Such huge gains will not be possible everywhere, of course. But during the 21st century, I expect that we will be able to increase human productivity by 300 percent as we automate routine office activities and offload brain and eyeball work onto our electronic bulldozers. This transformation will happen in the same way that we offloaded muscle work onto bulldozers during the industrial revolution. We have not yet begun to see these gains from the information revolution. Now we click away at our browsers or e-mail screens, squinting our eyeballs and squeezing our brains. In essence, we are still “shoveling,” but we don’t notice, because we are holding diamond-studded shovels, stamped “high-tech.” So our expectations of what computers can do for us must also change if we are to have a true revolution.
To date, computer vendors have abused the phrase “ease of use.” When they call a system user-friendly, it is tantamount to dressing a chimp in scrubs and earnestly parading it around as a surgeon. When I say “ease of use,” I do not mean incorporating more colors and floating animals into our systems. I mean true ease of use, even if the interaction is only via text. It is inconceivable to me that the differences between browsers and operating systems will persist beyond a few more years. Both access information—one at a distance, one locally—and because people need to do the same things with information regardless of where it resides, ease of use demands that we have only one set of commands for both. The current state of affairs is as ridiculous as if your steering wheel turned your car on city streets but applied the brakes out in the country.
The final way in which new technologies can enable people to do more by doing less is by including everyone in the word “people.” With some 100 million machines interconnected today, we feel pretty smug. Yet that figure represents only 1.6 percent of the world’s population. We think the world is communicating widely, but we still cannot hear the voices of billions through anything other than television and government information feeds. Moreover, the information revolution, left to its own devices, will increase the gap between rich and poor, simply because the rich will use their machines to become more productive, hence richer, while the poor stand still.
We cannot let this happen—if not for the sake of altruism, then for self-preservation. Such disparities inevitably lead to bloody conflicts. And if we decide to help, the potential is immense: the rich could use the new world of information to buy services and products from the poor, as was done earlier with manufacturing. A Virtual Compassion Corps could for the first time in history match the people proffering human help to those who need it, worldwide. In fact, a small group of undergraduate students at the M.I.T. Laboratory for Computer Science have built a Web site (www.compassioncorps.org) to do precisely that. And help need not always travel from the developed to the developing world. Imagine a doctor in Sri Lanka who makes $20 a day administering health care to homeless people in Boston via a kiosk, equipped with a remote video and medical instrument connection and staffed by a nurse. The service might cost $5 a visit, and although not perfect, it would be superior to no health care at all.
This, then, is what I mean when I say that people should be able to do more by doing less: bring the technology into our lives, increase human productivity and ease of use, and offer these gains to all. Given this goal, let’s take a look at the computing model over which this vision extends.
The Information Marketplace
My model of the information world in the near future is the same one I’ve talked about for the past 20 years— the Information Marketplace, the full capability of which is yet to be reached. In the coming decade, half a billion humanoperated machines and countless computers—in the form of appliances, sensors, controllers and the like—will be interconnected. And these machines and their users will do three things: buy, sell and freely exchange information and information services. Some $50 billion changes hands over the Internet today. By 2030, I estimate that this flow will amount to four trillion of today’s dollars, or one quarter of the world’s industrial economy. It will come predominantly from the office sector, which accounts for half of that overall economy. Indeed, a large part of the information services of the future will involve a new type of activity—the purchase and sale of information work. Imagine 1,000 accountants from Beijing doing accounting services for General Motors at $1 per hour.