Neil Gershenfeld on Turning Data into Things and Things into Data (Video)


Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, at the 2014 Solid Conference: Analog telephone calls degraded with distance; digitizing communications allowed errors to be detected and corrected, leading to the Internet. Analog computations degraded with time; digitizing computing again allowed errors to be detected and corrected, leading to microprocessors and PCs. Manufacturing today remains analog; although the designs are digital, the processes are not. Neil Gershenfeld presents emerging research on digitizing fabrication by coding the construction of functional materials, and explores its implications for programming the physical world.

Gershenfeld wrote in his 1999 book, When Things Start to Think: “Beyond seeking to make computers ubiquitous, we should try to make them unobtrusive…. For all the coverage of the growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web, a far bigger change is coming as the number of things using the Net dwarf the number of people. The real promise of connecting computers is to free people, by embedding the means to solve problems in the things around us.”

Recently, Gershenfeld published (with JP Vasseur) “As Objects Go Online” in Foreign Affairs:

“Although the Internet of Things is now technologically possible, its adoption is limited by a new version of an old conflict. During the 1980s, the Internet competed with a network called BITNET, a centralized system that linked mainframe computers. Buying a mainframe was expensive, and so BITNET’s growth was limited; connecting personal computers to the Internet made more sense. The Internet won out, and by the early 1990s, BITNET had fallen out of use. Today, a similar battle is emerging between the Internet of Things and what could be called the Bitnet of Things. The key distinction is where information resides: in a smart device with its own IP address or in a dumb device wired to a proprietary controller with an Internet connection. Confusingly, the latter setup is itself frequently characterized as part of the Internet of Things. As with the Internet and BITNET, the difference between the two models is far from semantic. Extending IP to the ends of a network enables innovation at its edges; linking devices to the Internet indirectly erects barriers to their use…

The size and speed of the Internet have grown by nine orders of magnitude since the time it was invented. This expansion vastly exceeds what its developers anticipated, but that the Internet could get so far is a testament to their insight and vision. The uses the Internet has been put to that have driven this growth are even more surprising; they were not part of any original plan. But they are the result of an open architecture that left room for the unexpected. Likewise, today’s vision for the Internet of Things is sure to be eclipsed by the reality of how it is actually used. But the history of the Internet provides principles to guide this development in ways that are scalable, robust, secure, and encouraging of innovation.

The Internet’s defining attribute is its interoperability; information can cross geographic and technological boundaries. With the Internet of Things, it can now leap out of the desktop and data center and merge with the rest of the world. As the technology becomes more finely integrated into daily life, it will become, paradoxically, less visible. The future of the Internet is to literally disappear into the woodwork.”