The Best $1 Billion We Can Spend: Investing in Innovations for the Disabled, Disadvantaged, and Dismissed

2/12/09Follow @frank_moss

The battle is over and the final economic recovery and stimulus bill preserves $15 billion for basic science and over $50 billion for upgrading America’s technology infrastructure. These expenditures will put people to work immediately, provide a foundation for steady economic growth, and set the stage for discoveries that address longstanding human problems.

As a technologist also concerned about the state of society I should be happy. Most of my colleagues in high tech, biotech, and academia are ecstatic. But for me something important is missing.

If we are not only to survive but also thrive in the years ahead, basic science and infrastructure upgrades alone are not enough. We must also invest in radical innovations that deliver venture-capital type returns for both the economy and society. By this I mean returns on investment of up to a thousand to one in less than seven years—in dollars and human good.

To illuminate the kind of possibilities I have in mind, consider a huge segment of society: the disabled, disadvantaged and dismissed.

For all the wonders of the digital age, these people remain at the tail end of the technology adoption cycle. Amazing advances at the intersection of the biological, information and social sciences could change this. Soon all technologies—from nanochips to mobile devices to robots—will learn from people, understand them and augment their physical and cognitive abilities.

At the MIT Media Lab, as at many other academic and industrial research organizations, we are exploring how this human/technology collaboration will enable the less fortunate overcome their challenges in ways previously thought impossible. In the course of this research we have discovered that many of our innovations intended for the disabled, disadvantaged and dismissed of society have the potential to benefit virtually everyone, simultaneously creating huge economic growth opportunities and vast human good.

This phenomenon is rooted in history. Some of the most pervasive technologies in the world emerged from inquiries into human deficits. The first typewriter proven to work was built by Pelligrino Turri to enable his blind friend to write. The invention of the telephone originated with Alexander Graham Bell’s attempt to assimilate his deaf mother into the world of sound.

Here are three examples of research at the Media Lab today which illustrate this:

* There are approximately 10 million amputees in the world today. Professor Hugh Herr and his team aspire to enable each of them to return to complete mobility by inventing smart robotic limbs that mimic human motion. What if we could leverage their innovations to equip every elderly person with an inexpensive and simple exoskeleton that prevents falls? Herr believes this is possible. Falls among people over 65 are projected to account for direct costs of $55 billion a year by 2020 and untold suffering of victims and their families. Eliminating them would provide enormous economic and societal benefit.

* One of every 150 individuals in the US today is diagnosed with autism. Professor Rosalind Picard and her team are inventing novel ways for people with autism to communicate emotion and cognition with others using simple wearable sensors. What if we could adapt these sensors to help businesses truly understand and empathize with customers? Picard is working with many companies to do just that. This is the Holy Grail of commerce and could catalyze huge economic growth and create millions of jobs.

* Patients with rare diseases number 25 million in the US today, but these diseases receive little attention from the biomedical establishment. PhD candidate Ian Eslick is inventing new ways to empower patients to self-organize into communities that discover therapies based on their “everyday experiments” of living with their rare diseases. What if we could extend this model to accelerate discovery for mainstream diseases such as cancer? Eslick’s collaborators in the biomedical world are optimistic. The benefits would be enormous – bringing new medicines to market takes ten years and costs $1 billion today.

In this spirit, I propose we now devote just $1 billion out of the basic science and infrastructure budgets to technologies like those above that offer both innovative approaches to the challenges of the less fortunate and also the potential to translate rapidly to commercial opportunities of scale. Awards ranging from $50,000 to $1 million would go to anyone with the desire to address pressing human needs and the determination to turn concepts into reality.

I realize a proposal like this, coming from the director of the MIT Media Lab, could appear like a bid for a share of the stimulus cash. But the Media Lab derives the vast majority of our funding from private industry (less than 10 percent from government), and our researchers would have to compete on an even footing with everyone.

My point is this. The kind of passion and ingenuity that drove Alexander Graham Bell to find a way to communicate with his deaf mother resides in the hearts and minds of millions of people today—from ordinary citizens to entrepreneurs to academic and industrial researchers—waiting to be unleashed.

Invoking the words of President Obama, this is not a Democrat solution nor a Republican solution, but an American solution.

Frank Moss is director of the MIT Media Lab. Follow @frank_moss

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  • David Chandler

    Wonderful article, and a great proposal!
    Just to add another example to your historical references, the invention of both the telescope and the microscope were a direct result of work on eyeglasses — and ended transforming science at both the largest and smallest scales.

  • Ken Anderson

    What a great idea. What can we do to help advance it?

  • sharp_jiang

    wonderful ideas.
    innovation from human deficits.

  • wazowsky

    Wow! That’s so crazy and caring, it just might work! Of course it has the disadvantage of poorly defined terms, cherry-picking of historical references and the eternal bias of “triumph of the plucky oppressed” narrative. Um, but otherwise, yes that is just enough detail and data to justify another billion to a do-gooder academic money-hole. Thanks Mr. Sunshine!

  • Frank Moss

    Thanks, wazowsky, I got a good chuckle out of your post. We all need a good laugh in times like this, especially at ourselves.

  • jbrown

    That’s Dr. Sunshine, please. Seriously, kudos to Dr. Moss for the courage to be contrarian and present some constructive ideas. Why NOT invest a little money in innovations that may be waiting in the brains of entrepreneurs, in inventors’ basement labs, and yes, even, academic research labs? His plan is conceptually sound.

    If we invest $1 billion, that still leaves many billions to go into the usual pork-barrel projects, have no fear.

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  • http://www.mit.edu Sunish Gupta

    Great dreams! Let us get involved and give technology a new life to new lives and improve the quality of life for the millions!
    -sunish

  • http://none Alonzo byers

    i need help i have very good ideas and i need help. iam disabled and really dont have afair chance.