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A look into the Media Laboratory's Crystal Ball -- On its tenth birthday, the lab celebrates its past and offers a glimpse into its future

By David D. Hsu

1995 has been a year when computers, the Internet, and all things digital were hyped by everyone from politicians to movie stars. It seemed that everybody, no matter what their technological credentials, jumped on the bandwagon.

Meanwhile, the place that embraced multimedia before it was popular, the Media Laboratory, celebrated its 10th anniversary on October 10 with a day-long symposium on its research, new technology, and perspectives on the digital future.

The Media Lab has overseen a large portion of the evolution of multimedia and information technology under the leadership of its director, Nicholas P. Negroponte '66.

The Lab spent its first 10 years exploring the union of text, graphics, and sound - nowadays "commonly called multimedia, which was more or less born here," Negroponte said.

This past year, Negroponte announced the completion of its multimedia mission. Now, with information technology becoming more mainstream, the Media Lab has launched its next step.

Technology gets a clue

The Media Lab's celebration was dubbed "10/10" both because of the date of the celebration and because it is the binary representation of the decimal number 10.

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

Media Arts and Sciences Professor Seymour A. Papert, who created the LOGOcomputer 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. "That's the prototype for Things That Think."

Negroponte gave two goals for Things That Think. "On the one hand it is to make that object perform better or to give it a personality such that it performs better," he said. "The second is to get it to do things that it might not otherwise have done before, and when we say things, we really mean it."

There are many proposed uses for things that think beyond bringing culinary disasters under control. MASAssistant Professor Neil A. Gershenfeld demonstrated a wearable computing 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.

Along with Things That Think, the Media Lab is working on Television of Tomorrow and News in the Future, both of which aim to bring common sense and usability to information dissemination.

Moving into the world of bits

In his Wired magazine columns and his 1995 book, Being Digital, Negroponte makes a distinction be-tween a world of atoms and a world of bits. The former depends on the tangible carriers of information; people worry about the size of their television screen that delivers the programs or the size of the characters in a book. In the latter, information will be in digital form, 1s and 0s, and not subject to physical constraints.

"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 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."

"If you were to characterize the next 10 years, it's clear that the common denominator will be sort of understanding the bits," Negroponte said. "In other words, you can think of the past decade as giving the bits sound, color, motion, and so on, and the next decade, sort of understanding what the bits mean."

"You're going to see machines that recognize your face pretty soon," said MASProfessor Alex P. Pentland PhD '82. "People aren't going to be able to steal your credit card, because your credit card is going to know who you are."

But despite the optimistic forecast, some obstacles still stand in the way of the digital future.

"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," Negroponte said of delivering the phonebook yellow pages.

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

The Lab proves critics wrong

The Kresge Auditorium event drew nearly 1,000 people, including several dozen MITstudents. 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.

The Media Lab is sometimes criticized as being just a place for sleight-of-hand and parlor tricks - pampered students playing with Legos and Sony Playstations - but Negroponte dismisses the criticism.

"Well, first of all, there's an assumption that rigor is a feature; [but] sometimes it's in fact a liability," Negroponte said. "It's very easy to criticize and say it's a lot of smoke and mirrors. On the other hand, the multimedia industry turned into a trillion-dollar industry. So maybe it's smoke and mirrors in some people's eyes, but it's obviously a big deal.

"From a corporate point of view, I would like to think that we are the way that they can outsource their basic research," Negroponte said. "So our job actually it should be MIT's job in general is to do the research that industry cannot afford to do because it's too risky and too distant."

But with the Lab growing some years at 50 percent per year and employing the largest number of Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program students, Negroponte is having the last laugh.