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MIT Media Lab chief apologizes for Epstein ties

Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s Media Lab, wrote an open letter on the Media Lab’s website apologizing for bringing Jeffrey Epstein into the center’s network.
Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s Media Lab, wrote an open letter on the Media Lab’s website apologizing for bringing Jeffrey Epstein into the center’s network.(Uma Sanghvi/Palm Beach Post via Associated Press/File 2008)
Joi Ito.
Joi Ito.(Getty Images for Burda Media/File 2009)

The head of a famed MIT research lab that developed robotic prosthetics to mimic the human gait and launched online news giant BuzzFeed, issued a public apology Thursday for taking donations from Jeffrey Epstein, the deceased financier who was accused of trafficking underaged girls.

Joi Ito, in an open letter on the MIT Media Lab’s website, acknowledged for the first time that he had several ties to Epstein. Ito said that he had traveled to Epstein’s homes and accepted money from him for both the research center and Ito’s own investments into tech startups.

“I take full responsibility for my error in judgment,” Ito wrote.

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Ito is the latest academic in recent weeks to try to distance himself from Epstein. Earlier this month, George Church, a renowned Harvard University biologist, apologized for having meetings and phone conversations with Epstein.

Epstein was found dead Saturday in his jail cell at a federal detention facility in Manhattan, where he was being held of charges of sex trafficking of minors.

“I want you to know that in all of my interactions with Epstein, I was never involved in, never heard him talk about, and never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that he was accused of,” Ito said in his statement.

Through an MIT spokeswoman, Ito declined to comment further on his relationship with Epstein.

The Media Lab revelation came with some irony: Last year, it bestowed its annual Disobedience Award to several women involved in the #MeToo movement, including BethAnn McLaughlin, the founder of the nonprofit MeTooSTEM, a group dedicated to stopping sexual harassment of women in science.

McLaughlin said Thursday she was disappointed that Ito and the Media Lab had taken money from Epstein despite his history, including a 2008 conviction as a sex offender.

“I think Jeffrey Epstein enjoyed surrounding himself with academics and academic men,” McLaughlin said. “He enticed them the same way that enticed everybody else . . . with money and opportunity.”

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Over the past decades, Epstein nurtured a reputation as a “science philanthropist” and gathered a coterie of biologists, mathematicians, physicists, and artificial intelligence researchers around him. He feted them on his private island and in his lavish homes and funded their research.

The scientists were among the most prominent people in their fields and many were professors at Harvard and MIT.

“If it’s a rich person [asking about their research], that’s cool,” Church said in a recent interview with STAT.

Ito is an expert on the ethics and governance of technology. He is a Japanese-born entrepreneur who points out that he dropped out of college twice, before he co-wrote a book, and became the head of the Media Lab in 2011 at the age of 44. Ito’s website is a mix of academia, business, and his personal passion, scuba diving.

In his statement, Ito said he met Epstein in 2013 through a trusted business friend.

At that time, Epstein had already been convicted of soliciting a minor for prostitution.

Ito said he invited Epstein to visit the Media Lab, and he traveled to several of Epstein’s homes.

Epstein gave money to the Media Lab through his foundations. The financier also invested in several of Ito’s investments outside of MIT, Ito said in the statement.

While Ito said he owed it to the MIT community to disclose the connections, he did not specify how much money Epstein gave the Media Lab or how much he gave to Ito’s private investment funds.

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In his conflict of interest disclosure statement for MIT, Ito lists his involvement as a general partner or adviser in four investment funds. He also holds shares or has a partnership interest in 30 companies, according to the disclosure.

Among the meetings that Ito had with Epstein was a dinner on Harvard’s campus in November 2014, according to NBC News. Ito attended the meeting with Church, another Harvard professor, and Reid Hoffman, the cofounder of the business social-network site LinkedIn and a Media Lab donor.

While Epstein cultivated a persona as “Harvard man” and gave millions of dollars to the university, he also built ties further down the Charles River at MIT. Epstein’s nonprofit Gratitude America gave MIT $150,000 in 2017. A few years earlier, another Epstein foundation donated $50,000 to MIT.

It’s unclear if any of those funds went to Ito’s Media Lab.

At least one of his alleged ties to MIT is far darker. In court documents released earlier this month, Virginia Roberts Giuffre claimed that when she was a teenager Epstein directed her to provide sexual services for the late MIT professor Marvin Minsky. Minsky, who died in 2016, is consider a pioneer in artificial intelligence.

In his apology, Ito said that he will raise the equivalent to what Epstein gave the Media Lab and donate it to nonprofits that work with survivors of trafficking. He will also return the money Epstein invested in his funds, Ito said.

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McLaughlin, the MeTooSTEM founder, said she supports Ito’s decision to give the money back and efforts by the Media Lab to address the harm that comes to the victims in these cases.

“There are a lot of people in tech that need to be doing what Joi is doing and giving money back,” McLaughlin said.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.