PLAN 64: Article
The Media Laboratory: Augmenting Human Capabilites With Digital Technologies

Augmenting Human Capabilities with Digital Technologies

People are sometimes surprised to learn that the world-famous Media Laboratory is a part of MIT’s School of Architecture + Planning. What, they sometimes ask, does the Media Lab have to do with architecture and planning? Or with real estate and visual studies?

The answer–historically, at least–is that the Lab grew out of the work of MIT’s Architecture Machine Group, a laboratory/think tank established in 1968 in the Department of Architecture. Founded by Nicholas Negroponte, a graduate of the department and a faculty member since 1966, the group focused on the then-new field of computer-aided design and developed radically new approaches to the human-computer interface.

But the Lab’s connection to the rest of the school is more than simply historical. Philosophically, all the school’s divisions are committed to sustaining and enhancing the quality of the human environment at all scales, from the personal to the global. And the Media Lab is key to this effort, exploring how digital technology can enhance our lives at all levels – from enabling creative expression to redefining how we learn, to giving the world advanced devices for physical augmentation.

The early outlines of the Media Laboratory were formed in 1980 by Negroponte and Jerome Wiesner, formerly president of MIT and science advisor to President John F. Kennedy, who foresaw the convergence of computing, publishing and broadcast fueled by changes in the communications industry.

The Lab officially opened its doors five years later, in the Wiesner Building on MIT’s east campus, designed by alumnus I.M. Pei (BArch’40). Since then it has helped to create now-familiar areas such as multimedia and digital video. Through its blurring of the traditional boundaries between disciplines, and by nurturing relationships between academia and industry, the Lab has always been at the forefront of the new technologies that will soon become part of our daily lives.

Bringing experts together from the fields of cognition and learning, electronic music, graphic design, video and holography, as well as computation and human-machine interfaces, the Lab invented many of the technologies that fueled the digital revolution of the 1980s and ‘90s. Throughout the following decade, it helped bring the digital world into everyday life. And now, beginning its third decade, it is poised to focus on technologies that will improve the quality of life by enabling computers to relate to people on more ‘human’ terms.

The Lab is host to close to 50 faculty members, senior research staff and visiting scholars, and close to 70 others who support the Lab’s research, facilities and administration. It also engages in a range of collaborations within MIT in the form of joint academic appointments, teaching efforts and research programs.

Unlike other research laboratories at MIT, the Media Laboratory also serves as the home to a degree-granting program in Media Arts and Sciences, a pioneering effort that offers a doctoral program and a master’s program, and participates in MIT’s alternative freshman-year program. Graduate enrollment totals approximately 130, with approximately 80 master's and 50 doctoral students. An additional 15 graduate students, formally based in other departments, carry out their research at the Lab, and some 200 undergraduates work at the Laboratory each year through MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

True to the vision of its founders, the Lab’s research continues to focus on the invention and creative use of digital technologies, exploring such frontiers as wireless, "viral" communications; wearable computing; machines capable of common-sense reasoning; new forms of artistic expression; and how children learn. These themes outline a future where the bits of the digital realm interact seamlessly with the atoms of our physical world, and where our machines not only respond to our commands, but also understand our emotions.

More than 30 research groups are involved in over 300 projects. Much of this work is carried out through consortia and joint research programs funded largely by corporate sponsors, and is tested and refined in cooperation with sponsor organizations. The consortia and joint programs include:

Things That Think, the Lab’s largest consortium, whose researchers invent the future of digitally augmented objects and environments. More than 100 projects are currently under way ranging from the design of a car that senses when to eliminate driver distractions to the invention of ‘smart’ prostheses that mimic natural, human movement.

Digital Life , researching technologies and techniques that spur human expression as well as social and economic activity. Currently, the program has three broad directions:

  • Organic Networks, a re-examination of the physics of radio to construct viral communications systems that allow people to innovate both locally and organically, much as the PC migrated innovation from the mainframe to the individual
  • 10X, which considers technologies that can improve human activity by an order of magnitude, including bionics, robotic and cognitive assistants, and human learning

  • Common-Sense Computing, an attempt to reinvigorate artificial intelligence by developing a cognitive architecture that can support many features of ‘human intelligent thinking.’

    • SIMPLICITY, an experimental research program,focused on developing technologies for design – designs that are simpler to understand, easier to use and ultimately more enjoyable.

      The Consumer Electronics Laboratory, a place to explore ideas, to make things and to innovate in new directions for consumer products and services, initially focused on five areas – innovative materials and design/fabrication methods for them; new power technologies; new sensors, actuators and displays; ecosystems of smart devices; and cooperative wireless communications.

      The Communications Futures Program, a cross-cutting partnership between university and industry, defining the roadmap for communications and assessing its impact on adjacent industries. Industry partners include companies across the entire communications value chain, including end users.

      The Center for Bits and Atoms, a campus-wide program involving faculty from many departments, all working at the boundary between physical science and computer science; projects range from investigations of molecular mechanisms to digitize fabrication to theoretical studies of mathematical principles to program enormously complex systems.

      NEXT, a collaboration with Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute, exploring new approaches to increasing the innovative capacity of commercial, charitable and governmental entities of all sizes.

      The Lab also hosts two smaller special interest groups that deal with particular subject areas – Counter Intelligence is focused on developing a digitally connected, self-aware kitchen, and Gray Matters considers the impact of computation and communication on the lives of older persons.

      The Lab’s annual budget comes from a combination of corporate sponsors, government funders, nonprofit organizations and subcontracts with other universities. A focus on corporate support reflects the Laboratory's commitment to collaborative research that has possibilities for a wide range of applications, and to technology transfer that moves research results out of the Laboratory and into worldwide use.

      The Media Lab Facilities

      Designed by alumnus I.M. Pei, the Wiesner Building houses a gigabit fiber-optic plant that connects a network of computers ranging from fine-grained, embedded processors to mesh networks. Rapid prototyping resources include 3-D printing, injection molding and PC board fabrication. The building also houses audio and video studios and laboratories for DNA labeling, new sensors, microencapsulation, quantum computing and perceptual studies.

      A Sampling of Research Activities

      Biohybrid prosthetic limbs that will perform like biological ones—active knees and ankles controlled by an amputee’s own nervous system and powered by muscle-like devices so that they can generate the mechanical force needed to walk and climb without falls or fatigue.

      DishMaker, a variable molding machine that brings personal fabrication into your kitchen, allowing you to create and recycle your dishes on demand.

      Scratch, a new programming toolkit that makes it easier for kids to manipulate graphics, images and sounds to create animated stories, video games and interactive art.

      Trisk, a second-generation manipulator robot that uses spoken language, visual perception, and active touch to interact with humans and its environment.

      An autonomous interactive intermediary that brings human-like social intelligence to our telephone agents by sending out readable social cues, such as gaze and gesture, to communicate in a subtle and non-annoying ways.

      A wearable emotion-detecting device that can help people with autism relate to those around them–altering them when the people they’re talking to begin to show signs that they are confused or wandering off.

      LifeNet, a new, common-sense knowledge base that captures a first-person model of human experience in terms of a propositional, probabilistic representation.

      Pushpin Computing, a network of small, bottle-cap-sized mini processors, each with two thumbtack-like pins that connect to a power-supplying “bulletin board” to provide a real-world testbed for tomorrow’s extremely high-density sensor networks.

      Collaborative (viral) communication architectures that use bandwidth and energy far more efficiently than traditional point-to-point wireless technology.

      Smart architectural surfaces constructed with a metal framework into which users snap any number of “smart tiles,” each of which is equipped with a wireless computer, camera, speaker, microphone, and sensors. These tiles can talk to one another and act individually or in a unified fashion, creating an entire ecosystem of inexpensive and easily scalable devices.

      A computational model for expressive, anthropomorphic robots that enables a robot to demonstrate social referencing behavior similar to that of a human infant. This work is an important milestone toward social learning in robots.

      Topobo, an easy-to-assemble robotic construction kit that records and plays back physical motion. Just as children can learn about static structures by playing with blocks, they can learn about dynamic structures by playing with Topobo.

      City Car, a stackable, electric, two-passenger vehicle that offers the promise of redefining urban transportation.

      Hyperscore, a music composition tool that allows users to create original scores by drawing freehand on a digital screen.

      PLAN 64
      June 2006