Advances in technology hold promise, challenges for future, Microsoft official tells City Club of Tacoma

“Prediction is very hard, especially when it’s about the future.” – Yogi Bera

The above quote from the baseball great notwithstanding, Microsoft External Affairs Manager Mike Egan predicted a future that in some ways resembled “The Jetsons” at yesterday afternoon’s City Club of Tacoma luncheon at the Sheraton.
While he didn’t mention flying cars or meals in pill form, he spoke of computerized homes with personalized room settings, computers without keyboards and monitors and improved voice recognition technology during his “From Politics to Technology” presentation.
Egan is a man uniquely qualified to speak on the confluence of technology, business and politics.
He grew up in Puyallup, graduating from Puyallup High School and the University of Washington.
After college, he began work as an assisstant to Congressman Norm Dicks in Tacoma and then moved to Washington, D.C. in 1991 to serve as the congressman’s legislative assistant.
Egan spent four years with the Dicks, handling Pierce County’s transportation, education, housing and agricultural issues.
From there, he was asked by Sen. Patty Murray to serve as her legislative assistant, where he was responsible for working on her domestic policy issues and the state’s appropriations requests before Congress.
He also spent four years with Murray, and even managed to win the competition “Funniest Person on Capitol Hill.”
In 1998, Egan was asked by Microsoft to take the position he currently holds, where he is responsible for the company’s governmental affairs and community outreach.
“It’s been quite a ride for about three years now,” he said of his tenure so far with the Redmond-based software company.
Egan noted the hazards of attempting to predict the future, noting this 1943 quote from then IBM Chairman Thomas Watson: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Even Microsoft head Bill Gates has trouble seeing what the short-term future holds in terms of technology, Egan said, although he noted the long-term predictions of his boss tend to be accurate.
Nevertheless, was confident in saying that technology growth will continue in the future, in spite of the country’s current economic recession and the recent downward trend of high-tech stocks.
“I think there is a future in technology growth,” he said. “We’re just at the beginning stage.”
Egan noted that Microsoft is spending $5 billion in high-tech research, which is more than most major universities are spending on such research.
Indeed, technology is proliferating and constantly improving.
Where it took the automobile 55 years to reach one-fourth of the U.S. population and electricity and television 46 years and 25 years respectively, the Internet has taken only seven years to reach the same proportion of the population in this country.
“That shows remarkable adoption rates by this economy,” Egan said.
The spreading of technology is not limited to the United States.
The use of cell phones continues to increase around the world, especially in Asia, and Internet growth has exploded outside the United States.
“It’s not always domestic,” he said of technology’s expansion. “It’s a global marketplace.”
Computing power is also on the rise, doubling every 24 months, according to Egan. Meanwhile, more and more people are able to afford computers, as the price continues to fall.
The size of computers is also shrinking thanks to technological advances.
In September, Microsoft plans to unveil the Tablet P.C., a small notebook-like computer that does not have a keyboard or a standard television-style monitor. Instead of using a keyboard to type in text, users will electronically write on the computer, which will then translate the writing into text on the computer’s flat monitor, Egan explained.
The Tablet P.C. will retail for about $1,800.
Microsoft thinks this could replace the keyboard and monitor-driven computer people are familiar with now.
“We think this will be quite a transformation,” Egan stated.
Other technological advances that could become standard in the future include personalized room settings with a one button configuration.
With the push of a button, a computer could raise or lower window blinds depending on your preference, set your television or radio music to the station you wish to watch or listen to and even maintain energy efficient settings.
Thanks to “computer insects” – microchips in various devices – you won’t have to return home if you suddenly remember you left the iron on.
Using a computer at work or wherever you happen to be, you could turn the iron off.
“We’re eliminating some of the mundane chores,” Egan said.
Microsoft is currently working on improving voice recognition technology, he said.
This will be the biggest communications breakthrough since e-mail, according to Gates, Egan said.
The effectiveness rate of voice technology is about 92 percent now, Egan said.
“That’s not good enough. We have a huge amount of people working on this,” he said. “This smart product is a great challenge – making computers recognize voices.”
Other priorities for Microsoft – besides dealing with the ongoing Department of Justice monopoly case against the company – includes security and privacy protection, education and intellectual property rights.
In light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, security is the top concern right now, Egan stressed, stating, “This has become priority one.”
Also high on the list is education, with Microsoft working toward the goal of providing every child with a their own learning device.
In a pilot program where students were provided with a computer, Egan said student interest went up, their writing skills improved and students were more likely to explore topics on their own.
With the exception of the Xbox video game system, Egan said Microsoft will continue to focus on software.