A Look Back at the Media Lab’s 2015

Happy New Year! As we welcome in 2016, here are a handful of Media Lab highlights from 2015.

We had our most diverse entering class of first-year master’s students in the Lab’s history. For the first time, the number of women who were accepted and enrolled (“yield”) was higher than our yield for men. The admission rate for underrepresented minorities (URMs) has been consistently lower than the 7 percent average for all other groups (women, men, and international applicants) — but this year, it increased to 13 percent. Of course, we still have a lot of work to do, and continue to strive to make the Lab a place where everyone feels they can be successful, but I’m really pleased to see such progress, and look forward to even greater improvements for the incoming class of 2016.

Left: LEGO model of the Media Lab. Right: “What a beautiful thing. What does it do?” Marvin Minksy was presented with an award for his long career of pioneering work in AI at Mind, Magic & Mischief. Photo credits: John Werner.

On October 30, we celebrated the Media Lab’s 30th anniversary with a day-long symposium, Mind, Magic & Mischief, followed by a party and alumni gathering. Highlights were tributes to Marvin Minsky and Lab co-founder Jerome Wiesner, and talks by Kofi Annan, Steve Pinker, George Church, Nolan Bushnell, Mary Lou Jepsen, and US CTO Megan Smith. The event also recognized the Lab’s 30-year collaboration with LEGO. To acknowledge this, LEGO gave us an incredible 30th birthday present: a scale model of the Media Lab complex—made out of LEGO, of course. If you’re in Cambridge, you can see it on display in our E14 lobby.

Our Knotty Objects summer symposium in July brought together a group of designers, inventors, and scholars who are merging design and technology in new and unexpected ways. Our antidisciplinary view of research made the Lab a great spot to explore the intersection of design and technology.

Ed Boyden received a Breakthrough Prize for his work in optogenetics, a technique in which scientists can control neurons by shining light on them. This past year, Ed and his students and colleagues in the Synthetic Neurobiology group and the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research continued pioneering work with “expansion microscopy,” a new technique that enables large, 3D objects to be imaged with nanoscale precision by physically expanding the tissue. This tool opens up possibilities for inserting barcodes or other tags to help identify exactly what’s happening within a particular area of the brain.

Joe Jacobson was selected as a 2016 inductee for the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on electronic ink.

Neri Oxman presents Mushtari at TED 2015.

Neri Oxman, head of the Mediated Matter group, broke new ground, exploring design in combination with synthetic biology. As part of the course “Designing Across Scales” (co-taught with Meejin Yoon and Lab alum David Sun Kong), 100+ MIT students got a chance to design and assemble DNA molecules to reprogram bacteria to glow in specific combinations of colors. Neri’s Mushtari project also challenged our imaginations by showing how synbio and design could come together with a prototype for a beautifully designed external digestive system.

Along with these exciting new areas, research in our more long-standing areas of inquiry continues to surprise and amaze. The Lab has a long history of achievement in areas such as advanced user interfaces, new opportunities for creative expression, and new ways to help kids learn. Examples of just a few great Lab achievements in 2015 include:

Valentin Heun, a PhD student in Pattie Maes’ Fluid Interfaces group, created the Reality Editor: a new kind of tool that allows users to connect and manipulate the functionality of physical objects.

Tod Machover talks to Detroit Achievement Academy third-graders after a rehearsal at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Photo credit: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio.

Professor Tod Machover, who has been pushing the boundaries of music performance for his entire career, was honored by Musical America as Composer of the Year. I was lucky to be present in November for the premiere of Tod’s Symphony in D, created with the people of Detroit and performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as the latest of his collaborative city symphonies. In addition to being a spectacular show, I expect that the process and the event will have a lasting impact on Detroit.

Ayush Bhandari, a graduate student in the Camera Culture group, working with Professor Ramesh Raskar and former research scientist Christopher Barsi, developed a biomedical imaging system that could ultimately replace a $100,000 piece of lab equipment with components that cost just a few hundred dollars. The system, which uses fluorescence lifetime imaging, could have implications for both biological research and clinical practices, including DNA sequencing and cancer diagnosis.

Scratch, a programming language for kids created by Mitch Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, continues to grow and expand for a broader audience of kids. In December, a special PBS Kids ScratchJr app was released, created by PBS in collaboration with Lifelong Kindergarten. Scratch is now used in more than 150 different countries and is available in more than 40 languages. Over 12 million projects have been shared on the Scratch website, created by over nine million users.

The Lab had some 20 submissions accepted at CHI 2015, including work from members of the Affective Computing, Camera Culture, Civic Media, Fluid Interfaces, Living Mobile, Object-Based Media, Responsive Environments, Tangible Media, and Viral Communications groups. There was a similarly strong showing of work at SIGGRAPH 2015, with 15 different talks, posters, and exhibits from students and researchers from across the Lab. I was also SIGGRAPH’s keynote speaker.

A Personal Food Computer from OpenAg.

This year we launched a Digital Currency Initiative to bring together global experts in areas encompassing cryptography, economics, privacy, and distributed systems, to explore this new and complex area. We also launched a second initiative, Open Agriculture (OpenAG), that focuses on the creation of an open-source ecosystem of food technologies that enable and promote transparency, networked experimentation, education, and hyper-local food production.

As I mentioned back in July at their official start, an amazing group of individuals joined the Director’s Fellows program this year. This third cohort of fellows includes deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim; creative Mexican bureaucrat Gabriella Gomez-Mont; game designer Rob Pardo; bionic multimedia performance artist Viktoria Modesta; and other advocates and tinkerers in wildly diverse spaces.

3D printed glass exhibit in the E14 lobby. Photo credit: Andy Ryan.

The Lab also mounted three lobby exhibits in 2015: Jerome B. Wiesner: Visionary, Statesman, Humanist, celebrating the life and work former MIT president, Media Lab co-founder, and science advisor to John F. Kennedy; and two exhibits highlighting current Lab research: G3DP: Glass 3D Printing, from the Mediated Matter group in collaboration with MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Wyss Institute, and MIT’s Glass Lab; and bioLogic, from Tangible Media, a project led by student Lining Yao that created a “bio-skin” fabric that contains live, moisture-sensitive bacteria. The fabric peels back in reaction to sweat and humidity—a preview of future responsive and transformable interfaces.

And looking forward, 2016 shows every sign of being another winner for the Lab. New faculty member Iyad Rahwan joined us this academic year and started the Scalable Cooperation group, exploring how technology is reshaping the nature of human cooperation. His work on the ethical questions of self-driving cars, conducted with Jean-Francois Bonnefon and Azim Shariff from France’s Toulouse School of Economics, was just named to Technology Review’s list of the Best of 2015.

And in January, Kevin Esvelt will be coming to us from Harvard to head the Sculpting Evolution group. The group will merge some of the newest techniques in molecular biology with ecological engineering to invent new ways to study and influence the evolution of ecosystems. Having Kevin join the Lab is a major coup for us — he is one of the key researchers working on the CRISPR gene drive, and an important voice in the very difficult conversation around the use of technologies that can permanently alter entire species.

There’s more, of course, but it’s impossible to mention everything. Every day I am impressed by something created, imagined, or built by one of the Lab’s researchers. I look forward to seeing what’s coming next in 2016!

Joi Ito (@Joi) is director of the MIT Media Lab.

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