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Vocapedia > Technology > PCs > Computers, Tablets, OS, Users




Andy Singer


31 March 2009


















Andy Singer


18 August 2009





















'Stop juggling and try 10-pin bowling'

To kick off the new year,

our columnists have joined forces

to show you how to reshape your working life

- whether you're an entrepreneur, a homeworker or just plain idle ...

The Guardian        Work        p. 2        Saturday January 7, 2006


















Wesley Clark in 1962

at a demonstration of the first Laboratory Instrument Computer,

or LINC.



MIT Lincoln Laboratory


Wesley A. Clark, Who Designed First Personal Computer, Dies at 88

By JOHN MARKOFF        NYT        FEB. 27, 2016
















personal computer / computer        UK / USA
























1973 > USA > Alto personal computer        USA


The Xerox Alto is the first computer

designed from its inception

 to support an operating system

based on a graphical user interface (GUI),

later using the desktop metaphor.


The first machines were introduced

on 1 March 1973,

a decade before mass-market GUI machines

became available.















personal computing > Lawrence Gordon Tesler    1945-2020        USA


When you’re cutting and pasting,

dragging the cursor over selected text

and performing other common computer tasks,

you can thank him.
















user > digital life        UK






gaming PC        UK






quantum computers / computing        2012-2013








PC tuneup        USA






computer        USA






supercomputer        USA






supercomputing        USA






computerized surveillance systems        USA






MITS Altair

the first inexpensive

general-purpose microcomputer        USA






The world's first multi-tasking computer - video        UK        2011


We take the ability to multi-task

on our computers for granted,

but it all started with the Pilot Ace Computer

and the genius of mathematician Alan Turing







wall computers        UK






surface computing        USA






IBM        USA








the IBM PC 5150 computer        released September 1981


The IBM Personal Computer ("PC")

was not as powerful

as many of the other personal computers

it was competing against

at the time of its release.


The simplest configuration

has only 16K on-board RAM

and uses an audio cassette

to load and save data

- the floppy drive was optional,

and a hard drive was not suported.







Xerox Alto,

widely described

as the forerunner

of the modern personal computer.        USA






construction of the ENIAC machine

at the University of Pennsylvania in 1943        UK






HECToR, the UK's fastest machine        UK






computer services company








laptop / notebook        UK / USA
























laptop with detachable screen        UK










widescreen wireless notebook








Personal Digital Assistant    PDA

























Digital Vintage: The Computer Collector        NYT        11 June 2015





Digital Vintage: The Computer Collector        Video        The New York Times        11 June 2015


Ever wonder what the iPhone’s grandparents looked like?


Chances are Lonnie Mimms

has one in the massive collection of vintage computers

he keeps outside of Atlanta.


Produced by: Axel Gerdau, Taige Jensen and Jason Drakeford

Read the story here: http://nyti.ms/1Gf6CiM

Watch more videos at: http://nytimes.com/video





























technical failure





computer meltdown





electronic meltdown










blank out





stare at blank screens










specialist troubleshooters





computer engineer















tablet computer / tablet        UK





















tablet PC        USA












tablet computer > Apple >  iPad










Microsoft Surface tablet computer        UK















Mini tablets:

size matters in Christmas battle between internet giants        UK        2012


Sales war could determine

whether Apple, Google or Amazon

comes to dominate

the fastest-growing area of computing










tablet computer > Amazon's Kindle Fire        USA












tablet makers        USA




















Andy Singer

No Exit


27 December 2009














































turn on / off

shut down







set up
















1.44 MB floppy drive





floppy disk        USA






8in floppy disk        UK






USB stick        UK






128mb USB flash drive










store        UK









































search and destroy



















colour screen





flat screen





touch screen        USA






computer monitor




















mouse        USA










hover over N





click on N





right-click on N





click and drag





click, drag and drop





cut and paste





hit Enter










type in















store, share and transfer data





data base

























3-D printing / printers







print out










all-in-one printer, scanner, copier and fax





3-D Printing        USA

















device / hardware products

Microsoft's Xbox game console and Surface tablets        USA






digital camera





flat-bed scanner





headset microphone















CD Re-Writer





DVD-ROM drive





Digital Versatile Disc    DVD










DVD burner notebook





rip and burn


















The Guardian        Evaluation        p. 1        12 July 2005

















Illustration: Henning Wagenbreth



We’re All Nerds Now

SundayReview | News Analysis

NYT        SEPT. 13, 2014
















computer geek / geek        USA









nerd        USA






technorati        USA











device syncing        USA



























operating system    OS        USA










Apple computers > operating system > macOS > Big Sur










Novell's open-source software platform > Linux        USA









open-source software movement








update        UK










upgrade        UK










upgrade to Windows 8        UK










upgrade        UK

















data (plural noun)















backup file






hard disk / drive





external hard drive        USA






back up

RAID arrays (Redundant Array of Independent Disks)        USA






scrapped computers > dead disks > identity thieves        UK



















Kirk Anderson



16 December 2004
















computer wizardry





computer graphics










special-effects artist





hyper-realistic digital model        UK











click-through graphic





interactive graphic






























Corpus of news articles


Technology > PCs


Computers, Tablets, OS, Users




As New iPad Debut Nears,

Some See Decline of PCs


March 5, 2012

The New York Times



The chief executive of Apple, Timothy D. Cook, has a prediction: the day will come when tablet devices like the Apple iPad outsell traditional personal computers.

His forecast has backing from a growing number of analysts and veteran technology industry executives, who contend that the torrid growth rates of the iPad, combined with tablet competition from the likes of Amazon.com and Microsoft, make a changing of the guard a question of when, not if.

Tablet sales are likely to get another jolt this week when Apple introduces its newest version of the iPad, which is expected to have a higher-resolution screen. With past iterations of the iPad and iPhone, Apple has made an art of refining the devices with better screens, faster processors and speedier network connections, as well as other bells and whistles — steadily broadening their audiences.

An Apple spokeswoman, Trudy Muller, declined to comment on an event the company is holding Wednesday in San Francisco that is expected to feature the new product.

Any surpassing of personal computers by tablets will be a case of the computer industry’s tail wagging the dog. The iPad, which seemed like a nice side business for Apple when it was introduced in 2010, has become a franchise for the company, accounting for $9.15 billion in revenue in the holiday quarter, or about 20 percent of Apple’s total revenue. The roughly 15 million iPads Apple sold in that period was more than twice the number it sold a year earlier.

In the fall, Amazon introduced the iPad’s first credible competitor in the $199 Kindle Fire. Although Amazon does not release sales figures for the device, some analysts estimate it sold about four million in the holiday quarter. Later this year, tablets from a variety of hardware manufacturers based on Windows 8, a new, touch-screen-friendly operating system from Microsoft, could further propel the market.

“Tablets are on fire, there’s no question about that,” said Brad Silverberg, a venture capitalist in Seattle at Ignition Partners and a former Microsoft executive, who hastened to add that he was speaking mainly of the iPad, which dominates current sales.

Tablets are not there yet. In 2011, PCs outsold tablets almost six to one, estimates Canalys, a technology research company. But that is still a significant change from 2010, the iPad’s first year on the market, when PCs outsold tablets 20 to one, according to Canalys. For the last two years, PC sales were flat, while iPad sales were booming. The Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook gave the market an additional lift over the holidays. Apple is banking on the tablet market. Its iPad brought in nearly 40 percent more revenue during the holidays than Apple’s own computer business, the Macintosh, did.

“From the first day it shipped, we thought — not just me, many of us thought at Apple — that the tablet market would become larger than the PC market, and it was just a matter of the time that it took for that to occur,” Mr. Cook of Apple said recently at a Goldman Sachs investor conference.

Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, estimated that Mr. Cook’s prediction would come true in 2017, but others contend tablets will be on top sooner than that.

For example, in a blog post on Friday, Horace Dediu, an analyst with Asymco in Finland, made a detailed argument that tablet sales would pass traditional PC sales in the fall of 2013. His projections rest heavily on an assumption that Apple will face more serious competition in the tablet market from Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Windows 8 and a wave of other devices based on Google’s Android, an operating system that has been mostly successful in the smartphone market.

Tim Bucher, an entrepreneur who has held senior positions at Apple, Microsoft and Dell, said tablet sales would “absolutely” pass those of PCs, a trend he argued would become even more pronounced as a younger, tablet-savvy generation ages.

“I think the older generation does not pick up on the way of interacting with the new devices,” Mr. Bucher said, contrasting older people with the next generation. “I don’t know how many YouTube videos there are out there showing everyone from babies to animals interacting with iPads.”

Where does that change leave the PC, the lowly machine that defined computing for decades?

At a technology conference in 2010, Steven P. Jobs, then Apple’s chief executive, heralded what he called the post-PC era and compared personal computers to the trucks that prevailed in the automobile industry until society began moving away from its agrarian roots. PCs are “still going to be around and have a lot of value,” said Mr. Jobs, who died in October. “But they’re going to be used by one out of X people.”

Even Mr. Cook in his recent speech said he was not predicting the demise of the PC industry, although he did say the iPad was cannibalizing some computer sales, more Windows PCs than the much smaller market for Macs. One category of PCs where that is especially true is netbooks, the inexpensive notebook computers that have had a steep decline in shipments in the last couple of years. “What the iPad is doing is taking growth away from the PC market that would have gone to a secondary or tertiary device,” said Mr. Dediu. “It’s not so much people are going to drop PCs. They’re going to add this additional device.”

Traditional PCs are not standing still. Boxy desktop computers are an ever-diminishing part of the PC business, while Apple’s MacBook Air and a category of Windows laptops with Intel processors called ultrabooks have reinvented traditional clamshell notebooks as superthin devices that turn on instantly like tablets.

Microsoft’s introduction of Windows 8 promises to shake up computer designs further. Microsoft and its hardware partners have shown laptops with keyboards that can be swiveled around or removed altogether, turning them into tablets.

“The tablet and PC markets are all going to blur,” said Tim Coulling, an analyst at Canalys. “We’re going to see a lot of form-factor innovation. We’ll be asking, What is a tablet and what is a traditional PC?”

As New iPad Debut Nears, Some See Decline of PCs,
NYT, 5.3.2012,






Digital Devices

Deprive Brain

of Needed Downtime


August 24, 2010

The New York Times



SAN FRANCISCO — It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday and Dianne Bates, 40, juggles three screens. She listens to a few songs on her iPod, then taps out a quick e-mail on her iPhone and turns her attention to the high-definition television.

Just another day at the gym.

As Ms. Bates multitasks, she is also churning her legs in fast loops on an elliptical machine in a downtown fitness center. She is in good company. In gyms and elsewhere, people use phones and other electronic devices to get work done — and as a reliable antidote to boredom.

Cellphones, which in the last few years have become full-fledged computers with high-speed Internet connections, let people relieve the tedium of exercising, the grocery store line, stoplights or lulls in the dinner conversation.

The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.

Ms. Bates, for example, might be clearer-headed if she went for a run outside, away from her devices, research suggests.

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory of the experience.

The researchers suspect that the findings also apply to how humans learn.

“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

At the University of Michigan, a study found that people learned significantly better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment, suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued.

Even though people feel entertained, even relaxed, when they multitask while exercising, or pass a moment at the bus stop by catching a quick video clip, they might be taxing their brains, scientists say.

“People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves,” said Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist.

Regardless, there is now a whole industry of mobile software developers competing to help people scratch the entertainment itch. Flurry, a company that tracks the use of apps, has found that mobile games are typically played for 6.3 minutes, but that many are played for much shorter intervals. One popular game that involves stacking blocks gets played for 2.2 minutes on average.

Today’s game makers are trying to fill small bits of free time, said Sebastien de Halleux, a co-founder of PlayFish, a game company owned by the industry giant Electronic Arts.

“Instead of having long relaxing breaks, like taking two hours for lunch, we have a lot of these micro-moments,” he said. Game makers like Electronic Arts, he added, “have reinvented the game experience to fit into micro-moments.”

Many business people, of course, have good reason to be constantly checking their phones. But this can take a mental toll. Henry Chen, 26, a self-employed auto mechanic in San Francisco, has mixed feelings about his BlackBerry habits.

“I check it a lot, whenever there is downtime,” Mr. Chen said. Moments earlier, he was texting with a friend while he stood in line at a bagel shop; he stopped only when the woman behind the counter interrupted him to ask for his order.

Mr. Chen, who recently started his business, doesn’t want to miss a potential customer. Yet he says that since he upgraded his phone a year ago to a feature-rich BlackBerry, he can feel stressed out by what he described as internal pressure to constantly stay in contact.

“It’s become a demand. Not necessarily a demand of the customer, but a demand of my head,” he said. “I told my girlfriend that I’m more tired since I got this thing.”

In the parking lot outside the bagel shop, others were filling up moments with their phones. While Eddie Umadhay, 59, a construction inspector, sat in his car waiting for his wife to grocery shop, he deleted old e-mail while listening to news on the radio. On a bench outside a coffee house, Ossie Gabriel, 44, a nurse practitioner, waited for a friend and checked e-mail “to kill time.”

Crossing the street from the grocery store to his car, David Alvarado pushed his 2-year-old daughter in a cart filled with shopping bags, his phone pressed to his ear.

He was talking to a colleague about work scheduling, noting that he wanted to steal a moment to make the call between paying for the groceries and driving.

“I wanted to take advantage of the little gap,” said Mr. Alvarado, 30, a facilities manager at a community center.

For many such people, the little digital asides come on top of heavy use of computers during the day. Take Ms. Bates, the exercising multitasker at the expansive Bakar Fitness and Recreation Center. She wakes up and peeks at her iPhone before she gets out of bed. At her job in advertising, she spends all day in front of her laptop.

But, far from wanting a break from screens when she exercises, she says she couldn’t possibly spend 55 minutes on the elliptical machine without “lots of things to do.” This includes relentless channel surfing.

“I switch constantly,” she said. “I can’t stand commercials. I have to flip around unless I’m watching ‘Project Runway’ or something I’m really into.”

Some researchers say that whatever downside there is to not resting the brain, it pales in comparison to the benefits technology can bring in motivating people to sweat.

“Exercise needs to be part of our lives in the sedentary world we’re immersed in. Anything that helps us move is beneficial,” said John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”

But all things being equal, Mr. Ratey said, he would prefer to see people do their workouts away from their devices: “There is more bang for your buck doing it outside, for your mood and working memory.”

Of the 70 cardio machines on the main floor at Bakar Fitness, 67 have televisions attached. Most of them also have iPod docks and displays showing workout performance, and a few have games, like a rope-climbing machine that shows an animated character climbing the rope while the live human does so too.

A few months ago, the cable TV went out and some patrons were apoplectic. “It was an uproar. People said: ‘That’s what we’re paying for,’ ” said Leeane Jensen, 28, the fitness manager.

At least one exerciser has a different take. Two stories up from the main floor, Peter Colley, 23, churns away on one of the several dozen elliptical machines without a TV. Instead, they are bathed in sunlight, looking out onto the pool and palm trees.

“I look at the wind on the trees. I watch the swimmers go back and forth,” Mr. Colley said. “I usually come here to clear my head.”

    Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime, NYT, 24.8.2010,






Electronics Maker

Promises Review After Suicides


May 26, 2010
The New York Times


SHENZHEN, China — Struggling to cope with a rash of suicides at his company’s electronics factories here, the chairman of an electronics maker that supplies Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard said Wednesday that he was doing everything possible to find a solution.

“We are reviewing everything,” Terry Gou, the chairman of the Hon Hai Precision Industry Group of Taiwan and one of Asia’s richest men, said after traveling here from the company’s headquarters in Taiwan. He said the company was reviewing labor practices, hiring psychiatrists and putting up safety nets on the buildings.

“We will leave no stone unturned,” Mr. Gou said, “and we will make sure to find a way to reduce these suicide tendencies.”

Mr. Gou spoke at a hastily organized news conference and media tour on the campus of Foxconn Technology, the Hon Hai subsidiary that operates some of the world’s biggest factories and produces a wide range of electronics for global brands, including American computer makers.

Foxconn, which has about 420,000 employees on two campuses in Shenzhen, is known for its military-style efficiency, the awesome scale of its production operations and for manufacturing popular products like the Apple iPhone. But this year the company has come under intense scrutiny because of a string of suicides by distressed workers between the ages of 18 and 24.

The most recent took place early Tuesday, when a 19-year-old employee fell to his death here. The police have already ruled the death a suicide.

It was the ninth suicide this year by an employee at one of Foxconn’s two Shenzhen campuses, police said. Two additional workers survived suicide attempts with serious injuries.

Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard say they were now investigating conditions at Foxconn amid growing concern about the suicides. The companies say that all their manufacturers are required to comply with international labor standards.

But several labor rights groups have called for an independent investigation into the suicides and labor conditions at Foxconn, saying some deaths appear to be suspicious. Some advocates have also accused the company of running huge sweatshops that regularly violate Chinese labor laws and treat workers harshly.

Those assertions have been bolstered in recent weeks by China’s state-run newspapers, which have published a series of sensational reports about the suicides alongside exposés detailing the harsh conditions inside Foxconn factories.

Some articles describe the heavy burdens workers face in trying to meet Foxconn’s production quotas, cramped dormitories that sometimes house 10 to a room and meager salaries of about $150 a month before overtime.

Foxconn executives, though, strongly defend the company’s labor practices and the conditions on its huge campuses, which they say have modern dormitories, swimming pools and shopping and recreational facilities.

While company executives acknowledge a sharp rise in the rate of suicides on the Shenzhen campuses this year, they say the causes are largely because of China’s social ills and personal problems that arise when migrant workers travel long distances to find jobs.

Foxconn is still investigating the circumstances surrounding the suicides, but company executives say they have no evidence they were caused by poor labor conditions.

“There is a fine line between productivity and regimentation and inhumane treatment,” said Louis Woo, an aide to Mr. Gou at Hon Hai. “I hope we treat our workers with dignity and respect.”

To help ease the crisis, Foxconn says, it has invited university scholars and mental health experts to its campuses in recent weeks. At the news conference at one campuses Wednesday, some of those experts said the rising number of suicides may be the result of complex social factors, including the nation’s rising income gap and even something known as suicide contagion — a tendency for copycat suicides to occur after reports of other suicides.

Health experts say the suicide figures from Foxconn are troubling but far below the national rate of about 14 per 100,000 in China, according to the World Health Organization.

Still, Mr. Gou, who rarely grants interviews and almost never allows journalists to visit the campuses of Foxconn, made an unusual show of concern and openness in Shenzhen on Wednesday, bowing several times at the news conference, apologizing for the tragedies and asking mental health experts to help find a solution. He even led dozens of journalists on a tour of Foxconn’s campus, visiting dormitories, a campus hospital, a production line and an employee care center.

And he appealed to the media to stop sensationalizing the suicides at Foxconn, which he said could fuel even more suicide attempts.

“I’m appealing to the press to take social responsibility,” he said. “Do not sensationalize this. But later, he said Foxconn was re-examining the way it operated. “We can be a better company,” he said.

Bao Beibei contributed research.

    Electronics Maker Promises Review After Suicides, NYT, 26.5.2010,






Attached to Technology

and Paying a Price


June 6, 2010
The New York Times


SAN FRANCISCO — When one of the most important e-mail messages of his life landed in his in-box a few years ago, Kord Campbell overlooked it.

Not just for a day or two, but 12 days. He finally saw it while sifting through old messages: a big company wanted to buy his Internet start-up.

“I stood up from my desk and said, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’ ” Mr. Campbell said. “It’s kind of hard to miss an e-mail like that, but I did.”

The message had slipped by him amid an electronic flood: two computer screens alive with e-mail, instant messages, online chats, a Web browser and the computer code he was writing. (View an interactive panorama of Mr. Campbell's workstation.)

While he managed to salvage the $1.3 million deal after apologizing to his suitor, Mr. Campbell continues to struggle with the effects of the deluge of data. Even after he unplugs, he craves the stimulation he gets from his electronic gadgets. He forgets things like dinner plans, and he has trouble focusing on his family.

His wife, Brenda, complains, “It seems like he can no longer be fully in the moment.”

This is your brain on computers.

Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.

These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.

The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as when cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. And for millions of people like Mr. Campbell, these urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life.

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.

And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.

“The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.

Technology use can benefit the brain in some ways, researchers say. Imaging studies show the brains of Internet users become more efficient at finding information. And players of some video games develop better visual acuity.

More broadly, cellphones and computers have transformed life. They let people escape their cubicles and work anywhere. They shrink distances and handle countless mundane tasks, freeing up time for more exciting pursuits.

For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as e-mail and TV, has exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.

The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”

Mr. Campbell, 43, came of age with the personal computer, and he is a heavier user of technology than most. But researchers say the habits and struggles of Mr. Campbell and his family typify what many experience — and what many more will, if trends continue.

For him, the tensions feel increasingly acute, and the effects harder to shake.

The Campbells recently moved to California from Oklahoma to start a software venture. Mr. Campbell’s life revolves around computers. (View a slide show on how the Campbells interact with technology.)

He goes to sleep with a laptop or iPhone on his chest, and when he wakes, he goes online. He and Mrs. Campbell, 39, head to the tidy kitchen in their four-bedroom hillside rental in Orinda, an affluent suburb of San Francisco, where she makes breakfast and watches a TV news feed in the corner of the computer screen while he uses the rest of the monitor to check his e-mail.

Major spats have arisen because Mr. Campbell escapes into video games during tough emotional stretches. On family vacations, he has trouble putting down his devices. When he rides the subway to San Francisco, he knows he will be offline 221 seconds as the train goes through a tunnel.

Their 16-year-old son, Connor, tall and polite like his father, recently received his first C’s, which his family blames on distraction from his gadgets. Their 8-year-old daughter, Lily, like her mother, playfully tells her father that he favors technology over family.

“I would love for him to totally unplug, to be totally engaged,” says Mrs. Campbell, who adds that he becomes “crotchety until he gets his fix.” But she would not try to force a change.

“He loves it. Technology is part of the fabric of who he is,” she says. “If I hated technology, I’d be hating him, and a part of who my son is too.”


Always On

Mr. Campbell, whose given name is Thomas, had an early start with technology in Oklahoma City. When he was in third grade, his parents bought him Pong, a video game. Then came a string of game consoles and PCs, which he learned to program.

In high school, he balanced computers, basketball and a romance with Brenda, a cheerleader with a gorgeous singing voice. He studied too, with focus, uninterrupted by e-mail. “I did my homework because I needed to get it done,” he said. “I didn’t have anything else to do.”

He left college to help with a family business, then set up a lawn mowing service. At night he would read, play video games, hang out with Brenda and, as she remembers it, “talk a lot more.”

In 1996, he started a successful Internet provider. Then he built the start-up that he sold for $1.3 million in 2003 to LookSmart, a search engine.

Mr. Campbell loves the rush of modern life and keeping up with the latest information. “I want to be the first to hear when the aliens land,” he said, laughing. But other times, he fantasizes about living in pioneer days when things moved more slowly: “I can’t keep everything in my head.”

No wonder. As he came of age, so did a new era of data and communication.

At home, people consume 12 hours of media a day on average, when an hour spent with, say, the Internet and TV simultaneously counts as two hours. That compares with five hours in 1960, say researchers at the University of California, San Diego. Computer users visit an average of 40 Web sites a day, according to research by RescueTime, which offers time-management tools.

As computers have changed, so has the understanding of the human brain. Until 15 years ago, scientists thought the brain stopped developing after childhood. Now they understand that its neural networks continue to develop, influenced by things like learning skills.

So not long after Eyal Ophir arrived at Stanford in 2004, he wondered whether heavy multitasking might be leading to changes in a characteristic of the brain long thought immutable: that humans can process only a single stream of information at a time.

Going back a half-century, tests had shown that the brain could barely process two streams, and could not simultaneously make decisions about them. But Mr. Ophir, a student-turned-researcher, thought multitaskers might be rewiring themselves to handle the load.

His passion was personal. He had spent seven years in Israeli intelligence after being weeded out of the air force — partly, he felt, because he was not a good multitasker. Could his brain be retrained?

Mr. Ophir, like others around the country studying how technology bent the brain, was startled by what he discovered.


The Myth of Multitasking

The test subjects were divided into two groups: those classified as heavy multitaskers based on their answers to questions about how they used technology, and those who were not.

In a test created by Mr. Ophir and his colleagues, subjects at a computer were briefly shown an image of red rectangles. Then they saw a similar image and were asked whether any of the rectangles had moved. It was a simple task until the addition of a twist: blue rectangles were added, and the subjects were told to ignore them. (Play a game testing how well you filter out distractions.)

The multitaskers then did a significantly worse job than the non-multitaskers at recognizing whether red rectangles had changed position. In other words, they had trouble filtering out the blue ones — the irrelevant information.

So, too, the multitaskers took longer than non-multitaskers to switch among tasks, like differentiating vowels from consonants and then odd from even numbers. The multitaskers were shown to be less efficient at juggling problems. (Play a game testing how well you switch between tasks.)

Other tests at Stanford, an important center for research in this fast-growing field, showed multitaskers tended to search for new information rather than accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to work.

Researchers say these findings point to an interesting dynamic: multitaskers seem more sensitive than non-multitaskers to incoming information.

The results also illustrate an age-old conflict in the brain, one that technology may be intensifying. A portion of the brain acts as a control tower, helping a person focus and set priorities. More primitive parts of the brain, like those that process sight and sound, demand that it pay attention to new information, bombarding the control tower when they are stimulated.

Researchers say there is an evolutionary rationale for the pressure this barrage puts on the brain. The lower-brain functions alert humans to danger, like a nearby lion, overriding goals like building a hut. In the modern world, the chime of incoming e-mail can override the goal of writing a business plan or playing catch with the children.

“Throughout evolutionary history, a big surprise would get everyone’s brain thinking,” said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford. “But we’ve got a large and growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it.”

Mr. Nass says the Stanford studies are important because they show multitasking’s lingering effects: “The scary part for guys like Kord is, they can’t shut off their multitasking tendencies when they’re not multitasking.”

Melina Uncapher, a neurobiologist on the Stanford team, said she and other researchers were unsure whether the muddied multitaskers were simply prone to distraction and would have had trouble focusing in any era. But she added that the idea that information overload causes distraction was supported by more and more research.

A study at the University of California, Irvine, found that people interrupted by e-mail reported significantly increased stress compared with those left to focus. Stress hormones have been shown to reduce short-term memory, said Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Preliminary research shows some people can more easily juggle multiple information streams. These “supertaskers” represent less than 3 percent of the population, according to scientists at the University of Utah.

Other research shows computer use has neurological advantages. In imaging studies, Dr. Small observed that Internet users showed greater brain activity than nonusers, suggesting they were growing their neural circuitry.

At the University of Rochester, researchers found that players of some fast-paced video games can track the movement of a third more objects on a screen than nonplayers. They say the games can improve reaction and the ability to pick out details amid clutter.

“In a sense, those games have a very strong both rehabilitative and educational power,” said the lead researcher, Daphne Bavelier, who is working with others in the field to channel these changes into real-world benefits like safer driving.

There is a vibrant debate among scientists over whether technology’s influence on behavior and the brain is good or bad, and how significant it is.

“The bottom line is, the brain is wired to adapt,” said Steven Yantis, a professor of brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. “There’s no question that rewiring goes on all the time,” he added. But he said it was too early to say whether the changes caused by technology were materially different from others in the past.

Mr. Ophir is loath to call the cognitive changes bad or good, though the impact on analysis and creativity worries him.

He is not just worried about other people. Shortly after he came to Stanford, a professor thanked him for being the one student in class paying full attention and not using a computer or phone. But he recently began using an iPhone and noticed a change; he felt its pull, even when playing with his daughter.

“The media is changing me,” he said. “I hear this internal ping that says: check e-mail and voice mail.”

“I have to work to suppress it.”

Kord Campbell does not bother to suppress it, or no longer can.


Interrupted by a Corpse

It is a Wednesday in April, and in 10 minutes, Mr. Campbell has an online conference call that could determine the fate of his new venture, called Loggly. It makes software that helps companies understand the clicking and buying patterns of their online customers.

Mr. Campbell and his colleagues, each working from a home office, are frantically trying to set up a program that will let them share images with executives at their prospective partner.

But at the moment when Mr. Campbell most needs to focus on that urgent task, something else competes for his attention: “Man Found Dead Inside His Business.”

That is the tweet that appears on the left-most of Mr. Campbell’s array of monitors, which he has expanded to three screens, at times adding a laptop and an iPad.

On the left screen, Mr. Campbell follows the tweets of 1,100 people, along with instant messages and group chats. The middle monitor displays a dark field filled with computer code, along with Skype, a service that allows Mr. Campbell to talk to his colleagues, sometimes using video. The monitor on the right keeps e-mail, a calendar, a Web browser and a music player.

Even with the meeting fast approaching, Mr. Campbell cannot resist the tweet about the corpse. He clicks on the link in it, glances at the article and dismisses it. “It’s some article about something somewhere,” he says, annoyed by the ads for jeans popping up.

The program gets fixed, and the meeting turns out to be fruitful: the partners are ready to do business. A colleague says via instant message: “YES.”

Other times, Mr. Campbell’s information juggling has taken a more serious toll. A few weeks earlier, he once again overlooked an e-mail message from a prospective investor. Another time, Mr. Campbell signed the company up for the wrong type of business account on Amazon.com, costing $300 a month for six months before he got around to correcting it. He has burned hamburgers on the grill, forgotten to pick up the children and lingered in the bathroom playing video games on an iPhone.

Mr. Campbell can be unaware of his own habits. In a two-and-a-half hour stretch one recent morning, he switched rapidly between e-mail and several other programs, according to data from RescueTime, which monitored his computer use with his permission. But when asked later what he was doing in that period, Mr. Campbell said he had been on a long Skype call, and “may have pulled up an e-mail or two.”

The kind of disconnection Mr. Campbell experiences is not an entirely new problem, of course. As they did in earlier eras, people can become so lost in work, hobbies or TV that they fail to pay attention to family.

Mr. Campbell concedes that, even without technology, he may work or play obsessively, just as his father immersed himself in crossword puzzles. But he says this era is different because he can multitask anyplace, anytime.

“It’s a mixed blessing,” he said. “If you’re not careful, your marriage can fall apart or your kids can be ready to play and you’ll get distracted.”


The Toll on Children

Father and son sit in armchairs. Controllers in hand, they engage in a fierce video game battle, displayed on the nearby flat-panel TV, as Lily watches.

They are playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl, a cartoonish animated fight between characters that battle using anvils, explosives and other weapons.

“Kill him, Dad,” Lily screams. To no avail. Connor regularly beats his father, prompting expletives and, once, a thrown pillow. But there is bonding and mutual respect.

“He’s a lot more tactical,” says Connor. “But I’m really good at quick reflexes.”

Screens big and small are central to the Campbell family’s leisure time. Connor and his mother relax while watching TV shows like “Heroes.” Lily has an iPod Touch, a portable DVD player and her own laptop, which she uses to watch videos, listen to music and play games.

Lily, a second-grader, is allowed only an hour a day of unstructured time, which she often spends with her devices. The laptop can consume her.

“When she’s on it, you can holler her name all day and she won’t hear,” Mrs. Campbell said.

Researchers worry that constant digital stimulation like this creates attention problems for children with brains that are still developing, who already struggle to set priorities and resist impulses.

Connor’s troubles started late last year. He could not focus on homework. No wonder, perhaps. On his bedroom desk sit two monitors, one with his music collection, one with Facebook and Reddit, a social site with news links that he and his father love. His iPhone availed him to relentless texting with his girlfriend.

When he studied, “a little voice would be saying, ‘Look up’ at the computer, and I’d look up,” Connor said. “Normally, I’d say I want to only read for a few minutes, but I’d search every corner of Reddit and then check Facebook.”

His Web browsing informs him. “He’s a fact hound,” Mr. Campbell brags. “Connor is, other than programming, extremely technical. He’s 100 percent Internet savvy.”

But the parents worry too. “Connor is obsessed,” his mother said. “Kord says we have to teach him balance.”

So in January, they held a family meeting. Study time now takes place in a group setting at the dinner table after everyone has finished eating. It feels, Mr. Campbell says, like togetherness.


No Vacations

For spring break, the family rented a cottage in Carmel, Calif. Mrs. Campbell hoped everyone would unplug.

But the day before they left, the iPad from Apple came out, and Mr. Campbell snapped one up. The next night, their first on vacation, “We didn’t go out to dinner,” Mrs. Campbell mourned. “We just sat there on our devices.”

She rallied the troops the next day to the aquarium. Her husband joined them for a bit but then begged out to do e-mail on his phone.

Later she found him playing video games.

The trip came as Mr. Campbell was trying to raise several million dollars for his new venture, a goal that he achieved. Brenda said she understood that his pursuit required intensity but was less understanding of the accompanying surge in video game.

His behavior brought about a discussion between them. Mrs. Campbell said he told her that he was capable of logging off, citing a trip to Hawaii several years ago that they called their second honeymoon.

“What trip are you thinking about?” she said she asked him. She recalled that he had spent two hours a day online in the hotel’s business center.

On Thursday, their fourth day in Carmel, Mr. Campbell spent the day at the beach with his family. They flew a kite and played whiffle ball.

Connor unplugged too. “It changes the mood of everything when everybody is present,” Mrs. Campbell said.

The next day, the family drove home, and Mr. Campbell disappeared into his office.

Technology use is growing for Mrs. Campbell as well. She divides her time between keeping the books of her husband’s company, homemaking and working at the school library. She checks e-mail 25 times a day, sends texts and uses Facebook.

Recently, she was baking peanut butter cookies for Teacher Appreciation Day when her phone chimed in the living room. She answered a text, then became lost in Facebook, forgot about the cookies and burned them. She started a new batch, but heard the phone again, got lost in messaging, and burned those too. Out of ingredients and shamed, she bought cookies at the store.

She feels less focused and has trouble completing projects. Some days, she promises herself she will ignore her device. “It’s like a diet — you have good intentions in the morning and then you’re like, ‘There went that,’ ” she said.

Mr. Nass at Stanford thinks the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room.

“The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he said. “It shows how much you care.”

That empathy, Mr. Nass said, is essential to the human condition. “We are at an inflection point,” he said. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.”

    Attached to Technology and Paying a Price, NYT, 6.6.2010,






Just a Touch Away,

the Elusive Tablet PC


October 5, 2009
The New York Times


SAN FRANCISCO — The high-tech industry has been working itself into paroxysms of excitement lately over an idea that is not exactly new: tablet computers.

Quietly, several high-tech companies are lining up to deliver versions of these keyboard-free, touch-screen portable machines in the next few months. Industry watchers have their eye on Apple in particular to sell such a device by early next year.

Tablets have been around in various forms for two decades, thus far delivering little other than memorable failure. Nonetheless, the new batch of devices has gripped the imagination of tech executives, bloggers and gadget hounds, who are projecting their wildest dreams onto these literal blank slates.

In these visions, tablets will save the newspaper and book publishing industries, present another way to watch television and movies, play video games, and offer a visually rich way to enjoy the Web and the expanding world of mobile applications.

“Desktops, laptops — we already know how those work,” said Brian Lam, editorial director of the popular gadget site Gizmodo, which reports and hypothesizes almost daily about these devices. Tablets, he said, “are one of the last few mysteries left.”

Tablet computers were first conceived as a way to supplant plain old paper, in the same way that PCs replaced the typewriter.

In 1993, Apple’s Newton MessagePad, with its expansive screen and stylus pen, became known less for its innovative features than for being lampooned in “Doonesbury,” which ridiculed the device for its flawed handwriting recognition. Steven P. Jobs killed the Newton when he returned to Apple in 1997.

Then in 2001, at Comdex, the industry trade show, Bill Gates introduced new Windows software for tablets with a bold prediction: within five years, he said, tablets “will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.” It didn’t happen, of course. Tablets running Windows sell only a few hundred thousand units a year, mostly in business fields like health care and financial services.

There were basic problems with these early tablets: they cost too much and did not do enough.

“Software engineers got ahead of the hardware capabilities,” said Paul Jackson, a consumer product analyst at Forrester Research. “But we may be finally getting to the point where the dreams and aspirations of those designers are actually meeting capable and reasonably priced technology.”

You can thank Moore’s Law and the immutable advance of technology for that. Integrated microchips now combine wireless connectivity and support for features like multimedia, GPS functions and rich graphics. They are also more energy-efficient.

At the same time, the iPhone and its imitators have demonstrated that new tactile touch screens work and that people are comfortable with them, in a way they never got accustomed to using earlier tablets and stylus pens.

“We darn well should be about ready to take advantage of this stuff. It’s time,” said Bill Buxton, a researcher at Microsoft who has been working on multitouch systems for 20 years, and has a comprehensive collection of tablets and touch screens he keeps in his office in Toronto.

The drumbeat of tablet product introductions has already begun. In June, Archos, a French consumer electronics company, began selling a small touch-screen tablet running Google’s Android software. Later this month, it will introduce another tablet that runs on Microsoft’s Windows 7, which has built-in support for touch screens.

“A road warrior doesn’t want to take a big clamshell netbook with him,” said Frédéric Balaÿ, vice president for marketing at Archos.

The industry blog TechCrunch has also commissioned its own Web tablet, called the CrunchPad, which it has said it will start selling later this year.

Despite its past bruises in the tablet business, Microsoft appears ready to try again. In September, images of a booklike Microsoft device called Courier, with two 7-inch color screens, surfaced on Gizmodo.

In an interview, Steven A. Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, would not discuss that product in particular, but said the company devises such prototypes all the time, so it can take them to its hardware partners. Still, rumors of a Microsoft tablet computer sparked interest. “I got an e-mail from some customer who said, ‘I want that,’ ” Mr. Ballmer said.

Apple’s rumored tablet is the most highly anticipated of the lot. Analysts expect Apple to introduce it early next year — a sort of expanded, souped-up version of the iPod Touch, priced at around $700.

Last week, Apple rehired the original chief marketer of its old Newton, Michael Tchao, who was working at Nike. Mr. Tchao’s former Apple colleagues believe he will help market this new device.

Colin Smith, an Apple spokesman, declined to comment on the company’s recruitment or product plans. But Apple’s tablet will most likely have little in common with the Newton, which was essentially a personal digital assistant. The new crop of tablets is being viewed as more flexible — gadgets that combine elements of the iPhone, e-book readers like the Kindle and laptops.

Apple has been working on such a Swiss Army knife tablet since at least 2003, according to several former employees. One prototype, developed in 2003, used PowerPC microchips made by I.B.M., which were so power-hungry that they quickly drained the battery.

“It couldn’t be built. The battery life wasn’t long enough, the graphics performance was not enough to do anything and the components themselves cost more than $500,” said Joshua A. Strickland, a former Apple engineer whose name is on several of the company’s patents for multitouch technology.

Another former Apple executive who was there at the time said the tablets kept getting shelved at Apple because Mr. Jobs, whose incisive critiques are often memorable, asked, in essence, what they were good for besides surfing the Web in the bathroom.

The success of the iPhone may have partially helped to answer that question. As of last month, developers had created 85,000 applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch — video games, social networking software, restaurant finders and more. Analysts believe that all those programs will immediately work on the new tablet while developers begin to tailor new software for the larger screen.

Despite the preponderance of apps, there is still the persistent question of whether regular people will really find a use for tablet computers. Smaller cellphones are increasingly multipurpose and fit nicely in a jacket pocket. And low-end laptops are inexpensive, run a full-fledged operating system and offer the luxury of a keyboard.

“I can imagine something like the iPhone with a much bigger screen being a gorgeous device with great capacity, but I don’t know where I would fit that into my life,” said a former Apple executive, who declined to be named because of Apple’s secrecy policies, but who anticipates an Apple tablet next year. “Those are the debates that have been happening inside Apple for quite some time.”

    Just a Touch Away, the Elusive Tablet PC, NYT, 5.10.2009,






PC Touch Screens Move Ahead


June 3, 2009
The New York Times


MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — The computer industry has a lot riding on your fingers.

For years, companies have dabbled with the touch-screen technology that lets people poke icons on a display to accomplish tasks like picking a seat at an airport check-in kiosk. Apple elevated such technology from a novelty to a must-have feature on mobile devices with its iPhone. People can flip through pictures with a flick of a finger or make a document larger by pressing two fingers against the screen and stretching them out.

Now both personal computer manufacturers and software makers hope to do more with touch on larger devices by giving people a 10-fingered go at their screens.

“You don’t even operate your TV with two fingers,” said Amichai Ben-David, the chief executive officer of N-trig, which produces touch-screen technology for PC makers. “In order for this to feel really natural, you need more than two fingers for sure.”

The PC industry hopes the feature spurs sales. PC makers like Hewlett-Packard and Dell have been clobbered during the recession as struggling businesses drop computer upgrades to the bottom of their to-do lists. Consumers have shown more interest in new machines, but they are buying cheap, tiny laptops rather than decked-out goliaths.

H.P., Dell, Intel and Microsoft expect that when companies and consumers increase their spending, touch technology will be one of the things that nudge them to upgrade. Computers with the special screens will probably cost consumers about $100 more than standard machines.

H.P. has been selling a PC with an early version of touch technology. The $1,150 TouchSmart PC has been popular, H.P. says, particularly in kitchens as a family computer. But outside of science-fiction films, touch computers have been met with lukewarm reactions. Tabletlike computers that ship with plastic pens for marking on screens remain a niche in the overall PC market, as do pure touch machines. Mr. Ben-David said that about two million of about 300 million PCs sold last year were touch computers.

H.P. has already been pushing touch technology to large businesses. It sells a custom touch interface for both desktops and laptops. Customers can turn these machines into bespoke kiosks for, say, ordering merchandise at a sporting event or flipping through a menu while waiting at a restaurant.

The PC industry wants to make touch functions more sophisticated and widespread. On-screen objects could be twisted and turned with several fingers, mimicking the action used in real life. The next version of Windows from Microsoft, Windows 7, will usher in a new era of touch technology when it appears on PCs later this year, according to Mr. Ben-David. Backed by Microsoft, Israel-based N-trig uses a combination of software and sensors to create a special type of computer screen that can interact with pens and fingers. N-trig’s technology works by pumping an electrical signal through the screen. When a finger hits the screen, the electricity is discharged. Software interprets that to move graphics on the screen. The company claims that its technology works better on the larger displays of laptops and PCs since it handles many inputs at once.

Working together, Microsoft and N-trig have created a type of software interface that lets other companies add touch functions to their programs. Such touch software can handle lots of fingers hitting a screen at once rather than just relying on one or two digits, as most of today’s touch screens do.

N-trig hopes to build more momentum later this year, when three more PC makers are set to join H.P. and Dell as backers of the touch technology. It did not disclose the names of those companies.

The big question is whether companies can create software that makes touch useful rather than a mere curiosity.

Corel, which makes document and photo editing software, also plans touch products that rely on N-trig’s technology for Windows 7.

SpaceClaim, which makes software for designing objects in 3-D, has taken a business-oriented approach to touch. Its software, which will work with Windows 7, creates 3-D models that can be turned, pinched and altered via two-handed touches. Frank DeSimone, the head of development urges other software makers to try something new and stick with the technology rather than just replicating the functions of a mouse.

“A lot of people say they will support touch, but they do a disservice to everyone by not doing anything interesting,” he said.

    PC Touch Screens Move Ahead, NYT, 3.6.2009,






Intel Adopts an Identity in Software


May 25, 2009
The New York Times


SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Intel has worked hard and spent a lot of money over the years to shape its image: It is the company that celebrates its quest to make computer chips ever smaller, faster and cheaper with a quick five-note jingle at the end of its commercials.

But as Intel tries to expand beyond the personal computer chip business, it is changing in subtle ways. For the first time, its long unheralded software developers, more than 3,000 of them, have stolen some of the spotlight from its hardware engineers. These programmers find themselves at the center of Intel’s forays into areas like mobile phones and video games.

The most attention-grabbing element of Intel’s software push is a version of the open-source Linux operating system called Moblin. It represents a direct assault on the Windows franchise of Microsoft, Intel’s longtime partner.

“This is a very determined, risky effort on Intel’s part,” said Mark Shuttleworth, the chief executive of Canonical, which makes another version of Linux called Ubuntu.

The Moblin software resembles Windows or Apple’s Mac OS X to a degree, handling the basic functions of running a computer. But it has a few twists as well that Intel says make it better suited for small mobile devices.

For example, Moblin fires up and reaches the Internet in about seven seconds, then displays a novel type of start-up screen. People will find their appointments listed on one side of the screen, along with their favorite programs. But the bulk of the screen is taken up by cartoonish icons that show things like social networking updates from friends, photos and recently used documents.

With animated icons and other quirky bits and pieces, Moblin looks like a fresh take on the operating system. Some companies hope it will give Microsoft a strong challenge in the market for the small, cheap laptops commonly known as netbooks. A polished second version of the software, which is in trials, should start appearing on a variety of netbooks this summer.

“We really view this as an opportunity and a game changer,” said Ronald W. Hovsepian, the chief executive of Novell, which plans to offer a customized version on Moblin to computer makers. Novell views Moblin as a way to extend its business selling software and services related to Linux.

While Moblin fits netbooks well today, it was built with smartphones in mind. Those smartphones explain why Intel was willing to needle Microsoft.

Intel has previously tried and failed to carve out a prominent stake in the market for chips used in smaller computing devices like phones. But the company says one of its newer chips, called Atom, will solve this riddle and help it compete against the likes of Texas Instruments and Qualcomm.

The low-power, low-cost Atom chip sits inside most of the netbooks sold today, and smartphones using the chip could start arriving in the next couple of years.

To make Atom a success, Intel plans to use software for leverage. Its needs Moblin because most of the cellphone software available today runs on chips whose architecture is different from Atom’s. To make Atom a worthwhile choice for phone makers, there must be a supply of good software that runs on it.

“The smartphone is certainly the end goal,” said Doug Fisher, a vice president in Intel’s software group. “It’s absolutely critical for the success of this product.”

Though large, Intel’s software group has remained out of the spotlight for years. Intel considers its software work a silent helping hand for computer makers.

Mostly, the group sells tools that help other software developers take advantage of features in Intel’s chips. It also offers free consulting services to help large companies wring the most performance out of their code, in a bid to sell more chips.

Renee J. James, Intel’s vice president in charge of software, explained, “You can’t just throw hardware out there into the world.”

Intel declines to disclose its revenue from these tools, but it is a tiny fraction of the close to $40 billion in sales Intel racks up every year.

Still, the software group is one of the largest at Intel and one of the largest such organizations at any company.

In the last few years, Intel’s investment in Linux, the main rival to Windows, has increased. Intel has hired some of the top Linux developers, including Alan Cox from Red Hat, the leading Linux seller, last year. Intel pays these developers to improve Linux as a whole and to further the company’s own projects like Moblin.

“Intel definitely ranks pretty highly when it comes to meaningful contributions,” Linus Torvalds, who created the core of Linux and maintains the software, wrote in an e-mail message. “They went from apparently not having much of a strategy at all to having a rather wide team.”

Intel has also bought software companies. Last year, it acquired OpenedHand, a company whose work has turned into the base of the new Moblin user interface.

It has also bought a handful of software companies with expertise in gaming and graphics technology. Such software is meant to create a foundation to support Intel’s release of new high-powered graphics chips next year. Intel hopes the graphics products will let it compete better against Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices and open up another new business.

Intel tries to play down its competition with Microsoft. Since Moblin is open source, anyone can pick it up and use it. Companies like Novell will be the ones actually offering the software to PC makers, while Intel will stay in the background. Still, Ms. James says that Intel’s relationship with Microsoft has turned more prickly.

“It is not without its tense days,” she said.

Microsoft says Intel faces serious hurdles as it tries to stake a claim in the operating system market.

“I think it will introduce some challenges for them just based on our experience of having built operating systems for 25 years or so,” said James DeBragga, the general manager of Microsoft’s Windows consumer team.

While Linux started out as a popular choice on netbooks, Microsoft now dominates the market. Microsoft doubts whether something like Moblin’s glossy interface will be enough to woo consumers who are used to Windows.

Intel says people are ready for something new on mobile devices, which are geared more to the Internet than to running desktop-style programs.

“I am a risk taker,” Ms. James of Intel said. “I have that outlook that if there’s a possibility of doing something different, we should explore trying it.”

    Intel Adopts an Identity in Software, NYT, 25.5.2009,






I.B.M. Unveils Real-Time Software

to Find Trends in Vast Data Sets


May 21, 2009
The New York Times


New software from I.B.M. can suck up huge volumes of data from many sources and quickly identify correlations within it. The company says it expects the software to be useful in analyzing finance, health care and even space weather.

Bo Thidé, a scientist at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, has been testing an early version of the software as he studies the ways in which things like gas clouds and particles cast off by the sun can disrupt communications networks on Earth. The new software, which I.B.M. calls stream processing, makes it possible for Mr. Thidé and his team of researchers to gather and analyze vast amounts of information at a record pace.

“For us, there is no chance in the world that you can think about storing data and analyzing it tomorrow,” Mr. Thidé said. “There is no tomorrow. We need a smart system that can give you hints about what is happening out there right now.”

I.B.M., based in Armonk, N.Y., spent close to six years working on the software and has just moved to start selling a product based on it called System S. The company expects it to encourage breakthroughs in fields like finance and city management by helping people better understand patterns in data.

Steven A. Mills, I.B.M.’s senior vice president for software, notes that financial companies have spent years trying to gain trading edges by sorting through various sets of information. “The challenge in that industry has not been ‘Could you collect all the data?’ but ‘Could you collect it all together and analyze it in real time?’ ” Mr. Mills said.

To that end, the new software harnesses advances in computing and networking horsepower in a fashion that analysts and customers describe as unprecedented.

Instead of creating separate large databases to track things like currency movements, stock trading patterns and housing data, the System S software can meld all of that information together. In addition, it could theoretically then layer on databases that tracked current events, like news headlines on the Internet or weather fluctuations, to try to gauge how such factors interplay with the financial data.

Most computers, of course, can digest large stores of information if given enough time. But I.B.M. has succeeded in performing very quick analyses on larger hunks of combined data than most companies are used to handling.

“It’s that combination of size and speed that had yet to be solved,” said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata, a technology industry research firm.

Conveniently for I.B.M., the System S software matured in time to match up with the company’s “Smarter Planet” campaign. I.B.M. has flooded the airwaves with commercials about using technology to run things like power grids and hospitals more efficiently.

The company suggests, for example, that a hospital could tap the System S technology to monitor not only individual patients but also entire patient databases, as well as medication and diagnostics systems. If all goes according to plan, the computing systems could alert nurses and doctors to emerging problems.

Analysts say the technology could also provide companies with a new edge as they grapple with doing business on a global scale.

“With globalization, more and more markets are heading closer to perfect competition models,” said Dan Olds, an analyst with Gabriel Consulting. “This means that companies have to get smarter about how they use their data and find previously unseen opportunities.”

Buying such an advantage from I.B.M. has its price. The company will charge at least hundreds of thousands of dollars for the software, Mr. Mills said.

    I.B.M. Unveils Real-Time Software to Find Trends in Vast Data Sets,
    NYT, 21.5.2009,






Op-Ed Contributor

The Rise of the Machines


October 12, 2008
The New York Times



“BEWARE of geeks bearing formulas.” So saith Warren Buffett, the Wizard of Omaha. Words to bear in mind as we bail out banks and buy up mortgages and tweak interest rates and nothing, nothing seems to make any difference on Wall Street or Main Street. Years ago, Mr. Buffett called derivatives “weapons of financial mass destruction” — an apt metaphor considering that the Manhattan Project’s math and physics geeks bearing formulas brought us the original weapon of mass destruction, at Trinity in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.

In a 1981 documentary called “The Day After Trinity,” Freeman Dyson, a reigning gray eminence of math and theoretical physics, as well as an ardent proponent of nuclear disarmament, described the seductive power that brought us the ability to create atomic energy out of nothing.

“I have felt it myself,” he warned. “The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles — this, what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”

The Wall Street geeks, the quantitative analysts (“quants”) and masters of “algo trading” probably felt the same irresistible lure of “illimitable power” when they discovered “evolutionary algorithms” that allowed them to create vast empires of wealth by deriving the dependence structures of portfolio credit derivatives.

What does that mean? You’ll never know. Over and over again, financial experts and wonkish talking heads endeavor to explain these mysterious, “toxic” financial instruments to us lay folk. Over and over, they ignobly fail, because we all know that no one understands credit default obligations and derivatives, except perhaps Mr. Buffett and the computers who created them.

Somehow the genius quants — the best and brightest geeks Wall Street firms could buy — fed $1 trillion in subprime mortgage debt into their supercomputers, added some derivatives, massaged the arrangements with computer algorithms and — poof! — created $62 trillion in imaginary wealth. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that all of that imaginary wealth is locked up somewhere inside the computers, and that we humans, led by the silverback males of the financial world, Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson, are frantically beseeching the monolith for answers. Or maybe we are lost in space, with Dave the astronaut pleading, “Open the bank vault doors, Hal.”

As the current financial crisis spreads (like a computer virus) on the earth’s nervous system (the Internet), it’s worth asking if we have somehow managed to colossally outsmart ourselves using computers. After all, the Wall Street titans loved swaps and derivatives because they were totally unregulated by humans. That left nobody but the machines in charge.

How fitting then, that almost 30 years after Freeman Dyson described the almost unspeakable urges of the nuclear geeks creating illimitable energy out of equations, his son, George Dyson, has written an essay (published at Edge.org) warning about a different strain of technical arrogance that has brought the entire planet to the brink of financial destruction. George Dyson is an historian of technology and the author of “Darwin Among the Machines,” a book that warned us a decade ago that it was only a matter of time before technology out-evolves us and takes over.

His new essay — “Economic Dis-Equilibrium: Can You Have Your House and Spend It Too?” — begins with a history of “stock,” originally a stick of hazel, willow or alder wood, inscribed with notches indicating monetary amounts and dates. When funds were transferred, the stick was split into identical halves — with one side going to the depositor and the other to the party safeguarding the money — and represented proof positive that gold had been deposited somewhere to back it up. That was good enough for 600 years, until we decided that we needed more speed and efficiency.

Making money, it seems, is all about the velocity of moving it around, so that it can exist in Hong Kong one moment and Wall Street a split second later. “The unlimited replication of information is generally a public good,” George Dyson writes. “The problem starts, as the current crisis demonstrates, when unregulated replication is applied to money itself. Highly complex computer-generated financial instruments (known as derivatives) are being produced, not from natural factors of production or other goods, but purely from other financial instruments.”

It was easy enough for us humans to understand a stick or a dollar bill when it was backed by something tangible somewhere, but only computers can understand and derive a correlation structure from observed collateralized debt obligation tranche spreads. Which leads us to the next question: Just how much of the world’s financial stability now lies in the “hands” of computerized trading algorithms?

Here’s a frightening party trick that I learned from the futurist Ray Kurzweil. Read this excerpt and then I’ll tell you who wrote it:

But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. ... Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

Brace yourself. It comes from the Unabomber’s manifesto.

Yes, Theodore Kaczinski was a homicidal psychopath and a paranoid kook, but he was also a bloodhound when it came to scenting all of the horrors technology holds in store for us. Hence his mission to kill technologists before machines commenced what he believed would be their inevitable reign of terror.

We are living, we have long been told, in the Information Age. Yet now we are faced with the sickening suspicion that technology has run ahead of us. Man is a fire-stealing animal, and we can’t help building machines and machine intelligences, even if, from time to time, we use them not only to outsmart ourselves but to bring us right up to the doorstep of Doom.

We are still fearful, superstitious and all-too-human creatures. At times, we forget the magnitude of the havoc we can wreak by off-loading our minds onto super-intelligent machines, that is, until they run away from us, like mad sorcerers’ apprentices, and drag us up to the precipice for a look down into the abyss.

As the financial experts all over the world use machines to unwind Gordian knots of financial arrangements so complex that only machines can make — “derive” — and trade them, we have to wonder: Are we living in a bad sci-fi movie? Is the Matrix made of credit default swaps?

When Treasury Secretary Paulson (looking very much like a frightened primate) came to Congress seeking an emergency loan, Senator Jon Tester of Montana, a Democrat still living on his family homestead, asked him: “I’m a dirt farmer. Why do we have one week to determine that $700 billion has to be appropriated or this country’s financial system goes down the pipes?”

“Well, sir,” Mr. Paulson could well have responded, “the computers have demanded it.”

Richard Dooling is the author of

“Rapture for the Geeks: When A.I. Outsmarts I.Q.”

    The Rise of the Machines, NYT, 12.10.2008,






In Digital Age,

Federal Files Blip Into Oblivion


September 13, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Countless federal records are being lost to posterity because federal employees, grappling with a staggering growth in electronic records, do not regularly preserve the documents they create on government computers, send by e-mail and post on the Web.

Federal agencies have rushed to embrace the Internet and new information technology, but their record-keeping efforts lag far behind. Moreover, federal investigators have found widespread violations of federal record-keeping requirements.

Many federal officials admit to a haphazard approach to preserving e-mail and other electronic records of their work. Indeed, many say they are unsure what materials they are supposed to preserve.

This confusion is causing alarm among historians, archivists, librarians, Congressional investigators and watchdog groups that want to trace the decision-making process and hold federal officials accountable. With the imminent change in administrations, the concern about lost records has become more acute.

“We expect to see the wholesale disappearance of materials on federal agency Web sites,” said Mary Alice Baish, the Washington representative of the American Association of Law Libraries, whose members are heavy users of government records. “When new officials take office, they have new programs and policies, and they want to make a fresh start.”

Richard Pearce-Moses, a former president of the Society of American Archivists, said, “My biggest worry is that even with the best and brightest minds working on this problem, the risks are so great that we may lose significant portions of our history.”

The Web site of the Environmental Protection Agency lists more than 50 “broken links” that once connected readers to documents on depletion of the ozone layer of the atmosphere.

At least 20 documents have been removed from the Web site of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. They include a draft report highly critical of the civil rights policies of the Bush administration.

Problems in the White House e-mail system have been well publicized in court cases and Congressional hearings. Officials at other federal agencies acknowledge that their record-keeping systems are not much more advanced or reliable.

Businesses and state and local governments face similar problems, on a smaller scale.

“We are overwhelmed by the challenge of preserving digital information,” said Robert P. Spindler, the chief archivist at the Arizona State University Libraries.

For the federal government, the challenge of preserving records grows each month, as employees create billions of e-mail messages. E-mail often replaces telephone conversations and meetings that would not have been recorded in the past.

In an effort to save money, federal agencies are publishing fewer reports on paper and posting more on the Web. Increasingly, federal officials use blogs, podcasts and videos to announce and defend their policies. Growing numbers of federal employees do government business outside the office on personal computers, using portable “flash drives” and e-mail services like Google Gmail and Microsoft Hotmail.

In the past, clerks put most important government records in central agency files. But record-keeping has become decentralized, and the government has fewer clerical employees. Federal employees say they store many official records on desktop computers, so the records are not managed in a consistent way.

“The Achilles’ heel of record-keeping is people,” said Jason R. Baron, the director of litigation at the National Archives. “We used to have secretaries. Now each of us with a desktop computer is his or her own record-keeper. That creates some very difficult problems.”

Experts worry that items preserved in digital form may not be readily accessible in the future because the equipment and software needed to read them will become obsolete.

“All of us have stored personal memories or favorite music on eight-track tapes, floppy disks or 8-millimeter film,” said Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States. “In many cases, these technologies are now relics, and we have no way to access the stored information. Imagine this problem multiplied millions and millions of times. That’s what the federal government is facing.”

The National Archives is in the early stages of creating a permanent electronic record-keeping system, seeking help from the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, and from some of the nation’s best computer scientists.

The electronic archive is behind schedule and over budget. But officials say they hope that the project, being developed with Lockheed Martin, will be able to take in huge quantities of White House records when President Bush leaves office in January.

Kenneth Thibodeau, director of the electronic records archives program at the National Archives, said that 32 million White House e-mail messages had been preserved as records of the Clinton administration. He expects to receive hundreds of millions from the Bush White House.

Disputes over White House records occurred at the end of the last three administrations, and federal officials are bracing for more of litigation in January.

Courts have imposed severe penalties on companies that failed to provide electronic records sought in litigation, and the government is subject to similar penalties. A federal district judge found the Environmental Protection Agency in contempt of court for destroying certain electronic records at the end of the Clinton administration.

Warnings about the possible loss of electronic records come from many quarters.

In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, described widespread violations of federal record-keeping requirements. At several large agencies, the report said, “e-mail records of senior officials were not consistently preserved.” Some officials keep tens of thousands of messages in their e-mail accounts, where they “cannot be efficiently searched,” and are not accessible to others.

The inspector general of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration found similar problems. He surveyed 40 top officials and found that 93 percent of them were violating federal requirements for preserving e-mail correspondence.

He reported that NASA might lose some of its “institutional memory” and might have already lost records needed to protect the legal and financial rights of the government.

The same federal laws apply to electronic and paper records, defined as materials — in any form — that document government activities, policies or decisions. A formal schedule defines how long each type of record must be kept. In general, records cannot be deleted or destroyed without prior authority from the National Archives, which permanently preserves records judged to be of historical value.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, said: “Agency employees do not understand their record-keeping obligations. At the most basic level, many agency employees do not even understand what a federal record is, much less how it must be preserved.”

In interviews, employees agreed.

“I don’t have a very good understanding of what the rules are — what we are supposed to keep and what we don’t have to keep,” said Christina Pearson, an assistant secretary of health and human services. “We are trying to clarify how our policies apply to new electronic media like Web sites and e-mail.”

At federal agencies, the most common method of preserving important e-mail messages and attachments is to print them on paper and store them in paper files. Officials confirmed this at the Labor Department, the Transportation Department and the Justice Department.

Thomas A. Scully, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, had job discussions with prospective employers while he was a federal official in 2003. When questions were raised about the propriety of those discussions, he tried to find some of his old e-mail messages. But he said: “They were gone. I could not find anything. I was told that all my e-mails had been deleted.”

When President Bill Clinton left office, the National Archives preserved snapshots of agency Web sites as they existed on or just before Jan. 20, 2001. The Archives decided recently that it would not take such snapshots at the end of the Bush administration. “Most Web records do not warrant permanent retention,” because they do not have “long-term historical value,” the Archives said.

Many historians disagree. Several university libraries and the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library based in San Francisco, are starting to do what the federal government refuses to do: copy government Web sites, so they remain available after Mr. Bush leaves office.

Alarmed at the possible loss of White House e-mail messages, the House passed a bill in July that would require agencies to preserve more electronic records. The vote was 286 to 137. Republican opponents said the requirements would be onerous and costly. Mr. Bush has threatened to veto the bill, saying it could “interfere with a president’s ability to carry out his or her constitutional and statutory responsibilities.”

    In Digital Age, Federal Files Blip Into Oblivion, NYT, 13.9.2008,





Adobe Blurs Line

Between PC and Web


February 25, 2008
The New York Times


SAN FRANCISCO — On sabbatical in 2001 from Macromedia, Kevin Lynch, a software developer, was frustrated that he could not get to his Web data when he was off the Internet and annoyed that he could not get to his PC data when he was traveling.

Why couldn’t he have access to all his information, like movie schedules and word processing documents, in one place?

He hit upon an idea that he called “Kevincloud” and mocked up a quick demonstration of the idea for executives at Macromedia, a software development tools company. It took data stored on the Internet and used it interchangeably with information on a PC’s hard drive. Kevincloud also blurred the line between Internet and PC applications.

Seven years later, his brainchild is about to come into focus on millions of PCs. On Monday, Mr. Lynch, who was recently named the chief technology officer at Adobe Systems, which bought Macromedia in 2005, will release the official version of AIR, a software development system that will power potentially tens of thousands of applications that merge the Internet and the PC, as well as blur the distinctions between PCs and new computing devices like smartphones.

Adobe sees AIR as a major advance that builds on its Flash multimedia software. Flash is the engine behind Web animations, e-commerce sites and many streaming videos. It is, the company says, the most ubiquitous software on earth, residing on almost all Internet-connected personal computers.

But most people may never know AIR is there. Applications will look and run the same whether the user is at his desk or his portable computer, and soon when using a mobile device or at an Internet kiosk. Applications will increasingly be built with routine access to all the Web’s information, and a user’s files will be accessible whether at home or traveling.

AIR is intended to help software developers create applications that exist in part on a user’s PC or smartphone and in part on servers reachable through the Internet.

To computer users, the applications will look like any others on their device, represented by an icon. The AIR applications can mimic the functions of a Web browser but do not require a Web browser to run.

The first commercial release of AIR takes place on Monday, but dozens of applications have been built around a test or beta version.

EBay offers an AIR-based application called eBay Desktop that gives its customers the power to buy wherever they are. Adobe uses AIR for Buzzword, an online word processing program. At Monday’s introduction event in San Francisco, new hybrid applications from companies including Salesforce, FedEx, eBay, Nickelodeon, Nasdaq, AOL and The New York Times Company will be demonstrated.

Like Adobe’s Flash software, AIR will be given away. The company makes its money selling software development kits to programmers.

Mr. Lynch and a rapidly growing number of industry executives and technologists believe that the model represents the future of computing.

Moreover, the move away from PC-based applications is likely to get a significant jump start in the coming weeks when Intel introduces its low-cost “Netbook” computer strategy, which is intended to unleash a new wave of inexpensive wireless connected mobile computers.

The new machines will have a relatively small amount of solid state disk storage capacity and will increasingly rely on data stored on Internet servers.

“There is a big cloud movement that is building an infrastructure that speaks directly to this kind of software and experience,” said Sean M. Maloney, Intel’s executive vice president.

Adobe faces stiff competition from a number of big and small companies with the same idea. Many small developers like OpenLazlo and Xcerion are creating “Web-top” or “Web operating systems” intended to move applications and data off the PC desktop and into the Internet through the Web browser.

Mozilla, the developer of the Firefox Web browser, has created a system known as Prism. Sun Microsystems introduced JavaFX this year, which is also aimed at blurring the Web-desktop line. Google is testing a system called Gears, which is intended to allow some Web services to work on computers that are not connected to the Internet.

Finally, there is Microsoft. It is pushing its competitor to Flash, called Silverlight. Three years ago, Microsoft hired one of Mr. Lynch’s crucial software developers at Macromedia, Brad Becker, to help create it. Mr. Becker was a leading designer of the Flash programming language.

The blurring of Web and desktop applications and PC and phone applications is further encouraged by the cellphone industry’s race to catch up with Apple’s iPhone. The industry is focusing on smartphones, or what Sanjay K. Jha, the chief operating officer of Qualcomm, calls “pocketable computing.”

“We need to deliver an experience that is like the PC desktop,” he said. “At the same time, people are used to the Internet and you can’t shortchange them.”

Much software will have to be rewritten for the new devices, in what Mr. Lynch said is the most significant change for the software industry since the introduction in the 1980s of software that can be run through clicking icons rather than typing in codes. This upheaval pits the world’s largest software developer groups against one another in a battle for the new hybrid software applications. Industry analysts say there are now about 1.2 billion Internet-connected personal computers. Market researchers peg the number of smartphones sold in 2007 at 123 million, but that market is growing rapidly.

“There is a proliferation of platforms,” Mr. Lynch said. “This is a battle for the hearts and minds of people who are building things.”

The battle will largely pit Microsoft’s 2.2 million .Net software developers against the more than one million Adobe Flash developers, who have until now developed principally for the Web, as well as a vast number of other Web-oriented designers who use open-source software development tools that are referred to as AJAX.

Microsoft executives said they thought the company would have an advantage because Silverlight has a more sophisticated security model. “Desktop integration is a mixed blessing. There is potentially a gaping security hole,” said Microsoft’s Mr. Becker. “We’ve learned at the school of hard knocks about security.”

Microsoft’s competitors challenge its intent and assert that its goal is retaining its desktop monopoly. “Microsoft is taking their desktop franchise and trying to move that franchise to the Web,” said John Lilly, chief executive of Mozilla. He faults the design of Silverlight for being an island that is not truly integrated with the Internet.

“You get this rectangle in a Web browser and it can’t interact with the rest of the Web,” he said.

He said Mozilla’s Prism offers a simple alternative to capitalize on the explosion of creative software development taking place on the Internet. “There are jillions of applications. A million more got launched today. The whole world is collaborating on this.”

Up to now, it has been a low-level war between Microsoft and Adobe. Silverlight, for instance, got high marks from developers for its ability to handle high resolution video, but Adobe quickly upgraded Flash last year in response.

“We said, ‘Let’s put this in right now,’ ” Mr. Lynch said. With revenue last year of $3.16 billion, Adobe is large enough to fight Microsoft.

Adobe, the maker of Photoshop, Acrobat and other software, also has a strong reputation as a maker of tools for the creative class. "We’re one of the best tool makers in the world," said Mr. Lynch, who worked on software design at MicroPro, the publishers of the Wordstar word processor, and at General Magic, an ill-fated effort to create what could be called a predecessor to today’s smartphones, before joining Macromedia.

“Adobe’s known for its designer tools, but they realize that development — for the browser, for the desktop, and for devices such as cellphones — is a huge growth market,” said Steve Weiss, executive editor at O’Reilly Media, a technology publishing firm.

    Adobe Blurs Line Between PC and Web, NYT, 25.2.2008,






Techies Ponder

Computers Smarter Than Us


September 9, 2007
Filed at 12:45 a.m. ET
The New York Times


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- At the center of a black hole there lies a point called a singularity where the laws of physics no longer make sense. In a similar way, according to futurists gathered Saturday for a weekend conference, information technology is hurtling toward a point where machines will become smarter than their makers. If that happens, it will alter what it means to be human in ways almost impossible to conceive, they say.

''The Singularity Summit: AI and the Future of Humanity'' brought together hundreds of Silicon Valley techies and scientists to imagine a future of self-programming computers and brain implants that would allow humans to think at speeds nearing today's microprocessors.

Artificial intelligence researchers at the summit warned that now is the time to develop ethical guidelines for ensuring these advances help rather than harm.

''We and our world won't be us anymore,'' Rodney Brooks, a robotics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the audience. When it comes to computers, he said, ''who is us and who is them is going to become a different sort of question.''

Eliezer Yudkowsky, co-founder of the Palo Alto-based Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which organized the summit, researches on the development of so-called ''friendly artificial intelligence.'' His greatest fear, he said, is that a brilliant inventor creates a self-improving but amoral artificial intelligence that turns hostile.

The first use of the term ''singularity'' to describe this kind of fundamental technological transformation is credited to Vernor Vinge, a California mathematician and science-fiction author.

High-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil raised the profile of the singularity concept in his 2005 book ''The Singularity is Near,'' in which he argues that the exponential pace of technological progress makes the emergence of smarter-than-human intelligence the future's only logical outcome.

Kurzweil, director of the Singularity Institute, is so confident in his predictions of the singularity that he has even set a date: 2029.

Most ''singularists'' feel they have strong evidence to support their claims, citing the dramatic advances in computing technology that have already occurred over the last 50 years.

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore accurately predicted that the number of transistors on a chip should double about every two years. By comparison, according Singularity Institute researchers, the entire evolution of modern humans from primates has resulted in only a threefold increase in brain capacity.

With advances in biotechnology and information technology, they say, there's no scientific reason that human thinking couldn't be pushed to speeds up to a million times faster.

Some critics have mocked singularists for their obsession with ''techno-salvation'' and ''techno-holocaust'' -- or what some wags have called the coming ''nerdocalypse.'' Their predictions are grounded as much in science fiction as science, the detractors claim, and may never come to pass.

But advocates argue it would be irresponsible to ignore the possibility of dire outcomes.

''Technology is heading here. It will predictably get to the point of making artificial intelligence,'' Yudkowsky said. ''The mere fact that you cannot predict exactly when it will happen down to the day is no excuse for closing your eyes and refusing to think about it.''


On the Web:

The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, www.singinst.org

    Techies Ponder Computers Smarter Than Us, NYT, 9.9.2007,






Red Hat Launches New Linux System


March 15, 2007

Filed at 9:22 a.m. ET

The New York Times



RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Red Hat Inc. has unveiled the latest version of its Linux operating system as the open-source software company continues to combat Microsoft's market-dominating Windows platform.

Developers for the Raleigh-based company touted Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 as more flexible and more manageable than its prior versions, and said they worked for two years on the product.

''Our customers are an integral part of the development process,'' said Paul Cormier, Red Hat's executive vice president for engineering, echoing the open-source tenet that users be allowed to view and edit the software's code.

Resoundingly, Cormier said, customers wanted less complexity.

The new operating system supports ''virtualization,'' which Red Hat said will help companies consolidate their technology workload onto one server -- saving energy, space and money.

''Customers have figured out that they've got rooms full of racks and servers,'' said Nick Carr, the marketing director for the operating system. ''They're taking up heat and power and space, but they're only 15 percent loaded. They want to know how they can use what they have more efficiently.''

For desktop computers, Red Hat touted its advances in security to protect systems from external and internal attacks.

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, which recently launched its long-awaited Windows Vista operating system, still dominates the software market. Red Hat says Linux can be found in the majority of Fortune 500 companies, where savvy tech departments have switched to Linux to cut down on costs.

Along with the new Linux product, Red Hat launched several new service programs to help companies migrate their data centers to Linux and to help customers get support for a variety of different open-source programs.

Red Hat's business model is based around service. Unlike Microsoft's proprietary software, Red Hat delivers its products for free but makes money by selling subscription packages for service.

Shares of Red Hat fell 19 cents Wednesday to close at $22.52 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Red Hat Launches New Linux System,
NYT, 15.3.2007,






A Challenge for Exterminators


October 9, 2006

The New York Times



REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 5 — On a whiteboard in a windowless Microsoft conference room here, an elegant curve drawn by a software-testing engineer captures both five years of frustration and more recent progress.

The principle behind the curve — that 80 percent of the consequences come from 20 percent of the causes — is rooted in a 19th-century observation about the distribution of wealth. But it also illustrates the challenge for the builders of the next generation of Windows and Office, the world’s largest-selling software packages.

As they scramble to get the programs to users by the end of the year, the equation is a simple one: making software reliable for most personal computer users is relatively easy; it is another matter, in a PC universe with tens of thousands of peripherals and software applications, to defeat the remaining bugs that cause significant problems for some users.

The effort to overhaul the Windows operating system, originally code-named Longhorn and since renamed Vista, was meant to offer a transformation to a new software foundation. But several ambitious initiatives failed to materialize in time, and the project started over from scratch three years ago. The result is more an evolutionary shift, focusing on visual modernization and ease of use.

Still, the company is within a month of completing work on new versions of both Windows and Office, having apparently overcome technical hurdles that as recently as August seemed to signal a quagmire.

“It looked bleak; it was a slog, but in the end this was a technical problem, and there was a turning point,” said Bharat Shyam, 37, a computer scientist who is director of Windows program management. “We’ve confounded the analysts and the press.”

As October arrived, a vote of confidence came from Wall Street when a Goldman Sachs analyst, Richard G. Sherlund, wrote that he expected the product to be introduced on time. “The Vista development organization has made rapid progress delivering improvements to Vista’s performance, reliability, and compatibility,” he said.

[On Friday, the company released what it said would be the final test version of Vista, named Release Candidate 2. If the response from testers is positive, the software will go into production by the end of the month.]

The debugging process has been urgent, with Microsoft scheduled to introduce Windows Vista and Office 2007 to corporate customers by the end of the year, and to home users early next year.

This coordinated introduction is a multibillion-dollar proposition for Microsoft, which has Windows running on some 845 million computers worldwide and Office on more than 450 million, according to the market research firm Gartner.

Indeed, it was the vast scale of the Windows testing program that saved the software development projects. Over the summer, the company began an extraordinary bug-tracking effort, abetted by volunteers and corporate partners who ran free copies of both Windows and Office designed to send data detailing each crash back to Microsoft computers.

The Office package, for example, has been tested by more than 3.5 million users; last month alone, more than 700,000 PC’s were running the software, generating more than 46 million separate work sessions. At Microsoft, 53,000 employee computers are running test versions.

Vista has also been tested extensively. More than half a million computer users have installed Vista test software, and 450,000 of the systems have sent crash data back to Microsoft.

Such data supplements the company’s own testing in a center for Office referred to as the Big Button Room, for the array of switches, lights and other apparatus that fill the space. (A similar Vista room has a less interesting name — Windows Test Technologies.)

This is where special software automatically exercises programs rapidly while looking for errors.

The testing effort for Windows Vista has been led by Mario Garzia, Microsoft’s director of Windows reliability. A former Bell Labs software engineer, Mr. Garzia says the complexity of the Vista and Office effort dwarfs anything he undertook for the nation’s telephone network.

“Everything is easy if you do it for a limited number of things,” he said. “When I was at Bell Labs, the problems were complex, but nothing compared to this.”

The test data from the second beta release of Vista alone generated 5.5 petabytes of information — the equivalent of the storage capacity of 690,000 home PC’s.

The resulting complexity can be seen in the dance that has gone on in recent months between Microsoft’s designers and its partners, who have been tailoring software and hardware to work with Vista.

On Sept. 1, for example, Microsoft released a version of Vista called Release Candidate 1 to a large group of outside testers, hoping to take advantage of their free time over the Labor Day weekend.

Immediately, Mr. Garzia recalled, a wave of crash data fed back to Microsoft disclosed a newly introduced bug that had been created by incompatibility with a software module (referred to as a device driver) written by a partner company.

That company was alerted to the problem, and a remedy was transmitted directly to the testers’ computers over the Internet within four days — a vast improvement in the gap between detection and repair, he said.

Despite the impending commercial arrival of the two software projects — which between them have involved the labors of more than 5,000 programmers and testers here — there is still uncertainty in the industry about how long it will take for Vista in particular to gain acceptance.

“We’ve been impressed with the progress, and they deserve a lot of credit,” said David Smith, a Gartner vice president, but that does not mean that Windows Vista will soon be in standard workplace use. Its deployment on a significant scale will not begin at most companies until 2008, Mr. Smith said.

Microsoft executives contend that such calculations are overly conservative, and they have been making the case that the use of Vista could pay for itself in saved labor and related costs in less than a year.

A more fundamental question for the industry is whether Vista will represent a new era for computing or be the last great push of the current epoch.

While Microsoft’s co-founder and chairman, Bill Gates, was able to turn his company abruptly in the mid-1990’s to respond to the challenge posed by Netscape, Microsoft has proved less effective in blunting a similar challenge to its dominance from Google.

Moreover, the rise of Google and other companies moving toward Internet-based software development raises doubts about the value of giant efforts like Windows and Office, which can take more than five years.

Eric E. Schmidt, chief executive of Google, has said he believes that the rise of advertising-supported Web services will increasingly undercut Microsoft’s software development model — using a proprietary software development system and selling shrink-wrapped applications.

In an internal company memo titled “Don’t Bet Against the Internet,” he wrote recently, “Almost no pure PC software companies are left (all is on the Internet), most proprietary standards (I’m thinking of Exchange e-mail and file systems protocols from Microsoft) are under attack from open protocols gaining share rapidly on the Internet.”

The larger struggle has had little influence on Ben Canning, who began his career at Microsoft testing software nine years ago after getting a graduate degree in philosophy from Reed College.

Rather, his days are consumed with working his way down that whiteboard curve.

Mr. Canning acknowledges that his degree prepared him for little beyond teaching philosophy — with the possible exception of finding and killing bugs in software, because philosophers are trained to analyze and solve particularly hard logical problems. For the last few months, his mind has been focused on the hard problems at the end of the curve.

“If you look at the mean time to crash for most Office customers, it’s very high,” he said. “There is a small minority that crash all the time, and they hate us, and we want to help.”

A Challenge for Exterminators, NYT, 10.10.2006,










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