He's the man they call the digital Nostradamus

You might find some of Nicholas Negroponte's predictions off the wall right now - but just wait 10 minutes, says Wendy Grossman

Wendy Grossman
Sunday 04 June 1995 23:02

"If I'm wrong," Nicholas Negroponte is fond of saying, "it's only for 10 minutes." It would be a good way of covering mistakes, but his point is that, while he's busy predicting the future, the present is changing too fast to call accurately.

Mr Negroponte is the founder and director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and one of the grand men of multimedia. Some current predictions, culled from his new book Being Digital: 1 billion people will be connected to the Internet by 2000; the future of interface design is intelligent agents who know our personal quirks; technology will free us from constraints of time and place on our work and lives; video rental stores will be out of business within 10 years.

To put all that in perspective, in 1989 he predicted that by the mid- Nineties, the primary interface between people and computers would be speech. Well, wait another 10 minutes. Mr Negroponte received his master's degree from MIT in 1967 - in architecture, not computer science. His 1968 book The Architecture Machine introduced some of the ideas he is still propounding today, such as the concept of highly personalised systems that could interact intelligently with their owners.

He founded and ran (1968-82) MIT's Architecture Machine Group, some of whose early work helped to lead to the development of computer-aided design. The group also did pioneering work on computer interfaces, using what it called "spatial data management" - conceptually not dissimilar to the graphical user interfaces most computers now use - and demonstrated the potential of speech-driven interfaces as early as 1979.

The beginnings of what is now the Media Lab came in 1976, when Mr Negroponte wrote a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities that described a random-access multimedia system. His central prediction was that broadcasting and film, printing and publishing, and computing would converge by 2000. The proposal, quickly adopted by the late Jerome Wiesner, then president of MIT, was radical at a time when the focus of computer science research was on programming languages, operating systems, network protocols and system architectures.

Mr Negroponte's role in managing the Media Lab does not involve research or even hands-on project management. Asked what he does, he says: "Service debt." Unlike most of MIT, whose external funding is on average between 6 and 10 per cent, the Media Lab's funding is 75 to 80 per cent corporate, amounting to some $200m (pounds 129m) in the 10 years it has been in existence. It has more than 60 sponsors, including BT, Sony, Reuters, Philips, IBM, Intel, Hughes Aircraft and News Corporation. In return for their investment, sponsors get first crack at exploiting the research results.

One consequence is that Mr Negroponte must live what he preaches. He refuses to use the telephone, conducting all his business by electronic mail. The combination of his laptop and a complete collection of worldwide electrical and telephone plugs allows him to run the Media Lab seamlessly from wherever he happens to be travelling.

The Media Lab is so diverse that it tends to leave visitors confused. There are three main, overlapping areas of research: learning and common sense; perceptual computing; and information and entertainment. Mr Negroponte says that now that multimedia is established, the Media Lab is changing direction. "Computers are on their way to no longer being sensory deprived," he says. "The big new wave is understanding."

In Being Digital, which is largely a collection of reworked versions of his column in Wired magazine, Mr Negroponte talks about the consequences of the world's changing entirely from shipping "atoms" - people, bottles of mineral water, CDs, books - to shipping "bits". We cannot (yet) digitise people or bottles of water, but existing technology does allow us to ship the contents of whole CDs in a few seconds or "attend" video conferences. We can also get rid of the fax, which he says is wasteful of bits.

CD-rom, to Mr Negroponte, is an interim technology that will quickly be superseded. In his vision of the future, the way you receive and experience this newspaper will be very different. Suppose there are intelligent processors at both the distribution and receiving ends. That will mean that the Independent could send out its bits - that is, the news - and leave it to you to choose whether to listen to them as a radio broadcast, watch them on television or read them in print, or use a combination of all three.

In addition, you might have your own personal newspaper, collated by intelligent agents that roam the world's media networks on your behalf, trawling for information of interest in as much depth as you like - anything from a summary of your e-mail to up-to-date information on companies you are doing business with. That is less far-fetched than it sounds. Today at the Media Lab, you can see "Fishwrap", a demonstration of the personalised newspaper of the future. For the mass-market version ... well, wait 10 minutes.

More information about the Media Lab and its work is available online at http://www.media.mit.edu.

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