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The Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do for Us M. Dertouzos (HarperBusiness, 2001)

What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives M. Dertouzos (Paperback: HarperCollins, 1998)

Made in America: Regaining the Productive Edge M. Dertouzos, R. Lester (MIT Press, 1989)

MIT Laboratory for Computer Sciences


Michael Dertouzos' biography

Throughout my many years working in the technology industry, I have been inspired by Michael Dertouzos. Whether it was posting his articles and insights on my walls and office door, or frequently discussing his work with colleagues, he has always helped illuminate my path. In fact, Dertouzos helped inspire one of the most meaningful career changes. Many people had a hard time understanding how I could walk away from my job as head of PeopleSoft’s immensely profitable education organization to launch their smaller User-centered Design department. But for me there was no other option. I was tired of applying band-aids to problems instead of caring for their cause. Following Dertouzos’ lead, it became apparent to me that the ultimate source of the need for many kinds of training is that organizations don’t focus on being human-centered above everything else; nor do they realize that technology should support, not be, that effort. I have since dedicated my career to focusing on the human-factor, and I’m still being inspired by Dertouzos’ wisdom and humanity. I spoke with him while he was beginning the media tour for his new book The Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do for Us (HarperBusiness, 2001). I hope you find his insights as profound as I do.

Conner: Would you begin by telling us a little about how you define human-centered computing—especially, what does “human-centered” mean to you?

Dertouzos: Human-centered means that machines are here to serve us rather than we being here to serve them, which is what’s happening today.

More directly, it means that we can communicate with our hands free and hit our level, which means speaking to these machines. There’s a huge difference between being able to speak to your machine and having to type or use all kinds of archaic forms of communication not natural to us. Speaking has been with us for thousands of years. It’s absolutely the most natural form of communication and the technology is now ready to move forward much more than ever before. We’ve promised speech before, but it was never ready. Now it’s bursting at the seams. That’s the first thing of what it means to be human-centered.

Conner: What else?

Dertouzos: The second thing is to automate the routine things that we do today. It’s amazing how hard people work with computers now. They work more than they did before and that’s because we haven’t learned how to automate things. I give lot examples in The Unfinished Revolution of how we can do simple things. For example, next time George calls or sends emails, route everything to me. Or, take us to Paris this weekend. It takes three seconds to say that to the machine and then it takes ten minutes to book the flight.

If you automate office work, which is 60% of our economy, you can give each of us a tremendous benefit. So that’s a second thing it means to be human-centered, automation.

The third thing is the ability to work with others across space and time. That’s not only from poor countries to rich, but from rich to rich and poor to poor, just working with each other not only for money but also for free, for personal reasons. Proffering and receiving human work from a distance and across time is the third dimension of human-centered.

The fourth dimension of human-centered is getting that information sorted by what we mean, and not by those results that only match words, which is what happens today with search engines. There’s a tremendous human need for finding what you need when you need it. The doctor wants to access diagnostic information and Medline from oncology databases. The banker wants to access financial information. Most people want to access simple things like, “What’s the weather?” and, “Is my grandmother’s train on time?” And we should be able to have access to good information when we want it and that’s the whole of what we need. That is possible to get today; much better than we have it, and it provides an extra dimension to human-centered. Doing more, customizing our systems to rise to each of us is very important. In our industrial era, we had the carpenters’ and jewelers’ hammers that were different. Now we have the same word processor for a six year old, or for you, a journalist, or for me, a technologist and author.

Conner: And if anything, we’re seeing fewer of those tools, not more. No wonder so many of us are frustrated.

Dertouzos: Finally, human-centered means attitudes, too. It means not being happy with only 5% of the people being interconnected when 95% are not. Speech can open the door to a billion illiterate people who cannot read or write, but they can speak. Speech also opens the door to the Chinese who have Idiographic characters, which are difficult to reproduce with keyboards. Bringing more people into where they can use these technologies to benefit and help the people in the African bush with education and agriculture. All that is part of human-centered on the social front. This is directed to what we want to do with technology rather than serving its faddishness and its mechanistic details.

Conner: I see in you someone struggling to help the world see where humanity and technology intersect. Is that accurate?

Dertouzos: Indeed. That is the center of my interest. And as you call it an intersection, I call it the juncture. Technology is moving very fast, like a jet plane and humans are rocks standing still for thousands of years, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and only rarely do the screeching, expanding technology and the rock come into alignment. When they do, great things happen because technology is serving a human purpose. So, you are absolutely right. Humanity and technology is my central interest.

Conner: In the last chapter of your new book, The Unfinished Revolution, you say, “Let’s not talk about technology anymore, but what we need to be doing with our lives...”

Dertouzos: That is also a topic of a long over due book that I’m going to write some day before I die, I hope. As you know, I liken human beings to a four cylinder car.

Conner: That sounds like quite a stretch. Would you explain?

Dertouzos: All right. Cylinder number one is our physical dimension and cylinder number two is our rational, logical dimension. That’s of course where technology and science reside. The third cylinder is our emotional, our artistic, humanistic stuff. And the fourth cylinder is our spiritual dimension, the awe we feel for the unknown.

I feel that the human being is the totality of these four cylinders or dimensions and we’ve been running on those four cylinders for thousands of years. In fact, that combination really got into the way of science when (about three hundred years ago) the priests would not let the scientists work. Then came the enlightenment and that eventually led to our splitting apart these four cylinders, letting the scientists grow and the technology flourish. These steps  then led to the industrial revolution and finally to where we are today.

But, we stayed split. So, now, we’re running on a single cylinder or maybe two cylinders at most.

Conner: Would you bring that back to Human-centered computing?

Dertouzos: What I ask now is, “How can the human-centered computers help us in these four dimensions of our human activity.” The answers are straightforward. In the physical dimension (cylinder one) and the rational or logical dimension (cylinder two), human-centered computers are going to help us do even more by doing less. We are going to automate information work. We’re going to really get 300% of human productivity improvement there. We’re going to be working with others across space and time obliterating national boundaries. It’s going to be a honeymoon. If you liked the industrial revolution, you’re going to marvel at this.

In the emotional, artistic, and humanistic dimensions (cylinder three), results are very mixed. There’s a partial gain from the human-centered computers because you can compose your writings and your poems and your art (your visual art and your sculpture) and whatever else you’re creating. Machines can do that and they can do a wonderful job for your research of background, your accounting, your economies, but they can’t help you create something better. The results are really a mixed bag. You get a little help, but not too much.

When it comes to the fourth cylinder, the spiritual dimension, there is absolutely no help I can see. It’s an inner situation where no external force can really help.

Conner: Let’s apply that.

Dertouzos: All right. If you are a businessperson with a lot of scientists or “techies” with a strong belief in rationality, then you’re going to be the winner. You’re going to be tickled pink, delighted with this new development. If you are a poet, then I think you’re going to be sort of half and half, maybe less than half because you will get some help, but not necessarily any that will make you a better poet. And if you are a monk, forget it.

It’s interesting you mentioned technology and humanity because the closure for me is that if we really want to look at when technology and humanity are going to catch up with each other (so to speak) it’s after we have caught up with our own humanity—learning how to live running on all four dimensions—all four cylinders. I’m not saying this because I’m advocating some cockamamie theory or some religion. But it’s simply because if you believe, as I do, that it’s the four cylinders that makes us human, we’ve got to run on all four of them because that’s all we’ve got, no more, no less.

It’s a simple observation. If we were cockroaches, we might have only two cylinders. But we’re human and we have four. That’s all we’ve been given by nature or God. It is my plea that we unite these split apart pieces. Then we’ll be able to admire the sunset, the wheel, and what may lie behind them.

Conner: That’s quite a plea. I would like to think, however, that the artistic or the emotional gifts may come out more from people who have been relying on their rational and logic dimensions because they wouldn’t necessarily have thought about sitting down and composing some of these things before.

Dertouzos: Well exactly. The notion is that if we save three and a half days out of the workweek, which is what 300% does, you work one and a half days and you have three and a half days free. Or if you prefer, you work three months and have the rest of the year free. The question is, “What do we do with that extra gain?”

I like the term “elected leisure” because it contains a lot of what you said but it also has other things in it. You don’t necessarily have to be creative. You can rest if you want. You can sit and admire a flower. Or, you can work on something else. You can really do what you want to do even if it’s not that attractive to others.

The kind of behavior and thinking we all adopted in the industrial era, which is that we work twice as hard to get two cars and a house (now we are going to get three cars) becomes a trap to us. What are we going to do with the extra time, the wins from the productivity gain? I would like to see us unite our four cylinders and ride on all four of them as we tackle that question. But make no mistake; that is an individual decision and beauty of life lies in making that decision individually, each of us, for the one thing we can control, more or less, our lives.

Conner: I often refer to the basic model of simplicity where the intent is not for simplicity’s sake but rather to provide the time to do whatever matters—and hopefully to have fun.

Dertouzos: It should be fun. I’m basically optimistic because it’s tremendous fun being human, you know. If you are pessimistic, you’re forgotten in the next hour. I have no use for pessimists. I am optimistic about this human race. I really believe that if we run on all four of our cylinders, we’ll enjoy our lives more. I’m not trying to impress my own principles on anybody else; I’m simply observing that to be human is to have different dimensions and to run on them.

Conner: How has technology changed the way that you, personally, have been learning?

Dertouzos: I’ve been fairly impressed in the simulator and kinetics areas, learning how to fly.  The training provided by a simulator is pretty powerful. I can extend that beyond me to doctors learning how to do surgery without cutting into people and things like that. Unfortunately, as you go beyond that, the jury is really out as to how computers can help education and we don’t really know very much.

Conner: Has the learning actually improved with the Internet and technology?

Dertouzos: I love to program and I love to find books I thought would be impossible to find. Both of those have improved. My wife’s grandparents have been conservationists. Her two grandfathers have written ten books among them and so I’ll end up on Bibliofind, where there are these very old books, and I just put in two grandfathers’ names and I got all ten books. There are some five or six hundred bookstores on it united worldwide and they have a common search engine. So, if you ask for a book you just find it wherever it is.

Conner: It goes back to the finding the information you want and when you need it.

Dertouzos: That’s right. You know I could have never done this in pre-Internet days. So, I certainly have been able to extend my abilities with that. It’s wonderful to be able to go on the Internet and look for other things that I like. I happen to be designing sundials these days so I like books on sundials. I find things like that on the Internet. It’s also great for email. It’s a love and hate relationship there. I have benefited immensely from things all of us have: the credit card system, the airline reservation system, and things we could never have done without computers. I love to program and enjoy being able to control my computer to do what I want it to do. I program everything from games to, right now, I’m working on a sundial that I’ve programmed. So there are many, many, many dimensions of what this has meant to me. But if you ask have I learned from this more than I have by reading, I would say, “No.”

Conner: You probably have a little less time to do that reading, though.

Dertouzos: No, I have plenty of time to read. I make it.

Conner: Well I hope everyone makes the time to read what you have written. I know that I’ve learned an awful lot from you.

Dertouzos: That is very kind, Marcia. Please don’t lose your faith.



Michael L. Dertouzos has been heading the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Computer Science for more than 25 years. He is author of numerous articles and books including The Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do for Us, What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives and co-author of Made in America: Regaining the Productive Edge. A visionary noted for infusing idealism with realism, Dertouzos has spent much of his career studying and forecasting technological shifts and their impact on society, and leading his lab to make these shifts a reality. Learn more about him at

Marcia Conner is editor in chief of LiNE Zine and CEO of Learnativity. Her work as a writer, consultant, and executive coach all stem from her fanatical drive to help people excel in life by learning all of the time and focusing on what matters most. Tell her what you’re learning at


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