Neil Gershenfeld

Director, MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms

Fab Labs
26 minutes, 12.3mb, recorded 2005-10-22
Neil Gershenfeld

Personal fabrication may one day put the power to make anything in the hands of everyone. Neil Gershenfeld entertains and educates in this fascinating tour of projects from MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. First inspired by students in his "How to Make (Almost) Anything" course, global outreach with the digitization of fabrication has led to unexpected opportunities, not only to build cool objects, but also to empower people world wide through invention.

The digital revolution has already occurred in communications and computation, argues Gershenfeld; now it's time for the fabrication revolution. The most advanced manufacturing plant is not one of our sophisticated chip fabs, rather it is exemplified by our own cellular machinery. Our nucleic acids and ribosomes are essentially a self-encoding molecular computer able to assemble and disassemble the cell's own structure. The ultimate goal of the lab's research is to perfect macroscopic assembly from microscopic parts in order to make anything at any scale. As the inventiveness of student research shows, the market for personal fabrication is not reproduction of what you can already buy, instead it is the creation of personal objects.

Work from the lab has moved into the field in the form of a compact, $20,000 Fab Lab, complete with materials, machinery and design tools. As the field labs took off, Gershenfeld saw that creating objects was a powerful means of bridging the digital divide. Less developed places don't always need web pages and fancy computers, they often most need material objects that fit in their daily lives. This accidental success has spawned a new kind of technology transfer through just-in-time, peer-to-peer training. Great fabs around the world further suggest that regions can potentially bypass some industry and move directly to small scale, high tech businesses through digital fabrication.

Invention as a kind of aid is an attractive idea, but does not fit neatly into the traditional funding models. Gershenfeld hopes to develop new ways of combining venture capital and micro-finance to promote the progress of digital fabrication world wide.

This talk was from the Big Fixes session at Pop!Tech. The other speakers in this session were Cameron Sinclair and Bunker Roy. The question and answer period can be heard at the end of Bunker Roy's talk.

Neil Gershenfeld is the Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. His unique laboratory investigates the relationship between the content of information and its physical representation, from molecular quantum computers to virtuosic musical instruments. Technology from his lab has been seen and used in settings including New York's Museum of Modern Art and rural Indian villages, the White House/Smithsonian Millennium celebration and automobile safety systems, the World Economic Forum and inner-city community centers, Las Vegas shows and Sami herds.

He is the author of numerous technical publications, patents, and books including Fab, When Things Start To Think, The Nature of Mathematical Modeling, and The Physics of Information Technology, and has been featured in media such as The New York Times, The Economist, CNN, and the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour. Neil has a BA in Physics with High Honors from Swarthmore College, a Ph.D. from Cornell University, was a Junior Fellow of the Harvard University Society of Fellows, and a member of the research staff at Bell Labs.


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