Nicholas Negroponte predicts biotechnology will learn how to grow all things in the future, from communications to transportation, as well as computers.
Ever since Nicholas Negroponte has co-founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab in 1985, the interdisciplinary research laboratory has been breaking ground for new technology to arise. Recently, he revealed his forecasts for the 21st century, and explored how we can "grow" the computers of the future through the use of biotechnology.
"I've been to the future many times, mostly predicting what the future will be in 10 years from now, but when it gets here it’s always different from what I predicted, and we have to make a whole new set of predictions," said Negroponte. "I've made a series of such round trips now, and as a result want to present a bizarre point of view that I believe really can predict the future."
Figure 1: Nicholas Negroponte, a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, expounds on all the technologies he invented. (Source: EE Times/R. Colin Johnson)
He doesn't give us the aphorism "nothing stays the same except change," but really has a notion about how it is that people change the world. For instance, there's a big disconnect between what people really want and what the focus groups suggest they want. "What consumers say they need is OK, but only OK," he explained.
On the other hand, he notes that visionaries like Steve Jobs were very good at predicting what the people want before they know they want it. Since he was speaking to a room full of engineers, he challenged them head-on by telling them that the incremental changes they so covet are all wrong.
"Incremental changes are the enemy of creativity," he said. "If you have to measure a result to know if it’s worth doing, that's because it not a very good result. In fact, if it’s not self-evident that it’s worth doing, then you don't need to measure it at all."
Figure 2: One of the world's first virtual reality (VR) head mounted displays (HMDs) according to Nicholas Negroponte, a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab. (Source: Nicholas Negroponte, image shown during keynote)
That philosophy goes against the grain of both hardware and software engineers, who are often in a competition to use up more computer cycles. The software guys bog down the hardware, so the hardware guys soup it up. Likewise the hardware guys come out with a faster processor, and the software guys immediately cancel out the speedup with a bunch of new features, and so it goes.
"Common sense is indeed common," said Negroponte. "What we want to understand is not what intelligence is, how we do it, but rather we should be pursuing 'why': why we appreciate music, why we think something is funny. This is a different way of looking at intelligence that has fallen off the table of late."
To illustrate, he showed some slides of seminal inventions that took a half-century to catch on because of naysayers. For instance the touchscreen, which was demonstrated way back when everybody was using black-and-white cathode-ray tube (CRTs). The naysayers then said it would never be popular because your finger obscures what you are touching and you leave greasy fingerprints all over the screen, both true but a result of common sense, which indeed is common, at least judging by today when the touch screen is the most popular graphical user interface (GUI) of all.
Figure 3: One of the world's first touchscreen according to Nicholas Negroponte, a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab. (Source: Nicholas Negroponte, image shown during keynote)
He also claimed that the original inventions of virtual reality (VR) head-mounted displays and the Google Street View car were decades ahead of their time but failed, because of the enemy of innovation, incremental changes, and man's natural common sense. Likewise for speech and gesture interfaces.
So what will the future be like given all this experience? Negroponte predicts biotechnology will learn how to grow all things in the future, from communications to transportation. "If I was to start up a new lab today, it would be a biotechnology lab," Negroponte concluded.