Robo Cop-Out

Bad design has bedeviled the Net economy, say futurists

Lay the blame for the collapse of the Internet economy on poorly designed computers and applications that lack a human focus.

Thats the message put forth by the handful of big-picture information technology visionaries who gathered for the Association for Computing Machinerys "Beyond Cyberspace" conference in San Jose last week.

"For 40 years, weve been serving machines instead of machines serving us," said Michael Dertouzos, the outspoken director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technologys Laboratory for Computer Science.

Dertouzos and others called on computer programmers, engineers and venture capitalists to stop designing complex, difficult-to-use computers and applications. Instead, they should make machines that humans can use easily and intuitively, the visionaries said.

Natural Interaction

The key is to make the interaction natural, through speech and vision, Dertouzos said.

Todays corporate executive spends 1.5 hours per day writing, reading and responding to e-mail. In the next decade, as more Internet users come onboard and existing users become more aggressive in sending e-mail, that figure could easily grow by a factor of 10, according to Dertouzos.

Computer programmers need to start addressing these problems immediately.

Computers should focus on input and output devices, location and motion, and networking, said William Buxton, chief scientist at Alias/Wavefront and associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto.

The economic downturn stems, in part, from the information technology community focusing on the wrong goal, Buxton said. Personal computers and operating systems are being made the same as always and are not adapting to the needs of humans, he said.

"Much of what is happening economically is from bad design. I believe good design is the key to get us out of this slump," Buxton said.

At least one venture capitalist agreed — up to a point.

"Many of the most significant breakthroughs weve had and that we are going to have are based on human-and-computer interactions," said Ezra Perlman, a senior associate at Battery Ventures in San Mateo, Calif. Yet its absurd to blame engineers, venture capitalists and others for bad design and lack of human interaction leading to the downfall of the economy, Perlman said.

The toilets at OHare International Airport are more intelligent than some computers, Buxton said, referring to latrines and sinks loaded with sensor devices that automatically detect when the user needs them to function.

"Shouldnt your computer be as smart as your toilet?" Buxton asked.