THE SORCERERS AND THEIR APPRENTICES
How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives
By Frank Moss
Over the past 25 years, we have seen countless digital technologies emerge from the famed MIT Media Lab. In THE SORCERERS AND THEIR APPRENTICES: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives (Crown Business; June 7, 2011), Frank Moss, who just recently stepped down as director, finally reveals how the Lab’s eclectic and eccentric researchers have spun out these unparalleled ideas and inventions that have transformed our lives over the past quarter century, and what they have in store for the next. Moss shows us not only how the Lab has fostered a culture of creativity and innovation, but also how this culture can be replicated in any business, in any non-profit, and across America as we push ahead to, in the words of US President Barack Obama, out-innovate the world.
A breathtaking tour of one of the most extraordinary idea incubators on the planet—a place where boundaries are non-existent, playful learning is prized, and not taking risks is the biggest risk of all—THE SORCERERS AND THEIR APPRENTICES introduces us to those Media Lab researchers who are leveraging dramatic advances in the biological, physical and social sciences to create a new generation of inventions that will have a deeper and more meaningful impact on people’s lives. Moss begins by explaining the Media Lab’s current mission—to empower ordinary people to do truly extraordinary things and, in the process, take control over their health, their wealth, and their happiness—before sharing a series of fascinating and inspiring stories that illustrate perfectly how the Lab’s mission is taking shape in real time. Along the way, we meet a wide variety of incredibly talented and passionate individuals, and encounter the inventions coming out of their crowded and bustling workshops, including:
- Cynthia Breazeal, whose Personal Robots group is building the world’s first mobile, dexterous, and sociable robots—robots that can learn from and live with people, serving as helpful companions to the sick and elderly.
- Hugh Herr, head of the Biomechactronics group and a bilateral amputee, who walks effortlessly on robotic prosthetic feet that restore normal motion by replicating a biological limb.
- Pranav Mistry, a member of the Fluid Interfaces group, who is test-driving SixthSense, a compact wearable device that transforms any surface—wall, tabletop or even your hand—into a touch-screen computer.
- Amy Farber, a social anthropologist chronically ill with a rare lung disease, who has joined computer scientist Ian Eslick of the New Media Medicine group to launch a medical social network that brings the vast experience of patients to the attention of clinicians, turning the drug discovery process upside down.
- Rosalind Picard, whose Affective Computing group creates face-reading technology that not only helps people with autism function better in school and society, but also has surprising commercial applications with huge markets.
An inspiring blueprint for the kind of game-changing innovation that can improve all our lives—from the neediest on up—and a clarion for the “innovating on innovation” spirit that America desperately needs, THE SORCERERS AND THEIR APPRENTICES includes Moss’s insights on:
- The New Normal: Human augmentation technologies that will forever alter our most basic concepts of human abilities, first addressing the challenges of people normally considered to be “disabled,” such as amputees and people with autism, then ultimately improving the quality of life for everyone.
- Living and Learning Together: The new relationship between people and technology, in which robots learn from, understand and help people as true partners.
- The Age of Agency: How technology will eliminate the age-old divide between ordinary people and the “high priests” of society, such as doctors and bankers, empowering individuals with unprecedented control over their health and finances.
- I Am a Creator: Technologies that unleash the full powers of expression and creativity existing within each and every human being, just waiting to be released, and how these powers will transform the very identity of individuals and society as a whole in the future.
- Disappearing Disciplines: The Lab’s anti-disciplinary ethos, where people from widely different backgrounds—from computer scientists, to musicians, to physicists, to designers, to neuroscientists and many others—think about problems in wildly different ways, unencumbered by notions of what solutions “should” look like.
- Hard Fun: The distinctive approach to playful invention, which teaches students how to build almost anything, and then encourages them to build their most fanciful ideas and then see how people actually use them.
- Serendipity by Design: How the Media Lab fosters an environment where the unlikely and seemingly random connections that spark truly big ideas not only happen, but can’t help but happen.
Working together in a radically multi-disciplinary, atelier-style environment, faculty and students at the MIT Media Lab “build what they think about rather than think about what to build.” This complete abandon of traditional specialty, coupled with unique open and transparent collaboration between academia and industry, plants the seeds for new ideas and technologies that neither party would arrive at on its own. In an anything-goes environment, concepts germinate, cross-pollinate and mutate in a rapid-pace fashion that appears out of control. But out of this creative chaos emerges hundreds of inventions—from the practical to the madcap—that may survive and grow, upending an industry, spawning entirely new industries, or transforming society from the bottom up.
As Frank Moss reveals again and again, individuals, empowered with radically new technologies, can succeed where our institutions have dismally failed. THE SORCERERS AND THEIR APPRENTICES is not only a great read, but also a wellspring of optimism for our future.
FRANK MOSS, director of the MIT Media Lab from 2006-2011, is Professor of the Practice and head of the New Media Medicine group there. He has held positions at IBM Research, Apollo Computer and Lotus Development and was CEO and chairman of Tivoli Systems Inc, which he took public and merged with IBM. He is a co-founder of many companies, including Bowstreet, Infinity Pharmaceuticals (symbol INFI) and his latest start-up venture, Bluefin Labs. Moss has appeared on CNN, CBS Sunday Morning, and CNBC, and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fast Company and Scientific American among others. www.FrankMoss.com
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