Is MIT Obsolete?

Universe in 2009 / by Neil Gershenfeld /

On the future of invention.

Today’s advanced research and education institutions are essential to tackling the grand challenges facing our planet, but they’ve been based on an implicit assumption of technological scarcity — advances in those technologies now allow these activities to expand far beyond the boundaries of a campus.

Research requires funding, facilities, and people; I came to MIT to get access to all of these. State-of-the-art research infrastructure, large library collections, and world-class faculty are all expensive resources that limit admission slots, classroom space, and research positions. But what would happen if these things were no longer scarce?

That’s increasingly the case. The Internet has already enabled distance learning, providing video links to classrooms and remote access to online content (such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare). By digitizing not just the communication of ideas but also the fabrication of things, the campus can now effectively come to the student.

To understand how this is possible, return first to the earlier digital revolutions. Analog telephone calls degraded with distance; in the 1940s Claude Shannon showed that by transmitting them digitally they could be received without errors. This insight eventually gave rise to the internet. Similarly, analog computations degraded the longer they ran; in the 1950s John von Neumann and colleagues gave us digital computers that could correct their errors. These early giant mainframes begat “minicomputers,” which led in turn to the microprocessors used in personal computers (and increasingly everything else).

Something similar is happening to fabrication. In making today’s most advanced airplanes or integrated circuits, the intelligence is in the tools rather than the materials, which are cut, carved, mixed, and melted as they have been for millennia. But prototype processes in the laboratory can construct with codes, turning information into objects and vice versa, just as the proteins in your body can execute programs and correct errors.

This research will eventually lead to “personal fabricators” that will be able to make almost anything (including themselves). But it’s already possible to approximate their capabilities in field “fab labs” that are similar in cost and complexity to the minicomputers that were so important in the history of computing. Fab labs contain tens of thousands of dollars of computer-controlled tools that, although they don’t yet use fundamentally digital fabrication processes, can be used together to convert an electronic description into a functional object. Projects underway in fab labs include producing low-cost, low-power computers, wireless data networks, instruments for agriculture and the environment, and on-demand housing.

Pulled by a universal desire to measure and modify the world as well as get information about it on a computer screen, fab labs have spread around the globe, from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to northern Norway. The number of them has been doubling every 1.5 years or so; there are now about 30 (the most recent one opened in Afghanistan), with that many more currently being planned.

The only problem with providing ordinary people with modern means for invention is that this doesn’t fit within the conventional categories of education, industry, or aid. To fill this void, the fab lab network is now inventing new organizations: a non-profit Fab Foundation to support invention as aid, a for-profit Fab Fund to provide global capital for local inventors and global markets for local inventions, and an educational Fab Academy for distributed advanced technical education.

The Fab Academy is a network rather than a place, with teachers and students in fab labs around the world linked by broadband video, shared online information, and common technical capabilities. Its purpose is to keep up with the remarkable kids who are getting hands-on technical training in fab labs that is outstripping what they can learn in their (frequently dysfunctional) local school systems. Through this network I see colleagues above the Arctic Circle more often than ones who are in the same building at MIT, because on campus we’re all so busy juggling all of the activities that are happening in that single location.

The heart of MIT is its intellectual rather than physical infrastructure: a research culture that creates room for new ideas by emphasizing their evaluation through rapid reduction to practice, and by mixing short-term applications (both serious and silly) with long-term research. It’s much harder, however, to make room for new people by squeezing them into the same limited campus space. I recently helped plan substantial buildings to accommodate research growth at MIT and in the fab lab network; the former, at $100 million, was about 100 times the cost of the latter. While there are advanced capabilities that remain available only on campus, that boundary is rapidly receding.

This moment is akin to the turn of the last century, when philanthropists funded the spread of libraries to provide community access to the kinds of collections that had previously been available only to institutions and wealthy individuals. Fab labs are like libraries for a new kind of literacy, the reading and writing of objects rather than books. Instead of building a few big labs, it’s now possible to build a network of many more-accessible smaller labs that can be used for technical empowerment, training, incubation, and invention.

A few hundred top universities with a few thousand students each can hope to host only millions out of the billions of people on the planet, but insight and invention do not stop there. The MITs of the world are far from obsolete, but instead of draining brains away from where they are most needed, these institutions can now share not just their knowledge but also their tools, by providing the means to create them. Rather than advanced technological development and education being elite activities bounded by scarce space in classrooms and labs, they can become much more widely accessible and locally integrated, limited only by the most renewable of raw materials: ideas.  — Neil Gershenfeld is the director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms.

Originally published February 3, 2009

Tags engineering fabrication funding innovation technology

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