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Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

Can the MIT Media Lab save itself?

The MIT Media Lab in Cambridge has come under fire for accepting money from the late Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted sex offender.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

I don’t want to see the MIT Media Lab crumble because of Jeffrey Epstein’s dirty money, or the bad judgment former director Joi Ito exhibited in taking it.

But how does the eclectic community of researchers, who since 1985 have been prototyping everything from prosthetic limbs to emotional support robots, move forward?

I’ve been dropping in on the Media Lab, or covering the companies that it spawns, since 1995. It’s a special place, primarily because of the professors and students it attracts — not the occasional presence of celebrities like musician Peter Gabriel, movie director J.J Abrams, or skateboarder Rod Mullen.

If you’ve ever used an Amazon Kindle, played the video game “Rock Band,” or taught a kid to program using the Scratch language, you’ve interacted with a technology that traces back to the Media Lab. What powers the machinery that led to these advances and others is an annual budget of about $75 million, much of it raised from corporate sponsors like Google, Honda, Nike, and Biogen.

So what does the Media Lab need to do to right itself, and chart a different course in the post-Ito era?


I reached out to 25 people who teach, taught, or studied at the lab — or who helped hatch companies based on ideas generated there. (A handful replied with some variant of “no comment.”)

“The most important thing for the lab to survive immediately is to help current sponsors feel that funding the lab is still a good decision,” writes Eric Scheirer, who earned two degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1990s, and later was a corporate sponsor of the lab while employed at Framingham-based Bose Corp.

“I must imagine that many of the companies are asking ‘What kind of place are we putting our money into?’ And that, in turn, feels precarious to me — I can imagine well a scenario in which lab funding basically collapses in a way that is not recoverable.”


Jason Pontin, a former CEO of the MIT Technology Review, a magazine run by the university, says the next leader of the Media Lab needs to be someone “who inspires trust, can generate a more generous and accountable mission for the lab, and who will manage and communicate as transparently as is reasonable.”

Ito, by the way, served on the board of Technology Review.

“I hope the next director will be a woman,” Pontin says; all of the lab’s four leaders since its founding have been men. Pontin is now a senior partner at Flagship Pioneering, a Cambridge venture capital firm.

“Probably the key change should be that if a donor is on a MIT university blacklist, the MIT Media Lab should be required to reject the donor as well,” writes Russ Wilcox, a Boston venture capitalist who worked with Media Lab researchers to create E Ink, the startup that developed new kinds of digital displays, including one used in many Amazon Kindle readers.

“The lab should also be required to reveal openly all sources of funding, and allow MIT administration to put the brakes on anyone they consider harmful by association.”

Wilcox adds that he does not think future Media Lab heads should be allowed to also run their own investment funds on the side — as Ito had apparently been doing, and promoting it to Media Lab donors — “because this poses a clear conflict of interest.”


But Wilcox says he is wary of reining in the lab so much that it destroys what made the place successful over more than three decades.

“Part of the genius of the lab,” he explains, “is that because it relies heavily on corporate contributions, this forces the academics to leave their ivory tower and to venture forth to see what the world wants,” and “it draws the top corporations regularly from across the world to Cambridge.”

Under Ito, “the fund-raising ethics of the Media Lab have failed to live up to the exemplary research that goes on there every day,” says Ben Waber, CEO of the Boston startup Humanyze and a visiting scientist at the lab. He hopes to see more openness from the next administration. “It can’t be OK for students to not know who’s visiting the lab or how the lab raises money,” Waber says. In recent years, he says, even getting an appointment with the lab director has been a high hurdle.

MIT has established a five-member committee to serve as transitional leadership at the lab and assist with the search for a new director. Pattie Maes, a longtime professor at the lab, chairs the committee. One key focus, she says, will be “how we vet the money coming in and make sure it matches our community values and morals.”

“This is an opportunity to make our values explicit and take them into greater practice,” says Maes, who oversees a research group that focuses on human-computer interaction.


“We need greater inclusion, greater transparency. The bedrock of the Media Lab is unchanged: rigorous, original, creative research, and people who go on to contribute their unique abilities in academia, industry, the social sector, and entrepreneurship.”

And, she adds, “we are a learning environment and expect to use this as a major opportunity to reflect, change, and act.”

But moving past the current mess “will require a kind of transparency that has never before been the case in the Media Lab,” says Cory Kidd, a San Francisco entrepreneur who earned two degrees at the lab. But that’s what is necessary for the lab to “prove itself to the rest of [MIT] and the broader world,” Kidd says.

The Media Lab’s “reputation was built up through the brilliance, passion, and work of hundreds of individuals — students and faculty — over decades,” says alumnus Roy Rodenstein, a Boston entrepreneur.

You can knock the Media Lab for plenty of things. It can be too focused on packaging its research so it resembles Apple-style product introductions, as a way to dazzle corporate sponsors. The culture can be arrogant. Projects can at times seem wacky — I remember a demo of expressive faces for self-driving cars, so human pedestrians could better predict what they might do next.

But since the early days of personal computing, it has always been adept at seeing around corners, and prototyping possible futures for the technologies that surround us. Increasingly, it’s exploring biotechnology, as well — like genetically engineering mice as a way to prevent the spread of Lyme disease.


That’s why I’m rooting for a rebound.

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