Making the digital personal; From your glasses to your shoes, there's always room for computing, says the author of 'When Things Start to Think.'


Talk about your silicon implants. Neil Gershenfeld wants to wire, weave or wedge a microchip into just about everything but your underwear.

A physicist at the famed Media Lab at Boston's Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gershenfeld envisions a day when computers no longer mean ugly boxes on the desktop, but everyday items infused with silicon smarts.

Consider: A coffee table that knows when you've gotten up or need a refill. Toilets that diagnose your medical ills. An electronic cello that lets a tone-deaf tyro sound like Yo-Yo Ma. Eyeglasses that can "see" a mugger approaching from behind. Or the wildest example: a shoe computer that stores all your personal information and powers itself by -- you guessed it -- the

guessed it -- the motion of walking.

It sounds like science fiction, but in his new book, "When Things Start to Think" (Henry Holt & Co., $25), Gershenfeld stresses that the technology is not as far away as you might imagine. He points to Lego's hit robotic toy "Mindstorm," which sprang from a simple notion born at the Media Lab: What happens if you put a computer inside a Lego brick? Another product that has made the leap from MIT to the market is electronic ink, a "smart" writing medium that this month began juicing up display ads in Boston's J.C. Penney store.

Yet Gershenfeld is a rarity in the rarefied world of technology prognosticators. He knows that today's digital doodads are more annoying than useful. He likes the (true) story about the guy in Washington State who grew so frustrated with his PC that he pumped four bullets into the hard drive and one into his monitor -- computercide in the first degree. But, unlike some, the lesson he draws from this story is that society needs more technology, not less.

Gershenfeld, 39, studied physics at Swarthmore College and Cornell University and cut his teeth at Bell Labs on hard-core laser research. It was his love of the bassoon, though, that first got him thinking about things that think and brought him to MIT. He wondered how to create technology that could capture the essence of the bassoon, an instrument notoriously difficult to play and maintain, by bridging the chasm between the digital world and the physical world. Or, as he likes to say, between "the bits and the atoms."

Today Gershenfeld heads the Media Lab's Physics and Media group and is co- director of the Things That Think research consortium, a collaboration with more than 40 companies interested in making our everyday world more smart. It's a motley crew; its roster includes computer-maker Hewlett Packard, athletic apparel giant Nike and office-furniture maker Steelcase. His experiments also have wound up onstage with performers such as cellist Ma and magicians Penn & Teller.

Gershenfeld, who bounds from task to task like an electron between orbits, took time away from his lab to chat about his work and what it means for the future:

What's the central message of "When Things Start to Think?"

My book is about connecting the atoms of the physical world we live in with the bits of the digital world we've created. We had a digital revolution. The world's full of electronic information. The problem is that you live out in the physical world and all of the digital information remains locked inside these dumb boxes, which haven't changed from the earliest days of computing.

To make the computers disappear and merge with the rest of the world, we need to bring the technology much closer to people. So instead of virtual reality, we create a more interesting reality.

What are some examples?

Diabetics, who are notoriously bad at monitoring insulin intake, need a smart syringe that can measure insulin. FedEx needs envelopes that can route themselves. If you're at a Disney park, it should know your language and gender, so it can speak to you in the right way. Just on and on and on.

Right now in a typical office you've got a desk where you work, there's a computer screen you look at and a mouse you drag around. We've developed furniture that can measure fields in 3-D, so rather than you finding the mouse, the table can find your hand. So you could become a mouse. Now you simply have a nice piece of furniture that lets you manipulate the physical information, your paper and all of that, and the digital information.

It's actually a very retro vision of the future. Instead of more blinking lights and more displays, all I'm describing is a nice piece of furniture and wallpaper. The presumption is that the machine should meet its needs rather than you meeting its needs. It's a radically different approach to the design of technology. But one that's becoming increasingly possible.

It sounds pretty far out ...

Right now, people laugh when I say a shoe computer. But these are really not predictions about the future, these are predictions about the present. All of these things work in the lab, or are under development by members of our consortium. We made a car seat for NEC that came out first in the 1999 Acura. It looks like a normal car seat but it analyzes how somebody's sitting in it to control an air bag. It helps solve the problems of rear-facing infants getting killed by air bags. This is stuff that really is coming.

How do you strike a balance between too much technology and not enough? Take an electronic book, for instance. Some people argue that "War and Peace" is just fine the way it is.

What both sides in a debate like that miss is books and computers are both technology. In fact, in its day the book was the highest technology. Today you don't think of it as technology because form and function come together so seamlessly it works without you having to pay attention to it. So really what people who defend books are saying is: I prefer the technological characteristics of a book.

But we turn it around and ask: Can you retain those qualities while providing the connectivity and flexibility of the digital world?

An example of that is the work we've been doing on electronic ink. You can retain the beautiful interface of holding a book, but now, instead of one book, it can be any book. You can download other books into the book. So rather than fight about whether we should have electronic books or traditional books, I'd rather say, How can we merge the best of these technologies to make reading more interesting and worthwhile?

How far are we from the e-books you describe?

It's not decades, but it's not a year. Prototypes are coming closer. But that's not where the electronic inks are going to come out first. The first place the inks will come out are where you can have information displays you're not used to seeing -- wallpaper, furniture, things like that.

What about privacy? Won't all those loose electronic bits make it easier for someone to find out things about me I don't want them to know?

I don't see more computing as more infringement of privacy, I see it as the means to manage privacy.

Right now you have very little control over the electronic information flowing around you. So let's say we do put a computer in a shoe. You walk into a store with your identity on. Somebody comes breezing up and says, "Welcome, Neil. We checked your closet; we know you need a shirt, here's your size. We checked your demographics; you have quite a nice income, here's a great price." I get personalized service, I get a great deal, I've lost all my privacy and I go home and get all their junk mail.

But if you leave your identify off, the store never learns who you are, they get your money with no identifying information. It costs you more, you don't get personalized service, but you preserve your privacy. Right now you can't do that. Right now you lose control of your information when you make a purchase. By putting the computing in your shoe -- by bringing it closer to you -- you get the control again.

But all these things you're describing are man-made. And man-made things tend to break. What happens when our shoes or our couch crashes?

I can't prove that won't happen. All we can do is revisit this in five or 10 years and see what happens. We're at an awkward transitional stage right now.

Pub Date: 05/30/99

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad