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Wed, Dec 31 19:00 UTC


When I became the director of the MIT Media Lab three years ago, my previous primary "occupation" was investing in and advising startup companies. I invested in mostly Internet-related software and service companies (e.g., Twitter, Flickr, Kickstarter). Joining the Media Lab and MIT was bit of a "pivot"-academia was a fundamentally different model for impacting the world, focused more on fundamental science and technology that wasn't as easily commercialized.

In order to focus on the Media Lab after joining, I decided I would stop investing in startup companies. (I invested in Media Lab alumni companies, Littlebits and Form Labs, before I officially started at the Lab.) As I immersed myself in learning about the Lab and MIT, I continued to learn and think about how different types of science and technology made their way into the world. In particular, I was intrigued by how biomedical research, which has a major impact on human health, seemed to have an extremely different profile, requiring a great deal of upfront investment. I knew very little about biomedical research but was very interested.

Even before I arrived at MIT, I had heard about Bob Langer. He is famous for his impact on commercializing biomedical research, and for helping to substantially advance the field of bioengineering. He has 1,050 patents and a group of dozens of researchers. Bob is one of the 11 Institute Professors at MIT who are recognized by the Institute for their outstanding contributions and who report directly to the provost and not a dean.

Last June, David L. Lucchino, a former student of Bob's who had run a startup coming out of Bob's lab, invited me to my first Red Sox game together with Bob Langer and a few of his friends. I got to sit next to Bob and he offered to teach me about his field and show me how to do things at MIT. Since then, Bob has become a true mentor and now has an affiliation at the Media Lab, working with the Center for Extreme Bionics, an Institute-wide initiative based at the Media Lab to work on a wide variety of technologies focused on eliminating human disabilities.

Recently Bob told me about a related project that he has been working on as a co-founder and senior partner at a company called PureTech. PureTech focuses on taking science and engineering, primarily in the healthcare area, and developing innovative products and companies. It provides a base for researchers and funds the early development of both the technologies and the companies.

A team of senior partners, researchers, and entrepreneurs is currently working on 11 projects at various stages of development. The company is run by Daphne Zohar, its founder and CEO. On the surface, it looks like an incubator, but it really is a new model in many ways. There is actual translational research going on within PureTech, where the PureTech team is actively both acting as founders and also operating labs and running experiments.

Bob told me that more and more of the PureTech companies had software and Internet elements, and that they were looking for more expertise in that area on the board. This sounded like the perfect opportunity for me-participating in conversations about healthcare, bioengineering and biomedical technology with the best in the field while being allowed to contribute an area of business where I had some experience.

Healthcare is universal: we are all patient-consumers on some level and the patient will increasingly be at the center of healthcare decision making. We will also be immersed in technology that can measure our physiology in real-time as shown by the emergence of wearables. As technology and clinical practice converge, digital technologies will also increasingly enter the world of mainstream medicine, creating an entirely new area increasingly being referred to as "electronic medicine," which has the potential for incredible growth. Vast amounts of data that Internet and tech companies use to make decisions can also be leveraged for healthcare, opening opportunities for real-time disease monitoring and new targeted patient engagement opportunities.

I recently joined the board and PureTech announced a new funding round today. I have been working on two companies in particular, Akili - a cognitive gaming company that aims to diagnose and treat cognitive problems, and another cross-disciplinary digital health project that is still in stealth mode.

I think that healthcare and bioengineering are exciting spaces that are growing quickly, and thanks to many amazing labs in this field in the Kendall Square/Cambridge area, we have a regional advantage. I hope that PureTech can help create an effective pathway to impact health in new and positive ways, and that I can help contribute to this while continuing to learn.

Photo: via Alkili

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One of the first words that I learned when I joined the Media Lab was "antidisciplinary." It was listed an a requirement in an ad seeking applicants for a new faculty position. Interdisciplinary work is when people from different disciplines work together. An antidisciplinary project isn't a sum of a bunch of disciplines but something entirely new - the word defies easy definition. But what it means to me is someone or something that doesn't fit within traditional academic discipline­­­-a field of study with its own particular words, frameworks, and methods. Most academics are judged by how many times they have published in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals. Peer review usually consists of the influential members of your field reviewing your work and deciding whether it is important and unique. This architecture often leads to a dynamic where researchers focus more on impressing a small number of experts in their own field than on taking the high risk of an unconventional approach. This dynamic reinforces the cliché of academics-learning more and more about less and less. It causes a hyper-specialization where people in different areas have a very difficult time collaborating-or even communicating-with people in different fields. For me, antidisciplinary research is akin to mathematician Stanislaw Ulam's famous observation that the study of non-linear physics is like the study of "non-elephant animals." Antidisciplinary is all about the non-elephant animals.

The Media Lab focuses on "uniqueness, impact and magic." What our students and faculty do should be unique. We shouldn't be doing something that someone else is doing. If someone else starts doing it, we should stop. Everything we do should have impact. Lastly, things should induce us to be passionate and should go beyond incremental thinking. "Magic" means that we take on projects that inspire us. In the Lifelong Kindergarten group, researchers often describe the "Four Ps of Creative Learning" as Projects, Peers, Passion and Play. Play is extremely important for creative learning. There is a great deal of research showing that rewards and pressure can motivate people to "produce," but creative learning and thinking requires the "space" that play creates. Pressure and rewards can often diminish that space, and thus, squash creative thinking.

The kind of scholars we are looking for at the Media Lab are people who don't fit in any existing discipline either because they are between--or simply beyond--disciplines. I often say that if you can do what you want to do in any other lab or department, you should go do it there. Only come to the Media Lab if there is nowhere else where you could do what you want to do. We are the home of the misfits-the antidisciplinarians.

When I think about the "space" that we've created, I like to think about a huge piece of paper that represents "all science." The disciplines are little black dots on this paper. The massive amounts of white space between the dots represent antidisciplinary space. Many people would like to play in this white space, but there is very little funding for this, and it's even harder to get a tenured positions without some sort of disciplinary anchor in one of the black dots.

As we engage in tackling harder and harder problems that require many fields and perspectives, the separation of disciplines appears to be causing more and more damage. The complex system that is the human body has become impossibly multi-disciplinary. We should really be working on "One Science," but instead we are a mosaic of different disciplines sometimes not even recognizing when we are looking at the same problem because our language is so different and microscopes are set so differently.

The Center for Extreme Bionics at the Media Lab--led by Hugh Herr, Ed Boyden, Joe Jacobson, and Bob Langer--utilizes everything from mechanical engineering to synthetic biology to neuroscience in its quest to eliminate a variety of disabilities. This disparate collection of disciplines would never fit in any traditional department or lab.

Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte famously coined a twist on the academic dictum that faculty must "publish or perish." Media Lab faculty, he said, must "demo or die." I have made a modification- "Deploy or die." I'd like all of the Lab's faculty and students thinking about how their work ultimately deploys in the world, and if they can deploy it themselves, even better.

I think this philosophy of working together on big projects will help bring researchers together across disciplines - creating a single science instead of fragmented disciplines. We will still need disciplines, but I think that it's time we focus on a higher mission and the changes needed in academia and research funding to allow more people to work in the wide-open white space between disciplines - the antidisciplinary space.

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Update: One of our faculty members pointed out that disciplines are more like broad swaths and that a lot of the most cited papers are the ones in the disruptive "antidisciplinary" spaces.

I remember my 24th birthday very clearly. It was 1990. I had just finished working as the associate to the executive producer on the film The Indian Runner. I was running a nightclub in the Roppongi district of Tokyo at the time together with my team fromThe Smart Bar in Chicago. Madonna had just released "Vogue," Chicago House music had evolved into Acid House and the rave scene was going strong. It was a fun and tumultuous time in the world and in my life.

I met Timothy Leary for the first time through a mutual friend, David Kubiak, the editor of The Kyoto Journal at the time. I remember being very excited about meeting Tim because the rave scene had caused a revival of many 1960s themes. I had been reading books about consciousness and the mind - trying to chart my own journey along a path where Timothy often appeared as a central figure. Most recently, I had read a book by Robert Anton Wilson called Cosmic Trigger in which the author first tells the reader that everything in the book is a lie, and then proceeds to weave a story about one of the most wonderfully elaborate conspiracy theories every described. In the book, Wilson explains that "23" is a magic number and also explains that Timothy Leary had received "transmissions" from aliens. I wasn't sure what to believe, if anything, but at the time, I was convinced that the world was full of secrets and I wanted in on them.

I remember standing with Tim at the main Roppongi crossing called "Almond's" at the time named after the venerable coffee shop on that corner where everyone met up on their way into town at night. As we stood there talking about the budding Cyberpunk scene and how it was unfolding in Japan, I remember explaining to Timothy that I had just turned 24 and that I had hoped something magical would happen when I was 23 since it was the "magic number." I also asked him about the "Starseed transmissions" described in Cosmic Trigger. I remember Timothy's laugh vividly, as he told me that the whole thing was a joke. He said that everything in that book as well as most of the stuff that those guys talked about was one big joke and that I shouldn't believe any of it. In one instant, Timothy, the guru of the particular shrine that I was worshiping, knocked me whirling off my path.

Later, Timothy told me another joke.

A bunch of hippies go to India looking for the meaning of life. They travel for years climbing mountains and looking everywhere for the guru who knew the answer. They finally find the guru who was said to know the meaning of life. They ask the guru, "What is the meaning of life?" The guru says, "Wet birds don't fly at night." The hippies say, "They don't?" The guru says, "Do they?"

This was one of the most important spiritual lessons that I ever learned. That evening, I took Timothy on a whirlwind tour of the Tokyo nightlife scene introducing him to the Japanese kids who he later called "The New Breed" - a new youth culture that was technically and culturally savvy and wanted to take over instead of drop out. Tim modified his "Tune in, Turn on, Drop Out" slogan to "Tune in, Turn on, Take Over." He recruited me as his God Son explaining to me that the role of a God Son was to teach the Godfather. We started writing a book together and did public events around this theme.

Timothy always told everyone to "Question authority and think for yourself." I remember after an event where he and I spoke, a bunch of kids came up to Tim and said, "so what should we do?!?!" and Tim shouted at them, "Think for yourself!!" What I realized as I spent time with Tim was that people wanted gurus and that the more you tried to explain that you weren't a guru, the more many people became convinced that you were in fact a guru and that they wanted in on the secret. People wanted "answers" and wanted to get to some kind of goal. The thing is, there is no answer and there is no goal. You don't "win."

Ever since being knocked off of my original "path to enlightenment" by Timothy Leary, I've dabbled in various spiritual and mindfulness investigations and pursuits with a curious but skeptical stance. In retrospect, I think that Timothy probably believed that there was a spiritual path, but that the particular version of the path that I was on and the naive way that I was thinking about it was best completely destroyed so that I could start again with a more questioning mind.

I've tried very hard to avoid the pull of gurus or being mistaken for some kind of guru myself. I've had many teachers and have tried a variety of meditation and mindfulness techniques, but I still consider myself a novice. I am very happy with my journey and with relative consistency, each year of my life brings more happiness and becomes more interesting and I thank Timothy for the trajectory correction at a key point in my life.

Last year, in an email exchange, Pierre Omidyar, an old friend from my short stint at Tufts University, mentioned that I should look up Tenzin Priyadarshi. Tenzin runs the Dalai Lama Center at MIT and when we met, we decided we should teach a class together. Remembering the adage that the best way to learn is to teach, I jumped on the opportunity to teach a class where I could learn more about mindfulness and work on my practice.

Tenzin and I decided to call the class "Principles of Awareness".

What is awareness? Is self-awareness a "default" state or is it cultivated? Can it improve performance and wellbeing? What role does technology play in promoting or hindering awareness? Is there an ethical framework for our capacity to be aware? Can self-awareness be linked to happiness? The course will be set in an experiential learning environment where students/ participants will explore various theories and methodologies around awareness. Students will be required to keep an open lab book documenting methods and evaluations. Students will present their findings and observations regularly during class sessions. The final project will consist of evaluating various tools, techniques, and interfaces around awareness targeted towards "performance" and "wellbeing."

Class meetings (virtual and real) will consist of practice, lectures, and discussions with invited speakers/experts. Some of the talks will be open to the public. And the practice will range from meditation to hacking.

The first class last Wednesday was fascinating. We had a wide range of students, some students had never meditated, some engaged in regular prayer (a form of meditation) and others were experienced in many forms of mindfulness practice. In the conversation about awareness, Tenzin and I talked a lot about meditation. One of the students asked me, "so what's the 'there' you keep referring to?" I realized that I used "there" to refer to the "place" that you get to when you meditate - the place where you connect to true nature and depending on your skill and style of meditation, "there" can be a place of bliss. "There" can also be "enlightenment". Tenzin quickly jumped in and explained that we should not focus on getting "there" because everyone will want to get "there" and that wasn't the point.

I totally agree. One of the best comments I've heard about Qi Gong, a form of Chinese energy movement and meditation is that you shouldn't be goal oriented. You can't "win" at Qi Gong. The purpose wasn't to get better, although you will, but that the purpose was just the practice. I find the exact same thing about meditation. The point is not to "win" against yourself or anyone else. I find that even writing this blog post smacks of boastfulness and "know-it-all-ness" which is so not the point of the exercise. One will get better at any form of practice the more you do it and feeling good about progress isn't a bad thing, but the whole point of mindfulness and meditation is being present in the "Now" and NOT being goal oriented, egotistical or focused on the future or the past.

I find it off-putting to hear people boast about their meditation practice and in the past, I've mostly only talked about meditation and mindfulness with small groups of people where we were sharing our own experiences. However, now that I'm "teaching" a class about awareness where I'm asking my students to share all of their experiences as well as keeping an open log of their experiences, I thought I should share as well.

I hope to be posting more updates in the coming weeks about some of my experimentation and observations.

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