Jane Wakefield: Uncovering the heart of technology

On a visit to MIT, Jane Wakefield discovers not a bunch of machine-obsessed geeks but a group of people dedicated to making technology human
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge in the USA bears more resemblance to a business park than to a university. It sprawls over a vast area and, as if to be close enough to breathe the air of invention, a gaggle of bio-tech and startups have grown around it like concrete chicks round a towering mother hen.

BT has also been drawn by the MIT magnet and has invested a huge sum in sponsoring the Disruptive Technology Lab at MIT's famous Media Lab. Always on the look-out for a good idea to dig itself out of the ditch of bad press it has worn like an albatross for the last few years, BT --- or BT's research wing BTexact to be exact --- has decided to go back to university.

This does not mean Sir Christopher Bland has started wearing baggy jeans and developed a fondness for gangster rap, but it does mean the suits of a UK telco can regularly be seen mingling with the black T-shirt geek brigade who are developing technology for the 21st century within MIT's hallowed halls.

From BT's point of view, it is hoping that something among the wires and widgets of the student's labs will wend their way across the pond to its research site at Martlesham Heath in East Anglia in turn to be translated into solid business ideas by its incubator Brightstar. Along the way there will be plenty of technological cul-de-sacs that will never see the light of day and some that will make it only as far as the wow factor at public exhibitions. But hidden in the vaults of MIT could be an idea that will change the way we work and live.

And when the nutty professors take the lid off their Pandora's Box of inventions, BT hopes to be there to grab its own slice of technological magic and run back to its cynical shareholders to put a glint of wonder back into their eyes.

Perhaps the thing that surprised me most about our whistlestop tour through the labs of MIT was the lack of reverence given to technology there. Instead of putting technology round our necks with a large sign, the students and professors seem intent on making tech invisible. So chips are embedded in tables and planks of wood, Web browsers are shrunk to the size of babies' fingers and computers are hidden in Armani suits. While the understanding of technology is second nature to the MIT crowd, they have realised that the rest of the world does not have such a fond relationship and seems dedicated to making tech work for us in discreet and humble a way as possible.

Making tech invisible finds its zenith with the work being done at MIT by Professor Hiroshi Ishii, head of the Media Lab's Tangible Media group. If technology were to have a spiritual leader it would have to be Hiroshi, who has dedicated himself to uniting the world of bits with the world of atoms and making technology look beautiful and resonate in the cultural world.

To illustrate this he has created a musical interface for digital information. Beautifully shaped bottles bathed in oceanic light stand on a custom-built table. Uncorking the stopper of each releases the sound of a piano, another a bass and the third a drum. He offered no explanation to the techno-wizardry that made this possible, but that was not the point. Such knowledge would re-tie us to the world of bits and instead he wants to engage our senses in natural relationship with technology.

"While our visual senses are steeped in the sea of digital information, our bodies remain in the physical world," he explained. By challenging our senses he hopes to release us. "Every whiskey bottle tells a story and no bottle will ever be the same."

"Touch, touch," he told us, urging the assembled group of hacks to remove the stoppers as if seeing was not enough. Touching technology was a rallying call of all the researchers we met. We were urged at every step to engage with their inventions and devices, lift, poke and wear the widgets they had dedicated years of their life to creating.

So small chipboards were passed around the room, as the journalists felt their brain power visibly shrink, standing among people with planets behind their eyes. As if in an attempt to keep up, the hacks would nod approvingly and raise an eyebrow as if to say, "I perfectly understand what you have done here." I admit I didn't.

So also we had the situation in which grown-ups who clearly should know better sat waving a caterpillar rattle in front of a blue-eyed robot named Kismet and attempted to make sense of his/her cyberbabble.

Kismet's dedicated team of carers aim to give the robot the vocabulary of a baby and yet four years into the project the robot still says nothing meaningful, illustrating the complexity of integrating the human into the machine. But if the Artificial Intelligence lab hasn't succeeded in giving Kismet the gift of speech it has at least given it a human face. Which seems to me a jolly good start.

Professor Bruce Blumberg has what may seem like an equally humble agenda -- to create a synthetic character with the intelligence of a dog. By his own admission he is unlikely to achieve this ambition within the next ten years. We can only marvel at his dedication and those in the business world determined to create tech revolutions immediately should take heed. The groundwork is still very much at the embryonic stage.

Dog-lover Blumberg, as if to console himself while he waits, has built a Web cam for his pooch at home, a practical side order as he prepares the bigger meal. This again seems to be a theme of MIT -- think big but develop little. If the over-riding ambition of MIT is a journey right to the heart of our relationship with technology, the profs are humble enough to take comfort breaks along the way.

So we have the eminent scientist Neil Gershenfeld aiming, like Hiroshi, to unite the world of bits and atoms, stopping off along the way to embed a processor into a table, turn a coaster into a map and put a digital interface on the table top for an exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Visitors were suitably impressed, paying more attention to the table than to the exhibits.

Gershenfeld is also fascinated by bringing down the cost of computing and by doing away with expensive chip packaging. So he has created Pengachu, a device little bigger than a cigarette pack which has an embedded Linux computer, a radio interface and a Web server all for around $50. It will play a vital role in allowing rural inhabitants in India to keep track of their land rights but, as Gershenfeld says, "it was a sideline, not a breakthrough".

I had a particular fondness for the work being done by Professor Rosalind Picard, who is determined to make our relationship with technology a more emotional experience. Our pet dog understands how we are feeling better than our PCs, she explains, and is working on small projects such as the amount of pressure we put on our mice indicating mood to our PC and allowing it to adjust accordingly.

MIT certainly won my heart, and it gave me a strange pleasure to see that the real power of technology lies not in the business world but in academia. All too often hijacked by the marketing men and their non-speak of wireless revolutions and e-business uniting us all in a global village, their soundbites are only as good as the technology that MIT and other universities are creating.

While I expected the eggheads to be obsessed with bits and bytes I was shocked to discover that they rarely developed anything without reference to the human. And I am glad that the technology of the future is in their hands rather than the large corporations whom I have longed suspected cared less about the tech than about their share price.

Although the inventions we saw at MIT have some way to go before they have practical applications -- and of course the academics will have to rely on organisations like BT to make the technology realisable -- there was a sense that with such a team of experts big things will be achieved here.

There is no doubt in my mind that technology in the right hands really does have the power to shape and change society for the better, and gave me hope that the tech sector, currently lying battered and bruised in the gutter by the City's cynicism, will once again look up and see the stars.

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