Could a GPS in the car one day be replaced by one in the head?
Forget the smartphone and tablet computer. Soon one will need only a simple sheet of paper or white wall to enjoy non-stop connectivity with the digital world. Does it sound like science-fiction? Pattie Maes 50, head of the research team Fluid Interfaces at the Medialab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT, has been working on making this dream a reality for the past two years. During a TED conference in Palm Springs in the US, she managed to overwhelm her audience with mind-boggling presentations of her project, The Sixth Sense. Maes, who received her first training at the Free University of Brussels VUB, joined MIT twenty years ago. During the late nineties, Newsweek identified her as one of the great minds to watch in the US. And yet this undisputed world genius is a relative unknown on local soil. This is quite a shame, Belgian insiders say. During her time at VUB she already focused on social networks, artificial intelligence and 'recommendation engines', a concept that is commonly used by online stores like Amazon today. As she was a guest speaker at the World Creativity Forum in Hasselt on Thursday, De Tijd interviewed her. Maes: “It is still very difficult to use digital data on the Internet in our daily lives. We call it the gap between the digital and the real world. If you meet someone for the first time, you first take out your Smartphone and Google the person to find out more. Imagine seeing all the relevant information about a person projected on his jersey at the first handshake. This would see both worlds melt into one, with the human world being given an additional dimension, or sixth sense.” According to Maes, fundamentally computers still use the same user interface as they did in the eighties. She and her team are now working on replacing the older interface with new systems that are more intuitive and personal. She believes the revolution is at its infant stage, saying: “During the past decades research was more focused on higher computer speed and power. The next phases will see a focus on new user interfaces which are better equipped to integrate data into our physical environment and on the computer system’s intelligence. Siri’s speech technology in the new iPhone is a classic example of this transformation.” The intelligent systems of the future will be capable of more active and even proactive communication, evolving to a symbiosis between human and machine and capable of taking over human tasks, which they perform better than humans, Maes believes. One of her current research projects includes the development of extra senses to help deaf people hear. One way in which hyperperception could be created in the human mind would be extending orientation skills by means of a built-in GPS. Today the Smartphone can be seen as a digital human extension. The next logical step would be to physically plug humans into the Internet, she believes. Maes feels the Belgian government should stimulate universities and businesses much more to collaborate. MIT receives 80% of its financing from industry, with professors only working at the university four days a week. One day in the week they all work at their own business or act as consultants for other companies. In this way they are continuously encouraged to act and think as academic and entrepreneur. In her own group employees of commercial sponsors attend on a daily basis, and urge scientists to leave their academic ivory towers and force them to think practically and commercially.