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Medial Lab Bash Celebrates 10 Years

By Ramy A. Arnaout
Executive Editor

The Media Laboratory celebrated its 10th anniversary Tuesday with a day-long symposium on its research, new technology, and perspectives on the digital future.

The event also officially kicked off Things That Think, a new research consortium aimed at giving everyday objects from sneakers to frying pans the common sense to do useful things on their own, saving their human owners the trouble.

According to the Media Lab professors who spoke at the symposium, the future will be rife with computers that recognize people's appearances, movements, emotions, and habits and use that knowledge to make people's lives easier and more productive.

"For years, people would come up and ask me, What is the effect of the coming of computers going to have on my business?'" said Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who emceed the event.

"The answer is, it's the wrong question," Adams said. "It's rather like the Amazon saying, well, we're heading toward the Atlantic Ocean. What effect is [it] going to have on my river? And the answer is, in the end, however strong the force of that river may be, river rules will no longer apply," he said. All media "will mingle in the same digital ocean. That is the world we're going to have to learn to live in and navigate."

Media Lab Director Nicholas P. Negroponte '66 pointed to the legal confusion about the Internet as a sign that what's coming is big.

"You may defoliate forests, you may squeeze ink on dead trees, and you maybe even can use child labor to hurl these huge yellow books over the transom of the American front door. That is legal," Negroponte said of delivering the phonebook yellow pages.

"But if you so much as deliver one no-return, no-deposit, ecologically-sound bit' at the speed of light into the American home, you've violated the law," Negroponte said. "Isn't that wild?"

The future is coming

Professors talked about and demonstrated projects ranging from software agents - electronic butlers that can respond to calls and buy and sell things on someone's behalf - to a recognition system that can pick a face out of a crowd.

The gratifying thing is that "this technology is now being transitioned out into the real world," said Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Alex P. Pentland PhD '82.

"You're going to see machines that recognize your face pretty soon," said Pentland, who is interested in computers' perceptual abilities. "People aren't going to be able to steal your credit card, because your credit card is going to know who you are."

In the same vein, Things That Think will ask "how can we take this computational power and embed it into everyday objects?" Pentland said.

MAS Assistant Professor Neil A. Gershenfeld demonstrated a system whereby shaking hands with a student triggered a tiny device under his shoe to give the student an electronic copy of his business card.

The system, triggered by the tiny changes in electric potential during the handshake, is an example of how computers can be used to make life easier, Gershenfeld said.

MASProfessor Seymour A. Papert, who created the LOGO computer language, explained the concept with an anecdote.

"I was making sauce and the phone rang" in another room, Papert said. "After a while I got back to the kitchen. Not only was the sauce ruined, but the pan was hot; the enamel was chipping off."

"I said, Idiot' - meaning me. But if we project some time into the future, you could imagine somebody going through the same sequence and saying idiot,' and [instead] meaning the pan and the stove, or all the stuff in the kitchen, because all those things there ought to have known better than to let that happen," Papert said. "So that's one kind of prototype for things that think."

One upcoming event in the revolution will be the takeover of television by networking technology, said Media Lab Associate Director Andrew B. Lippman '71.

"Do you want your [news] read to you in the car during your commute? We can do that. Do you want [TV] painted on your wall? We can do that," said Lippman, who works on the video-on-demand project called the Media Bank.

The Kresge Auditorium event drew nearly 1,000 people, including several dozen MIT students. The majority of the attendees were representatives of media and hi-tech companies, which as a group account for about 85 percent of the Lab's $23 million annual funding.