Home » Nicholas Negroponte Discusses The 30-year History of The Future – TED Talk Transcript

Nicholas Negroponte Discusses The 30-year History of The Future – TED Talk Transcript

In this TED Talk, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte takes you on a journey through the last 30 years of tech. And then he leaves you with one last (absurd? brilliant?) prediction for the coming 30 years.






Nicholas Negroponte – MIT Media Lab founder

(Starts with Video) Can we switch to the video disc, which is in play mode?

[[Video] I’m really interested in how you put people and computers together. We will be using the TV screens or their equivalents for electronic books of the future. (Music, crosstalk) Very interested in touch-sensitive displays, high-tech, high-touch, not having to pick up your fingers to use them. There is another way where computers touch people: wearing, physically wearing. Suddenly on September 11th, the world got bigger.]

Thank you. Thank you.

When I was asked to do this, I was also asked to look at all 14 TED Talks that I had given, chronologically. The first one was actually two hours. The second one was an hour, and then they became half hours, and all I noticed was my bald spot getting bigger.

Imagine seeing your life, 30 years of it, go by, and it was, to say the least, for me, quite a shocking experience. So what I’m going to do in my time is try and share with you what happened during the 30 years, and then also make a prediction, and then tell you a little bit about what I’m doing next. And I put on a slide where TED 1 happened in my life. And it’s rather important because I had done 15 years of research before it, so I had a backlog, so it was easy. It’s not that I was Fidel Castro and I could talk for two hours, or Bucky Fuller. I had 15 years of stuff, and the Media Lab was about to start. So that was easy.

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But there are a couple of things about that period and about what happened that are really quite important. One is that it was a period when computers weren’t yet for people. And the other thing that sort of happened during that time is that we were considered sissy computer scientists. We weren’t considered the real thing. So what I’m going to show you is, in retrospect, a lot more interesting and a lot more accepted than it was at the time.

So I’m going to characterize the years and I’m even going to go back to some very early work of mine, and this was the kind of stuff I was doing in the ’60s: very direct manipulation, very influenced as I studied architecture by the architect Moshe Safdie, and you can see that we even built robotic things that could build habitat-like structures. And this for me was not yet the Media Lab, but was the beginning of what I’ll call sensory computing, and I pick fingers partly because everybody thought it was ridiculous.

Papers were published about how stupid it was to use fingers. Three reasons: One was they were low-resolution. The other is your hand would occlude what you wanted to see, and the third, which was the winner, was that your fingers would get the screen dirty, and hence, fingers would never be a device that you’d use. And this was a device we built in the ’70s, which has never even been picked up. It’s not just touch sensitive, it’s pressure sensitive.

[Video: Put a yellow circle there.]

Later work, and again this was before TED 1 —

[Video: Move that west of the diamond. Create a large green circle there. Man: Aw, shit.]

— was to sort of do interface concurrently, so when you talked and you pointed and you had, if you will, multiple channels.

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Entebbe happened. 1976, Air France was hijacked, taken to Entebbe, and the Israelis not only did an extraordinary rescue, they did it partly because they had practiced on a physical model of the airport, because they had built the airport, so they built a model in the desert, and when they arrived at Entebbe, they knew where to go because they had actually been there. The U.S. government asked some of us, ’76, if we could replicate that computationally, and of course somebody like myself says yes. Immediately, you get a contract, Department of Defense, and we built this truck and this rig. We did sort of a simulation, because you had video discs, and again, this is ’76. And then many years later, you get this truck, and so you have Google Maps.

Still people thought, no, that was not serious computer science, and it was a man named Jerry Wiesner, who happened to be the president of MIT, who did think it was computer science. And one of the keys for anybody who wants to start something in life: Make sure your president is part of it.

So when I was doing the Media Lab, it was like having a gorilla in the front seat. If you were stopped for speeding and the officer looked in the window and saw who was in the passenger seat, then, “Oh, continue on, sir.” And so we were able, and this is a cute, actually, device, parenthetically. This was a lenticular photograph of Jerry Wiesner where the only thing that changed in the photograph were the lips. So when you oscillated that little piece of lenticular sheet with his photograph, it would be in lip sync with zero bandwidth. It was a zero-bandwidth teleconferencing system at the time.

So this was the Media Lab’s — this is what we said we’d do, that the world of computers, publishing, and so on would come together. Again, not generally accepted, but very much part of TED in the early days. And this is really where we were headed. And that created the Media Lab.

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One of the things about age is that I can tell you with great confidence, I’ve been to the future. I’ve been there, actually, many times. And the reason I say that is, how many times in my life have I said, “Oh, in 10 years, this will happen,” and then 10 years comes. And then you say, “Oh, in five years, this will happen.” And then five years comes. So I say this a little bit with having felt that I’d been there a number of times, and one of the things that is most quoted that I’ve ever said is that computing is not about computers, and that didn’t quite get enough traction, and then it started to.

It started to because people caught on that the medium wasn’t the message. And the reason I show this car in actually a rather ugly slide is just again to tell you the kind of story that characterized a little bit of my life. This is a student of mine who had done a Ph.D. called “Backseat Driver.” It was in the early days of GPS, the car knew where it was, and it would give audio instructions to the driver, when to turn right, when to turn left and so on. Turns out, there are a lot of things in those instructions that back in that period were pretty challenging, like what does it mean, take the next right?

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