» Archive for April, 2001

Book Review: When Things Start to Think

Friday, April 27th, 2001 by Steven Morgan Friedman

When Things Start to Think
By Neil Gershenfeld

Review by Toby Keel

A few weeks ago, a news item crossed my desk talking about a mobile phone – made of paper…   Yes, you did read that correctly!   If you don’t find it astonishing that such a thing could ever exist, then Neil Gershenfeld’s book is probably not for you; however, if you do, then you will marvel for days at some of the ideas contained within its pages.

Gershenfeld is the head of MIT’s Media Lab, a research department dedicated to looking at the ways in which technology might be incorporated into our lives.  From the picture that is painted of Media Lab in the book, it sounds like an unusual place to say the least…. graduate students wearing video cameras over their eyes, drinking coffee that is automatically freshly brewed and delivered according to a computerized schedule that analyzes and remembers coffee-drinking habits, “printing” their research projects not on paper, but in three dimensions.  It sounds like the sort of place where you would not want to spend too long, yet it is clearly a place whose discoveries we should all be grateful for – such as the airbag that doesn’t inflate if it might injure a child sitting in the car seat.

The ideas are solidly rooted in common sense and practicality; the author clearly enjoys a “hands-on” approach, being as enthusiastic about time spent creating real-world prototypes as he is about discussing theories of quantum mechanics.  This realism and practicality extends to Gershenfeld’s ideas about the use of technology.  The Digital Revolution, he claims, has created a technological society in which it is the machines that have the upper hand; technology for its own sake, or that generates more problems than it solves (programming a VCR, anybody?), is a backwards step.  When people want to read, they prefer to read paper, he says, so why not make digital information available on paper?  It may sound preposterous, but one bright researcher at Media Lab actually managed to create electronic ink, as easy an clear to read as any book, yet able to change appearance like an LCD screen.  The electronic ink, it was found, could also be used to print logic circuits on to a piece of paper…. and a year or two down the line, a news item appears about a disposable cell phone made from paper!  [Incidentally, the news release finished with the announcement that the paper laptop computer was the company's next project.]

What makes this book so enjoyable is that Gershenfeld possesses a rare talent, one shared by only a few science writers (Richard Dawkins, for example): he is a technical specialist with a knack for explaining complex ideas in an easily understandable way.  “When Things Start to Think” is an eye-opening and highly readable book about where we are, and where we may be sooner than you think!

Order it now online.


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