The Danger of Oxygen


Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. This is the act of breathing, an act necessary for life. Humans survive by breathing in oxygen which is carried in our blood and distributed to our organs, allowing our bodies to function;  keeping us going day to day to complete our necessary tasks. Breathing is such a natural instinct that we almost forget we’re doing it. But what if breathing required us to learn a process, an order of commands and actions required to prompt those commands, would it come as natural as it does for us now?

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), a department made up of over 400 researchers, have created Project Oxygen. The purpose of Project Oxygen is to make computation as “natural as breathing”. Integrating humanity into computing, the goal of the project is to create a pervasive, embedded super network of machines that will not require our direct input in order to properly function; these machines will be everywhere, equipped with tiny microphones and cameras that sense and remember our daily interactions and behaviors in order to aid us in operating more efficiently and reaching our full potential.

The use of a computer today requires knowledge about the machine and its operating system and software packages. An end user must understand where to go to find a specific file, and the steps required to get to that destination. For some, specifically the younger generation, this is quite easy. It is taught to them from a young age, from toys to academia. For others, such as the baby boomer generation and older, it can present itself to be quite the challenge, because it is not natural, and was never taught to them at a young, absorbent age.

The goal of Oxygen is for people to forget about a mouse, forget about a file tree, and start talking to their computers. But this is more than just talking to a notebook or desktop machine, these computers would be freely available everywhere. Using configurable devices that are either handheld, or embedded in the environment, humans will have computing power available to them whenever and wherever they may need it. But this computing would be different than what we’re accustomed to on a daily basis. We will interact with these devices; they will remember our information “personalities”, with the goal to keep privacy intact.

Development of Oxygen has not been simple. Several devices and operating systems are currently in development to make human – centered computing possible. Facing many challenges, researchers must ensure that the Oxygen system can support the diverse human system. So Oxygen must be adaptable and nomadic; pervasive; powerful and efficient, intentional and eternal. To accomplish this, Oxygen’s devices, networks, and software technologies are usable at home, work, or on the go.

At home, we would see the installation of E21s, or Enviro21s. These devices will sense and affect our daily environment through the use of cameras, microphones, and censors. At work, we will be surrounded by sophisticated super-networks called N21s, which will allow machines to locate not only each other, but people, services, and resources. On the go, we will be equipped with H21s, or Handy21s. H21s are handheld devices that allow communication no matter where we are. All three devices are empowered by O2S software that allows us to do whatever, wherever, whenever.

All Oxygen devices run primarily from voice recognition and cameras, or perceptual technologies. This allows users to harness the massive computing power of the Oxygen network to automate, collaborate, and access customizable information – including their own “knowledge bases” as well as those of their friends and co-workers.

Project Oxygen means the advancement of society through the distribution of knowledge to everyone, no matter what the social status of the individual. This allows us to operate more efficiently and accomplish more. Instead of searching for a printer to install on the machine, we can simply tell the machine to print to the closest available printer. Instead of hospital patients waiting hours while several tests are run in multiple labs, a computer can complete it in minutes.

While Oxygen makes the awesome power of computation available to anyone, I feel that precautions must be taken and the use of, or rather, misuse of the technology must be taken into serious consideration before a mass distribution of the finished product. Although the concept of the project is to allow human centered computing without the threat of violating privacy, there just isn’t a way to avoid the computer from becoming very intimate with the details of your life, which will eventually allow someone or something to obtain that information.

Along with privacy concerns, Oxygen also turns our society into a machine based society – even though the intentions of the project are to bring the power of computation to the masses, it will also, in my opinion, downgrade society by relying on computer processing rather than human brain function to solve problems and even complete daily tasks. While exposing oneself to some form of computing technology in 2010, be it a 3G Smartphone, or tablet device, or the traditional desktop – human beings are still required to use their brains to operate these machines. We still must remember commands, or file locations, or codes; we must know how to trouble shoot a problem with the machine, or remember our dozens of passwords.

With information readily available with a few keystrokes, we are presented with a blessing and a curse. If I were to need to reference a line from the Constitution of the United States in a political discussion, I have the convenience to look it up on my smart phone, but with information that disposable at my fingertips, what is the likelihood I would actually retain that information? It is not likely, because I could simply look it up again.  That is the danger.

While Oxygen promises to advance our species to the next level in artificial intelligence, it must take in to serious consideration the damage it could do to the main reason we have gotten this far in the first place, and that is the power of the human brain.


2 Responses to “The Danger of Oxygen”

  1. 1 Voice of the Universe

    This is another one of those all the well-meaning ideas that don’t work out in real life. Utopias often are.

  2. 2 Damon

    See “Rainbows End” by Vernor Vinge for one way this could go.

    Such a system would almost certainly create a subset of humanity who would wield almost magical power through superior understanding of the tech. Hackers a wizards.

    While this project is almost certainly doomed to failure, the direction of integration and improved user interface is rather inevitable. Our great-grandkids won’t understand why our grandkids insist on speaking to their computers when direct neural interface is so much easier.

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