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TEDGlobal: Neil Gershenfeld promises us a replicator

The final session of day 2 at TEDGlobal 2010, Different by Design, starts with a strange, ethereal multimedia performance by Miwa Matreyek. Using animations, music, and her body, we move through a world that looks like a child’s picturebook come to fluid life. Matreyek, in shadow against a screen of animation, interacts with the figures, buildings and birds projected before her. Her arms, stretched wide, become a highway for a toy car, then they open a window on her heart, which drains out milk, filling the screen. Watching on simulcast, as I am, I can’t tell what’s being performed live and what’s on video, but I get the sense the essense of the piece is about the interplay of the physically present and the virtual, the real and the imagined. It’s extremely beautiful.

Neil Gershenfeld, the director of the center for bits and atoms at MIT’s Media Lab, offers us Neo’s choice from the Matrix – whether to take the red or the blue bill. He tells us that Oakridge has a computer that takes the power of a city – you can power the city or the computer. There’s another planned computer in Japan that costs a billion dollars – you could buy the city or the computer.

We tend to pretend that software works in a virtual world, not a real one, and this distinction is breaking down. Gershenfeld blames Alan Turing and John von Neumann, and specifically the split between storage and processing of information. This isn’t a deep truth of nature, or of information – it’s what had to happen in the 1940s to build a computer. Once computer science and technology split in the 1940s, we got stuck with this old architecture.

Gershenfeld explains asynchronous logic automata, a form of computing that takes advantage of moving tokens, and the distances between those tokens carry weights and values. The program is a spacial structure. It runs at the speed of nature. It doesn’t occupy power when it’s not working. It can run in molecular systems. It promises a future where we buy computing by the pound as a pure commodity, a raw material.

At this point, a program isn’t a thing – it’s a spatial structure. Buildings waste a third of their energy because they’re stupid – what if we treated them like programs, programs that were structures. This might also give us insight for how brains work, because processing isn’t islated – it happens everywhere. (I confess I didn’t get this set of points at all.)

Gershenfeld shows us a visualization of one of these shaped programs. This is a step towards growing constructions of inorganic materials. This gives us the potential of following a path that looks like this:
– We can overcome the disconnect between computers and the physical world
– Then we build programs that are things can make other programs that are things
– Then we put data into the raw materials
– In the future, we grow technology

The goal at the end: the Star Trek replicator. The goal is not to build what you can buy at the store – it’s the ultimate tool for personal expression. The experiments Gershenfeld has done – fab labs, machines that make machines are steps towards this ultimate goal.

Gershenfeld admits that his first couple of experiments in the field were designed to satisfy the NSF, and that he was concerned about parachuting in technology. “You can’t wake up in Cambridge, MA and decide that rural Afghanistan needs precision engineering.” But it’s been extremely useful to build antennas to build bottom-up wireless networks to bring information into these rural communities, including MIT’s Open Courseware.

A team in Barcelona started using portable fabricators to continue Antonio Gaudi’s work. The tools have now turned into prototyping tools to build solar powered cars.

Gershenfeld tells us that kids in rural Africa and in the Arctic are mastering these tools so much faster than conventional engineers that it’s becoming a problem to keep this talent in local communities. Rather than having smart kids take their knowledge and leaving communities, they’re building the Fab Academy, a virtual school to help teach the kids playing with these tools. His hope, ultimately, is that schools like this – nonphysical, decentralized – can unseat institutions like MIT.

At the turn of the last century, books were for elites. But Andrew Carnegie believed that making libraries accessable to the general public, and they had a huge impact on creating literacy. Literacy now is about how a description becomes a thing and a thing becomes a description.

Industry has historically been about controlling means of production. But if we send data to local factories, we no longer have control over means of productions. You can’t sue the planet for infringement of your patents, he tells us – it’s too leaky.

In the world Gershenfeld predicts, we won’t necessarily have huge national labs – we’ll have community labs that share their information, processes, tools and things.

The research agenda is working, he tells us. In twenty years, we’ll show off the Star Trek replicator at TED. But it’s not too early to think about the implications – how do we live, work, educate and play in a world where anyone can make anything? He challenges us to take on this challenge, presumably because he’s got producing a replicator taken care of.