Beyond the Mouse the Hand, and Beyond the Hand...

by Francesco Levantini

The ergonomic revolution of the iPhone.

Acocrdnig to a sudty of the Uinverstiy of Cmabrigde, it deos not mttater how wrods are wirteten, all lteters can be in the worng palce. Waht's ipmoratnt is that olny the frist and the lsat lteter be in tehir rgiht palce, the rset is ierrleavnt. The barin is aalwys albe to dceode all this cahos bceasue it deos not read ecah lteter, it raeds the wrod golbllay. Spontaneously, we could add: acocrdnig to you, waht do tehy somke at Cmabrigde? :-) Jokes apart, this reveals one of the most important secrets of the success of the iPhone and of today's computer science developments: the semantic connection. In the 90s, the computer remained on our desk, in rooms of data collecting centres, maybe in the pocket of our jacket, but they were closed machines or connected only between those who brought with them or on their own web everything necessary to work. Google, the social network, Web 2.0 have made a step forward looking for information and programs outside of the computer or the web and linking them between them through rules not of simple logistic or grammar but with the strength of their meaning. For example, if you inadvertently type in "m-o-o-b," XT9 presents "moon" because the "b" is just one key away from the "n," and the word "moon" is a more likely choice. It is called prediction. This is the reasoning that has inspired the Tegic Communication labs when they came up with XT9, the evolution of T9 with which it is possible today to write words and sentences on the telephone using only the nine keys of the numeric pad. The phone does the same reasoning as a teacher discriminating the sensible possibilities between a group of letters and their connection with the preceding and following words.
The search engines on the Internet have put together the research that led to the XT9 with Cambridge studies on dyslexia and applied that reasoning to the web. So, if on a blog of a site in New York a physician writes that swimming is good for the backbone, a company in Sydney writes about having pools equipped for swimming competitions, a teacher in London publishes a lesson in which he says that the backbone is the most important infrastructure of the back and a Rome hotel publicizes its pool on the terrace, a person looking for places to heal his back aches could have the surprise to see among his results the Rome hotel and without anyone in Rome having studied back problems or seen the New York, London or Sydney web pages. It is the semantic web: the semantic connection of systems. Up to now our reasoning is still stopped to the wires that connect the computers to the Internet. It is truly unthinkable that at home one morning, getting up and trying to open the refrigerator for breakfast, we find that the door is stuck and we read on its display: "Sorry, I received from the bathroom mirror a message that says it is time to begin a diet!" This was an old anecdote that went around at university and which, today, thanks to the wireless system and to the semantics of objects turned into a commercial product called WII.

But that is already part of the history of computer science. The true quality jump is seen with Android phones and in Apple's new versions of its mobile devices. When we think about iPhones what immediately comes to mind is the multi-touch screen with which, not only one finger, but the whole hand guides the man-machine communication. And it is only the first discovery. Immediately after we realize that the hand is the interface with which we transmit our style to the terminal which is configured on our habits in a sort of XT9 not based on words or sentences, but on our preferences for a display and our circle of friends and colleagues. It is still with the hand that the phone, through the device's biometric identification integrated systems recognizes us and connects us to the environment. It becomes the key to open the doors to the car, the office, our apartment, our financial institution. Safer than the ID card, it is assured in the high spheres of the Cupertino company. But the iPhone goes beyond this. It is a true personal social network. It allows connection to address books and agendas of our community. We only need to change the Security Identity Module (SIM) of our mobile phone to update automatically the address book of all our friends without the annoying SMS messages. We can plan a meeting or organize a dinner with a touch and without the endless calls to resolve problems linked to the others' availability. Even the time and dates are calculated automatically without the direct contact between users. This is the exchange of information between the terminal's location systems which from the semantic web brings us to the semantic object and deals with everything including guiding people to the meeting place. It is only a simple fantasy game to think that restaurants that are particularly "in" open a wireless door, maybe indicating it with an iPhone sticker on their window, that informs the chef about where the clients are at which allows him to prepare the pasta. The iPhone revolution begins from the hand and becomes wireless at low cost. But it's not over. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology they already see in the multi-touch the bottle neck of the computer evolution and thanks most of all to funding from Apple and Google they are orienting their own research to break down the most resistant taboo of biotechnology. Once again, the basic intuition is very simple. When I execute a movement, raising my arm and stretching my leg, my brain configures neurons and synapses through electro-chemical signals which can be recorded from a common electroencephalogram.

The surprising thing is that the electro-chemical signal of the movement crosses the neurons even when the limb that I would like to move is no longer there. Could subcutaneous electrocerebral sensors then govern artificial limbs? Maybe so. The problems today are not in the flow of information but in the costs of microrobotics necessary to build prostheses. It appears to be much less costly and complex to connect via wireless the electrodes of a cerebral implant to a computer and to take away a bit of science fiction from the books of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson and hand it over to biotechnology. But we are looking at only one side of communication: the one between man and machine. The other side, machine-man, opens, thanks to biotechnology always, marvelous and incredible scenarios that MIT is already designing. Beyond the hand, the pharmacological interface.
That there exist astonishing substances able to produce hallucinatory experiences is unfortunately ordinary these days. They are drugs that act in areas of the brain with random chemical stimulus and often with disastrous effects. But it is unthinkable to have pharmaceutical products that drug the nervous system with chemical substances whose distribution is controlled by an implant guided by the software of the calculator? Hallucinations controlled by a desktop computer? For Oliver Sacks, the cognitive psychologist to whom we owe the discovery of proprioceptive awareness, this is a route that is practicable and at MIT they already see its engineering through true "biological agents". It is microrobotics chemistry. For the moment in its initial stages, unfortunately or fortunately, but there is plenty of funding so who knows? If today Apple with its iPhone allows us to foresee the possibility to avoid our hero to be humiliated by a locked refrigerator door so that he can slowly open it to find exclusively dietetic products, tomorrow? Maybe he will get up with the only desire to have black coffee thanks to a connection of his neurons with his bathroom mirror. I will end with the thought from an important professor of mine, Professor Marco Somalvico, the father of robotics and with whom I had the chance to work.
- Professor, I confessed to him one day, I don't think I will ever have the courage to use biological agents. 
- Today, no, he answered. But what will happen when very experienced managers will begin losing business negotiations because of young executives using pharmaceutical technology? And when perfectly unknown people will begin to show two or three racing tracks rounds to the big names in Formula 1 in world championship races only using biological interfaces instead of the wheel?

Picture - Giant touchscreen