Exploring the Computing Continuum

SAN FRANCISCO (03/16/2000) - Someday, you won't carry a notebook computer or even a palm-size PC to stay connected. Instead you'll have multiple computers on your person: in your shoes, in your ink pen, even woven into your clothes.

That future is arriving quickly. Of the more than 8 billion microcomputers produced this year, 95 percent will be embedded in everything from buildings to cars to clothing. But how do we network all those computers, and how do we use them to improve productivity and quality of life?

David Tennenhouse, vice president and director of research at Intel Corp., posed that question in his keynote for Intel's Computing Continuum conference here. More than 500 technology experts gathered to ponder a day where the notion of networking a desktop PC is quaint, and people have hundreds of networked computers doing their bidding.

For years, the best research minds from academia, government, and industry have worked to raise the ratio of networked computers to people, Tennenhouse says.

It's working. Within years, the United States will reach the "man-machine breakpoint," where there is one networked computer for every human being.

As that milestone nears, it's time for the research community to plan the next step in computing evolution. That's when we move beyond today's "human-centric, interactive computing," which relies on a symbiosis between computers and people that is reaching its limits.

Who's in Charge Here?

"Our computers are starting to oppress us," Tennenhouse says. A good example is e-mail. With hundreds of messages a day consuming our valuable minutes, the question becomes: Do we control the computer, or does it control us?

The future model of computing, which he calls "ubiquitous computing," will bring together many imbedded and networked computers that will react to us and serve our needs reflexively.

During a pre-keynote demonstration, Tennenhouse and Intel showed a few works-in-progress from different technology groups. Of particular interest: a "power harvesting" shoe with imbedded computers that transform the energy of a footstep into electrical power. Another promising example is a standard ink pen that writes on paper but also records your messages for downloading to a computer later.

From the Peanut Gallery

Intel hopes to form some sort of consensus about the challenges and boundaries ahead by polling conference attendees in real time. To that end, Intel has set up more than 330 networked notebook computers. Through them, attendees have access to an intranet with various discussion areas. They can also visit a site from which to send speakers real-time questions, and a site where they can seek contacts with like-minded individuals.

The lure of interactive computing was inadvertently demonstrated during the keynote presentation. Offer a room full of technology experts the choice of listening to a speech or fiddling with a computer, and you'll find them tapping away at the keyboard.

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