Media Lab Japan deal sparks controversy
By Katherine Shim
An agreement concluded on May 11, 1987, between the Media Laboratory, Nihon University of Japan and a Japanese builder has been sharply criticized lately as a "crass sale" of American technology.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Media Lab, known for its research in high-definition television, interactive television and futuristic entertainment, agreed to oversee the construction of a similar laboratory in Japan in exchange for a $10 million endowment.
The agreement brought into focus the issues of technology transfer and the role an American university should assume in sharing ideas with economic competitors.
"The answer lies in what your views of boundaries are," said Nicholas P. Negroponte '66,
director of the Media Lab. "I personally don't draw the line at national boundaries. . . . It is a question of whether the benefits are worth the cost."
He added, "We are living in an economy in which there are Japanese parts in American cars and Sony makes TVs in California. A university like MIT must be sensitive to these issues, and it is my belief that we can and have got
to be able to export ideas -- because we are going to import ideas in return."
Media Lab clone in
exchange for $10 million
The agreement states that a clone of the Media Lab would be created at the International Advanced Research and Development Institute (IARDI), to be constructed in Japan for that purpose. In return, IARDI would underwrite a $10 million endowment to the Media Lab.
During the first two years of the five-year exchange, up to three faculty or staff from Nihon University, which is associated with IARDI, would reside at the Media Lab to absorb its style and management. Once IARDI is fully operational, "up to five MIT graduate students each year would each spend as long as a semester at IARDI in connection with research of mutual interest to the Media Lab and IARDI," the agreement stated.
Faculty exchanges would also be conducted between the Media Lab, Nihon University and IARDI.
Aside from absorption of the management styles of the Media Lab, IARDI and the Media Lab would embark on various joint research projects, according to the agreement.
Interest from the $10 million endowment, which was paid completely by 1988, now generates money to support students and faculty at the Media Lab.
Formation of IARDI was mandated by the congressional US-Japan Committee for Promoting Trade Expansion. One of the goals of the committee, chaired by Congressman Richard A. Gephardt (D-MI), is to help "American universities gain a place in Japan as a means to resolve bilateral trade issues," according to the Japan External Trade Organization Monitor newsletter.
No talk is as of yet underway on the possible extension of the five-year exchange, said Negroponte.
New York Times article
A Dec. 19 article on the agreement in The New York Times, "MIT Deal With Japan Stirs Fear on Competition," sparked criticism at the Institute. Described as "biased," "jingoistic," and "Japan-bashing," the article was criticized for its inaccuracies and prompted letters of protest from Negroponte, Jerome B. Wiesner, Institute professor and former MIT president, and Amar G. Bose '51, professor of electrical engineering and computer science.
"I was very disappointed with the article that appeared in The Times," Negroponte said. "It is clear that Gina Kolata, the writer of the article, had a particular slant in mind even before she conducted her interviews."
One claim of the article was that the "agreement does not require the Japanese to publish all the results of their research, as MIT does."
This charge was "utterly inaccurate," Negroponte said.
The agreement states, "MIT and IARDI will be free to publish the results of research under this agreement; a copy of each publication will be provided to the other party."
"Agreements cannot require that research groups publish," Negroponte said. "Publication is a natural means of expression. What is important is that the agreement did not restrict IARDI or MIT from publishing."
The New York Times article also charged that while the MIT-IARDI deal was concluded in 1987, "it has not been publicized, even within the university."
Negroponte responded, "The Media Lab concludes a large number of these type of deals in a year, and they have never been largely publicized. These types of exchanges are not really news."
Questions raised on Japanese
ability to recreate Media Lab
Some people have asked whether the rigid and hierarchical educational system in Japan could adapt to the free-spirited, fluid structure of the Media Lab.
"Our educational and research systems are criticized for failing to encourage originality," The Japan Times wrote in an editorial. "Despite its often international flavor, however, the [Media Lab] is very much of an American phenomenon. Doubts are already being expressed in some quarters about whether the concept can be successfully transferred to these shores."
The MIT-IARDI deal has been labeled as indicative of Japanese willingness to take chances, an inclination that is absent in many American companies.
"Five years ago, when the agreement was concluded," Negroponte said, "the Media Lab was a very unknown commodity. We were a start-up company, and the Japanese were taking a risk in dealing with us."
Advocates of the exchange
argue that too few American industries follow the Japanese lead and take full advantage of technology transfer.
"You would think that US companies would take advantage of world-class research opportunities in their back-yard. Overwhelmingly, they don't. The Japanese do," wrote Michael Schrage, a syndicated columnist, in the Los Angeles Times.
Implications for future
Critics of the MIT-IARDI exchange suggest that Congress and companies should reconsider the wisdom of funding MIT and
Media Lab research in the future.
"In the balance," said Negroponte, "I certainly hope that the controversy raised by the article won't have an impact on future funding."
It currently costs $10 million per year to operate the Media Lab, $9 million of which is provided by the federal government and private companies.