The MIT Media Lab is all over the news for all the wrong reasons.
Instead of its cutting-edge ideas drawing attention, a seedy financial relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein is raising doubts about whether one of the world’s most iconoclastic academic research units can survive.
Can the lab thrive without director Joi Ito, who was a prolific fund-raiser, consummate networker, and master of high-tech hype? In the wake of the scandal, the lab’s corporate partners, which fund the majority of its $75-million-plus budget, will no doubt take a closer look at just how much value they are getting for their annual membership of $250,000. Will they re-up?
And beyond the lab, will fallout from an external investigation into the Epstein episode cost others at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology their jobs, perhaps even president L. Rafael Reif, who initiated the probe?
On Thursday, Reif disclosed preliminary findings of the investigation that showed that in 2012, early in his tenure as president, he signed a letter thanking Epstein for a donation to MIT professor Seth Lloyd, though Reif said he doesn’t recall doing so.
More damning: Senior members of his administration knew about Epstein’s donations to the Media Lab, which totaled $525,000, and decided to keep them anonymous.
“Because the members of my team involved believed it was important that Epstein not use gifts to MIT for publicity or to enhance his own reputation, they asked Joi to agree to make clear to Epstein that he could not put his name on them publicly,” Reif said.
Think about this for a minute: Senior management feared Epstein was essentially paying MIT to launder his reputation. They could have said no to the tainted money, but that would have angered Ito, their star tech evangelist. Instead, they covered up the source of the funds.
MIT will pay the price for this spineless decision, starting with the damage to its reputation.
But also on the line is the work and study being done at the Media Lab by almost 500 faculty, researchers, graduate students, administrators, and support staff.
While there is much more to MIT than the Media Lab, and while there is skepticism about the real-world practicality of some of its discoveries, Ito’s operation had been a valuable jewel in the region’s chest of higher-education treasures.
The Media Lab was born in 1985, just as the personal computer revolution was gaining momentum and before most of us had heard of the Internet.
“The original vision paralleled its name,” said Nicholas Negroponte, who founded the lab with Jerome Wiesner, a former MIT president, and served as its director for 15 years. “We were a place to invent and creatively use new media.”
Negroponte and Wiesner, who died in 1994, believed the worlds of computing, publishing, and broadcasting were coming together, and early work included “image technology for movies on demand; new approaches to data compression; and Csound, one of the most widely used software synthesis systems,” according to its website.
“Over time, that has morphed more generally to a place for contrarian thinking, new science and idiosyncratic engineering,” Negroponte wrote me in an e-mail.
E-ink (the paper-like display on the Kindle), wearable devices such as Google Glass, and GPS for cars are among the products whose roots reach back to the Media Lab. Today, more than two dozen groups are conducting research into areas such as affective computing (machines being able to recognize human emotions); media ecosystems, civic participation, and digital inclusion; and personal robots.
There are a few things that set Negroponte and Wiesner’s creation apart from other research units at MIT and elsewhere.
First, it was set up with a dual mission of research and teaching. The Media Lab admits graduate students (currently 189), hires faculty, and awards a degree (Media Arts and Sciences). It has 30 faculty and senior researchers, and more than 175 postdoctoral and staff researchers, visiting scientists, and lecturers.
At the same time, the Media Lab is dependent on about 80 outside “lab members,” mostly big corporations. Among the Massachusetts companies on the roster are Biogen, Dell EMC, Fidelity Investments, and General Electric.
According to MIT, Media Lab technology will often be tested and refined in collaboration with members, who also get “access to all of the research conducted at the Lab, Lab-wide visiting privileges, invitations to semi-annual member-only events, and full intellectual property rights.” A higher level of membership allows companies to have an employee-in-residence at the lab.
Virtually all research universities court government and businesses for grants and contracts, but the Media Lab operates more like a research-for-hire boutique where its partners can outsource work. It has spawned scores of startup companies. That close corporate collaboration seems at odds with a contrarian culture the Media Lab takes such pride in.
“The kind of scholars we are looking for at the Media Lab are people who don’t fit in any existing discipline either because they are between — or simply beyond — disciplines,” Ito wrote in a 2014 blog post. “We are the home of the misfits — the antidisciplinarians.”
This is probably not the kind of misfit behavior respectable companies thought they were underwriting. I reached out to four of the most prominent Massachusetts companies that work with the lab. Biogen, the Cambridge-based biotech giant, declined to comment.
Dell EMC said it supported Reif’s decision to launch an investigation and his vow to “improve our policies, processes and procedures to fully reflect MIT’s values and prevent such mistakes in the future.” The Hopkinton maker of data storage equipment said it also sponsors the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.
Fidelity said it is “closely monitoring” the situation. The Boston-based financial services company has worked with the Media Lab for several years through the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology on areas such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality.
Boston-based GE suspended its partnership in June 2018, part of a company-wide cost-cutting initiative.
Ito, who took over the lab in 2011, apologized last month for taking Epstein’s money. He accepted the money after a controversial 2008 deal in which Epstein pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution, including from a minor, served a 13-month sentence during which he was allowed to leave jail during the day for work, and was required to register as a sex offender. Epstein committed suicide in jail last month after being arrested on new sex trafficking charges.
Ito continued in his job until Saturday, when he resigned after The New Yorker reported that he and others at MIT tried to cover up the ties to Epstein.
Even now, there are many questions Reif has not answered, including:
Who did Ito report to at MIT central administration?
What is the Media Lab’s approval process for accepting money from outside parties? Does it differ from how MIT overall vets donations?
Did Ito receive $1.2 million from Epstein for investment funds Ito managed, as reported by some media outlets? Did MIT approve the investments?
Was Epstein a go-between for a $5.5 million contribution to the lab from private equity investor Leon Black and $2 million from Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates? Gates denies Epstein played a role in that donation. Black has not commented.
The sooner MIT answers these questions, the sooner we may know if the Media Lab can survive.