On October 15th, 2010 I made the pilgrimage back to the MIT Media Lab for its 25th Anniversary celebrations. Some 18 years after first arriving at the lab as raw Master's student and 12 years after leaving as a newly minted Ph.D. this proved to be perhaps the best return visit I've had to date. It really helped me crystalise my own understanding of how special the Media Lab is and why I've made certain key career decisions since graduating. The event was one of the best I've been to at the lab, replete with talks from faculty, alumni, and luminaries such as MIT President Emeritus Charles Vest and Google CEO Eric Schmidt, demos galore in the new Media Lab building, and an awesome party in the new conference space on top of the aforementioned building.
Origins, Where The Media Lab's DNA came from
One common theme that ran throughout the day was the way that the Media Lab started involved a number of happy coincidences that would be difficult if not impossible to replicate elsewhere. At the time of the Media Lab's founding MIT did not have separate departments for journalism, film, music, or the arts. This lack of structure made it possible to create the new lab with a heavy cross-disciplinary emphasis without having to do horse trading with other departments. Furthermore Nicholas Negroponte's Architecture background meant that the culture of the lab was modelled on the atelier mode of learning. Next Nicholas' partner in creating the lab was Jerry Weisner, an amazing man who was Science Advisor to JFK and had a rolodex several feet long. Finally, the Media Lab, unlike any other lab at MIT, was not only established as a lab but also with an academic program attached to it.
The confluence of these conditions had a number of profound effects.
Nicholas and Jerry invested several years on the road fund raising prior to the lab's establishment. This enabled the lab to be predominantly funded by corporate sponsors on "no strings attached" terms and not government grants.
This financial independence and the resulting close corporate ties enabled researchers to tackle lots of problems that were commercially interesting but high risk in nature. In fact it has became expected that students will tackle problems that are "way out" and high-risk. The sorts of problems which result in breakthroughs or spectacular failures. It's not hard to see where this philosophy came from when one looks at JFK's Rice University speech in 1962 announcing the US's intent to go to the moon.
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
This had the side effect of making Media Lab graduates not easily employable upon graduation since they tended to be non-conformist risk takers netter suited to startups than established companies.
Nicholas' desire to use the atelier model for teaching in which the student was expected to defend and present their thinking on a continuous basis led to the creation of a "demo or die" culture that forced students to engage with sponsors. This led to success being defined not in terms of numerous publications but in the ability to clearly simplify and explain ideas to the numerous sponsors.
It was telling to see that even after 25 years, how many of the original faculty are still present at the lab. While some have come and gone, many of the original professors are still there, pushing, stretching, and in some cases goading students to think differently and try the unusual. I very much enjoyed catching up with my old Ph.D. advisor Andy Lipman. We had a great chat about Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN), US politics, Macro Economics, and some of his current students work which ended in one of his students demoing his Master's project to me. Andy's one of the fixtures of the lab, his challenging style changed the way I look at the world: I was lucky to be his student.
During the course of the day we heard from a number of faculty, three professors stuck out for me in particular.
Ros Picard joined the faculty around the same time I became a student. Her topic of choice was Affective Computing, or how the study of how emotions interact with computing. I remember many of us as students looking at Ros with quiet admiration as someone who was clearly brilliant, able to absorb huge tracts of information in short periods of time, and doing something new and important that had not been done before. What wasn't obvious to us that she was consciously taking a huge professional risk in focusing her research in this new area. Apparently, her papers weren't being accepted at conferences and people questioned whether not she was doing serious work. That she was able to share this on stage to those of us who attended the Anniversary is a further testament to her character.
Ramesh Raskar also joined the lab after I left and has been playing with light in a number of projects over the past several years. Perhaps the most fascinating one for me was the idea that it is possible to use femto-second laser pulses to illuminate a surface such as a door and to then capture the reflections back off the door of the things that the pulse illuminated. In other words a camera that can see around corners. This was the visual equivalent of using sonar or radar to send out a "ping" of light and determine what could be seen on the basis of the echos that came back. While it's still early days, its clearly an intriguing idea that could have a lot of utility for rescue situations.
Ramesh has also done quite a bit of work playing with existing devices. The NETRA project uses a simple add on to a cell phone camera for conducting eye exams. It's cheap, portable, reliable, and accurate, just what's needed to help people in the third world. Not surprising this project has one a lot of awards. Another project was the Bokode project that exploits the Bokeh effect present in ordinary cameras to enable information to be encoded in tiny Bokode dots that then reveal a lot of content when a camera takes an out of focus picture. Way better than printed barcodes, Bokodes can be captured at a distance. It will be interesting to see if they take off.
Hugh Herr joined the faculty about 5 years ago around the time of the time of the 20th Anniversary Event. Hugh path to the Media Lab is an interesting one to say the least. An active mountain climber, Hugh lost both legs below the knee to frostbite. Not wanting to sit around, he dedicated himself to the creation of "smart limbs" that know what position they're in and adjust appropriately.
This has afforded him some interesting opportunities to explore what it means to have legs. When he first joined the lab he played with the height of his legs altering his height from 5ft 6in to nearly 8ft over several months. He also uses long legs when climbing that enable him to make footholds that would be impossible for others. At the end of his talk Hugh demonstrated just how far his prosthetics have come by rolling up his pant legs and then jumping up and down with absolutely no sign of instability. This was breath taking, each leg knew exactly where it was and adjusted its foot's position to land naturally for maximum stability. He's getting nerve implants in his legs shortly. Steve Austin is real.
Hugh is not disabled in any sense of the word; technically he is in fact superhuman both physically and mentally, and furthermore the Media Lab community treats as such. The import of his work for amputees, particularly those who have suffered injuries from landmines and IEDs will be immeasurable.
These three professors highlight a key aspect of the Media Lab's culture that arises from its origins as a place set up to tackle problems that most would initially consider to be on the fringe. To effectively conduct research in these areas one must be willing to tinker and explore technologies and more importantly ideas outside one's comfort zone. In other words one must be willing to play. This experimental approach is an essential part of the discovery and development process. Combined with the freedom and the time to be self-driven and what ends up happening is that people get to intuitively "know" or have a "feel" for a technology and what it can do and how it can be stretched or added to other technologies to create even further new technologies. Michael Schrage, who attended the event, wrote about this in his book "Serious Play" which is a fantastic and well-recommended read.
One of the great joys of my visit was to catch up with many friends whom I had not seen for many years. While some work for big companies many either work in small companies, large companies that were small companies when they joined, or consult to startups. It was clear to me that the fierce questioning, experiential, experimentally driven way of creating things that was taught at the lab had been carried on by many and that because of this they all had very interesting lives. There are too many to mention by name but here's some examples of what Media Lab graduates are doing once they graduate, making movies for Pixar, building Holographic TVs, making the Guitar Hero game, working with multiple startups and VCs in New York, running Mobile and Multimedia for major Media companies, building the Minority Report User interface, and running Google Books.
When I first came to the Media Lab the Terminal Garden was one of the places to be. A square common room with multiple computers in the middle and student offices on two edges, the ‘Garden was a great place for ideas to be discussed, debated, and cross-fertilised. Towards the end of my stay lab space became tight and the Cube, an internal demo space, was filled in at the top by extending the surrounding floor over it and then, similar to the Garden, populated with not one but two levels of offices overlooking the remaining space.
This double height lab configuration proved to be extremely popular and became the basic construction unit of the new Media Lab building. Each Lab in the new building is now double height and further is further framed by predominantly glass walls that over look an open atrium in the middle of the buliding. This design affords maximum opportunities for people to see what others are doing and to collaborate. During my brief visit over the two days of the Anniversary event it was clear that this was in fact happening. Projects were feeding into one another and people will clearly taking advantage of the insights and outputs from fields entirely different from their own to create more complete solutions than would otherwise have been possible.
In addition to the great lab space, the new Media Lab has the best conference space I've seen for an academic building I've ever seen. Bar none. Instead of putting the conference space in the basement as was the case for the old building, the entire top floor of the new building is dedicated to public events. There's a lecture theatre, a massive triple height conference hall, a smaller (only relatively speaking as you could sit 200+ people in the room comfortably), and a deck that has great view of the Charles River and Back Bay. The place is stunning. From what I understand the MIT Institute chipped in to fund the building on the condition that it came under the Institute wide booking system. This definitely makes sense as the space is too good to be under utilised but more importantly will result in further opportunities for the Media Lab to integrate with the rest of the Institute. Everyone wins.
Funding Speculative Research.
The Media Lab went through some very tough times after the dot com bubble burst in the early 2000s but its now clear to me that its on another upswing. This is particularly important in a post (Round 1) Financial Crisis world of increased austerity. During the Anniversary Event, Nicholas Negroponte, (Media Lab Foudner), Marvin Minsky (Inventor of Articial Intelligence), Charles Vest (MIT President Emeritus) and Eric Schmidt (CEO, Google) spoke with passion about the research funding crisis currently hitting the US and the need for long term funding.
MIT has benefited several times over the years from edicts to make Radar work as part of WWII to ongoing efforts to create new technologies as part of the cold war. These edicts to deal with external threats yielded big dollars over long-term periods and practical focus on getting stuff done. The US today is a different place, there are hardly any industrial research labs any more: Corporations just don't have the money to do speculative R&D. This is ironic since this is exactly what's needed to stimulate the creation of new ideas and hence opportunities for growth. You can't cost cut your way to growth, you must invest.
The lack of funding that Negroponte, Minsky, Vest, and Schmidt all rallied against in many respects is not that dissimilar to the views that have been expressed here in Australia for many years. It was both strange and sobering to here these views in the one place where I was once told "Problem? If you got a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it, it's not a problem!" The implications of this shift in the wider US economy will be significant. Slower rates of innovation will affect growth and hence how quickly the US can recover from its current economic malaise.
What it all means
So what did I take away from the Anniversary? In many respects my visit to the lab reaffirmed that it was the right place for me to undertake my postgraduate studies and furthermore that I was extremely lucky to be there in its heyday. I also came away with a greater understanding of why it is so many graduates are employed in jobs that involve high degrees of creativity over more stable "manage what already exists" type roles. Whether or not this preference was present before they went to the lab or not is probably not important as the Media Lab pushes all students in this direction.
Finally the visit reminded me that change takes time and that you have to persevere to get a result. Just because you see an opportunity or have an insight that others around you don't seem to get, doesn't mean that you're wrong, or that others necessarily have it right and the situation is immutable. It may well be that you're just early and that if you persist and help others understand what's going on you might just can change the world.