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

BOSTON DAYS

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.

DAVID USBORNE

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
people
News
20. Larry Page: Net worth: $23 billion; Country: U.S; Source of wealth: Google
business
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
A collection of 30 Banksy prints at Bonhams auction house in London
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Recruitment Genius: PA

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A PA is required to join a leading provider of...

Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness