2016: A Year in the Life of the Lab

by Joi Ito

We’ve all been witness to some trying times over the past 12 months, both in the United States and across the world. In sharing some of the highlights of the past year, we are fully cognizant of the challenges ahead, of the importance of academic freedom, and of ways we can best address some of the most critical global needs.

Toward this end, I was one of more than 620 MIT faculty members who recently signed a statement upholding our values of science and diversity. In adding my name to the distinguished list of signers, I emphasized that today’s academic institutions must remain havens to protect diversity of opinions and the freedom to express those opinions when the political climate threatens to impinge upon those freedoms.

It’s exactly this spirit that inspired the Media Lab to hold a symposium, called Forbidden Research, on July 21, where we gathered to talk about disobedience for social good.

Andrew “bunnie” Huang, Media Lab research affiliate (left), and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (via a live video feed) at Forbidden Research, presenting their technology to turn journalists’ smartphones into “cyber fortresses.” Photo: Mim Adkins

At the symposium, we announced the creation of a $250,000 MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award made possible through the generosity of LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. It will go to a person or group engaged in what we believe is excellent disobedience for the benefit of society. The disobedience can be in — but is not limited to — the fields of scientific research, civil rights, freedom of speech, human rights, and the freedom to innovate.


In September, the Lab also hosted the No Permission, No Apology conference to address gender bias, diversity, and inclusion in STEM fields. In this blog post, some of the participants reflected on how the event tapped into the “power of versatility in perspectives.” I’m pleased to report that the Lab’s recruitment efforts for our Media Arts and Sciences (MAS) academic program resulted in our welcoming its largest and most diverse class ever in 2016, while our Director’s Fellows continued to attract people with less-than-traditional backgrounds outside academia.

Students attending the “No Permission, No Apology” conference at the MIT Media Lab came from MIT, Wellesley and Spelman Colleges, and the University of Maryland. Photo: Mim Adkins

Our Conversations series, now rebranded as MLTalks, brought a diverse group of speakers to the Lab who work at the intersection of technology and art. Talks ranged from our relationships with technology, to innovation in social justice, to human rights and Islam. MLTalks are open to the public because it’s crucial, especially now, to engage as many people as possible in issues that affect us all. For this reason, we livestream the talks, which are also available to the public after the events through the Lab’s video archive.

Another event, the Reality, Virtually, Hackathon (October 7–10) attracted more than 400 participants, resulting in a hackathon record of 75 open-source submissions. Our belief in open source and the liberal sharing of knowledge is the main reason we changed our software default to FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) this year.


The commitment to breaking down academic silos and encouraging cross-disciplinary discussion brought about the creation of the online Journal of Design and Science (JoDS), a collaboration with the MIT Press. JoDS differs vastly from the traditional peer-review system in academia — inviting widespread, continuous collaboration via rich commenting features and intuitive authoring tools. It lives on the PubPub platform, developed by Travis Rich, Thariq Shihipar, and others in the Lab’s Viral Communications group.

A glimpse at the redesigned research section of the Media Lab website

And, just a couple weeks ago, we launched the new Media Lab website. A major consideration for the redesign was a desire to streamline content creation for everyone in the Lab, and to give all visitors insight into the work and places we inhabit and the people who make our Lab a thriving community. Feel free to explore our 450-plus projects in various states of play.


It’s impossible to highlight all of our transformative projects in this post, but here’s a selection of some of our research this year:

Seeing RNA at the nanoscale. Image: Yosuke Bando, Fei Chen, Dawen Cai, Ed Boyden, and Young Gyu

RNA at the nanoscale: Ed Boyden and the Synthetic Neurobiology group have developed a microscopy technique that allows scientists to precisely map RNA molecules in the brain.

Light Therapy for Alzheimer’s treatment: A team of MIT researchers, co-led by Ed Boyden who heads the Lab’s Synthetic Neurobiology group and Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Picower Institute, is exploring non-invasive light therapy to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Former Synthetic Neurobiology postdoc Annabelle Singer was co-lead author of the Nature paper.

Daisy Drives: Kevin Esvelt’s work in Sculpting Evolution is featured in this year’s Nature’s 10, a news feature in which Nature profiles ten people who made a difference in science in 2016.

Finding Places. Image: Walter Schiesswohl

Finding Places: Kent Larson, head of the Changing Places group, and Ariel Noyman, a research scientist in the group, collaborated with HafenCity University researchers on a community engagement project, using algorithms and LEGO bricks, to identify locations for accommodating thousands of refugees in Hamburg.

Data USA: Transforming data into stories: The Macro Connections group’s new project is a free, open-source data visualization tool for public data in the United States.

Vespers: Series II, created by Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter group, explores the transition between life and death, illustrating the progression of the death mask from a symbolic cultural relic. It’s currently on exhibit at the London Design Museum.

The Electome from the Laboratory for Social Machines is a data analytics project focused on the US presidential election, in particular on the intersection of news and social media.

Duoskin. Image: Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao

Ethics of Autonomous Vehicles: Iyad Rahwan and the Scalable Cooperation group research the potential ethical dilemmas of self-driving vehicles.

DuoSkin: A new user interface technology from the Living Mobile group, in collaboration with Microsoft Research, for creating functional, stylish customized devices worn directly on the skin.

Project 305: As part of Opera of the Future’s City Symphonies work, Tod Machover’s group has invited people across Miami to submit sounds and images for an ambitious multimedia orchestral portrait of the city, which will premier in October next year.

At Code Next in Oakland, students work on a 3D model. Photo: Google blog

This year, the Media Lab also collaborated with Google and other organizations in a special project, called Code Next. This tech launchpad for underserved youth recently launched in Oakland, CA, with another space set to open in Harlem, NY next year.


Kevin Esvelt, who joined our faculty this past January, has quickly established the Sculpting Evolution group as a leading lab for inventing new ways to study and influence the evolution of ecosystems. The MIT Digital Currency Initiative, based at the Media Lab, has a new research director, Neha Narula. Her Medium blog post talks about how cryptocurrencies are key to unlocking the full potential of the Internet.

I’m also pleased to share news of our faculty hires this year: Fadel Adib heads the Lab’s new Signal Kinetics group, which taps into the invisible signals that surround us, such as Wi-Fi. He is focused on inventing technologies that extend human and computer abilities in sensing, communication, and actuation through signals and networks. Canan Dağdeviren will join the Media Lab in January to direct the Conformable Decoders group, whose goal is to convert the patterns of nature and the human body into beneficial signals and energy. She has created a wide range of piezoelectric systems that can be twisted, folded, stretched/flexed, wrapped, implanted onto curvilinear surfaces of the human body without damage or significant alteration in the devices’ performance.


I’m proud to note the recognition of Labbers’ achievements, including:

I also had the honor of sitting down with President Barack Obama in the White House for a special edition of WIRED, guest-edited by the President. Our conversation ran the gamut: from self-driving cars and artificial intelligence, to Star Trek and my SafeCast project.

WIRED Editor-in-Chief Scott Dadich (center), moderating my conversation with US President Barack Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Photo: WIRED

And sadly, we pay tribute to two iconic individuals, Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert, founding members of the Lab who passed away this year.

Marvin was considered a “founding father of artificial intelligence.” His 1985 book, The Society of Mind, is considered a seminal exploration of intellectual structure and function, advancing understanding of the diversity of mechanisms interacting in intelligence and thought. A listing his incredible achievements, however, doesn’t begin to describe what Marvin brought to both the Media Lab and MIT. You always knew you had to be on your toes when Marvin entered a conversation. His originality, humor, and brilliance will be forever ingrained in the culture of the Lab.

Marvin Minsky (left) and Seymour Papert in 1971. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Solomon

Much to my regret, I never had the opportunity to meet Seymour, but like Marvin, he left an indelible mark on the Lab. He was a brilliant mathematician and pioneer of constructionist learning whose ideas and inventions transformed how millions of children around the world create and learn, empowering them to experiment, explore, and express themselves.

We’ve also just learned that Edith Ackermann, an early faculty member at the Lab who worked closely with Seymour, passed away just a few days ago, on December 24, after a battle with cancer. For some 30 years, Edith stayed connected to us as a friend, collaborator, and advisor. She too will be deeply missed.

The legacies of Marvin, Seymour, and Edith endure in the Media Lab, continuing to motivate our mission as we look ahead to 2017. Wishing you all the best for the new year. We’ve got a lot of work to do!

Joi Ito is the director of the Media Lab. This blog post was originally published on the Media Lab website.