Why the brave new world of chips is child's play


At the Media Lab, even the lunch is clever. The wine is clever because it is bottled with its own electronic mail label: http://1010virtualvin.com. The food is clever (though rather disgusting) because it is wrapped in coloured squares of plastic sheet and concealed within aluminium tiffin boxes that we are invited to take home. The helium balloons are very clever; if you talk to them they answer back.

But then this whole day is dedicated to cleverness, not just in humans, although everyone here has more than their share, but in machines. This is the 10th birthday of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and we are at a symposium to celebrate the fact. Needless to say, it is the 10th day of the 10th month and the programme began at 10 past 10.

Clever and very cool. In the world of academe, there are few places as modern as the Media Lab. From its pleasing IM Pei-designed building on the MIT campus close to the Charles River, the Lab has a mission to explain the new universe unfolding before all of us: the universe of personal computing, of the Net and the Web, of browsing and surfing, of chips and bits and of mice without tails.

No wonder Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Lab and the very prophet of digital hip, exudes an I-told-you-so air when he steps on stage. That thing called the World Wide Web (pardon me if I don't attempt to describe it, but I know it is there) is doubling in size every 55 days. Two thirds of all PC's today are heading, not into offices, but into homes.

"The rate of change is just extraordinary, and it's going to have an extreme impact on society," Mr Negroponte proclaims. "What was off the wall even nine months ago is considered a conservative prediction today." Acknowledging that he and the Lab have been dismissed as offering more flash than academic substance, he noted: "Nobody realises that the hype is accompanied by understatement."

Through the day I keep returning to this. I belong to that part of society that Mr Negroponte calls the "digitally homeless". The young, including the very young, understand his universe and play in it without fear every day. And according to his estimates the second most cyber-savvy generation is over 55. I am in the middle and I still do not know. Is not this a revolution built on hype? Am I not going to be buying a daily paper in 30 years as I do now? Am I going to have to get myself a home page on the Web? Are we indeed in the midst of some huge, fantastic rearrangement of our cultural furniture?

Leaving aside all the glibness, some of what I hear today confirms my natural cynicism. Do we really need computers that will be able to see people's faces and recognise what they are feeling? Don't we do that rather well for ourselves already? And what is the point of the research in the Lab's latest venture, called "Things That Think"? These might, we are told, be intelligent shoes. They could be left on the sitting room carpet to monitor the evening news and transmit the information to our intelligent wallets in our pocket, which would filter out the items not likely to interest us. Finally the filtered version of the news is projected on to some surface for us to read, such as the inside of an intelligent spectacle lens. Hm.

We all applaud. Two men sit on stage with mini-computers under their feet (which one day will be small enough to fit into the sole of a shoe). They shake hands and, as they touch, information that would normally be on a business card flows through their flesh and bone from the computer of the one to the computer of the other. For the sake of the demo, the information - e-mail address included - is projected onto a screen. The possibilities for silent communication between humans this way are fantastic. Could this spell the end of the Masonic handshake?

But it is Seymour Papert, the Lab's Lego Professor, who jogs me awake. His special interest is computers and children. With money from Lego - the Lab, by the way, has a $25m (pounds 16m) budget supplied by sponsorships with over 100 commercial companies - he is developing Lego brick toys fitted with mini processors that will be able to interact with children and play games with them.

"Our ways of dealing with the process of growing up are unravelling," Professor Papert says. "We are looking at the most radical transformation in human life that will happen in the next decade". Hype? Certainly. But where children and computers collide, my guess is that it is understatement too.


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