(Neil A. Gershenfeld)
CAREER: Scientist, physicist, educator, and administrator. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, professor and director of Center for Bits and Atoms. Bell Labs, member of research staff; Harvard Society of Fellows, junior fellow.
AWARDS, HONORS: Scientific American Fifty recognition, and Communications Research Leader of the Year recognition, both 2004.
(Editor, with Andreas S. Wiegend) NATO Advanced Research Workshop on Comparative Time-Series Analysis, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company (Reading, MA), 1994.
Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor of articles and papers to numerous scientific journals and periodicals. Author's work has been featured in White House and Smithsonian Institution millennium celebrations and in print venues including New York Times and Economist, and on television networks such as Cable New Network and Public Broadcasting Service.
SIDELIGHTS: Writer, physicist, and educator Neil Gershenfeld is director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The center is part of an "interdisciplinary initiative that is broadly exploring how the content of information relates to its physical representation, from atomic nuclei to global networks," noted a writer on the MIT Web site. Gershenfeld's work in studying the most fundamental mechanisms used to manipulate information led to the first complete quantum computation, which is early progress in the development of an entirely new generation of computers based on quantum mechanics and that operate on an atomic scale.
A number of Gershenfeld's books address the complex science and technology behind several broader areas of technological endeavor. In The Physics of Information Technology Gershenfeld presents "a synthesis of the fundamental results in selected areas of physics and the information sciences" that shows "how both are used in the technologies of communication, information storage, and computation," noted David G. Goodwin in Science. In his book Gershenfeld demonstrates how advances in information technology have relied heavily on advances in physics. The telegraph, for example, could not have been invented until magnetic induction was discovered, Goodwin explained. Transistors would have been impossible without understanding the physics underlying the energy band structure of solids. As both fields advance, "questions regarding the ultimate limits of information technology require an understanding of both physics and the information sciences," Goodwin remarked. Gershenfeld notes that academic programs in information technology rarely offer much exposure to physics, and vice-versa. In his book, he attempts to provide a solid grounding in both concepts of physics and information technology for students and experts in either field. He covers topics such as information theory, electromagnetic theory, tomography, lasers, superconductivity, quantum computing, and more.
When Things Start to Think offers an optimistic overview of future technology and the role it will have in people's lives as it becomes ever-smaller and less obtrusive. Based on Gershenfeld's work at the MIT Media Lab, the book includes discussion of scenarios in which computers are worn as an accessory, work is conducted primarily in virtual reality environments, embedded computers let everyday household objects such as coffee cups and clothing respond to users' needs, and electrically charged "smart paper" can be used and reused again and again. Beyond the enthusiastic review of future technological possibilities, Gershenfeld also provides "reasoned, thoughtful views on information rights and the necessity to cultivate a more scientifically literate society," noted Library Journal reviewer Gregg Sapp. As the technology advances, Gershenfeld suggests, improved power and built-in intelligence will allow computer makers to manufacture computing devices usable by anyone, sophisticated machines with their "inherent complexity invisible to users," observed a Business Week reviewer. "Especially for technophobes, Gershenfeld's easy style and light use of technical terms makes his book a fun and tantalizing glimpse into the world to come," remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication describes a near-future world in which individuals will have the technology at hand to make nearly anything they want with a personal fabricator. Such a device would allow users to make new tools, decorative objects, playthings, even electronic devices. Applications are possible in areas such as energy, electronics, agriculture, medicine, entertainment, and dozens of others. The limitations on the types of items that could be manufactured would constrained mostly by the users' needs and imaginations.
Personal Fabrication Devices, or "fab labs," are "small, inexpensive clusters of tools and software that function as complete job shops," noted Business Week reviewer Otis Port. Simple controls will allow almost anyone to operate the machine. Among the tools it will contain will be a milling device for creating precision parts, a cutter for producing circuit boards, and software for installing programming instructions into inexpensive microcontrollers. Gershenfeld believes that in the near future, fab labs could become as ubiquitous as personal computers, and prices could drop from today's 20,000 dollars or more to a more affordable 1,000 dollars or less.
The idea of a personal fabricator is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Rudimentary devices are already in use in several areas throughout the world, where they allow Sami sheepherders in Norway to create customized electronic tracking devices to monitor the whereabouts of their flock; where a farming village in India is creating devices that will tune tractors to run on locally produced organic fuels; where cow-powered generators will bring electricity to a village in Ghana; and where inner-city children in Boston make jewelry to sell and improve their economic condition. Similar technology is already widely used in manufacturing through rapid prototyping machines, devices that essentially "build" a solid object by laying down layer after layer of material in much the same way that an inkjet printer lays down ink.
"Since the author is describing people and projects that actually exist, rather than a fantastical vision of a utopian someday, his central contention is mightily convincing," remarked a Kirkus Reviews contributor. "Gershenfeld's account of the technology's evolution is delicious," commented Port, who also noted that "with a knack for technical explanation, he has written an accessible book that even nontechnophiles will love." The "superb" book "heralds a shift in manufacturing as profound as the advent of personal computers," added Port.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Business Week, February 15, 1999, "Brainy Gizmos," review of When Things Start to Think, p. 16E12; May 2, 2005, Otis Port, "Desktop Factories," review of Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, p. 22.
Electronic Engineering Times, May 9, 2005, Chappell Brown, "Prof's Goal: Fabs for the Masses," interview with Neil Gershenfeld, p. 1.
Information Technology and Libraries, September, 1999, Tom Zillner, review of When Things Start to Think, p. 169.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2005, review of Fab, p. 273.
Library Journal, January, 1999, Gregg Sapp, review of When Things Start to Think, p. 145; April 1, 2005, Heather O'Brien, review of Fab, p. 117.
Publishers Weekly, December 21, 1998, review of When Things Start to Think, p. 40.
Science, September 16, 1994, Andrew R. Solow, "Time-Series Prediction: Forecasting the Future and Understanding the Past," review of NATO Advanced Research Workshop on Comparative Time-Series Analysis, p. 1745; August 6, 1999, Brian Sleeman, review of The Nature of Mathematical Modeling, p. 842; November 30, 2001, David G. Goodwin, review of The Physics of Information Technology, p. 1839.
Science News, May 14, 2005, review of Fab, p. 319.
Technology Review, January 1, 1999, Wade Roush, review of When Things Start to Think, p. 87.
U.S. News and World Report, January 3, 2000, profile of Neil Gershenfeld, p. 59.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Web site, http://web.media.mit.edu/ (September 19, 2005), biography of Neil Gershenfeld.
MIT Center for Bits and Atoms Web site, http://cba.mit.edu/ (September 19, 2005).