The Biomechatronics group’s space at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looks like a high-tech Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Along one wall of the brightly lit, glass-walled space, there are racks and racks of mechanical and robotic limbs, like feet, ankles and legs, as well as plaster casts of the amputated ends of thighs. It’s both gruesome and fascinating. Research assistants work at computers arrayed around the room, and one is testing out a prototype of a new robotic ankle-foot prosthesis that has greater range of motion and more power than a human ankle and foot ever will. The space, which the Biomechatronics group shares with the Camera Culture group (mixing unrelated disciplines is the Media Lab’s secret sauce) is a playground for supernerds.
Those nerds, as they often do, are quietly, diligently changing the world.
Take for instance Shriya Srinivasan, a 24-year-old research assistant and Ph.D. candidate in a joint program between Harvard and MIT called Health Sciences and Technology. She is hard at work on the latest generation of prosthetic limbs. But she’s not just working on the physical object that will be attached where a leg, ankle or foot used to be. Under the direction of Hugh Herr, the group’s head and himself a double amputee, she is designing a new amputation surgery—a variation on a revolutionary procedure originally codeveloped by Herr—that will allow amputees to use a bionic prosthetic that responds to impulses from nerves inside the end of the severed limb. The amputee will be able to control the function of the new limb in the same way he or she controlled the function of the flesh-and-bone one—by thinking about it. It’s groundbreaking work that could completely rewrite everything we currently know about how humans interface with machines. The operation aims to correct the unnatural gait that is a major cause of prosthetic rejection by amputees. But more importantly, the surgery helps alleviate phantom pain, a chronic condition in which amputees experience acute discomfort where their limbs used to be.
“I wanted to be in a field where the science would go from benchtop to bedside and I could help change the paradigm,” she says.
Redesigning medical procedures may seem far beyond the purview of a robotics lab, but this is no ordinary lab. The MIT Media Lab, founded in 1985 and currently helmed by Joichi Ito, a Japanese activist and entrepreneur, was created as a place to foster projects and research that didn’t fit into any of the defined scientific and engineering disciplines of the time. Its students and project managers quickly began to develop new design and engineering concepts by purposely combining and integrating wildly diverse scientific fields.
The results were inventions and ideas that broke every known mold. Its students and project leaders developed the tech that, decades later, enabled movies on demand. They demonstrated a precursor to Google Earth 25 years before that program was invented. They conducted breakthrough work in wearable computing, and showcased online social media long before Facebook.
Today, the lab is a collection of 25 research groups and initiatives that encompass over 450 discrete projects, and it hosts programs like AlterEgo, a wearable interface that allows the user to communicate directly with a computer through the electronic signals of silent speech—by internally vocalizing a question to yourself, like who’s the current prime minister of Denmark, without opening your mouth. Optogenetics, which, oversimply put, uses synchronized flashes of light to stimulate brain waves, has already been shown to significantly reduce the plaques that cause Alzheimer’s in mice. Among many other awe-inspiring endeavors, the Lab is also researching robotically assisted treatment for autistic children, next-generation cryptocurrency, new interactive ways for audiences to experience music, self-building architecture for habitation on other planets or in space, and novel, people-centered urban design. The Lab’s various initiatives are run by faculty. The program’s 183 master’s and doctoral students, who work in the Lab as research assistants, will leave the Lab with a degree in Media Arts and Sciences. (The Lab also employs postdoctoral researchers, research scientists and MIT undergrads who help staff the projects.)
Andrew Lippman, the Lab’s associate director and also the head of its Viral Communication research group, sees the Media Lab’s unique consortium structure as the engine driving its rapid pace of innovation. “We are all working together, and it allows us to foster ideas without permission or a proposal cycle,” he says. “Students sometimes come up with a demo overnight they thought of themselves, and the sheer number of these pop-up ideas keeps us refreshed and stimulated, even if they’re only sometimes winners.”
The Lab’s over $75 million annual operating budget is fully funded through grants and by companies that pay $250,000 for a minimum three-year membership. In exchange, those supporters get access to a royalty-free license for any patents that are registered by the Lab during their sponsorship period. Members include companies as diverse as 21st Century Fox, Exxon Mobil, Estee Lauder, the LEGO group, Twitter and Novartis. On display in one lab, for instance, are prototypes for athletic clothing that automatically vents when it senses perspiration, a collaboration with member New Balance. Thus far, more than 150 startups have spun out of the Lab’s research.
Upstairs from Biomechatronics is the City Science group, where Michael Lin and Phil Tinn are developing an autonomous vehicle that they hope will solve the “last mile” problem in public transportation—people often still need to use a car to get to or from their train, bus or subway. Called the Persuasive Electric Vehicle, their creation is an on-demand, self-driving bike—a tricycle, to be exact—that can carry a single human, or be reformatted to deliver cargo. It’s hailed via an app, the way you’d summon an Uber or Lyft, and it operates on bicycle paths. The PEV navigates its way through its surroundings using an open-source library of “point cloud maps,” a real-time, three-dimensional picture of changing terrain like the kind used by self-driving cars. But Lin and Tinn’s work goes beyond the PEV, and includes developing transportation policy, road and bike path design, signage—in other words, reinventing the entire transportation ecosystem.
At many colleges, the Ph.D.’s motto is “publish or die,” but at the Media Lab, it’s “demo or die.” The ethos keeps researchers like Lin, Tinn and Srinivasan focused on creating radically new technology that will hopefully also make human life better.
“In the end,” Lin says, “you need to come up with a design that people will actually use.”