But there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, and a 5-by-7 grid was too small to make them legible. Chinese required a grid of 16 by 16 or larger—i.e., at least 32 bytes of memory (256 bits) per character. Were one to imagine a font containing 70,000 low-resolution Chinese characters, the total memory requirement would exceed two megabytes. Even a font containing only 8,000 of the most common Chinese characters would require approximately 256 kilobytes just to store the bitmaps. That was four times the total memory capacity of most off-the-shelf personal computers in the early 1980s.
As serious as these memory challenges were, the most taxing problems confronting low-res Chinese font production in the 1970s and 1980s were ones of aesthetics and design. Long before anyone sat down with a program like Gridmaster, the lion’s share of work took place off the computer, using pen, paper, and correction fluid.
Designers spent years trying to fashion bitmaps that fulfilled the low-memory requirements and preserved a modicum of calligraphic elegance. Among those who created this character set, whether by hand-drawing drafts of bitmaps for specific Chinese characters or digitizing them using Gridmaster, were Lily Huan-Ming Ling (凌焕銘) and Ellen Di Giovanni.
The core problem that designers faced was translating between two radically different ways of writing Chinese: the hand-drawn character, produced with pen or brush, and the bitmap glyph, produced with an array of pixels arranged on two axes. Designers had to decide how (and whether) they were going to try to re-create certain orthographic features of handwritten Chinese, such as entrance strokes, stroke tapering, and exit strokes.
In the case of the Sinotype III font, the process of designing and digitizing low-resolution Chinese bitmaps was thoroughly documented. One of the most fascinating archival sources from this period is a binder full of grids with hand-drawn hash marks all over them—sketches that would later be digitized into bitmaps for many thousands of Chinese characters. Each of these characters was carefully laid out and, in most cases, edited by Louis Rosenblum and GARF, using correction fluid to erase any “bits” the editor disagreed with. Over top of the initial set of green hash marks, then, a second set of red hash marks indicated the “final” draft. Only then did the work of data entry begin.
Given the sheer number of bitmaps that the team needed to design—at least 3,000 (and ideally many more) if the machine had any hopes of fulfilling consumers’ needs—one might assume that the designers looked for ways to streamline their work. One way they could have done this, for example, would have been to duplicate Chinese radicals—the base components of a character—when they appeared in roughly the same location, size, and orientation from one character to another. When producing the many dozens of common Chinese characters containing the “woman radical” (女), for example, the team at GARF could have (and, in theory, should have) created just one standard bitmap, and then replicated it within every character in which that radical appeared.
No such mechanistic decisions were made, however, as the archival materials show. On the contrary, Louis Rosenblum insisted that designers adjust each of these components—often in nearly imperceptible ways—to ensure they were in harmony with the overall character in which they appeared.
In the bitmaps for juan (娟, graceful) and mian (娩, to deliver), for example—each of which contains the woman radical—that radical has been changed ever so slightly. In the character juan, the middle section of the woman radical occupies a horizontal span of six pixels, as compared with five pixels in the character mian. At the same time, however, the bottom-right curve of the woman radical extends outward just one pixel further in the character mian, and in the character juan that stroke does not extend at all.
Across the entire font, this level of precision was the rule rather than the exception.
When we juxtapose the draft bitmap drawings against their final forms, we see that more changes have been made. In the draft version of luo (罗, collect, net), for example, the bottom-left stroke extends downward at a perfect 45° angle before tapering into the digitized version of an outstroke. In the final version, however, the curve has been “flattened,” beginning at 45° but then leveling out.
Despite the seemingly small space in which designers had to work, they had to make a staggering number of choices. And every one of these decisions affected every other decision they made for a specific character, since adding even one pixel often changed the overall horizontal and vertical balance.
The unforgiving size of the grid impinged upon the designers’ work in other, unexpected ways. We see this most clearly in the devilish problem of achieving symmetry. Symmetrical layouts—which abound in Chinese characters—were especially difficult to represent in low-resolution frameworks because, by the rules of mathematics, creating symmetry requires odd-sized spatial zones. Bitmap grids with even dimensions (such as the 16-by-16 grid) made symmetry impossible. GARF managed to achieve symmetry by, in many cases, using only a portion of the overall grid: just a 15-by-15 region within the overall 16-by-16 grid. This reduced the amount of usable space even further.
The story becomes even more complex when we begin to compare the bitmap fonts created by different companies or creators for different projects. Consider the water radical (氵) as it appeared in the Sinotype III font (below and on the right), as opposed to another early Chinese font created by H.C. Tien (on the left), a Chinese-American psychotherapist and entrepreneur who experimented with Chinese computing in the 1970s and 1980s.
As minor as the above examples might seem, each represented yet another decision (among thousands) that the GARF design team had to make, whether during the drafting or the digitization phase.
Low resolution did not stay “low” for long, of course. Computing advances gave rise to ever denser bitmaps, ever faster processing speeds, and ever diminishing costs for memory. In our current age of 4K resolution, retina displays, and more, it may be hard to appreciate the artistry—both aesthetic and technical—that went into the creation of early Chinese bitmap fonts, as limited as they were. But it was problem-solving like this that ultimately made computing, new media, and the internet accessible to one-sixth of the global population.
The Download: Introducing our TR35 list, and the death of the smart city
Spoiler alert: our annual Innovators Under 35 list isn’t actually about what a small group of smart young people have been up to (although that’s certainly part of it.) It’s really about where the world of technology is headed next.
As you read about the problems this year’s winners have set out to solve, you’ll also glimpse the near future of AI, biotech, materials, computing, and the fight against climate change.
To connect the dots, we asked five experts—all judges or former winners—to write short essays about where they see the most promise, and the biggest potential roadblocks, in their respective fields. We hope the list inspires you and gives you a sense of what to expect in the years ahead.
Read the full list here.
The Urbanism issue
The modern city is a surveillance device. It can track your movements via your license plate, your cell phone, and your face. But go to any city or suburb in the United States and there’s a different type of monitoring happening, one powered by networks of privately owned doorbell cameras, wildlife cameras, and even garden-variety security cameras.
The latest print issue of MIT Technology Review examines why, independently of local governments, we have built our neighborhoods into panopticons: everyone watching everything, all the time. Here is a selection of some of the new stories in the edition, guaranteed to make you wonder whether smart cities really are so smart after all:
– How groups of online neighborhood watchmen are taking the law into their own hands.
– Why Toronto wants you to forget everything you know about smart cities.
– Bike theft is a huge problem. Specialized parking pods could be the answer.
– Public transport wants to kill off cash—but it won’t be as disruptive as you think.
Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever
Most Quayside watchers have a hard time believing that covid was the real reason for ending the project. Sidewalk Labs never really painted a compelling picture of the place it hoped to build.
The new Waterfront Toronto project has clearly learned from the past. Renderings of the new plans for Quayside—call it Quayside 2.0—released earlier this year show trees and greenery sprouting from every possible balcony and outcropping, with nary an autonomous vehicle or drone in site. The project’s highly accomplished design team—led by Alison Brooks, a Canadian architect based in London; the renowned Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye; Matthew Hickey, a Mohawk architect from the Six Nations First Nation; and the Danish firm Henning Larsen—all speak of this new corner of Canada’s largest city not as a techno-utopia but as a bucolic retreat.
In every way, Quayside 2.0 promotes the notion that an urban neighborhood can be a hybrid of the natural and the manmade. The project boldly suggests that we now want our cities to be green, both metaphorically and literally—the renderings are so loaded with trees that they suggest foliage is a new form of architectural ornament. In the promotional video for the project, Adjaye, known for his design of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, cites the “importance of human life, plant life, and the natural world.” The pendulum has swung back toward Howard’s garden city: Quayside 2022 is a conspicuous disavowal not only of the 2017 proposal but of the smart city concept itself.
To some extent, this retreat to nature reflects the changing times, as society has gone from a place of techno-optimism (think: Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone) to a place of skepticism, scarred by data collection scandals, misinformation, online harassment, and outright techno-fraud. Sure, the tech industry has made life more productive over the past two decades, but has it made it better? Sidewalk never had an answer to this.
“To me it’s a wonderful ending because we didn’t end up with a big mistake,” says Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for Toronto, who advised the Ministry of Infrastructure on how to set this next iteration up for success. She’s enthusiastic about the rethought plan for the area: “If you look at what we’re doing now on that site, it’s classic city building with a 21st-century twist, which means it’s a carbon-neutral community. It’s a totally electrified community. It’s a community that prioritizes affordable housing, because we have an affordable-housing crisis in our city. It’s a community that has a strong emphasis on green space and urban agriculture and urban farming. Are those things that are derived from Sidewalk’s proposal? Not really.”
Rewriting what we thought was possible in biotech
What ML and AI in biotech broadly need to engage with are the holes that are unique to the study of health. Success stories like neural nets that learned to identify dogs in images were built with the help of high-quality image labeling that people were in a good position to provide. Even attempts to generate or translate human language are easily verified and audited by experts who speak a particular language.
Instead, much of biology, health, and medicine is very much in the stage of fundamental discovery. How do neurodegenerative diseases work? What environmental factors really matter? What role does nutrition play in overall human health? We don’t know yet. In health and biotech, machine learning is taking on a different, more challenging, task—one that will require less engineering and more science.
Marzyeh Ghassemi is an assistant professor at MIT and a faculty member at the Vector Institute (and a 35 Innovators honoree in 2018).