||Chapter 14: Things That Think
Originally published by Henry Holt and Company 1999. Published on KurzweilAI.net May 15, 2003.
In the beginning, our collective vision of computation was shaped
by the reality: large machines, with lots of blinking lights, that
were used by specialists doing rather ominous things for the military
or industry. Popular Mechanics in 1949 made the bold guess
that "Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum
tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only
1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1.5 tons." Later came the fictional
images inspired by this reality, captured by the Jetsons' cartoon
world that put the trappings of big computers everywhere, cheerfully
filling their lives with the same kinds of buttons and blinking
If we look around us now, the single most common reaction to computers
was entirely missed by any of the historical visions: irritation.
Computers taking over the world is not a pressing concern for most
people. They're more worried about figuring out where the file they
were editing has gone to, why their computer won't turn on, when
a Web page will load, whether the battery will run out before they
finish working, what number to call to find a live person to talk
to for tech support.
The irritation can be more than petty. A 1997 wire story reported:
ISSAQUAH, Wash. (AP)—A 43-year-old man was coaxed out
of his home by police after he pulled a gun on his personal computer
and shot it several times, apparently in frustration.
Apparently? He shot it four times through the hard disk, once through
the monitor. He was taken away for mental evaluation; they should
have instead checked the computer for irrational and antisocial
There aren't many people left who want to live in The Jetsons's
world. I realized this during the early days of the World Wide Web,
when I unsuccessfully searched the Net to find a picture of the
Jetsons. People had made home pages for their cats, and dogs, and
cars, but no one was moved to create one for this most technological
of cartoons. Given all of the inconveniences of the Information
Age, who would want to confront computers in still more places?
Over the last few years an alternative vision of the home or office
of the future has been emerging, a rather retro one. In the research
community, the Jetsons' use of information technology would be called
"ubiquitous computing," making computing available anywhere and
everywhere. I'm much more interested in unobtrusive computing, providing
solutions to problems everywhere without having to attend to the
computers. By bringing smarter technology closer to people it can
Instead of making room for mice, your furniture and floors can
electromagnetically detect your gestures. Icons leave the screen
and through embedded smart materials they merge with the tangible
artifacts that we live with. A few bulky display screens get replaced
with changeable electronic inks wherever we now paint or print.
The local controllers for these things self-organize themselves
into adaptive networks that don't break if any one element does.
These data may go to and from an information furnace down in the
basement, heating the bits for the whole house. This is a major
appliance that handles the high-speed communication with the outside
world, performs the computationally intensive tasks like rendering
3D graphics, and manages the enormous database of the accumulated
experience of the household. Like any furnace it might need periodic
maintenance, but when it's working properly it's not even noticed,
delivering timely information through the information grates of
A coffeemaker that has access to my bed, and my calendar, and my
coffee cup, and my last few years of coffee consumption, can do
a pretty good job of recognizing when I'm likely to come downstairs
looking for a cup of coffee, without forcing me to program one more
appliance. Although none of those steps represents a revolutionary
insight into artifical intelligence, the result is the kind of sensible
behavior that has been lacking in machines.
Marvin Minsky believes that the study of artificial intelligence
failed to live up to its promise, not because of any lack of intelligence
in the programs or the programmers, but because of the limited life
experience of a computer that can't see, or hear, or move. A child
has a wealth of knowledge about how the world works that provides
the common sense so noticeably absent in computers. Similarly, Seymour
Papert feels that the use of computers for education has gotten
stuck. We learn by manipulating, not observing. It's only when the
things around us can help teach us that learning can be woven into
everyday experience. He's not looking to duplicate the mind of a
good teacher; he just wants a tennis ball that knows how it has
been hit so that it can give you feedback. Marvin and Seymour are
looking for answers to some of the most challenging questions about
improving technology, and the deepest questions about human experience,
in the simplest of places. They believe that progress is going to
come from creating large systems of interacting simple elements.
Just as people like Marvin and Seymour began to realize that, and
people like Joe Jacobson and I began to discover that we could make
furniture that could see or printing that could change, some unusual
companies started showing up in the Media Lab. Steelcase was wondering
whether your tabletop should be as smart as your laptop. Nike was
thinking about the implications of the World Wide Web for footwear.
This convergence of research interests, technological capabilities,
and industrial applications led to the creation in 1995 of a new
research consortium, called Things That Think (TTT).
The first decade of the Media Lab's life was devoted to the recognition
that content transcends its physical representation. A story is
much more than just ink on paper, or silver halide in celluloid
film; once it is represented digitally then it's no longer necessary
to create an artificial technical boundary between words and images,
sights and sounds. The most important contribution from this era
was iconoclasm. It was widely accepted then that it was the job
of governments and industry alliances to fight over incompatible
standards for new generations of television; now it's broadly accepted
that the introduction of intelligence into the transmitter and receiver
means that digital television can be scalable, so that the encoding
can change if the goal is to send a little image to a portable screen
or a giant image to a theater screen, and a program can bring a
broader context with it, such as annotated commentary or connections
to current information.
In its second decade, more and more of the work of the Media Lab
revolves around the recognition that capable bits need capable atoms.
The 150 or so industrial sponsors are loosely organized into three
broad consortia. Walter Bender's News in the Future has content
providers, asking how to search, filter, personalize, and distribute
timely information. Andy Lippman's Digital Life is looking at what
it means to live in a world of information, with questions of education,
and identity, and entertainment. And TTT looks directly at how the
physical world meets the logical world. These three groups can roughly
be thought of as the bits, the people, and the atoms. They all need
one another, but each provides a community to help focus on those
domains. They overlap in focused groups at the center for areas
like toys or cars.
TTT comprises forty companies broadly exploring intelligence everywhere
but in traditional computers. The bottom layer that I direct is
developing the materials and mechanisms to let objects sense and
compute and communicate. The partners include technology companies
like HP and Motorola considering new markets for their chips, and
things makers like Nike and Steelcase. The middle level, run by
Mike Hawley, looks at how to build systems out of these elements.
If my shoe, and yours, is a computer, how do they find each other
anywhere on the planet? Companies like Microsoft, AT&T, and
Deutsche Telekom are interested in this kind of connectivity. At
the top, guided by Tod Machover, are all of the capabilities enabled
by a planet full of communicating footwear.
The application companies are asking mission-critical information
technology questions that are wholly unmet right now, literally
keeping the CEOs up at night worrying about how to address them.
Moving computing from mainframes to the desktop was a trivial step;
they need it out in the world where their business happens. Disney,
for example, is interested in personalization. A theme park attraction
can't respond appropriately if it knows only your average height
and weight, not your language and gender. How can a one-cent ticket
contain that information and be read from a distance? Federal Express
has something of a mainframe model, sending all the packages to
a central hub for processing. Just as the Internet introduced packet
switching, routing chunks of data wherever they need to go, FedEx
would like a package-switched network. How can a one-cent envelope
route itself? Steelcase's customers want the file cabinets to find
the file folders: how can a one-cent file folder communicate its
contents? Becton Dickinson made a billion medical syringes last
year that are sterile, sharp, and cost a penny. Diabetics are notoriously
bad at monitoring their insulin intake; how can a smart syringe
be made for a penny? Adding much more than that destroys the whole
Health care is an interesting example. Right now it's really sick
care, a system that gets invoked to fix problems rather than anticipate
them. One of the biggest medical issues is compliance, getting people
to do what's needed to keep them well. Billions of dollars are spent
annually just taking care of people who didn't take their medicine,
or took too much, or took the wrong kind. In a TTT world, the medicine
cabinet could monitor the medicine consumption, the toilet could
perform routine chemical analyses, both could be connected to the
doctor to report aberrations, and to the pharmacy to order refills,
delivered by FedEx (along with the milk ordered by the refrigerator
and the washing machine's request for more soap). By making this
kind of monitoring routine, better health care could be delivered
as it is needed at a lower cost, and fewer people would need to
be supervised in nursing homes, once again making headway on a hard
problem by building interconnected systems of simple elements.
It's not possible to go to a technological consultancy and order
up these kinds of solutions; they need new kinds of devices connected
into new kinds of networks. The idea of things thinking is old.
What's new is the necessity and possibility of solving these problems.
That's the work of TTT.
TTT functions more as a "do tank" than a think tank. There are
enormous social and industrial implications of the research, but
these emerge more from understanding what's been accomplished than
by trying to figure them out in advance. While the latter order
is also valuable, we find that the former is better able to answer
questions that we haven't even asked yet, and to fill needs that
were not articulated because it was not possible to even conceive
of a solution.
And the sponsors need partners to build a business in these emerging
areas, but usually a great deal of negotiation is involved before
they can work together. Just as we learn a lot from student projects
that don't succeed, TTT provides a context for sponsor companies
to try out new business models before the lawyers get involved.
The most immediate consequence of TTT for me has been how it has
reshaped the Media Lab. When I came, most people typed at computers,
and there were a few desultory machine tools sitting neglected in
a corner. The Media Lab now has some of the best fabrication facilities
of all kinds on the MIT campus. Even more striking, every group
in the building now has an oscilloscope. This is the basic instrument
used for developing and debugging electronics; its presence shows
that people are designing and modifying their own hardware. Basic
computer literacy is quickly coming to include machining, and circuit
design, and microcontroller programming.
Very few people are left just sitting in front of a computer. Or
are even left in the building; pursuing these ideas has entailed
following them to other spaces. Not to home-of-the-future projects,
which have generally been rather deadly affairs designed and inhabited
by middle-aged white males in suburban settings, but to environments
that reflect people's personal passions, whether a networked Volvo
driving through Cambridge, or a smart space in the Smithsonian museum,
or a probe on the summit of Mount Everest.
The biggest surprise is how quickly the work is progressing. When
TTT started it was an elusive concept, a quirky domain out of most
everyone's field of view. In just a few years it has zoomed into
the mainstream, rapidly becoming almost as familiar as an earlier
strange notion, multimedia. This pace in turn raises a few questions.
The first is when TTT will "happen."
I don't expect there to be an epochal day when heavenly trumpets
blare and TTT gets turned on. It's leaking out now, and like so
many other technological revolutions, its real arrival will come
when the question is no longer interesting. Many early products
have been announced or are in the pipeline, and we've seen that
people are very quick to incorporate these kinds of capabilities
in how they live.
At one of the first TTT meetings, Mitch Resnick's group made smart
name badges. These could be dipped into buckets containing answers
to provocative questions, such as where you see society headed,
or what you would read on a desert island. Then, when you met somebody,
your badges would compare notes and light up a colored bar graph.
A long green line meant that you agreed on everything, something
that's nice to know. A short red or green line indicated a weak
overlap. Most interesting was a long red line, showing that you
disagreed on everything. These ended up being the most interesting
ones to find, because you were guaranteed to have a lively discussion
about anything. This kind of information was so useful that during
the course of the meeting people incorporated it into the familiar
gesture of shaking hands, squaring up and exposing their chests
to make sure that the displays were easily seen. All of this happened
without any discussion or explanation.
Another project, Tod Machover's Brain Opera, explored the implications
of smart spaces for creating an opera that people enter into instead
of watching from a distance. The audience shaped the composition
through a room full of sensing, computing, communicating objects.
At the premiere at Lincoln Center, Joe Paradiso, the technology
director, came upon someone in great frustration pounding on a structural
girder. Everything else in the environment had responded in interesting
ways; this person had a hard time accepting that the girder just
held up the building. As more and more things gain the ability to
interact, a steel beam that is all body and no brain will indeed
come to be seen as deficient.
The next question is what TTT will mean for the future of the Internet.
Right now the Net is groaning under the explosion of new hosts and
new users. Available bandwidth decreases as it gets shared among
more and more people, and the routing of data becomes less and less
reliable as it becomes harder to keep track of what is where. What
will happen to these problems when the number of people using the
Net is dwarfed by the number of things?
Not too much. A great deal of effort is going into upgrading the
Internet to handle real-time audio and video, for the killer Internet
application: telephony, or videoconferencing, or movies on demand
(pick your favorite). But your toaster doesn't need to watch movies.
Most of the devices being connected to the Net are bit dribblers,
things that send a small amount of useful data rather than a continuous
multimedia stream. These things easily fit into the margins around
the heavy users of bandwidth.
If TTT can happen, then what about privacy? The most Orwellian
fears for the future were not paranoid enough to worry about the
very real possibility that even your eaves may be doing Big Brother's
eavesdropping, or to wonder whose side your shoes will be on.
I believe that in the same way that bringing more technology closer
to people is the way to make it disappear, it is also the path to
protecting privacy. Cryptography is an arms race that the encoders
can always win over the decoders. The effort to encrypt a message
more securely grows far more slowly than the effort to crack the
code. Because of this, the government has tried to mandate encryption
schemes such as the Clipper chip that have official back doors that
permit "authorized" agencies to decrypt them. These have failed,
because software encryption is too easy to implement for it to be
prevented. A favorite T-shirt at MIT contains a few lines of computer
code implementing a widely known secure cryptosystem; the shirt
is officially classified as a munition that cannot be exported from
the country. Leaving the United States with this shirt, or even
a laptop with encrypted passwords, violates the unenforceable law.
The real limit to personal use of cryptography has not been regulatory,
it's been inconvenience. Your personal information cannot be routinely
protected unless the things around you know how to do that.
Even forgetting encryption, the official eavesdropping agencies
are drowning in the torrent of data flowing through networks. A
wiretap was originally just that, a wire attached on or near another
one to pick up the signal. Setting one up merely required access
to some part of the wire. That no longer works on a high-bandwidth
digital network. It's hopeless to try to pick one phone call out
of a billion bits per second passing through an optical fiber. This
means that legal eavesdroppers are reduced to pleading for convenient
access to the data. Their demand took the form of the Communications
Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), passed in 1994, mandating
manufacturers of telephone switching equipment to install ports
for legal government surveillance of calls passing through the switches.
Like cryptography, this is a battle that the eavesdroppers can't
win. It's far easier to generate data than it is to analyze it.
As the network bandwidth increases, as the number of nodes connected
to the network increases, and as efficient use of the network replaces
easily intercepted messages with signals that appear to be random,
the technological challenges presented to the eavesdroppers are
going to surpass even what can be solved by legislation. The answer
to Big Brother may well be little brother, a world full of communicating
things providing a Lilliputian counter to the central control of
In the end I think that the strength of these technical arguments
is going to turn privacy from a regulatory issue to a matter of
personal choice. Right now the price of your insurance is based
on your crude demographics, rather than your personal details. If
you drive safely, and you let your car insurance company have access
to data from your car that confirmed that, then you could pay less
than the bozo who cuts you off. If you eat well, and you're willing
to let your life insurance company talk to your kitchen, then you
could be rewarded for having a salad instead of a cigarette. The
insurance company would not be in the business of enforcing any
morality; they would be pricing the expected real cost of behavior.
These kinds of communication can be encrypted without revealing
irrelevant but sensitive identifying information, such as where
you're driving or when you're home. And the ability to turn insurance
from a static document into an on-line tool does not mean that you
have to participate; complete privacy will remain available, but
it will cost more because the insurance company has less to go on
to price your policy.
It's as irritating to lug along at 55 mph in the middle of the
Arizona desert as it is to be passed at 155 mph on a winding rain-slicked
German autobahn. Setting speed limits is a political process that
necessarily results in an unhappy compromise between competing interests
and varying needs. Driving faster carries a cost in pollution, road
wear and tear, and safety. All of these things have qualifiers,
such as the straightness of the road, the condition of your car,
and your driving experience. If you're willing to share this information
with the road then speed limits can be dynamically chosen and contain
useful information, rather than the current practice of setting
universally ignored rates based on the lowest common denominator.
Privacy alone is not an absolute good; what matters is making a
sensible tradeoff between private and shared interests. Connecting
things provides a way for these tradeoffs to become matters of personal
rather than national policy.
A final question about TTT is what it implies for the stratification
of society, locally and globally. If the haves are already diverging
from the have-nots, what's going to happen when there are all these
new things to have?
In thinking about this essential question, it's important to recognize
that technology rarely causes or fixes social problems; those are
a consequence of much larger social forces. In 1747 James Lind,
a British ship surgeon, figured out that British sailors were dying
at sea from scurvy because they didn't have fresh fruit (containing
vitamin C). Packing limes let the ships stay at sea much longer,
projecting the might of the British Navy much farther. Was that
advance in nutrition good or bad? Sailors' lives were saved, other
lives were lost from the wars they then fought, lives were saved
from the order imposed by the ensuing empire, more lives were lost
getting rid of the empire. It's too simple to credit or blame that
history on vitamin C.
Granting that, there are modest grounds to think that TTT can help
rather than exacerbate the existing divisions. There's a new foundation
growing out of the Media Lab, called 2B1, to develop and deploy
information technology for children in developing countries. It's
almost, but not quite, a Media Lab Peace Corps. Instead of drilling
wells for water, 2B1 will provide bit wells for information.
I was struck by many things when a large group of representatives
of developing countries came to visit the Media Lab for the first
time. I expected there to be a great deal of sensitivity about cultural
imperialism, or cultural pollution, in presuming to connect African
villages to the Internet. Instead, in many different ways, people
expressed the belief that the world is changing quickly, and it
is far more elitist to insist that developing countries progress
through all of the stages of the Industrial Revolution before they're
allowed to browse the Web. They want to participate on an equal
footing with the rest of the world. The loss of local culture is
a valid concern, but then the Web has also served to foster the
creation of community among nearby people who had not had a means
to communicate among themselves before its arrival.
The technological challenges they've presented line up almost perfectly
with the work of TTT. A computer in the middle of the veldt must
need no spare parts, has to run without an electrical outlet or
telephone line, can't require calls to technical support, must be
usable without a manual, and be insanely cheap and indestructible.
Such a thing is not in the direct lineage of a desktop PC; it requires
a range of new technologies.
Life in the veldt already provides a model for what this might
eventually look like; biology is the master designer of adaptive
systems that fix themselves. Extrapolating the history of the Media
Lab from bits to atoms leads rather directly to biology.
For the foreseeable future we've got a lot of work to do to create
around people inanimate technologies that they can trust. Beyond
that, it's impossible not to speculate about implanting them in
people. Your body is already the ultimate wearable computer; why
not move the heads-up display to your retina? Striking work is being
done in augmenting people's sensory and motor disabilities in this
manner, but I don't trust anyone yet to be able to do these things
on a purely discretionary basis. It's not until the technologies
outside of people become so useful and reliable that I couldn't
live without them that I would consider trying to live with them.
I'm not ready to see a dialog box reading, "You just crashed, OK?"
and then have to take a nap to reboot.
If the present work of TTT succeeds, implants are the natural next
step, equally intriguing and frightening. Even more so is what could
come after that, editing the genome so that you grow the right parts.
The genome already guides the fabrication of such exquisite machines
as the eye and the hand (as well as more problematical hacks like
the knee). What's so privileged about our current eye design? We
now do know a lot about optics, and chemistry, and could design
eyes that have a broader spectral response, say, or that could look
backward as well as forward. There are no longer serious ontological
debates about the design of the eye as proof of the existence of
a God, but we haven't taken seriously the converse that if the design
of the eye does not represent divine intervention, and we don't
intend to replace one deity with another by defying evolution, then
the eye is open to mortal improvement. And who says we just have
to upgrade our existing senses. Growing up I was disappointed when
I realized that it appeared that I didn't have ESP, but I do know
how to use a cell phone to talk around the world. How about adding
radios to brains?
The attendant ethical, social, and scientific challenges are staggering,
but the point stands that our current construction represents one
evolved and evolving solution and that it is open to improvement.
Evolution is a consequence of interaction, and information technology
is profoundly changing how we interact; therefore, it's not crazy
to think about an impact on evolution. If I'm far from being ready
to let someone implant a chip, I'm certainly nowhere near being
willing even to entertain seriously a discussion of aftermarket
additions to the genome, but I have to admit that that is the logical
destination of current trends. I fear, and hope, that we eventually
reach that point. You'll be able to tell we're getting close when
the Media Lab starts hiring molecular biologists.
In between the dimly glimpsed, terrifying, and thrilling possibility
of an evolution in evolution, and the present reality of an overhyped
digital revolution, lies a foreseeable future that is increasingly
clear and appealing. In retrospect it looks like the rapid growth
of the World Wide Web may have been just the trigger charge that
is now setting off the real explosion, as things start to use the
Net so that people don't need to. As information technology grows
out of its awkward adolescence, bringing more capabilities closer
to people is proving to be the path to make it less obtrusive and
more useful. The implications of this change are on display in the
laboratory now, and given the combination of industrial push and
consumer pull it's hard to believe that they will not soon be equally
Now that media has become multi, and reality has become virtual,
and space is cyber, perhaps we can return to appreciating the rest
of reality. As a technologist so frequently annoyed by technology,
as an academic developing products, as a member of the species wondering
about the evolution of the species, I can't imagine a more exciting
mission than merging the best of the world that we are born into
with that of the worlds we're creating.
WHEN THINGS START TO THINK by Neil Gershenfeld. ©1998 by
Neil A. Gershenfeld. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and