By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
January 27, 2011

The man who wrote MacPaint thinks it could be a milestone in computer development

Bill Atkinson was part of Steve Jobs’ hand-picked team at Apple (AAPL) that developed the original Macintosh — the one that popularized the mouse, windows and drop-down menus — so he knows something about what computer engineers call human interface design.

And he ended a 20-minute presentation on the subject at Macworld 2011, which runs through Saturday in San Francisco, with a TV-viewing recommendation: If you want to know how we will communicate with our machines in the future, he says, tune into Jeopardy! on February 14.

That’s the day a pair of Jeopardy! grand masters are going to challenge IBM Watson’s DeepQA, a computer program designed to handle the kind of open-ended challenges posed by the show.

The Jeopardy! Challenge, as the researchers at IBM (IBM) call the project, is the successor to Deep Blue, the supercomputer program that beat chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. If it wins — and can field questions like “It was Ricky Ricardo’s signature tune and the name of his club” (A: What is Babalu?) faster than its human competitors — it  could be one of those turning points students of computer history talk about for years to come.

Atkinson believes that the killer app of mobile telephony will not be augmented reality or gestural interfaces or anything like that. Rather it will be earpiece that connects users to a virtual digital assistant who lives in the cloud and will remember the name of the restaurant where you had dinner last time you were in the city or the name of a vaguely familiar looking acquaintance approaching with his hand extended.

“I’m about to turn 60,” Atkinson says, “and most of my memories reside in the brain of my wife.”

Replacing Atkinson’s wife, in this respect anyway, a tough challenge — perhaps one of the hardest ever taken on — because it requires that the computer can follow the flow of a conversation and have deep understanding of how the world works.

“I know it has to happen,” says Atkinson. When? His best guess is between 2 and 10 years.

[cnnmoney-video vid=/video/technology/2011/01/14/t_tt_jeopardy_watson_IBM.cnnmoney]

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

You May Like