Smartening up everyday life

Neil Gershenfeld, a director MIT’s Media Lab, explains to Helen Beasley why he wants chips with everything

This month sees the opening of a new developmental research centre in Dublin, to serve as the European base for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s prestigious Media Lab. Professor Neil Gershenfeld, director of the physical sciences programme at Media Lab, which develops new technology such as molecular computers, smart furniture and clothing containing microchips, says some profound developments in artificial intelligence are on the horizon.

Why have you decided to set up a European Media Lab?

We have been asked to set up a European Media Lab twice before, each time with high level government involvement, once in France, once in Germany. Both were complete disasters, because somebody tried to run it rather than starting the process and letting it happen. This time around we were approached by the Irish government, which has been very vigorous about its role as a base for new technology in Europe. It wanted to create a European Media Lab, and so far is really doing things right. This is going to be a place to focus on questions such as understanding what the technology is good for, and what it means. Institutionally it’s not going to be an autonomous degree-granting entity, it’s going to have ties to all the Irish universities, and also across Europe.

In the US, MIT has created a great number of spin-off companies. Can you see a similar thing happening in Europe?

Possibly so, in that we’ve had a lot of requests for the Media Lab to have an incubator. Almost every student has a thesis that could easily be the basis of a business. Although, having said that, among the students there is now a backlash against start-up mania. Academic institutions have been decimated by everybody going off to start up their own company. There are a lot of students who say that’s fine, but it’s not why we exist. We want to change people’s lives, not just create more start-ups.

So with the new technology MIT and others are developing, will there be electronic chips in absolutely everything?

Yes, pretty much. I think it’s going to be a very natural change. The most obvious feature of appliances of the future will be to have the web on everything in your kitchen. If your refrigerator can talk to the outside world, characterise its contents and knows something about you, it can do a much better job of being a refrigerator. When you connect these elements up it starts to become something profound. It starts to become what artificial intelligence sought to be – machines that can give you the right information in the right place at the right time.

What are the implications of this for the manufacturing industry?

The big thing lurking in the background for manufacturing is personalisation. Increasingly, the people putting chips in parts will be further and further downstream, and rapid prototyping will happen closer to the users.

It’s conceivable that in the end, for example, Motorola’s fabrication plants will disappear and on your desktop will be a printer that prints out any electronics you need. Motorola would be the source of insight into how you make the electronics you print out, but would no longer be in the fabrication business: it would be in the table-top electronics printing business.