Consider HAL. The artificially intelligent computer in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey knew where every crew member was on the spaceship Discovery, what he was doing, and even how he was feeling. From a distance, HAL's ubiquitous red eye, attached to a mainframe network, watched its subjects with curiosity, empathy, and eventually disdain.
Now forget that once-believable vision of the future, says Steven Schwartz, a research scientist in the Human Design Group at MIT's Media Lab, who, among other things, has designed augmented reality systems for the International Space Station and the first primitive wearable computers by Xybernaut (see "Quain Tries the Gear," link in the right column). The coming generation of PCs, Schwartz says, will know everything HAL knew, but they won't be remote from us. Instead of residing in a box or being tethered to the wiring of a ship, they'll be intimately laced into the fabric of our bodies and day-to-day lives.
"I don't think about my shoelaces all day long," says Schwartz. "Neither should I have to think about my computer. It will become a part of me."
If that's the next wave of computing, clearly little that's come before fully prepares us for it -- a time when it will be impossible to distinguish where the PC ends and the person begins. We'll wear networks and technology the way we wear clothing; we'll have personal software agents that will do our bidding even while we sleep, exploring both the Web and real-world venues for things we need to know, and keeping us prepared for even the most unlikely incidents. Our skin may be a constant swirl of invisible data and computing activity; our vital functions will be tracked continually, both by implantable health monitors and
devices woven into our shirts; and purchasing items in a supermarket may become as simple as putting them in a bag and walking out the door as they're automatically scanned and debited from the personal ID system in the computer lodged in our sleeve. We already hang cellphones, PDAs, MP3 players, wristwatch messaging systems, and heart monitors all over our bodies. But as technology inexorably becomes smaller and more powerful, these devices will shrink so as to be indiscernible. In the 1960s, enormous computers were kept in clean rooms behind glass. Today they're tiny enough to drop in a pocket. "By 2010 we'll routinely wear PCs that are so small that we won't be able to see them," predicts Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence and a leading PC-is-the-person proponent.