‘Anything That’s $1B is Good,’ and Other Gems From the Media Lab’s 25th Bash
I spent a good part of Friday at the MIT Media Laboratory, which was packed to the rafters with faculty, alums, and other guests celebrating the pioneering institution’s 25th anniversary.
Below are some quick impressions from the morning’s activities and an afternoon chat with Google CEO Eric Schmidt conducted by public radio host John Hockenberry. I missed the remaining afternoon festivities, but your intrepid reporter did drag himself back to the lab that night for food, drinks, music, and networking—hence the photos from the Dance Central and Rock Band action (games courtesy of their creator, Media Lab spinoff Harmonix).
The energy of a big anniversary bash aside, I think it is safe to say the Media Lab is on a new upward trajectory. That’s largely a testament to the impassioned work of director Frank Moss, who after some five years will be leaving his post next February or March (or “whenever they find a replacement,” as he told me Friday).
The Lab as Space Port
At the end of the first panel, Moss asked everyone to predict where the lab would be in another 25 years. My favorite answer came from haptics expert Margaret Minsky (daughter of artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky), who described a scene from her favorite movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” where space station bays open for an incoming craft and people are busy in the background on all sides of the space dock. She said she imagined the Media Lab welcoming researchers in space in 2035. “I really do want to come back when it’s in space,” she told me afterward.
A panel featuring the lab’s five newest faculty members was the day’s big draw for me, for the opportunity to see at a glance the new trails the lab is attempting to blaze. Here’s my summary, by research group name:
—Synthetic Neurobiology: Ed Boyden combines aspects of neuroscience with engineering and a lot more (the brain, after all, is a storage and communication and computing device).
—Camera Culture: Ramesh Raskar, perhaps the Doc Edgerton of the future, dreams of creating “femto” cameras that operate at a trillion frames per second and see around corners to help with everything from vehicular collision avoidance to new imaging tools that peer inside the “nooks and crannies” of the body.
—High-Low Tech: Leah Buechley seeks to fuse art, dance, physics, and technology to create new and intuitive tools for integrating form and function and thereby open up tech engineering to a whole new group of people who might normally be turned off to the field.
—Macro Connections: Cesar Hidalgo, a self-proclaimed “gypsy of science,” is looking at new ways to analyze and visualize extremely large sets of data, such as the patterns of production of national economies.
—Mediated Matter: Neri Oxman, an architect, designer, and artist, plans on turning architecture on its head by building things like walls and chairs out of materials that mimic properties found in shark skins and other natural materials.
A lot of folks made futuristic predictions. My favorite came from Oxman. She looked ahead 10 years, 100 years, and 1000 years to make three forecasts:
2020: Materials become the new software, meaning (I think, but she didn’t respond to my email asking for clarification) materials will be programmable, reconfigurable.
2110: Bio-inspired fabrication comes of age, inspiring things like emergency structures spun cocoon-like from silk after natural disasters.
3010: Think CAD-CAM DNA. Genetics enters the world of building and product design. Oxman imagines chairs and clothes that grow and modify their behavior according to what people are doing.
Hockenberry noted that Google had just reported $1 billion in mobile advertising revenue, and asked Schmidt if that marked “a tipping point” for the mobile space. Schmidt paused (stopping short of hemming and hawing), then said: “Anything that’s a billion dollars is good.”
At which point Hockenberry quipped: “Let me just write that down.”
From Hugh Herr, explaining why the people in the lab are so special. “They do not accept the world as it is. They demand change by building alternatives.”