Companies have been struggling to build safer and friendlier computers since the first ones. Today, we'll look at two separate efforts coming from the labs. Researchers from Sandia National Laboratories want your computer to help you to make better decisions. But how? It will know how you feel. Meanwhile, MIT scientists have found a way to repair corrupted data while your system is still up, allowing your software to fix itself without a need for restart. This might avoid the famous answer "the system is down" that you receive when you want to get a service or a product. As Darwin Magazine asks, "What kind of excuse is that?"
First, let's see how your computer will evolve from a tool to become your friend, or at least your adviser.
Soon it could warn you when youíre talking too much at a meeting, if scientists at Sandia National Laboratoriesí Advanced Concepts Group have their way. Or it could alert others in your group to be attentive when you have something important to say.
Aided by tiny sensors and transmitters called a PAL (Personal Assistance Link) your machine (with your permission) will become an anthroscope -- an investigator of your up-to-the-moment vital signs, says Sandia project manager Peter Merkle. It will monitor your perspiration and heartbeat, read your facial expressions and head motions, analyze your voice tones, and correlate these to keep you informed with a running account of how you are feeling -- something you may be ignoring -- instead of waiting passively for your factual questions. It also will transmit this information to others in your group so that everyone can work together more effectively.
"If someoneís really excited during the game and thatís correlated with poor performance, the machine might tell him to slow down via a pop-up message," says Merkle. "On the other hand, it might tell the team leader, 'Take Bill out of loop, we donít want him monitoring the space shuttle today. Heís had too much coffee and too little sleep. Sally, though, is giving off the right signals to do a great job.'"
When will see this kind of computer which promises better teamwork as well as increased surveillance? Sooner than you think. The Sandia team already collaborated with MindTel LLC, of Syracuse, N.Y., to deliver a prototype.
Now, let's see how your software can repair itself while errors are occurring.
Rather than looking for errors in computer code, the scheme calls for examining abstract models of data that show relationships between data objects. Using abstract representations eliminates much of the information-encoding complexity usually involved, said Martin Rinard, an associate professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Data structure corruptions become apparent in the model in the same way health problems like a broken bone or cancerous tissue show up in a graphical representation of data like a CAT scan or MRI, he said.
When the system finds an inconsistency, it carries out a sequence of actions to fix the problem. The system can put pieces back together, initialize and insert a missing element, or remove a corrupted part, said Rinard. The system can also shift the values of variables to make them self-consistent, he said.
And when will we see an implementation of this approach which "uses fewer computer resources than the log-rollback-and-replay methods of data repair in use today"?
The method could be ready for practical use in two to four years, said Rinard. The method can be applied in small steps to currently deployed systems written in standard programming language, he said. "It does not require changes to existing development techniques, and can be applied initially by a small group working within the context of a much larger development effort," he said.
So, in some years, you will no longer hear the phrase "the system is down." But is this necessary anyway? What does this mean?
Problem is, "the system is down" or, more precisely, the "result" of the system being down, can negatively impact those on the receiving end of the message.
Computer systems will go down and generally technology personnel work fast and furious to restore them and later determine causes of those failures so they may institute procedures to avoid them in the future.
I recently tried to cancel one of my wireless services by phone. Over the course of two days, I was told by various company representatives that the system was down so my service could not be canceled and I would have to call back. When I suggested that they write the information and enter it later, I was told that it could not be guaranteed to occur. I gave the information to two different customer service employees in hopes of increasing my chances. No one ever called back.
Other companies avoid to say that their systems are not working. Let's look at an example.
When any of the 100,000 annual service calls come in to the Maryland call center of Micros-Fidelio, a global technology company that sells to hotels and restaurants, technicians are automatically dispatched.
"We don't stop service calls if the system is down," says field service technician Arthur Snow. "The call center dispatcher writes the information and faxes it to a technician, and follows with a phone call to assure it is received and acted on." The customer never is told that the system is down, as the company views the "system" as one of efficiently servicing customers, not the technology that facilitate it.
I sure would be happy if more companies adopted this attitude.
Sources: Sandia National Laboratories news release, January 24, 2004; Kimberly Patch, Technology Research News, January 14/21, 2004; Chuck Martin, Darwin Magazine, January 2004