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Intelligent Machines


Peter Dizikes’s article “Measure for Measure” (July/August 2010) addresses one of the most important questions we face in academia today: how can we stimulate innovation and translate it into economic impact? This is not to suggest that academia should move away from fundamental research, which is the basis for excellence in U.S. graduate education, but rather to inquire how we can build on this excellence and translate research results into solutions to important problems. We accept that technological innovation is an important driver of economic growth, but this macro-level view doesn’t help us change our behavior in the laboratory. In reflecting on the success of the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT, where we have stimulated more than 20 startup companies over the past six years, we see the need to improve the process for connecting new technologies to the right problems. This generally means both crossing disciplinary boundaries and understanding the needs of customers. The right market for a technology is often not intuitively obvious and requires new collaborations between academia and the business world.

Funding agencies such as the NSF and NIH have done an outstanding job of stimulating fundamental research, but they miss the boat when it comes to stimulating the translation of research into economic impact. We find that often no one knows in advance what the most significant impact of emerging technology will be, yet funding agencies require the investigator to identify the impact in the proposal. The successful model of the Deshpande Center is finding the right market for technological innovation–matching the solution to a problem. We build on a platform of basic research, select promising ideas, direct them toward market problems, and connect them to the venture community. This all takes place within the institutional innovation ecosystem. Economists and research administrators both emphasize the need to examine more deeply how science funding leads to technological innovation. I agree, but I believe we cannot rely solely on correlative work with measurable parameters such as patents and papers. We should also seek to understand how we can encourage academic investigators to translate their work into commercially viable products and services with quantifiable economic impact. The institutional innovation ecosystem and the business community need to work hand in hand to make this happen.
Charles L. Cooney, PhD ‘70 Professor of chemical and biochemical engineering and faculty director of the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation
Cambridge, MA

I’m prompted to write about the recent MIT research showing that disrupting brain activity with magnets can alter moral judgments (“Changing Minds,” July/August 2010). It struck me when I first heard about this research on NPR a few weeks ago, and it strikes me again now, that the result is being overinterpreted. While it appears true that disrupting this area of the brain was having the effect of disrupting moral judgments, the hypothesized actual effect renders interpretation of motives difficult. If this is the case, then it may be that the person’s moral calculus given the same information is not altered, but instead that some of the “information”–that is, interpretation of motives–has been removed. Is that fair to say? It may sound like splitting hairs, but the NPR story had somebody (not one of the original researchers) speaking very triumphantly about one more nail being driven into the coffin for the mind (as opposed to the body). In such deep rhetorical waters, it seems better to be careful about what a certain result does or does not really show.
Thomas M. Over ‘83
Charleston, IL

The researchers respond: In response to the question “Is that fair to say?” we agree that it is. The comment concerns whether transcranial magnetic stimulation to the right temporoparietal junction of the brain changes the inputs to moral judgment. The answer is yes, it changes mental-state inputs–or, as Over puts it, the “interpretation of motives.”
Liane Young and Rebecca Saxe, PhD ‘03
Cambridge, MA

This story is part of the September/October 2010 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
See the rest of the issue

In the May/June issue you write about MIT alumni who are college presidents (“Leadership Equations”). My cousin, Theodora Kalikow, SM ‘70, daughter of Irving Kalikow ‘32, is president of the University of Maine-Farmington, which bills itself as “Maine’s public liberal-arts university.” My classmate Shirley Jackson ‘68, PhD ‘73, gets a lot more press, but Theo has been in the job for 16 years already and deserves some press too.
Michael Marcus ‘68
Cabin John, MD

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