Ted Selker’s favorite childhood toy was a lamp with a plug he often carried around around the house.
“I was so impressed with electricity,” he says. “I would plug it in anywhere, and it would just light up. That the energy was invisible and so powerful just fascinated me.”
Now, Selker, an associate professor of media arts and sciences, still thinks about energy and dreams about a world that spins forever and doesn’t destroy its resources. “I want to create efficient tools and technology to help the world. I see so much that seems so wasteful –– too many steps, too much work, too many resources, too easy to break, too hard to fix,” says Selker, whose vision for us all is to live in a world where we solve problems by using a minimum of the earth’s resources.
Selker’s research has contributed to hundreds of products ranging from notebook computers to operating systems. He is most well-known for inventing the TrackPoint, the in-keyboard pointing device found in many laptop computers.
Selker –– an inventor with 50 patents –– joined the MIT faculty in 1999. Earlier, he worked at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California. He also worked at Xerox PARC and the Atari Research Lab. He taught at Hampshire College, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Brown, and was a consulting professor at Stanford.
At MIT, he directs the Context-Aware Computing Group, a team of 27 faculty members working to create computers and other machines that can sense people’s needs. In addition, he co-directs the Caltech- MIT Voting Technology Project. He also directs Counter Intelligence, a research group that uses computers to build the kitchen of the future.
One day, it seems, your kitchen may be smarter than you are.
MIT’s Counter Intelligence group develops about a dozen kitchen innovations each year, all designed to make life easier and more efficient. Selker says the kitchen has long been a center for technology and innovation, adding that it was here that electricity, running water, and refrigeration first were introduced.
Among the group’s inventions are Waterbot, technology designed to motivate water conservation, and Dish Maker, a dish-making machine that uses a sheet of acrylic to produce only the dishes needed for a meal. Afterward, the dishes go back into the machine and are melted down and recycled. The device is great for a small kitchen and may be more energy efficient than a dishwasher.
Another invention, Living Food, is a life-support system for vegetables and herbs, an automated environment that keeps storebought plants alive much longer than in the refrigerator. And the group also invented an interactive countertop food identifying system with a computer that will talk you through one of a hundred recipes. It reads the bar codes and RFID’s on each food container, then interacts with a scale on the counter to guide the cook through the recipe. The “Minerva” system also uses a camera to determine what items have been set on the counter, say, a tomato and onion, and can suggest what dishes can be made with those ingredients, for example, spaghetti sauce.
Selker says the kitchen is a great spot to experiment, since it’s the heart of the home, a place where people come together. He always loved the kitchen, he says, adding, “My mother used to make 11 loaves of bread on Thursday afternoons, and she’d give the bread away to friends and neighbors. It is an amazing memory.”
LIKE HIS GRANDFATHER
Selker grew up in western Washington wanting to be like his grandfather, Harry Selker, who invented the shock absorber. Even though Harry died before Ted was born, he heard fabulous stories about his grandfather and about his inventions. “I love solving problems,” Selker says. “If you tell me about a problem, I immediately set out to find a solution. Actually, I walk around the world very critical. Everything annoys me. Then I set out to fix it.”
On this day, Selker is annoyed because his expensive desk chair does not support his lower back. His camera automatically switches on, wasting the battery. And the chain on his bicycle gets his pant legs dirty. And yet, what annoys him most, “is people who spend 45 minutes driving to work, burning a gallon of gas in each direction. I mean, that bugs the heck out of me. I find it very upsetting that we’re consuming so many resources in a short time,” says Selker, who bicycles 12 miles to work and back.
He says he is most proud of his inventive contributions to developing the notebook computer, which he worked on at IBM. “The notebook computer takes a fraction of the energy and space of a desk computer and allows people to get more done easily.
“Wouldn’t it be great to bring huge reforms to transportation, so people can use a fraction of the energy and have more fun in the process?” he says. “I wish we could rely on our own resources rather than taking resources from the world.”