August 2000Books
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When Things Start to Think
Neil Gershenfeld

Alan Miller

Recently I spoke at a conference entitled
The Creative Summit, held in Sheffield over five days.

Its inspiration, organiser David Kingsley informed me, had been the TED (Technology Education Design) events where one was likely to bump into Malcom MacLaren, Martin Scorsese and Bill Gates, and where the boundaries between industry and art were less rigid.

Mike Hawley, who heads one part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, gave a paper at this summit. I was impressed by his academic prowess, and by his immense passion for technology and the possibilities it promises. I also thought that he had one of the best jobs in the world. One week a car company would call him and ask his unit to 'test crash' twenty vehicles. The next it would be an expedition up in the Himalayas testing electrical equipment and playing a spot of golf - all in the name of physics, of course. This was more James Bond than bunsen burner, and I was extremely jealous.

Neil Gershenfeld, author of When Things Start to Think, is a colleague of Hawley's and the director of MIT Lab's Things That Think Consortium. His starting point is immediately opposed to that of almost everybody else today: he states unequivocally that our problem is not that we have too much technology, but rather that we do not have nearly enough. Furthermore, he contends that the technology we currently have is cumbersome and sloppy and needs to be improved. This improvement, says Gershenfeld, can only be achieved when we stop erring on the side of caution and prescription and have the courage (and funds) to pursue radical options.

Gershenfeld is very enthusiastic about the possibilities. He wants to see digital ink on paper that can change its form and be reused over and over again. The things that 'think' that he describes, which also include shoes, musical instruments and money, can transform our landscape. Why, he asks, do we keep insisting on having a computer on a table with a box and a mouse? He is balanced and forthright:

'Choosing between books and computers makes as much sense as choosing between breathing and eating. Books do a magnificent job of conveying static information: computers let information change ... The bits and the atoms belong together. The story of the book is not coming to an end; it's really just beginning.' (p31)

Here is a logician who loves the inspiration of a music virtuoso, who is driven to push technology to enable others to engage in music.

Convention is not an area that Gershenfeld subscribes to. He gives chaos theory short shrift, illustrating its platitudinous and much-abused status with avid humour. So too does he deride the 'fuzzy logicians' who attempt to mystify probability theory with Eastern shades of thinking.

However, while his enthusiasm is endearing, he also illustrates how, when one only considers the possibilities of the market, a very banal and dull target and horizon is set. For instance, 'smart money' is simply that which is tracked to become more aware of a consumer's requirements. Do we really only aspire to have the type of coffee we desire recognised and then made for us using smart chips? When all is said and done, one can't help feeling a pang of jealousy for the students at MIT, who spend their hours under Gershenfeld intellectually and practically grappling with some of the most challenging problems we know.

Ultimately, the resounding chime comes due to Gershenfeld's humanistic approach to technology - he welcomes the idea of implanting chips in the brain once all the checks have been done, to create an 'evolution in evolution' (p244). While diverse pressures for patents and copyrights still exist, academics vie against one another, and businesses fear release of information, When Things Start to Think is a call to arms against the bile spewed by so many against 'globalisation' and technology.

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