Just run that past me again, Professor Negroponte, about the talking doorknobs

From The Independent, November 13 1999:

See, I love it when you can come back to things after ten years. Count the things that have come true.

Technology Editor

Doorknobs that talk, computers that you swallow and phones that don’t ring if there’s nobody to answer them will all be reality within 10 years, according to Professor Nicholas Negroponte, director of the world-famous MIT Media Laboratory, and one of the best-known of Internet gurus.
Addressing the theme of how computing will pervade our lives, Professor Negroponte said: “You may wonder about how computing could possibly affect something like a doorknob. But if you think about it, an intelligent doorknob would be a really useful thing.
“You would not need keys: it could identify you by your fingerprints, and perhaps confirm your identity by asking a question – ‘What’s your mother’s maiden name?’ for example. Why would you need keys anymore?”
The smart doorknob could also accept parcel deliveries – and perhaps sign digitally for them; “and maybe it could let the dog out, and then let it back in while keeping out the other nine dogs following it.”
The technology required to do that is already sufficiently miniaturised, he said: such “embedded” systems could surround us. “We will have thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of embedded chips around us, all intercommunicating,” he predicted to an audience in London.
Professor Negroponte, author of the book “Being Digital”, espouses the view that anything which can be expressed as computer “bits” – such as words, images, video, designs, music – will eventually be transmitted in that form across the world, speeding up transactions and cutting costs. Human activity consists either of manipulating “atoms” – irreducibly physical objects – or “bits”, which contain ideas or symbols. His forecasts have been largely confirmed, especially by the move of music to new digital formats such as MP3 and the rise of electronic commerce.
As computers shrink and become pervasive over the next decade, the sort of information they can access will grow, he forecast. “I you want a really futuristic product for 10 years hence – you’ll have computers that you eat, one per day. It will contain devices and sensors which will record all your anatomical measurements, what’s going on inside you, and relay them to a black box that you wear on your belt. If it passes through you, no problem – swallow another.”
The value of such systems is evident if you consider the problems presently faced by doctors, he said: “Today, you go and say something is wrong, and you tell the doctor a story about how you felt perhaps 12 hours ago, which you can only imprecisely recall. From that, a doctor is meant to make a careful diagnosis and recommend a solution. This may be unfortunate timing after the Egypt Air crash, but I have wondered for a long time: why don’t we have black boxes? Then we could take them to the doctor, and they could read them to see what was wrong with us.”
Professor Negroponte also foresees telephone handsets becoming smarter. “Why do phones ring?” he wondered. “If there’s nobody there, no one will answer. Phones should be built smart enough to know if there’s nobody there. And if there is someone there, they should be able to answer them, like a good butler, and find out who is calling and why, and only then decide whether to get our attention.”
But there are still some giant steps to be made for the average user of computers, he admitted. “Who would have believed, ten years ago, that big segments of the population would spend between £1,000 and £2,000 on their own computers – and that those machines would reduce people to tears once or twice a week?”


  1. Do you think it’s a case of that old line that people overestimate the pace of technological development in the short run, and underestimate it in the long run? Because the intelligent doorknobs and phones at least seem plausible – though I’m a bit sceptical about the edible computers.

  2. It’s more notable what he didn’t predict, at least in this article: That a large number of people would be walking around with networked computers in their pockets with colour screens and more processing power and storage than was common on the desktop in 1999.

    For smart door locks, RFID access systems are already common for some applications. And for an even more novel approach, how about a door that recognises your secret knock?

    I don’t know any swallowable computers yet — at least, not ones that’d do you any good — but personal informatics is a growing trend. Fitbit is a good example of a fairly sophisticated body monitoring system.

  3. @Adrian: Regarding the swallowable computers, have a look at http://www.popsci.com/node/19963. It’s the “camera pill” which indeed has its own CPU and thus qualifies as a computer :)

    Speaking of things that he didn’t predict, the biggest failure in technology predictions must be the “paperless environment”. Honestly, the Tube seems to be made out of paper in the morning rush, so the “latest news on your mobile” still hasn’t caught on. Just like the sensible “print this statement for your records”.

    And what happened to Virtual Reality (not the Sims or Second World, folks). Michael Douglas made it look so cool! As did a few other dozen other Hollywood stars and SciFi writers. But I’m still having to do with a good ‘ol display, may it be slightly thinner than the CRTs. Slightly.

  4. Negroponte is always good for a bit of debunking. I once wrote an intemperate piece in the Telegraph because he’d said that the Web would bring about world peace. (I think I said if knowing more about people in other countries had that sort of effect we’d have turned the diplomatic corps into encyclopedia salesmen.) And I didn’t like the way he’d grandly greet any skepticism about his timing with, “If I’m wrong, it’s only for five minutes.” But talking doorknobs wouldn’t surprise me at all. I’d probably bash them with baseball bats…


  5. I attended a mobile healthcare conference in London a couple of weeks ago, and one of the products that was demonstrated was a pill (I think it was something to do with diabetes) with an RFID chip inside it that didn’t activate until it was in your stomach, so that the doctor could remotely check whether you’ve taken your medicine. And the doorknobs that recognise fingerprints are old hat http://www.engadget.com/2006/02/01/bioknob-adds-biometrics-to-doorknob/

    I remember having dinner with NN in the late 90s (in Palm Springs, if memory serves) and he was a very interesting chap. He was wrong about a lot of things though. As a previous commenter notes, this was largely because the coming mobile wave was invisible from the US at that time.

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