Skip to main content

The Future of Unobtrusive Technology.

Neil Gershenfeld is author of "When Things Start to Think." (Henry Holt) He talks about his research into the future technology. This includes shoes with computers in them, Refrigerators that tell you when the milk is expired, and coffee cups that know how you like your coffee. He co-directs the Things That Think research consortium at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Ma.

19:18

Other segments from the episode on February 22, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 22, 1999: Interview with Tom Standage; Interview with Neil Gershenfeld; Obituary for Gene Siskel.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 22, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022201np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Tom Standage
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

In the 19th century a new technology was developed and suddenly we were communicating with people half a world away. Social critics predicted it would bring about world peace. Hackers developed their own subculture, used secret codes and lingo. And the government pondered how to regulate the industry.

The pace of business sped up astronomically. Some said it threatened to destroy family life and society as we know it. Sounds a little bit like the Internet doesn't it? But this is the history of the telegraph.

In his recent book, "The Victorian Internet," Tom Standage writes that many of the issues we're confronted with by cyber communication, such as freedom of speech on the Internet; electronic fraud; even Internet marriages and divorces, the Victorians experienced before us.

Standage is a science writer for "The Economist" in London. He says that technically the story of the telegraph doesn't begin with Samuel Morse, but rather with a French Abbey, Jean Antoine Nolee (ph), who conducted an electrical experiment in April 1746.

TOM STANDAGE, AUTHOR, "THE VICTORIAN INTERNET": In France it was all the rage to go around staging demonstrations of the power of electrical apparatus and one of these demonstrations was carried by Jean Antoine Nolee who was a French scientist. And he got about 200 monks to stand in a long line, and he gave each of them a piece of wire and so they held a wire in each hand connecting them to their neighbors and formed a great long chain of monks about a mile long.

And they weren't really sure why they were doing this and then Nolee connected a very primitive electric battery to one end of this chain of monks, at which point they all got a huge electric shock. And he wrote in his diary that they all exclaimed and contorted at the same time. And that sounds like he's got a bit of a sadistic streak.

But in fact the reason that he was doing this and the reason that the simultaneous contortions and exclamations of the monks were important was this showed that you could send an electrical impulse over the distance of a mile. And it would cover that distance, as far as anyone could tell, instantly.

And so that was important because it meant that the electricity was travelling very fast, it appeared to be travelling infinitely fast. But it also showed that you could send electricity over a long distance. So potentially, if you could figure out how to do it, you could build a signaling system that used electricity. And this was in 1746, and it was the best part of a century before the first telegraph line -- the first electric telegraph -- was set up by Samuel Morse. So it took almost a century before Morse for everyone to figure out the details.

BOGAEV: It really sounds like a Monty Python skit, doesn't it?

STANDAGE: It does, doesn't it.

BOGAEV: Now the very first telegraph was an optical telegraph, and this also -- this is a funny funny story. Someone called the Chap (ph) brothers in France started out by clanging copper casserole pots at each other.

STANDAGE: This is about the 1790s by this time, so this is 50 years after the monks. And still, people are trying to figure out how to build electric telegraph -- no one's done it. So Chap decides, having gotten no further than anybody else, that he's going to try a completely different approach. And he switches to this idea of using casserole dishes.

And the way it works is you have two clocks, which only have second hands on them, and you synchronize the clocks and then he and his brother, standing outside their parents else in France, would send messages to each other. And all that would happen is as the secondhand moves over my clock -- if I want to send you the number three then when the secondhand is over the three I hit by pan and it goes, "clang."

And when you hear the "clang," you look at where your clock is, and it's over three as well. So you write down the number three. And then I wait until it's over the number seven and I hit it again and so on. So we can send numbers to each other this way, and then provided we've agreed in advance with the numbers mean, say we might have a cookbook for example with numbered phrases or words and it, then we could send messages to each other.

And so this was Chap's first plan and then he realized that if he was going to make it work over longer distances rather than using an audible signal it would made a lot more sense to use a visible signal. So he switched to a rotating black and white panel and used telescopes.

And that meant you could send messages using exactly the same technique as the synchronized clocks and the code book over a distance of easily 10 miles. And in fact that's the Chap brothers did and they staged a public demonstration of this system, at which point they needed to give it a name. And they wanted to call it the "tackygraph," which means "faster writer."

But it wasn't actually all that fast. I mean, it was much faster than anything had been before, but they were advised not to overstate their claim. So they changed the name to "telegraph" or "far writer." And there you have it, that's the word that has survived to this day.

BOGAEV: So it's the smoke signal theory of the telegraph.

STANDAGE: Yes, same sort of thing. Yes, exactly. You can see -- you can see something far away, pretty much it's the speed of light, you know, very fast so that was the principle they were taking advantage of there.

And of course they realized that if you had several of these people with their flapping shutters or their cookbooks and they all had telescopes then you could chain several of these telegraph stations together. And you could send messages over even longer distances. And by the time they got government backing to build this -- this is after the French Revolution. And in fact Napoleon, who came to power shortly after they started building their telegraph system, was a big fan of telegraphs. And he built a kind of Europe wide network of telegraphs.

This was a mechanical Internet, really. And it was the first really substantial data network. It's an extremely impressive lot of technology. It involved towers with, by that stage, movable arms. But it all worked on the same principle, which is you look at the position of the arms through a telescope. You had a chain of these towers. And you could send messages over long distances much faster than you could ever send them via horseback messenger.

BOGAEV: It did take Samuel Morse to take the telegraph technology to the next level. Morse was one of those icons -- American icons -- that most of us don't know too much about, I would guess. I understand he was a portrait painter. How did he get interested in the telegraph idea?

STANDAGE: Morse was a rather odd chap by all accounts. He was a portrait painter, but he was also interested in science. There wasn't a strict divide between art and science quite the way there is now. You could actually be educated -- in those days you could be educated in both. It's much harder to do that now.

But he was interested an electrical theory and he was very interested in early photography for example. He was one of the first people to bring early photographic processes over to America. So he generally sort of kept up with what was going on. And he was coming back from Europe were he'd been on a trip to improve his painting in 1832, and he was coming back across the Atlantic and the subject at the table turned to the business of electrical theory.

And between Nolee's time, and in fact Chap's time and the various failed attempts in the 18th-century to build an electric telegraph, there had been quite a few advances. In particular Walter (ph) had invented the battery in 1800. And then the galvanometer and the electromagnetic had invented in the 1820s.

And individually, big deal, but if you put them all together you are starting to get the pieces you need for a telegraph circuit. And Morse hit upon the idea, which he thought was original, of building an electric telegraph. Now of course he was just one in a long line of people to have this idea, but he was unaware of that which was probably a good thing because he probably would not have bothered to take it any further if he had realized.

But he had seen the electrical side of things was pretty much sorted out. It sounded as though the theory had been established. So he turned his attention to the other side of things, which is if you can turn things on and off at a distance how do you use that to send information. And that was where -- that was what led him to invent Morse code.

And oddly enough, it was really the invention of Morse code that was the reason that Morse succeeded. But it turns out that there were something like 50 or 60 working telegraphs before Morse's. So although he is credited with the person who made the telegraph a reality, there are lots of other people who could just as easily claim to have built a working telegraph before him. And this was why he ended up embroiled in complex legal battles later in his life.

BOGAEV: Once Morse developed Morse code and the telegraph technology sorted itself out somewhat, was it the same kind of situation that we had with the Internet. It was around for a while -- quite a while -- and then it suddenly caught on?

STANDAGE: The thing about the Internet is if you look at the rate at which it's been growing, it hasn't really taken off lately. It's always been growing at the speed at which it's been growing. It's just that it started off growing very fast within a small community. And eventually it outgrew that community and sort of we all became aware of it in about 1993.

The same thing did happen with the telegraph. The first line was funded by the American government -- the U.S. government. And was between Washington and Baltimore. And Morse then said, OK, well now we've proved it works, and they sent this famous message, "what hath God wrought."

And that showed that it -- it convinced all the skeptics that he wasn't some sort of charlatan. He said, OK, well now what we want to do is wire up the major cities of the United States, which was clearly the next step. But this was going to cost an unbelievable amount of money. So when it was clear that the government was not going to provide the funds to do this, Morse turned to private enterprise.

And what we then see is this extraordinary growth, so that by 1852 census the telegraph has really taken off. And it then does grow exponentially after that and there are hundreds of thousands of miles within the space of 15 years.

So there was this extraordinary period where telegraph wires were just being strung up everywhere. And the parallels between that period and the early years of the Internet -- the early public perception of the Internet -- are quite extraordinary, because what you see is on the one hand you have these people who like Morse believe that the telegraph is wonderful. It's going to solve humanities problems. It's going to lead to world peace. It's just going to change the world.

And then you have other people who are very skeptical about the whole thing, and say, we don't want to be to over reliant on this new technology and it's just a passing fad and so forth. And then in between you have the vast majority of people who are just deeply confused by the whole thing. What does this mean to me? What's the -- is this really important? Do I really have to know about it? Do I have to know how it works? And so on. And that's exactly what we see with the Internet.

BOGAEV: Well, one of the qualitative changes that people talk to that the Internet has brought on is this idea that there is an unprecedented speed of communication in our work lives now, and that changes the way we do business and the way we live. That you're always wired. You're which getting information. You can't escape. You can't get away from work. Did the telegraph have that same kind of impact on people?

STANDAGE: Yes. Yes. It had the very -- it had exactly the same impact. In fact I would argue that for the businessman of the time it was worse. I really don't have much sympathy for people who complain about information overload today, because you can send faxes and you can ring people up five years ago and now you just get e-mail instead.

And e-mail, in many respects, is preferable because you can answer it when it suits you rather than the phone which you have to answer when it rings. But no, if you look back at the 1860s there was a speech given in 1868 by a businessman called W.E. Dodge, and he enunciated this problem which seems to be very similar to what people are complaining about today. And he says that he is a trader.

Whereas previously he would deal with the other merchants around world by letter and he would write to them and he would hear from them two or three times a year, and they'd say what's the price of tea? And he'd say, oh it's this much. And what's the price where you are? And they'd say this much.

Then he might write to them again and say all right, then I'll buy this much and so on. It was all, you know, the pace of life was slow. And then the telegraph comes along and suddenly you can send a message like this in minutes. And so suddenly you can cable people once a day or once an hour and say what's the price of tea. And they can tell you. And then you can say, oh, that's a good price.

And then you can cable them again and order some. And then of course it needs to actually be delivered by ship, but the chances are you've sold it before the ship's even left the port. And suddenly there was this terrific acceleration from two or three communications a year to as many as you like in a day.

And then of course it got worse because he would complain that at the end of the day he used to be able to just go home, but with the telegraph he would go home and start eating. And he'd be sitting with his family and then the messenger boy would come knock at his door with a telegram saying you've got to go back to the office and cable San Francisco and buy some wheat or whatever it was.

And so he thought this was terrible because he was saying that, you know, fair enough there are benefits here for businessmen but there are drawbacks as well. But he pointed out something that today people have realized with the Internet as well, which is that you can't ignore this technology and that if you're in business and your competitors start using this technology you have no alternative but to adopt it yourself.

And this is what -- this was exactly what Dodge said. He said, the businessman of today has no choice. He must use the telegraph.

BOGAEV: How drastic was the effect of the telegraph on the economics of the day? Did it completely change the volume of business and the speed with which people could make their fortunes?

STANDAGE: Yes. The thing about the telegraph was that it let you have a regular fix of information if you wanted it. You could have a telegram with the news headlines or whatever delivered to you. But if that wasn't enough you could have a stock ticker put into your office. And the stock ticker was essentially a form of telegraph, and it would just go chatter away and the piece of paper would come out giving you a constant stream of information.

And this is one of the things that was -- that was held up against the telegraph as an example of how it increased the stress of business life. Similarly, you could have private line telegraphs put into companies that enabled a company to spread itself out over a much larger area. You could have a sort of head office and you could have district companies spread around a country. So you have the beginning of corporate America, really, happening in parallel with the rise of the telegraph. And one couldn't have happened without the other.

BOGAEV: I'm talking with Tom Standage. His new book is "The Victorian Internet." It's about the age of the telegraph and the evolution of that technology and the parallels with what's happening with the Internet today. We're going to take a short break now, Tom, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us my guest is Tom Standage. He writes about science...

AUDIO GAP

...history of the telegraph.

It's really an amazing story, the story of the first transatlantic cable. Apparently the first attempts to lay the cable underwater were quite outlandish. What did they try?

STANDAGE: Well, the first attempts at underwater telegraphy -- I mean, Morse had a go at it -- Samuel Morse -- in about 1840 apparently. Any he tried running wires out to -- across New York Harbor. And it seemed to work.

And having tried telegraphy across a small stretch of water he said, oh, well, that's it then that shows that telegraphy is possible underwater. So it won't be long before we wire up the whole planet. But in fact it was quite a lot longer then he thought it would be.

It took about 30 years before the technology for laying enormous great cables across the Atlantic and across the Pacific had been sorted out. And along the way there were all sorts of disasters. The first attempt in 1858 to lay a transatlantic cable involved a cable that was so big that it wouldn't fit in any ship that existed at the time.

So it had to be cut into two pieces. And there were then various problems with how you then lay this cable in two pieces across the bottom of the Atlantic from the West Coast of Ireland over to Newfoundland. Should the ships go to the middle of the sea, splice the two cables and then sail off in opposite directions. Or should they start laying it and then halfway through connect the other cable long. Nobody knew.

And they tried various things, the cable broke and fell into the sea and stopped working. And a whale showed up and grazed the cable and they all thought they were done for. And eventually they managed to link America to the European network. And there was this sort of mass hysteria as a result. There were a hundred gun salutes in New York and Boston. There was dancing in the streets. Queen Victoria and the U.S. president at the time, whose name escapes me, sent each other historic messages saying how great it was.

It really was seen as the technology that would draw the nations of the world together and lead to world peace. Because nations who are thinking of going to war with each other could simply send each other a few telegram and resolve all their differences and that was it. And so that really was how it was seen. It really was thought to be the beginning of a new era.

Unfortunately, the cable broke almost immediately and just gave up the ghost after about two weeks. And then there were accusations that it had all been a hoax. And it took about another eight years before another working cable was laid.

BOGAEV: Did people meet and fall in love and get married over the telegraph wires the same way they do on the Internet these days?

STANDAGE: Yes. Yes, they did. I mean, pretty much anything you can think of that happens on the Internet happened on the telegraph as well. And this was no exception. The thing about telegraphy was that since you were a disembodied telegrapher and the only way you interacted with other people was by dots and dashes -- it didn't matter who you were.

If you were the sort of person who would normally have been refused the opportunity to do a job then you had a pretty good chance of being able to do it if you wanted to do telegraphy. So I'm thinking in particular here of women and children. The telegraph community was very much open to women and children if they could show that they were actually skilled operators.

Because it really didn't matter who you were as long as you could do Morse code, that was what counted. And as a result, by 1870, a third of operators in New York were women. Children would very often start out as message boys. They would learn Morse code by sort of hanging around the operators and this is how Thomas Edison got started -- Andrew Carnegie got started.

And telegraphy was seen very much as a way for improving your lot. And if you were a good operator you would start to gravitate toward the cities where the best operators worked doing press work and sending news copy, which was the most demanding form of telegraphy.

But as a result of this, it meant that there were -- there were both men and women over the wires interacting with each other sending each other messages. Some people claimed you could recognize a woman from the touch of her -- the way she sent Morse code. A woman's touch on a Morse key was supposed to be lighter than a man's and so on.

People were striking up friendships with people on the other side of the country. They often didn't know if they were male or female, and inevitably some romances came out of this. And in fact very often the female operators would be put in a separate room with a matron to look after them to prevent them from coming into contact with any undesirable telegraphers.

But of course they were in direct contact with them all day over the wires. So this did happen. There were a couple of telegraphic weddings. There were businesses were the actual ceremony took place online. There was one as early as the mid-1840s.

There was another in 1876 where everybody along the telegraph line listened in and the telegraph -- the ceremony was actually broadcast in Morse code. And afterwards the groom was often met by other telegraphers because he was a telegrapher himself, who said, oh yes, I was at your wedding. So, yes, all these things happened.

BOGAEV: Morse code was just replaced last week, I think, by satellite technology as the official May Day system. Have you heard -- I'm curious if you've heard of people mourning it's passing.

STANDAGE: Yes and no. What actually happened was that when it became possible to send wireless telegraph messages -- in the 1890s Marconi came up with a wireless telegraphy system -- that meant you could have ship to shore telegraphs. And that meant you could have potentially ship to ship and you could have a May Day system.

And the first example of people who were saved from a sinking ship as a result of sending a telegraph message in this way was in 1899 off Dover. And then of course we all think of the Titanic as well as another example of this. What happened to the Titanic was that the California, the ship nearby, didn't hear the SOS message sent out by the Titanic because the radio operator was off duty.

So that led to the first safety of life at sea conference in 1914. At which the rules were introduced that all ships above a certain size would have Morse equipment and they would maintain a 24-hour watch. And that is what has just come to an end.

That starting in 1992 a satellite system has been phased in. Different countries have adopted this at different times. So the U.S. adopted it in 1995, I think. France and Britain in '97 and '98. And the first of February 1999 is supposedly the cutoff date for sending SOS messages in Morse and expecting anybody to actually listen out for them.

So in that respect it's the end of an era because this was the last international use of Morse. What was once the protocol that bound together the Victorian Internet is now really only going to be used by amateur enthusiasts, by some spies probably, by people in the armed services as a last resort by flashing lights. That sort of thing. But as a form of country to country communication, as an international standard, it really has come to the end of the road.

And some people think this is a bad thing. I can see their point. My favorite example, probably, of a nice form of farewell being bid to Morse code was the French Coast Guard Service when they discontinued the use of Morse in French coastal waters. In true romantic French style they sent out a final message which was, "calling all, this is our last cry before eternal silence." And then they switched every thing off. And I thought that was lovely, and I would have liked to see more of that sort of thing because this really was the end of an era.

BOGAEV: Tom Standage, I'm really sorry we're out of time. Thank you very much for talking with me today. It was really entertaining.

STANDAGE: Thank you very much.

BOGAEV: Tom Standage covers science for the "London Economist." His new book is "The Victorian Internet."

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Washington, DC
Guest: Tom Standage
High: Tom Standage is author of "The Victorian Internet." He explores the development of the telegraph and the parallels it has with today's Internet. Standage is a science writer for "The Economist" in London. He lives in Greenwich, England.
Spec: Computers; Technology; Telecommunications; Internet; Lifestyle; Culture; Tom Standage

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Tom Standage

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 22, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022202NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Neil Gershenfeld
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

Neil Gershenfeld says that computers won't truly realize their potential to change the world until they get off our desks and into our shoes. Gershenfeld directs the Physics and Media group at the MIT Media Laboratory, where he's developing something called "unobtrusive computing."

His idea is to integrate computing power into everyday things like shoes, fabric, paper, refrigerators, and car seats. For instance, one application Gershenfeld worked on was a smart car seat that can detect who or what is in it: a rear facing baby seat, a child, or a tall adult; and would adjust the air bag controls accordingly.

In his new book, "When Things Start to Think," Gershenfeld writes that computers don't fit into our lives very well because they're too hard to use: they' re too bulky to carry around, too easily broken, and typing is awkward when you're walking down the street.

He says that the future lies with technology that's invisible, which erases the distance between us and our machines.

NEIL GERSHENFELD, AUTHOR, "WHEN THINGS START TO THINK": We have a funny divide right now between bits of the digital world and the atoms of our physical world. We've got a world full of capable electronic information. That's really what the digital revolution has done, but there's just one problem: we're made out of atoms and we will be for the foreseeable future.

So all this electronic information is of no use unless it comes out here where we live. And if you look at how the world is set up, there is a neat split between hardware and software or between physical science and computer science. Or you can work on channels or create the content that goes through them.

Now if you step back and look at mature technology that we like, like a pen or a book or a cello it's almost anti-technical to say, I'd rather read a book than look at a computer screen. But in fact a book is technology. It doesn't grow on trees. It grows eventually from trees, but in its day it was the highest of technology. And it's only very recently we've come to appreciate why books work so well.

If you compare the specifications of the book and a laptop, it's really quite striking. The book opens instantly, you don't need to spend time booting it up. You can do fast random access searches through it. It doesn't take any maintenance. It's got great packaging. Its robust. And best of all, it's got a display that you can view from a most any angle in almost any light.

And a laptop has exactly none of those specifications. If the book came later you'd say, my God, what a breakthrough in information technology. So rather than replace the book with a laptop, the more interesting question to me is how we can make new technology work as well as what it presumes to replace along the way to generalizing it.

And that's a very very deep problem in physical science. It's a very hard task. For the books, my colleague Joe Jacobson (ph) at the media lab at MIT thought that rather than replace the paper we should replace the ink. Because ink on paper looks so good for a very interesting reason.

Have you ever wondered why a piece of paper doesn't need a back light like a laptop does?

BOGAEV: No, but tell me.

GERSHENFELD: Think about it. Your laptop has this bright lamp behind it with this big power supply that you have to keep recharging, and your book next to it looks nice and bright in any illumination without the power supply. The way it does it is the papers and fiber are translucent. You can see through them. Light comes and it scatters many times. And the mascinotics of that scattering light is the same as ink spreading through a sheet of papers diffusion.

So this is what takes light from any color and any angle and turns into a uniform background glow that illuminates the page. So the light -- the paper very cleverly uses the light from the room rather than imposing a lamp to display it. So what Joe developed was -- is a kind of electronic ink where you've got particles the size of laser printer toner, but they're actually clear shells that contain smaller particles that are black and white and have a charge difference.

So under an electric field we can move them relative to each other. So you can move the black particles up or down relative to the white particles. And so that means it looks like ink on paper because it is, but it's ink that you can change after you put it down. So right off the bat you can use this to make paper that goes back through your printer so you don't have to keep throwing away reams of paper.

But even better, you can make a book -- that's any book -- a book that looks like a normal book, but you can download other books into your book to read it. There's this polarized debate between books good and books bad. Some people say electronics books will do everything. They'll be online, we can't get everything everywhere.

Other people say, oh, you technocrats you don't appreciate the beauty of a nicely printed book. We want real books. But in fact what both sides miss is that books are technology, but the new digital books don't meet the performance specs of the old books other than the nice fact that they can change. So if you covered the sheets of paper with this electronic ink then you can retain the pleasure of reading books like we do now, but now the book can change.

One book could be any book. You can access a whole library from your one book. And even better, the next step in this project is to develop the means to print semiconductors and conductors and insulators on a sheet of paper so that you can actually do things like print a solar cell to power in and print a radio receiver to get the data. So you could have a newspaper that's always current.

BOGAEV: Why don't you give us another example of ways in which you're trying to essentially make technology invisible so that they can -- so that our computers can be closer to us and easier to use and not so unwieldy.

GERSHENFELD: Well, let me jump to the most extreme answer then we can work back from that. We have this notion that computing is digital and happens in silicon chips, but in fact the world itself -- nature is a very powerful computer. It knows much more about computation than just digital logic.

And up until now we haven't had to worry about that because the performance of computers has been improving. But that's ending not too far in the future. Around 2010 or so, at the rate of current progress, is where the size of the transistor on a chip shrinks down to a single atom. And a memory cell has a single electron.

And that the rate of current progress the cost of the fabrication plant to build it in the first-place becomes the GNP of the planet, so you can't even build it anyway. This isn't a statement that it's going to be hard to make any further improvement, it's just the observation that we are heading up to fundamental physical limits.

And so if you want to go any further than that you have to leave this notion that computers are universal and you don't have to think about the physical system. You have to think more about how nature knows how to manipulate information. And one of the most exciting things we've run into there is the notion of using quantum mechanics to compute.

So rather than use a billion dollar factory to make the chip, we started wondering could we just use natural materials to do the computing. And in doing that, we discovered a way to make quantum computers. So we made a simple computer that could unlock a small pad lock in effect, but the computer was a tube of chloroform.

And the way this computer works is it's just a liquid, and we send a radio pulse into the liquid and then we listen to a radio pulse coming back. And the way it gets transformed represents a computation done by the fluid. And not only that, but it's a new kind of much more powerful computation.

So what so interesting about this is it let's access quantum mechanics to compute, but even better the computer is essentially free. It costs pennies for the materials. For years people have talked about nano technology and molecular machines, and it turns out we're surrounded by the means to compute. Nature already knows how to do it if you ask the right questions. If you start to think in terms of what nature knows how to do rather than this constricting digital model.

BOGAEV: Another thing you're working on along these lines is the shoe computer, really. Is it anything like "Get Smart?"

GERSHENFELD: Shoes are very interesting as a platform for computing. When you say shoe computer you smile and you think of poor Max holding his shoe up. Well, we bumped into just how interesting footwear are. So let's think about your shoes.

You probably haven't thought about them much today, but you have them with you. You don't have to remember to carry your shoes around unlike your laptop which you have to drag around in your briefcase. The second interesting aspect of shoes is power.

When you walk you put lots of energy in the ground -- a lot of power. And my colleague Joe Paradiso (ph) has been developing shoe inserts that recover that. So now instead of carrying a power supply for your laptop, you just have to walk.

Then the third interesting piece is we've discovered that shoes can send data into your body actually turning your body into a network. This was work I did with Tom Zimmerman, now at IBM. What that means is instead of taking your shoe off and having to hold it up, right off the bat you can, say, have your wrist watch or eyeglasses as a display so if -- a pause there -- compare it to your laptop.

Although you laughed when we should we said shoe computer, with your laptop you've got to carry the laptop. You have to carry the power supply. You've got to carry the modem cables. To use the laptop you need a lap. You've got to sit down. The shoe computer tags along with you, its job is to get the power. Its job is to figure out how to do input out through your body.

Instead of you having to meet the needs of the technology it's up to the technology to meet your needs. The most interesting part of the shoe computer of all is once you can send data through your body you can send data through your body -- and what -- I didn't even understand the importance of that until I noticed that visitors to my lab wouldn't let me stop working on it because with data in your body, for example, you can shake hands with somebody and exchange an electronic business card.

So instead of pulling out a personal digital assistant and aiming it and pushing some buttons to send some data at a conference, we've spent centuries or millennia learning the protocol for how to approach each other and how to shake hands. Now we can attach the digital gesture to the physical gesture, or when you touch a door knob you can authenticate. Or if you pick up a telephone you can be downloading your messages while you're hearing your voice mail.

Once again, pulling apart this distinction between real reality versus virtual reality we take the physical world you live in and we endow digital content to your physical gestures. And that's the really interesting implication of putting the computing in the footwear.

BOGAEV: We have been hearing about things like smart houses since the '60s, but the future never seems to become now. Why is that?

GERSHENFELD: I think what's been wrong with smart houses is two things: one is the whole notion of how they are developed. They've generally been developed by middle-aged white males in suburban settings pretending to live in them. So they don't really reflect anybody's visceral passion and sense of what it means to live.

And I think they've been too constrained to the wrong level of description in that they have this intrusive notion of injecting a few keyboards and monitors into a house that impede how you live your life, and don't really take seriously this notion of embedding the technology invisibly.

One of the things we're working towards is a refrigerator that has advanced chemical sensing so it could say your milk is turning bad. And then if you had a shoe computer the refrigerator could tell your shoe that the milk is turning bad. Now, at that moment I don't want to know a thing about it, I'm late for work, I'm running out.

But if I'm walking own and my shoe knows my schedule and the store tells it, oh, we have milk on sale. The shoe might say, by the way you're out of milk you might want to get that. Now if you look at that very simple example, it's not a breakthrough in artificial intelligence and I didn't have to do anything, but it got the right information at the right time to solve a problem. And that's really what I've seen as missing in a lot of the attempts at injecting the technology in the home.

BOGAEV: Neil Gershenfeld directs the MIT Media Labs Physics and Media group. His new book is "When Things Start to Think." We're going to talk some more after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

BOGAEV: Back with computer scientist Neil Gershenfeld. His new book is "When Things Start to Think."

I'm curious what the media lab is like to work in.

GERSHENFELD: Life in the media lab is very chaotic. There's another debate in our society right now between short-term research and long-term research, and for me the media lab is something different still in that in industry you carefully control visit traffic because you want to protect your secrets.

In academia you control visit traffic because you want to protect your freedom. And we have four or so groups in the building every single day coming through. But in a funny way that heavy traffic frees me because I get to do whatever I want but I get credit for being practical because they tell me what the stuff is good for.

For example, a few years ago we did a magic trick with Penn and Teller -- we were playing with leaking fields through body and we made this spirit cabinet to let -- leak a field through Penn's body and contact Houdini. That was just great fun, not the sort of thing our sponsors do internally usually.

But the next day one of our sponsors, NEC, was in my lab telling us about child seats because this was the problem of airbags exploding and killing infants in rear-facing child seats. And they said, wow, that's a fancy seat could it solve this life and death problem. So we took the car seat -- we took the instrumentation from the magic trick, put it in the car seat and low and behold it did work.

We really could make a seat that looks like a normal seat, but can describe the shape of the occupant sitting in it, and that's coming out in cars next year. Now what I find interesting about that story is we would have never accepted child seat fundings, it's too remote from what we do. They would have never funded magic tricks. It's too remote from what they do.

What's needed is the proximity that lets us run into each other and this notion that basic research goes to applied research goes to products goes to development really impedes that sort of contact. And historically many of the most interesting things really just don't happen that way.

BOGAEV: A lot of your students are wearing wearable electronics. What do they have around their necks or imbedded in their cheek?

GERSHENFELD: Well, in fact there's always already a second generation. The first generation of cyborgs came up with cameras that they would see out through so that -- that were connected to displays in front of their eyes so that you could move your eyes around and look backwards on a bicycle or see in the dark or transform your visual field.

You could connect your senses to the net so people could look out through your eyes and ears. You have all the information you ever lived with accessible around your waist or around the neck so you can call up contextual information.

BOGAEV: Does this stuff work reliably?

GERSHENFELD: The first generation absolutely didn't. But these students were so unwilling to not have access to that sort of connectivity they were willing to put up with the headaches. What's happening now with wearables is there's three vectors coming into the middle that let me predict that wearables will happen because it's really just a statement about the present.

One is the students who want to have these capabilities. One is industrial pull, Fed-Ex needs airplanes routed the instant a fiber looks at a package. The repair manual for a 747 weighs three tons. So for those sorts of things you need it. But the missing piece in the middle we've been finding is you can provide the means of wearable computing without the clutter.

Things like electronic inks in fabrics and sewn circuitry give you the capabilities of wearable computing and all you have to wear is normal clothes and normal glasses to get access to that capability so that you don't need to live like a cyborg to do that. And once you do that something very interesting happens, once you have that sort of connectivity it's only really a small stretch to see it is a new evolutionary stage in how we work as a species.

In that life has been defined by the organization of communication. It was a big step for molecules to form cells and cells to form organs and organs to form creatures and creatures families and families communities. And each of those you view as a step in the evolution of life.

Well, this new generation of cyborgs has a continuous community that's no longer constrained by being local. They can be in touch with somebody a foot from them or around the world continuously so if that richer notion of community really is a new stage in how we interact as a species.

BOGAEV: What does conducting fabric do for me?

GERSHENFELD: What it does for you it is -- electrical engineers try to make flexible circuits by rigidly attaching chips to materials that can bend. But they really don't bend very much. You really wouldn't want to have that close to you. If you wanted to have that sort of capability so if you wanted to make a cell phone call without pulling out a cell phone and pushing buttons but just talking and have your shirt collar listen, right now you wouldn't want to strap a cell phone around your neck.

What this conducting thread and fabric does is let us make the ultimate in flex circuitry by making what looks and feels like fabric but the threads themselves are part of the circuitry.

BOGAEV: And where are you with that right now? I mean, what capability do your students have with their wearables?

GERSHENFELD: With the flexible circuitry we're just starting to make ones -- we've been doing demonstration exercise making little keyboards and little radios. And we're just starting to make complete systems. Like, for example, a cell phone that's sewn into a jacket.

One of the first things the students did was they made a boom box. They made a musical jacket that you can play your music just by interacting with embroidery on the jacket.

BOGAEV: I have to ask you this, Neil, at home are you wearing these electronic shirts and talking to people in your shirt collar?

GERSHENFELD: Almost not at all. At home I've got a great reality check. My wife used to be a piano tuner and she has a Ph.D. in English literature. And I view almost any gadget as a wonderful thing unless I'm convinced otherwise. And she takes exactly the opposite approach.

She likes traditional technology unless she's really convinced that it's replacing it. So I really have to work very hard to convince her that the new stuff is worth having around the house. And she's a very good reality check on that.

BOGAEV: Well, thanks very much for talking today. I enjoyed it.

GERSHENFELD: Good. It's been my pleasure. I enjoyed your questions.

BOGAEV: Neil Gershenfeld's new book is "When Things Start to Think." He co-directs the Thinks That Think research consortium at the MIT Media Laboratory.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Washingtoon, DC
Guest: Neil Gershenfeld
High: Neil Gershenfeld is author of "When Things Start to Think." He talks about his research into the future technology. This includes shoes with computers in them, refrigerators that tell you when the milk is expired, and coffee cups that know how you like your coffee. He co-directs the Things That Think research consortium at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Spec: Science; Telecommunications; Technology; Media; Computers; Lifestyle; Culture; Neil Gershenfeld

Please note, this is not Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Neil Gershenfeld
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

22:30

Biography Traces Political Mistakes And Personal Scars That Shaped Joe Biden

Evan Osnos talks about Joe Biden's enduring quest to become president. He says Biden has a different mindset today than he once had: "He's a man who is at peace." Originally broadcast Oct. 27, 2020.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue