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The laboratory shaping our future


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BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- It is codenamed "Oxygen" and its achievements are likely to affect the way we live and work for decades to come.

That at least is the intention of researchers working on some of almost 400 separate projects that make up the Computer Sciences and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory's (CSAIL) grand research project into "pervasive computing."

"Project Oxygen is about pervasive human-centered computing -- that's our buzz phrase," explains CSAIL director Rodney Brooks.

"How -- with so many computers, so many embedded systems, so many speech-based systems, so many tablets and computers -- are we going to interact with them? How are we not going to be overwhelmed by them? How is it going to be easy enough to use them without adding more and more complexity?"

The answer to those questions, according to the Oxygen blueprint, is a world in which information processing and communication capabilities are built into objects and the environment around us.

It is a vision that big business is taking seriously. When Oxygen launched in 2000, it was thanks to $30 million in funding from six major global business partners, including Hewlett Packard, Nokia and Philips.

Research scientist T.J. Hazen has been working on voice recognition systems for 15 years with the ambition of building a computer that can understand speech in the same way that a human would.

"The goal of the research we have here is to try and integrate speech recognition and understanding into the standard interface of a computer," says Hazen.

Hazen's latest project, Voyager, a city guide to Boston that can understand and remember normal human conversation without requiring specific prompts to bring up information from its database, brings that goal closer to fruition.

"We'd like to get to the point where any novice can communicate with their computer using the most natural form of communication to them, be it speech or be it pointing or clicking," he says.

"The hardest point about computers right now is that you have to learn how to use the system."

Another piece of Oxygen research with obvious practical applications is Hari Balakrishnan's "Cricket" technology, an indoor version of GPS that works via a wireless intranet.

"Cricket is an indoor location system which provides location information to users and to devices indoors," says Balakrishnan, an associate professor at MIT.

"The early adopted versions of this technology might be in hospitals where it's very important to be able to track patients, hospital doctors, nurses and medical equipment."

With the success of projects such as Voyager and Cricket, MIT and its business partners are already seeing a return on their investment in Oxygen.

The Boston Globe newspaper has reported that up to a dozen businesses could emerge out of the project, while Oxygen-developed technology is already being incorporated in Hewlett Packard's iPAC computers.

For Oxygen's business backers, the partnership with MIT is all about creating a technology environment that will expand the potential market for their own products.

"This is really fundamental research," says Richard Zippel, the director of Hewlett Packard's Cambridge Research Laboratory, which monitors Oxygen while conducting its own research program.

"It's really identifying what the core problems are and the nature of the solution. Oxygen develops the germ of a solution and we make it into something practical like a cellphone."

Zippel believes the technology companies have an essential role to play in translating the work of academic departments such as CSAIL into marketable products.

"Companies that look for products in universities are mistaken, because universities are not going to produce products. What they're going to produce are ideas that change the world," he says.

"It takes labs like this one (at Hewlett Packard) to take crazy ideas that are really revolutionary and translate them into products that can actually be deployed in the market."


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