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About the Media Lab

Research at the lab is organized into three thematic sections — Organic Networks, 10×, and ‘Other’. (Other is a generic container for emerging themes such as Commonsense Computing, Affective Learning, Simplicity, and Complexity.) The first two themes are related to our increasing understanding of how we as humans think and relate to each other and the world around us. ‘Other’ is meant as a badge of honour; it is the incubator for emerging trends that cross traditional boundaries.

Andy Lippman and Sandy Pentland describe Organic Networks as scalable, incremental, and contributory networks of people (and machines), co-operating within a global structure towards the aim of sharing local knowledge and decisions. Organic networks are lower cost, more adaptable, and more robust than traditional networks. A central thesis of the collective work on organic networks is that innovation is pushed to the periphery — it will come from users as well as the providers; almost anyone can be a user, and hence an innovator of new services and business opportunities.

Deb Roy paints a picture of technology augmenting individual human capacity that results in a ten-fold (10×) increase in performance. He envisions a continuum of developments from environmental and wearable computing to bionic systems that will enhance our memory, understanding, expressiveness, awareness, and physical performance by an order of magnitude. For both industry and society, 10× has implications ranging from the future of healthcare for an aging population to the future of urban transportation.

One of the emerging themes at the lab is ‘commonsense computing’. In his upcoming book, Emotion Machine, Marvin Minsky asks: ‘Why don’t AIs yet have commonsense?’ He goes on to argue that they lack the everyday knowledge all humans possess.

Roz Picard et al define ‘affective learning’ in terms of new technology, physical systems that sense, model, and respond to affect in learning, that enables new theory, integrating affective and cognitive aspects of thinking, learning, and acting, with the goal to build computer companions with human-like sensibilities that can engage us as learners.

Complexity is Joseph Jacobson’s term for building complex devices — things that rival nature in their order of complexity, cheaply. This work takes its inspiration from biological systems; they and their students are using peptides for nanofabrication. They envision molecular assembly lines that will lead to de novo biology. John Maeda aims to balance complexity with simplicity — building systems that provide the right levels of abstraction to their users, that do what they say clearly and flexibly. Simplicity is an issue for any industry that directly touches people, everything from publishing, to consumer electronics, to financial services.

The seven secrets of the Media Lab

The how of the lab has always been a fitting object of equal concern to the what. The Media Lab can be thought of as an ongoing experiment, both physical and intellectual, in facilitating innovation, collaboration, and critique. What is emerging is a way of working which is very different from most academic and industrial laboratories. In trying to explicate the secret recipe for how the Media Lab works, I have taken inspiration from the Far Eastern calendar which associates a different ‘element’ with each day of the week.

The seven secrets of the Media Lab are: sun, moon, fire, water, wood, metal, and earth.

The sun is evocative of a light shining into every corner of the Media Lab. There are no dark corners hiding secrets and there is no compartmentalising of ideas; we strive for an unfettered exchange of ideas between students, faculty, and our industry partners. The open floor plan and clear lines of sight throughout the Lab are an architectural expression of this spirit. Our pooled intellectual property policy, which opens access to all inventions at the Lab, regardless of the funding mechanism, means that there are no legal or contractual barriers put between Lab partners and the work.

The phases of the moon represent the cyclical process of innovation at the Media Lab. In the 1980s we used to describe the first phase of the innovation cycle as ‘demo or die’. John Maeda rephrased our mantra in the late 1990s to be ‘imagine and realise’. Indeed, it is a violation of our cultural norm to have an idea and not build a prototype — in large part because of our deeply-held belief that we learn through expressing. Building a prototype also enables us to advance to the second phase of the innovation cycle — critique. The Lab, which has its origins in architecture (the founder of the Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, is an architect) draws upon the tradition of studio design critique; we have daily visits from our industry partners and other practitioners with whom we engage in an authentic critical dialogue about the work. In this exchange, the work is discussed within a broader context — ideas (and prototypes) are exchanged, improvements and alternatives suggested. We then advance to the third phase of the innovation cycle — iterate. Iteration within the Lab means returning to ‘Step One’ to push our ideas further. Iteration within our partners’ organisations means taking a prototype towards real-world application. In both cases, we can learn from our mistakes (and successes).

Fire fuels the Media Lab. We invest in the passion of people, not their projects. It is the fire that burns in every student and faculty member that inspires and motivates them — love is a better master than duty. Innovation at the Lab comes from the bottom up. It is not regulated by a top-down process, but by continuous feedback from peers, the faculty, and our external collaborators.

Water brings to mind Plato’s interpretation of Heraclitus: ‘You cannot step twice in the same river.’ Change is the only constant at the Media Lab; being a university laboratory, we have built-in churn — every year 25% of our research staff turns over, as students graduate and new students enrol; we are not tied to any one academic discipline or tradition, so we can quickly incorporate emerging themes and jettison tired ones; our emphasis on rapid prototyping means that our metabolic rate is measured in seconds, not quarters. There are new projects initiated daily.

Wood is used as a metaphor for the relationship between design and engineering. Design is often thought of as a surface attribute’ i.e. the bark on a tree. At the Media Lab, design and engineering are commingled — one is not placed above or before the other; they are tightly interwoven like wood grain. All Lab members strive for the same high standards of excellence. Design and engineering belong in the same building.

The gold to be mined at the Media Lab comes from the collision of ideas. We are an interdisciplinary laboratory — we work on everything from parasitic power to karaoke. We are also an international laboratory — we draw upon students and sponsors from every continent. And we work with a diversity of industries — from telecommunications to toys. This diverse community, which expresses itself through critical dialogue, is how lead is turned into gold.

We ground academic research in the real problems of industry. The Media Lab is not a university on a hill, engaging in a monologue; rather we are in daily dialogue with our sponsors, who bring real problems and deep understanding to the discussion. We take intellectual risks while immersed in the purposeful and practical problems of industry.

Together, the seven secrets help us achieve a balance between the non-incremental innovations that improve the efficiency of what we already do, and help us go further (and faster) in the directions we are already heading; and enable us together to go to new, unexpected places, where we will find disruptions and, consequently, opportunities. -walter