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WHEN THINGS START TO THINK, by Neil Gershenfeld; Henry Holt, 1999; 225 pp; $60.00 (hardback)

Reviewed by Chris Roberts

The author of this eminently sensible book leads the Physics and Media Group and codirects the Things That Think research consortium at MIT's Media Laboratory. It is a very readable, enjoyable book that will soothe the nerves of technophobes who worry about almighty machines taking over the world.

Gershenfeld looks at how computers, especially PCs, have been developed to date and points out why the general public find them annoying, even baffling. He points out that to the everyday user current technology (printed books, paper and pencil) has many more advantages than their electronic counterparts. He then discusses the way that technology might be developed so that it reflects the needs of the user, rather than the systems people who developed it; for example, paper impregnated with electronic inks that change their display on being passed through a printer, then reused to change the display by printing again. In this way, you would have a set of pages for a newspaper that could be reprinted daily on your paper --  no good for wrapping fish and chips but the saving on paper waste would be enormous.

It is also recognised that this sort of technology has to be developed to the point where it is not prohibitively expensive. His aim is for "invisible" computer use; taken for granted and built into the infrastructure to become a seamless part of our lives, much in the way EFTPOS has been accepted in New Zealand, only even easier to use.

Some of the experimental work of the Media Lab is described and researchers here in New Zealand will be green with envy over the way their funding is available. The author's enthusiasm for his work shines through and his belief that multi-disciplinary skills are what will lead to real developments in useful technology are a relief in the age of highly territorial specialists. I normally have three or four books on the go at once but whilst I read this one all others were put on hold until I had finished. A really positive read for the scientifically challenged but interested in scientific developments-type reader.

Chris Roberts is a librarian on the North Shore.