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

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questioning authority, thinking for yourself—and I think that when you see kids, even at MIT, when they’re suddenly later in life given permission to think for themselves, people often don’t know what to do. A lot of the lab is about deprogramming people of the learning that they have of obedience and of this culture of having the right answer to the question you’re going to be asked. One of the things as an institution builder that I have to think a lot about is this idea of disobedience.

What you want is a self-adaptive system—like the immune system—that gets stronger the more it’s attacked. So the more questioning and the more disobedience that there is at the Media Lab, the better it should be. Designing a system that automatically does that—a fragile system obviously breaks; a robust system can sustain attacks. To build a culture of that kind of energy is really important.

This has always been at some level of the culture of the lab. Everybody’s running their own algorithm here, and everybody has their own thing, and somehow there’s this complex ecosystem that we have that sustains multiple points of view. But somehow they interact like species in a complex environment. I often jokingly say you get the Media Lab you deserve, because it is a very different experience depending on who you are.

X: That’s a great broad framework, and maybe is there time to talk about a few of the things that are capturing your attention?

JI: The Center for Extreme Bionics is a good one, because we’ve got Joe Jacobson on synthetic biology. We’ve got Ed [Boyden] on the brain. We’ve got Hugh [Herr] on the biomechanics and biomechatronics, and we’ve got Bob Langer on organs and spinal cords and stuff like that. And I think that’s an interesting approach as sort of an integrated dream team lab.

A lot of the work that Neri Oxman’s [doing], which is at this real intersection between art and science and design and engineering, that’s sort of seamlessly navigating that. She embodies that future of design part that I think is important.

Neri Oxman directs the Mediated Matter design research group at the MIT Media Lab. (Image: PopTech via Flickr, Creative Commons)

Neri Oxman directs the Mediated Matter design research group at the MIT Media Lab. (Image: PopTech via Flickr, Creative Commons)

On the cryptocurrency thing, this is more of an experiment. I’m not pushing it, but I’m offering MIT as a neutral academic home for some of the technical and research work, which I think will give a lot more stability to technical R&D around bitcoin. So that’s another thing I’m trying to do.

X: About the open source background that you bring: On the one hand, that’s what the ethos of a university is. On the other hand, some of the deals you do, sponsors get first rights to certain things, they kind of go against it. Do you see your way out of the potential conflicts here?

JI: I’m an open source guy, so we made everything as open as possible since I’ve been here. We also made, on the other hand, some things more closed. I got all of the sponsors to agree to a special carve-out that we can give exclusives for things that require clinical trials, because I knew that you couldn’t commercialize it without exclusives. The other stuff, they all get a non-exclusive [license], but anything that’s software or should be open, is open-sourced. So, I’ve expanded the spectrum.

For instance, we made a public comment on the SOPA/PIPA thing. [Editor’s note: The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act were promoted in Congress by Hollywood to combat online copyright infringement, among other things. But others claimed they threatened the openness of the Web, leading to a Wikipedia- and Google-led blackout in 2012 that forced their ongoing postponement.] We were one of the few academic institutions that made a public comment against Hollywood even though this huge percentage of our funding comes from Hollywood.

So I’ve tried to set up some principles and stay firm and not really try to sell companies what they come and ask for, but really try to have them join us because they want to understand the way we do things. Sticking to our guns on things like openness and intellectual property, in the long run, will prove to be stronger because I think we’re right.

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