The Virtual Village

August 6, 2001 by Ray Kurzweil

How technology quietly topples governments, written for “The Futurecast,” a monthly column in the Library Journal.

Originally published June 1993. Published on August 6, 2001.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-80), the celebrated philosopher of communications technology and society, is probably best known for his concept of the “global village,” the integration of the world’s cultures and peoples brought forth by such 20th-century developments as radio and television. What makes McLuhan’s foresight all the more remarkable is that he was unaware of the now emerging technologies that will truly enable his vision, such as wide area networks of personal computers, telecommunication databases, electronic bulletin boards, translating telephones, and, perhaps most importantly, the information superhighway.

The information superhighway will replace our antiquated phone system with its capacity of only 64 thousand bits per second with fiberoptic-based communication of up to ten billion bits per second. This quantitative difference will be reflected in a qualitative change in our ability to visit, work, and play with each other, regardless of where on the planet we happen to be.

There has actually been a major change in thinking about the information superhighway since The Futurecast’s inception. Two years ago, the information superhighway was to be based on wiring every home and business with fiberoptic cable. The implementation of such a massive infrastructure was expected to take about 20 years, and the job was not anticipated to begin until around 1994. We realize now that the bulk of the effort required is the wiring of fiberoptic cables to their final destination in each home and office, in what is called “the last mile.” If we could limit the actual wiring of fiber optics to within a mile of each home and office, the task is reduced by about 90 percent. Two recent technical developments have provided alternatives to fiber optics for this last mile of communication.

Existing coaxial cables delivering cable television are also capable of ten billion bit per second communication but not at long distances. Thus we can use fiberoptic channels to communicate within a mile of a destination and use the existing cable infrastructure for the last mile. The other development is wireless microwave communication (The Futurecast, LJ, March 15, p. 54), which is also capable of high-density communication for short distances.

Revolution in the air waves

Without dwelling on the technical details, the upshot is that the next communications revolution is not far away: the next several years will see a wave of new technologies, including interactive TV, high-definition TV, affordable video teleconferencing, and effective virtual books.

The institution with perhaps the greatest potential to be transformed is education, as learning is inherently a communications process in which a society imparts its knowledge and values to its citizens. The library is, of course, a vital part of this process.

Computers have certainly infiltrated our schools (a recent estimate counts 2.5 million computers at schools – one for every 18 students), but the unfortunately low priority of education in our country has made this a trailing edge rather than a leading edge phenomenon. What we see in most schools is a motley collection of old computers donated from a variety of sources. Many schools still rely on the Apple IIe, which was an excellent computer in its day but is now at least five generations behind. The more sophisticated computers tend to be in the home, where students can perform keyword searches on CD-ROM-based encyclopedias, tap into national reference libraries through information services, consult with professors (not to mention other kids) in other cities and countries through online networks, and, of course, spell and grammar check their homework.

Reaching critical mass

In large measure, however, education still relies on books that, as artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky puts it, “do not talk to each other.” Before any fundamental transformation of the learning process can take place, a critical mass needs to be reached in the capabilities of personal computers – their availability to the student population, their portability, the sophistication of educational software, and their integration into the learning process. Let us consider the situation when such a critical mass is reached. This situation will include the following developments.

· Computers are as ubiquitous as pencils and books. Every child has a computer.

· They are portable devices about the size of a large book.

· They are effective as virtual books with high-quality screens providing the resolution, contrast, lack of flicker, color, and other characteristics of a high-quality paper book (The Futurecast, LJ, February 15, p. 145).

· They support accurate, two-way voice communication, including sufficient natural-language understanding to support dialog within limited domains (e.g., discussions on the location of particular research materials).

· They support pen-based computing, so students can write and draw and point directly on the screen.

The combination of speech recognition and pen-based computing provides an ideal set of means for communicating with our machines. Speech recognition provides an optimal modality for entering text. Speech is the first method of communication that we learn, and it is by far the most rapid method for communicating ideas. Speech is not ideal, however, for pointing and performing other two-dimensional gestures, so the addition of a pencil-like pointing device provides all the methods of interaction needed. Eventually we will no longer require the standard typewriter (QWERTY) keyboard.

· Each child’s computer is extremely easy and intuitive to use. Intelligent knowledge navigators will guide each student through appropriate visual and verbal interactions to find the information that is required and to perform necessary procedures.

· A great variety of high-quality interactive, intelligent, and entertaining courseware is available.

Student modeling

Much of the computer-assisted instruction (CAI) available today provides little more than repetitive exercises that could have been provided just as easily by conventional books. The better programs do provide a measure of interaction, with sequences dependent on the specific areas of weakness of the student, but they still develop little sense of a student’s true strengths and weaknesses. CAI now under development has a more ambitious goal. We all have models of the world that we use to understand and respond to events and to solve problems, whether they be real-world situations or classroom exercises. If we make a mistake, it may simply be a matter of a few missing or inaccurate facts. More often it reflects a structural defect in the organization of our knowledge. A good teacher attempts to understand the model that the student is using. Then if the student’s model, and not just his database, is faulty, the teacher devises a strategy to modify the model to reflect more accurate ly the subject matter.

Such researchers as John Seely Brown at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center are attempting to develop a CAI technology that will be able to model the relationships in the knowledge to be taught, diagnose the presumably weaker models that a student is starting with, develop a strategy to upgrade the student’s models to the desired ones, and provide entertaining and engaging experiences to carry out the remedial strategy. The object is to incrementally improve the world models of the student. As MIT Professor Seymour Papert points out, you cannot learn something unless “you already almost know it.”

Finally, we will reach a critical mass when such portable computers are fully integrated into wireless networks, which in turn are tied into our national and international information superhighway. Wireless networks will allow the easy sharing of courseware–submissions by students of papers, exams, courseware responses, electronic mail, and other creations. This will, for example, make the sending of love notes between students during class a lot easier than the traditional method of passing a folded piece of paper.

Human intellectual resources

By being plugged into international networks of information, children will have immediate access to the great libraries of the world right from their school bags. Perhaps most importantly, they will gain face-to-face access to teachers, students, classrooms, lectures, laboratories, and events anywhere in the world. Through virtual reality technology, they will be able to participate in historical events as well, e.g., go back and debate the founding fathers on what provisions to include in the Bill of Rights.

It is fortunate that education will be a primary beneficiary of emerging communication and computer technologies because wealth and power in the age of intelligent machines is increasingly based on innovation, knowledge, and skill. The cornerstones of power during the first industrial revolution – geography, natural resources, and manual labor – are rapidly diminishing in importance and relevance. We are entering a world in which wealth, products, and services can be beamed across the world by satellite, smart weapons can reach their destinations from thousands of miles away, and some of the most powerful technologies in history require only tiny amounts of material resources and electricity. We can only conclude that the strategic variables controlling our future are the human intellectual resources to advance technology and use it wisely.

Big Brother redux

But what about George Orwell’s vision in 1984? While the enabling technologies for Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare were not available in the year of his title, they will be largely available by 2004 and certainly highly developed by 2014. Speaker independent continuous speech recognition technology, which will be available later on in this decade, could listen in on all our phone conversations. Natural language understanding systems that could make sense of what we are talking about will take a little longer but will become available during the first decade of the next century. Satellite surveillance systems now on the drawing board will be capable of tracking our movements. Computer vision systems could watch our every move.

Computer technology may lead to a flowering of individual expression, creativity, and communication or to an era of efficient and effective totalitarian control. It will all depend on who controls the technology.

Computer eyed optimist

I am optimistic. Of course, it is said that an optimist is someone who when he falls from a ten-story building, is heard to say when passing the third floor that so far everything has gone well. However, the nature of wealth and power in the age of intelligent machines will encourage the open society. While governments have demonstrated for thousands of years the feasibility of forcing people to perform manual labor, it is a fortunate truth of human nature that creativity and innovation cannot be forced. Oppressive societies will find it hard to provide the economic incentives needed to pay for their computers.

The collapse of communism is a case in point. Why did communism collapse when it did? Was it because after 70 years it had just run its course? Communism collapsed when it did because a totalitarian system is incompatible with the economic exigencies of the Information Age. The lack of intellectual freedom in the former Soviet Union caused economic disaster. And to the extent that electronic communication was reluctantly made available, it made authoritarian control impossible. In large measure, the August 1991 coup was undone by cellular telephones and networks of personal computers.

Ultimately, emerging computer and communication technologies will transform all of our social and economic institutions. We will examine their impacts in upcoming issues of The Futurecast.

Reprinted with permission from Library Journal, June, 1993. Copyright © 1993, Reed Elsevier, USA

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