Computing in the 21st Century
What computing technologies can we expect in the near future?
The recent Microsoft Research Asia's science fair in Beijing unveiled some possibilities.
by Mark Feldman
In early November, Beijing-based Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) celebrated
its five-year anniversary with a science fair and conference entitled "Computing
in the 21st Century". At the same time, Microsoft also announced the founding
of the Beijing Advanced Technology Center (ATC).
The Beijing ATC, which will have 80 engineers in its first year, will accelerate
technology transfer from MSRA to Microsoft product groups. Zhang Ya-Qin, managing
director of MSRA, says: "By streamlining technology transfer with the ATC,
we will enable researchers to remain focused on solving the hard problems in
computer science that the industry is faced with."
The ATC will also work to make human-computer interaction more natural for Asian
users in their native languages.
In fulfillment of an MoU signed by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and vice- premier
Zheng Peiyan in 2002, the ATC will also license some of its technologies to
local Chinese partners to help build the local software ecosystem.
Products of Tomorrow
The science fair demonstrated many research projects that can analyze image
data and interact intelligently with users.
MSRA technology used faces as biometric login passwords, identified individuals
in photographs, classified photographs according to type of scene, and automatically
edited home movies.
Researchers even showed off software that could learn about different types
of sports and automatically create highlights of sporting events for television
Other research focused on maintaining connectivity in a heterogeneous wireless
Internet of varying speeds and coverage.
The SMART (Scalable Media Adaptation and Robust Transport) and ProFIT (Pro-active
Federated Intelligent Sameness) projects claimed improvements to the technical
foundations of roaming session and quality of service management.
These improvements allow a user with a single wireless device to move seamlessly
between existing CDMA, GPRS and Wi-Fi networks while watching streaming video.
The quality of the video adapts to the characteristics of the network and even
adapts itself to permit other activities that require fast response, such as
interactive text chatting.
The unified wireless device of the future might also feature new Microsoft technologies
that segment large Web pages into smaller "visually related" semantic
blocks which can be more easily viewed on a small screen.
A mobile phone on display translated spoken phrases between Mandarin and English
for future visitors to China, and could easily translate Web pages as well.
A Comeback For Paper?
Microsoft's Universal Pen (uPen) project is attempting to bring the convenience
of tablet computing to paper. The prototype uPen captures a digital version
of whatever you write on a piece of paper. It can save handwritten notes and
drawings, or it can recognize clicks and menu selections to control an overhead
PowerPoint presentation from a printed copy.
The key element to this is a special pen incorporating a tiny camera, positioning
sensor and Bluetooth transmitter. In addition, encoded location data is transparently
printed onto the paper, like a watermark, which allows the uPen to determine
where it is writing on the page.
One possible use is for filling in pre-printed forms when a computer terminal
is not practical or not available. As the user writes, the content could be
automatically recognized and stored in an online database, eliminating a manual
data entry task later.
Technologies discussed on the second day of the conference were not limited
to Microsoft's, but were destined to somehow dramatically alter our lives.
In particular, Professor Raj Reddy, 1994 Turning Award winner and professor
of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, highlighted trends in disk
storage. He explains that by 2013, "profound changes will become possible
as a result of the fact that we will be able to have a terabyte of storage capacity
for one dollarwhich is less than the earnings capacity per day of humans
in some of the poorest countries."
The Million Book Digital Library Project is a first step to having instant access
to all human knowledge online, most of which you will soon have the capacity
to store on your own PC.
There are an estimated 100 million multilingual books currently in existence.
But, "if you wanted to digitise just a million books, each of about 400
pages, and scan in one page every second, it would take 100 years," says
With support from various governments, his project is mirroring this task using
15 centers in India, 14 in China and one in Egypt. By the end of 2003 they will
have scanned 100,000 books, and have the capacity for a million pages per day
Among the daunting issues are selecting which books to scan first, shipping
books to scanning centers, working with the mere 99 percent accuracy of current
OCR technology, providing royalties for copyrighted works, and making the result
available to millions of users in different languages.
HAL, Are You There Yet?
In the final presentation, Dr Lee Kai-Fu, vice-president of the Natural Interactive
Services Division at Microsoft, reminds us that since 1950, there have been
repeated predictions that conversational computers were just 10 years away.
Yet HAL, the intelligent computer, is still nowhere in sight.
According to Lee, past predictions have suffered from immature technology, oversold
Hollywood expectations, and underestimated difficulty in developing the technology.
But he says that we have learned some lessons.
First, conversational computers need technologies in Speech Recognition, Natural
Language Recognition, and Text-To-Speech Conversion. As such, it would be practical
to "change the world one domain at a time".
Second, algorithms need more data to improve, yet only halve error rates approximately
every seven years. Moore's Law only helps recognition errors appear faster.
Taken together, speech recognition error rates halve only every 60 months.
Finally, you cannot extrapolate from one data point. The realm of Natural
Language Recognition is still beyond predictability. But we now have enough
data points that Lee predicts that speech generation will approach human naturalness
in 2010, and that speech recognition will approach the human error rate in 2011.
This article first appeared in Network Computing Asia