The $10,000 Briefcase

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When I was at Bell Labs I had a pet project I was never able to implement: the $10,000 briefcase. Since we wanted to build useful business speech and networking applications, I claimed we needed to thoroughly understand how business people used top-end business gear. “Give me $10,000,” I said, “and I’ll fill a briefcase with the latest laptops, hard drives, computer games, and other equipment, right down to pens and staplers.” We could all take turns using the briefcase for business trips, and devise experiments with speech and networking applications to make the contents of the briefcase work together in more imaginative ways.

As I was testing some equipment and online services for this article, I realized most of the contents of that $10,000 briefcase have vanished entirely. The external disk drive has been replaced by a combination of high-capacity internal drives for local use and flash drives and email to trade files. Tiny portable printers are gone, replaced by PDF files, email, and hotel business centers. Fax/modems have faded away, although some businesses still maintain fossil fax machines at the insistence of equally fossilized lawyers, who believe a scan sent via fax is more authentic than a scan sent via email. Portable scanners also have died out now that most documents arrive via email.

Two other significant items occupied the $10,000 briefcase. I’d like to pretend the “personal digital assistant” was part of my original briefcase, but the Palm Pilot didn’t launch until at least five years after my first proposal. No, the original briefcase included my personal planner: a calendar, address book, and to-do list, all handwritten on paper. Once PDAs came out I added them to my wish list.

The other bit of exciting, cumbersome, and somewhat puzzling technology was the cell phone. Our group already had provided speech technology for voice dialing, but clearly we’d only scratched the surface of possible applications. If I recall correctly, the idea of text messaging on these pre-GSM phones never crossed our minds, and instant messaging/live chat was the secret knowledge of a few of us who knew how to use obscure commands on Unix computers.

Rounding out the briefcase were a few miscellaneous devices: a portable game console, a portable (tape or CD) music player, and perhaps a few other common gadgets.

Today I would be hard-pressed to spend $10,000 to fill a business briefcase with a decent laptop; tablet computer, such as an e-book reader; and smartphone, which contains an address book, calendar, to-do list, and dozens of other clever games and applications. All of these devices connect continuously to the Internet and, thus, to each other.

The most fascinating part of this exercise comes when I compare the opportunities for clever speech and network applications. Under the old system of highly isolated devices, I conjectured we’d be able to patch data together out of disparate sources. At first glance, today’s more highly integrated devices seem to render that notion obsolete. The devices integrate internal data—I can use the phone book to make calls or find map locations. Even external data integrate: If I browse to a Web site on my smartphone, then I can touch any phone number on the page to make a call. What more could I ask for?

ASR and TTS Have a Role

The answer is quite a lot. Speech recognition and text-to-speech have become essential for any cell phone, if for nothing else than safety. The integration of laptop to cell phone is still an open question; I’ve patched together a somewhat satisfactory solution for my current set of toys, but it’s a bit creaky, leaks data to service providers, and has a whiff of “chewing gum and bailing wire” holding it together.

As a possible vendor of interesting services, I see the data on my cell phone floating up to the cloud on a daily basis, and I scratch my head. The latest fad is location-based advertising to cell phone users, but what comes beyond that?

Let me offer an example. I know Google, my Internet service provider, my credit card company, and my phone company all mine my personal data. The only entity that doesn’t mine my personal data is me. The data trails—both online and on my various devices—leave a marvelous record of my daily activities that I simply can’t access. Where was I last week when I saw that terrific new book? Who did I call last Thursday afternoon when I was working on the latest revision of the cost spreadsheet? How much money did I spend on my last vacation? These queries, and others, simply beg for deep data mining, speech-driven when I’m on the road and graphically oriented when I’m at my desk. I’ve seen glimmers of personal data mining today from various companies, which makes me think that one day I’ll know as much about me as Google and Facebook do.

Moshe Yudkowsky, Ph.D., is president of Disaggregate Consulting and author of  The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions. He can be reached at speech@pobox.com

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