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Jerrold Grochow
PC Week Online
May 10, 1999

MIT's LCS: A Whiff of 'Oxygen'

The Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology has been responsible for some of our industry's most important innovations. LCS, known as project Mac in the 1960s and 1970s when I was first a student and then a staff member there, celebrated its 35th anniversary last month. Its staff and faculty include many notables: Fernando Corbato, widely acknowledged as the father of time-sharing operating systems; Ron Rivest, the "R" of the RSA encryption algorithm; and Joe Weizenbaum, inventor of Eliza, one of the first natural-language-understanding programs. LCS still attracts the best: Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and now head of the WWW Consortium, which is housed at LCS.

At the anniversary gala, LCS created a time capsule containing mementos of these and other innovations. The capsule is to be opened in 35 years, unless someone earlier solves a cryptographic puzzle designed by Rivest which he believes will take 35 years to solve, even with expected improvements in computer technology. See to download a version of the problem.

The head of LCS, Michael Dertouzos (author of the popular book "What Will Be"), also took the opportunity to announce a $38 million Defense Advanced Research Project Agency-sponsored research project uniting eight technologies to create the information environment of the future.

Gearing up for 21st century

Dubbed "Oxygen," this effort is designed to create the environment that will be as important to our lives as the element. It consists of both hardware and software: The Handy 21 (for "21st century") is a combination global cell phone, two-way radio and network-connected device that can be reprogrammed to provide whatever services are needed. The Enviro 21 is environment-centric hardware with the same functionality as the Handy 21, but much bigger and designed to fit on your wall, in your wall, in your truck or elsewhere. And of course, the Handy 21 connects to the Enviro 21 via infrared link, as it connects to every other conceivable device, appliance or fixture in your home or office such as your locks, windows and doors. N21 is the network of the 21st century it is what the Internet will need to make the information environment work.

The software technologies begin with speech understanding; try (888) 573-8255 for a test run. Individualized knowledge access is the next software technology think of Lotus Notes, the Yahoo search engine, Firefly collaborative filtering and intelligent agents all rolled into one. Next is automation software, which allows you to include every conceivable device into the Oxygen network. Finally, collaboration software keeps track of meetings, who said what, what you are supposed to do and so on. The researchers at LCS think it will take at least five years to bring these technologies together in a way that will make Oxygen transparent.

It was thrilling to be associated with Project MAC/LCS, even in a minor role, and just as thrilling to be present as the time capsule was sealed. But I do hope someone solves Rivest's puzzle before 2034 so I can be there to see it opened. But then again, perhaps I'll be there in my cyberpersona, courtesy of new innovations from LCS.

Jerrold M. Grochow, formerly CTO at American Management Systems, is now CTO at folioTrade, an Internet startup. Contact him at

See the original article on the PC Week web site.

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Revised Wednesday, 28-Mar-2001 11:18:05 EST