Media Lab celebrates 25th anniversary

At birthday bash, celebs talk about the future of technology and its impact on society

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Eric Schmidt, Chairman and CEO of Google, talks about global challenges on Friday at the Media Lab’s 25th Anniversary Celebration in front of hundreds of spectators. Schmidt spoke about the challenges facing innovators and fielded questions from the audience about Google’s policies on education, China, and mobile technology.
Sam Range—The Tech

“What happens when you have a powerful browser in the hands of people who have never seen anything except television in a shared model,” Google CEO Eric Schmidt asked a group of hundreds representing over 60 sponsoring companies within the confines of the new Media Lab building.

The MIT Media Lab hit its newest milestone last Friday, celebrating its 25th anniversary. Students, alumni, and business sponsors alike gathered into the new Media Lab extension to take part in an all-day event featuring prominent speakers including Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt, journalist and 4-time Emmy winner John Hockenberry, and Media Lab cofounder Nicholas P. Negroponte ’66.

The future was on everybody’s minds. In the next decade, the internet will evolve as billions of people around the world gain access; and the Media Lab, MIT’s nationally recognized research laboratory focused on how humans, art and culture interact with technology, may very well be in the thick of all the changes to come.

The Media Lab has been on the cutting-edge since its inception in 1985. Something about the Media Lab makes it different than any other research facility around the world; and it is not the technology.

Negroponte attributes the success of the Media Lab to the multi-disciplinary approach of integrating the social sciences, humanities, and technology into one place. “MIT is the only place it could and did happen.” He compared MIT to swiss cheese, containing holes and thin barriers which nurtured a porous, open environment.

Former MIT President Charles M. Vest said that he had seen other universities try to make their own media labs, but failed.

“Unfortunately, some of the early cloning was not ... very deep.” Vest said that is was almost like a parody. “If you had someone who could dance, and a big room of black walls, and a computer; you had a media lab,” Vest said.

Vest believes that the Media Lab was special for many reasons. It brings together “very smart people with depth together in sort of a free-flowing way...”

Prominent figures offer insight into the future

Several speakers including Schmidt and Negroponte posed challenging problems that they believe will govern the direction of the Media Lab for the next 25 years.

Google’s Schmidt addressed the initiative to get more people connected. “One of the things I am personally proudest of is the number of people who have come into the global conversation who literally had no choice without the access of the internet and telecommunications revolution,” he said.

Schmidt believes that mobile technologies will make data more transparent and flexible on a global scale, especially when these technologies becomes more accessible to people living in third world countries.

“It probably means ... we will hear from them, what their lives are like, in the same way that CNN in the 70s and 80s exposed the horrific conditions of people we could never see...” Schmidt said.

Negroponte said that the Media Lab will need to broaden it’s focus to accommodate global solutions. “It’s not a money problem; not a competition problem; it’s the relevance,” he said.

He believes that the future will be “surprisingly undigital,” and instead, technology will be driven by global changes.

Negroponte also raised concerns about how nationalism is working against the development of global technologies. “It is one world; it is one place. Nationalism is going to get us in a lot of trouble,” he said.

Vest agreed and said that top-down collaboration is much more difficult when it comes to getting things done. “Government to government is really hard. People to people is great,” he said.

Vest also showed disapproval for the government’s current approach to globalization. “Nobody wants to see the opportunity in it [globalization].”

Vest added, “Everybody sees the threats... but nobody wants to seem to recognize what’s really going on is the rest of the world, more of them now are getting educated and more of them have opportunities.”

Founder of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intellgience Laboratory (CSAIL) Marvin L. Minsky, who witnessed the birth and evolution of the Media Lab, expressed concern about the amount of national funding currently available for research laboratories.

“Something is wrong with the United States,” said Minsky. ”There aren’t many research laboratories that have enough of an endowment to proceed.”

Vest blames Congress for the lack of funding in research and engineering, saying, “Getting Congress to have the motivation [to fund research] is the hardest thing,” he said.

Success stories

The Media Lab has been a hub of both successful companies and ideas including Harmonix Music Systems, E Ink, and One Laptop Per Child.

Harmonix Founder Eran B. Egozy ’95 attended the celebration and recanted the story of how Guitar Hero, Harmonix’s founding idea, came to life in the Media Lab. While the specific design of Guitar Hero was not developed in the Media Lab, Egozy did invent the precursor or the product called “The Axe,” of which only approximately 300 products were sold.

Egozy said that the Media Lab prepared him for the real world that followed his research experience. It taught him how to do demos and make presentations on the spot, especially when company sponsors made surprise visits.

When asked what advice he would give to current students in the Media Lab, he said that students should “try bold new daring things. As you get older, this is the time to take on risk.” When Egozy first started Harmonix, he went without a salary for the entire first year. “When you graduate, it is the best time for experimentation,” said Egozy.

The after party

Between talks, attendees were given a chance to explore 23 research groups and over 350 projects that are currently being developed at the Media Lab.

Upon walking up to one of the several large-screen touch displays positioned around the lab, attendees would be recognized by an RFID tag on their name tag and given the option to log into the system to view project demos.

At 6 p.m., the Media Lab transformed into a party for all attendees. Champagne and fancy hors d’oeuvres were served to officially start the celebration. Courtesy of Harmonix, Rock Band 3, which has yet to be released, was set up for anyone to play.