The future according to Microsoft

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First appeared in Computer Player, March 1998

Dr. Daniel T. Ling is being paid to create the future.

As director of Microsoft?s 2 billion dollar research effort, he heads a team of 250 (expected to grow to 600 over the next three years), charged with exploring emerging trends in computer software, and with developing ?new technologies for  improving the way computers interact with people.? He presented his vision as one of four keynote speakers at Vancouver?s PacRim Comdex this past January.

Currently, Dr. Ling suggests, we use our computers as tools?in the future, they will become our assistants. This will be a dramatic change, more dramatic perhaps, than the change from a command-line DOS-style interface to the common graphical Mac/Windows interface? a change that will make the user interface a human interface

To make this possible will involve change in a variety of areas, all being actively pursued by Microsoft Research.

Instead of clicking and typing, Ling foresees the ability to hold a conversation with your computer. This will let you experience hands-free computing, an experience that voice-dictation software is starting to demonstrate. But the future, Dr. Ling suggests, will see computers that not only recognize individual words, but also understand the meaning of speech. To get there, Microsoft Research is having computers ?read? entire dictionaries, creating a ?semantic links database? attempting to map the connections between words. Add in a dollop of probability theory, and you get a computer that begins to be able to know that in the sentence ?I saw the Grand Canyon flying to Arizona?, it wasn?t the Grand Canyon that was doing the flying.

This research has already begun to pay off. As far back as Office 95?s Answer Wizard, Microsoft Research was working with these concepts?exploring what words actual users would use to ask questions about what concepts, in order to (on a good day) enable the help engine respond appropriately to natural language questions. More recently, their research has been implemented in Office 97?s grammar checker. Dr. Ling expects it will soon appear in web search engines that, by adding some understanding of the meaning of words in a query, should be able to cut down on the thousands of false responses that show up in too many of today?s searches.

Ling expects this to bring us ?software software?, making PCs seem more intelligent. That requires that they be able to cope better with uncertainties, by being able to evaluate which response is the most probable, and to ?learn? from our interaction with them.

Microsoft also wants your computer to see you. In the near future, they suggest that many computers will be equipped with cameras for video conferencing. That gives users the hardware needed to allow your computer to respond to your motions and facial expressions? ?all? that?s needed is the software. Current experiments include screensavers that turn themselves off when someone approaches the computer, and a tic-tac-toe game that lets a player mark a square just by looking at it.

Future interfaces will involve 3D and video? making a computing environment that perhaps will owe more to the current crop of Nintendo-64 games than to the look and feel of (say) Windows 98. Right now, a freely available product of Microsoft Research is Comic Chat?changing the way Internet chat rooms work, by evolving the interface from lines of text to a familiar comic book metaphor. Coming up will be 3D V-Chat, turning the flat, 2D comic strip environment into a richer, 3D setting more like a video game.

On another level, Microsoft Research hopes to bring us the world? literally. Along with Digital Equipment, they?re involved in Terra Server, a project to bring the entire world online. No, not by giving us all Internet connections, but by posting a multi-terrabyte (that?s trillions of bytes) database of images of the Earth, obtained both from US Geological Survey flights and Russian satellite pictures. Users will be able to close-focus in on the images, down to an ultimate resolution of 1-2 square meters? in other words, be able to see actual cars parked in the street in front of your house (at least at the time the picture was taken).

Look for Terra Server to be available on-line soon?perhaps by the time this article appears in print.

Increasingly powerful, affordable computers will power a change?from computer as word-processor productivity tool to computer as more human-seeming, intelligent, adaptive (as well as simpler) communications and collaboration assistant.

Should be fun!

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan