Michael Hawley

A concert pianist, a mountain climber, a marathon runner, a computer genius, and now the Dreyfoos Professor of Media Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Michael Hawley, who "creates things that think," spoke on the second night of the Gockel International Symposium. Hawley addressed American technology in the new century at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 19 in Taylor Auditorium.

Soon shoes will be doing some serious thinking on your behalf, he believes. They will not be alone in their cogitation — your furniture, clothing, appliances, doors, and automobiles will all be thinking, too. Michael Hawley knows about all these things, and he also knows some of their implications for life in the 21st century. He’s the director of the "Things That Think" project at MIT and says, "The future of the computer is to be blown to bits, unchaining information from the cumbersome boxes it now inhabits, providing the information that you need where you want it, when you want it, and without your needing to manage it."

"Hardware and software," says Hawley, "will soon merge into underwear."

What will these things think about? In the case of your shoes, a whole lot. Virtually all of your vital signs — heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and so on — can be tracked through the soles of your feet. In the not too distant future it will be feasible to send that information directly to your doctor’s office or to a home computer that can assess it on your behalf. Your shoes will know your health, and what to do about it, long before you do. Long before your traditional doctor ever would.

The revolutionary aspect of thinking shoes, and of so many other applications being pioneered at "Things That Think," is that computer power will be harnessed to serve peoples’ needs in ways that we will quickly take for granted, because they are integrated into our lives, to meet real needs in unobstrusive ways. But they will turn existing systems and societal structures inside-out as they offer the long-promised power of information to individuals.

Your refrigerator will count your calories, order your food, and provide you with cooking ideas; your appliances will keep themselves running properly and call the repairman if things have gone too far; your underwear may control your thermostat. Toys will reach new levels of learning and fascination. Jewelry will pulse with the wearer’s heartbeat.

Hawley is no eccentric prophet at a remote waystation along the information superhighway. Some of the world’s most respected companies sponsor the research that he and 10 colleagues conduct. Among these sponsors are Levi-Strauss, Volvo, Nike, Federal Express, Mattel, Hasbro, Swatch, Microsoft, Minolta, Walt Disney, Gillette, Motorola, and Nokia.

Hawley helped Lucasfilms with its pioneering cinema technology and was an architect of Steve Jobs’ NeXT computer. He does not confine himself to high-teach adventures, though. He is a yo-yo champion, a concert pianist, a luge racer, and a mountain climber. He has run in (and completed) the Boston Marathon wearing a jumble of high tech devices including thinking shoes.

Although he does not consider himself a poet, the mission statement for the "Things That Think" project begins with these lines:

" In the past shoes could stink. In the present shoes can blink. In the future shoes will think."

Hawley’s degrees are in music and computer science from Yale University. He did postgraduate studies at MIT under critical intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky. He is a fellow and trustee of Yale’s Jonathon Edwards College. In 1990 he won the first Jack Kilby Award for innovation in science. He has performed cutting-edge research at AT&T Bell Labs, at Pierre Boulez’ ICRAM Institute of the Pompidou Center in Paris, at Lucasfilms, and at NeXT Computer.