MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito on the Future of Design, Learning & Science

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are the Future of Science, the Future of Design, and the Future of Learning. And they’re all related. I think the way that scientific research works is at risk. Because in various fields, researchers have shown that some of the most seminal research has never been replicated, and that you’re sort of biased towards getting funding and publishing new results, and not really for going back and checking the results that others have done. So there’s a lot of questioning happening just in our fundamental publication and discovery method.

Funding has been somewhat siloed and vertical and scattered. But the problems are becoming so complex that these larger labs, like George Church’s lab and Bob Langer’s lab, and Ed Boyden’s lab, where you have the engineer and the computer scientist and the robotics guy and the synthetic biologist and the material science guy all working together is very difficult to do when you have very small, very narrow labs. [Editor’s note: Church is at Harvard, Langer and Boyden at MIT. Boyden is the only one at the Media Lab itself, heading its Synthetic Neurobiology research group, which among other things studies the brain and cognition.]

It [the traditional, peer-review model] works for some things, and that’s great, but there are certain real low-hanging fruit opportunities. I think a lot of it is in the biomedical area, like the Center for Extreme Bionics, which, for us, is medicine and robotics and AI and tissue science, and all of these different sciences coming together to eliminate human disabilities.

X: And that’s a new thing you’re just setting up now, right?

JI: Yeah. We just are setting it up now, and it’s great because Bob Langer has joined–he’s an Institute Professor. But we’ve got people from across campus coming and helping us put these together. That sort of new approach to thinking about science and impact and deploying, that’s one thing that we’d like to do.

And it’s related to what I’m calling a new design—which is computational design, biological design, systems design. So when you think of design, traditionally you think of either illustration and art, or industrial design. But there’s this whole new kind of design that involves data science, biology, and systems, which is a lot more complex and a lot more mathematical and a lot more biology-oriented. And that design principle is what allows people like an Ed Boyden to say, ‘Okay, I want to fix the brain, let me get all these different pieces even though they’re not part of a typical neural science or biology lab.’

Ed Boyden leads the MIT Media Lab’s Synthetic Neurobiology research group. (Image: Joi via Flickr, Creative Commons)

Ed Boyden leads the MIT Media Lab’s Synthetic Neurobiology research group. (Image: Joi via Flickr, Creative Commons)

That approach to science as a designer is something that we’re fairly well suited for. We’ve grown that DNA from when Nicholas and Jerry Wiesner [former MIT president Wiesner and Nicholas Negroponte were the Media Lab’s founders] were here, this idea of being anti-disciplinary. It started with multimedia, and then it moves towards networks, which brings a complexity element into it. And today with the biology, it suddenly takes the network stuff and ties it into this really interesting space of synthetic biology and biomedical stuff.

The learning piece is also really important. In a funny way, since MIT does not have a department of education, we don’t have that bias towards institutional education as much as schools that might. Mitch Resnick [head of the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group] always talks about the four Ps—which is Projects, Peers, Passion, and Play—being the four elements of creative learning.

Since the Industrial Revolution we’ve been training human beings to behave like robots and computers: reliable, punctual, not creative, answer-producing. I think that human beings actually are unreliable and messy and creative and funny and sloppy. I think that creative learning is key to us regaining what we are as human beings. And so what we’re doing in the Lifelong Kindergarten group is to say that kindergarten should go through adulthood. That creative learning drives the kind of design thinking we are talking about.

[We’re also] thinking about science with this very open approach, rather than, ‘Who are the eight people that I need to get peer-review signoff on this paper?’ You don’t get a Nobel prize by doing what you’re told. You get a Nobel prize by … Next Page »

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