The “free exchange” part of the Information Marketplace will be just as important. It will affect our lives through its family messages; collaborative activities; knowledge-building and accessing capabilities; political, literary and social exchanges; and many new activities.
Given the goal of doing more by doing less and the model of the Information Marketplace, how do we get there in practice? To that end, at the Laboratory for Computer Science, we have just launched a major research project. We expect it to result in a radically new hardware and software system called Oxygen, which will be tailored to people and their applications and will become as pervasive—we hope—as the air we breathe. This multimillion-dollar, five-year project involves some 30 faculty members from the Laboratory for Computer Science, working in collaboration with the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Lab.
At the heart of the Oxygen system is the Handy 21, which is like a cellular phone but which has additionally a visual display, a camera, infrared detectors and a computer. The Handy 21 brings the help you need to where you are. Moreover, it is all-software-configurable in that it can change at the flip of a bit (in any country) from a cell phone to a two-way radio talking to other Handy 21s, to a network node near a high-speed wireless office network, or to a plain FM radio. The articles by Anant Agarwal on page 60 and John V. Guttag on page 58 address this aspect of Oxygen.
The second key technology of Oxygen is the Enviro 21. Unlike the Handy, which follows people, this device stays attached to the environments around people. It is built into the walls of your office and your house and into the trunk of your car. The Enviro 21 bears the same relation to the Handy 21 as does a power socket to a battery. It does everything the Handy 21 does but with greater capacity and speed. Enviro 21s may also be set up to regulate all kinds of devices and appliances, including sensors, controllers, phones, fax machines, and arrays of cameras or microphones.
Oxygen interacts with the inanimate physical world in two ways—through these controllable appliances and through the infrared detectors in the Handy 21s. If a door is of interest to your machines, you paste an infrared tag on it. Thereafter, when people point their Handy 21s to that door, the machines read the identity of the door and show what is supposed to be behind it. In other words, the system provides a kind of x-ray vision, helping people relate to the physical objects of interest in their environment.
The Handy 21s and Enviro 21s will be linked by way of a novel network, Net 21. Its principal function is to create a secure “collaborative” region among Oxygen users who wish to get together, wherever they may be. The Net 21 must do so on top of the noisy and huge Internet. It must be able to handle constant change as aggregates of participating nodes rise and collapse. It must find you wherever you are. It must connect to numerous appliances. And it must connect to the world’s networks. This is no easy task. Oxygen will require a radically new approach to networking protocols that draws on self-organization and adaptation and that augments today’s Internet.
Oxygen must also involve perceptual resources, especially speech understanding, and address people’s inherent need to communicate naturally: we are not born with keyboard and mouse sockets but rather with mouths, ears and eyes. In Oxygen, speech understanding is built-in— and all parts of the system and all the applications will use speech. The systems built by Victor Zue and his group can handle narrow domains of inquiry, such as weather or airlines. We are stitching these narrow domains together—and incorporating vision and graphics where need be—to form a new quilt covering a broader front of human-machine communication.