Message: 29
Date: 11.1.95
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

Being Decimal

Like dogs, laboratories age considerably faster than people. But while dogs age at a factor of seven, I would say labs age at a factor of 10, which makes the MIT Media Lab 100 years old last month. When we officially opened our doors for business in October 1985, we were the new kids on the block, considered crazy by most. Even The New York Times called us "charlatans." While I was slightly hurt at being referred to as "all icing and no cake," it secretly pleased me because I had no doubt that computing and content would merge together into everyday life. Now, 10 years later, "multimedia" is old hat. The term appears in the names and advertising jingles of some of the most staid corporations. But becoming part of the establishment is a lot less fun than experiencing the risk and abuse of pioneering.

So, how does a lab avoid sclerosis? How do we move into high-risk areas of the future after receiving acclaim and recognition for our past? The answer is intimately tied to the nature of a research university - an institution that is both a liability and an asset when you're doing research. The liability is tenure, which guarantees lifetime employment for faculty, some of whom have long forgotten their creativity. The asset is students. I'm fond of telling people that I run a company with 300 employees and 20 percent turnover each year. But it's not just new faces. The incoming lot are always between 16 and 25 years old, even though the rest of us get older each year. That 20 percent churn is the fountain of youth.

Fishing for new ideas
Where do new ideas come from? The answer is simple: differences. While there are many theories of creativity, the only tenet they all share is that creativity comes from unlikely juxtapositions. The best way to maximize differences is to mix ages, cultures, and disciplines. This has been the model at the Media Lab since Day One and it keeps many of us becoming stale. The faculty is a mix of artists, engineers, and scientists who collaborate instead of compete. In MIT style, undergraduates arrive without knowing the word "impossible." This keeps the graduates on their toes; they, in turn, keep the faculty lively.

So, how do we stay fresh and do it all again? Think of fishing. You arrive at a pond that has never been fished; not surprisingly, you catch plenty. But as the number of lines grows, you will catch a lot less. One has to know when it's time to find a new pond.

No, we don't drop everything and start working on cold fusion or a method for turning lead into gold. The change is as much an attitude as anything else. For example, there are 30,000 Americans over the age of 100. When these centenarians were studied, researchers found that diet, exercise, and healthy living were not the common denominator or prime force behind their longevity. Instead, in reverse order of priority: they were successfully coping with loss, keeping busy, and maintaining a positive attitude. I believe the same holds true for a laboratory. In our case, we are (barely) coping with the loss of Jerome Wiesner and Muriel Cooper (see Wired 2.10, page 100), everyone is extremely busy, and our optimism is contagious.

Love is a better master than duty
That's Einstein's saying, not mine. The many visitors to the Media Lab always see different value in different projects. What looks silly to one visitor may be construed as a fundamental breakthrough by another. But they all leave with one impression that leads to the same question: Why is everyone here so passionate about the work?

One answer is that we are different from corporate labs, where researchers are usually told what to do, and projects are constantly evaluated against criteria that include everything but the passion of the researcher. If I had to define my job at MIT, I would say simply that I connect passions to companies. If one side of the equation contains faculty passion but no immediate corporate interest, I play Robin Hood. And companies don't mind. But if corporate need is not matched by faculty passion, I muster all my restraint and turn down far more money than we receive. The Media Lab could be 10 times its size if we were willing to do more work in video-data compression. We're not. That's the past, not the future.

Things that think
The future is about computer understanding. It's not about pixels, but objects. It is not about ASCII, but meaning. For this reason, an incredibly difficult problem like "computers with common sense" is a major part of the future for the Media Lab. This is not a new problem, just a hard one. In fact, it's so hard it has been more or less dismissed as impossible. What better challenge is there?

Another emerging theme concerns embedding computation into everyday objects that are first and foremost something else - a doorknob, a pair of sneakers, a chair, a toaster. The purpose is twofold. One is to improve the "personality" of the object - make it do what it does better. The other is for the object to perform duties that were never intended but are suited to circumstance by thinking and linking.

Consider your front door. Suppose the doorknob could recognize you as you approach and could tell the door to open so you wouldn't have to put down your packages. That would be a worthy knob. It would be one whose "doorknobness" is distinctly enhanced. Now consider a telephone. Telephones should never ring. If you're not there, the ringing is useless. If you are there, you'd probably prefer the phone be answered by a digital butler. If that digital butler determines that the call should be passed through, perhaps the nearest object should alert you. And that might be a doorknob.

You may or may not be convinced, but we are - sufficiently so to start a major new program called "Things That Think" on the occasion of our 10th birthday. An important component of the research is wearable computing. If this sounds silly to you, all the better. Ten years ago, "media convergence" was also considered silly. Tune back in when we are 20. Or rather, 200.

Next Issue: Wearable Computing

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[Copyright 1995, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 3.11 November 1995.]