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The National Science Foundation has awarded $13.75 million to create a Center for Bits and Atoms at the Media Laboratory to explore how the content of information relates to its physical representation, from atomic nuclei to global networks.
The center will bring nanofabrication, chemistry and biology labs together with rapid mechanical prototyping, electronic instrumentation and high-bay assembly workspaces. This integrated suite of resources is being developed to enable its researchers to shape simultaneously the information in a system and its physical embodiment, from microscopic to macroscopic scales. The NSF funding will help support research, education and outreach programs, as well as technological infrastructure. Six other MIT researchers also received information technology grants from the NSF.
"This is an example of fundamental research that could have large payoffs in the long term," said George Strawn, who heads NSF's Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. "The researchers are seeking radical applications and understandings of information technology. NSF's mission is to support just this type of basic science."
"To achieve its goals, the Center for Bits and Atoms requires an appropriate 'critical mass' of personnel and facilities," said Walter Bender, executive director of the Media Lab. "To meet these needs, we are building a community around a shared vision both by increased efforts at the Media Lab and increased collaborations across the MIT campus."
This emerging community--which involves researchers from programs across MIT including the Laboratory for Computer Science; the Research Laboratory of Electronics; the Center for Biomedical Engineering; and the brain and cognitive sciences, chemistry, mechanical engineering and physics departments--is extending the working environment of the Media Lab to fundamental experimental and theoretical questions in the natural sciences.
Among the challenges to be tackled will be developing "personal fabricators" to bring the malleability that personal computers provide for the digital world into the physical world; providing bidirectional molecular interfaces between computers and living systems; and bringing advanced information technologies to bear on some of the most intractable problems in global development and security.
The Center for Bits and Atoms grows out of the work of the Media Lab, established in 1980 to explore how digital technology could free communications and expression from the constraints of traditional media. This research helped lead to now-familiar concepts such as interactive multimedia and scalable digital video, as well as an innovative educational model based on research in open workspaces drawing on a range of disciplines to tackle emerging problems, in close collaboration with industry.
A natural consequence of the success of this agenda has been a growing physical science program within the Media Lab that explores how to connect the best of new digital worlds with the physical world in which we live.
"When we started the Media Lab, the interesting question was how bits and atoms differed," said Nicholas Negroponte, the Media Lab's co-founder and chairman. "Today the interesting question is how they are the same, how they come together."
The effort to integrate bits and atoms started with the development of technologies for user interfaces and quickly expanded to encompass fundamental studies of how information can be represented in, and transformed by, natural mechanisms. Notable early results included electronic inks to print displays and electronics on paper-like substrates, and molecular means for manipulating quantum mechanical information. Along with the basic research, these ideas were explored in collaborations ranging from creating virtuosic musical instruments with performing artists, to creating appropriate information technology with and for developing countries.
GERSHENFELD NAMED DIRECTOR
The center will be directed by Associate Professor Neil Gershenfeld, who heads the Media Lab's Physics and Media research group and the Things That Think research consortium, which is developing the commercial applications of computing beyond the bounds of traditional computers. Gershenfeld also coordinates the technical program for Media Lab Asia, which was established this year in India to explore appropriate information technology for economic and social development. These partner efforts will both ground the center's research and provide channels to bring its results beyond the laboratory.
The Center for Bits and Atoms will initially be housed in expanded space in the Media Lab's current building, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect I.M. Pei, and will grow into a new building designed by architect Fumihiko Maki, another Pritzker Prize winner. The new building will also house complementary expanded activities in applications of emerging technologies to learning and development, and creative expression. That building, now entering site preparation, will be funded through both corporate and philanthropic donations.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 28, 2001.