He's the Man They Call the Digital Nostradamus

By Grossman, Wendy | The Independent (London, England), June 5, 1995 | Go to article overview
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He's the Man They Call the Digital Nostradamus


Grossman, Wendy, The Independent (London, England)


"If I'm wrong," Nicholas Negroponte is fond of saying, "it's only for 10 minutes." It would be a good way of covering mistakes, but his point is that, while he's busy predicting the future, the present is changing too fast to call accurately.

Mr Negroponte is the founder and director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and one of the grand men of multimedia. Some current predictions, culled from his new book Being Digital: 1 billion people will be connected to the Internet by 2000; the future of interface design is intelligent agents who know our personal quirks; technology will free us from constraints of time and place on our work and lives; video rental stores will be out of business within 10 years.

To put all that in perspective, in 1989 he predicted that by the mid- Nineties, the primary interface between people and computers would be speech. Well, wait another 10 minutes. Mr Negroponte received his master's degree from MIT in 1967 - in architecture, not computer science. His 1968 book The Architecture Machine introduced some of the ideas he is still propounding today, such as the concept of highly personalised systems that could interact intelligently with their owners.

He founded and ran (1968-82) MIT's Architecture Machine Group, some of whose early work helped to lead to the development of computer-aided design. The group also did pioneering work on computer interfaces, using what it called "spatial data management" - conceptually not dissimilar to the graphical user interfaces most computers now use - and demonstrated the potential of speech-driven interfaces as early as 1979.

The beginnings of what is now the Media Lab came in 1976, when Mr Negroponte wrote a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities that described a random-access multimedia system. His central prediction was that broadcasting and film, printing and publishing, and computing would converge by 2000. The proposal, quickly adopted by the late Jerome Wiesner, then president of MIT, was radical at a time when the focus of computer science research was on programming languages, operating systems, network protocols and system architectures.

Mr Negroponte's role in managing the Media Lab does not involve research or even hands-on project management. Asked what he does, he says: "Service debt." Unlike most of MIT, whose external funding is on average between 6 and 10 per cent, the Media Lab's funding is 75 to 80 per cent corporate, amounting to some $200m (pounds 129m) in the 10 years it has been in existence. It has more than 60 sponsors, including BT, Sony, Reuters, Philips, IBM, Intel, Hughes Aircraft and News Corporation.

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