Atoms and Bits: Rethinking Manufacturing: An Interview with Neil Gershenfeld: Neil Gershenfeld Talks with Jim Euchner about the Internet of Things and the Coming Revolution in Manufacturing

By Gershenfeld, Neil; Euchner, Jim | Research-Technology Management, September-October 2015 | Go to article overview

Atoms and Bits: Rethinking Manufacturing: An Interview with Neil Gershenfeld: Neil Gershenfeld Talks with Jim Euchner about the Internet of Things and the Coming Revolution in Manufacturing


Gershenfeld, Neil, Euchner, Jim, Research-Technology Management


Neil Gershenfeld is a pioneer in understanding the boundary between the digital and physical worlds--how objects become data in the network and how data in the network become objects. The technology from his lab, MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, has been seen and used in a wide variety of settings, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the World Economic Forum to rural Indian villages and inner-city community centers. In this interview, he discusses the true nature of the Internet of Things, how distributed fab labs can enable anyone to make almost anything, the power of global knowledge sharing with innovation at the nodes, and the future of manufacturing using digital materials.

JIM EUCHNER [JE]: The Internet of Things has become quite a buzzword. I think you define it more precisely than some do. Can you give your definition--what is the Internet of Things and what is it not?

NEIL GERSHENFELD [NG]: Sure. I was part of a group that started what became called the Internet of Things. A decade or so ago, a group at MIT was working on embedding Internet protocols into devices and showing that, with a few hundred bytes of code and a dollar a part, you could implement a minimal IP stack. That meant that individual devices could talk to the Internet. So the simplest statement about the Internet of Things is that it means IP embedded in devices.

A lot of the things called Internet of Things today are really BITNET of Things, and they're being done by people who don't understand the difference between the BITNET and the Internet. They are ignorant of the underlying architecture. There are a few core architectural principles that make the Internet work that you can apply to embedded devices. After 10 or so years, we've had to reconnect the future with the past concerning those architectural principles.

BITNET was a connection of mainframes, and it was a very high barrier to entry. To expand the BITNET, you needed to add another mainframe, and that was a large investment that was centrally managed. Users used terminals connected to the mainframes. It was similar to the old phone system: what a telephone did was defined not by the phone but by the central office switch. Adding a new central office switch was a big investment. One of the core principles that led to the Internet was the concept of what was called end-to-end, which roughly means that what the Internet does is defined by what you connect to it.

The Internet transports packets; it uses a common representation for those packets. At the time it was emerging, there were many dissimilar networks, and the Internet settled on a common representation that could travel across them. But the Internet is really defined by what you connect to it, not by its physical construction. The Internet could grow by adding things to the edges, not by changing what was at the center. That enabled people to invent instant messaging and VoIP and video streaming and search engines, not by changing the architecture of the Internet but by innovating at the edges.

Now the reason so many of the things called Internet of Things are actually the BITNET of Things is that people think in terms of devices, like a light sensor or a thermostat or a switch, connected to a server that proxies its state to build an application. Manipulation of the sensor can be done through the Internet, but the state of the switch or the light is not contained in the switch or light, it's contained in the remote server. That means that to change the function of the device, you have to change the remote thing, not the local thing. You can't innovate at the edges because you need access to the central controller.

To be the Internet of Things in my definition, the light or the switch has to be a full-fledged citizen of the Internet. It needs to be able to implement services so that you can innovate by what you make the device do, not by changing the thing it's connected to. …

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