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Frank Moss Named New Director of MIT Media Lab

By Robert Weisman
THE BOSTON GLOBE

MIT has tapped entrepreneur and technology executive Frank Moss as the new director of its fabled Media Laboratory at a time when the lab, which helped popularize the 1990s digital revolution, is seeking to broaden its base of corporate sponsors and refocus its high-tech research on fields like aging, healthcare, and education.

Moss, 56, has run software, computer, and life sciences companies during a 25-year business career. He succeeds media lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte, a leading light of the technology convergence movement, who stepped down as chairman in September 2000 to devote most of his time to One Laptop per Child, a nonprofit group working to distribute computers in the developing world.

Walter Bender SM ’80, who has been interim director of the media lab since Negroponte ’66 stepped down, will take a two-year leave from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to serve as president for software development at the One Laptop organization.

Moss began working full time at the media lab this week, and has been meeting with its 30 faculty members and senior scientists and its 300 graduate student researchers. In an interview, he said he would concentrate more resources on fields that will have a broad impact on society in the coming decade. Moss said he also hoped to increase the number and type of sponsors, complete fund-raising to build a new media lab building, forge closer ties with other MIT labs, and accelerate efforts to push media lab research into the marketplace.

“In many ways, it’s a business,” Moss said, suggesting the media lab may conduct more research into projects of interest to its corporate sponsors. “You have to strike a balance between having academic freedom and doing different types of research, and having the work sponsored by companies that want to see research commercialized. At the media lab, we may have to go a step further than we’ve done in the past and build prototypes with sponsors.”

The media lab, which opened in 1985, has pioneered cutting-edge research in electronic ink, wearable computing, digital and holographic video, electronic field sensing, and wireless networks. During the roaring 1990s, companies from around the world funded media lab research and sent representatives to Kendall Square in Cambridge to soak up its unstructured “demo-or-die” culture. Often Negroponte waxed eloquent in Wired Magazine and other technology forums about the emerging digital lifestyle and the convergence of computing, telecommunications, and media.

In the lab’s first two decades, Negroponte said in an e-mail from Europe, he helped usher in “an era of extreme interdisciplinary formation of a very unlikely group of people working at the lunatic fringe of science and technology.”

“When people ask me what was the most important achievement at the lab,” he said, “I typically reply: its existence. It was founded with the idea that the invention and creative use of new media would advance both technology and creative expression.”

But new technology labs cropped up at other schools, from Stanford University to Carnegie Mellon University, to compete for corporate research funds. And after the dot-com bubble burst early this decade, companies scaled back on underwriting academic research while moving some of their research dollars to emerging high-tech centers in India and China. At the same time, the growth in government research spending slowed and more public and private grants were channeled to projects that can be quickly commercialized. media lab officials have acknowledged that their funding has declined from 1990s levels, though they have not disclosed precise numbers.

Adrian J. Slywotzky, a managing director at Mercer Management Consulting in Boston, said Moss’ business background may be a good fit for the media lab as it enters its third decade. “Companies are under pressure and they are trying to find or create more leverage,” he said. “They are trying to get their research dollars to go further than they did in the past. The challenge will be keeping the researchers motivated in a world where there are fewer enclaves for pure science.”

Moss said he would press forward with the lab’s “blurring of the human-computer interface.” But he said he would not revive the media lab’s stalled campaign to expand in other countries. Under Negroponte, who remains a professor at the lab, MIT set up Media Lab Asia in Bangalore, India, which was shuttered in 2003 after MIT clashed with the Indian government over the lab’s focus, and Media Lab Europe in Dublin, which was closed when the Irish government ended its funding. “One of the real advantages I see at the media lab is its presence at MIT,” said Moss.

As for the type of research on which he’d like to focus, Moss cited examples from the lab’s biomechatronics program that mates robotics with human tissue to build prosthetic limbs; its hyperscore graphical composing application that lets students compose everything from cellphone ring tones to opera; its open studio project enabling amateurs to create and share works of art, and its sociable robotics research to build machines that can interact with people on human terms.

Moss said he’d also like to initiate collaborations with the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, known as CSAIL, across the street from the media lab.