2017: The Year that Was

David Silverman Photography

By Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab

It’s been a turbulent 2017 here at the Media Lab and in the world beyond. Our lives, professional and personal, have all been affected by world-changing events and issues—the policies and priorities of US President Donald Trump; the escalation of North Korea’s nuclear program; terrorist and cyber attacks here and abroad; hurricanes and wildfires in the United States, and the historic famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria.

People took to the streets in marches across the US and in more than 160 other countries to make their voices heard. Yes, we’re lucky to live in a democracy where we can protest. But we also need to do something.

Doing something to improve society is at the heart of the Lab’s Disobedience Award, which we launched this year and announced at our summer event, Defiance. When I put out the call for nominations in March, I said that “questioning authority and thinking for yourself is an essential component of science, of civil rights, of society.” Out of 7,800 nominations from around the world, the winners were Michigan pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech engineering professor Marc Edwards. Their investigations into the lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan, as well as their courage and leadership in exposing official misconduct in the crisis, personify the award’s goal of recognizing those who take risks to help humanity. 

Beyond the Lab

Looking to the future, this year we extended our worldview beyond planet Earth, setting our sights on space with the Space Exploration initiative. At our March launch event, Beyond the Cradle, it was clear how space pulls  together art, design, science, and engineering—encouraging us to work together on a coherent mission. It’s worth noting here that our students provided the impetus for this initiative, motivated by a desire to apply their multidisciplinary interests in an extraterrestrial domain. Over the last year the initiative grew from grassroots student interest to a team of over 50 students, faculty members, and staff members actively prototyping our open-access, space-hacking future. 

Among many experts from diverse disciplines, space systems engineer Danielle Wood took part in Beyond the Cradle. She officially joins our faculty in January, to lead her new research group, Space Enabled. Its mission: advancing justice in Earth's complex systems using designs enabled by space.

This year also saw the appointments of two other faculty members who established new research groups: Canan Dagdeviren, who directs the Conformable Decoders group, and Fadel Adib, who leads the Signal Kinetics group.

The Media Lab is now home to 26 research groups, and in 2017 we also added more initiatives, centers, and special interest groups. In addition to the Space Exploration initiative, David Kong joined the Lab to head the new Community Biotechnology initiative, which mobilized quickly to hold a global summit in its first few months. 

2017 also saw the launch of the Open Ocean initiative, steered by visiting scientist and former Director’s Fellow Katy Croff Bell. It aims to design and deploy new ways to understand the ocean and connect people to it, empowering a global community of explorers.

As well, we continued to collaborate with outside organizations. In January, the Lab joined Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center as a founding anchor institution of the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund. Its goal: to catalyze global research that advances AI for the public interest. As AI and machine learning are integrated into society, it's essential that we bring the social sciences and the rest of the non-computer science world into the design of our systems.

Projecting our work

Artificial intelligence is a part of many groups and projects here—from its ethical considerations in the Scalable Cooperation group’s Society-in-the-Loop project to its applications in projects such as a social robot from the Personal Robots group that modifies its behavior to change what you think about it. 

At this moment, there are over 500 active Lab research projects. Here’s just a sampling of what we’ve been working on this year:

Revolutionizing amputation surgery for the restoration of natural neural sensation: The Biomechatronics group is developing a new surgical approach that would allow amputees to receive sensory feedback from their prosthetic limbs and improve their ability to control them.

Gobo, a social media aggregator from the Center for Civic Media: Users can control filters to determine what’s edited out of their Facebook and Twitter feeds, or configure Gobo to include news and points of view from outside their usual orbit or “echo chamber.”

City Science Andorra: Andorra and the City Science research group are combining different research topics—tourism, innovation, energy and environment, mobility, and dynamic urban planning—to meet Andorra’s future challenges. CityScope Andorra is a 3D augmented-reality platform that visualizes complex urban data on a small-scale model of the country. 


Ariel Noyman/MIT Media Lab

Ingestible, flexible devices: Invented in the Conformable Decoders group, these devices detect movement in the GI tract, helping doctors to diagnose and monitor gastrointestinal issues in patients.

The Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX): A project coordinated by the ML Learning initiative and MIT Libraries to build collaborations among Lab researchers and public libraries across the US.  

Hacking Manufacturing: For the program's fifth year, researchers from across Media Lab research groups spent a month hacking ideas and factory processes in southern China.

Kids, AI devices, and intelligent toys: Personal Robots researchers examine the impact of the “Internet of Toys” on children.

Learning Creative Learning: an online course that introduces ideas and strategies for supporting creative learning. It engages educators, designers, and technologists from around the world in applying Media Lab tools and approaches.  

RFly: The Signal Kinetics group created this drone-based wireless system that uses battery-free RFIDs to scan and locate items in warehouses.

Expansion pathology: A new microscopy technique from the Synthetic Neurobiology group enlarges tissue samples and allows for more accurate and inexpensive diagnostic tests.

DermalAbyss: This collaboration between the Responsive Environments and Fluid Interfaces groups is a proof-of-concept that presents a novel approach to bio-interfaces in which the body surface is rendered into an interactive display. 

Zero gravity flight:  Twenty researchers from the Lab’s Space Exploration initiative and MIT’s Department of Earth, Air, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) boarded a zero gravity flight to study the effects of that environment on research ranging from asteroid grappling, to self-assembling space architecture, to music and performance, to sensory and emotional responses. 

It takes our village

As the zero gravity project shows, research doesn’t happen in isolation at the Media Lab; meaningful work happens when many people work together. More than 30 faculty members and senior researchers lead the Lab’s research program, working alongside 180 master’s and doctoral students from 32 different countries in the Media Arts and Sciences (MAS) program. 

And, every summer we welcome students from other schools to engage in Lab research through the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP). The 2017 summer interns each gained something different from their Lab experiences.  

Fellowship is always paramount to the Lab community. This year, 11 people from disparate non-academic fields joined the Director’s Fellows program, now in its fifth year. Not only do they bring diverse expertise to the Lab, but they also take what they learn from their involvement and collaborations here back out into the broader world.

Unlike the director’s fellows, our Learning Fellows come from within the Media Lab with the goal of expanding the scope of their research beyond their groups, developing new technologies to cultivate creative learning in a variety of contexts. In its second year, this program grew with the launch of the LEGO Papert Fellowships, named in honor of founding faculty member Seymour Papert and funded by the foundation of our longtime member company, LEGO. The connection embodies the collaborative thread that ties together so much of what we do, and underscores the vital role of our more than 80 member companies. It’s cool to see what the companies get out of our relationship, too—one visiting scientist from NHK said of his year at the Lab: “When I first joined, I was like a passenger on the ship. A year later, I see myself as a crew member.” I’d say that’s a common experience for us all. 

All the Lab’s a stage

As always, the Lab hosted many events. In addition to Defiance and Beyond the Cradle, we continued our series of MLTalks, with topics ranging from the gaps in medical research to “moonshot” ideas; from the new normal to nonviolent resistance; from reinventing criminal justice to art, conservation, and more. These talks are always open to the public, because these issues affect us all. The same philosophy applies to our Advancing Wellbeing seminars, which focus on ways to reshape technology and the workplace to enhance health and wellbeing.

One of our biggest events celebrated 10 years of Scratch, which is among our most enduring projects. Created in the Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, Scratch now reaches children in every country in the world, and has been translated into  70 languages. In the words of the group’s head, Mitch Resnick, “As children create and share Scratch projects, they’re learning to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively—essential skills for everyone in today’s society.” 

Speaking of children, I have a personal note to add: the birth of my daughter, Kio, in May. Her name means “shining light,” and that she is. Kio is also a constant reminder that everything I do, everything we all do, is for her generation and those to follow. I often ask people who want to "make the world better" this question:  For whom, and in what time frame? Some say that it's for shareholders in the next quarter; others say it is for their family in seven generations; some people say that it is for themselves for eternity. If you haven't asked yourself this question, it might be a good one to ponder in the new year.

At the close of this turbulent year, and on the threshold of 2018, let us hope for a normative shift to something that feels more like the pursuit of long-term flourishing rather than this short-term polarized fight to win. I wish you all the best for the year to come. 

Joi Ito is the director of the MIT Media Lab. 

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