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MIT has taken the unfriendly computer interface to its natural conclusion: and created a computer that runs away from you.

We've all had experiences with user interface elements that run away from us: toolbars in Windows, or the drive icons on the Mac OS X desktop, for example. But "Clocky" goes all the way - it's an alarm clock that has wheels. If you hit the snooze button, "Clocky" rolls away and hides. To make life doubly difficult, it will try and hide in a new place every day. And if you live in a 1970s sitcom, it poses a third challenge. Since it's covered in thick brown nylon shagpile carpet, Clocky might never be found. For now, it's simply described as an "academic" exercise, but a fully-blown fugitive PC can't be too far away.

Clocky: inspired by kittens

Inspired by kittens: Clocky

It comes from - where else? - Boston's own version of Disneyland, MIT's Media Lab. If nothing else, Clocky should help restore the Lab's reputation as the world's most useless "research laboratory". Ten years of corporate gladhanding - the lab was entirely privately funded - have added nothing of note to the study of computer science, or even an iPod. But then the institution was never designed to. So long as the money kept rolling in, and the lab could produce a supply of fatuous, gimmicky demos for lazy media, everyone was happy. The lab's founder Nicholas Negroponte even helped start a glossy gadget catalog to help plug the demos: Wired magazine. Such an institution was bound to attract flakes, who obliged with Talking Oven Mitts, Chairs With Attitude, and all manner of cuddly bots and "responsive environments" seemingly designed solely to amuse Ralph Wiggum.

All good, clean, harmless fun, you might think. But research money - both public and private - is a precious and dwindling resource, and there are many basic problems computer science must address. Good scientists are pessimistic people who think deeply about how these problems can be fixed. There are many problems that must be fixed if people are to trust technology. While the United States falls further behind its main rival in science funding and education, it's also developed a seriousness deficit and a frivolity surplus. That's bad timing.

Take for example, the inspiration for Clocky.

"I was in part inspired by kittens I've had that would bite my toes every morning," confides Clocky's designer Gauri Nanda.

Clocky? Clucky, more like. The girl sounds positively broody. ®

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