MIT Communications Forum – What’s New at the Media Lab

Several years ago, (I can’t recall exactly when probably 1999 or 2000), I was working at Blanc and Otus and went up to Portsmouth New Hampshire to meet with Bow Street, a potential client. The meeting went well; but on the way back to Boston I remember talking with my colleague Berl Hartman about the fact that Bow Street (like virtually every other technology company at the time) believed that they were going to change the world. Which would I rather have, I thought, Web services or antibiotics, metallurgy, agriculture. These were technologies that really did change the world.We won the Bow Street business but I wasn’t on the team (apparently I’d rubbed someone the wrong way during the meeting). (Coincidentally, I was involved with Bow Street again in 2005 when they were purchased by IBM. This was, I think, the only company that I have worked with during its launch as well as its demise.)

So why all of this seemingly irrelevant information? Because the founder of Bow Street was Frank Moss, who is now the director of the MIT Media Lab. When I heard that he was running the Lab I wondered how someone like Frank, who had founded Bow Street and Tivoli (among others) would come across as the director of the Lab.

Let me say right up front that I was really impressed by what he had to say, about his plans for the Lab and with the projects he choose to include during the MIT Communications Forum session: What’s Happening at the MIT Media Lab.

Moss believes that his directorship illustrates a new era for the Lab, one that is more inclusive in some ways than it has been in the past. He is not an academic (although he did receive his PhD in aeronautics at MIT) but instead spent most of his career as a software executive and entrepreneur. When he got a call asking if we wanted to be the director of the Lab his first response was to laugh because he didn’t think it was a good fit or idea. But after he started meeting with people he realized that it might be the right place for him to have an impact of people.

When asked about the Lab’s role in inventing the future he pointed out that it isn’t the Lab that invents the future, but the students who are involved the Lab. They’re exposed to a one-of-a-kind environment and are then encouraged to do incredible things. The future that the Lab and Nicholas Negroponte, its co-founder, originally envisioned – one that brought together the TV, print and the telephone – has come to pass. Moss said that the focus now needs to be on creating not just the future but a better future.

He the starting point to building a better future is to help people who are disabled, disadvantaged or disenfranchised. By creating transitional technologies for these communities, new ideas will be able to migrate up into more general applications. This is fundamentally different from the typical model where attempts are made to adapt technologies for the disabled, disadvantaged and disenfranchised. Several of the technologies that were demonstrated later in the evening illustrated Moss’ point.

An important point to remember, Moss pointed out, is that the Lab is funded through corporate sponsorships – which makes it different from the rest of MIT. Negroponte believed that companies would support the Lab simply to have the opportunity to spend time and rub shoulders with the staff and the students. This was based on assumptions of the value of serendipity – and there have been some wonderful examples of this: sensors for passenger side airbags based on work done for the magicians Penn and Teller is just one.

During the 80s and 90s, when companies were thinking about the digital future, this opportunity for serendipity was tremendous. After 2001, companies began to need to justify the cost of sponsoring the Lab. This was a problem since the Lab wasn’t created to develop commercial technologies or to deliver a measurable return on investment. It has made it a challenge to maintain the open, creative and non-directed environment that has made the Lab what it is today. Moss is realistic about these challenges but optimistic.

One of the reasons for his optimism is that, for economic reasons, many companies have decreased their commitment to basic research. This has made the work being done at the Lab even more important.

An important purpose of the Lab is the way it allows the exploration of the different ways people and ideas can come together – both inside and outside of the Lab. Moss conceded that in the past there may have been people who viewed the Lab as an island but insisted that he supports the idea of collaboration and the need to reach out. If the Lab doesn’t provide students with a unique experience then one has to question its role at MIT. Everyone, from Moss to the corporate sponsors to the faculty to the students want, and are committed to, creating a collaborative environment.

Moss was asked to define the “Media” in “Media Lab.” At some point, he began, one has to stop trying to make sense out of names. That said, he’s heard it described as applying technology to mediate experiences between people and technologies. Moss believes that there are a growing number of new technologies that are allowing that mediation be more of a meditation on the relationship between people and technology.

He spent some time discussing the $100 laptop, something he thinks is a great story. It was started in 2005 and was based on the idea that the best way for people to learn is by doing. Negroponte concluded that the best way to do this on a large scale was to put technology into the hands of kids. What he created wasn’t just a technology idea but an economic one as well. What makes this amazing is that it is really about to happen.

While OLPC missed the $100 target (the devices will cost $125), it has reached agreements with many governments around the world. For all of the excitement, there has been controversy – with some questioning if this is the best way to spend limited funds. Moss believes that there is great value in the program and pointed out that by creating technology to help these largely disenfranchised communities, ideas have been developed that will be appearing in all laptops over the next five years.

A few examples of these include: mesh networks for unrouted communication, daylight readable screens, advanced power management (the OLPC systems can run up to eight hours on battery power) and a rethought user interface. Some of the other aspects of the system are the flexibility of its physical configuration and the fact that it is comfortable and approachable for kids (thanks to its design and colors).

Some of the concepts behind the OLPC project – the design principles, the interface, the relationships in assumes between people and its simplicity – are all reflected to one degree or another in the three demonstrations that Moss introduced.

The first was on musical intervention by Adam Boulanger.

Boulanger believes that one of the areas where technology has failed is in its ability to make use more expressive and creative people. He is working on creating technology to help break this mold by providing a system of thinking that redefines what it means to be creative. The Hyperinstruments project with which he is involved started by fitting virtuoso musicians w/ sensors that allow for the creation of new expressive opportunities. But what is the use, they wondered, it it is only for the virtuoso?

They applied themselves to bringing these types of technologies to physically and mentally disabled people at Tewkesbury Hospital. There people worked with Hyperscore – a composition tool that allows people to “paint” melodies, after which a simplified harmony is applied. Boulanger played a video from the program and compositions created by 10 year old children. He described the work they are doing as providing a creativity prosthesis – an apt description.

He reported that the musical therapy the program enabled created new opportunities for leadership and interaction that would not have been otherwise possible. Boulanger saw far greater possibilities for this program in the future. He can imagine a day when these tools creative and social tools can be coupled with science ti improve peoples lives. One example he offered were musical games that could also function as cognitive tests and which would allow the measurement of how people are developing and improving. Creativity, he believes, is going to become a crucial component for the future of health care.

Moss pointed out that there were a number of other projects happening in the Lab to assist people with autism and other mental illnesses. While much is being spend on finding cures and rehabilitation, he believes that it is equally important to find ways to improve the quality of life for people whose conditions may not be cured.

The second presentation was on Smart Cities by Ryan Chin.

The goal of the Smart Cities project is to understand how cities might be made more functional and livable. One element of of the project is the CityCar – a collaboration between the Lab and GM. The CityCar is a foldable, efficient shared vehicle that is designed to rethink the relationship between the car, the city and public transportation.

The car is intended to deal with some of the mounting challenges and realities of the city: urban density, congestion and pollution. The CityCar takes advantage of the increasing connectivity by making the car a connected element of the city. It provides easier access to the resources of the city and recognizes that the infrastructure of the city isn’t going to change so it complements the realities of the city in terms of things like population density, mass transit routes and parking.

Some of the interesting elements of the car are that it is shared, electronic, omnidirectional and stackable. When someone needs one they simply swipes their credit card and they have a car. When they are finished they return it to a stack where it is recharged.

How would these vehicles effect the city? Given their small size (only a few feet long when folded) they would use parking far more efficiently (a typical Manhattan block can accommodate approximately 83 traditional vehicles – or more than 500 CityCars) freeing up space for other uses. They also represent a great deal of battery capacity that could be used in a variety of ways – in motion as transit; at rest a source of power for the grid. Because they are shared the cars can be personalized and because they are connected they can act as a social networking tool or a concierge.

The idea of the car as a shared service is not easy for the auto industry to think about.

Moss pointed out that the students weren’t only dreaming up these types of things but were building them as well, saying that the Lab provides access to an incredible suite of tools and systems.

The final presentation was on Biomechatronics by Hartmut Geyer.

The biomechatronics project works in two areas. The first is to develop a fundamental understanding of how legged systems work and then to apply that understanding to the development of prosthesis or human augmentation systems.

Geyer discussed the Rheo knee prosthesis, a passive device whose major function is to dampen the impact of walking and to use the energy of the impact for forward motion. He showed a video of the knee in action. As interesting and effective as the knee might be, he explained that it was not an active replacement – that is that it does not truly integrate with the human nervous system.

The next prosthesis he showed was an active ankle that does depend on an true human/machine connection. He demonstrated how the Lab was conveying the planned movements of a wearers phantom limb into signals to which the connected limb could respond. The current state of the art is to send user nerve signals to the prosthesis but in the future, electrodes implanted into the nerve fibers might able be able to send sensory information from the prosthesis back into the nerve. All of this is based on research being done in the Lab in biomechanics and motor control.

Following the demonstrations, Moss explained that there is going to be a much broader impact of technology on humans and that it will essentially redefine the idea of disability.

As someone interested and committed to technology, it was fun to see and hear what Moss is thinking about in terms of the Lab. As the father of a child with mental illness, it was exciting and heartening to hear him talk about the importance he is placing on technologies for the disabled, disadvantaged or disenfranchised. Any of the questions or concerns I brought with me to the event regarding having a former CEO were assuaged.

The official summary of this event can be found on the MIT Communications Forum site.

[tags]MIT, MIT Communications Forum, MIT Media Lab, Frank Moss, Nicholas Negroponte, Adam Boulanger, Hyperscore, Ryan Chin, Smart Cities, CityCar, Hartmut Geyer, Biomechatronics [/tags]

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