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Pushing the Limits of Science and Technology

Guest Column Sevgi Ertan

In the Dec. 9, 1997 issue of The Tech, Brett Altschul '99 ["Other-worldly Media Lab Doesn't Amount to Much"], Douglas E. Heimburger '00 ["Smoke and Mirrors"], and Anders Hove G ["Negroponte's Wacky Columns Embarrass MIT"] all seem to come to the same conclusion about the Media Laboratory: that it is nothing but fluff and contributes nothing to the MIT community. I disagree with this conclusion. Rather than talk in generalities as the opinion writers have, however, I would like to offer my personal experience as testimony.

Last summer I was looking for a UROP. I'd heard a lot about the Media Lab. Most of it was negative and said the lab had done little real research. I sought out and obtained a Media Lab UROP just to see what it was like and I discovered that it was not at all like what I had heard about.

The Media Lab does not do much conventional research into fundamental physical principles. Instead it pushes the limits of existing technology. There were some projects that did seem a bit wacky to me at first, and I could not see the point in pursuing them. For example, I don't buy the idea that giving everyone a little television screen and wearable computer worn constantly like a watch would be a positive thing. The high profile, wacky projects attract interest because of their eccentricity. Many projects are not like this, though, and are useful.

I am mostly familiar with my own group, so I will only comment on our work. I work in the Perceptual Computing division with tactile wearables. My work specifically focuses on developing tactile communication schemes that could be used for blind navigation. The military is interested in using tactile wearables for pilot-orientation problems and night operations. When the donors came last October to look at the projects, many other useful ideas for tactile communications came up. By the end of the spring term we hope to have a working blind navigation system built. I don't think anyone could argue that trying to build a system to help the blind is fluff or useless research.

Tactile wearables represent just one example of a project that is beneficial to society. Even the more controversial or seemingly useless projects do in fact have a real benefit; they push the limits of technology and bring ideas for new systems and ways of doing things. Some teams are doing remarkable things with speech and pattern recognition.

In his column Heimburger asks, "What does the Media Lab do for the Institute community as a whole?" Let me answer: The Media Lab is a hotbed for new and interesting ideas. The lab encourages engineers to think freely about how to use their skills to build a beneficial system. Just because a system does not seem to be good for society does not mean it should not be pursued. Consider the case of Dolly, the genetically-cloned sheep. Genetic cloning is controversial, but does that mean that no one should look into the science behind it? It is for society to debate whether it is good to clone sheep, or whether to rig everyone with a computer for that matter.

MIT students should not dismiss Media Lab UROPs as "cushy." In my UROP I learned about how to expand my mind, to constantly try different things and ask "What if?" questions. I have been given free reign to explore many different ways of building and designing my project. At the Media Lab, my ideas are not shot down right away. Instead, the lab empowers me to show that they can work - I can and do influence the direction of projects. I have been given a lot of responsibility for ensuring that the projects I'm involved in get done.

Before MIT students condemn the Media Lab or ask that it be split from MIT, they should first take an honest look at what the Media Lab stands for and what it does. Stereotypes are the bullets of the unknowing. In showing only a minute fraction of what the Media Lab is about, the columns by Hove, Heimburger and Altschul have done injustice to all those who tire, sweat, and work to do good things for the world at the Media Lab.

Sevgi Ertan is a member of the Class of 1998.