MIT Media Lab has always been concerned with re-examining society’s paths into the future, merging technological systems and human behavior. He has been thinking a lot about his own future lately, following a catastrophic blow to his reputation in a 2019 scandal involving taking funds from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
A key step in that process came Tuesday when the Media Lab appointed its next director: aviation researcher, space suit designer and longtime MIT professor Dave Newman, who was also a two-year NASA deputy administrator in the second part of Obama. administration. Among the many traits and talents the university administration noted about Newman – a designer, an engineer, a thinker and more – she pointed out that she was “important, optimistic”.
Positive vibes will undoubtedly be welcome in resolving the question of who will run the media lab in the 2020s. Newman’s appointment comes after a major soul investigation at the institution, whose previous director, Joi Ito, resigned amid Epstein’s scandal. The film’s hit in the New Yorker explained in detail the plots of Ito and others, and the revelations prompted Wired to question whether the Media Lab had “lost its moral position”.
Since Ito’s departure in September 2019, Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been run by a five-member executive board. The group will support Newman, whose appointment takes effect on July 1, while she and faculty members define the direction of research in the lab. Among the expected changes: how the institution checks people supporting the lab and how donations are sought.
“The media lab has really been very busy assessing culture and climate,” Newman said in an interview Wednesday. Her top priority as a new director: “I’ll listen a lot.”
Founded in 1985, the MIT Media Lab is known for its interdisciplinary approach to research. It has a diverse, even dizzying array of programs, ranging from personal robots, poetic justice and human dynamics to affective computing, biomechatronics, and the nano-cybernetic biotrack.
Below is my conversation with Newman, arranged for length and clarity.
Tell me about your vision for Media Lab. What do you see next?
Newman: In fact, basically, I call the Media Lab a magical place that really seeks to benefit society in the first place. How we do this by inventing technologies and experiences, [and] immerse people in it, so we can transform too [and] improve life and communities. She is multidisciplinary. [Among] new technologies, we focus on digital, material and biological.
It’s a very broad portfolio of things that Media Lab does.
These are people and machines [and] information. Now, given the pandemic, given the nature of everything that virtually communicates, we really have a great opportunity to look at open learning and shared education. Something will be virtual – what I call a hybrid model, because part will be personal, part virtual and digital. Also, thinking about the environment, climate and sustainability, because whatever we do, we have to be focused on the well-being of society and, of course, we have to look at the greatest challenges of humanity.
What is your first priority, what will you do first?
The first part is that I will listen. In the last 15 months, faculty leadership, the executive committee and working groups have been doing an amazing job. The media lab was very, very busy assessing culture and climate.
So I’ll speed up first. I will listen a lot and then work together. Really excited about: OK, what is the common mission, do we have common values, how are we going to work on it together?
Your predecessor, Joi Ito, retreated under a cloud, a scandal. How are you going to re-establish trust?
The best way to know this as a leader is to be inclusive and invite everyone to the table. Everyone comes to it from a different perspective, so I say listening, really taking care that the staff, the students, if they feel like they haven’t heard them – I know they feel like they heard them last year, but we’ll just continue that dialogue. It has to be very open, very transparent. Thus we can come to common values and common dreams. We also want to focus on critical mass, critical contributions.
Are there specific aspects of your work in the aeronautics and astronautics department that you will transfer to the Media Laboratory?
Absolutely. It’s my aviation job, but also my career is dedicated to STEM, education and teaching. And I always talk about it as MONEY, so I bring art, I bring design. There needs to be a conversation, especially with young girls and boys, and I have to teach these happy students, but a lot of my lectures are out of reach – and I always say: Don’t I look like a rocket scientist? Because you have to open people’s minds because we know people are going to draw a guy with glasses and a white lab coat, that’s a scientist.
Design is also creating and working, and that’s what Media Lab does, prototyping and failing, correcting it – we never make it the first time, so we have to repeat, we have to design and design and make and make, and we always we try to improve, but we have to put ourselves out somehow. You will never design something perfect the first time.
You spent two years at NASA. What lessons can you learn from this in your work at Media Lab?
That was a huge portfolio. At NASA, I focused on innovation and technology, [and] approached him as an educator and teacher.
There is a lot at NASA about people, as well as diversity and inclusion. I think it’s pretty widespread [with] both industry and government – I go in and hear data and numbers and they are always pretty disappointing. There are 13% engineers at NASA. I was stunned. At MIT we have parity, we have 50% undergraduate women. We work on our graduates, we work on the presentation of the faculty, similar things. But moving from academia, and especially from MIT, we’ve been working hard on that for decades. It is an interesting discussion with industry and government.
Media Lab works closely with the private industry. Can you talk specifically about the work between Media Lab and Silicon Valley, in particular?
You also asked me about NASA, so I’ll actually start there. At NASA, I was in charge of partnerships. Public-private partnerships were really important and we really tried to innovate. Going from the government’s way of doing business, we really did business in a different way. So the public-private partnerships at NASA that resulted in commercial crew and commercial cargo – it took more than ten years to get that right. Now the wonderful thing is that we are seeing a return.
Somehow I transfer those teachings to the academic community, and the portfolio at the Media Lab is definitely some traditional funding, absolute government research funding and also industry funding, and we’re really excited to be working with the industry. We deal with the same thing: transformative technology. Inventing the future is like the best job in the world.
Tell me about the status BioSuit [Newman’s spacesuit design project]. How are things with that?
It is still research, students are certainly working on it. We probably have two or three new versions and mock-ups and prototypes. Its technological part has really moved to advanced materials, actually thinking about – fantastic – hydrogenated boron nitride nanotubes. Now [we’re thinking about] coat, clothes, because we are really going back to the Moon, so now we have to think about the thermal state and radiation. Now we are starting to think a lot more about materials and systems to sustain life, things like keeping people very mobile, and also healthy and healthy.