updated 09:10 pm EST, Wed January 26, 2011
Believes "memory prothesis" coming within 10 years
The well-publicized "man versus machine" match-up between two "grand masters" of TV's perennial quiz show Jeopardy and the latest supercomputer from IBM, named Watson will make for more than good television -- its a sneak preview of the future, said Apple pioneer Bill Atkinson at the end of his MacWorld 2011 presentation on interface design today. He believes small, in-ear "digital assistants" will soon be available that can understand the sometimes-illogical sequence of human questioning and send "predictive" answers it is confident are right based on an understanding of how the world -- and the human it is responding to -- works.
Atkinson was one of the developers of the original Macintosh, and particularly its interface -- which brought the concepts of mice, pointers, cursors and drop-down menus to the mainstream. He was fundamental in the development of many of the basic tenets of modern computing, particularly in on-screen graphics. Although IBM's Watson uses a backroom full of high-powered and incredibly expensive server technology to create its front-end "personality" -- which "hears" questions or language and parses queries which it can then answer in a naturalistic voice -- the technology behind it will scale down to consumer level rapidly, Atkinson believes.
If you want to see the future of how we will communicate with machines, tune into Jeopardy for the Watson appearance, he advised his audience. Atkinson pictures a small earpiece similar to the common bluetooth headsets of today, but with a camera that silently compile information on everything you see, say or do -- making that information instantly recallable when queried with natural-language questions such as "what was the name of that restaurant I went to the last time I was in New York?" and "who is this person approaching me?"
Apple CEO Steve Jobs, in a 2007 keynote on Leopard, mentioned greatly-enhanced speech recognition as one of the many benefits of moving to 64-bit computing. Atkinson believes that natural-language UIs that can easily understand accents, lingo, euphemisms and other variants of human speech patterns and react in a naturalistic way will fundamentally change our use of computing power.
Atkinson joked that although he is still a relatively young 59, "most of my memories now reside in the brain of my wife" -- and expressed optimism that technology that documents and augments human recall on-demand could start appearing in as little as two to 10 years. Apps already exist for mobile devices that can instantly translate signs or "enhance" visual landscapes with overlays of directions or business information -- its a matter of making such useful information more seamless and natural for people to access, he says.
IBM's Watson uses a technology called "Deep QA" that resembles -- both audibly and visually -- the shipboard computer "Eddie" from Douglas Adams' The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and responds (albeit less comedically) in a natural way to questions directed to it. In a practice round of Jeopardy broadcast on CNN, Watson handily bested the two grand masters -- though they still did beat the computer on a few questions. The actual contest will air on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14th. [via Fortune]