Page last updated at 10:35 GMT, Wednesday, 2 April 2008 11:35 UK

Computers to merge with humans


The purrfect companion? Computers designed to bring man and machine closer than ever

By 2020 the terms "interface" and "user" will be obsolete as computers merge ever closer with humans.

It is one prediction in a Microsoft-backed report drawn from the discussions of 45 academics from the fields of computing, science, sociology and psychology.

It predicts fundamental changes in the field of so-called Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

By 2020 humans will increasingly interrogate machines, the report said.

In turn computers will be able to anticipate what we want from them, which will require new rules about our relationship with machines.

Table map

The report, entitled Being Human: Human-Computer Interaction in the year 2020, looks at how the development of technologies over the next decade can better reflect human values.

"It is about how we anticipate the uses of technology rather than being reactive. Currently the human is not considered part of the process," said Bill Buxton, from Microsoft Research.

At the launch of the report some of the authors showed off the types of technologies that could bring the human back into the equation.

At Goldsmiths College, Professor Bill Gaver and his team have developed a Drift table, a piece of furniture which allows people to view aerial photography of their local neighbourhood and beyond.

"It isn't really designed for anything," explained Prof Gaver.

"People can use it for entertainment or learning. One of the people that was given the table used to check out houses in Southampton following a piece on the news about house prices going up in the area.

"Someone else used it to look at the towns they lived in as a child or to visit towns where friends lived," he said.

The table has no buttons and the small display in the middle moves as a result of pressure being put on the table.

"From central London it would take a day to navigate the table to the coast," said Prof Gaver.

Other prototype technologies aimed at putting human needs at the centre of the equation include the Whereabouts Clock.

The interface - designed at Microsoft's research labs in Cambridge - allows people to see where other members of their family are at any given time.

The categories of "home", "work" and "school" are deliberately vague in order to maintain privacy, explained Abigail Sellen, from Microsoft Research.

Other communication devices for the home that Microsoft is working on include Epigraph, an interface that allows family members to "post" pictures and messages to each other via their mobile phones.

Smart devices

The keyboard, mouse and monitor will increasingly be replaced by more intuitive forms of interaction and display, including tablet computers, speech recognition systems and fingertip-operated surfaces.

Without proper consideration and control it is possible that we - both individually and collectively - may no longer be in control of ourselves or the world around us
Being Human - Microsoft HCI report

Boundaries between humans and computers will become blurred over the next decade as devices are embedded in objects, our clothing or, in the case of medical monitoring, in our bodies.

Although paper will still be a reality in 2020, digital paper will also flourish allowing us to create, for example, social network magazines that update in real time.

Digital storage of even more aspects of our lives, from mobile phone calls to CCTV footage, could be a reality by 2020 and, in combination with an omnipresent network will mean privacy will be a key focus of the HCI community.

Our "digital footprint" - the sharing of more and more aspects of our lives through digital photography, podcasting , blogging and video - is set to get bigger and this will raise key questions about how much information we should store about ourselves.

Losing control

The ever-present network will channel mass market information directly to us while disseminating our own intimate information.

The report dubs this the era of so-called hyper-connectivity and predicts it will mean a growth in "techno-dependency".

This ever more intimate relationship between humans and computers will be a double-edged sword, it suggests.

Eye with circuit board superimposed
Researchers predict an ever-increasing link between man and machine

The report compares the widespread introduction of the calculator - widely blamed for a fall in the standard of mental arithmetic - with what may happen as computers become more intelligent and take on new responsibilities.

"Without proper consideration and control it is possible that we - both individually and collectively - may no longer be in control of ourselves or the world around us," the report warns.

As well as the need for language to reflect the newly expanded human/computer environment so too the concept of teaching computer science will need to be adapted.

"Not just teaching children about how computers and applications work, but about their wider impact," reads the report.

Among its recommendations for the future direction of HCI, the report suggests there needs to be greater engagement with government and policy makers.

There also needs to be consideration for how technological developments will go forward in the developing world.

One of the report authors, Gary Marsden from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, showed off a prototype digital noticeboard.

Dubbed Big Board, the display, which is free to use, allows users to download information to their mobile phones about a range of topics including politics, health and even university lectures.

Mobile use in Africa is the fastest growing of anywhere in the world.

The display unit is currently being trialled in community centres, clinics and educational establishments in South Africa.

Quantum computing
13 Nov 07 |  Technology
Scientists to build 'brain box'
17 Jul 06 |  Manchester
Robot helps develop social skills
29 May 07 |  Beds/Bucks/Herts
Blurring world boundaries
13 Aug 07 |  Technology
A very real future for virtual worlds
14 Dec 07 |  Technology
When work becomes a game
22 Oct 07 |  Technology

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific