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MIT Media Lab Drafts Plan for Branch in Australia

By Vicky Hsu


Despite funding shortages in Cambridge, the MIT Media Laboratory is in the process of branching out to its fourth continent: Australia.

“We are always looking to expand,” said Walter R. Bender, Executive Director of the MIT Media Lab. “We want to be in places different than here.”

“It is more pull rather than push. We get contacted by interested parties and talks get underway,” Bender said of why Australia was chosen as the next possible location for establishing an affiliated research center.

“The interest in Australia is coming from a group that is interested in both engineering and the arts,” Bender said. “This is not unheard of, but is an unusual combination that is very attractive to us.”

“There is a very strong art industry there, and we can learn a lot,” he added. “It is not yet appropriate to release specific names of members in the Australian group, because negotiations are still in the early stages.”

Australians eager about new lab

Sentiments about the issue on the Australian side are similar. “There have been discussions about establishing a media research center in Australia that would be in partnership with the Media Lab,” said Colin Griffth, Director of Multimedia and Electronic Services at the New South Wales Department of Information Technology and Management in Australia.

“However, we are not proposing to release a statement to the media for another one to two months, when there would be something to talk about,” Griffth said. “It is really premature right now to say more.”

Griffth said the Media Lab was appoached because “the consortium, which represents people from universities, industries, and the government, is interested in partnerships with top research organizations, and recognizes the MIT Media Lab as one of these organizations.”

“We don’t fund the lab there, but rather just collaborate with it. If the lab happens, they [the Australians] would build it,” Bender said.

Professor Barry Vercoe, of the Music, Mind, and Machine group at the Media Lab, is one of the individuals engaged in the discussion with the Australians. He could not be reached for comment.

Other labs face hurdles

Currently, the construction on extending the media lab building at MIT has terminated temporarily. “The expansion to the Media Lab here in Cambridge has halted due to funding shortages, but there is no reason why plans of expanding the Media Lab elsewhere should stop,” Bender said.

In addition, Media Lab Asia, which officially began operations in early 2002, has its first laboratories set in India.

“Right now, we have research labs at five universities in India, but plan to expand to other Asian countries,” said Director of Research of Media Lab Asia Alex P. Pentland.

“Countries that have expressed interest include China, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore,” Pentland added, “There is only preliminary discussion in expanding to these countries, it is too early to go running around in all directions.”

“The focus of Media Lab Asia is sustainable development, which is distinct from the objectives of the other Media Labs,” Pentland said, “[Media Lab Asia] is a completely different animal. We develop technology that have more applicability in rural areas.”

“We are in the glorious honeymoon phase,” Pentland said of Media Lab Asia. “There are occasional individuals that are unhappy, but I would not call it tension. Startups always have bumps,” he added.

“The research program in India is just beginning, and nowhere near completion,” Bender said. “It is going well, with no funding problems.”

In reference to the slowdown in construction back home, Pentland expressed little concern.

“We are not growing as fast as we were, but we are not near bankruptcy,” he said. “We are doing a whole lot better than the stock market.”

The Media Lab also has a research partner in Ireland, Media Lab Europe, which opened in 2000.