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New technologies will open up Africa, says Gershenfeld




Professor Neil Gershenfeld is the Director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms. His unique laboratory is breaking down boundaries between the digital and physical worlds, from creating molecular quantum computers to virtuosic musical instruments. Technology from his lab has been seen and used in settings including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and rural Indian villages, the White House and the World Economic Forum, inner-city community centers and automobile safety systems, Las Vegas shows and Sami herds.

He is the author of numerous technical publications, 48 patents, and five books including Fab, When Things Start To Think, The Nature of Mathematical Modelling, and The Physics of Information Technology, and has been featured in media such as The New York Times, The Economist, and the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour.

He has over 75 articles and essays with Rotating Flume with Uniformly Flowing, Linear Stratified Water; with R. E. Frazel, and J. A. Whitehead, Jr., Reviews of Scientific Instruments; published in 1981.

In 1998, Prof. Gershenfeld started a class at MIT called “How to make (almost) anything”. He wanted to introduce expensive, industrial-size machines to the technical students. But his class attracted a lot of students from diverse backgrounds: artists, architects, designers, and students without technical background. As well as “How to make (almost) anything” class, Professor Neil Gershenfeld also started teaching the following classes: “How To Make Something That Makes (almost) Anything,” “The Physics of Information Technology”, “The Nature of Mathematical Modelling”

He is the originator of the growing global network of field Fablabs that provide widespread access to prototype tools for personal fabrication, and directs the Fab Academy, the associated program for distributed research and education in the principles and practices of digital fabrication.

The Fablabs Network is an open, creative community of fabricators, artists, scientists, engineers, educators, students, amateurs, and professionals, of all ages located in more than 78 countries in approximately 1,000 Fab Labs. From community-based labs to advanced research centers, Fab Labs share the goal of democratizing access to the tools for technical invention.

This community is simultaneously a manufacturing network, a distributed technical education campus, and a distributed research laboratory working to digitize fabrication, inventing the next generation of manufacturing and personal fabrication.

At the sidelines of the World Economic Forum on Africa in Rwanda, which held from May 11-13, Gershenfeld spoke with DOLAPO AINA.

Can we get to know you sir?
I am Neil Gershenfeld. I am on the Faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I am the director for the Center for Bits and Atoms that does research into turning data into things and things into data. That is leading up to the star trek replica that can make anything. We began a network of community Fablabs; bringing early versions of the technology in the field and those (Fablabs) have been doubling for the last decade. And there are about a thousand of them now.

What brings you to Africa and the World Economic Forum?
We have started setting these Fablabs in Africa. You must understand that we did not push but were pulled. We don’t tell anyone they should do it but this is like the spread of the Internet; instead of the Internet of bits; it is the Internet of bits to atoms. They are places where data become things and things become data. And we have set up labs in Ghana, Kenya and some labs in South Africa. And I am here to launch a flagship in Kigali.

What is Fablabs about?
To understand a Fablab; let me begin this way; there were mainframe computers, mini computers and the internet was invented on mini-computers. There were early computers and finally, personal computers. In the same sense, mainframes of fabrication are what are in my lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology or in a big company. Think of the researchers that led to the invention of smartphones. The Fablabs are like the mini-computers. It isn’t the final technology. It is about a hundred thousand dollar technology investment. It weighs two tonnes and it fills a room. But it lets you create technology both space related, radios, electronics, computers etc. It lets you create modern technology but not in isolation but in a global network.

How is a Fablab of any benefit to the African Continent and Africans?
The question about the benefits has a lot of assumptions which is, all over Africa. There is a concern about jobs. There is an equivalence that jobs equals work, equals business, equals money. So that you then have money to get what you need. The Fablab lets you make what you need.

If you think about how software and music are now shared or available inexpensively. Now, technology to produce food, technology for healthcare. A range of the technology that you need money for now, you can reduce to the cost of the raw materials. So, there is a direct answer which is in the same way that personal computing transformed the computer industry. This personalises manufacturing. This is as close to an analogy I can get. But the impact for Africa is much bigger than that. Even if everything I did succeeded and we are creating these jobs. There is a much bigger implication, which is Massachusetts Institute of Technology succeeds not for anything special in the infrastructure or huge amounts of money. It is a place where bright inventive people fit where they work well.

When we open these Fablabs all over Africa, they attract bright inventive people who are just like the bright inventive people at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And what limits them is that there are not places for them to go.

The schools and the businesses limit and constrain them. Even more than jobs equals money and you can produce. The real natural resource of Africa is brainpower. And it is just so stifled in traditional schools and traditional businesses. And so, the Fablabs we set up in Africa, they don’t simply get used to do practical things for development. They get used for arts, for play, for education and all facets of life. And they get used in exactly the same way as they get used in the developed world.

The point is, you don’t have to wait for the whole Industrial Revolution before bright people in Africa begin to explore. What is so interesting is that, they get used in the same way and not in a different way from anywhere else. So, it is a mistake to focus too much on the “we have problems. We need to do practical things first.” What you need to do is mix education, art, play, industry and all of these things in the same way that makes Massachusetts Institute of Technology work. And also, along with the technology and the social technology that goes with it.

Have you had successes in Africa?
We have been running these Fablabs for close to ten years (since 2006) And so, if you talk to the people who run these labs, some have had challenges, some have done better. But on balance, they can tell you practical stories about problems they have solved.

For example, the lab we just opened in Kigali, one of the first projects done in collaboration was a sensor for precision agriculture. That is measuring soil for agricultural inputs was designed, developed and produced there for a couple of days. Already, that is a practical thing for agriculture. But in that same period, the number of people that have come to the lab and just said “my life has changed.

This is the most transformative thing I have ever encountered. I can make anything and I can connect with people all over the world.” For me, even though, we can tell you stories about the immediate practical impact, the transformation of their lives, to see the opportunities, the hopes, the connections by not having to go through the stages of traditional development. That is the biggest success of all.

Any plans of setting up in other African countries?
Where these labs go, I don’t decide and we don’t pick. Rwanda picked us, South Africa picked us. People decide they want to join this growing network and they contact us. We are not in charge. If you think about how the early internet developed. There was not an internet office selling the internet. There was a coordination of standards and people elected to join the network. And that is how this is growing.

This could be the next big thing?
I think of it has not really the next big thing but a sort of fulfilment completing the digital revolution. There is communication, computation, and fabrication. Think of it has completing the digital revolution.

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