Digital Fables and Foibles17

Good Morning, Toaster

If your refrigerator notices that you are out of milk, it can "ask" your car to remind you to pick some up on your way home. Appliances today have all too little computing.

A toaster should not be able to burn toast. It should be able to talk to other appliances. It would really be quite simple to brand your toast in the morning with the closing price of your favorite stock. But first, the toaster needs to be connected to the news.

Your home today probably has more than a hundred microprocessors in it. But they are not unified. The most integrated home system is probably the alarm system and, in some cases, the remote control of lights and small appliances. Coffee makers can be programmed to grind and brew fresh coffee before you wake up. But if you reset your alarm to ring forty-five minutes later than usual, you will wake up to terrible coffee.

The lack of electronic communication among appliances results in, among other things, very primitive and peculiar interfaces in each. For example, as speech becomes the dominant mode of interaction between people and machines, small accessories will also need to talk and listen. However, each one of them cannot be expected to have the full means of producing and understanding spoken language. They must communicate and share such resources.

A centralist model for such sharing is tempting, and some people have suggested information "furnaces" in our basements--a central computer in the home that manages all input and output. I suspect it will not go that way, and the function will be much more distributed among a network of appliances, including one that is a champion at speech recognition and production. If both your refrigerator and your cupboard keep track of your food by reading universal product codes, only one of them needs to know how to interpret them.

The terms "white goods" and "brown goods" are used to differentiate between kitchen-top appliances like toasters and blenders and larger, usually built-in, machines like dishwashers and refrigerators. The classic division between white and brown does not include information appliances, which must change, because white goods and brown goods will increasingly be both information consuming and producing.

The future of any appliance is likely to be a stripped-down or puffed-up PC. One reason to move in this direction is to make appliances more friendly, usable, and self-explicating. Just think for a moment about how many machines you have (microwave oven, fax machine, cellular telephone) that have a giant vocabulary of functions (some useless) about which you have not bothered to learn, just because it is too hard. Here is where built-in computing can help a great deal, beyond just making sure the microwave oven does not soften the Brie into a puddle. Appliances should be good instructors.

The notion of an instruction manual is obsolete. The fact that computer hardware and software manufacturers ship them with product is nothing short of perverse. The best instructor on how to use a machine is the machine itself. It knows what you are doing, what you have just done, and can even guess at what you are about to do. Folding that awareness into a knowledge of its own operations is a small step for computer science, but a giant step forward and away from a printed manual you can never find and rarely understand.

Add some familiarity with you (you are left-handed, hard of hearing, and have little patience with mechanical things), and that machine can be a far better aide (the e in aide is purposeful) to its own operations and maintenance than any document. Appliances of tomorrow should come with no printed instructions whatsoever (except This Side Up). The "warranty" should be sent electronically by the appliance itself, once it feels it has been satisfactorily installed.

External Links:

We are looking forward to your suggestions for other editorial links or commercial links relevant to this section.

Post your comments Follow our "Being Digital" discussion forum

Read more of the electronic version of "Being Digital":

Next: Smart Cars Previous: Bits and Mortar

Intro Contents Cyberdock OBS Home

Copyright © Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995. All rights reserved.
Copyright © Online Edition, OBS. All rights reserved.
Updated on April 15, 1996