The Bank of America Deal: MIT Media Lab Opens Doors to More Sponsor Involvement in Research Direction
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all the wonderful creative work we have here and problems they have. The balance is between working more closely with our sponsors and understanding their problems, while continuing to generate the wild and crazy new ideas that they’ve joined us for.”
The Center for Future Banking will attempt to strike that balance, according to Moss and Roy. It will do that by engaging to some extent in varieties of “directed research” that Media Lab scientists managed to sidestep for many years.
“The Media Lab has an open IP policy, the key behind it being that sponsors have non-exclusive access to the IP,” says Roy. “That sets it apart from pretty much every other [industry-funded] lab out there. But there is no conflict between open IP and directed research.” Roy says faculty and students working through the center will study many questions that are critical to the future evolution of banks, such as changing expectations about the privacy and security of personal information, the social and behavioral implications of a cashless economy, and how to help people use information technology to take greater control over their finances.
In general, Roy says, the center’s work will fall into two categories: rethinking the banking experience and understanding and leveraging insights into consumers’ banking behavior. Mitchell and fellow Media Lab professors Joe Paradiso, Rosalind Picard, and Pattie Maes will focus on the first topic, while Ariely and faculty members Alex (Sandy) Pentland, Andrew Lippman, and David Reed will look at the second. All of these researchers will also continue to study topics that have nothing to do with banking, Roy emphasizes. “There are a lot of areas that the bank cares about that fall outside of what I would generally characterize as banking experience and behavior, and of course there are many things going on at the Media Lab that fall outside that as well,” Roy says. “But we looked carefully at the intersection and at whether there is enough energy and excitement here [about those questions] to justify this level of commitment, and the answer came out to be clearly yes.”
Moss, in describing the new arrangement, is careful to emphasize that the Media Lab isn’t selling out. “It is partly [going to be] directed research—but you’ve got to be careful to distinguish ‘directed’ from ‘secret,'” he says. “We are not going back on our openness. But it is partly collaboratively directed by the bank. There will be certain structures we have to allow the bank to have a voice in what kinds of problems we look at. But the faculty will maintain 100 percent authority over what kinds of students they bring and what kinds of research they are publishing.”
Indeed, if Moss’s words are any indication, the Media Lab has weighed in excruciating detail the question of how much influence its supporters should have over its research agenda. And given the difficulties this question has caused for other prominent local research organizations, such as Cambridge’s Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratory, such caution is understandable.
“My feeling has been that you’ve got to be able to maintain the openness and the creativity of the research in any strategy that you undertake,” Moss says. “If I began to accept more money that was more directed, and we were just answering [sponsors’] questions, then it wouldn’t be the Media Lab anymore.”
At the same time, he says, “This is an update” of the traditional funding model at the Media Lab. “It’s hybrid between [doing] some directed research and some completely open research. But it’s one that falls entirely within the concept of the Media Lab as it’s been here for the last 25 years.”
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