is advertised as 'Bringing clarity to your world' which sounds great, and perhaps I won't need glasses after all. But the feature changes since the last effort 4 years ago don't even begin to address my concerns. What sort of clarity are they on about?
Yes, I am asking for artificial intelligence (AI). If we believe computer scientists (of which I am one) it will be another 20 years before true AI appears, and two decades longer than that before AI rivals the power of the human brain. I hope in time computers will look back on their evolution with embarrassment, much as we look back at cavemen.
So don't tell me how many gigahertz your latest computer is, or how many quadrabytes the disk holds. As far as I am concerned it is a large, noisy, stupid black box. I am going to stop looking at computer magazines in protest. To the computer industry: give me a poke when you have produced a genuinely revolutionary device which really can simplify my life.