MIT’s interdisciplinary Media Lab is famous for its blue-sky research, focusing on the study, invention, and creative use of technology. Over the years, its big thinking has led to some impressive achievements, including the development of MPEG video compression, the Hundred-Dollar Laptop project, and the founding of eInk, a company that makes electronic paper displays.
But venture capitalists no longer readily throw money at “vague” projects, and government funding is drying up. Today, 70 percent of the lab’s annual budget of around $35 million comes from corporate sponsors, with whom they must forge ever-closer ties. Since corporate benefactors want practical technologies, the Media Lab has to strike a balance between meeting sponsors’ needs and maintaining its traditional philosophy of open-ended research.
These challenges now face a new director, Frank Moss, who was introduced to the MIT community on February 15. An entrepreneur, he came from Infinity Pharmaceuticals, and has 25 years of experience in the software and computer industries. Moss says that under his guidance the Media Lab will focus on projects that use technology to address social problems, such as aging and education. He also believes his commercial experience will be helpful in dealing with the lab’s sponsors. Director Moss talked with Technology Review assistant editor Katherine Bourzac about the lab’s refocused mission.
Technology Review: The system of corporate sponsorship at the Media Lab is unusual. Can you explain how it works and how you balance academic needs with the interests of your corporate sponsors?
Frank Moss: It is unusual, but I think we’re going to see more of this with government funding decreasing. I think it’s important to be able to engage industry and corporate sponsors to sponsor this kind of work. Fundamentally, we have a system whereby sponsors join up as a member of the lab community. As part of that, they have access to all the intellectual property being generated by all the faculty and the students here.
What has changed over the past seven or eight years is that simply coming here and rubbing shoulders with very smart, creative people is often not enough for our sponsors. They need us to help them make a connection between all the wonderful creative work we have here and problems they have.
The balance is between working more closely with our sponsors and understanding their problems, while continuing to generate the wild and crazy new ideas that they’ve joined us for. After looking at the problem for a while, I’m convinced that we can help our sponsors make that connection more effectively at the same time that we continue to build on the highly creative environment we have here. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
TR: What is the advantage to having an entrepreneur, rather than a research scientist, direct the Media Lab?
FM: I think we’re all entrepreneurs, but I’m coming from a commercial environment. I think the reason MIT went in that direction is that in many ways running an academic research lab in today’s world requires a keen understanding of the sponsors and what their needs and wants are – because, at the end of the day, although we’re doing very cool and advanced research, it has to be relevant to the organizations that are going to fund us. That’s true everywhere. I think that the Media Lab, in making a change, saw an opportunity to embrace that. We need to understand what corporations are looking for when they make an investment with an academic institution like the Media Lab.
I think having been part of that world, I’m able to communicate [with our sponsors] and I can put myself in their shoes – and therefore redefine the relationship between the Media Lab and the sponsors in a way that makes it more compelling for sponsors to invest their time and effort.
The Media Lab has grown over the years, and with growth comes problems with scale and management – not only creating the most exciting atmosphere for research but also dealing with financial, organizational, and people issues. That’s something someone with commercial experience can bring to the table.
TR: A few years ago there were reports of internal strife and money problems in the Media Lab. Obviously, you weren’t involved, but how were those problems resolved? How will you prevent similar situations?
FM: I’m coming into this with my eyes wide open. I think it’s pretty clear that during the burst of the bubble and around 9/11, the Media Lab, like a lot of other organizations of its type, encountered funding challenges. Quite apart from anything the lab was doing, the appetite to take money and put it into speculative advanced thinking like this became unpopular. I think that created a real challenge for the Media Lab and there were a lot of debates about how it should be handled. I think they did a good job steering through that. The Media Lab is financially stable, the expenses have come into line with revenues, which had to be done. I see plenty to build on here and I think any of the problems of the past are prologue at this point.
A number of different processes in the Media Lab have been changed. Quite frankly, in the 80’s and 90’s, the atmosphere was a lot different. Money was raining down on research labs like the Media Lab. When that happens, sometimes too much money and too much publicity cause you to fail to create the discipline, the planning, and processes you need to operate. Maybe the Media Lab suffered from that – too much good stuff. I saw that when I went through the bubble with high-tech companies.
Technology Review: What technologies will the Media Lab will focus on in the next few years?
FM: I think in the next 20 years we’re going to see tremendous advancements in using technology to deal with lingering social problems – delivering health care, dealing with aging, education – things that go beyond the digital lifestyle we enjoy today. The lab is going to be looking at how we can use existing or new technologies to make a big difference and solve social problems.
I see innovation coming from people working together in a very open way in a networks-based world. We think we can play a role in making that happen. Some of the important projects here blur the boundaries between humans, computers, and networks. It’s going beyond the human-computer interface to truly making technology easier to use, more natural. We have a number of projects that enable computers to relate to people on more human terms. Commonsense computing gives computers virtual common sense – the ability to think about the everyday world as people do.
We also work on affective computing: giving computers emotional intelligence, an ability to recognize and understand human emotion and to communicate that emotion. We have a lot of work going on in the area of sociable robots and creating intelligent creatures that communicate with and learn from people as capable partners.
TR: How do you balance the more creative projects with the hard science projects like quantum computing?
FM: It’s all creative research. The projects here differ in their level of technology. We go all the way from the molecular level to understanding how people think – very soft science. The way you balance that is to continue to encourage that level of diversity in thinking. I’m convinced that the synthesis of really bold and creative ideas comes from the combination of ideas that are as vastly different as molecular-level nanomachines and the highest level cognitive processes of human beings. It’s that variety that’s going to lead to breakthroughs.
But what we need to do here at the Media Lab is to provide an overarching theme, a set of goals that links those together. That theme is looking at the future and the opportunities we have to make a difference in quality of life for people. I think they all fall under that category. Expanding people’s capabilities using technology, enabling them to think, learn, and be healthy in ways that weren’t possible before. This may involve subcellular technology or it might involve cognitive machines and other broader technologies.