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To find, or not to find, anyone in the world

Michael Dertouzos, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) in Cambridge, sees a day not too far in the future when someone on a business trip in Paris talks into a hand-held device and asks it to call Joe in New York. The device then automatically calls Joe's computer, which locates Joe in Boston and forwards the call there. Once Joe answers, the image of the caller from Paris flashes onto Joe's wall. Then other colleagues can be found and patched into an electronic conference call.

All this is done by advanced software, sensors, intelligent devices, global positioning satellite systems, and other cutting-edge technology that will be part of Oxygen, LCS's new future-computing project.

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More intuitive computers

The MIT lab unveiled the $38.5 million, five-year initiative in mid-April. Oxygen, which is the idea of Dr. Dertouzos, entails reinventing the functions of today's computers, making them more intelligent, intuitive, and interesting. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon research arm that originated the maze of networks that became the Internet, is providing funding. LCS, in collaboration with MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, aims to make models of Oxygen's hardware, software, and networking components to prove their concept works, and then hand them to industry to commercialize.

Dertouzos and his colleagues envision a world in which devices carried in the hand and located in walls and basements can find people and intuitively perform tasks for them. Oxygen will have eight hardware and software technologies.

The first technology will be the Handy21. It looks like a cell phone, but it also has a small screen, a camera, a global positioning system module, an infrared wave detector, and a computer. Software controls most of the components, so the unit can be changed from a cell phone to a two-way radio, TV, beeper, computer, or pointing device. "We're trying to make ... [it] person-centric," Dertouzos says. "Wherever you go, it is with you."

The second technology is the Enviro21, which is put in an office wall, a car trunk, or home basement. Enviro21 mimics the functions of Handy21, but is larger and has more data storage capacity, more processing power, and faster communications speeds. It can be connected to sensors and devices to raise the room temperature, operate a fax machine, or tell if a door is open.

Devices that respond to spoken requests

The third technology is the N21 network, which links all Oxygen devices to one another and to worldwide computer networks. The fourth is software that can understand spoken dialogue and respond to requests. "The machine must be able to understand what I say and what I mean," said Victor Zue, associate director of LCS.

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In addition to those four core technologies, there are: (1) knowledge-access technology that helps users find information in ways familiar to them; (2) automation technology that lets users tell a machine what routine human work it should take over for them; (3) collaboration technology that helps a group work together by keeping track of conversations and documents; and (4) customization technology that lets users adapt Oxygen to their own needs.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society