Next-Generation Computer Visions

WHEN Mrs. Carson asked her third-grade class to draw a machine, my nephew Ross drew a robot.

As robots go, it was nice looking. What surprised me was the way Ross based it on computer-chip technology. He had drawn a fax-machine chip, a household-chores chip, and an ``arkad game'' chip.

``It does things like mow the lawn,'' he said.

``Oh. Can it see through those eyes?'' I asked.

``Yes. One of the eyes has a spring to eject the tape.''

``What about those arms?''

``It can carry stuff.'' Ross showed me how the robot checks his homework, plays videocassette tapes, and translates what he writes on the computer screen. I felt as though I had caught a glimpse of the future.

My generation saw the computer revolution. Ross's will transform it. The first people I knew to use a computer were high-school friends, fooling around with a programming language called BASIC. This year, a Seattle-area fourth-grade class designed and marketed its own science and math software for kids. My generation adapted itself to take advantage of this new technology. I suspect Ross and his peers will adapt the technology to suit themselves.

We can only guess what they will come up with. But their interactions with computers already offer some clues.

Last week, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry unveiled a new exhibit called, ``Imaging: The Tools of Science.'' Among the demonstrations is a virtual-reality lab where visitors maneuver around a computer room, move through the eye of the camera into its electronics, down its electrical cord, into a city, through a sewer, into a canyon, a lake, and back to the computer room.

``A lot of kids are going to drag their parents into the exhibit,'' predicts Jason Harris, the museum's media coordinator.

Similarly, at Boston's Museum of Science, some of the most successful children's exhibits are computer-simulation programs. The museum's Computer Discovery Space allows children to pretend they're paleontologists or ocean explorers - experiences they could not easily recreate on their own.

The experiences, using CD-ROMs or laser-disc technology, can be as simple as a children's book or as awe-inspiring as a tour of the solar system. Good software will be as hard to put down for the next generation as a good book is for adults today, says Paul Fontaine, the museum's director of public programs.

The computer also has to be easy to use. A few years ago, the Boston museum created a display where visitors would put in speed and fuel calculations to land a spacecraft on Mars. The exhibit flopped because the computer was difficult to use.

Interactive? Sight and sound? Easy to use? That hype now surrounds multimedia computing. I call it hype because I'm skeptical of multimedia in the short term. I can't see myself balancing my checkbook on a cable-television set. But Ross will know what to do with television banking. He will also experience the incredible connectivity that computer networks deliver.

Seth Itzkan, an educational telecommunications consultant in Houston, has just finished a report on teenagers' recommendations for global education networks. These teens are already blossoming out on the electronic frontier. One studied the differences between Soviet Jews who emigrated and those who hadn't by contacting Jews on three continents through a computer network. Another group worked with Chinese students. A third shared ideas with young Spaniards, until the talk turned to teen pregnancy and the Spaniards were offended.

``The era of seeing students as the provincial learner is over,'' Mr. Itzkan says. ``What's emerging is the era of seeing students as global citizens.''

One of those emerging global students was still chattering about his robot. I asked about the ``10,000'' written at the top of his drawing.

``That's the price,'' Ross explained. ``But I don't think I would sell it. I would keep it for myself.''

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