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Other-worldly Media Lab Doesn't Amount to Much

Brett Altschul

One of my favorite classic Star Trek episodes features wearable computers. Captain Kirk's love interest is the only human who can bear to look at the ugliest creature in the universe. She can bear it because she is blind, and that's where the wearable computers come in; she has a complex sensor net constructed into her clothing, giving her senses far beyond those of normal humans.

Currently, wearable computing is most prominent at the MIT Media Laboratory. It is one of their premier projects. However, there's actually a horribly ugly monster hiding behind it.

The wearable-computer woman on Star Trek was incredibly arrogant. When the Enterprise was in a tough spot, and only the ugly alien could help them, somebody had to communicate with him telepathically. Spock was the obvious choice, yet she made a tremendous issue out of it, claiming that she was better, and ultimately trying to drive Spock to insanity as revenge.

The Media Lab exhibits a similar arrogance. The general attitude there is that they are doing the most important work at MIT. They are able to maintain this position by separating themselves from everyone else at MIT, thus keeping any evidence that questions their superiority at a safe distance.

For example, the Media Lab has long prided itself on being an example of the workplace of the future, certainly the most electronically advanced place at MIT. When the Laboratory for Computer Science was rated as more computerized than the Media Lab, the fact was swept under the rug. I haven't heard Nicholas P. Negroponte, director of the lab, calling the Media Lab the second-most electronically advanced facility at MIT.

The Media Lab is supposed to be such a good deal for MIT, bringing in many corporate sponsors. If that's the case, why did the Media Lab have a budget deficit this year? True, this may have been a one-year anomaly, driven by budget overruns in a single area. But the fact remains that the Media Lab, ostensibly a tremendous source of revenue, does not seem to manage its resources consistently.

While these issues are significant, there is also a much more important problem. The Media Lab believes they are doing the best, most important work at MIT. In fact, many of their projects are among the least useful at the Institute.

Returning to Star Trek, a critical scene occurs when the blind woman reveals her computerized bodywear to Captain Kirk. She notes the pinpoint accuracy of the sensors; she points out their incredible superiority to anything that normal human senses can do. With them, she argues, she is better equipped to handle things, better even than Mr. Spock.

Captain Kirk responds properly to these claims. A lot of cute little devices that accomplish piddling tasks don't amount to much. She had a very hard time understanding that fact; so does the Media Lab.

Staying with wearable computing, one suggestion is to use handshakes as a means for passing data back and forth between individuals. What data? Will every person have a programmed introduction built into their handshake? Perhaps people will return home each evening and retrieve the information about everyone they met that day.

Wow, that guy I talked to after lunch works on the computer prediction of earthquakes! Too bad I didn't know that when I was actually talking to him.

Perhaps people will have a screen built into their headgear that shows them the data. People will stand around for a few minutes reading about one-another after they shake hands - such a tremendous advantage over conventional oral introductions.

Will job-seekers instantly provide their resume? If so, the person receiving it will still have to go back and read it; the computer isn't going to evaluate the applicants itself. So we have no increase in simplicity. If fact, it is very important to have an immediately readable copy of a resume, so the potential employer can quickly ask questions and get any clarifications he needs.

The Star Trek wearable computing woman eventually learns the error of her ways, and she attempts to fix the problems she has caused. The Media Lab has demonstrated nothing of the sort, and continues to damage the MIT community with its profound ugliness.