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Neil Gershenfeld is not a grey parrot

Evidently, one of the speakers at last year’s TED was a speaking parrot… which didn’t speak, as it had laryngitis. This year, Chris and crew are trying again, inviting Einstein from the Knoxville Zoo. Einstein is an African Grey Parrot, and has a remarkable range of sounds – she imitates sneezes, whispers, whistles, as well as speech. With a handler, she does an excellent standup routine – she’s hearing phrases “did that hurt?” and makes sounds like “ouch!”. The routine includes hundreds of sounds, including imitations of other animals (she does a great housecat, as well as a lion growl…)

Neil Gershenfeld doesn’t make many interesting noises. Nor (to the best of my knowledge) can he recite 200 digits of pi while juggling, as the other intersession speaker does. But he’s very good at playing with atoms and bits, as he has for years at MIT’s Media Lab at the Center for Bits and Atoms.

Gershenfeld is interested in building smaller, smarter devices that interact with one another. He thinks of this as “Internet Zero”, the internet of devices. One example is a display technology that is a viscous fluid containing millions of small chips. They can be spread on a surface and render postscript, despite the fact that there’s no central organization to the circutry. The goal is to build materials that code for their own structure, the way that proteins are structured.

Shifting gears, he tells us about his “fab labs”. By teaching a class at MIT called “How to Make Almost Anything”, he discovered that hundreds of MIT students desperately wanted to learn to make things. The things people built were pretty strange: a “scream body”, a portable space for screaming, which looks like a baby carrier, allows you to scream silently in public and broadcast the scream later. Another student designed a web browser for parrots. Another build an alarm clock you wrestle to prove you’re awake. Gershenfeld realized that the killer ap for fabrication is products that work for one person.

In the rest of the world, fabrication is neccesary to bridge “the fabrication divide” – the ability for people to build what they want to build, and tools to build new tools. Building a small fabrication lab in Ghana, Gershenfeld discovered that young children – as young as eight – are willing to spend hours learning how to build complex technical systems.

He believes we’re in the “PDP era” of fabrication, referring to the years in which Kerrigan and Richie invented on an early PDP minicomputer. As we move towards the future, we’ll find a way to equip people to create, not just consume technology… and this in turn will transform aid, from top down to bottom up, allowing people to build the products and items they want to use.