Saturday, July 02, 2011

Miracles and Mysteries in MIT's Media Lab - Review of "The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices" by Frank Moss

My office is located a few short blocks from MIT's iconic Media Lab, so I have been vaguely aware of some of the magic that is conjured up there. Frank Moss, until recently Director of the Lab, has written a book that opens the portals of the lab and simultaneously opens up the worlds that are being explored and created there by its brilliant sorcerers and their apprentices.

In the opening pages, the reader learns about the prosthetic foot being developed by the Biomechatronics group. In describing the make-up of the members of this team, Moss also raises the curtain on the "secret sauce" that can be found in most of those who find their way to the Media Lab:

"We have yet to build a prosthetic foot that allows the wearer to feel the blades of grass beneath is or her feet or the grains of sand on a beach. However, the Biomechatronics group - which, in addition to Marecki and Elliott, consists of two mechanical engineers, two physicists, two machine learning experts, a material science expert, and an electrical engineer - is inching closer toward that goal every day.The team works at a dizzying pace, and although each member is assigned a different task, the reality is that everyone ends up doing everything. As Elliott, who has both a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in electrical engineering, notes: 'To work in this group, you have to be a bit of a Renaissance person.'" (Pages 4-5)

There you have it. Leonardo da Vinci reaches across the centuries to imprint his spirit and ethos onto the fabric and DNA of the anti-disciplinary and intersectional culture that explains the Media Lab's remarkable success.

Moss expands upon this theme in explicating his own philosophy of innovation and discovery:

"Since joining the Media Lab, I've come to believe strongly that the key to coming up with game changing innovations lies not in finding novel solutions to known questions, but rather in posing novel questions. Only by breaking down the existing artificially imposed barriers between the disciplines can we 'completely change the frame' of the discussion and pose questions that no one has ever thought to ask before, including - maybe even especially - the so-called experts in that field." (page 42)

Reading this book made me want to run across the street, tour the lab and begin to ask questions - like a kid in an intellectual candy store. If you are curious about innovation and the future, this book is a "must read."



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