Programming Bits and Atoms

    Neil Gershenfeld

    MIT Media Laboratory

    December 5, 2001 (13:30)


As the demands on computation bring it beyond the limits of traditional computers, information processing is appearing in domains ranging from printed penny tags to femtosecond atomic dynamics to quantum coherent nuclear spin evolution. I will discuss models of computation and communications that can take advantage of the latent capabilities of physical mechanisms to manipulate information, and explore their scaling from millions to trillions to Avogadro-scale systems of imperfect elements. These ideas will be demonstrated through both experimental realizations and some of their short-term applications.


Professor Neil Gershenfeld leads the Things That Think consortium at MIT's Media Laboratory, where he also directs the Physics and Media research group. His unique laboratory investigates the relationship between the content of information and its physical representation. Most fundamentally this includes work on molecular computers and information processing in natural system, which helped lead to the first complete experimental realization of a quantum computation that demonstrated the algorithmic speed-up over classical searching, and the discovery of dissipative nonlinear dynamical systems that implement logical coding functions. He has also investigated instrumentation and algorithms to embed intelligence in everyday objects such as furniture and footwear, with devices from his laboratory seen everywhere from rural India to installations at New York's Museum of Modern Art to shows by the magicians Penn & Teller to widely-used automobile occupant safety systems. And his interest in the applications of these technologies has resulted in the development of virtuosic musical instruments including a cello for Yo-Yo Ma and an interactive stage for the juggling Flying Karamazov Brothers. Beyond his many technical publications and patents, he is the author of best-selling books including "When Things Start To Think," the texts "The Nature of Mathematical Modeling" and "The Physics of Information Technology", and "Time Series Prediction: Forecasting the Future and Understanding the Past." His work has also been featured by the White House and Smithsonian Institution in their Millennium celebrations, and been the subject of print, radio, and TV programs in media including the New York Times, CNN, and PBS. Dr. Gershenfeld has a B.A. in Physics with High Honors from Swarthmore College, was a member of the research staff at Bell Labs where he studied laser interactions with atomic and nuclear systems, received a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Cornell University for experimental tests of order in complex condensed matter systems, and was a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows where he ran an international study on prediction techniques.