The Future of PCs and Implications on Society1
(Graz University of Technology, Graz, Austria
JOANNEUM RESEARCH, Austria
(Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia
Abstract: In this paper we argue that in about ten years time
PCs as we now know them, will no longer exist. Their functionality will
be totally integrated into mobile telephony devices, or putting it differently,
in ten years time mobile phones will incorporate all functions one would
expect from a powerful PC. These new devices, let us call them eAssistants,
will be with us all the time and will change our lives enormously. In this
paper we take a first look at both the technological and applied aspects
of this prediction.
Keywords: wearable PC, display technology, future computers,
Categories: H.4, J.0, K.4, K.8
Laptops are becoming lighter and lighter, hand-helds are getting more
sophisticated, and the mobile phone is gaining increasingly powerful computing
resources. Yet we believe this is very much the beginning of an era that
will start around 2010. At that point we believe mobile phones will have
turned into veritable computer-powerhouses. Let us call them eAssistants.
They will be not much bigger than a credit card, with a fast processor,
gigabytes of internal memory, a combination of mobile-phone, computer,
camera (still and video), global positioning system, a variety of sensors
and in continuous connection with huge non-volatile local storage and the
then existing equivalence of the internet: continuous, since there will
be no charge for connect time, just for data transfer.
Most importantly, the PC of 2010 will NOT have: (i) a hard-disk: this
fragile energy consuming device with rotating parts will be replaced by
a version of the memory stick as we now use them in digital cameras, but
with possibly hundreds of Gigabyte capacity; it (ii) will have no screen
nor keyboard as we now have; and the much reduced energy required
by this device will be provided by tiny fuel-cells.
1This paper was written during the first author's visit to Edith Cowan University in Perth. The first author would like to thank the university for the support obtained during his visit.
Of all of the above, we believe that most readers might be startled
by only two things: the promised absence of screen and keyboard.
Let us first address the issue of screen. Presently, there are half
a dozen technologies competing to replace the screen as we now have it.
They include flexible screens that can be attached to your sleeves ("wearable
screens"), projectors that create images wherever you want (even on
uneven surfaces of any colour), and specialized eye-glasses that replace
the screen, just to mention three alternatives.
Which of those technologies will "win" we do not know, nor
does it matter: what matters is that wherever you go you will have a more
or less zero-weight high quality display at your disposal, connected to
the small computer proper by the modernized version of Bluetooth, and via
the computer to a huge archive of information locally and all the servers
on the internet.
Of all possible technologies we particularly fancy a certain version
of eyeglasses: the electronics in the eyeglasses are in contact with the
computer via Bluetooth. The computer delivers (if wanted stereo) sound
to the side of the glasses, that transmit it directly to the ear-bones
(thus, only the wearer can hear the signals); the computer transmits (moving
or still) pictures (if wanted 3D) through little mirrors through the pupils
of the eyes directly to the retinas; and a tiny camera in the middle of
the glasses provides the computer with what the user sees, e.g. for gesture
Indeed, the eAssistant may also have additional sensors and I/O devices
and is supported by powerful software (for sophisticated image processing
of the pictures obtained by the camera) as was already mentioned in .
This will be discussed in more detail in the following sections.
Let us now turn to the keyboard. First, alternative input techniques
are already starting to emerge. Speech input is one of them, and is particularly
attractive if "speech that is not heard" is used (i.e. utterances
with closed mouth), e.g. using microphones near the larynx. Second, techniques
that use the movement of fingers, the head, or the body using tiny sensors
are becoming realistic; third, by using the glasses with an integrated
camera described above a "virtual keyboard" can be made visible
to the user, and the finger movements on that keyboard can be analysed
by software that does image-processing of what the camera delivers.
We are not trying to suggest in this paper that any one of the technologies
described above will take precedence over others but more to suggest that
the screens, hard-disks and keyboards, as we know them today, will be obsolete
within ten years, give or take a few years.
2 A potential model
In light of what we have discussed above, it is possible to predict
that the eAssistant might look similar to what is shown in Figure
We want to emphasize once more that we do not necessarily believe in
the "eyeglass" version that is shown, but it is a helpful metaphor
to convey the functionality we believe will be available. The computer
proper (1) is not much larger than a credit card and has all the functionality
describe earlier. It is connected by wireless to the internet and to the
eyeglasses plus necklace. The computer delivers on the side of the eyeglasses
(if wanted stereo) sound (2); it delivers via tiny mirrors (5) into the
eyeglasses (if desired 3D) visual multimedia material of whatever kind,
such as text, pictures, animation, 3D models, movies, 3D movies, etc.
This may be technically accomplished by projecting images through
the pupils directly onto the retinas of the eyes, or by creating a
virtual image in front of the eyes. (4) represents a camera that has
multiple uses: (i) the user can look through it (thus having infrared
vision during the night, or macro vision or zoom when this is useful);
(ii) the user can transmit what is being seen to others (i.e. we have
video-telephony, of course); finally, the pictures taken by the (still
and movie) camera can be analysed by powerful image processing
Figure 1: The eAssistant and associated devices
The camera has also a built-in compass, hence the eAssistant is not
only aware of where the user is (because of the GPS system), but also in
which the user is looking. (6) is a larynx-microphone that can pick up
what is spoken by the user (even if done with closed mouth: this takes
a bit of practice on part of the user), and it also has a loudspeaker so
that a conversation or audio outputs can be shared with others, even if
those do not happen to have an eAssistant at this point in time (if they
had, the audio information could be sent directly to their ears using the
devices (2) mentioned earlier). (3) symbolizes a device that can detect
different states of brain activity.
At this point in time a very limited number of states can be detected
(typically the intention to move the left arm can be distinguished from
the intention to move the right arm) , but it is
foreseeable that a dozen or more states will be achievable, allowing to
create input for the eAssistant by thinking only. (3) will also have integrated
further sensors, typically for the detection of head-position and head-movement
or speed of movement of user, but potentially also to measure physiological
parameters of the user like body-temperature, pulse, skin conductivity,
etc. or even environmental parameters like temperature, humidity, air quality,
air pressure. If it is not self-evident the next section should convince
readers that an eAssistant as described will indeed revolutionize our world.
Note that each of the features and sensors described above has been
implemented in some way or another. The "only" thing that is
missing is integration of all into one small unit. However, the assumption
that this will happen is basic to some of the research we are seeing today,
e.g. in  or .
3.1 The e-Assistant is going to change how we use computers
Input of information using the keyboard or the mouse will be replaced
to a large extent by other means, such as speech recognition, gesture recognition,
employing a "virtual keyboard" and other methods that still sound
The "virtual keyboard" is a good example that shows how the
various components of the eAssistant interact with each other. By a spoken
command "Create keyboard" the eAssistant creates the image of
a keyboard for the eyes of the user. In our eye-glass model the user will
now see a keyboard floating in mid-air, and can type on it. Image processing
based on what the camera delivers determines what keys have been touched:
It may deliver audio feedback (producing a click for each key that is hit)
and video feedback by showing the text being typed, the text floating on
a virtual screen above the keyboard.
Using gesture recognition, movements of fingers or the hands replaces
the mouse, nodding the head can be interpreted as mouse-click; or if two
alternatives yes/no are offered or a two-button mouse is to be simulated,
nodding or shaking the head could select one of the options. Alternatively,
a simple gesture with the finger might also be used.
As mentioned, simple inputs are also possible using the measurement
of brain activity or other sensors: there is no limit to what one might
imagine and it will be one of the interesting tasks to experiment with
the combination of various techniques.
3.2 The e-Assistant is going to change how we communicate and work
with other people and with information
Clearly one of the functions of the eAssistant is that of a mobile phone.
However, it is not necessary to press a phone against an ear, rather one
can either use the loudspeaker mentioned earlier, or feed the audio-signal
to the sides of the eye-glass and thus directly (via the ear-bone) to the
inner ear, i.e. without other persons hearing or noticing anything.
Since one can talk with closed mouth (after some practice) or spell
a message by invoking a sequence of brain-states by thinking of
designated actions (much like we spell a message we send an SMS) two
persons can communicate over arbitrary distance in a way that other
persons on the sender's or on the receiver's end do not notice it:
thus, we have basically implemented telepathy in a technological
manner, a fact much used in e.g. the XPERTEN-novel series . Note that while two or more persons are
communicating this way, the can also share arbitrary information, from
what they currently see to information from local storage or a server,
accessed via the net. It is also conceivable that the whole
conversation might be recorded and stored for later perusal.
Even communication with persons speaking different languages is quite
conceivable: persons talks in the language of their choice; a speech recognition-translation-speech
synthesizing program is translating what is said into whatever other languages
are desired. Note that such "machine" translations will not be
perfect in the foreseeable future: "To understand a language is to
understand the world" is a famous statement that indicates clearly
that for even near perfect language translations one would need computers
at least as "intelligent" as humans, and aware of all facets
of the world and human life: and if this can ever be achieved is still
a topic of much discussion. However, good machine translation programs
are certainly doing a better job than the average person after having studied
a language in school for a few years! Further, misunderstandings due to
the translation process can be fairly easily avoided by feedback techniques:
the translated material is translated back: if this now differs from the
intent of the speaker, appropriate actions can be taken. By the way, the
communication between persons with different languages may be made much
easier by using dynamic symbolic languages, a main aim of the project MIRACLE
 and its forerunner MUSLI .
The eAssistant also changes how we discuss things: while someone is
telling us something, we have the possibility to check if the
information provide is correct, by accessing back ground libraries  on local storage or in the internet. Conversely,
we can use information from such background sources in our
statements. This is of course assuming that access to desired
information is easier and more selective than what we could get today
using e.g. search engines in the internet. This is where techniques of
knowledge management come in , . That techniques such as similarity recognition
and active documents  can make quite a
difference is shown in , that semantic nets and
metadata  allow to produce much better search
results is shown by the success of knowledge networks in  and is the basis of one the currently leading
knowledge management systems Hyperwave  and . The new technologies will create many more uses
and applications for the digital libraries and repositories currently
being researched and developed .
Clearly the access and more productive use of information is not restricted
to discussions with other persons, but applies universally to all situations
when information is of critical importance. This is why knowledge tools
as outlined in  are of such importance.
3.3 The e-Assistant will change our lives
It does not require that much imagination to see how the eAssistant
is going to change our lives. I may suffice to provide just a few examples:
When we meet a person the first time, information is usually exchanged
by passing business cards and talking a bit about mutual backgrounds. Of
course the exchange of information on business cards together what all
that is available on the internet about this person, plus the pictures
taken by the camera in the eye-glasses is recorded for later use. When we see the person next time, image processing software identifies
who this is (even if we have forgotten it), and supplies us with a wealth
of information about this person.
The eAssistant is a perfect guide. Of course it can guide us when
we drive the car, something already quite common for persons who drive
top-of-the-line car models with built in navigation systems. But the
eAssistant is equally helpful when we are walking, and not just for
routing: when we look at a building the speech command "Explain
building" will be enough for the eAssistant to give us ample
information: after all it knows (by GPS) where we are and (because of
the compass) in which direction we are looking, so going into a guide
book or such to retrieve what we want to know is easy. Clearly, this
is not restricted to buildings, rivers, lakes, mountains...but equally
well applies to plants or animals. If we look at a plant the speech
command "Explain flower" activates the camera and image
processing, identifies what we are looking at and gives us information
on the flower, on the berry, on the mushroom, etc.
We will be paying with the eAssistant rather than with credit-cards
or the like. The eAssistant will be our driving license and passport. It
will automatically open those doors that we are authorized to enter. It
will us allow with one command to turn on the light, the water, or what
have you. And this does not just apply to things near to us: while we drive
to our home we can turn on the air-conditioning, or the heating in our
This list can be continued indefinitely, and we intend to prepare a
more detailed study at a later point: it is our belief that an extensive
list of what the eAssistant is good for will be rather mind-boggling and
will be a strong incentive for the fast wide-spread deployment of eAssistants.
So let us conclude this subsection with one more example from the realm
Suppose we have a sore throat. We call our doctor. He asks us to show
our tongue. We use the macro mode of the camera in our eyeglasses (the
camera can be taken out of its casing for such purposes) to send the picture
to the doctor. While viewing the picture the doctor is supported by a computerized
diagnostic system that uses image processing to find out what kind of infection
we might be suffering from. Having decided what it is, the doctor makes
sure that we can pick up required medication from a pharmacy near to us;
after all, our current position is known (if we permit it) to the system
due to our GPS. Note that sensors that supervise some of our physiological
data (like body-temperature and pulse) and monitor environmental data (like
air-temperature and air quality) might alert us to take actions, or even
initiate actions such as sending an ambulance to help us! There is even
more to the widespread use of sensors and constant monitoring of sensory
data. Suppose a person dies of some rare disease: comparing the date that
has been monitored concerning this person over a long period with persons
in similar circumstances who did not suffer from this disease might well
discover the real reason for the disease at issue. Maybe this is the way
how we will finally be able to combat mysterious illnesses such as the
SDS (sudden death syndrome) in children, or the high rate of some type
of cancer in certain groups of the population.
3.4 The e-Assistant is going to change how we learn, how we work and
the humanity as such
Sophisticated learning programs that allow communication with others,
with experts or with "Interactive Knowledge Centers" 
or "Active Documents"  will allow us to
pick up knowledge as we require it. The "in-time" learning will
be the natural thing to do, rather than learning just because certain things
might be needed at some future time. The fact that we will have continuous
access to information in all areas will mean that the learning of facts,
today still an important component in myriads of areas from geography to
history, from law to medicine, will become significantly less important.
Learning in the workplace will finally become a favoured form of learning
for many with help from the eAssistant and its supporting technologies
and software . Even activities like handwriting
might become unimportant (why use handwriting, when we have our eAssistant
with rather more convenient ways of data-input?); or why learn a foreign
language for simple communication when we have automatic language translation,
as explained earlier. Of course we recognize that to understand a culture,
we have to understand the language of this culture at a deep level: but
for just travel or business the automatic translation devices will do.
Thus, one of the main issues that will have to be investigated more than
has happened so far is not HOW we learn in the future, but WHAT we have
to learn, when the eAssistant and the internet is more and more turning
into an extension of our brain.
Indeed this fact will have a deep influence on all of humanity. We live
today in a totally Tayloristic society as far as material goods are concerned,
i.e. we are completely dependant on thousands of other professions and
hundreds of thousands of other people for our daily life (from food, to
housing, to clothing, to entertainment, etc.) and we have accepted this:
we have accepted that we can hardly survive as autonomous individuals any
more, but only as part of large group of diverse humans. The point is,
what has happened in the area of material products is now about to happen
also in the area of the non-material products information and knowledge.
We will become, for better or for worse, much more dependent on hundreds
of thousands of other humans for what we have to know to function properly.
The eAssistant is a big step in this direction: we will be profit from
a powerful network sharing knowledge with others (the positive aspect and
we will become more and more dependent on this network (the negative aspect).
Unless world wars or revolution stop the development of IT as it is now
happening the eAssistant and its implications will be unavoidable.
In this paper we have tried to argue that the merging of computer technology
with communication technology, particularly more and more powerful mobile
phones, will bring powerful "eAssistants" that will change the
life of all of us.
This will happen much faster than one might assume due to the very high
and increasing penetration of mobile phones. We have emphasized the positive
aspects of this development in this paper.
We are aware that it is also necessary to examine the development for
negative aspects: what we have described may negatively influence our power
of thinking and our memory, as we more and more rely on the eAssistant.
It will make us more dependent on the eAssistant and computer networks
than we already are. It is not clear what the development will mean for
those countries or groups of people who cannot afford to or who do not
want to use eAssistants. It is clear that many of the applications of eAssistants
will be quite invasive as far as privacy is concerned.
In this sense our paper will hopefully provoke a discussion of the issues
involved. We feel that the (rich) world is drifting in an interesting yet
albeit also dangerous direction, but nobody seems to seriously consider
positive or negative consequences.
If this paper initiates a discussion that is indeed necessary we will
have achieved what we wanted to achieve.
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