What kind of ideas will get you a coveted spot at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, the most cutting-edge program at arguably the world’s top technological research institute? “The crazier the better,” says Pattie Maes, former director of graduate admissions, and herself a researcher with some radical ideas. This hotbed of innovation is the subject of a recent “60 Minutes” segment, focused on the “Future Factory” in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If MIT is the temple of tomorrow’s technology, the Media Lab, founded by digital visionary Nicholas Negroponte, is its inner sanctum: the place where the future is revealed in the here and now. So what kind of innovative ideas and technologies are being put into practice? And who are the forward-thinking visionaries responsible?
“The Media Lab is this glorious mixture, this renaissance, where we break down these formal disciplines and we mix it all up and we see what pops out,” says Hugh Herr, the world’s foremost leader in bionics. “That’s the magic, that intellectual diversity.”
Herr himself contributes to the endless of stream of ideas emanating from the Media Lab, developing robotic appendages that not only allow people who have lost body parts to regain them, but to transform themselves into machine-people more capable than they’ve ever been before. This is a typical example of the thinking that’s driving this institution. Where the outside world sees a tragic condition – losing use of one’s arms or legs – that can at best be coped with by victims, the Media Lab researchers see the opportunity to rebuild people – faster, stronger and more capable. Herr’s own experiences are at the root of his research. He lost both his legs in a climbing accident 30 years ago, and became his own test case in experimenting with revolutionary bionic technology. He’s now a stronger mountain-climber than he ever was before losing his “human” legs: “That experience was so inspiring [because] I realized the power of technology to heal, to rehabilitate and even extend human capability beyond natural, physiological levels.”
While Herr refines his bionic legs, a young scientist, Caleb Harper, is developing solutions to a different physiological need. His “food computer” can replicate any climate imaginable, from Tuscany to Napa Valley, to grow any kind of vegetable or fruit in a controlled environment. “So they make a recipe. This much CO2, this much O2, this temperature. We create a world in a box.” Why does Harper pursue this project? Because the global food supply chain is increasingly murky, and people want to know what they are eating. Loading food with preservatives is necessary to keep them from decomposing while being shipped around the world, but also kills their nutrients. With the food computer, artificial preservation is no longer necessary. Inside the abandoned particle accelerator that MIT has allocated to Harper to build his farms-in-a-box, a possible revolution in global food production is taking place. Harper’s forthcoming book, “The Future of Food” (Simon & Schuster, January 2020), reveals the fascinating story of how digital technology is revolutionizing the way we feed the planet, offering surprising solutions to the global food crisis and redefining what it means to be a farmer.
The focus of the MIT Media Lab – which has demonstrated its value in the form of 302 patents – is on the future. Herr shares, “What does the world look like, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years? What should it look like? You know, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” The companies that place their trust in these dreamers and revolutionaries will reap the rewards of the future, today.