My mom is the tech story of the decade

Chip densities will allow for the development of much higher-quality spoken interfaces than we now have. They will be like those in the original Star Trek TV shows, a far cry from the Mac Plus James Doohan (as Scotty) tried to talk to in Star Trek IV.

This is my mom, Tillie Blankenhorn. (She was born Mathilda Gertrude Edwina O'Donnell, on July 18, 1923.)

She's 86. I'm very proud of her. We went to Cavalia last night and she climbed to the top of the big top, then back down. May you do as well at her age.

Mom lost almost all her sight before the Apple II. She missed the computer revolution.

She didn't miss it, exactly. She has had a wonderful life. She spends most of her time in the home she raised her family in, with my brother, his wife and two kids.  She vacations with my sister's family in northern California, and this Christmas she's with me in Atlanta. She has friends, too.

Mom has never used a PC. She doesn't know the Internet. And she could have gone the rest of her life without wanting anything from the tech world I cover, save for one thing.

Mom loves music. It was one of her gifts to me. She especially loves Broadway musicals, and the lyrics of Johnny Mercer. Her favorite show is "Kiss Me Kate," and I was honored to take her to New York for the revival 10 years ago.

But this is a tech story.

Long story short, last year I got mom an iPod for Christmas. She loves it. It's an iPod Nano I packed with 8 gigabytes of her favorite stuff. She wears the earbuds, but mostly she keeps it in an iHome clock radio.

It's a miracle for someone born during the Harding Administration. Something the size of the Bic lighter she lit her Tareytons with in the 1960s can play hundreds of albums, and won't break if she drops it.

But there remains a problem, a challenge as it were for the 2010s that start tomorrow.

It's the user interface. Mom can't see the commands. She can barely make out the click wheel. The Nano can state the names of its menus and she can hear them through her ear buds. But she doesn't always know what the menu commands mean.

For instance, I put all her music into a folder with her name on it. She clicks over it and a robot voice says "Tillie." She is unclear what to do.

Besides, turns out she would rather listen to whole shows, in order. She chanced upon her copy of "Fiddler on the Roof" one night, and was thrilled beyond words to hear Zero Mostel again, but it was a chance encounter.

Point is that while the iPod is amazing, we can do better. We can make better interfaces, which respond to both your voice and your habits. Technology should be able to learn what you normally want and respond to you intelligently, not just wait for commands.

Which leads to a big story for the coming decade. Chip densities will allow for the development of much higher-quality spoken interfaces than we now have. They will be like those in the original Star Trek TV shows, a far cry from the Mac Plus James Doohan (as Scotty) tried to talk to in Star Trek IV.

And if my medical beat holds the promise I think it does, mom will be on hand to try it out.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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