Future shock from Japan: managing life by remote control

Just imagine: On your way home from the office you could flash a signal to switch on the oven for a piping-hot dinner ready as you enter the front door. And if you suddenly realize, miles form home, that you've left the lights on? Again, a simple signal will do the job.

These are just a couple of applications of a new fiber-optics telecommunications system being developed in Japan. It will soon enable people to study what is being taught in classrooms many miles away, make hotel and airline bookings without bothering a travel agent, and order groceries to be delivered from the local supermarket.

In fact, users of the system will find that they scarecely need to leave the comfort of their armchairs at home.

A pilot system should be operating in parts of western Tokyo allowing "telecontrol" of most everyday function by 1983.

It's all become possible with advances in fiber-optic communications -- information turned into light pulses transmitted through hair-thin glass tubes -- and related technologies.

This "21st-century dream communications network" is being developed by the Nippon Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (NTT), which has long been in the forefront of electronic research and development.

Other countries, notably the United States, are engaged in parallel research. But after a late start, the Japanese believe they will eventually emerge first with a nationwide practical total communications system.

With NTT's "information network system" (INS), utilities will read meters automatically.

"The day could soon come," an NTT officials says, "when you no longer have to battle overcrowded roads or commuter trains to get to the office each day. You'll simply work at home."

INS won't become a household word, though, until the analog communications systems still in general use are replaced with the more efficient digital types.

The analog system involves sending by wire or radio wave signals directly representing the vibrations of trhe human voice or printed message patterns. Under the digital system, messages are converted into a sort of Morse code, a stream of "on" and "off" signals with a fixed computer numerical value.

This cuts distortion and outside noise and allows far more messages to be sent. And the light signal pulses used in fiber optics offer even greater capacity and accuracy.

NTT officials say there are still a number of technical problems to be overcome. It will take considerable time for INS to be hooked up to all existing communications facilities, such as public telephones and telegraphs, telexes, and automobile train, and ship telephones, data communications, etc.

Researchers are also working on a better system of storing and quick retrieval and transmission of INS messages. There is also a need for new laws to cover such a comprehensive, complex system of communications.

But there is optimism that there will be no delay in beginning two years of systems-proving trials in western Tokyo suburbs in 1983.

The first pracitcal INS is to installed in Tsukuba, north of Tokyo, in 1985, with the first public users on line a few years later.

But is an armchair-oriented life style necessarily good? An NTT official smiles and replies: "Well, that's a bit outside the scope of our studies. But we don't see INS as encouraging a sedentary lifestyle. Rather, it will free people to devote more time to individualistic, creative interests."

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