Breathing bits and bytes

For 40 years, people have catered to computers. It's about time computers start catering to us. So says Michael Dertouzos, director of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science, who has launched a £33 million five-year project to turn the tables and make computers both more pervasive and (ahem) human. Called Project Oxygen, it comprises six companies including HP, Nokia, and Philips, which are building a new breed of human-centred computers. The ultimate goal is to develop a system as ubiquitous as oxygen itself. The six companies will work on elaborate wireless networks, handheld devices that recognize your face and voice, and voice-enabled applications that can act as intelligent agents in your digital life. "We don't believe we can build HAL 9000," says Rodney Brooks, director of the MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which will also help develop Oxygen. "But we do believe we can build an intelligent system with a thin veneer of intelligence." That system is based around three devices: brainy handheld computers named Handy 21; stationary sensors that can listen and see, called Enviro 21; and fixed and wireless networks on steroids, dubbed Network 21. The Handy 21 will likely be the first of the devices to hit the consumer market. These portable units will have video screens, a camera, and possibly a global positioning system to interact with a network of computers called Enviro 21. Enviro 21 will be in cars, homes, and offices and will consist of sensors, microphones, and cameras. Enviro 21 would anticipate our computing needs. We will describe our intent and need through speech and vision input. Next, Network 21 will handle those requests and bring computation to us, no matter where or in what circumstances. These network computers could locate appropriate resources and carry out our requests. At first, Oxygen could offer custom tools to help run a doctor's office, a brokerage, or factory more effectively. In a hospital setting, an ensemble of Oxygen mobile devices, embedded computers, and network could be configured to meet specific hospital needs. A nurse's handheld device could automatically read a heart monitor. Simultaneously, patient data would be offloaded for analysis on a remote computer that automatically pipes back an updated report. Many questions remain about how the technology will be deployed, and how to handle privacy concerns. Partners recognize there are inherent issues surrounding privacy and how to help technology have-nots benefit from Oxygen. For now, the partners say they are not trying to solve the world's problems – only specific technology challenges. "We have all the privacy controls we need today," Dertouzos says. Governments and society will identify necessary safeguards to apply, he says. The project began last fall with £17 million in funding from the US Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It has grown to include Acer Group, Delta Electronics, and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone.

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