Knowledge Navigator

Voice Card  -  Volume 14  -  Paul Card Number 15  -  Mon, May 21, 1990 10:38 PM

Copyright 1988, San Jose Mercury News

DATE: Sunday, November 27, 1988
SOURCE: Rory J. O'Connor, Mercury News Computing Editor


A little more than a year ago, Apple Computer Inc. hastily created a five-minute videotape that showed an early 21st- century personal computer called the Knowledge Navigator.

The tape, which showcases a technically dazzling machine being used by a university professor to prepare a lecture on the environment, has become a sort of touchstone in many circles about the technology of future computers. Although technology to build the machine won't be perfected for years, some experts are already raising serious and often disturbing questions that computer users and makers need to consider about the future vision as painted by Apple in the video.

Last weekend at Stanford University, a number of those issues were taken up by a panel of five experts at a meeting of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a 6-year- old organization concerned with the impact of computer technology on society.

It is not the technology that is envisioned but the way in which it is used in the video that has the most far-reaching implications, panel members said. After showing it to a conference of educators shortly after it was produced, Apple began bombarding universities nationwide with copies, as well as sending them to others interested in the company's view of the future of personal computers. Apple officials aren't sure just how many copies of the original tape have been disseminated.

According to one panelist, the Knowledge Navigator has become one of the most widely discussed visions of the future of personal computers on university campuses. ''This videotape has been placed in a lot of libraries and circulates more than almost any other material about the future,'' says Peter Lyman, director of the center for scholarly technology at the University of Southern California. Lyman and others on the panel criticized most harshly the computer ''agent,'' a key aspect of the Knowledge Navigator's user interface.

The agent's human appearance, voice and behavior appear to make the machine easier to communicate with. The agent is also ''intelligent,'' able at one point to correct the professor when he uses the wrong name of an author of a research paper he is seeking. At another, while the professor is speaking to a colleague over a video telephone link provided by the computer, the agent recognizes that the professor has stumbled over the time scheduled for a lecture and reminds him of the time.

But the panel said the agent's behavior and human qualities raised questions involving privacy, user liability and the role of human research assistants in a world of electronic ones. ''I don't think computers should be humanized,'' said Esther Dyson, publisher of the Release 1.0 industry newsletter. ''It's either scary or insulting.''

One problem with agents as apparently human as the one in the videotape is that they can be used for more than just correcting mistakes, panelists said. In the world of the Knowledge Navigator, where computers are connected to millions of others the way telephones are today, agents could be used to invade your privacy, said Larry Tesler, vice president of advanced technology for Apple. His group is responsible for developing technologies that might be used in the Knowledge Navigator.

Flood of mail?

One assault might be a flood of electronic junk mail and solicitations. Another, more disturbing potential is for agents to masquerade as real humans and use the power of the computer to coerce people to buy things, donate money or reveal private information to what they believe to be another person.

''This kind of technology could yield ultra-telemarketing,'' Tesler said. ''Agents could proliferate like (computer viruses). My phone would be ringing off the hook with agents pretending to be people and using all kinds of expert systems to trick me.''

The humanlike behavior of agents, who don't possess true ethics or value systems like real people, also leads to questions of liability. Who is responsible for the actions of an agent: the computer maker, like Apple, or the user? The answer probably depends on who molded the agent's basic personality, panelists said. Tesler said the user most likely would create the particular agent out of a factory-supplied blank agent, and hence the professor would bear responsibility for the behavior of his agent. But Dyson said such programming would be extremely difficult, and most likely the factory would create the agent for the user.

Political implications

The incorporation of such agents may move the design of computers out of the commercial realm and into the political arena, said Fernando Flores, founder and chairman of Action Technologies, an Emeryville software company. Government regulation would have to be extended beyond laws regarding viruses and radiation emitted by video display terminals. ''I believe we need legislation as to what we can or can't do with surrogates (agents),'' he said.

Another disturbing aspect of the tape to several panelists is the way in which the professor creates materials for his lecture, synthesizing an electronic handout from a combination of his own work, a research paper he vaguely remembers hearing of and some data he gets over the network from a colleague.

It's not what he uses, but the method he uses - a method facilitated by the technology of the Knowledge Navigator. The machine lets the professor call up the research paper from the network and immediately link its data to other findings. Yet he never reads the paper nor verifies the data in any way. He then adds information from the other professor, yet consults with her only in an extremely short phone conversation. When he's through, he instructs the agent to print the synthesized report for presentation to the class - and then asks the colleague to appear on screen after the lecture to field the questions that will result.

A vacuum

Panelists criticized the process as creating knowledge in a vacuum, without the kind of challenge face-to-face collaboration provides.

''Who's going to debate you when the production of knowledge is private?" Lyman said. And because the agent is doing much of the work a research assistant would today, the normal route for students to be indoctrinated into a field could well disappear in the world of the videotape, he said. That, again, removes another level of challenge and debate.

The problem might be avoided if the Knowledge Navigator fostered a new concept of education, instead of being superimposed on today's traditional methods, Lyman said. ''Why is there a lecture session? Why not give this computer to the students and get rid of this self-centered narcissist?'' he said. In a highly networked world, the need for students to retreat to universities also could be questioned.

Panelists said the most basic message in the videotape is that users need to become more involved in the design of future computers, instead of waiting for vendors to design them. ''Who's taking that responsibility?'' said veteran computer expert Doug Englebart. ''We've yielded it off to the Sculleys who have an ax to grind and want to make a profit. Users have to take a much more active role in formulating what they want.''

But he also said the Knowledge Navigator tape serves a valuable purpose. ''I think it's important to try to make pictures of the future,'' Englebart said. ''The reason Apple made this wasn't to scare everybody off,'' Tesler said. The Knowledge Navigator isn't intended to replace interactions among people with human-machine interactions but rather to ''increase the comfort of humans dealing with machines.''

Copyright 1988, San Jose Mercury News

DATE: Sunday, November 27, 1988
SOURCE: Rory J. O'Connor


The Knowledge Navigator is based in large part upon concepts outlined in John Sculley's recent book ''Odyssey: From Pepsi to Apple'' and grew from a nearly 15-year-old concept called Dynabook developed by Apple Fellow Alan Kay. The vision is to create a portable, notebook-sized machine that would be a true personal computer, as much an everyday appliance as a business tool.

While intended mainly as a public relations vehicle by Apple, the Knowledge Navigator provides an intriguing example of how many technologies - speech recognition, artificial intelligence, full-motion video, color flat-panel displays - might come together in a book-sized machine. Apple says it is exploring many of the technologies used in the computer and might be able to produce a rudimentary one in the mid-1990s.

Set in the year 2011, the video opens with a white male professor in his mid-30s strolling into his opulent office. His first activity is to open, like a book, the Knowledge Navigator sitting on his desk. The rest of the tape is a simulation of the interaction of the professor and the computer as the professor begins his day.

The machine simulated in the videotape is capable of some remarkable feats. At first, the screen closely resembles that of a Macintosh, with menu selections across the top of the screen and a few icons running down the right-hand side. But on closer examination, the machine turns out to have neither keyboard nor mouse. Instead, the professor interacts with the computer solely through speech and by touching the screen. The folding color display can mix computer images, text and video-telephone pictures. Its images can move realistically, a technique called full-motion video that is now being developed for computers equipped with CD-ROM drives.

The computer network to which the Knowledge Navigator is connected is apparently vast and can instantaneously retrieve detailed information and displays from electronic libraries. And it combines the operations of a video telephone with its computer power, placing calls, acting as an answering machine.

Most intriguing, however, is the computer ''agent,'' the main feature of the computer's user interface. It is essentially a highly sophisticated part of the computer's operating software and combines artificial intelligence with the ability to carry out user commands.

In the Knowledge Navigator, the agent software has been given a human personality and image, that of a red-cheeked man in a bow tie. The agent responds orally to the professor's requests, interprets the professor's intentions so he can correct mistakes, decides what information will be retrieved when the professor makes a request and even screens telephone calls. All this is done in a conversational style using a human voice. The image on the screen is in color and includes realistic appearance and full motion, giving the agent remarkably human characteristics.

With the Knowledge Navigator, the professor first reviews his calendar and pending telephone and electronic messages, which are described in detail to him by the agent. He then prepares for an afternoon lecture on the overlogging of Brazilian rain forests and how that has led to a marked increase in the size of the Sahara. During the ensuing five minutes, using almost nothing but voice commands, he develops materials for the lecture from a variety of sources, with the help of the agent and a female professor he contacts by video telephone from his computer.

Besides all its sophisticated functions, the Knowledge Navigator also retains one crucial function of modern technology. Like a telephone answering machine, the agent screens calls - and keeps the professor's nagging mother at bay.