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Negroponte Reflects on Media Lab's First Ten Years



By David D. Hsu
News editor

As director of the Media Laboratory for its first 10 years, Nicholas P. Negroponte '66 has guided a good portion of the evolution of multimedia and information technology.

Negroponte announced the completion of the Media Lab's multimedia mission and will announce the newest project, Things That Think, on Tuesday.

After several electronic mail exchanges with Negroponte, I arranged a half-hour interview with him, catching him a day before he left for a trip to Geneva.

Negroponte reflected on the lab's first 10 years and also described the current relation of the lab to the academic and business worlds. While the lab started out focusing on multimedia, it has since expanded to several other areas.

In his Wired magazine columns and his book, Being Digital, Negroponte makes a distinction between a world of atoms and a world of bits. The world of atoms depends on the tangible carriers of information. People worry about the size of their television screen that delivers the programs or the size of the characters in a book. In a world of bits, information will be in digital form, 1s and 0s, and not reliant on physical material.

As the Media Lab progresses through the next 10 years, it will seek to understand the bits, the fundamental building blocks of computer technology, Negroponte said.

The Tech: Oct. 10 will mark the 10th anniversary of the Media Lab. What would you say characterizes the first 10 years?

Negroponte: I guess the first 10 years of the Media Lab, simply stated, is the sensory apparatus of computing - making it a richer place to be, commonly called multimedia, which was more or less born here. So if you look back at the 10 years, probably the common denominator is sound, color, motion - all those things we tend to take for granted in computing which 10 years ago more or less didn't exist. That was the past 10 years.

The Tech: What has been the greatest success for you at the lab?

Negroponte: That's in the eyes of the beholder. Again for me, part of the achievement is measured just by sheer existence and stability. You have to realize that when we started, there was absolutely no reason to believe we'd actually make it. We've grown some years 50 percent per year, and I think we've achieved a certain solidity.

The intellectual achievements, again, depend on your perspective. There are so many people in projects so that each one of them has their own sort of landmarks. So I don't want to go through the project list. My goodness, you have to realize there are over 100 projects going on at any moment of time.

The Tech: What was your biggest disappointment at the lab?

Negroponte: Biggest disappointment? Now, by disappointed, you mean something that failed, that we tried and failed?

The Tech: Or something you would like to have done which you never got a chance.

Negroponte: Yes, I think I would like to have been able to do more in the area of speech understanding, recognition. I think we've done too little in the area of machine recognition of speech. That's probably the area we've been weakest in, because we've certainly done an awful lot in the area of image understanding, recognition.

The Tech: How has the Media Lab changed its focus from 10 years ago, and what will characterize its next 10 years?

Negroponte: Well, probably the meta-answer to that is that the focus of the Media Lab now is not a single focus at all. It's driven by roughly 20 faculty and senior research staff. Whereas 10 years ago, it was a much more singular focus on multimedia and applications that basically led to some of the information entertainment systems that you see today.

But if you were to characterize the next 10 years, it's clear that the common denominator will be sort of understanding the bits. In other words, you can think of the past decade as giving the bits sound, color, motion, and so on, and the next decade, sort of understanding what the bits mean. That's probably a simple way of characterizing the last 10 years and the next 10 years.

The Tech: On Oct. 10, you will announce the new Media Lab project, Things That Think. Could you tell me a little more about that?

Negroponte: Sure. The Media Lab has over 100 corporate sponsors, and sometimes the sponsors are grouped into consortia. We have two big consortia going on right now: Television of Tomorrow and News in the Future. What we're starting is a third which is going to be called Things That Think. And the idea here is to imbed computing into common objects that are first and foremost something else other than a computer or a telecommunications device.

The purpose is two-fold. On the one hand it is to make that object perform better or to give it a personality such that it performs better. The second is to get it to do things that it might not otherwise have done before, and when we say things, we really mean it. We really are talking about doorknobs and tennis sneakers and lampposts and tables and chairs, and so on.

So what this does for the Media Lab, is it gets us back into the business of atoms. Sort of the bits and atoms distinctions - this is the atoms side in part. And it also engages us with an absolutely new set of corporate sponsors. New sponsors include people like Nike, Steel Case, Federal Express. These are people with whom we've never had any interaction before. And we expect the consortium to close with about 40 companies. But what would be different is that many of the 40 companies will be totally new to both MIT and the Media Lab.

The Tech: The Media Lab is often criticized for being smoke and mirrors: a lot of toys and gimmicks, but little scientific substance. Even the title of the next project, Things That Think, sounds really simple. What do you say to that criticism? And how has the lab changed to become more of a rigorous, scientific enterprise?

Negroponte: Well, first of all, there's an assumption in your question that rigor is a feature; sometimes it's in fact a liability. Sometimes you actually want not to be that rigorous. It's very easy to criticize and say it's a lot of smoke and mirrors. On the other hand, the multimedia industry turned into a trillion-dollar industry. So maybe smoke and mirrors in some people's eyes, but it's obviously a big deal.

I guess the best way to answer that is that people think (and this is where I think they're wrong), that the food chain of research starts with basic materials - science, entry materials. It moves to understanding maybe circuits and theorems. From there, understanding subsystems and systems and networks and so on. There are the applications on top of that, and there's end-user applications. When you take an end-user application that's at one extreme and doing basic research on materials sciences as another extreme, I think that's a faulty way of looking at it.

I think you can do basic research and applications. What makes it basic, and it seems like an oxymoron - basic research and applications - but what makes it basic is the degree of risk and the degree to which it is something industry cannot even begin to consider because the payoff is not only a one in 100 chance. Even if you could guarantee it would pay off, it would be a five- or ten-year investment. So our job - actually it should be MIT's job in general - is to do the research that industry cannot afford to do because it's too risky and too distant.

The Tech: The Media Lab is associated with a number of organizations including the Institute and cutting-edge businesses, like you said. Where do you think the lab fits and should fit within the different academic, scientific, and corporate worlds?

Negroponte: You know, the lab has to fit in different places from different perspectives. At MIT, we're an academic program that is very active. We have 120 graduate students. I believe we're still the highest UROP [Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program] employer on campus. That's a large academic program. Particularly large from my point of view because we guarantee all graduate students full tuition - full research associateships for the entire duration of their studies at MIT. That's from MIT's point of view: We're both a lab and an academic entity.

From the corporate point of view, I would like to think that we are the way that they can outsource their basic research. As companies downsize and cut back, one of the first things to go is research. Another phenomenon which is equally important is when you're in the area that we're in, you need multiple disciplines - you can't just hire 30 physicists or 30 computer scientists. You really need people who know about photography and film and music and sound processing. What we're able to do is provide that kind of heterogeneous environment.

Even take a company like IBM whose research is extraordinary. They are not in a position to hire the kinds of people we are because they're just too different. So they will hire predominantly computer scientists, mathematicians, and physicists and have a much more homogenous world. We get to do exactly the opposite, partly because we're part of MIT and partly because our sponsors are such a mixed bag of companies. So from the corporate point of view, we are basically presenting ourselves, and they see us, I believe, in this way - as a place where they can, at very low cost, still keep a finger in basic research into applications.

The Tech: In many ways the Media Lab and you have become spokespeople for the revolution in information technology. How has the increased attention on the lab helped it develop?

Negroponte: One of the reasons this has happened is because of Wired magazine and things like that. I'm not 100 percent sure that's good for the lab. Sometimes sponsors get nervous about things that I say in Wired magazine. And so we can enjoy a certain amount of high-profile sort of benefits. Most CEOs will answer my phone calls, but we also are always at risk of offending somebody. And the visibility is a double-edged sword. But I don't think it's correct to call us the spokesmen. I think we again just may have a view as recently as five years ago that was considered off the wall, and today it's considered right on the mark, and who knows where we'll be tomorrow.

The Tech: You cited Wired magazine. Wired was looking for support a few years ago, and you decided to help. Why did you believe in the Wired magazine concept?

Negroponte: Oh that's easy. I believed in the concept of Wired because the time was right. Their timing couldn't have been better. The business plan for Wired was just a no-brainer when it came to timing. What I couldn't have predicted when that happened was the quality of the two people who run it. The president and the editor of Wired have turned out to be just extraordinary and made that magazine an international success. Needless to say, I'm not unhappy that I financed it.

The Tech: With any technological advance, there's always some kind of downside. With what I've read about Things That Think, I see a lot of increased convenience but also lost privacy and opportunity for abuse. How does the Media Lab take into consideration the social ramifications of the technology it will bring?

Negroponte: You have to think of this building as a building full of inventors. You're not only at the pre-competitive stage of research, but you're also at the pre-social intervention stage. So a lot of people who work here will spend less time trying to understand the social implications and more time inventing and building and trying. In the case of the School of the Future program, you would basically intervene by trying something in the school setting.

From my own point of view, the part that I'm most concerned about is security and privacy. And I think that's pretty well shared as a view around the laboratory. There's a lot of work to be done there, some of which has nothing to do with science, some of which just has to do with pure politics and the American export laws, so it's a mixed bag. Security and privacy is a very big issue, and I think people really know that. On a political front, I'm certainly trying to lobby to change some of the laws that Congress currently has against the export of equipment.

The Tech: On your book, Being Digital, you have that binary code on the spine. Could you tell me a little something about that?

Negroponte: Sure. The code is a message. I mean it really is a message buried in there. At the time, I was writing a story for Wired magazine, trying to point out that when you embargo encryption of a certain strength so that drug dealers, pedophiles, and other sorts of criminals might not get their hands on them, you're fooling yourself. Because on top of any encryption, you can lay another layer of encryption. Not everything has to have a public key. I mean you can have a private key so you and I could agree on a few things, and I could then thereafter send you messages that nobody will ever be able to break.

And my point, which is sort of a simple one, was to put it on the back of the book and offer a $100,000 reward for anybody who could break it. The publisher thought that was a good idea but was nervous. And I said that I could cover the $100,000; it's just unbreakable.

It turned out it's against state laws to make that a competition. Some states have laws against competitions. Most of it depends on the state where you bought the book or read the book or where you broke the code, so in the end, we dropped it. There was never a competition. There still is something on the spine.

The Tech: Are you the only one who knows?

Negroponte: I'm the only one who knows.

The Tech: Somebody told me that you always wear a blue and white striped shirt

Negroponte: I just have an awful lot of them at home. We all have our idiosyncrasies. Some people insist on going to work and going to meetings with black ties and tennis sneakers.