Up to: What future do we want?

This was written in the 1970s.

Eyelids are useful organs, and earlids that would enable one to shut out sound voluntarily would also be useful. However, if we put our technological imagination to work, we can do much better than that.

Suppose all sound reaching a person's auditory nerve comes through an electronic channel. The source of the sound is selected and the sound may be filtered. The following are possible sources of sound:

The ambient sound. It comes from microphones attached to the person and may be filtered by frequency to eliminate band limited noises. It may be limited to eliminate loud noises. It may be selected directionally to allow conversation at a distance.

Radio and recorded sound. This covers the Walkman and its descendants.

The individual telephone. Telephone numbers should be attachable to persons as well as to places. Systems of cellular mobile radio telephones have been proposed for the usual mobile telephone applications. In fact, AT&T applied (about 1970) for frequencies for a system that will allow 500,000 mobile radiotelephones in a city. In this system, the city is divided into cells, and the frequencies assigned to a cell may be reused in distant cells. Presumably, the modulation scheme discriminates well against weak signals. A computer keeps track of what cell a subscriber is in or finds him when he is called and also assigns him an unused channel. We propose to extend this to a personal radiotelephone which will be feasible when electronics is yet more compact.

[1996 note: It took about 16 years before cellular phones were authorized. The delay was caused by lawsuits by companies wanting their share of the loot. A bargain was finally struck, and we have cellular phones.]

The individual telephone will have a number of social effects some of which might be bad unless compensated by suitable customs or laws. Any person will be able to reach any other person at any time. This can allow people who are physically separated instantaneous communication while they are engaged in other activities. This will enable separated people to maintain much closer social relationships of a personal or family or professional or hobby character. It obviously requires an elaborate system for the protection of privacy from unwanted calls. One must be able to (1) reject calls from certain people, (2) accept calls only from a certain class of people, (3) allow urgent communication, etc. Perhaps if a call is declared urgent, the sender incurs a charge on his telephone bill if the recipient doesn't agree that the call was urgent. If this charge was rather high, telephone solicitation would be suitably limited. In general customs will be better than laws, because they can change more readily and be more readily adapted to the needs and desires of subgroups of our society. (1999: While the problem of unsolicited calls to cell phones exists, it hasn't gotten bad so far.)

The extreme of personal control over sound would be achieved by having one's normal hearing apparatus removed and replaced by an electronic connection to the auditory nerve. No unwanted sound, however loud, would get through. There are several remarks to be made.

  1. It isn't currently feasible, but efforts to provide hearing for the deaf will lead to its development.

  2. It requires a permanent implant of an apparatus in the body. This apparatus will have to be powered, optimally by the body itself. (One can imagine a fuel cell electric generator that uses glucose and oxygen supplied by the blood, i.e. uses the same sources of energy as the other organs of the body). The apparatus must be safe for a lifetime of use and unnoticeable except through its function.

  3. The current ideology of the medical profession must be overcome. This ideology maintains that medical intervention may be used to restore "normal" functioning but must not be used to achive function better than normal.

  4. 1999: In the 70s, I didn't anticipate the problem of annoying other people with loud cell phone conversations. This can be partly fixed by adjusting the feedback to the ear of the speaker, so that his own voice seems loud to him even when it is quite soft.

I welcome comments. Send them to jmc@cs.stanford.edu.

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