SAN FRANCISCO — The future has a funny way of sneaking up on you. You don’t notice it until you’re soaking in it. That was the feeling at O’Reilly’s Solid Conference last week. For the first time, the venerable tech publisher held an event dedicated the way software and hardware are coming together in devices that don’t involve a typical computer screen. The gadgetry on display was so complex and so diverse–spanning everything from smart trash cans to airborne wind turbines–that even hardcore techies marveled at how far this world has already come.
At the conference, WIRED sat down with Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab and one of the event’s planners, to discuss this phenomenon of convergence, where bits from the digital realm are fusing with atoms here in the physical world . Experimentation is spreading, he says, and it won’t stop at gadgets. For Ito, the next great engineering platform will be living matter itself.
The proliferation of new hardware, Ito says, is driven in part by changes in the global supply chain. Over the past year, the industrial supply chain companies that serve giant mass-market hardware makers like Apple and Motorola–helping to generate iPhone and iPads and Android devices–are now starting to serve startups as well. Manufacturing and distribution are becoming ever-more automated and modularized, he says, and startups can plug into these economies of scale.
As experimentation increases, so does the willingness of venture capitalists to invest. “Hardware is harder than software. It’s still an area that isn’t the traditional low-hanging fruit of Silicon Valley,” Ito says. “But I think people are realizing there are going to be some big winners in this space. And they want to be in it.”
One company leading this transition in Silicon Valley sensibility is Google, which is bridging the digital-physical divide through both a flurry of startup acquisitions and its own projects. Chief among them is Google’s self-driving car. “Google says smartly that they didn’t design a self-driving car. They designed a driver,” Ito says. It’s a way of thinking about hardware that stresses the device as an intelligent system, not just an object. “The self-driving car is a great example of how all that hype about big data and cloud converges into stuff that touches the real world through hardware.”
At Ito’s Media Lab, infusing the rest of the world with digital intelligence has always been a part of the culture, a cornerstone of the lab’s experiments in creating better, more useful and pleasing ways for people to interact with technology. Among the materials he’s most excited about is DNA, information encoded into living form. The cost of manipulating life’s building blocks, he says, is falling at a much more rapid clip right now than Moore’s Law predicts for silicon. “If you think that diminishing cost is what drives innovation to startups and to dorm rooms, I think bioengineering is coming really fast and is going to catch up,” Ito says. “It’s neat to think about not just computational biology but computation in biology.”
As one example, Ito says he was recently talking to some students who were working with a microbe that was acting as a chemical sensor. A reaction would trigger an electrical circuit that would in turn send out a wireless signal. The completely hybrid biological-electrical device was designed not for novelty, but because each piece was the best tool for the job–the electrical because of greater efficiency at sending out the signal, the biological because of greater accuracy and lower power. Ito sees vision as a particularly promising direction for a hybrid “anti-disciplinary” approach where mechanical engineers, biologists, and computer scientists come together. Each likely has a role to play in piecing together technology-enabled sight.
He’s well aware that tinkering with the stuff of life carries great risk, perhaps even the ultimate cost-benefit: “You get the promise of immortality together with the biohacker script kiddie extinction event.” And Ito believes that the engineers driving the fusion of digital and physical can only truly succeed if they account for all the issues that emerge when the digital and physical merge, from network security to ecological impact.
At the same time, Ito believes that the makers of these new machines need to deploy their creations early and often. (“Deploy or die,” he says.) In part, that’s to get innovators thinking about how to manufacture and distribute, not just invent. But using the real world as a platform also forces designers and engineers to think about how what they make affects and alters the world. It demands an approach to design that conceives of devices not in isolation, but as parts of a system bigger than themselves.
“Most science and technology has been about trying to conquer nature and create local gain at the expense of the system,” Ito says. “Thinking about yourself as a participant in a system with responsibility and interactions, you come up with a different kind of sensibility that you get by forcing kids to think about how something is going to be deployed.”