Behind the scenes, U of T researchers are finding ways to build a Net that’s not only more powerful, but a lot more human
If the Internet were a movie star, it would need a new agent. In just a few years the Net’s public image has gone from boom to bust to bore. Like a child actor famous too soon, it faces its gawky teenage years wondering whatever happened to its early promise, and what to do with the rest of its life.
But even though it’s not turning heads like it used to, the Net is no has-been. Internet use is rising around the world, and the growing popularity of high-speed access and wireless mobile devices will jump-start a new round of online products and services. But the next Net revolution is not about technology: it’s about adapting the power of networks to the needs of their users. And U of T researchers are part of the race to develop a more user-friendly Internet that really will transform the way we live, work and communicate.
Consider the need for better communications in health care. When medical problems occur, you want your doctor up on all the latest knowledge. But MDs can’t read everything, and they certainly can’t lug a library of journals to a patient’s bedside for immediate reference. Thanks to one collaborative research project at U of T, however, that may not be a problem for long.
“Bringing Evidence to the Point of Care” is designed to help doctors become better informed, save time and maybe even save lives, by giving them powerful on-the-spot information tools. The project aims to improve patient care in clinics and at the bedside by adapting reference material on treatment methods and other medical research for use on mobile computers (such as a Palm or Blackberry). The information would come from existing services, but there are many problems to solve, such as assessing doctors’ actual needs in clinics and hospitals, and finding the best interface for presenting complex data on small screens. Social factors are important, too, says co-investigator Mark Chignell, director of the Interactive Media Laboratory in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering, and director of the Collaborative Effectiveness Lab. If a GP uses one of these devices, he asks, “Does the patient trust the doctor less? Does the doctor feel less physical interaction with the patient?”
Headed by Sharon Straus, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine, the project is funded by Bell University Laboratories (see An Internet for Everyone), which brings expertise in wireless networking. Chignell hopes to see field trials start by the end of this year. The real test will be how people adjust to the technology. But the project benefits from a unique collaboration of medical researchers, industrial engineers and computer scientists, who are emphasizing user-centred design and usability testing.
In future, similar systems could work in other disciplines, notes Chignell. “There are all kinds of applications where people have to make decisions and need a set of information in real time, such as maintenance workers at a nuclear power plant or for military aircraft,” he says. “It’s a form of technology-based evolution that basically makes people more capable.”
Helping people share information when they need it is also a focus of U of T’s department of electrical and computer engineering, where associate professor Shahrokh Valaee is working to develop “ad-hoc” networks, in which wireless handsets such as cellphones, laptops and personal digital assistants “talk” to each other directly instead of bouncing their signals to an intermediary base station, as happens today. Communications towers are common enough in cities, but they’re expensive to construct, and provide uneven service in many buildings. What’s more, they’re never around where they’re most needed, say in emergencies such as accidents or forest fires, where rescue workers need to talk or share files over cellphones and laptops.
“The difficulty is in programming these devices so they can co-operate,” says Valaee. Because ad-hoc networks have no central controller to regulate system use, one or two devices can hog the available frequencies, causing delays or choppy conversations for other users.
Valaee’s approach, developed over the past year, involves creating what he calls “ADmission control” software for wireless devices. It’s a world first; a sort of wireless traffic cop designed to regulate text, video and voice traffic to ensure that messages get through efficiently.
Before his ideas can be commercialized, Valaee has more problems to overcome, including developing pricing models and ensuring data security. But once a technology’s early days are behind it, he says, this is how progress happens: society moves forward using individual stepping-stones created by many researchers across all disciplines. “No one person can claim that their job is going to change the Internet dramatically. You have to have small pieces here and there,” says Valaee. “So whose work is going to drastically change the way we live today? I would say no one’s – and everyone’s.”
Not far away, in the department of computer science, the future of the Net is all about accessing information. Now we access the Net through desktops and laptops, but according to department chair Eugene Fiume, within 10 years “computers will start to bury themselves. Some people are going to wear them, but others will find it nicer to have them on the tip of a pen or on a piece of paper.”
Computers, says Fiume, “will be unobtrusive enough to use and still carry on a conversation, and give you information that might enhance your quality of life and your effectiveness.” As you shop, for example, you’ll naturally access your own database. “It may tell you what your consumption of an item has been in the past, contraindications to your medication will come up as alerts, or there will be suggestions as to alternative suppliers.”
U of T is helping build this world of invisible computers, says Fiume. “We have an absolutely international-calibre artificial intelligence group, with two or three people doing really strong work in ‘intelligent agents.’” An intelligent agent, or “bot,” is a program that performs a specific function (searching, monitoring, comparing or reacting), based on preferences you provide or that it learns from observing your actual behaviour. Your bot will be like a personal assistant, says Fiume, supplying Web-based information and personal services when you need them. It will even make choices on your behalf. It could make stock trades based on your investment style, or book hotels for your next trip. It could even co-ordinate purchases from multiple suppliers, as in a home renovation.
The university’s computer scientists are also exploring vision-based interfaces, natural-language processing and specialized input devices, says Fiume. Within a decade, you may speak, gesture or just raise an eyebrow to command your computer. It may even manipulate you back. You could feel force online, such as when you run into a virtual wall – “force feedback” that could transform online activities such as games or shopping. “You’re not going to throw the keyboard away,” says Fiume, “but it will just become one more tool in the toolbox.”
The Net of the future won’t just change the way you use information; it might transform your world view. As the Net becomes more of a basic utility, it gets more interesting, says Mark Federman, head of McLuhan Management Studies at the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology. “We’ll only start to see the real hidden effects on society now that we’ve stopped paying attention.”
Federman’s current project, the Global Village Square, will establish a permanent video link between a major commercial property in Toronto’s financial district and public gallerias in Milan and Naples, Italy. The plan is to install a giant screen in each building to transmit real-time, life-size images to each other. Passersby will be able to see, hear and speak with whomever they “bump into” in the other space. Says Federman, “We’re looking to create a new medium and then look at what the effects are as we interconnect places and spaces.”
Plans call for the Toronto-Italy connection to be up and running this fall. If funding permits, more screens will be added in malls, parks and city squares around the world. “This is the world’s first instance of public space, where we can see globalization on an individual level,” says Federman. “How will that change the way we view the world once it becomes very personal?” What happens when Canadians connect directly in a joint classroom with people in emerging nations? Federman says his project “will allow ordinary people to connect – not through government delegations, not through grand plans and UN teams.”
The Web’s potential for social change fascinates many scholars. Sociology professor Barry Wellman is the director of NetLab, a research group at the Centre for Urban and Community Studies. He’s enjoying his role as a sociologist who can influence the design of hardware and software. “It’s wonderful that I can play in this and not just study it,” he says.
One of Wellman’s first collaborations came in the early ’90s, when U of T computer scientists consulted him on a project that enabled people to collaborate using desktop video-conferencing technology. He jumped at the chance to advise on social issues, such as privacy, and helping people interact with a screen. “I had always been interested in science fiction, and here was a way to make science fiction become real.”
Scientists and social scientists at U of T now regularly inform each other’s Net-related research, combining insights and engineering that make computing more useful in the real world. “There are a number of computer scientists who realize they need to co-operate with social scientists, and U of T is very much in the forefront,” says Wellman. “It’s very rare to have that collaboration and support and mutual awareness.”
Today’s Net trends, says Wellman, involve personalization and portability. Soon we’ll all carry personal wireless devices that combine the functions of a cellphone, pager, e-mail, video camera and PDA, he says. “The master concept is individualization” – having systems that match the way you work.
If you’re concerned about information overload, Wellman offers a solution. He has worked on a software research project with Ottawa-based Mitel Networks that will prioritize your voice and e-mail messages. His new software would send your most important messages to the top of the stack. The trick lies in figuring out the protocols, such as whether to prioritize e-mails from your company president (even on Saturdays?) or letting your spouse’s messages outrank all others.
Wellman is also working on a way to use portable handsets to gather information on our surroundings. You could be alerted to coming events while strolling through a park, or check sale prices as you pass a store. “We’re moving to a society where people are quite mobile in their work and leisure. They’re no longer sitting at home tied to a computer,” says Wellman. And that will create a growing need for what he calls “e-awareness: more intelligent, more informed communication with our environment.” He’s working with the New Jersey Institute of Technology to develop a solution that we might see in three to five years.
Just as important as technology are the social and legal frameworks that will rule how the Net develops. To Professor Andrew Clement in the Faculty of Information Studies, the most crucial issue is who can access the Net, and how. “Access to information and education is a basic foundation of democratic participation and inclusive society,” he says. “If you want an equitable society, then everyone should at least have the means of accessing the opportunities.” He has spent years shaping policy development around Canada’s information infrastructure.
But the integration of the Internet into society is producing a stream of sticky issues. Who should have access to online court records or health information? How far abroad are you responsible for libel published on the Web? Should the Net also be a phone network?
Helping untangle these issues is Richard Owens, executive director of the Centre for Innovation Law and Policy at U of T’s Faculty of Law. Just as the old stone building in which it operates has been retrofitted with sleek, modern offices, the centre is adapting existing law and policy frameworks to suit new technology. It provides scholarship and consultation to government and industry and on complex issues such as patent policy, privacy and research ethics.
“Technology is developing so quickly that the real challenge is to maintain perspective and develop longer-term policies,” says Owens. Judges and legislators, he adds, need help understanding many of these issues. “By having a centre like this that is able to provide informed comment on a real-time basis, we can avoid some of the risks and consequences of wrong decisions.”
One grad student at the centre, for instance, has found an unexpected flaw in Internet telephony. While using the Internet to make free long-distance calls is great for consumers, his study discovered this causes trouble for many countries, which depend on long-distance calls as a revenue source. “If you allow the Internet to replace telephones,” says Owens, “there is a serious impact on the budgets of these developing countries.”
Owens is also studying issues in digital music. Ottawa currently charges a tax on recording media such as blank CDs, aimed at compensating the music industry for online piracy. But, says Owens, “you’ve got some evidence the subsidy isn’t working.” Plus, new remedies in both law and technology may eliminate need for the levy, he says. “Our point is, let’s make sure these all work together, and probably we should look at diminishing the intended scope of the policy.”
Another evolution underway at U of T is the Net’s potential in education. The Joseph L. Rotman School of Management is now a wireless community that allows students to receive and submit assignments, participate in discussion groups and gather information online, from anywhere in the building, without “plugging in.” “It’s not just about having a paperless school, it’s about enhancing the learning experience,” says Tom McCurdy, the Bonham Chair in International Finance and a professor of finance at Rotman. “What it’s done is allowed much more flexible access to all the resources.”
We all know that e-commerce hasn’t taken off as once predicted, but part-time Rotman MBA instructor Tom Vassos is working to help businesses develop online strategies. As part of his teaching and research, he’s developing models of effective e-business plans. He believes companies that build e-strategies will win in the long term. “We need this research so we’re not just going by the seat of our pants based on hype in newspapers.”
Vassos, whose theories have helped hundreds of companies plan online strategies, is creating an “e-business road map,” a toolbox of potential e-strategies. Whether they’re using the Net for production, marketing or managing customers, he says, “there are pieces of e-business that every company can benefit from.” On the cutting edge is his Prism model, an analysis of e-business automation that can help companies maximize transactions. Its principle is simple: the more you automate a transaction, the easier you make it for clients to buy. For instance, a florist who sends a customer an e-mail reminder one week before his wife’s birthday, complete with a one-click option to buy a bouquet, will probably sell more flowers than a florist who sends no reminders. Automating one step further (and thereby boosting sales) would be a florist who seeks automatic approval to send a bouquet every year.
“This model could apply to any form of e-business, not just a commerce transaction,” says Vassos. It also includes other sectors, such as banking and government services (think driver’s licence renewals). His challenge is to flesh out his models by analyzing more real-life successes and failures, a process begun at www.TomVassos.com. “Now that we’re climbing out of the trough of disillusionment,” he says, “I think companies are now finally starting to find some value in [e-business], to either increase sales or decrease costs.”
Half a century ago, U of T economics professor Harold Innis theorized that a society’s means of communications determines its destiny. If the Internet is indeed about to transform society, today’s U of T scholars are making sure that people’s needs come first.