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Researchers discuss problems and prospects

There may be more Barbie dolls than Americans connected to the Internet in five years, Professor Nicholas P. Negroponte said at an MIT panel discussion last week.

While discussing research that spans the boundaries of academia and industry, he and others speculated on the types of alliances that will be needed to help computers blend more seamlessly into people's future daily lives. The session was part of the 1999 MIT Research Directors Conference, held in Kresge Auditorium, Johnson Athletic Center and the Stratton Student Center on May 11-12.

The sixth annual conference, sponsored by the Industrial Liaison Program (ILP), drew about 400 executives who manage research at technology-based companies around the world. In addition to talks by MIT experts and researchers, participants heard presentations by executives of IBM, Pirelli, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. and others.

In a wide-ranging discussion moderated by John Benditt, editor in chief of Technology Review, four members of the MIT community and an author who has worked closely with MIT speculated on the future role of computers in society and chided industry for its short-term outlook. "We're desperately interested in trying to help you create your future," said one panelist. "If you can't create a vision for your future, don't accuse us [in academia] of playing in the sandbox."


Professor Negroponte, the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Technology and director of the Media Laboratory, said toys have a higher semiconductor content than computers on a desktop. He has found that among the many companies interested in sponsoring research at the Media Lab, more are tending to produce products used by everyday people on a daily basis.

Professor John Guttag, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and leader of the Software Devices and Systems Group in the Laboratory for Computer Science, agreed that 97 percent of the processors that exist today are in things other than computers -- "things we don't want to fail," he said.

Meanwhile, the software that drives these systems will have to improve, "because we will insist on it," he said. "I would never get into a car if the probability of it crashing was the same as that of my desktop." The problem here is that although testing hardware is relatively straightforward because it involves testing the manufacturing process, testing software is trickier. "How do you test a design?" he said.

As computers evolve, they will appeal more to people's senses of vision, hearing and touch than to their intellect, Professor Guttag said. "A great deal of the brain is based on visual and auditory cues. The question is, how can we use computers to tap into these great abilities people have?" he said.

Instead of inserting people into an unreal world of virtual reality, he predicted that computers will foster a world of augmented reality, where sensors allow people to feel and hear and see things that they couldn't feel and hear and see before.

Robert Buderi, author of The Invention That Changed the World, said corporate labs are beginning to realize that their research must span interfaces and boundaries, and that corporate research is more alive and vigorous now than at any other time since Sputnik spurred Americans' interest in science and technology in the 1950s.


Professor Edward F. Crawley, head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and director of the Space Engineering Research Center, said the aerospace industry is battling the bad publicity generated by six major satellite launch failures in a short span of time. "We call these SSTO -- single stage to ocean," he quipped.

In the drive to create launch vehicles that work and are commercially successful, there is a need for engineers and business leaders to come together and take a new interest in how each works and how they set priorities, he said.

Robert S. Langer, the Germes-hausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, said the biomaterials field also requires an enormous amount of crossover of disciplines. Professor Langer, a pioneer in tissue engineering, said material scientists, chemical engineers and physicians have come together to create an "enormously exciting time in biomaterials." He is affiliated with the Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health and the Department of Chemical Engineering.

In addition, he said, the people who will fuel the next great discoveries need to possess an ability to dream and a good dose of stubborness to counter those who claim their great ideas won't work.

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 31).

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