Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
SAF Archives  search ask the scientists in the classroom cool science

Guide Index

Big Picture

Virtual Reality

Body Talk

Smart Car

Private Eyes

Brain Music

Viewer Challenge
in the classroom

Virtually Real

Go behind the scenes at the MIT Media Lab and preview tomorrow as you meet some of the country's visionary computer pioneers. MIT professors Alex (Sandy) Pentland and Pattie Maes and graduate student Bruce Blumberg demonstrate their projects, which range from smart rooms to software agents that help users navigate cyberspace. You'll also meet the lab's virtual pet dog and find out how computers of the future might look and behave.

Curriculum Links
Welcome to the Future - Getting Started
For Further Thought



artificial intelligence


science fiction






The MIT Media Lab is a unique facility where scientists and students play with technology. The lab explores such concepts as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, communications and other computer applications, from education to entertainment. Computer wizard Nicholas Negroponte is the founder and director of the lab, which commemorated its tenth anniversary in October 1995. Research is supported by federal contracts and many corporations.

Scientists and engineers at the lab are among the visionary leaders of the digital revolution. Their projects are the subject of this special show, from an intelligent agent posing as a virtual dog to smart cars, smart rooms and a smart desk that acts like a good office assistant.

This teaching guide features a variety of activities to accompany this futuristic show. Some activities apply to computer technology, but many can also be used to explore various technologies and discuss and debate the role computers play in our lives. The activities below require very few materials - just the creativity of the most powerful thinking machine on Earth, your brain.

You may wish to use these activities as part of an integrated approach to technology. We hope you will share the materials and tell others on your team or in your school about Frontiers. "Inventing the Future" provides terrific opportunities for discussion.


How close are we now to being continually reachable? What devices allow us to stay in touch or to do our work anywhere we happen to be? How do companies gather information about us? (E-mail, cellular phones, pay-per-view, grocery store scanning cards and credit cards are just some of the ways.)

Now, imagine a world completely connected by electronics for instant information exchange, a world where you are always reachable. Imagine that the accessibility is accomplished by even smaller computer chips than we have available today and that a chip becomes your identification. Doctors implant the chip in your wrist when you are born and it carries all your personal data.

Describe a day in this world. How would the chip change our money system, our identification system, our health care system, our buying power, our reachability? What would the advantages and disadvantages be?


Work with a partner or group to design a "smart" school desk. How would it recognize you? What would it be able to do? How could your classroom or school building also become smart? What parts of traditional school would become obsolete? How would the desk change your study and learning habits? Include an agent or helper like Silas (the virtual dog seen on Frontiers). What would the agent do?


List ten devices developed since 1900 that have changed how we communicate and transmit information. Select a focus: information, music, images, mixed media, print materials, message delivery, etc. Make a timeline of your devices and highlight how each innovation improved on the last. You may include the personal computer, the videophone, satellites, television, CDs, etc.


Observe and keep track of all the ways you use computers or computer technology in a single day. Don't forget the microwave oven that pops your popcorn, or the card you use at school for ID, or the bank card you or your parents use at the cash machine, or the greeting card that plays music! Make a list and compare it with lists made by your classmates. Who can create the longest list? Identify how many items on your list use semiconductors.


Your loan has been denied -- not by a person or a business, but by a computer. How is that possible? One of the more successful applications for artificial intelligence (AI) determines what sort of a credit risk you are by using a series of if/then/else rules based on specific reasoning provided by a business expert or by a neural network. In a neural network, a computer has access to many case studies and, using reasoning similar to statistical analysis, "learns" to make decisions. Your brain uses rules to make decisions and is itself a neural network, with many more connections than a computer.

As part of a group, make a list of eight popular CDs, then write a set of rules to determine whether a particular CD should have a prime position in a national retail music store. When you have finished, exchange your rules and CD list with another group. Compare rules to make a decision about which three CDs should be on the featured display.


  • Scientific American:
  • "Smart Cards," August 1996
  • "The Culture Machine: Science and Art on the Web," August 1996
  • "Smart Rooms," April 1996
  • "Intelligent Agents" and other articles in the special issue Key Technologies for the 21st Century, September 1995
  • Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte (Vintage Books, 1995)
  • Silicon Snake Oil by Clifford Stoll (Anchor Books, 1995)
  • The Turing Option by Harry Harrison and Marvin Minsky (Warner Books, 1992)


  • Would you trade a live pet for a virtual one?
  • Why would you want a computer to perform a quick and simple task like making coffee or reading the newspaper out loud to you?
  • Who would benefit from these technological developments?
  • Why would you want a smart room or a wearable computer?
  • Is the technology age leading to the no-privacy age?
  • Agents might help you remember people's names or help you get around town. Can you think of other useful applications?
  • Besides security or a warning system that could alert parents to what their children are doing, can you think of other ways a smart room might be used?


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.