NEWS

Coming soon to your PC: A program that lets your computer talk to you

User-friendly and cheap, a new generation of computers is on the way that will be able to both recognize and generate speech, enabling even greater functionalism. The future will also be radically changed by the explosive development of the Internet, especially in the so-called Third World, which will topple barriers erected by governments and companies. Or so says Christos Papadimitriou, one of the most distinguished Greek researchers working in the USA in the field of information technology. A professor at the Computer Science Division at the University of California at Berkeley, and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, Papadimitriou is currently working on an understanding of the Internet, drawing on fields like economics and game theory. The Internet, he says, is not something we created. It just happened. Professor Papadimitriou is also the author of a novel, «Turing (A Novel about Computation)» (MIT Press, 2003), published in Greek as «Turing, Mathimata Agapis» (Livanis), and the book «Isovia stous Hacker» (Life for Hackers) (Kastaniotis), which airs views on the Internet and politics. He is also currently working on «Logicomix,» comics that tell the tale of logic and mathematics in the 20th century. As he says, science and technology need to be accessible and comprehensible to all. Information technology has embarked on a perpetual revolution. What can we expect in the near future? The problem with perpetual revolutions is that sooner or later, they come to an end. But this one seems to be very far from slowing down. Moore’s law, that computer speeds will multiply by 10 times every five years, will hold good for another two five-year periods. What computer technology needs to do is become user-friendly and reliable, and not require specialist knowledge and experience. Computers should not crash so often and so inexplicably. To all this, there are two obstacles: Microsoft’s monopoly on operating systems and scientists’ persistently researching issues that are more complex and sexier. But both are changing, though slowly, of course. What do you mean by «sexy»? Since most researchers in the new technology are engineers, they are more interested in measurable advances, for example, how fast a computer runs. By contrast, the user-friendliness or the reliability of a machine, which are the fundamental requirements of users, cannot be measured. What applications will be entering our existence, and how will they change it? An exciting development that is coming any moment now, and which will change daily life and bring us closer to the aim of user-friendliness, is the recognition and generation of speech. We will be able to talk with our computers. There has already been great progress in the many contiguous areas (language, voice, processing signals) and we are very close to introducing it to the public. Already, a number of telephone exchanges can have a conversation with the user. But that’s not all we’re talking about. It won’t be long before the computer will be reading the newspaper or wire service news and giving you a summary. I’m not sure how positive that would be. Moreover, it demands some form of consciousness. That’s true. I give it here as a possibility. We’ve been working for 50 years in this area and we’re getting within smelling distance of success. The anticipated integration of computers and the Internet with mobile telephony is also a development worth noting. We’re well ahead in this field. The basic problem is bridging the various codes of the different cell phone companies. What about the spread of computer use? Here, there will really be a revolution. The cheap computer for the Third World is already in sight. Despite Moore’s law which says that computers should rapidly become cheaper, they are actually getting more expensive. The reason is that the industry, especially its marketing section, is expertly inflating our needs and our aspirations. They add a number of accessories to computers, keeping prices high. This is where Microsoft plays a pronounced role. But there is now lively interest in bringing Internet technology to the forgotten of the world, with a view to the profits, of course. Digital gap Will we be able to close the digital gap between those with access to the new technology and the digitally poor, the new illiterates? The information gap always existed. Only the elite used to read newspapers and had access to statistics and balance sheets. Digitalizing the gap can only do good, since computer technology, especially Net technology, has an innately global and, one could say, democratic character. Could you give us a picture of your current research, Professor Papadimitriou? Information technology as a subject was always complex, but well-defined. With the Internet, for the first time, we are trying to understand something that we did not create (either in our heads or in the laboratory) but was something that just came up. We thus approach it with the same humility and ignorance that other scientists approach their subjects (the brain, the cell, the universe, the market). In this study, we need experiments and calculations, but also new mathematics, new forms of intelligence. And, since the Internet was formed by the interaction of entities that only thought of their own interests (I mean the companies that set it up, operate it and design its software), I think economics and game theory have much in the way of techniques and ideas to offer. But writing books is another of your interests. That’s true. Today, along with Apostolos Doxiadis and Alekos Papadatos, we are writing «Logicomix,» the story of Logic in the 20th century told in comic book form. It’s a story of geniuses and tragic philosophers and mathematicians of that age (tragic because that was what the century was like, but also because so many of them ended up mad) who set out to understand once and for all the basis of mathematics, to solve all theorems by mechanical means. It was an enormously ambitious enterprise that ended in resounding failure. But from the ashes of this dream, the computer was born.