Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 58 / MARCH 1985 / PAGE 58

On The Road With Fred D'Ignazio

Intelligent Appliances,
Canadian Showers, Toddlers,
And Mice

Recently I was Science Guest of Honor at the ninth annual Rovacon science fiction convention in Roanoke, Virginia. Among my duties were presenting science scholarships to young people, sitting on panel discussions about computers, science, and technology, and delivering a speech. One of the things I talked about was the career opportunities for young people in the future world of intelligent appliances.
    You don't hear much talk about intelligent appliances. Personal computers are currently the hot item. Computer software alone has turned into a major business. Four thousand companies now make almost 30,000 programs. Last year people bought more than $2.3 billion worth of software. Experts predict that by 1987 more than $11 billion worth of software will be sold. That would make the computer software industry larger than the book publishing industry!
    But what some people may not realize is that not all of the software sold in 1987 will be for desktop computers. The desktop computer is only one star in a constellation of intelligent appliances that will soon be found in people's homes, offices, and classrooms.
    The key to the future is not the personal computer; it is the computer microchip-the little flake of silicon with thousands of transistors embedded in its hair-thin surface. Most computers now use dozens of these little microchips, and they have allowed computers to shrink smaller and smaller. Like Alice in Wonderland, growing smaller has enabled computers to enter new worlds.

A Computer In Your Clothes
In the near future, all sorts of commonplace items will have microcomputers embedded inside them. And with computers come intelligence. We will have intelligent desks, intelligent walls, intelligent refrigerators, even intelligent clothes. With microcomputers inside our clothes we will be able to drape ourselves in intelligence.
    We're already beginning to see microcomputers buried in people's bodies (in pacemakers and prosthetic limbs) or riding on a person's hip. Deaf people are using belt-mounted microcomputers to hear; people with impaired vision are using computers to see.
    Intelligent appliances of the future will do more than just compute. They will also have sensors-electronic sense organs. Thus, they will be aware of the world around them. And they will have tiny voices to alert a person when something is wrong, or just to begin a conversation or give a status report.
    Certainly there will be "computers" and "robots" (mobile computers with arms and/or wheels) in the future. But these will make up only a fraction of the crowd of intelligent machines that will move into our schools, offices, and homes.
    Many of these machines still haven't been invented-or even imagined. Experts forecast a huge growth in the intelligent appliance industry. Intelligent appliances will open up tremendous career opportunities for young people entering the job market in the 1990s and the twenty-first century.

Opportunity Knocks
The opportunities will come in at least four areas. First, we'll need inventors to dream up these new appliances. Undoubtedly, there will be a new crop of millionaires in the late 1980s and 1990s who will get their start in basement and garage workshops.
    Second, someone with business savvy and entrepreneurial abilities will have to manufacture and market these new intelligent appliances. As events in the personal computer industry have shown, this is the area where the biggest fortunes can be made.
    Third, there is going to be a great need for software developers to program the appliances.
    Fourth, there will be a need for communicators and educators who can make the appliances friendly, useful, and understandable to the average person.
    The average person is already overwhelmed by talking cars, intelligent telephones, digital watches with 40 functions, and computerized bank tellers. But these machines are just the tip of the intelligent-appliance iceberg. We will soon be surrounded by babbling, rolling, and beeping intelligent machines.
    To make matters worse, the machines will seem to be telepathic. They will be communicating at millions of bits a second by radio or infrared signals, and their conversations will be unseen and unheard. Human beings will rarely have a clue about what is going on within their own appliances' brains.
    Older people, especially, will need help adjusting to this world. And this help can be turned into million-dollar careers for smart young people who can hold their elders' hands and gently lead them into the brave new world of intelligent appliances.

Bathroom Antics
In my column in the October 1984 COMPUTE!, I related a humorous anecdote about an experience I had while attending an educational computing conference in Toronto, Canada. I couldn't figure out how to turn off the shower in my hotel room. I wrote: "I clenched my teeth and coldly reasoned that if the shower didn't shut off by turning to the right, it must have a reverse screw in the handle. This made sense. I was in Canada, wasn't I? Canada is a foreign country. In Canada they probably used reverse screws for everything."
    To turn off the water, I reasoned that I had to turn the handle to the left. I did this and got a blast of hot water. At this point I realized that I was not dealing with a left-right handle, but a push-pull handle. I immediately pushed the handle, and the shower turned off.
    Since the article appeared, I have received numerous letters from readers in Canada who have complained about my anti-Canadian article and my bad-mouthing Canadian showers. Here is an example.
    "Dear Fred: In your article that was published in the October issue of COMPUTE!, you said 'I was in Canada, wasn't I? Canada is a foreign country. In Canada they probably used reverse screws for everything.' Well, in Canada we don't have reverse screws for everything. We use screws with right threads. I hope you were not saying this to be insulting to Canadians. I am a Canadian and proud of it. You might have offended several Canadians by that quote. I hope that you said it as a joke. Please send a reply. I am only 14 years of age and enjoy reading COMPUTE! and your articles. Sincerely yours, David Kirsch, Chilliwack, British Columbia."
    In response to David's letter and all the others I received from Canadian readers, I'm very sorry if I offended you. I was poking fun at my self, not Canadians. I definitely did not mean anything negative about Canada or Canadian showers. It's just that often, things are done differently (and perhaps better) in other countries - including Canada.
    (Maybe in my next column, just to set things right, I'll tell everyone about the shower I used in New Orleans at the Softcon Conference that squirted mud at me when I turned it on!)

Of Mice And Kids
I was talking the other night with Owen Greeson of MicroStuf, Inc. MicroStuf makes some wonderful products, including Crosstalk XVI (a communications program), InfoScope (a playful data base manager), and Remote (a program that lets you call your office computer from home-or anywhere else-and run it remotely like a mainframe computer).
    Greeson and I were talking about ways to improve software to make it more "useraccommodating" (Greeson's term). Our discussion reminded him of his experience with his four-year-old daughter, Mikalee. Greeson had brought home an Apple Macintosh computer recently and had taught Mikalee how to use MacPaint (the drawing program) and the Macintosh mouse.
    Mikalee really took to the mouse and became so adept at using MacPaint that she even began helping her father. Greeson said he had previously introduced her to a computer without a mouse, but she had balked at using the computer keyboard. Now, with the mouse, there was no stopping her. She had no trouble rolling the mouse around on the table, pushing the buttons, pointing at little pictures on the screen (icons), pulling down menus, and selecting commands. According to Greeson, the experience was so dramatic that he has become a "born-again icon believer."
    I've told you this story because I've found the same thing to be true around my house. We, too, have a Macintosh, and my eight-year-old daughter Catie and my five-year-old son Eric love it. And I think that they love it because they can use the mouse and avoid the keyboard.
    What do you think? Have your children had a chance to play with a mouse on a computer? If so, how have they done? Do you think that mice are a shortcut to computer literacy for young children? Please write and tell me your experiences:

Fred D'Ignazio
2117 Carter Road SW
Roanoke, VA 24015