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Leadership Transition Announced for MIT Media Lab (mit.edu)
78 points by infodocket 10 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments





I'm a Media Lab alum, sort of. There may be a master's degree with my name on it, but as I see it I basically flunked out. So I used to look back on it with bittersweet feelings of what I wasn't good enough to achieve.

Now, though, after seeing what was really going on there... 30+ years of rigged demos, high-profile failures like OLPC, and maybe one or two useful inventions among the years of pointless impractical stuff that "looks cool", all funded by the largess of child molesters. Forget about a "leadership transition", the lab is unsalvageable. Burn it to the ground and salt the earth.

Now, what to do with the two-year gap on my resume...


> There may be a master's degree with my name on it, but as I see it I basically flunked out.

You know what they call someone that graduated medical school with a 2.0 GPA? Doctor

When it comes to something like certification or education, no one cares about your standards. MIT set the bar, and you pasted it. It might be below your standards, but no one cares.


When someone tells you about their accomplishment and then denigrates it just move on. Adults eventually learn to interpret these games just as when someone says they “went to college in Boston” you know they went to Harvard. The grandparent may have internalized the Ph.D. disdain for Master’s degrees or they may be saying “I have a Master’s from MIT.”

> when someone says they “went to college in Boston” you know they went to Harvard

People say this because they have learned that when they answer “I went to Harvard” they get instantly treated differently by many people they have tried talking to, and it’s annoying.


It's not clear that the Media Lab is still needed. It was once leading edge, back when graphics technology was exotic and expensive, and the field was small. But now everybody has that technology. NVidia, the game companies, Hollywood, and the VR industry pour billions into the field. The Media Lab is now a small player in a big field.

Here's their current list of projects.[1] Some of the less useful ones:

"Tasting Menu in Zero G"

"Sculpting in zero gravity"

"Discreet Teeth Gestures for Mobile Device Interaction"

"Blockchained Agent-based Simulator for Cities"

It looks like they're pivoting from media to - something.

[1] https://www.media.mit.edu/search/?filter=project


> "Tasting Menu in Zero G"

Meh. The Media Lab is (or was) doing some of the best work in the field in food and flavor science. Arielle Johnson [1] in particular is known for her work and expertise on flavor and fermentation, and she went on to lead R&D at Noma's science bunker [2] and now has her own lab in East Village [3]. She's probably has had an outsized impact on the food world in the last decade or so on stuff like fermentation, which is gradually making its way beyond just fine dining and is something that I'm particularly excited about.

[1] https://www.ariellejohnson.com

[2] https://www.eater.com/2018/3/9/17100494/rip-noma-science-bun...

[3] https://www.ediblemanhattan.com/magazine/summer-2019-issue-n...


Impressive, but I wouldn't call this one of "the best work in the field in food and flavor science". More like impressive performance art / tinkering, still great though.

That’s not their current list of projects, but a tiny subset you picked. I don’t disagree that many of the projects are silly or unworkable (and some listed there are just class projects of a couple weeks’ work), but it’s reflective of the Lab’s proximity to startup philosophy compared to harder science labs — crazier ideas, odds, and rewards.

It’s also true that the Media Lab’s advantages aren’t the same as they were before multiple tech industry booms, but they retain a fairly unique position where disciplines interact with corporate resources, and without a direct corporate motive. That’s where my favorite of the Lab’s output came from — Lifelong Kindergarten, Computing Culture, Center for Civic Media, Center for Bits and Atoms, Biomechatronics, etc. Hopefully the next director has the vision to focus it in directions where neither big tech nor startups aren’t going.

Disclaimer: Media Lab alum.


There were some high profile failures but some things were pretty impressive, including Hugh Herr's bionic limbs, LEGO Mindstorms, the ideas in Sixth Sense, Ike Chuang and Neil Gershenfeld's quantum computing work.

Even OLPC was an extremely noble goal, and they did likely inspire others to create low-cost PCs including netbooks and Chromebooks.

The Media Lab isn't intended to be a profitable business. Success of a Media Lab project isn't defined by its "products" getting a million users and a hockey stick curve. Success of a Media Lab project means that it is successful in demoing something that eventually does become our future.


Steve Benton's Spatial Imaging Group and its student diaspora had a huge influence on the holography and 3D display world. We developed full color reflection holography, the first holographic video system, and the first image predistortion algorithms for light fields. Our 1 meter sq hologram was at the time the world's largest computer generated 3D display. Unfortunately, Steve died pre-Google, and his contributions are not fully recognized.

I was at the lab a long time ago (from its opening in 1985 until 1997). What made it unique at the time was breaking down the barriers between computation, technology, creative arts, and popular culture in a way that seems so natural now. On a campus where hundreds of other PhD students seemed to be working on amazing research on very detailed topics, we were building pieces of the future and demoing them daily to industry and lay people alike. That wasn't considered hard science at a place like MIT, but the ultimate impact on society was huge.

One other area of huge but unsung impact was speech technology. Chris Schmandt's Speech Research Group group envisioned and developed audio assistants that paved the way for Siri and Alexa. His students and research have also helped shape an entire field.

As for current controversies, well after my time. The big deal about funding back at the beginning of the Media Lab was taking corporate money vs government/defense money (90% corporate for the ML vs 90% government for the rest of MIT).


Maybe you ought to give yourself credit for being smart enough to get in, and for having enough good in you to realize its not a place to invest your best energy.

As for your gap, perhaps call it your "2 year research project on magical thinking in an engineering setting" ...?


The Media Lab is the buzzfeed of research institutions, it's not like they do no solid work but mostly they're peddlers of clickbaity spectacles.

Sure they've produced some cool projects here and there - but they've also shown research labs around the world that chasing empty hype is more lucrative than doing real research, which I think have had a quite insidious, damaging effect on academic institutions.


Not sure if this was intentional but the cofounder of Buzzfeed came from the Media Lab.

From half a world away OLPC was a very nice concept. I have no idea about its implementation (probably it had its fair share of failures) but it also had both Intel and Microsoft actively working against it. Back then those two companies were a lot more powerful and resourceful compared to now (Intel has gone down a bit in the meantime), so that mattered.

> From half a world away OLPC was a very nice concept

That's kind of the point, isn't it? Once you got up close and personal with the thing, you saw the issues... The netbook-class computers were much better designed, overall.


If you generalize a bit it all makes perfect sense.

>30+ years of <pretending to actually be doing useful things>, high-profile failures, and maybe one or two useful <things> among the years of pointless impractical <wastes of time and money> "looks cool", all funded by <shady people of at best questionable morals>.

The above generalized form describes basically every "esteemed" public and quasi-public-nonprofit institution (higher education falling in the latter category here) in the greater Boston area (I'm sure there's a short list of exceptions but I can't think of any right now). This is a culture problem, not a problem with a particular institution.

Look at history. Cultural problems do not go away overnight and they certainly do not go away just by swapping out what's basically a department head. You have to slowly build the expectation that people will not do whatever the problem thing is. Unfortunately, the people of MA mostly just expect that the upper class (social class in this context) is a (ethically) dirty bunch and scandals like this are met with a shrug and a fatalistic "well what are you gonna do" by the general population. People in places of power doing highly unethical things (like accepting Epstein's money) is simply not a problem that society in MA cares much about or even feels it can solve (at present).

FYI I'm only speaking for the greater Boston area because that's what I know. I have no idea how they do things in Chicago or Moscow (but I like to think I could take a good guess).


I briefly joined an industry R&D team that was producing smoke-and-mirror demos. The ideas were good, but nothing really worked.

One day I noticed all of the team’s demos had been done already by an MIT professor. I guess that’s where they’d got the inspiration. I figured the professor’s demos were at least real.

Now I’m not so sure. As far as I know, none of the work has made it out of the professor’s lab.

Maybe it will, but this whole incident has aroused suspicion.


Where can I read on the rigged demos?

"My point, however, is more mundane: we have created a demo literally from smoke and mirrors, and the Corporate World bought it." -Hunter S Negroponte

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20905450



Thanks for sharing this.

""It's essentially a grow box with some sensors for collecting data," Cerqueira, a dietitian who worked as a project manager at the Open Agriculture Initiative for two years [...] The boxes were not air-tight, so staff couldn't control variables like the levels of carbon dioxide and even basic environmental factors like temperature and humidity, Cerqueira and the other person said. "

Looking at https://www.media.mit.edu/groups/open-agriculture-openag/pro... it looks like the food computer project was just one among several, though it might've been the more prioritized 'audacious goal' among them considering it's prominence on the main open ag site: https://www.media.mit.edu/groups/open-agriculture-openag/

The last paper I saw (2018-10-20) ( https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-030-02683-... ) on food computer version 2 is more about the building process of it, not so much on results yet. https://wiki.openag.media.mit.edu/faq discusses the version differences.

Finally, Caleb comments on the BI article here: https://forum.openag.media.mit.edu/t/can-we-get-a-comment/51...

(sidebar: the food computer thing weirdly reminds me of reddit.com/r/spacebuckets )


The thing is, they didn't need to have a whistleblower to find out that the boxes couldn't control variables like the levels of carbon dioxide - they just had to read the latest paper published using them: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal... Apparently that level of control is planned for their currently-in-development larger scale facility. Also, I don't think the quotes about controlling those things even apply to the Personal Food Computer specifically - after reading the linked articles they're either forward-looking claims about the whole research that predate the PFC, or specifically refer to to the larger-scale equipment.

On top of that, the headline claim that the "personal food computer" "simply doesn't work" seems to be outright untrue. I had a look and the designs seem to be pretty widely replicated and tested - everything from an MIT-supplied version of the latest design in a New York museum operated by unaffiliated volunteers to a homebrew version of an old foam-based design built from scratch by a Baltimore school using material from Lowes. Some versions do seem to be a little temperamental on the electronics side, to the point members of the team have advised people not to built v2 on the forum, but they do work and grow things. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the photoshoots and static displays were faked, though; turnaround time for a real grow is at least a month.


Yeah, while I'm still trying to wrap my head around whether it's an effective solution, I'm not suggesting it doesn't work. It looks like some OSU students in Bend are have had success with it : https://twitter.com/ATBF_NPO https://www.aroundthebendfarms.org

Rigged demos are everywhere. I raised a few million in VC with a rigged demo and then after the investor was on my board was really wrestling with how to tell them and readjust their expectations. Halfway into my first sentence they said “I know they’re all like that. How much of it was fake?” And then we moved on from there.

And what part is rigged? In the case of this food printer, sure I suppose it should be able to actually do what it claims is its breakthrough. But if I make a prototype of, say, a wallet that gives you haptic feedback to reflect your money moving digitally, is it rigged if it’s not currently in a manufacturable form, tethered to the lab somehow? No, because it was designed to 1) demonstrate a new user interface, and 2) spark conversation about the effects of dematerializing currency.

Sometimes missed in talk of what research deserves to be funded, is that a valuable function of the Media Lab is to conduct the flow of ideas from science fiction to reality. And the projects fall all along that spectrum.


That's a rather slippery slope...

While I do agree that producing thought-provoking technical demos has some (perhaps considerable) merit, the Media Lab still presents themselves as a research institute, not some creative agency making conceptual mockups/videos.

When something comes out of the Media Lab (or any other MIT-affiliated organization) the expectation will be that even if the ideas may not be workable immediately, the biggest technical/scientific hurdles have been overcome, i.e., they're not pure science fiction. MIT has built up reputation and goodwill so the public gives them benefit of the doubt.

Presenting half-baked, unworkable demos as research is to take advantage of (and exhaust) that goodwill, painstakingly cultivated over decades by the entire MIT community.


“all funded by the largess of child molesters.”

I thought it was mainly funded by corporations?


don't be so obtuse.

You can always put MIT onto your resume without mentioning Media Lab. Anyway, Media Lab was (is?) the coolest part of MIT; pity they messed up badly by taking funding from Jeffrey.

Back in the days of the OLPC, the Fake Steve Jobs blog used to have some vicious takedowns of the MIT Media Lab, and how it's not really part of MIT or held to the same standards.

In my day, the rest of MIT called it the Remedial Lab

Why a gap? If you did good work there and weren't aware of any wrongdoing what reason is there to strike it from your resume?

I did lousy work there.

You did honest work there, which is more than can be said for many people with the Media Lab on their résumé. Don't measure the caliber of your work by the standards of scammers.

It was lousy by my standards. But I'd rather not discuss myself any further, this thread isn't about me.

It’s actually a bit surprising as someone working in tech in SF how little I ever hear about the Media Lab. It just doesn’t seem like it’s something tech people here ever talk about, which maybe says something in of itself.

Do you work for a startup? Startups generally don't employ a lot of university-research tech. The people who are reading current academic papers and incorporating them into the company's products are more likely to work at big companies than small ones.

That statement surprises me. I have no experience of tech startup or big enterprise, and I would have expected large organizations to be more conservative. Granted, there may be a more research-oriented department in large orgs, but the boat is harder to sway.

From what I've heard, it takes a lot of work to translate something out of academia into a business-viable product, and working in an academic setting I can see why. The code that I write is designed to work, but not necessarily to be performant or robust. Small team sizes and specific goals don't make for something easily transferable.

I'm curious: how much do you hear about MIT research in general?

University research in general?



The first three names on that list are respected researchers and group heads who have been deeply involved in the day-to-day research of the lab, which includes mentoring/working with students and doctoral candidates, and dealing with lab sponsors.

Just shut the place down. The grants won't be coming in any more. Let's not pretend otherwise.

MIT CSAIL alum here, the Media lab wasn't exactly a bastion of fundamental, more known for whizz-bang demos and media interviews etc. I remember reading somewhere they were "all icing no cake" or the "MIT marketing agency".

I hope this crisis refocuses it on breakthrough research,where its talent and resources could be very well spent.


Some of that was typical inter-departmental rivalry, even jealousy. The Media Lab had the big parties, the popular press attention, the visits by pop stars and celebs. And it had its audacious claims and characters. But mostly it had the money pouring in from sources untapped by other departments that functioned in the post-WWII MIT model of government funding. Personally, I'm grateful for full funding as a graduate students and the highest stipends on campus.

But that's because the LCS and AI labs were doing different stuff from the Media Lab. They weren't comparable. Computation and networked devices were a tool towards something larger at the Media Lab. Yes, there were demos didn't work, or couldn't work. In Spatial Imaging, we couldn't fake physics, so we were somewhat immune. But with years of retrospect I look back fondly on some of those crazy "unworkable" ideas and see successful modern versions of them. Broadening one's vision is supposed to be part of academia; the Media Lab just approached it in a non-hardcore science MIT way.

I also think the Media Lab changed CSAIL (when LCS and AI merged) much more than vice versa. Start with the Geary-designed building but look at the type of research and approach to funding. There's plenty of research at CSAIL that would have fit right at home at the ML in its old days, precisely because it is aimed at technology closer to end users and aligned with corporate sponsors and interests. Maybe that's because the world has changed; it's hard to interpret cause and effect. But the Media Lab was clearly a part of that.

Disclaimer: left in 1997, not part of current controversy.


I agree, I hope more resources are spent at lower tier public institutions that also do important research.

And why it matters to us? I'm not being sarcastic, I'm really interested. What will this event affect?

I've heard about this lab. They really have great merit!

Amusing/sad how the announcement doesn't mention Joi Ito at all, even with a perfunctory "thanks for your service". Apparently taking a donation from an unperson is enough to make you an unperson as well these days.

You mean breaking institutional policy and covering it up doesn’t get you a gold watch and a laudatory press release?

The Media Lab does present a yearly Disobedience Prize, so...

Unrelated to MIT/Ito, your comment got me wondering whether there are any MBA-type case studies on how to foster a culture with the "right" amount of disobedience? Some amount of rules/processes are necessary but (in my little corner of the world at least) the most important skill is being able to gauge the risk/reward of bending or breaking them.

I wonder if "disobedience" is a learned skill and whether we should be putting in more effort to teach it.


Unsure if you will find anything on “disobedience”. To me it can be broken down to encouraging the following in the culture:

1. Diverse views 2. Confidence to speak 3. candor and honesty 4. agency

Having said that there needs to be a minimum amount of agreement on some values/principles/philosophy.

Without agreement on this you end up in chaos. What you want is to keep culture at the “edge of chaos” [0]. Also have a look at the adaptive cycle [1] and diversity in perspectives.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edge_of_chaos

[1] https://www.resalliance.org/adaptive-cycle


Perhaps "Managing in the Whitespace"[1], where whitespace is an answer to, "how can companies act entrepreneurial when they are programmed to operate in environments with strict policies, focused strategy, and clear authority?" It is supposed to stand in contrast to the black space where formal responsibilities, rules and processes have been inked out.

[1] https://hbr.org/2001/02/managing-in-the-whitespace


It's actually super easy to achieve in general: literally (and I genuinely mean literally) tens of thousands of primary schools manage it.

You need (a) the members of the culture to have a shared ethos that sees the work as a noble pursuit and work towards, (b) enough money to ensure the system has enough slack that people can take the initiative to do things like help each other without everything falling apart, but (c) not so much money flowing around that the ethos gets overwhelmed by self-interest.

The trouble is that at a few million dollars money becomes a motive with a universal adapter, and enough people will let ethics slide to score that trust and shared values become unreliable. So it's nearly impossible to achieve in a VC-backed startup setting.

If you really want academic research about how the mixture of altruism and self-interest affects the balance of rule-making and individual initiative, then IMO the best thing to read is the economist Julian le Grand's 2003 book _Motivation, Agency and Public Policy: Of Knights and Knaves, Pawns and Queens_.


I think people often point to the "Skunk Works" at Lockheed Martin that built the SR-71.

It's not how disobedient you are, it's who you're disobedient to.

Breaking policy, covering it up, and getting paid six digit amounts of money for it.

But no, this is obviously some kind of witch hunt. /s

Edit: six digit


Epstein paid Ito seven digits for his own personal investment fund, more than twice what he gave Media Lab.

Serious question: what does it mean that Epstein paid $1.2 million into Ito's personal investment fund? Is that an investment fund that Ito ran? Or did Ito get the money personally? I did some web searches a couple of days ago but couldn't find an explanation of this strange wording.

It means Ito's investment fund was his main gig, and Media Lab was only a side hustle.

Triple digit? Like, a hundred dollars?

What service is there to thank Joi for? What did he do in his time at the Media Lab?

This isn't about unpersons, this is about honesty.


"... whose goal is to stop taking hidden donations from child sex traffickers and murderous princes for reputation building"

nope, wait, didn't see that in the press release, taps still open boys.


That was in the previous announcements by MIT, their hiring of an independent law firm to investigate what happened and all previous potential grants, and upcoming changes to how donations work.

This is about leadership transition, not everything to date. Don’t over sensationalize.


The grants must flow.



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