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The Replicator Revolution

A pioneer in the digital fabrication movement, MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld, PhD ’90, believes that fab-lab technology will change the world


Neil Gershenfeld, PhD ’90Provided

When engineer Neil Gershenfeld, PhD ’90, was a teenager, he dreamed not of the Ivy League but of vocational school; he wanted to learn how to weld and to fix cars. But since he was a very good student—he’d go on to major in physics at Swarthmore, graduating with high honors and Phi Beta Kappa, before earning a doctorate in applied and engineering physics from Cornell—his parents and teachers were having none of it. “They said, ‘You’re too smart—you can’t do that,’ ” he recalls with a wry chuckle, chatting with CAM in his office at MIT, where he’s on the faculty. “I was told that I had to sit in a classroom.” A few years later, when Gershenfeld was working as a technician at Bell Labs in his first job after undergrad, his hands-on bent was still getting him into trouble. “I had union grievances, because I’d try to go into the workshops,” he says, “and they’d say, ‘No, you’re smart—you have to tell people what to do.’ ”

Ultimately, though, Gershenfeld merged the two worlds—the informational and the physical, or what he terms “bits and atoms.” For the past two decades, he’s been at the forefront of the digital fabrication movement, not only teaching its methods and conducting cutting-edge research, but helping to found community “fab labs” around the world. Gershenfeld is director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), an interdisciplinary effort that explores the intersection between information and the physical things that can be created from it. Founded in 2001 with a nearly $14 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the center houses acres of fabrication equipment—from standard 3D printers, laser cutters, and milling machines to high-tech gizmos like nanoscale microscopes and femtosecond lasers. Projects have ranged from the futuristic—using living cells as data storage systems—to the comfortably mundane, like crafting a sturdy chair from an ingeniously folded sheet of plywood. “[Alan] Turing and [John] von Neumann are credited with the foundations of modern computing, but the last thing that each of them studied was physical form,” Gershenfeld observes. “Von Neumann studied self-assembling machines as a model for life, and Turing studied morphogenesis—how genes give rise to form. So the pioneers in the foundation of computer science ended up embracing the idea that computing doesn’t happen in an abstract, pretend digital world—it happens in a physical world—and studying how that gives rise to form.”

Open layout of a fab lab, showing relative placements of tools, technology, desks and workstations.

A look at a typical community fab lab and its equipment.Provided

In science fiction, the iconic example of fabrication is the replicator from “Star Trek”—the device that Captain Jean-Luc Picard can command to create “tea, Earl Grey, hot,” and have his favorite beverage instantly manifest. Though that’s currently the stuff of fantasy, for researchers like Gershenfeld, it’s the ultimate goal. And, as he points out, in some ways a fab lab already is a replicator—albeit one housed in a box the size of an entire facility. Once upon a time, it took a computer the size of a room to do a fraction of the tasks performed by a modern smartphone. With today’s tech, various machines inside a fab lab could work together to make that cup of tea; there would be heating elements to boil the water, hydroponic systems to grow the leaves, robots to stir the drink, and so on. “The fab lab is a replicator, if you zoom out and view the whole room as the machine,” Gershenfeld says. “Data comes in and complete things come out, but you need all that stuff inside. The many-year road map, bit by bit, is to merge it all into one machine.”

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For Gershenfeld, the fab movement isn’t just about developing new and better technology. He sees it as a major force for social change, one that could upend traditional notions of work and production. Last fall, he co-wrote Designing Reality, a follow-up to his 2005 book (Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop, from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication) that offered a primer on digital fabrication. In Designing Reality (see below), he and his co-authors look at the movement’s history and potential, positing that fabrication represents nothing less than a “third digital revolution” that mirrors two previous tech upheavals: one in communication, which spans the invention of land-line phones and the advent of the Internet, the other in computation, from early computers to modern PCs and smartphones. “The third digital revolution completes the first two revolutions by bringing the programmability of the virtual world of bits into the physical world of atoms,” they write. “Since that physical world is out here where we live, the implications of the third digital revolution may be even greater than those of its predecessors.”

Since 2001, Gershenfeld has taught “How to Make (almost) Anything,” a popular course at MIT that trains students—who include not just engineers but architects, artists, and more—in fab fundamentals. Past students include Cornell roboticist Kirstin Petersen; now an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering on the Hill, she took the class during her doctoral studies at Harvard (whose students can take courses at their neighboring Cambridge school). Her creations included a 3D-printed hippo, a lamp made of string strengthened with resin, and a wall decorated with electronic flowers that opened or closed as someone walked by. “The class was absolutely amazing—I was very impressed by it,” says Petersen, who has modeled one of her Cornell courses after it (more below). “I took it with all these business and architecture majors—people who had no concept of the boundaries of what you could or couldn’t do. That taught me to be incredibly creative, because I’d see how they would try anything. It was very inspiring.”

On the research side, Gershenfeld and his grad students have explored topics like self-assembling machines—essentially, devices that can build themselves—including work for NASA on self-replicating spacecraft. On a more earth-bound note, they’ve collaborated with shoemaker Nike on crafting 3D forms from 2D materials—a process akin to origami—which allows for the creation of structures that are lightweight but strong. “About a third of what the students do is carefully planned research,” says Gershenfeld, who has been named one of fifty leaders in science and technology by Scientific American and one of forty “modern-day Leonardos” by Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. “About a third is all kinds of collaborations—and then a third is just free play.”

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Gershenfeld was also an early leader in the “Internet of Things,” the movement toward “smart” everyday devices, from light bulbs to Alexa-style digital assistants; his publications on the topic include a seminal 1995 article on wearable computing in Wired and the 1999 general-interest book When Things Start to Think. The latter includes a chapter on his collaboration with famed classical musician Yo-Yo Ma to design a technologically enhanced cello—with the ultimate aim of creating an instrument that could rival a Stradivarius. The project reflected Gershenfeld’s long-standing interest in music; on the Hill, he played bassoon in a campus orchestra and collaborated with composer David Borden, founder of Cornell’s Digital Music Program, to explore the relationship between music and technology.

Gershenfeld is a founder of the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences program in which experts advise Hollywood writers and other creative types on how to make storylines as realistic as possible. His “thank you” credits on the Internet Movie Database include Minority Report, the 2002 techno-thriller starring Tom Cruise as a cop in an Orwellian society in which crime is prosecuted before it occurs, foretold by a trio of seers; Gershenfeld gave director Steven Spielberg lessons in quantum mechanics that could make the concept plausible. He also appears on the extended edition of the Oscar-nominated sci-fi drama The Martian, as part of a panel discussion about living on Mars that was organized by the film’s studio. At the event (which was moderated by “Science Guy” Bill Nye ’77 and included Mason Peck, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at Cornell who formerly served as NASA’s chief technologist), Gershenfeld described how to build a self-assembling colony on the Red Planet—or, as he put it, “how to go to Mars without luggage.”

As part of his mission to make fab technology accessible to all, in 2009 Gershenfeld co-founded the Fab Foundation, which nurtures a growing network of open-access community fab labs around the world. There are about 1,000 and counting, in places as far-flung as northern Norway, the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, a Russian city above the Arctic Circle, and the Amazon River (where a floating, mobile facility has been in the planning stages for several years). Fab labs have opened in current and former conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Rwanda, and South African townships; they’ve been used to engage at-risk kids in inner-city Boston, native Alaskan youth in Anchorage, and former FARC rebels in Colombia. There’s also a Fab Academy, spun off from Gershenfeld’s “How to Make (almost) Anything” class, that offers online and lab-based instruction in fabrication principles and techniques at more than a hundred sites worldwide. “In the end, this comes down to people,” Gershenfeld says. “Right now, the most important product in the labs is the act of making, itself.”

In June 2014, during the previous presidential administration, Gershenfeld and colleagues brought a mobile fab lab to the White House, which hosted its first-ever “maker faire” to promote the fab movement as an educational motivator and economic engine. As Gershenfeld notes with a laugh, the mobile lab (housed in a tractor-trailer) “was parked outside the window of the Oval Office, where you’re not allowed to go even if you have a White House badge—and we were bringing in high-powered lasers.” While the arrangement riled the Secret Service, Gershenfeld says, “Obama loved it. He spent a while hanging around in the lab. As an old community activist, he completely got the impact that this can have.”

A ‘Revolution’ in the Offing?

Three Gershenfeld brothers ponder fabrication’s transformative potential

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Neil Gershenfeld admits that his agent and publisher both had the same reaction to his latest manuscript: “Love the book; lose the co-authors.” But ultimately, he and his collaborators—his two brothers, Alan Gershenfeld and Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld ’78—were able to convince them to retain the book’s unconventional structure. In Designing Reality: How to Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution, the writers alternate the narrative. While all three pen the introduction and conclusion, it’s left to Neil—the engineer and researcher—to write the chapters that delve into technicalities and extol the blue-sky promise of the fab movement. The other two brothers team up to serve as a voice of reality, penning chapters that discuss the societal and economic challenges to realizing the technology’s potential.

Guided by their understanding of how the first two digital revolutions (in communication and computing) have benefited people from some walks of life more than others, Joel and Alan stress the importance of making forward-thinking decisions—in public policy, education, infrastructure creation, and more—to ensure equal access to fab technology and its life-changing advantages. They also want to avoid potential pitfalls as the maker movement matures—aiming to prevent problems akin to the spam and disinformation that have plagued modern social media. “As early as 1965, the signs of the coming digital revolutions were there for anyone to see. And yet most of the world missed them,” the authors observe in their intro. “As a result, few were prepared for the deep economic, social, and cultural impacts . . . The revolutions in digital communication and computation have enabled unprecedented productivity, generated enormous wealth, and catalyzed remarkable changes in everyday life. But a great many people have also been left behind.”


Siblings (from left to right) Alan, Joel, and NeilProvided

While Neil comes to the subject matter from the perspective of a fab lab pioneer, his brothers have different areas of expertise. Alan hails from the business and creative communities; he started out in the film industry, served as head of development at the video game maker Activision, and is now president and cofounder of E-line Media, which designs educational video games. Joel—who attended the ILR school under the name Gershenfeld and now shares a hyphenated last name with his wife—is a social scientist and labor relations expert. Formerly dean of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois (where he helped established a fab lab during his tenure), he’s now a professor at Brandeis. (Their mother, Gladys Waltcher Gershenfeld, MS ILR ’51, is also an alum, as is Joel’s son, Gabriel Gershenfeld ’11—making them one of ILR’s few three-generation families.)

The book, Joel says, “started with conversations in which Neil would be a classic techno-optimist—that, of course, only good things could happen. And we would say, ‘What about this? What about that?’” Or, as Neil puts it: “I’d talk about the work we’re doing on digital fabrication, talk about the roadmap to the replicator and how anybody could make anything. And then it would stop there, and audiences would clap—and Joel and Alan would groan, because they know what went wrong in the first digital revolutions.” The takeaway from Designing Reality is that just as advances in computing have changed society in ways that few would have anticipated half a century ago, fab technology will be equally transformative and disruptive. “Rather than creating jobs to pay people so they can buy products, if you give them the means to create, they might do it for themselves,” says Neil, noting that Barcelona, Spain, is making widespread investment in fab technology and has pledged to produce everything it consumes by the year 2054. “The whole relationship between consumption and creation changes when you have access to these tools.”

One of the book’s key themes is what Gershenfeld calls “Lass’s Law.” Named for one of his MIT colleagues, it’s a takeoff on Moore’s Law—the concept, described in a 1965 paper by semiconductor executive Gordon Moore, that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double roughly annually, allowing computers to become ever faster and more powerful. Lass’s Law is the digital fabrication version: the number of community fab labs worldwide has been doubling every year and a half, from the first in 2003 to about 1,000 now. “If Lass’s Law continues, custom fabrication will explode,” Wired wrote in a story on the book last March. “In roughly a decade we will have a million fab labs. In thirty years it will be a trillion; they will be as omnipresent as the electronic devices currently scattered around your home.”

Maze Runners

Inspired by Gershenfeld, a CU prof guides students in building their own robots


Kirstin PetersenUP

Some courses end with papers or prelims; Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) 3400 culminates in a race through a maze. Called “Intelligent Physical Systems,” the class—taught by Neil Gershenfeld’s former student Kirstin Petersen—has undergrads spend a semester designing and building autonomous robots. Required of all ECE majors, the class is generally taken by juniors, after they’ve completed a trio of prerequisite courses: on circuits, on signals and information, and on digital logic and computer organization. “Its main purpose is to bring together those three core classes—it ties them together in a fun and hands-on way,” says Claire Chen ’18, a former TA for the course who’s now pursuing a doctorate at Stanford, “and it puts a big emphasis on teamwork.”

Inspired by Gershenfeld’s “How to Make (almost) Anything” class at MIT, Petersen has set up fab labs in Phillips Hall, where her students can use 3D printers, soldering stations, laser cutters, and other equipment to create their robots’ parts. (They also have access to other facilities in the Engineering college, including Upson Hall’s Rapid Prototyping Lab—a makerspace, including high-quality 3D printers, that’s overseen by mechanical and aerospace engineering and run by undergrads.) In teams of about half a dozen, students design a wheeled robot that measures roughly a cubic foot. At the end of the semester, they compete in three rounds of runs through a maze (there are several, constructed out of plywood) to see which robot can navigate it fastest and most accurately. The races begin at the sound of a tone—meaning that the robots have to be able to “hear” it and react. “Treasures” placed throughout the course offer bonus points if they’re located and correctly identified, while false starts or running into a wall garner demerits.


At last semester’s final competition for ECE 3400, students raced their homemade robots through mazes in the Duffield Hall atrium.Provided

Another element of ECE 3400 that was inspired by Gershenfeld’s class is the requirement that each team maintain a website detailing its process; they’re kept online indefinitely, to serve as guides for future builders and the general public. (Some pages are quite elaborate, like a Star Wars-themed site whose cursor is an image of BB-8, the droid introduced in The Force Awakens.) Another similarity between Petersen’s course and the one she took at MIT: the fact that it’s wildly popular, with hopefuls clamoring to get in. “This year, with pre-enrollment, we hit the cap of 102 students on the first day,” Petersen says. “So we raised it to 120—but then we hit it again.”