TED2006

Neil Gershenfeld: Unleash your creativity in a Fab Lab

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MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld talks about his Fab Lab -- a low-cost lab that lets people build things they need using digital and analog tools. It's a simple idea with powerful results.

- Physicist, personal fab pioneer
As Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, Neil Gershenfeld explores the boundaries between the digital and physical worlds. Full bio

This meeting has really been about a digital revolution,
00:25
but I'd like to argue that it's done; we won.
00:29
We've had a digital revolution but we don't need to keep having it.
00:33
And I'd like to look after that,
00:37
to look what comes after the digital revolution.
00:39
So, let me start projecting forward.
00:42
These are some projects I'm involved in today at MIT,
00:44
looking what comes after computers.
00:48
This first one, Internet Zero, up here -- this is a web server
00:51
that has the cost and complexity of an RFID tag --
00:56
about a dollar -- that can go in every light bulb and doorknob,
00:59
and this is getting commercialized very quickly.
01:02
And what's interesting about it isn't the cost;
01:04
it's the way it encodes the Internet.
01:06
It uses a kind of a Morse code for the Internet
01:07
so you could send it optically; you can communicate acoustically
01:10
through a power line, through RF.
01:13
It takes the original principle of the Internet,
01:15
which is inter-networking computers,
01:17
and now lets devices inter-network.
01:19
That we can take the whole idea that gave birth to the Internet
01:22
and bring it down to the physical world in this Internet Zero,
01:25
this internet of devices.
01:28
So this is the next step from there to here,
01:30
and this is getting commercialized today.
01:32
A step after that is a project on fungible computers.
01:35
Fungible goods in economics can be extended and traded.
01:40
So, half as much grain is half as much useful,
01:43
but half a baby or half a computer is less useful than
01:45
a whole baby or a whole computer,
01:48
and we've been trying to make computers that work that way.
01:50
So, what you see in the background is a prototype.
01:53
This was from a thesis of a student, Bill Butow, now at Intel,
01:55
who wondered why, instead of making bigger and bigger chips,
01:58
you don't make small chips, put them in a viscous medium,
02:01
and pour out computing by the pound or by the square inch.
02:04
And that's what you see here.
02:06
On the left was postscript being rendered by a conventional computer;
02:08
on the right is postscript being rendered from the first prototype
02:11
we made, but there's no frame buffer, IO processor,
02:14
any of that stuff -- it's just this material.
02:18
Unlike this screen where the dots are placed carefully,
02:20
this is a raw material.
02:22
If you add twice as much of it, you have twice as much display.
02:23
If you shoot a gun through the middle, nothing happens.
02:26
If you need more resource, you just apply more computer.
02:29
So, that's the step after this -- of computing as a raw material.
02:33
That's still conventional bits, the step after that is --
02:36
this is an earlier prototype in the lab;
02:39
this is high-speed video slowed down.
02:41
Now, integrating chemistry in computation, where the bits are bubbles.
02:43
This is showing making bits, this is showing --
02:46
once again, slowed down so you can see it,
02:48
bits interacting to do logic and multiplexing and de-multiplexing.
02:50
So, now we can compute that the output arranges material
02:54
as well as information. And, ultimately, these are some slides
02:57
from an early project I did, computing where the bits are stored
03:01
quantum-mechanically in the nuclei of atoms, so
03:04
programs rearrange the nuclear structure of molecules.
03:07
All of these are in the lab pushing further and further and further,
03:11
not as metaphor but literally integrating bits and atoms,
03:15
and they lead to the following recognition.
03:18
We all know we've had a digital revolution, but what is that?
03:21
Well, Shannon took us, in the '40s, from here to here:
03:24
from a telephone being a speaker wire that degraded with distance
03:27
to the Internet. And he proved the first threshold theorem, that shows
03:31
if you add information and remove it to a signal,
03:35
you can compute perfectly with an imperfect device.
03:38
And that's when we got the Internet.
03:40
Von Neumann, in the '50s, did the same thing for computing;
03:42
he showed you can have an unreliable computer but restore its state
03:45
to make it perfect. This was the last great analog computer at MIT:
03:48
a differential analyzer, and the more you ran it,
03:52
the worse the answer got.
03:54
After Von Neumann, we have the Pentium, where the billionth transistor
03:56
is as reliable as the first one.
03:59
But all our fabrication is down in this lower left corner.
04:02
A state-of-the-art airplane factory rotating metal wax at fixed metal,
04:05
or you maybe melt some plastic. A 10-billion-dollar chip fab
04:08
uses a process a village artisan would recognize --
04:11
you spread stuff around and bake it.
04:14
All the intelligence is external to the system;
04:17
the materials don't have information.
04:19
Yesterday you heard about molecular biology,
04:21
which fundamentally computes to build.
04:24
It's an information processing system.
04:26
We've had digital revolutions in communication and computation,
04:28
but precisely the same idea, precisely the same math
04:32
Shannon and Von Neuman did, hasn't yet come out
04:35
to the physical world. So, inspired by that,
04:37
colleagues in this program -- the Center for Bits and Atoms
04:40
at MIT -- which is a group of people, like me,
04:42
who never understood the boundary between physical science
04:45
and computer science. I would even go further and say
04:48
computer science is one of the worst things that ever happened
04:51
to either computers or to science --
04:53
(Laughter)
04:55
-- because the canon -- computer science --
04:56
many of them are great but the canon of computer science
05:00
prematurely froze a model of computation
05:02
based on technology that was available in 1950,
05:05
and nature's a much more powerful computer than that.
05:08
So, you'll hear, tomorrow, from Saul Griffith. He was one of the
05:10
first students to emerge from this program.
05:14
We started to figure out how you can compute to fabricate.
05:17
This was just a proof of principle he did of tiles
05:20
that interact magnetically, where you write a code,
05:23
much like protein folding, that specifies their structure.
05:25
So, there's no feedback to a tool metrology;
05:28
the material itself codes for its structure in just the same ways
05:31
that protein are fabricated. So, you can, for example, do that.
05:36
You can do other things. That's in 2D. It works in 3D.
05:40
The video on the upper right -- I won't show for time --
05:43
shows self-replication, templating so something can make something
05:45
that can make something, and we're doing that now over, maybe,
05:49
nine orders of magnitude. Those ideas have been used to show
05:52
the best fidelity and direct rate DNA to make an organism,
05:55
in functionalizing nanoclusters with peptide tails
05:58
that code for their assembly -- so, much like the magnets,
06:01
but now on nanometer scales.
06:03
Laser micro-machining: essentially 3D printers that digitally fabricate
06:05
functional systems, all the way up to building buildings,
06:09
not by having blueprints,
06:12
but having the parts code for the structure of the building.
06:13
So, these are early examples in the lab of emerging technologies
06:16
to digitize fabrication. Computers that don't control tools
06:21
but computers that are tools, where the output of a program
06:25
rearranges atoms as well as bits.
06:29
Now, to do that -- with your tax dollars, thank you --
06:33
I bought all these machines. We made a modest proposal
06:36
to the NSF. We wanted to be able to make anything on any length scale,
06:40
all in one place, because you can't segregate digital fabrication
06:44
by a discipline or a length scale.
06:48
So we put together focused nano beam writers
06:50
and supersonic water jet cutters and excimer micro-machining systems.
06:54
But I had a problem. Once I had all these machines,
06:59
I was spending too much time teaching students to use them.
07:02
So I started teaching a class, modestly called,
07:05
"How To Make Almost Anything." And that wasn't meant to be provocative;
07:07
it was just for a few research students.
07:10
But the first day of class looked like this.
07:12
You know, hundreds of people came in begging,
07:14
all my life I've been waiting for this class; I'll do anything to do it.
07:16
Then they'd ask, can you teach it at MIT? It seems too useful?
07:19
And then the next --
07:22
(Laughter)
07:23
-- surprising thing was they weren't there to do research.
07:25
They were there because they wanted to make stuff.
07:26
They had no conventional technical background.
07:28
At the end of a semester they integrated their skills.
07:32
I'll show an old video. Kelly was a sculptor, and this is what she did
07:34
with her semester project.
07:38
(Video): Kelly: Hi, I'm Kelly and this is my scream buddy.
07:40
Do you ever find yourself in a situation
07:45
where you really have to scream, but you can't because you're at work,
07:48
or you're in a classroom, or you're watching your children,
07:53
or you're in any number of situations where it's just not permitted?
07:56
Well, scream buddy is a portable space for screaming.
08:01
When a user screams into scream buddy, their scream is silenced.
08:05
It is also recorded for later release where, when and how
08:10
the user chooses.
08:14
(Scream)
08:36
(Laughter) (Applause)
08:39
So, Einstein would like this.
08:43
This student made a web browser for parrots --
08:45
lets parrots surf the Net and talk to other parrots.
08:46
This student's made an alarm clock you wrestle
08:49
to prove you're awake; this is one that defends --
08:51
a dress that defends your personal space.
08:53
This isn't technology for communication;
08:55
it's technology to prevent it.
08:57
This is a device that lets you see your music.
08:59
This is a student who made a machine that makes machines,
09:02
and he made it by making Lego bricks that do the computing.
09:05
Just year after year -- and I finally realized
09:08
the students were showing the killer app of personal fabrication
09:10
is products for a market of one person.
09:14
You don't need this for what you can get in Wal-Mart;
09:16
you need this for what makes you unique.
09:18
Ken Olsen famously said, nobody needs a computer in the home.
09:19
But you don't use it for inventory and payroll;
09:23
DEC is now twice bankrupt. You don't need personal fabrication
09:25
in the home to buy what you can buy because you can buy it.
09:28
You need it for what makes you unique, just like personalization.
09:30
So, with that, in turn, 20 million dollars today does this;
09:34
20 years from now we'll make Star Trek replicators that make anything.
09:38
The students hijacked all the machines I bought to do personal fabrication.
09:42
Today, when you spend that much of your money,
09:46
there's a government requirement to do outreach, which often means
09:48
classes at a local school, a website -- stuff that's just not that exciting.
09:51
So, I made a deal with my NSF program managers that
09:54
instead of talking about it, I'd give people the tools.
09:58
This wasn't meant to be provocative or important,
10:00
but we put together these Fab Labs. It's about 20,000 dollars in equipment
10:02
that approximate both what the 20 million dollars does and where it's going.
10:06
A laser cutter to do press-fit assembly with 3D from 2D,
10:11
a sign cutter to plot in copper to do electromagnetics,
10:14
a micron scale,
10:16
numerically-controlled milling machine for precise structures,
10:18
programming tools for less than a dollar,
10:20
100-nanosecond microcontrollers. It lets you work from microns
10:23
and microseconds on up, and they exploded around the world.
10:26
This wasn't scheduled, but they went from inner-city Boston
10:30
to Pobal in India, to Secondi-Takoradi on Ghana's coast
10:32
to Soshanguve in a township in South Africa,
10:36
to the far north of Norway, uncovering, or helping uncover,
10:39
for all the attention to the digital divide,
10:43
we would find unused computers in all these places.
10:46
A farmer in a rural village -- a kid needs to measure and modify
10:50
the world, not just get information about it on a screen.
10:53
That there's really a fabrication and an instrumentation divide
10:57
bigger than the digital divide.
10:59
And the way you close it is not IT for the masses but IT development for the masses.
11:02
So, in place after place
11:05
we saw this same progression: that we'd open one of these Fab Labs,
11:08
where we didn't -- this is too crazy to think of.
11:11
We didn't think this up, that we would get pulled to these places;
11:14
we'd open it. The first step was just empowerment.
11:17
You can see it in their face, just this joy of, I can do it.
11:19
This is a girl in inner-city Boston who had just done a high-tech
11:22
on-demand craft sale in the inner city community center.
11:24
It goes on from there to serious hands-on technical education
11:28
informally, out of schools. In Ghana we had set up one of these labs.
11:32
We designed a network sensor, and kids would show up
11:37
and refuse to leave the lab.
11:39
There was a girl who insisted we stay late at night --
11:40
(Video): Kids: I love the Fab Lab.
11:43
-- her first night in the lab because she was going to make the sensor.
11:45
So she insisted on fabbing the board, learning how to stuff it,
11:48
learning how to program it. She didn't really know
11:51
what she was doing or why she was doing it, but she knew
11:53
she just had to do it. There was something electric about it.
11:55
This is late at, you know, 11 o'clock at night
11:58
and I think I was the only person surprised when what she built
12:00
worked the first time.
12:03
And I've shown this to engineers at big companies, and they say
12:05
they can't do this. Any one thing she's doing, they can do better,
12:07
but it's distributed over many people and many sites
12:10
and they can't do in an afternoon
12:13
what this little girl in rural Ghana is doing.
12:14
(Video): Girl: My name is Valentina Kofi; I am eight years old.
12:33
I made a stacking board.
12:37
And, again, that was just for the joy of it.
12:40
Then these labs started doing serious problem solving --
12:43
instrumentation for agriculture in India,
12:46
steam turbines for energy conversion in Ghana,
12:48
high-gain antennas in thin client computers.
12:50
And then, in turn, businesses started to grow,
12:54
like making these antennas.
12:55
And finally, the lab started doing invention.
12:56
We're learning more from them than we're giving them.
12:58
I was showing my kids in a Fab Lab how to use it.
13:00
They invented a way to do a construction kit out of a cardboard box --
13:03
which, as you see up there, that's becoming a business --
13:07
but their design was better than Saul's design at MIT,
13:09
so there's now three students at MIT doing their theses on
13:12
scaling the work of eight-year-old children
13:15
because they had better designs.
13:18
Real invention is happening in these labs.
13:19
And I still kept -- so, in the last year I've been spending time with
13:22
heads of state and generals and tribal chiefs who all want this,
13:24
and I keep saying, but this isn't the real thing.
13:27
Wait, like, 20 years and then we'll be done.
13:29
And I finally got what's been going on. This is Kernigan and Ritchie
13:31
inventing UNIX on a PDP.
13:34
PDPs came between mainframes and minicomputers.
13:37
They were tens of thousands of dollars, hard to use,
13:39
but they brought computing down to work groups,
13:42
and everything we do today happened there.
13:44
These Fab Labs are the cost and complexity of a PDP.
13:46
The projection of digital fabrication
13:49
isn't a projection for the future; we are now in the PDP era.
13:51
We talked in hushed tones about the great discoveries then.
13:54
It was very chaotic, it wasn't, sort of, clear what was going on.
13:57
In the same sense we are now, today, in the minicomputer era
14:00
of digital fabrication.
14:03
The only problem with that is it breaks everybody's boundaries.
14:05
In DC, I go to every agency that wants to talk, you know;
14:09
in the Bay Area, I go to every organization you can think of --
14:12
they all want to talk about it, but it breaks
14:14
their organizational boundaries. In fact, it's illegal for them,
14:16
in many cases, to equip ordinary people to create
14:19
rather than consume technology.
14:23
And that problem is so severe that the ultimate invention
14:24
coming from this community surprised me:
14:28
it's the social engineering. That the lab in far north of Norway --
14:31
this is so far north its satellite dishes look at the ground
14:35
rather than the sky because that's where the satellites are --
14:37
the lab outgrew the little barn that it was in.
14:41
It was there because they wanted to find animals in the mountains
14:42
but it outgrew it, so they built this extraordinary village for the lab.
14:45
This isn't a university; it's not a company. It's essentially
14:49
a village for invention; it's a village for the outliers in society,
14:51
and those have been growing up around these Fab Labs
14:56
all around the world.
14:58
So this program has split into an NGO foundation,
14:59
a Fab Foundation to support the scaling, a micro VC fund.
15:03
The person who runs it nicely describes it as
15:07
"machines that make machines need businesses that make businesses:"
15:08
it's a cross between micro-finance and VC to do fan-out,
15:12
and then the research partnerships back at MIT for what's
15:15
making it possible.
15:17
So I'd like to leave you with two thoughts.
15:20
There's been a sea change in aid, from top-down mega-projects
15:22
to bottom-up, grassroots, micro-finance investing in the roots,
15:27
so that everybody's got that that's what works.
15:31
But we still look at technology as top-down mega-projects.
15:34
Computing, communication, energy for the rest of the planet
15:37
are these top-down mega-projects.
15:40
If this room full of heroes is just clever enough,
15:42
you can solve the problems.
15:44
The message coming from the Fab Labs is that
15:46
the other five billion people on the planet
15:48
aren't just technical sinks; they're sources.
15:50
The real opportunity is to harness the inventive power of the world
15:52
to locally design and produce solutions to local problems.
15:55
I thought that's the projection 20 years hence into the future,
15:59
but it's where we are today.
16:02
It breaks every organizational boundary we can think of.
16:04
The hardest thing at this point is the social engineering
16:06
and the organizational engineering, but it's here today.
16:09
And, finally, any talk like this on the future of computing
16:12
is required to show Moore's law, but my favorite version --
16:14
this is Gordon Moore's original one from his original paper --
16:18
and what's happened is, year after year after year,
16:23
we've scaled and we've scaled and we've scaled
16:25
and we've scaled, and we've scaled and we've scaled,
16:26
and we've scaled and we've scaled,
16:30
and there's this looming bug of what's going to happen
16:31
at the end of Moore's law; this ultimate bug is coming.
16:33
But we're coming to appreciate, is the transition from 2D to 3D,
16:37
from programming bits to programming atoms,
16:42
turns the ends of Moore's law scaling from the ultimate bug
16:45
to the ultimate feature.
16:47
So, we're just at the edge of this digital revolution in fabrication,
16:49
where the output of computation programs the physical world.
16:53
So, together, these two projects answer questions
16:56
I hadn't asked carefully. The class at MIT shows the killer app
16:59
for personal fabrication in the developed world
17:03
is technology for a market of one: personal expression in technology
17:05
that touches a passion unlike anything I've seen in technology
17:09
for a very long time.
17:12
And the killer app for the rest of the planet is the instrumentation
17:14
and the fabrication divide: people locally developing solutions
17:18
to local problems. Thank you.
17:21

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About the Speaker:

Neil Gershenfeld - Physicist, personal fab pioneer
As Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, Neil Gershenfeld explores the boundaries between the digital and physical worlds.

Why you should listen

MIT's Neil Gershenfeld is redefining the boundaries between the digital and analog worlds. The digital revolution is over, Gershenfeld says. We won. What comes next? His Center for Bits and Atoms has developed quite a few answers, including Internet 0, a tiny web server that fits into lightbulbs and doorknobs, networking the physical world in previously unimaginable ways.

But Gershenfeld is best known as a pioneer in personal fabrication -- small-scale manufacturing enabled by digital technologies, which gives people the tools to build literally anything they can imagine. His famous Fab Lab is immensely popular among students at MIT, who crowd Gershenfeld's classes. But the concept is potentially life-altering in the developing world, where a Fab Lab with just $20,000 worth of laser cutters, milling machines and soldering irons can transform a community, helping people harness their creativity to build tools, replacement parts and essential products unavailable in the local market. Read more in Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop.

More profile about the speaker
Neil Gershenfeld | Speaker | TED.com