Newton, MA—When Nicholas Negroponte co-founded the MIT Media Lab in 1978, he envisioned an overlap between the three areas of print and publishing, TV and broadcast, and computing. Two decades ago they barely converged, but he predicted they would soon nest snugly within each other.
The Media Lab's anthropomorphic robot, Kismit, has a user interface molded on the human head.
Today, the famous think tank (www.media.mit.edu) has 300 people divided into 30 research groups, all bumping into each other in the halls, and sharing perhaps the most complex water-cooler gossip in the country. "It's a place where we engage in dialogue," said Walter Bender, the lab's executive director, in a June address to the American Society of Business Publication Editors.
The Internet has since achieved much of Negroponte's vision, and in response to this changing world, the lab is now changing its structure. Bender calls the new departments "seven horses we're betting on:" atoms as bits; identity; connectedness; embodied presence; intelligent channels; consumer as inventor; and community computing.
Atoms as bits. A new type of electronic ink could create displays as cheap and ubiquitous as paper, Bender says. The latest research has produced microcapsules that flip over with an electric charge, so they can form any image, then repeatedly change.
In another part of this department, a researcher has created atom-sized antennas that respond to 802.11-spec RF signals, then command proteins to express themselves. When refined, this could allow doctors to use the Internet to command a diabetic patient's body to create more insulin.
Identity. Today only living things know who they are, but Bender envisions a time when every single thing will be tagged with a sense of its identity. But the enormous amount of organization "behind the scenes" will require that cost is driven down before it can be applied to society at large.
Connectedness. This aspect is crucial to give identity (see above) any meaning. As a first step, the Media Lab has recently opened branches in Ireland and India, with future openings in Korea, Japan, and Mexico.
Embodied presence. The human-machine interface is in its infancy. This group strives to embody a sense of behavior and intent into machines, such as Kismet.
Intelligent channels. Media Lab staff are searching for ways to create a richer interaction between people and the content they consume. Stereo knobs are restrictive, for instance, because they limit the interaction to binary choices like on/off or loud/quiet, as opposed to karaoke-style interaction.
Consumer as inventor. Consumers today don't produce. But they have the potential; an exciting goal because it's only through doing and inventing that we learn, Bender says.
Community computing. How does technology affect the physical, not just the virtual, community? Near the Media Lab's office, the local government had given up on educating a very poor village. But it turned out that the villagers already had an extraordinary understanding of advanced technology, since they used the engines on their motor scooters to do their chores and tasks, doing all necessary mechanics by hand. Technology was a part of their basic knowledge structure, more embedded than any schoolroom class.