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Steve Ballmer's vision for the future of mankind

Experience your life through a custom user interface

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The experience of using the Internet will be substantially different ten years from now, Micro$oft President and CEO Steve Ballmer predicted during a speech he delivered on the future of technology to students at George Washington University earlier this week.

"Our industry is going to re-make itself over the next several years," Ballmer claimed. "For the last twenty-five years we talked about putting a computer on every desk and in every home. That was our mission. Now we talk about empowering people, through great software, any time, any place, and on any device," he said.

"The TV is my favourite new intelligent device," Ballmer revealed, ignoring the loose oxymoron. "That's where I really need high processing capabilities."

"I guarantee, ten years from now I'm going to yell at my television set, 'Hey, Bill; did you see that putt?' And I'm going to expect it to recognise my voice, figure out that 'Bill' refers to Bill Gates, go to my contact list, look for Bill Gates, understand whether he wants to be bothered or not, interrupt him on his television set, and say, 'Ballmer says it was a great putt.'"

He calls that intelligent? And note the assumption that Gates, too, would have nothing better to do than sit in front of a television set commenting on putts with his buddies via some integrated ICQ-like messaging system. But perhaps we were expected to imagine the pair wheelchair-bound in separate nursing homes decades hence, and following several severe hemorrhagic strokes.... "

I need processing power in my TV set," he repeated for emphasis. [Laughter] "You can laugh, and think it's a silly example, but it will happen." And the sad thing is, it will.

Ballmer also predicted a level of Web-site integration to come which will enable the gathering and use of personal information automatically, across broad ranges of services. For an example, he proposed that if he were to book a flight via the Web to visit his sister, the reservation would automatically include all the data needed to page Sis and inform her of, say, a delay in his arrival.

"You're going to have the travel Web site talking to the airline Web site, talking to my sister's Web site, talking to a communications provider, talking to me....talking, talking, talking, talking," he said, in a subconscious quadrameter invocation of Lear's startlingly trochaic "Never, never, never, never, never."

Wow, we never knew he was such a reader. We didn't think he had time, what with the burden of all the talking he does. Microsoft also envisions a future in which there is enormously more mass-customisation of software functions, Ballmer said.

A future "where the user can do even more to customise their view of the world....their experience [of it]....their user interface." Experience your life through a custom user interface -- a grotesque vision we find appropriate to some pessimistic, misanthropic science-fiction writer along the lines of Aldous Huxley.

By way of illustration, Ballmer treated the students to a sneak peek at one of the 'interesting technologies' that Micro$oft is developing to enhance our lives both in the home and the classroom. He called it a video skimmer; it was, essentially, a rules-based Cliff's Notes generator for video presentations.

The demonstration, we observed with delight, backfired spectacularly. "We're taking out all of the breaks, all of the white spots, all of the dead time," he gushed, as he compressed a twenty-eight-minute academic lecture to a mere fourteen minutes, and finally produced a ludicrously unintelligible torrent of verbiage entirely lacking in nuance, wit, atmosphere, rhythm, suspense or context.

Ballmer then proudly employed the skimmer to condense a two-hour baseball game to a stream of highlights equally lacking in nuance, wit, atmosphere, rhythm, suspense or context. How it is that compressing an experience could possibly be confused with enhancing it can only be explained by reference to America's decided preference for gross immediacy over quality, as reflected in its cuisine, for example.

The Register also sees a big future for Web-enabled, integrated 'intelligent' appliances designed to make even bigger morons of us all. Talking refrigerators and idiot-proof cookers and automobile GPS guidance systems and education via television. Eventually, we won't be required to know how to do anything for ourselves, except operate a number of gizmos. And of course, human nature being what it is, the chance of many of us going past functional intelligence is fairly slim.

Thus the Information Age, under Microsoft's guiding hand, strains to catapult us all back to the image-based, illiterate world from which our Renaissance forefathers struggled mightily to liberate us. A fat lot of thanks we're giving them. In spite of all the evangelical bollocks about new beginnings, the human condition has changed little since the dawn of civilisation. We all remain firmly in the grip of influential, tasteless oafs. ®

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