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Keynote: Vinton Cerf

Filed in: accessibility, CSUN2004, tech, Wed, Mar 17 2004 16:45 PT

Last year, Ray Kurzweil carried the audience fifty years forward at the CSUN keynote. (Which turned out to be about fifty years further than many apparently wanted to go.) So this time around, we have another guy who is deeply rooted in our technical history, and looking

Overheard during the intro: “Have you heard of this guy?” “No, who is he?” Argh.

He started by talking about MCI Mail. His boss told him: “To do the impossible, first you have to believe it isn’t.” Power corrupts; PowerPoint corrupts absolutely. (Woohoo! Tufte speech! References to McLuhan! I’m in heaven!) So, he knows PowerPoint isn’t the greatest thing for speeches, but he’s going to use it anyway. There are now 800 million to 1 billion Internet users, with the US and Canada, Europe and Asia sharing equally in numbers. Asia/Pacific is going to be a huge source of growth. He predicts up to 2.7 billion users by 2015. It tapers off slightly after 2006 because of the diminished capacity to fund the infrastructure in the third world.

He showed a photo of a coin-op laundry in Belize that has added Internet service. He found 36 Internet cafes in Ghana.

Cerf explained why IP is so cool: it doesn’t care what its medium is, or what it’s carrying. He showed his “IP on Everything” t-shirt. (I love that story.) Now, he wants a t-shirt that says “IP under everything.” There are Internet fridges and picture frames. (He said he thought that was “about as useful as an electric fork.” When he thought about it, though, he thought it was pretty cool: only two buttons on the thing, manages the things it does well, and you can now have stock quotes or scores, whatever. He now has a half-dozen of them spread around his family.) Their presence, he says, implies a lot about what is about to happen. The ability to bring in relays, speech to text to speech, is a part of Internet architecture. So we can see these applications as the “tip of an iceberg-sized collection of functionality.”

Video conferencing, which was once seen as the “holy grail”, could come to pass as a result of video games implementing that functionality cheaply in one package. He’s talking about radio frequency identifiers (RFIDs). Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble are all about that because of stock maintenance. (I got what I think was my first RFID at SXSW this week.) He’s joking about Internet fridges using RFIDs to detect contents, and then use that data to determine what needs to be repurchased. (What’s frightening is that when I was working in online grocery, we were thinking about this stuff.) So he mentions that there are Japanese companies making Internet scales. He mused, what if the scale could talk to the fridge? (Big laughs.)

Next, the Internet wine cork. Imagine recording wine information on an RFID, and when the wine turns out not to have been good, you can ask what happened from the bottle, and the bottle can report back that back in 1985, it was in a room that was 104 degrees. (Maybe okay for madeira, but bad for other wines.) And Internet socks, so you can check the house for that one missing sock. Of course, there are security issues all over that, he says.

Now, he says, I’m not a designer of assistive technologies. He talks about Sigrid, who received a cochlear implant at age 50 after being deafened at age 3. There’s a computer that’s an important part of the implant. She said she turned into a “50-year-old teenager.” She even chatted up the AT&T operators, despite her husband (Cerf) being a vice president at MCI. Started listening to books on tape to learn how words she recognized in print were pronounced. She called the library to subscribe to books on tape. “They said, ‘You’re blind, aren’t you?’ And she said, ‘No, I’m deaf.'” Sigrid attaches a mic to people to talk with them, and she’s “not afraid to use this technology visibly.” She once took the mic off of Sam Donaldson when she wanted to talk to someone else. He says, don’t be ashamed to use technology visibly. Encourage people to be “fearless about using these auxiliary technologies.”

Naturally, Cerf wants to wire her implant device to the Internet, so she can hear data directly in her head. Though that is likely to be bad for cheating students, he supposes. It’s now possible to do various translations: amplification, sign, real-time captioning. “It’s that combinatorial power that I think is so exciting.” He wants to take these technologies from being assistive to being augmentative for people without disabilities. He wants that voice in his head, too. (And, really, accessibility has historically served this purpose: optical character recognition is just one example of systems that were widely used for accessibility purposes before it ever reached the broad market.) So “while you’re at it,” assistive technology developers, think about what other things you can do with the technology. Use standards to interoperate. (Yes! Listen and heed, assistive technology vendors.)

“I think there are people who abuse the intent of the ADA.” On the whole, though, the execution of ADA has been beneficial.

“Standards create interoperability.” He mentions the World Summit on the Information Society. He says he feels assistive technologies haven’t been adequately addressed, and he plans on raising that point at their next meeting in New York. But he shouldn’t be the only one. He wants people to get informed and involved in that, and make people creating Internet applications more aware of accessibility implications.

He says that devices “are just a receptacle for software” to enhance experience. Think about what around you can be fixed or made better by giving it more applications. (Provided they don’t just get 300 keys on all of them, I hope.)

Great plenary session. For a moment, I forgot I was stuck in Los Angeles.

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