Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sorcerors and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating Innovative Technologies That WIll Transform Our Lives by Frank Moss

 The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives
The Sorcerors and Their Apprentices: How Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives by Frank Moss
The blurb:
From the most recent director of the famed MIT Media Laboratory comes an exhilarating behind-the-scenes exploration of the research center where our nation's foremost scientists are creating the innovative new technologies that will transform our future.

If you've ever read a book on an e-reader, unleashed your inner rock star playing Guitar Hero, or driven in a vehicle with child-safe air bags, then you've experienced the astounding inventions that come out of the MIT Media Lab.  But the geniuses at the Media Lab don't just make cool stuff--they make cool stuff that's going to change the world.

One of the central messages of the Lab is the need for unfettered research -- where resources are not tied to specific projects, but rather researchers are free to pursue new ideas and figure out what works.  We discover how some of the brightest minds in the world approach invention and innovation -- from creating a culture of curiosity and constantly field-testing new prototypes to cross-pollination of ideas across disciplines.

Rather than focusing too much energy on building machines that behave as smart as or smarter than humans, we should devote most of our efforts to building machines that help us to be the best human being we can be for ourselves and others. - Frank Moss
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, Frank Moss shares anecdotes from the unique and deeply innovative MIT Media Lab.   He gives us an insider's tour of a laboratory that encourages collaboration between scientists, academics, and business.  The academics that Moss introduces us to are vastly different from what I'd expected -- most of the productive members of the Media Lab go beyond one specific discipline and combine different areas of knowledge -- an anti-disciplinary approach -- to come up with an unexpected and innovative application.

Here are just a few of the innovations we read about:
  • CityCar - a networked, digitally controlled, stackable, foldable electric vehicle that was created to make our urban spaces more livable, sustainable and safe.
  • PowerFoot, a prosthetic ankle that gives amputees the ability to walk at normal speed and effort as well as other biohybrids created by the Biomechtronics group under the guidance of Professor Hugh Herr.
  • Chumby - created by CollaborRhythm in the belief that if patients understand how their medications work, they will be more likely to be responsible about adhering to their medication schedules is a compact device resembling a digital clock with a touchscreen, wifi connection, and embedded computer that is approachable for the computer illiterate.  Chumby reminds you to take each of your pills and then demonstrates just how each medication works in your body and in conjunction with the other medicines.  If you haven't taken your medication, it also shows the impact on your body on a cellular level, so that you can see the damage even if you feel well.
  • Nexi - a mobile, dexterous, sociable robot that can learn from and live together with elderly people and provide companionship and help.
  • Merry Miser - a personalized phone app that gently reminds you of your previous purchases at a store, the overall satisfaction/dissatisfaction, and helps you make informed choices and control impulse purchases.
But beyond the specific technological innovations, the book is also a fascinating read as it shares the innovations in ways of thinking about technology.  I recommend The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices to techies, regular readers, and anyone interested in learning more about science, creativity, and how we think.

ISBN-10: 0307589102 - Hardcover $27.50
Publisher: Crown Business (June 7, 2011), 272 pages.
Review copy courtesy of Amazon Vine and the publisher.

About the Author:
Frank Moss is the former director of the MIT Media Lab, director of the New Media Medicine Group, and Professor of the Practice of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT.  After earning PhDs in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT, he held research positions at IBM and Apollo Computer, and he cofounded several startups, including Tivoli Systems, which he later sold to IBM for $740 million. Today, he focuses his talents and energies on helping the Media Lab develop technology to address social issues and improve quality of life.

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