Friday, February 5, 2010

Tomorrow's computing concepts

Many years ago, when I was visiting the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston for French TV, I recall meeting up with a young guy on the staff of their AI (artificial intelligence) group who was apparently paid to do little more than dream up ideas of a science-fiction kind about the future of computing. This friendly one-man think tank gave me a copy of his latest paper, which was a lengthy list of possible inventions, described with an abundance of freshly-coined technical words and abstract philosophical expressions. I remember that he used the AI acronym as a noun, designating what most people at that time would have called a robot. Apart from that, though, little else in his futuristic wish-list was within my conceptual grasp.

Apparently this tradition still exists at MIT. Yesterday, my friend Brahim Djioua (himself an AI researcher at the Sorbonne) sent me a link to a fascinating video about a visionary fellow named Pranav Mistry, a graduate of the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) who went on, while working on his doctorate at MIT, to dream up a fabulous approach to computing as it might exist in the near future. The following video speaks for itself, since Pranav has actually implemented many of his dreams in the form of real devices, but you may have to watch the video several times (as I did) for the astonishing messages to get through clearly.


  1. Very interesting, thank you!
    (I activated the subtitles, that way I needed only one session.)

    Underscores why Liberal arts is back as a valuable college major!

  2. Merisi: Thanks for pointing out to me the presence of a subtitles button, because I had trouble trying to follow the fellow's strong Indian accent. This afternoon, I noticed that there have been quite a few enthusiastic references to this video in French media websites. I was expecting to find a mention of similarities between Pranav Mistry's suggestions and the motion-capture animation technologies developed by James Cameron's team for the fabulous Avatar movie. I would prefer to look more closely into Pranav Mistry's context before forming an opinion on the quality of his thinking, because certain "home-made" aspects of his demonstrations surprised me a little. Above all, I would have been happier if the background demonstrations of Pranav's inventions were shot in a more informative and rigorously authentic fashion. After all, to put it bluntly: Can we be sure that we were watching genuine computer output, rather than a mere video montage?

  3. I think it was a video montage, simply because I am not aware of technology that would allow all this complicatied computing to happen already. Well, in truth I do not know a thing, but I loved watching and imagining the possibilities. I remember well speaking on a rotary dial phone - after having called the provider to please connect me to Europe! - and dismissing any thought of being able to watch the speaker on a screen. Hello, Skype! ;-)

    We may now be closing in on the Sumarians: Drawing Cuneiform pictograms on clay, er, electronic tablets. ;-)

    Do you remember Etch A Sketch? American children loved this drawing tablet that let you draw and erase on a plastic screen, and it worked all mechanically! I bet somebody is doing this electronically nowadays. I found the old-fashioned one fascinating. I wonder if I was the only one who took that device apart to see how it worked.

  4. As a photographer, what did you think of that fantastic idea of simply holding up your extended fingers, forming a rectangular viewing device, in order to take a photo? It sure beats carting around a camera. But, as you say, where's the actual "technology that would allow all this complicated computing to happen already"? I would suspect that this technology can be found, for the moment, in Pranav's vivid imagination. I'm reminded of a joke about a talented inventor who showed his friends a photo of a prototype model of a fabulous aircraft that he was currently designing. "It'll be the world's lightest aircraft, the world's fastest aircraft and the world's most beautiful aircraft. Besides, it'll be so inexpensive that ordinary people will able to own one. There's just one final problem that I need to solve. How do I get it to fly?"