MIT's Oxygen: Computer as ubiquitous lifeline

$40 million project envisions everyone online, all the time


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- What if you were always logged on to a computer, no matter where you went or what you did?

If you needed information or wanted to communicate with someone, all you had to do would be to speak.

The computer would always be there, a silent helpmate, part of the fabric of your daily life -- so integrated with your existence it would be like the very air you breathe.

Like oxygen.

That is the vision behind Oxygen, a $40 million research project unveiled last week at the 35th-anniversary celebration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Computer Science.

With Oxygen, each of us would be a node on the network, reachable any time, any place.

As outlined by the lab's director, Michael Dertouzos, author of "What Will Be," Oxygen has four components:

There is "Handy21," a portable unit that looks like a cellular telephone but has a high-contrast screen, a digital camera, a Global Positioning System module for determining your whereabouts, an infrared detector for transferring and synchronizing data, and a powerful microprocessor for processing complex commands.

Handy21 can be a phone, a two-way radio, a television, a pager, a hand-held computer, a pointing device and more, depending on what you need it to do.

Handy21's big brother is Enviro21, a "fixed" computer on an office wall or in a car trunk or home closet.

Enviros can do everything the Handys do and more; they can control physical devices such as the furnace or door locks.

The N21 network, a World Wide Web on steroids, links everyone.

The final key to Oxygen is the ability to communicate through natural speech, as though you were talking to a person rather than a silicon-based device.

The lab is studying Oxygen with its affiliated Artificial Intelligence Laboratory under the sponsorship of DARPA, or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the federal agency that created the original Internet.

Oxygen is similar to a number of other grand visions of computing ubiquity, including the "Memex" device described by government scientist Vannevar Bush in 1945, the Xanadu global network envisioned by Ted Nelson, Apple Chairman John Sculley's "Knowledge Navigator" video and Bill Gates' "Information At Your Fingertips."

Oxygen homes in on a significant element: the ability of the network to know where you are and what kind of a device you need to use, at any time.

If you are out jogging and have just an earphone and microphone attached, the network knows that is the way you will communicate.

If you are at home watching a movie, the network knows whether to interrupt you or not.

"You can tell Oxygen, `I don't want to talk right now,' and it will go away," Dertouzos said.

The proviso hints at one of Oxygen's potentially inflammable precepts: individual privacy.

What if you don't want to be on the network?

What if you don't want a certain transaction recorded for all time, or your whereabouts over a weekend getaway known?

At a two-day conference on the MIT campus last week, lab leaders spent considerable time addressing the privacy issue.

Two general principles emerged: From a practical standpoint, members of mainstream society can be tracked pretty easily through the transaction trail we leave by telephone, credit card, automated teller machine and other records.

On the flip side, computers can do a lot more to make us anonymous, or protect us from unwanted invasions of privacy.

Encryption of all communications, from casual conversation to document-based e-mail, should be automatic.

Encryption, using software keys, has been available for years but is generally not used on the Internet because it is often impractical and can be difficult to learn to configure and use.

Web creator Tim Berners-Lee has long spoken of a "Web of trust" where the Internet's infrastructure automatically takes care of encryption duties.

But the whole notion of electronic commerce relies on accessing individual data and reaching potential customers easily and efficiently.

The conflict will take considerable cooperation to solve.

The other trick to making Oxygen work is a physiological one.

Constant voice communications, instead of keyboard entry, will eventually tax vocal cords, said Victor Zue, head of the lab's Spoken Language Systems Group.

There will still be a need for other forms of data entry.

Oxygen marks a leap forward in one significant way: It places the emphasis on people-to-people, rather than people-to-machine, interaction.

The more people get involved in any technology system, the easier problems are to solve.

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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