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VIRTUAL LIFE

WHAT WILL BE
How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives
By Michael L. Dertouzos
HarperCollins 336pp $25

People who still dread keyboards may find some relief in What Will Be. Author Michael Dertouzos, head of the Computer Science Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, predicts they will be disappearing within five years--replaced by systems that will allow us to talk to computers. As a result, computers will shrink in size, proliferate, and end up in everything that can draw power from the wall or a battery. And they'll all be connected to the Internet.

Tomorrow's ''information marketplace'' will offer a panoply of tools to help us deal with computers--and vice versa. Systems will learn what we want by tracking our eye movements. Business cards won't be necessary because handshakes will trigger information exchanges between our so-called Bodynets. These Bodynets will link a personal armada of tiny silicon chips--buried in shoes, belts, and credit cards--with the outside world, so people can make phone calls, check E-mail, watch TV, and buy groceries while walking down the street. Eyeglasses will become de rigueur since they'll provide video displays.

These are among the minor changes in store, Dertouzos believes. The big ones include a new sense of community. Personal computers have often exacerbated the divergence in shared experience unleashed by technology. Like cars, PCs tend to isolate us in private, often dehumanizing cocoons. Many home PCs still aren't equipped with modems. But ubiquitous computers hooked to a wireless, global, multimedia Internet ''will rebuild the notion of community, this time among millions of people,'' he argues. For people with common interests, geography will be immaterial. The world will evolve from ''computer autocracy to computer democracy.''

This will extend even to sex. Virtual-reality bodysuits will erase distances, enabling couples to do over the Internet what's now reserved for private rooms. Dertouzos admits, though, that remote sex is on the distant horizon.

In What Will Be, Dertouzos maps out the future with the authority of someone who has been within the computer revolution from the beginning. Thanks to his firsthand familiarity with the latest technology, Dertouzos boasts, his 1981 forecasts proved quite reliable. For instance, while IBM's first PC was on the drawing board, he predicted yesterday's ''toy personal computers'' would spawn a wired world of commerce before 2000. Today, Dertouzos' MIT lab is helping fulfill that prophecy. It's now home to the World Wide Web's oversight body and its director, Tim Berners-Lee, who conceived the Web.

When it comes to assessing how society will cope with accelerating change, the book can be somewhat cold. Dertouzos tends to deride skeptics. He dubs humanists ''humies'' and advises them to adapt--or else. Yet people have been around far longer than computers, and basic human nature isn't apt to change that much. Many people may prefer the mechanical jobs that Dertouzos expects to go the way of keyboards. If What Will Be turns out to be what really is, some of us may yearn for the good old days--and keyboards.

BY OTIS PORT



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PHOTO: Cover, "What Will Be"

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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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