The Media Lab was founded in 1985 by Nicholas Negroponte and former MIT President Jerome Wiesner, and is housed in the Wiesner Building (designed by I. M. Pei), also known as Building E15. The Lab has been written about in the popular press since 1988, when Stewart Brand published The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T., and its work was a regular feature of technology journals in the 1990s. In 2009, it expanded into a second building.
The Media Lab came under scrutiny in 2019 due to its acceptance of donations from convicted child sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. This led to the resignation of its director, Joi Ito, and the President of MIT to launch of an "immediate, thorough and independent" investigation into the "extremely serious" and "deeply disturbing allegations about the engagement between individuals at the Media Lab and Jeffrey Epstein".
As of 2014[update], the Media Lab had roughly 70 administrative and support staff members. Associate Directors of the Lab were Hiroshi Ishii and Andrew Lippman. Pattie Maes and Mitchel Resnick were co-heads of the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, and the Lab's Chief Knowledge Officer was Henry Holtzman.
The Media Lab has at times had regional branches in other parts of the world, such as Media Lab Europe and Media Lab Asia, each with their own staff and governing bodies.
The Lab's primary funding comes from corporate sponsorship. Rather than accepting funding on a per-project or per-group basis, the Lab asks sponsors to fund general themes; sponsors can then connect with Media Lab research. Specific projects and researchers are also funded more traditionally through government institutions including the NIH, NSF, and DARPA. Also, consortia with other schools or other departments at MIT are often able to have money that does not enter into the common pool.
MIT Media Lab has an approximately $75 million annual operating budget.
Companies sponsoring the Lab can share in the Lab's intellectual property without paying license fees or royalties. Non-sponsors cannot make use of Media Lab developments for two years after technical disclosure is made to MIT and Media Lab sponsors. The Media Lab generates approximately 20 new patents every year.
Research at the Lab
Some recurring themes of work at the Media Lab include human adaptability,human computer interaction, education and communication, artistic creation and visualization, and designing technology for the developing world. Other research focus includes machines with common sense, sociable robots, prosthetics, sensor networks, musical devices, city design, and public health. Research programs all include iterative development of prototypes which are tested and displayed for visitors.
Each of these areas of research may incorporate others. Interaction design research includes designing intelligent objects and environments. Educational research has also included integrating more computation into learning activities - including software for learning, programmable toys, and artistic or musical instruments. Examples include Lego Mindstorms, the PicoCricket, and One Laptop per Child.
As of 2017[update], the MIT Media Lab has the following research groups:
Affective Computing: "advancing wellbeing by using new ways to communicate, understand, and respond to emotion"
Biomechatronics: "enhancing human physical capability."
Camera Culture: "making the invisible visible – inside our bodies, around us, and beyond – for health, work, and connection"
City Science: "looking beyond smart cities"
Civic Media: "creating technology for social change"
Collective Learning: "transforming data into knowledge"
Conformable Decoders": "converting the patterns of nature and the human body into beneficial signals and energy"
Fluid Interfaces: "designing wearable systems for cognitive enhancement"
Human Dynamics: "exploring how social networks can influence our lives in business, health, governance, and technology adoption and diffusions"
Lifelong Kindergarten: "engaging people in creative learning experiences"
Mediated Matter: "designing for, with, and by nature"
Molecular Machines: "engineering at the limits of complexity with molecular-scale parts"
Nano-Cybernetic Biotrek: "inventing disruptive technologies for nanoelectronic computation and creating new paradigms for life-machine symbiosis"
Object-Based Media: "changing storytelling, communication, and everyday life through sensing, understanding, and new interface technologies"
Opera of the Future: "extending expression, learning, and health through innovations in musical composition, performance, and participation"
Personal Robots: "building socially engaging robots and interactive technologies to help people live healthier lives, connect with others, and learn better"
Poetic Justice: "exploring new forms of social justice through art"
Responsive Environments: "augmenting and mediating human experience, interaction, and perception with sensor networks"
Scalable Cooperation: "reimagining human cooperation in the age of social media and artificial intelligence"
Sculpting Evolution: "exploring evolutionary and ecological engineering"
Signal Kinetics: "extending human and computer abilities in sensing, communication, and actuation through signals and networks"
Social Machines: "promoting deeper learning and understanding in human networks"
Space Enabled: "advancing justice in Earth's complex systems using designs enabled by space"
Synthetic Neurobiology: "revealing insights into the human condition and repairing brain disorders via novel tools for mapping and fixing brain computations"
Tangible Media: "seamlessly coupling the worlds of bits and atoms by giving dynamic physical form to digital information and computation"
Viral Communications: "creating scalable technologies that evolve with user inventiveness"
The Media Arts and Sciences program is a part of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, and includes three levels of study: a doctoral program, a master's of science program, and a program that offers an alternative to the standard MIT freshman year as well as a set of undergraduate subjects that may form the basis for a future joint major. All graduate students are fully supported (tuition plus a stipend) from the outset, normally by appointments as research assistants at the Media Laboratory, where they work on research programs and faculty projects, including assisting with courses. These research activities typically take up about half of a student's time in the degree program.
The Media Arts and Sciences academic program have a close relationship with the Media Lab. Most Media Lab faculty are professors of Media Arts and Sciences. Students who earn a degree in Media Arts and Sciences have been predominantly in residence at the Media Lab, taking classes and doing research. Some students from other programs at MIT, such as Mechanical Engineering, or Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, do their research at the Media Lab, working with a Media Lab/Media Arts and Sciences faculty advisor, but earn their degrees (such as MEng or an MS in EECS) from other departments.
In 2009, the Media Lab expanded into a new building designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. The local architect of record was Leers Weinzapfel Associates, of Boston. The Maki building has predominantly glass walls, with long lines of sight through the building, making ongoing research visible and encouraging connections and collaboration.
Faculty and academic research staff
Media Arts and Sciences faculty and academic research staff are principal investigators/heads of the Media Lab's various research groups. They also advise Media Arts and Sciences graduate students and mentor MIT undergraduates. "Most departments accept grad students based on their prospects for academic success; the Media Lab attempts to select ones that will best be able to help with some of the ongoing projects."
As of 2014[update], there are more than 25 faculty and academic research staff members, including a dozen named professorships. A full list of Media Lab faculty and academic research staff, with bios and other information, is available via the Media Lab Website.
As of August 2019[update], Alex Pentland is Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, Toshiba Professor and Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program Director.
Connections to Jeffrey Epstein
In August 2019, director Joi Ito said that the organization had received funding from multimillionaire pedophile and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein through foundations Epstein controlled; that Ito had visited several of Epstein's residences; and that Epstein had invested "in several of my funds which invest in tech startup companies outside of MIT". Ito later admitted to taking $525,000 in funding from Epstein for the Lab. Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte expressed support for Ito's decision to accept the funding from Epstein, and former Media Lab professor Marvin Minsky was named one of Jeffrey Epstein's child trafficking clients in an unsealed deposition in Federal court.
In September of 2019, it was revealed by emails leaked to Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker that Ito and Peter Cohen, the M.I.T. Media Lab’s Director of Development and Strategy at the time, have worked for years to solicit anonymous donations from Epstein despite Epstein being marked as Disqualified by the university as a donor. Ito has referred to Epstein as "fascinating".
Ito resigned due to the scandal shortly after the New Yorker article and the President of M.I.T. announced an "immediate, thorough and independent" investigation to be led by an outside law firm into the "extremely serious" allegations.
Shortly after signing a petition in support of Ito, attorney and political activist Lawrence Lessig argued that donations to academic institutions from criminals like Epstein, whose fortune does not derive from their crimes, are socially desirable, provided that donors do not use these donations to launder their reputations. This is precisely why, according to Lessig, such donations should be anonymous. "Everyone seems to treat it as if the anonymity and secrecy around Epstein’s gift are a measure of some kind of moral failing," Lessig wrote. "I see it as exactly the opposite."
Other funding controversies
On March 24, 2018, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the Media Lab and prompted protests. Salman's non-profit foundation MiSK is a member company of the Lab. According to The New York Times, a sizable part of the annual budget of the Lab comes from corporate patrons, who pay at least $250,000 each year. Prince Mohammed’s personal foundation was among the roughly 90 members.
Some Media Lab-developed technologies made it into products or public software packages, such as the Lego Mindstorms, LEGO WeDo and the pointing stick in IBM laptop keyboards, the Benton hologram used in most credit cards, the Fisher-Price's Symphony Painter, the Nortel Wireless Mesh Network, the NTT Comware Sensetable, the Taito's Karaoke-on-Demand Machine. A 1994 device called the Sensor Chair used to control a musical orchestra was adapted by several car manufacturers into capacitive sensors to prevent dangerous airbag deployments.
Created collaboratively by the Computer Museum and the Media Lab, the Computer Clubhouse, a worldwide network of after-school learning centers, focuses on youth from underserved communities who would not otherwise have access to technological tools and activities.
Launched in 2003, Scratch is a block-based programming language and community developed for children 8-16, and used by people of all ages to learn programming. Millions of people have created Scratch projects in a wide variety of settings, including homes, schools, museums, libraries, and community centers.
In 2013, the Media Lab launched E14 Fund as a program to support and invest in MIT Media Lab startups.. In 2017, E14 Fund launched its first seed stage venture fund to invest in the MIT Media Lab startup community. It invested in companies like Formlabs, Affectiva, Tulip, Wise Systems, Figur8 and more...
^"Founded in 2011, Supermechanical grew out of designer/software developer John Kestner's graduate work at the MIT Media Lab, where he explored ways to incorporate connectivity into the physical interfaces of everyday objects."