I have seen Microsofts vision of tomorrow, and it both frightens and amazes me.
Not long ago, I was in Redmond and had occasion to visit Microsofts Center for Information Work, a demonstration facility thats part of the companys executive briefing center. CIW is not open to the public—its for invited guests only—though Ive encouraged Microsoft to turn it into a traveling exhibit, or a video, or to find some other way to share its vision with the masses.
The results are exciting, though a bit frightening in their implications. Microsoft acts as though the privacy and security issues surrounding parts of its vision will somehow just disappear before impeding technological progress. Hot news: It isnt going to happen, and Microsoft would be wise to amend its vision accordingly.
CIW demonstrates a collection of forward-looking technology—mostly from Microsoft Research, but also from a number of (mostly hardware) partners. Most of what I saw there was just for show—nothing at CIW was a “real” product, though some certainly have the potential to be.
For example, a conference room “RingCam” video camera that automatically selects the speaker from a room full of people, is interesting—and its reasonable to expect to see it on the market someday.
The same is true of another conference-room camera system, which focuses on the white board. The camera stitches together images of the white board to create an unobstructed picture of what is on the board—as if no one is standing in front of it. This works so long as the speaker moves at least occasionally, making all parts of the board visible, if not at the same time. The software also can sync the view of the white board to the meetings audio for playback later.
More Displays, More Productivity
Another cool demonstration shows Microsofts work on multiple display environments for desktop users. When I first heard about this, I was a bit skeptical, but Ive become a convert. The idea is for users to have a desktop that spreads across multiple screens (which Windows XP can do, and which the Macintosh has been able to do for years).
Multiple screens would allow multitaskers to arrange applications to match the level of consciousness required for each at the time, without having to worry that something will be completely missed. I think the most useful application of this would be having the central large screen just for the application I am working on, while other apps run to the sides on their own screens. That way, e-mail and IM notifications would appear in my peripheral vision rather than intruding on the document or spreadsheet I was trying to concentrate on.
CIW also has a cool telematics display, showing how GPS (Global Positioning System) and mapping technology will help commercial drivers. Some of this has recently become available through the MapPoint Location Server product.
The whole guided tour takes about an hour and includes demonstrations of technologies such as a user interface that employs the users gestures—big physical gestures—to control the computer. Not as interesting, to me anyway, as the multiple screens, but it could turn using a computer into modern dance. And did I mention that Tablet PCs seem to be the platform of choice for many of these demonstrations?
But the most interesting and simultaneously troubling thing at CIW was the demonstration of the desktop of tomorrow. With the caveat that this demonstration is Microsofts equivalent of the “concept cars” that automakers roll out, demonstrating ideas that may or may not appear someday in production models, I will continue.
The first thing I noticed was how applications have vanished from the desktop of tomorrow. All of the functionality is there, but Word, Excel and the bunch are nowhere to be found. Perhaps this is the integrated functionality Microsoft has been touting lately.
In some ways, the desktop reminded me of an integrated applications suite, like Microsoft Works, which I have long admired for its ability to let users get work done without having to fight the computer quite so much. If you think of the current Microsoft Office applications as engines, capable of providing, say, word processing or number crunching, to other applications, you will understand the integrated functionality concept.
None of this bothers me, and I am a supporter of an integrated desktop, though this is related to the legal problems Microsoft has already faced for putting a browser and media player into the operating system. The other issue this raises is how customers pay for something that doesnt come in a box and expose individual applications. This suggests a software-as-a-service future, but Microsoft cautions this is just a demo, not a product roadmap.
Office Paperclip Meets Big
Brother”> What did concern me, however, was the desktop of the future trying to “help” me by watching what I am doing and comparing it with what everyone else is doing. Used properly, this is potentially very cool and the goal is laudable, even if the privacy concerns shoot right off the charts.
Heres the pitch: Microsoft has noticed that people in a company are often working on the same sorts of projects and arent aware of it. Maybe they are duplicating work already done someplace else. Or they dont know who the in-house experts are that they might call upon for help, perhaps because the experts themselves dont know who they are.
Now, suppose there existed, with apologies to Alan Parsons, an eye in the sky, looking at you and reading if not your mind then your keyboard strokes. It would then parse all of this information and compare it with what everyone else was working on, or had worked on in the past. Thats like reading everyones mind (and documents) in an entire company.
When the computer found a match, it would tell the user what resources existed relating to the project she was working on. The system would present documents, spreadsheets, lists of people and anything else it could find related to the users current content and projects. You could also just query the system looking for information, literally from everyones document files in the whole company.
The privacy and security concerns this raises are simply incredible. You could compartmentalize the information, perhaps only allowing searches within particular workgroups, but that severely limits the value of the tool. On the other hand, the proverbial “bad guy” could mine such a system for all sorts of competitive intelligence and intellectual property.
The employer could use the system in all sorts of novel employee performance-monitoring schemes, beginning with what someone is doing and how long it takes to do it, to measuring how often someones work ends up being used by someone else, or perhaps even the intellectual quality of the content a given worker creates.
The technical challenges in accomplishing this are immense. Taking all of this information and filtering it properly—without inadvertently hiding information and giving users a false impression of what information is actually available—is a really big deal. This same sort of searching capability, tied to the analytical functions of the desktop “applications,” could be used to create a corporate decision support system that I also found frightening.
Cutting People Out
The Microsoft demo showed the computer doing most of the heavy lifting involved in gathering and comparing the information, and presenting the user with a couple of alternatives from which to choose a final answer.
The decision-making process was so automated that I wondered why humans needed to be involved at all. Furthermore, the most important decisions seemed to be embedded in the algorithms the software used to make its preliminary judgments before presenting “alternatives” to the humans for ratification.
The problem here is that the decision-making process is largely hidden from users, who may be quite unaware of the inherent biases the software bases its decisions upon. Further, the users may be unaware of the options the software dismissed, which might have made more sense to a human than to a machine.
Again, there is nothing wrong with this technology per se. Its just that, sitting there watching the demonstration, all I could think of was the Wizard of Oz, with many decisions essentially being made by the automated “man behind the curtain.”
Microsoft is very good at understanding software, but not so good at understanding people and human behavior (as opposed to user behavior, which they study extensively). CIW shows us a future in which computers do their thing almost without consideration of the problems that would cause to their supposed masters—the users. Id like to see Microsoft more obviously paying attention to the human/social environment in which their future technologies will be used.