SC07 Day 3: Programming bits and atoms

SC07 Day 3: Programming bits and atoms

Summary: A computer is a tool and a program is a thing, said Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT during the SC07 keynote on Tuesday. The audience was a little skeptical. "If programs are things," pointed out one attendee, "then bugs are consequential." Do we need to fear being outwitted, outsmarted, and outplayed by self-fabricated machines we helped create?


Cardboard creationThe SC07 keynote address was given Tuesday morning by Neil Gershenfeld, Director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. Neil challenged his audience to reconsider "obviously true" statements like "binary information is represented with two states". In light of current and future technological trends what if we relax these statements? He listed several of these tautologies and set out to reword them to be more correct in today's and tomorrow's world:

  • Computers come in cases -> computers come in rolls, buckets
  • Compilers optimize programs -> optimizations program compilers
  • Bits are zero or one -> bits are between zero and one
  • Internetworking -> interdevice interworking
  • Programs can describe things -> programs can be things

One of Gershenfeld's interests is cheap digital fabrication. The cardboard man in the picture was fabricated by his daughter and actually inspired the PhD thesis of one of his students. The killer app for digital fabrication, he says, is personal fabrication - things you can't buy at Walmart. And what if, instead of sending energy, computation, etc. around the world, we sent the means to create it? He shared his experiences with doing just that in isolated and developing countries.

According to Gershenfeld, people want to measure and modify the world, not just visualize it. As regular objects become computerized and interconnected at a smaller and smaller scale, we're approaching the nano-scale of biological systems. We're "in the moment", he says, on the cusp of a fabrication revolution.

A computer is a tool and a program is a thing, says Gershenfeld. But during the Q&A, an audience member pointed out, "If programs are things then bugs are consequential." True, responded Gershenfeld, but we need not fear digital competition. "It's nothing new," he said. "Biological systems have been competing successfully for millions of years." We may be forward engineering how biology works, he says, but it's already working for us.

Topics: CXO, Hardware, Software Development

Ed Burnette

About Ed Burnette

Ed Burnette is a software industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience as a programmer, author, and speaker. He has written numerous technical articles and books, most recently "Hello, Android: Introducing Google's Mobile Development Platform" from the Pragmatic Programmers.

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  • Well, Greshen is right....

    I think what grshen is talking about at sc07, which is quite possible, if we can do a convergence between nano-technology and software technology. But nano technology is still a technology which has to go miles ahead, before we it can think of using it for innovative purposes. And the other aspect is of course, is that the software indsustry has to change is hardest and the most common assumptions, and embrace the new, technology, perhaps, the concept which greshen is talking about, is possible, but easily it will take another, 100 years to accomplish.
  • New thinking is needed

    Technology is at the beginning of a new chapter. The days of bringing home large, power hungry boxes that have to be upgraded regularly are coming to a close. On the horizon are small personal units that can be carried around anywhere. It will be a Iphone+notebook in a box little larger than today's Iphone. It will run on batteries for an entire day without recharging and when you get to work all you do is bug in your 20" LCD or other goodies.
    The internet as we know it today is dead. Virus', porn, popups, crammed arteries and unreliable datacenters have sufficated the Internet. Internet 2.0 will not be the salvation. Internet 3.0 which is in think tanks currently have proposed and agreed to by global heavyweights has agree to gutting the current system and fixing all the limitations and complexity in the current design. A lot of current HW will be made obsolete which is a major drawback, but the pros far outweigh the gains. We probably won't see Alpha HW until end of 2009. Some companies are bound to get rich selling the new iternet HW right out of the gate.
    This will be about the time that the early personal pods PCs will get on the drawing boards. Intel's drive to shrink dies, packages and power is in the right direction to make this possible.
    • New Thinking needed V2.0

      The pod PC I mentioned will eventually turn into a thick credit card with with act as for ID, Credit card, phone module and will be plugged into a slot on any display panel to act as your personal PC. No other HW is needed since all content will be online including apps and data. Only your personal information on internal flash in required to get online. There will also be a small hi resolution touch screen to show your picture and assorted data(address book, scheduler, work database, ect). It will also be your commicator module connected to you headset. (i.e. Wireless phone)
      Nano tech is a little farther off, but it is true that we have to give others the tools to fix their own environment and not just keep suppling every thing they need as handouts.
  • Home Boxes

    Large or not, power hungry or not, for a certain minority of users
    the powerful stand alone or not home system, I predict, will survive for a very long time. Some folks will always have power hungry ideas to explore and will likely not want to depend on the outside world any more than they have to.
  • RE: SC07 Day 3: Programming bits and atoms

    Interesting, but I was hoping for further elucidation of some of these concepts.
    • Further reading

      For more information see: , , and
      Ed Burnette