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Media Lab Director Moss Shares His Plans

By Mei-Hsin Cheng

It’s relatively crowded in 26-100, and you start flipping through your backpack for that notebook. As the professor begins to go over triple integrals, a loud, embarrassing ring tone fills the room. Darn — you forgot to shut off your cell phone again. Wouldn’t it be nice to have one that knew when not to ring?

A “smart” cell phone that knows when to silence itself is one of the many plans in store for the Media Laboratory, which recently came under the direction of Frank Moss PhD ’77.

Moss replaces Nicholas Negropronte ’66, a co-founder of the Media Lab, who according to the Boston Globe stepped down to devote more of his time to One Laptop per Child, a nonprofit group working to distribute computers to developing nations.

The Tech sat down for an interview with Moss, and he described his plans to reach out more to the other parts of campus and pursue innovations in three main areas: health care, education, and technology.

Currently, society is in what Moss calls the “digital lifestyle” in which the presence of technology is pervasive in communication, entertainment, and commerce. Moss said the media lab will help society move on to the next phase of technology, the “digital society” in which even more people have access computers, and health care and education become increasingly self-managed.

In the health care area, the media lab seeks to improve the quality of life for the aging population. Moss said that his goal is to not only have the elderly live more healthy lifestyles, but also be able to lead more productive lives.

For education, he said he hopes to implement a project called the “Brain Gain” in which people are raised immersed in the digital world, so that creativity and innovation come “from the bottom up.”

Machines with “common sense” would posses the ability to assess situations and put the power of a supercomputer into everyday technology. A cell phone with a “common sense chip” would “know” to silence itself in certain settings, such as movie theaters and lecture halls. It could also provide advice, for example suggesting that the owner to pick up her phone if an elderly person calls during an unusual time. This could be expanded to the creation of sociable robots that would be able to work as part of society not only as functioning workers, but as “partners.”

Other projects that the media lab seeks to produce in the long run are more sensitive and “smart” artificial limbs, even cheaper laptops, and cell phones with the capabilities of laptops.

Moss was previously an entrepreneur of software and computer industries for 25 years. He said his experience in industry will allow him to fully understand sponsors’ needs. Moss said he is impressed by the “creativity and inventiveness of MIT students.” According to the Media Lab Web site, Moss obtained his bachelor of science degree in aerospace and mechanical sciences from Princeton, and master’s and PhD degrees from MIT.