First aired on The Current (12/12/11)
The MIT Media Lab, established 25 years ago by Nicholas Negroponte, is at the forefront of research in digital technology, and has developed some of the world's most innovative inventions, including Nexi, one of the most sophisticated, human-like robots ever made. (The audio includes a clip of Nexi speaking, as well as comments from Cynthia Breazeal, who heads the Personal Robots group at the Lab, about robots that are built to interact with us rather than simply accomplish mechanical tasks.)
Frank Moss, who was the director of the Media Lab for five years, offers an insider's account of its workings in his new book, The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives. In a recent interview with The Current, he talked about his book and some of the Lab's most cutting-edge projects.
Nexi is one of them. Moss attributes the robot's appeal to the fact that she has expressive features. "She has a cute raise of the eyebrow and a tilt of the head, and it's this humanoid nature of Nexi that makes humans want to interact with her."
Moss told host Anna Maria Tremonti that the students who work with the robots are "literally teaching them, as you would teach kindergarten students, so that they can help us." He added that the key is "to enable robots to learn from us. So they're going to want to interact and be helpful to us when they really understand our wants and needs, just like human beings do."
Moss described the Media Lab as being "like a gigantic playground." Each lab is two storeys high and "contains about three different workshops. The workshops are strewn with gizmos and gadgets, could be robotic prosthetics, could be robots, and the students are working interactively with them in real time. There are no offices of the kind you'd imagine," he said. "And they're trying things, they're talking to robots, they're playing digital music, they may be interacting with an avatar on a display that's a nurse practitioner they're testing out for new methods for medicine and for healthcare."
Added to that freedom is "an ethos that says, if you think of something, just build it. Don't think about it or write a paper. Build it, try it, fail and then go from there," he said.
Moss went on to discuss the Media Lab's innovations in prosthetic devices, thanks to Hugh Herr, the visionary head of its biomechatronics group. (In a recorded clip, Herr is heard explaining that in 1982 both his legs had to be amputated as a result of a climbing accident. But he designed specialized prostheses tha enabled him to climb at a more advanced level than before his accident. "I no longer viewed my biological body as broken, I viewed technology as broken. I reasoned that there's no such thing as a disabled person, there are only disabled technologies, there's only poor design," Herr said.)
According to Moss, Herr often says that he feels sorry for people who have biological limbs because they can't be upgraded. "Hugh's vision is that there is no limit to what a human being can do, if we're willing to accept that technology can make us better," Moss said.
Herr's work isn't just about improving the lives of amputees. After Moss's elderly mother was injured in a fall, he asked Herr to design something that would prevent such falls. The device he came up with is a kind of exoskeleton. "It's going to change all of our lives," Moss said. "In some sense we all become disabled during the course of our life, whether mentally or physically, and these technologies are going to enable us to overcome those."
Testing of the exoskeleton, as with much of the experimentation there, was as much about fun as it was about hard work. "The concept of playful invention has become a very important part of the Media Lab," Moss said. "As a society, if we're going to be innovative and creative, we actually have to restore a lot of the fun in invention that used to be part of it."
Though Moss emphasizes the positive contributions that technology can make to our lives, he acknowledges its drawbacks. "Technology is improving our lives in many ways, but it's also taking away from our awareness and in some sense taking away from intimacy and engagement," he said. "So I think we have to watch out for that. And I'd like to see the next generation of technology be one that actually kind of recovers some of the privacy and intimacy that we may have lost in our current generation."
His time at the Media Lab has increased his optimism about the future. "When I saw technology enabling amputees to walk, people with autism to communicate with others, people with cerebral palsy to compose symphonies and to actually play them, I really adopted the perspective that the best of technology is in front of us, not in back of us," he explained.
Moss believes that healthcare is one field that will benefit from advances in technology. "I envision a world in the not-too-distant future where we as human beings will be able to use data about ourselves to change our behaviour, to become healthier," he said. "And I think this will really drive down the cost and the complexity of health care. I think it's the answer in the long run to the healthcare crisis that we face today."
Moss described one of the new projects at the Lab, which is a mirror. "You look into it, and within about 10 seconds it will display your heart rate, your blood pressure and your blood oxygen level because it has a camera hidden beneath the mirror that's imaging your face and actually using tiny variations in colour in your face to determine those medical vital signs."
Moss also described a project that could revolutionize city living -- and the automobile industry. Students at the Media Lab have designed a vehicle that incorporates the various parts of a car (engine, brakes, steering mechanism) into a robotic wheel. The car "looks like a small Volkswagen bug, but imagine a Volkswagen bug that when you press a button, begins to fold up." A consortium of Spanish manufacturers of automobile parts is working with the students to build about 20 prototypes to be implemented in Spain within the next couple of years.
Though the Media Lab is a breeding ground for bright ideas, Moss is concerned that North America as a whole isn't. "The willingness of our society to take the kinds of risk that lead to those fundamental inventions is gone," he pointed out, adding that venture capitalists are now very conservative, large corporations have shut down their early phase research and there's no longer government funding.
What's more problematic, according to Moss, is that "culturally, in the West, we've taken the idea of risk-taking out of our young kids...The idea that you would fail, and learn from failing, is becoming quite alien."
In Moss's view, teachers should have more freedom "to actually teach through creativity and learning through failure, and not through tests, and not through grading." As he puts it: 'We have to make our teachers into the same kind of sorcerers that we see at the Media Lab."
The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices:
How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives
by Frank Moss
Buy this book at:
From the publisher:
"If you've ever read a book on an e-reader, unleashed your inner rock star playing Guitar Hero, built a robot with LEGO Mindstorms, or ridden in a vehicle with child-safe air bags, then you've experienced first hand just a few of the astounding innovations that have come out of the Media Lab over the past 25 years. But that's old hat for today's researchers, who are creating technologies that will have a much deeper impact on the quality of people's lives over the next quarter century.
In this exhilarating tour of the Media Lab's inner sanctums, we'll meet the professors and their students -- the Sorcerers and their Apprentices -- and witness first hand the creative magic behind inventions such as: Nexi, a mobile humanoid robot with such sophisticated social skills she can serve as a helpful and understanding companion for the sick and elderly...and Sixth Sense, a compact wearable device that transforms any surface - wall, tabletop or even your hand - into a touch screen computer..."
Read more at Random House Canada.