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Innovation economy

After reflecting on the past, MIT’s Media Lab is back to the future

New director Dava Newman would rather talk about values and change than Jeffrey Epstein.

The Media Lab building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
The Media Lab building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Inside the MIT Media Lab building, a fire alarm is bleating. Outside, about a dozen people who were already at work before 9 a.m. on a chilly fall Monday are clustered on the steps, chatting collegially.

After the group has been waved in once and then ejected again moments later, a woman in a bright red blazer steps forward to have a word with one of the facilities managers.

It’s Dava Newman, the lab’s director. The fire department is nowhere in sight. The alarm seems to have been inadvertently set off by construction workers in the building. The timing is not great ― Newman is scheduled to host a Media Lab event later in the morning with Governor Charlie Baker and Rafael Reif, president of MIT.

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In her short talk with the facilities staffer, Newman makes it clear she does not want her Monday derailed. A moment later, everyone is scurrying back into the building.

Dava Newman models the BioSuit she designed with students at MIT.
Dava Newman models the BioSuit she designed with students at MIT.Dougas Sonders

Newman — her first name is pronounced day-vuh — took over as director in July, after a tumultuous two-year period in which it became clear that the lab’s previous head, Joi Ito, had maintained close ties with the late sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein, as a donor and an investor in startup investment vehicles that Ito managed. (Ito resigned in September 2019, after he was defended by the lab’s founder.) Newman is the first woman to lead the lab in its 36-year history. The former NASA deputy administrator’s objective is clear: to rocket past the Epstein controversy as quickly as possible and get the lab back to the day-to-day drudgery of prototyping the future, using cutting-edge technologies.

More than many other parts of MIT, the Media Lab has spawned products — and entrepreneurs who have created products — that you’ve likely heard of. If your child has learned the Scratch programming language, if you’ve owned a Lego Mindstorms programmable robot, if you’ve read books on an e-reader such as Amazon’s Kindle, if you’ve played the video games “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band,” all those things trace their roots to the lab. And when companies like Google or Samsung need smart designers and engineers to build a next-generation product, their first step is often to assemble a team of Media Lab alumni.

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But over three-and-half decades, the Media Lab has also outgrown its name. Much of the research happening there doesn’t have anything to do with media. The place has evolved into an interdisciplinary cauldron where researchers work with living organisms, build self-driving bicycles that can return to a parking dock on their own when you’re done riding them, and design advanced prosthetic limbs. That last research group received a $24 million donation in September to help it build limbs that might deliver a sense of touch to the brain.

A central part of the director’s role is to ensure that the funding keeps flowing. Much of the lab’s work is supported by corporations that pay an annual membership fee to attend events at the lab and get a non-exclusive license to the research done there. That list currently includes companies such as Ford, L’Oreal, Walmart, and PTC, a Boston-based software company.

“Our mission is still incredible and far reaching — our vision is to change the world, literally,” Newman says. “So we’ll be working with everyone who shares our values and talking to new potential folks who want to work with us.” She deftly avoided a question about whether that has required patching up relationships with sponsors that may have been distressed or disappointed by the lab’s connections to Epstein.

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But a list of corporate members from October 2018 included more than 85 companies, and the lab’s website today lists just 41. Among the local companies no longer listed are Biogen, Bose Corp., Fidelity Investments, and General Electric. Lab spokeswoman Alexandra Kahn explained via e-mail that “the number of member organizations has always ebbed and flowed for a variety of reasons, such as the general economy in the U.S., international markets, and certainly this pandemic. As the world returns to normalcy, we can anticipate the return of some of our members.”

The Media Lab is usually pretty good at self-promotion — founding director Nicholas Negroponte was a long-time columnist for Wired Magazine, and Stewart Brand wrote a book about the lab in 1987 — but in the period between Ito’s resignation and Newman’s July start date, it seemed content to maintain a lower profile about some things. A “Director’s Fellows” program that Ito had started in 2013, which attracted lesser-known researchers from around the world along with celebrities that included movie director JJ Abrams and CNN host Van Jones, was shut down. Neri Oxman, a researcher whose group within the Media Lab had received $125,000 from Epstein, which she subsequently said she regretted accepting, has left. She has announced she will open her own research and design lab in New York. Her group at the Media Lab, which focused on designs inspired by nature, has been disbanded.

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In the interregnum between Ito’s directorship and Newman’s, MIT released a detailed 61-page report on the $850,000 in total donations Epstein made to the university and the decisionmaking process that led to accepting it. Several Media Lab working groups, Newman says, focused on “culture, climate, and governance” at the lab.

Even though a 2019 Media Lab press release promised “a future of greater inclusion and transparency,” nothing was released publicly about the work of those committees. Kahn says “the executive committee provided regular communication and updates to the Media Lab community, but it was not posted publicly.”

In September, the lab hired a new head of human resources, Cesar Mieses, from Harvard University. “You’re going to hear us talking a lot about what the Lab is becoming, and excellence,” Newman says. “And the only way to reach excellence that I know about is infinite diversity and infinite combinations.” (That quote, she adds, is from “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry.)

Newman is hardly a newcomer to MIT: she earned her doctorate in aerospace biomedical engineering at the school in 1992 and joined the faculty in 1993. In addition to overseeing the Media Lab, she still teaches an MIT course on aerospace biomedical engineering, and is working on a book about the field of “bioastronautics,” which examines the effects of space travel — and living on other planets — and seeks to develop technologies that enable humans to do it more safely.

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In 2019, many of the Media Lab’s alumni worried about whether the lab would be able to emerge from the cloud that Ito’s tenure created, highlighting the importance of greater openness about where its financial support was coming from and increased access to the director.

“Joi and Dava are very different,” says Ben Waber, an entrepreneur and visiting scientist at the Media Lab. Unlike Ito, who never earned a bachelor’s degree, Newman has a deep background in research. “There has been this tremendous excitement internally about her coming on,” he says.

“I’m sure some people feel that more investigation and self-reflection are warranted, and some feel the process was enough,” says Roy Rodenstein, an entrepreneur who earned his master’s degree at the lab. “The important thing is to have an absolute zero-tolerance approach going forward for anything on even one one-hundredth the level of what was tolerated before, and that’s largely a culture issue that’s up to faculty and students to keep focused on.”

“I do believe this is a new chapter for the lab, building on the many strengths of that place,” said Rana el Kaliouby, chief executive of Affectiva, a Boston startup that was created to commercialize Media Lab research, adding that she is “excited to see what the future holds.”

After our interview in her office concluded, Newman was set to prep for the event with Baker and MIT’s president. The Media Lab was to announce a new educational initiative, Day of AI, which would create hands-on activities for students in grades K-12 to help them understand the fundamentals of artificial intelligence — and how it may affect their lives. The curriculum includes learning about “deepfake” videos and biased algorithms.

The Day of AI is scheduled for May. And next spring, COVID permitting, the Media Lab also will welcome back its corporate sponsors to the building for several days of demos and discussions. By then, the lab may have turned the page, be fully occupied, and definitively into the Newman era.

“If Dava can get everyone looking to the future, it’s a good thing,” said Rob Poor, who earned his doctorate at the lab, “because looking toward the future and saying ‘what if...’ is at the heart of what the Media Lab does best.”


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.