Computer Frontiers: To Boldly Go

by James Capparell, Publisher

II Computing Volume 1 Number 1
October / November 1985

James Caparell
Photo by Lorraine Caparell

“Computers – the final frontier, these are the voyages ….” An unusual introduction to a new column perhaps, but as an old Star Trek fan, I remember it was an invitation like this that opened the door to “strange new worlds:’ The impossible became real. I loved it.

Similarly, I invite you to join me on a bold expedition, one that should be every bit as exciting and challenging to your imagination. This column, to run in every issue, will take you on your own mission to the edge of computer technology, where the impossible becomes real.

I intend to bring you face to face with the issues and problems of this frontier, and introduce you to the scientists and others working there. Much of what I will write about here will be commonplace within five years. You will discover philosophical implications, new vocabulary, and new professions. Among these are: knowledge engineering artificial intelligence expert systems fuzzy set logic knowledge representation language translation cybernetics speech recognition robotics computer-enhanced learning

The current level of software development is primitive compared to what is coming. Integrated

products and fancy word processors notwithstanding, software has a long way to go before I will be satisfied.

The current buzz word is “user friendly.” I would like to replace that with “mind-amplifying” or “ability enhancing:’ After all, this equipment we are so pleased with should amplify our ability perform. It should act synergistic with the motivator behind it, and that’s you.

Software should adapt to your particular style of language and comprehension. A more verbal person would access the same software differently than someone visually-oriented and still feel satisfied with the outcome. The system would adapt to your skills, preferences and goals. This may sound somewhat farfetched, but I hope to show you that such programs are only a beginning. As you will see, terms like word-processing and integrated software describe very limited, unimaginative interactions. What can be enhanced on a word-processor? Counting words and spelling them correctly? That’s not the stuff I envision. Perhaps because I’ve been an inveterate Science Fiction reader, I have always expected more.

Can you recall the time when you could not say “xerox this?” Xerox, the company, only flourished since 1960. It quickly took its place among the Fortune 500 companies. T he next “xerox” is around the corner, and it may be a typewriter that you talk at. What verb will come to mean “talk-typing” a letter? Will most of us still refer to this equipment as a typewriter? How about a command writer? “Here, co-write this:’ If any of you come up with some good verbs, let me know.

I am sure many of you recall the famous computer in the movie “2001:’ It was the H .A.L. 9000 (Did you ever notice whose initials follow h-a-1 in the alphabet?). Stanley Kubrick, the director, interviewed many computer specialists of the time. This was about 1966 and he embodied in H .A.L. those functions then thought attainable by the year 2001. Remember, we did not have handheld calculators and digital watches then. T hey may have underestimated the potential. The Apple most of you have on your desk is more powerful than the computer I first programmed in engineering school in 1964, and it’s 1/1000 the size.

Now, let me give you a preview of a few topics you can expect to read about in future installments of this column. Imagine your car equipped with a hi-res map that shows the best route to your destination and that will locate your car within 50 feet. It’s coming, and soon. We will bring you at least part of the story. The device may be available by the time you read this; in fact, GM just purchased exclusive North American rights in the company, ETAK.

Or, plug your Apple into a compact laser disk and access a 20-volume set of encyclopedias. I have already seen this product and felt as if I had touched the future. That company is called Activenture, and you can bet I will be bringing you that story.

And learn about a true expert system for doctors, called MYCIN. This is a program that gives expert medical advice on specific infections. Most physicians would have to call in a specialist to get this type of opinion on drug dosage and differential diagnosis of patients presenting symptoms. This expert system, developed at Stanford, was tested in a double-blind study and it rated higher than trained humans in the accuracy and effectiveness of its diagnoses and prescriptions.

Here is a brief example of a doctor’s interaction with MYCIN.

MYCIN: What is the infection?

Physician: Endarteritis (This is an inflammation of the inner layers of an artery and can be caused by a number of agents.)

MYCIN: Is organism-1 a rod or a coccus? (This question will narrow the range of possible agents for the disease.)

Physician: Rod.

MYCIN then asks additional questions about laboratory test results to help determine what organisms might be causing the disease. When it has reached its conclusions, it will recommend a particular drug therapy to combat the organism or organisms involved. So that the physician will trust MYCIN’s conclusions, the program is designed to answer questions about its reasoning. For example:

Physician: How did you decide that organism-1 is E. Coli?

MYCIN: I used rule 084 to conclude that organism- 1 is E.Coli. This gave a cumulative certainty factor of0.51. (The physician can question further, either by looking at the text of the rule involved, or by questioning it’s antecedents.)

I hope I have helped put back some of that excitement you felt when you first bought your computer. It is the stuff of fantasy, but real.

Join me, let me know what you think-The voyage has begun. II

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