300 geniuses call him boss

Will Frank Moss push MIT's Media Lab, home of digital ink and $100 computers, to innovate itself out of existence?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Frank Moss hasn't had much time to decorate his fourth-floor corner office. The plain white walls are nearly bare except for a single black-and-white photo. It shows legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas stepping back to launch a pass in the 1958 National Football League championship game, called by some the greatest football game ever played.

Unitas was always "willing to take a risk" to make a big play, says Mr. Moss, who grew up in Baltimore and was appointed last month as director of the prestigious Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Moss has taken a few risks himself as a computer industry entrepreneur. He's seen one company he's started sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, another go belly up, and others fall somewhere in between. Now his assignment is to try to push the Media Lab into new territory - even if it means it might one day innovate itself out of existence.

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Cofounded by Nicholas Negroponte and former MIT president Jerome Weisner in 1985, the Media Lab earned its reputation envisioning today's "digital lifestyle," developing ideas from wearable computers to digital ink to a $100 laptop computer for use by children in developing countries.

The lab is also, Moss boasts, "clearly the coolest place on the planet" to work, for those interested in how technology can change society. Its 30-plus research groups have names like Biomechatronics (how technology can enhance physical abilities), Lifelong Kindergarten (creative ways to learn), and Smart Cities (how buildings can respond more intelligently to inhabitants). Most of the lab's $32 million yearly budget comes from corporate sponsors ranging from the expected - tech giants such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, Intel, and Cisco Systems - to the less obvious, such as Campbell Soup, Philip Morris, and The LEGO Group, maker of LEGO toys.

One of Moss's top priorities is to make sure these 80 or so corporate sponsors feel they benefit from the work of the lab. In the go-go days of the late 1990s tech boom, companies could simply decide, "This is cool. We're going to put money behind it," Moss says. But today, "You have to be able to justify that [spending] as a good investment that has a return."

Companies come to the lab to become immersed in the creative atmosphere and to see what the future possibilities are, Moss says. "They take that back to their companies and [use it to] try to understand where they are going."

The lab offers a "totally unique model" for its sponsors, who receive worldwide rights to the research they fund.

"One ticket buys everything," Moss says. "When you buy into the Media Lab, you buy into our community here. For just about the cost of one engineer, [companies] get access to the intellectual property of 300 of the smartest people on the planet." In his mind, "It's almost an irresistible purchase" - if, he quickly adds, the company understands how to apply what it learns to its own business.

A graduate of Princeton University, Moss hoped to get a job in the space program. But he began to see the huge potential of computers during his graduate work at MIT in the 1970s.

"He's really one of the smartest technologists I know, both in terms of the understanding of technology and where things are going to be moving," says Judith Hurwitz, CEO of Hurwitz & Associates, an information technology research and consulting firm in Waltham, Mass. She has known and worked with Moss for more than 20 years. "He's also a very charismatic leader, and he'll have the ability to bring in new energy and new outside involvement," she adds.

Moss wants to more strongly focus the Media Lab on confronting "some of the looming social problems we have today," including the healthcare challenges of an aging population.

He sees more healthcare being delivered in the home ("health without hospitals") through technologies such as the ability to "project a physical presence" to a remote location by manipulating a proxy robot. If Moss could project his own physical presence to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, to look in on his aging father "and do basic things for him, that'd be a wonderful thing," he says. "I think that physical projection may be as commonplace 20 years from today as digital projection is today."

The lab is also keeping close ties to the "One Laptop Per Child" project to develop a $100 computer, with electric power supplied by a hand crank. Mr. Negroponte left his post as chairman of the Media Lab to spin off the project and pursue it full time. Moss wonders what new directions education will head in when 100 million children in the developing world begin to learn via computer and even create their own programs. He calls this untapped resource a "brain gain."

Moss is trying to balance the worlds of business and academia. Companies want new products, while researchers often want to explore intriguing new possibilities unfettered by their commercial prospects. "It's a compromise." Moss says. He wants to see "a change in behavior" in the 30 faculty and hundreds of grad students at the lab that tilts them even more toward helping sponsors understand how the technologies they're seeing demonstrated apply to companies, he says.

While there has been widespread appreciation of the Media Lab, Moss concedes that he's found few people who identify the lab with a specific new technology. "The Media Lab has succeeded beyond its wildest expectations, in terms of graduating real clever entrepreneurial [students]," says Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. "It's been, I suspect, less of a success in terms of delivering products out of the lab that companies can actually use."

To remedy that, Moss plans to more often go beyond demonstrating concepts to building working prototypes. He'd like to see the lab making "a very concrete contribution ... where you say 'the Media Lab did A, B, or C.' "

On the other hand, sponsors have told Moss the reason they're backing the lab is to get "the long view. They don't want me to change that."

But that "long view" may be getting shorter and shorter. "Who could have imagined [the impact of] Google even five years ago?" he says. Not long ago, the idea of widespread instant access to every Web page on the planet "was a 50-year vision. It actually turned out to be a two- or three-year vision."

As Moss and others see it, more innovation is going to bubble up from the users of technology themselves. Does that mean that labs such as his could become obsolete?

Maybe, but "So what if we aren't here in 20 years, but we led to a whole new way of doing things?" Moss says. "We probably wouldn't be here anyway. So let's be part of it.

"I don't think that this massive sea change in how innovation is done is not going to happen if the Media Lab denies it. So I'd rather get behind it and help our sponsors understand how their businesses change when creativity comes from the bottom up."

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