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James Patten

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If you could give computers one magical power, what would it be and why?

Live TED Conversation: Join TED Fellow James Patten

James is an inventor who is exploring new ways that physical objects can represent and control digital information.

This conversation will open at November 14 at 1:00PM EST.

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Closing Statement from James Patten

Thank you to everyone for sharing some great ideas! One theme that I was really struck by was the extent to which people wanted their computers to have human qualities. Also there were some great suggestions about new types of input and output, ways of processing information and many others. I think that within the next several decades many of the things mentioned here will some to pass (some much sooner than that). Ultimately what we think of as a "computer" will change drastically in the next several years, as things adapt to better suit human abilities. Thank you everyone for participating!

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    Nov 14 2011: A USB device that when connected to my skin could perform a complete physical analysis, including scanning for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses.
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      Nov 14 2011: Hi Richard, that is a great idea. My company shares studio space with another TED Fellow, Oliver Medvedik, and Oliver runs a small synthetic biology lab. One of the things they are working on is building low cost lab instruments. It seems like the natural course for this sort of work is toward medical diagnostics. I think others are working on cheaper diagnostic tools as well. Of course, regulatory approvals and patents are obstacles to be overcome in this effort, but it seems like things are inevitably heading in this direction.
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        Nov 14 2011: Kodak did some very interesting related work in developing the Ektachem400 body fluid analizer back in the 70's. Info may be available...
    • Nov 14 2011: similarly, how about a handheld device that could scan food and breakdown the nutritional values, including things like the amount of pesticides..
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    Nov 14 2011: Since I have been away from my city and the people I love I realized computers have a lack. When you try to hug someone you are calling on skype they just act like obstacles. I wish my computer could turn into the person and just hug me back. That would be so great!
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      Nov 14 2011: Hi Caterina, this is such a great comment because it really captures one of the ways that technology can stand in the way. I can't remember where I saw this, but I believe someone is working on a machine that can hug you. I think it's intended more as an art project than a practical device, but it shows how computers can function as obstacles in certain kinds of human to human contact.
  • Nov 14 2011: I think the power to pick up commands directly from the brain. So I would "think" something, and the computer does it. Now that would be very cool...
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      Nov 14 2011: That's an interesting thought and there is a lot of work going on in this area now, particularly in the domain of helping people control replacement limbs, and that sort of thing. One question that comes to mind is: out of all the things I might be thinking at any one moment, how would the computer know which ones it should do, and which ones it should not do?
      • Nov 14 2011: We'd have to all practice meditation to master our concentration and be "empty" until we want to have a commanding thought. Idealistic maybe, but we are experiencing a trend in that direction in the western world.
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          Nov 14 2011: hmm... yes you're right that meditation is gaining a lot of traction. I've always thought of my interaction with the computer as the antithesis of meditation (except perhaps while programming) but perhaps they could come together in the way you mention.
      • Nov 14 2011: i think that can be done by gathering information from experts & experienced psychiatrists.They can actually advise what should be done at that particular situation.
      • Nov 14 2011: I think you'd have to have a "trigger" to let the computer know to activate the thought. rolling your eyes could take on a whole new meaning..
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      Nov 14 2011: I'm a big supporter for this man-machine interface (hence, I was gonna make the same comment ;) )

      So much time is being wasted by opening windows, moving them around, find the right line to edit (I'm a programmer), etc. etc..

      I'm pretty sure we will achieve this level of interfacing.. just watch the Ghost in the Shell movies/series.. in my opinion, this is exactly the reality that we are headed for.
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    Nov 14 2011: hi james, i believe the point of separating between a tool or a colleague is a big issue. why don´t we put them together? would it be possible that computers act like tools that correct ourselves, some do already, but in a more human way? or maybe like a tool that continues working when you are tired or lazy, that you start doing something and it continues it by adapting to the method you started...
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      Nov 14 2011: Hey Xavier!! That makes sense, maybe there can be a middle point between the two. There is an idea called collaborative interfaces that tries to be a middle point, but it seems like the human qualities are where things are really lacking still.
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    Nov 14 2011: The power to allow human beings to directly perceive the thoughts and motivations of others...

    Because I think we all sometimes need a jumpstart in this area.
  • Nov 14 2011: Compassion. My parents and their generation are literally scared of computers ; computers expect and do things they don't understand. If computers/applications could adapt (not just the language it uses for prompts and alerts) to the user's skill and fear levels, offering multiple approaches, allowing mistakes with kind and constructive advice, and gradually teach users how to use them, this would allow technology to enrich their lives as much it does our generation and the rest.
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      Nov 14 2011: Hi Yoo, it seems like every generation has its own unique set of needs and expectations when it comes to computer technology. I agree they are definitely lacking in the realm of emotional intelligence. We can already see some basic efforts in this direction, such as giving users simpler ways to do things when they are having trouble. Also, there is some research in the lab about detecting frustration and responding to that. People are writing software to recognize facial expressions, and there are sensors that one can wear that measure physiological signs of stress/frustration. So, people are taking baby steps but there is a long way to go!
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    Nov 14 2011: @James, looking at your bio you said you are interested in "...[how] computers can adapt to serve human needs". The thing that I wish is not magical but little futuristic; it'd be magical if it is granted right now. I propose "Personal Assistant", definitely analytics are used to analyze human behaviors and pattern. Similar technology can be adapted to serve every individuals needs, computers can be our very own personal assistant. They can analyze our work life and suggest if there is any news or article that we should be aware of, if we are looking for a job they can continuously keep searching - instead of us going to websites every week, they can suggest us to do our laundry, if some of your friend likes something particular and if something of that sort is newly released in the market they can advise us to gift to them on their b'day or send them a friendly fb message to inform them.. let your imagination go wild.. basically one single platform that can do everything..
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      Nov 14 2011: Hi Roshan, that's an interesting thought. It seems like one can think of computer technology as a series of tools, just like a pencil or a hammer is a tool, or one can think of computers more like companions or collaborators. Though this discussion is just getting started it strikes me that many commenters are thinking in terms of human traits, roles and responsibilities that they would like computers to have. That's an interesting perspective and I wonder if interest in that way of thinking will continue to grow.
    • Nov 14 2011: The problem with this thought is that it requires each person to completely give away his personal life to a computer. And since what you're describing would fit much better if it was an online services, they'd be giving their online lives to a company.
  • Nov 14 2011: The ability to reverse the effects of fossil fuels on the environment as I surf the web because I feel incredibly guilty about how much energy we all use in general.
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    Nov 14 2011: Computers should have the magical power of nudging you towards productivity in a healthy way, adequate ergonomics, brightness/font size, frequent breaks, and never ever ever loose a file.

    They should also remind you of projects you might have left hanging when you have time again to pursue them.
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      Nov 14 2011: Hi Fernando, if computers could do what you suggest, a lot of us would be much better off given the amount of time we spend sitting in front of them. The closest thing I can think of is a robotic weight loss coach made by my friend Cory Kidd: http://intuitiveautomata.com/
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        Nov 14 2011: That's pretty cool, but I don't think it would work for me.. I'm too lazy to walk over and input what I ate and did for exercise.. too much obstacles there! Now, if it could recognise my voice and inquire, learn my patterns and anticipate (like every morning a coffee), i'd find it more interesting!

        I believe that these kind of applications shoud not take more time of your day than absolutely necessary.. I think this is also why the iPhone/Pad/Pod are a success.. there are hardly (if any) obstacles that keep you from getting results.

        I'm also working on a Task Manager (just a little pet project for now) that allows me to add, edit, complete and restructure tasks within a matter of seconds. The whole premise is that managing tasks should not become a task itself. I think this should be true for all our interactions with machines/devices.
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    Nov 14 2011: Thank you to everyone for sharing some great ideas! One theme that I was really struck by was the extent to which people wanted their computers to have human qualities. Also there were some great suggestions about new types of input and output, ways of processing information and many others. I think that within the next several decades many of the things mentioned here will some to pass (some much sooner than that). Ultimately what we think of as a "computer" will change drastically in the next several years, as things adapt to better suit human abilities. Thank you everyone for participating!
  • Nov 14 2011: To diagnose or predict illness to some degree of confidence (with just one scan).. And the ability to examine / make physical contact with the patient. Because, (I expect) a computer can more effectively process/connect diverse bits of information (risks, symptoms, irregularities etc).
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    Nov 14 2011: The physical construction of portable computers may well change given the rise of tablets (iPad etc.) To retain marketability for both home/office use and on the move, perhaps construction could follow this trend by allowing the screen to be removable and behave as a tablet. Once reattached, behave like a normal laptop screen. This is possibly in the pipe line at an RnD level already?
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    Nov 14 2011: Before I give computers any magical power I'd make sure the three laws of robotics according to Stanislaw Lem are in place.

    Now they are ready to receive the gift of creativity in Arts, Engineering and Science.

    Why? Because it could make a big difference. I am not sure if it were beneficial to give them emotions, too.

    What do you think?
  • Nov 14 2011: An AI that can convince us that the "singularity" will never pose a threat to humanity, and forever work to the improve the human condition ; )
  • Nov 14 2011: What I would like may already exist - I'd like my computer to track my eyes so that I could look at the screen instead of using a mouse or trackball. By thinking "click" or something similar, I could then "press" a button or navigation item. This would be a large improvement in speed and ease of use.
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      Nov 14 2011: Hi Daniel, this does exist, but traditionally has been very expensive. There is at least one effort to make it easier though. Check out this project by Zach Lieberman: http://www.eyewriter.org/

      At its current state it's mainly targeted at people with ALS and other handicaps. I don't think you would find it faster or easier in its current form. One issue is that the movement of the human eye is actually very jumpy compared to what one might expect.
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    Nov 14 2011: Having progressed through data systems, information systems, and various flavors of expert systems, I'd like to see the advent of wisdom-based systems - systems that can process a question into lesser sub-questions (ad nausea) until it can formulate a complete set of propositional alternatives and then apply consequence criteria to produce an optimal ("wise") solution. I realize that I'm asking a lot, so wouldn't expect delivery until 3Q12. :-)
  • Nov 14 2011: How about a way to capture dreams just as you awake? Or even cooler, while you're dreaming?
  • Nov 14 2011: It would be great to have a software/hardware tool that could diagnose conditions like depression, panic disorder, etc., or help with seizures.
  • Nov 14 2011: I'd love if computers could help us understand health, wellness, and the process of disease more richly. With all of the evidence-based medicine we have and all of the studies in all of our journals, I always feel like the "day to day" is lacking a little bit. It also happens that "day-to-day" health behaviors (really, just how a person lives their life) can lead to certain illnesses. Perhaps a reasonable magical power computers could have would be to provide individualized preventative medicine and health suggestions based upon the individual's genetics, environment, social ties and support networks, etc., ideally accounting for more than just the biological process of disease (meaning, the social determinants of health as well). If a computer could continuously monitor things like levels of stress and diet intake and other things we know cause disease, perhaps we could understand that disease process more fully, and, more importantly, understand what being health means more fully. Also, the computer would give feedback to health professionals and provide lots of data, allowing the entire evidence-based field to become more personal.

    I'm curious to hear what everyone thinks.
  • Nov 14 2011: Compassion
  • Nov 14 2011: I can imagine a computer that first scans our mind and the way we solve different problems. Than links more people who try to solve the same problem which they obviously cannot solve on their own, and with some real time combinatory, mathematical magic application it would give us a solution or alternatives of solution by using our thought fragments and combining them. Like a computer synchronizing our minds and the results from our thinking processes in a way we would never use.
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    Nov 14 2011: The question is if computers will drive us not to use our brain any more, or our human invention will be driven by computers ? I hope it will not.
  • Nov 14 2011: One of the thing that seperate computers from Human Beings is the Common sense.
    so i would love to give this power to the computers.
  • Nov 14 2011: If computer processed information in the speed of light.
    Solving complex problems in real time.
    Each spectrum is a value and each wavelength is a value.
    With millions of colors and and wavelengths you'll have a tremendous amount of information at your disposable being detected at light speed.
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    Nov 14 2011: I'm not sure if it's a magical power, but what about giving computers the ability to speculate about the outcomes of decisions before they're made. A computer would have the advantage of being truly dispassionate and so would not suffer from the human penchant for pre-selecting a sentimental course. Such a computer could, I think, greatly improve the lives of many people faced with difficult decisions.
  • Nov 14 2011: To evaluate and improve their effects on humans based on those humans' predefined goals.
  • Nov 14 2011: My wife votes for 'Google Home' - search lost articles at home, or in any given space. "Siri find my remote!"
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      Nov 14 2011: Hi Jofree, one of the capabilities I've been excited about for a long time is the ability for the computer to track the positions of arbitrary objects in 3D space. It seems like this would open up a lot of different kinds of applications, including finding lost objects and turning walls and tables in your home into interactive surfaces. finding lost things would be really helpful!
  • Nov 14 2011: Ability to format your short-term memory (e.g delete the last 2 hours from it)
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      Nov 14 2011: You can actually achieve that by drinking a bottle of liquor in one go..

      I don't recommend it tho!
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    Nov 14 2011: This is changing already but if could give them one magical power it would be to get rid of all of its hardware (but have it be practical too).

    I want to pull information out of the air like pulling a rabbit out of a hat! I want to slide pieces of information around in front of me like I'm some conductor at a symphony but instead of music I'm directing blocks of information to move about all at the same time and I don't want a square box (a computer monitor) getting in my way.

    You know, just like they do in futuristic movies (life imitates art?)

    Why? Do you really have to ask? lol
  • Nov 14 2011: empathy