Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Recently in the Academia Category

A few weeks ago I was asked to make some remarks at the MIT-Harvard Conference on the Uyghur Human Rights Crisis. When the student organizer of the conference, Zuly Mamat, asked me to speak at the event, I wasn't sure what I would say because I'm definitely not an expert on this topic. But as I dove into researching what is happening to the Uyghur community in China, I realized that it connected to a lot of the themes I have run up against in my own work, particularly the importance of considering the ethical and social implications of technology early on in the design and development process. The Uyghur human rights crisis demonstrates how the technology we build, even with the best of intentions, may be used to surveil and harm people. Many of my activities these days are focused on the prevention of misuse of technology in the future, but it requires more than just bolting ethicists onto product teams - I think it involves a fundamental shift in our priorities and a redesign of the relationship of the humanities and social sciences with engineering and science in academia and society. As a starting point, I think it is critically important to facilitate conversations about this problem through events like this one. You can view the video of the event here and read my edited remarks below.


Edited transcript.

Hello, I'm Joi Ito, the Director of the MIT Media Lab. I'm probably the least informed about this topic of everyone here, so first of all, I'm very grateful to all of the people who have been working on this topic and for helping me get more informed. I'm broadly interested in human rights, its relationship with technology and our role as Harvard and MIT and academia in general to intervene in these types of situations. So I want to talk mainly about that.

One of the things to think about not just in this case, but also more broadly, is the role of technology in surveillance and human rights. In the talks today, we've heard about some specific examples of how technology is being used to surveil the Uyghur community in China, but I thought I'd talk about it a little more generally. I specifically want to address the continuing investment in and ascension of the engineering and sciences in the world through ventures like MIT's new College of Computing, in terms of their influence and the scale at which they're being deployed. I believe that thinking about the ethical aspects of these investments is essential.

I remember when J.J. Abrams, one of our Director's Fellows and a film director for those of you who don't know, visited the Media Lab. We have 500 or so ongoing projects at the Media Lab and he asked some of the students, "Do you do anything that involves things like war or surveillance or things that you know, harm people?" And all of the students said, "No, of course we don't do that kind of thing. We make technology for good." And then he said, "Well let me re-frame that question, can you imagine an evil villain in any of my shows or movies using anything here to do really terrible things?" And everybody went, "Yeah!"

What's important to understand is that most engineers and scientists are developing tools to try to help the world, whether it's trying to model the brains of children in order to increase the quality and the effectiveness of education, or using sensors to help farmers grow crops. But what most people don't spend enough time thinking about is the dual use nature of the technology - the fact that technology can easily be used in ways that the designer did not intend.

Now, I think there are a lot of arguments about whose job it is to think about how technology can be used in unexpected and harmful ways. If I took the faculty in the Media Lab and put them on a line where at one end, the faculty believe we should think about all the social implications before doing anything, and at the other end they believe we should just build stuff and society will figure it out, I think there would be a fairly even distribution along the line. I would say that at MIT that's also roughly true. My argument is that we actually have to think more about the social implications of technology before designing it. It's very hard to un-design things, and I'm not saying that it's an easy task, and I'm not saying that we have to get everything perfect, but I think that having a more coherent view of the world and these implications is tremendously important.

The Media Lab is a little over 30 years old, and I've been there for 8 years, but I was very involved in the early days of the Internet. The other day, I was describing to Susan Silbey, the current faculty chair at MIT, how when we were building the Internet we thought if we could just provide a voice to everyone, if we could just connect everyone together, we would have world peace. I really believed that when we started, and I was expressing to Susan how naïve I feel now that the Internet has become something that's more akin to the little girl in the Exorcist, for those of you who have seen the movie. But Susan, being an anthropologist and historian said, "Well when you guys talked about connecting everybody together, we knew. The social scientists knew that it was going to be a mess."

One of the really important things I learned from my conversation with Susan was the extent to which the humanities have thought about and fought about a lot of these things. History has taught us a lot of these things. I know that it's somewhat taboo to invoke Nazi Germany in too many conversations, but if you look at the data that was collected in Europe to support social services, much of it was later used by the Nazis to roundup and persecute the Jews. And it's not exactly the same situation, but a lot of the databases that we're creating to help poor and disadvantaged families are also being used by the immigration services to find and target people for deportation.

Even the databases and technology that we use and create for the best of intentions can be subverted depending on who's in charge. So thinking about these systems is tremendously important. At MIT, we are, and I think that Zuly mentioned some of the specifics, working with tech companies that are working directly on surveillance technology or are in some way creating technologies that could be used for surveillance in China. Again thinking about the ethical issues is very important. I will point out that there are whole disciplines that work in this, STS, science technology in society, that's really what they do. They think about the impact of science and technology in society. They think about it in a historical context and provide us with a framework for thinking about these things. Thinking about how to integrate anthropology and STS into both the curriculum and the research at MIT is tremendously important.

The other thing to think about is allowing engineers more freedom to explore the application and impact of their work. One of the problems with scholarship is that many researchers don't have the freedom to fully test their hypotheses. For example, in January, Eric Topol tweeted about his paper that showed that of the 15 most impactful machine learning and medicine papers that had been published, none of them had been clinically validated. Many cases, in machine learning, you get some data, you tweak it and you get a very high effectiveness and then you walk away. Then the clinicians come in and they say "oh, but we can't replicate this, and we don't have the expertise" or "we tried it but it doesn't seem to work in practice." We're not providing, if you're following an academic path, the proper incentives for the computer scientists to integrate with and work closely with the clinicians in the field. One of the other challenges that we have is that our reward systems and the incentives that are in place don't encourage technologists to explore the social implications of the tech they produce. When this is the case, you fall a little bit short of actually getting to the question, "well, what does this actually mean?"

I co-teach a course at Harvard Law School called the Applied Challenges in Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence, and through that class we've explored some research that considers the ethical and social impact of AI. To give you an example, one Media Lab project that we discussed was looking at risk scores used by the criminal justice system for sentencing and pre-trial assessments and bail. The project team initially thought "oh, we could just use a blockchain to verify the data and make the whole criminal sentencing system more efficient." But as the team started looking into it, they realized that the whole criminal justice system was somewhat broken. And as they started going deeper and deeper into the problem, they realized that while these prediction systems were making policing and judging possibly more efficient, they were also taking power away from the predictee and giving it to the predictor.

Basically, these automated systems were saying "okay, if you happen to live in this zip code, you will have a higher recidivism rate." But in reality, rearrest has more to do with policing and policy and the courts than it does with the criminality of the individual. By saying that this risk score can accurately predict how likely it is that this person will commit another crime, you're attributing the agency to the individual when actually much of the agency lies with the system. And by focusing on making the prediction tool more accurate, you end up ignoring existing weaknesses and biases in the overall justice system and the cause of those weaknesses. It's reminiscent of Caley Horan's writing on the history of insurance and redlining. She looks at the way in which insurance pricing, called actuarial fairness, became a legitimate way to use math to discriminate against people and how it took the debate away from the feminists and the civil rights leaders and made it an argument about the accuracy of algorithms.

The researchers who were trying to improve the criminal risk scoring system have completely pivoted to recommending that we stop using automated decision making in criminal justice. Instead they think we should use technology to look at the long term effects of policies in the criminal justice system and not to predict the criminality of individuals.

But this outcome is not common. I find that whether we're talking about tenure cases or publications or funding, we don't typically allow our researchers to end up in places that contradict the fundamental place where they started. So I think that's another thing that's really important. How do we create both research and curricular opportunities for people to explore their initial assumptions and hypotheses? As we think about this and this conversation, we should ask "how can we integrate this into our educational system?" Our academic process is really important and I love that we have scholars that are working on this, but how we bring this mentality to engineers and scientists is something that I'd love to think about and maybe in the Breakout Sessions we can work on that.

Now I want to pivot a little bit and talk about the role of academia in the Uyghur crisis. I know there are people who view this meeting as provocative or political and it reminds me of the March for Science that we had several years ago. I gave a talk at the first March for Science. Before the talk, when I was at a dinner table with a bunch of faculty (I won't name the faculty), someone said, "Why are you doing that? It's very political. We try not to be political, we're just scientists." And I said, "Well when it becomes political to tell the truth, when being supportive of climate science is political, when trying to support fundamental scientific research is political, then I'm political." So I don't want to be partisan, but I think if the truth is political, then I think we need to be political.

And this is not a new concept. If you look at the history of MIT, or just the history of academic freedom (there's the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure) you will find a bunch of interesting MIT history. In the late 40s and 50s, during the McCarthy period, society was going after communists and left wing people out of the fear of Communism. And many institutions were turning over their left wing Marxist academics, or firing them under pressure from the government. But MIT was quite good about protecting their Marxist affiliated faculty, and there's a very famous case that shows this. Dirk Struik, a math professor at MIT, was indicted by the Middlesex grand jury on charges of advocating the overthrow of the US and Massachusetts governments in 1951. At the time MIT suspended him with pay, but once the court abandoned the case due to lack of evidence and the fact that states shouldn't be ruling on this type of charge, MIT reinstated Professor Struik. This is a quote from the president at the time, James Killian about the incident.

"MIT believes that its faculty, as long as its members abide by the law, maintain the dignity and responsibility of their position, must be free to inquire, to challenge and to doubt in their search for what is true and good. They must be free to examine controversial matters, to reach conclusions of their own, to criticize and be criticized, and only through such unqualified freedom of thought and investigation can an educational institution, especially one dealing with science, perform its function of seeking truth."

Many of you may wonder why we have tenure at universities. We have tenure to protect our ability to question authority, to speak the truth and to really say what we think without fear of retribution.

There's another important case that demonstrates MIT's willingness to protect its faculty and students. In the early 1990s, MIT and a bunch of Ivy League schools came up with this idea to provide financial aid for low income students on a need basis. The Ivy League schools got together to coordinate on how they would assess need and how they would figure out how much financial aid to give to students. Weirdly, the United States government sued the Ivy League schools saying that this was an antitrust case, which was ridiculous because it was a charity. Most of the other universities caved in after this lawsuit, but Chuck Vest the president at the time said, "MIT has a long history of admitting students based on merit and a tradition of ensuring these students full financial aid." He refused to deny students financial aid, and a multi-year lawsuit ensued, in which eventually MIT won. And then this need-based scholarship system was enshrined in actual policy in the United States.

Many of the people who are here at MIT today probably don't remember this, but there's a great documentary film that shows MIT students and faculty literally clashing with police on these streets in an anti-Vietnam War protest 50 years ago. So in the not so distant past, MIT has been a very political place when it meant protecting our freedom to speak up.

More recently, I personally experienced this support for academic freedom. When Chelsea Manning's fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School was rescinded, she emailed me and asked if she could speak at the Media Lab. I was thinking about it, and I asked the administration what they thought, and they thought it was a terrible idea. And when they told me that I said, "You know, now that means I have to invite her." I remember our Provost Marty saying, "I know." And that's what I think is wonderful about being here at MIT: the fact that the administration understands that faculty must be allowed to act independently of the Institute. Another example is when the administration was deciding what to do about funding from Saudi Arabia. The administration released a report, which has a few critics, that basically said, "we're going to let people decide what they want to do." I think each group or faculty member at MIT is permitted to make their own decision about whether to accept funding from Saudi Arabia. MIT, in my experience, has always stood by the academic freedom of whatever unit at the Institute that's trying to do what it wants to do.

I think we're in a very privileged place and I think that it's not only our freedom, but our obligation to speak up. It's also our responsibility to fight for the academic freedom of people in our community as well as people in other communities, and provide leadership. I really do want to thank the organizers of this conference for doing that. I think it's very bold, but I think it's very becoming of both MIT and Harvard. I read a very disturbing report from Human Rights Watch that talked about how Chinese scholars overseas are starting to have difficulties in speaking up, which I think is somewhat unprecedented because of the capabilities of today's technology. And I think there are similar reports about scholars from Saudi Arabia. The ability of these countries to surveil their citizens overseas and impinge on their academic freedom is a tremendously important topic to discuss, and think about both technically, legally and otherwise. I think it's also a very important thing for us to talk about how to protect the freedoms of students studying here.

Thank you again for making this topic now very front of mind for me. On the panel I'd love to try to describe some concrete steps that we can take to continue to protect this freedom that we have. Thank you.

Credits

Transcription and editing: Samantha Bates

34581570_10156015313486998_718869846225321984_o.jpgIn 2011, when we announced that I would join the Media Lab as the new Director, many people thought it was an unusual choice partially because I had never earned a higher degree - not even an undergraduate degree. I had dropped out of Tufts as well as the University of Chicago and had spent most of my life doing all sorts of weird jobs and building and running companies and nonprofits.

I think it took quite a bit of courage on the part of the Media Lab and MIT to hire a Director with no college degree, but once we got over the hump, some felt it was a kind of "badge of honor." (I'm also sure, not everyone felt this way.)

Jun Murai, father of the Japanese Internet and my mentor in Japan, who is the Dean of the Graduate School of Media and Governance at Keio University in Japan, had been encouraging me to complete a PhD in his program. We had been discussing this in earnest from June 2010,when they confirmed that Keio would be OK with awarding a PhD to someone without a Bachelor's or a Master's degree. When I joined the Media Lab, I asked the co-founder and first Director of the Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, whether it would help me if I completed the PhD. He recommended (at the time) that I not complete the PhD because it was more interesting that I didn't have a degree.

Eight years later, I am often referred to as "the academic" when I'm on panels; I advise and work with many students including PhD students. It felt that it was time to finish the PhD. In other words, one product of my profession is degrees and I felt like I needed to try the product. Even Nicholas agreed when I asked him.

The degree that I earned is a "Thesis PhD" which is a less common type of PhD that you don't see very much in the US. It involves writing about and defending the academic value and contribution of your work, rather than doing new work in residence in an institution. The sequencing and the ordering is different than typical PhDs.

The process involved writing a dissertation and putting together a package that was accepted by the university. After that, a committee was formally constituted with Jun Murai as the lead advisor and Rod Van Meter, Keiko Okawa, Hiroya Tanaka, and Jonathan Zittrain as committee members and thesis readers. They provided feedback and detailed critique on the thesis, which I rewrote based on this feedback. Oh June 6, I defended the thesis publicly at Keio University and, based on the questions and feedback from the defense, I rewrote the dissertation again.

On June 21 I had a final exam, which involved a presentation to the committee of all of the changes and responses to the criticisms and suggestions. The committee had a closed-door discussion and formally accepted the dissertation. I rewrote, formatted, and polished the dissertation some more and submitted the final version in printed form on July 20.

Finally, on behalf of the committee, Jun Murai prepared and presented the case at a faculty meeting on July 30, 2018 where they voted and awarded the PhD.

Although by definition and according to rules the dissertation is entirely my own work, I couldn't have done it without the help of my advisors, collaborators, and all of the people I've worked with over the years.

While I started this project mostly to understand the process and "see what it was like" to work on a degree, I learned a lot during the process of researching, reading, and talking to people about my dissertation. The dissertation, titled "The Practice of Change", is available online both in PDF and in LaTeX as a GitHub repo. It's a summary of a lot of the work that I've done so far, a question about how we understand, design solutions for, and try to address the current challenges to our society, and how the work going on at the Media Lab might be applied to or provide inspiration for people trying to work on addressing these challenges.

In some ways, the dissertation feels like I've gone around and kicked a dozen hornet's nests. I've mostly stayed out of extremely academic discourse in the past, but the process of trying to understand a number of different disciplines to try to understand and describe the context of my work has caused me to wade into many old and new arguments. I'm sure that many of my forays into various disciplines will cause annoyance to those well versed in those disciplines, but those constructive criticisms that I've received about my treatment of various disciplines have surfaced an exciting array of future work for me.

So while I do not believe that I have yet become a "serious academic" or that I will be focused primarily on research and academic output, I feel like I've discovered a new lens through which to look at things -- a new world to explore. It reminds me of entering a new zone in a game like World of Warcraft where there are new quests, new skills, new reps to grind, and lots of new things to learn. So fun.

Credits

To my late godfather Timothy Leary for “Question Authority and Think For Yourself.”

To Jun Murai for pushing me to do this dissertation.

To my thesis advisors: Hiroya Tanaka, Rodney D. Van Meter, Keiko Okawa and Jonathan L. Zittrain for their extensive feedback, guidance and encouragement.

To Nicholas Negroponte for the Media Lab and his mentorship.

To the late Kenichi Fukui for encouraging me to think about complex systems and the limits of reduction.

To the late John Perry Barlow for the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.”

To Hashim Sarkis for sending me in the direction of Foucault.

To Martin Nowak for his guidance on Evolutionary Dynamics.

To my colleagues at MIT and particularly at the Media Lab for continuous inspiration and my raison d’être.

To my research colleagues Karthik Dinakar, Chia Evers, Natalie Saltiel, Pratik Shah, and Andre Uhl for helping me with everything, including this thesis.

To Yuka Sasaki, Stephanie Strom, and Mika Tanaka for their help on helping me pull this dissertation together.

To David Weinberger for “The final edit.”

To Sean Bonner, Danese Cooper, Ariel Ekblaw, Pieter Franken, Mizuko Ito, Mike Linksvayer, Pip Mothersill, Diane Peters, Deb Roy and Jeffrey Shapard for their feedback on various parts of the dissertation.

Finally, thanks to Kio and Mizuka for making room in our family life to work on this and for supporting me through the process.

On May 13, 2018, I innocently asked:

240 replies later, it is clear that blogs don't make it into the academic journalsphere and people cited two main reasons, the lack of longevity of links and the lack of peer review. I would like to point out that my blog URLs have been solid and permanent since I launched this version of my website in 2002 but it's a fairly valid point. There are a number of ideas about how to solve this, and several people pointed out that The Internet Archive does a pretty good job of keeping an archive of many sites.

There was quite a bit of discussion about peer review. Karim Lakhani posted a link about a study he did on peer review:

In the study, he says that, "we find that evaluators systematically give lower scores to research proposals that are closer to their own areas of expertise and to those that are highly novel."

Many people on Twitter mentioned pre-prints which is an emerging trend of publishing drafts before peer review since it can take so long. Many fields are skipping formal peer review and just focusing on pre-prints. In some fields ad hoc and informal peer groups are reviewing pre-prints and some journals are even referring to these informal review groups.

This sounds an awful lot like how we review each other's work on blogs. We cite, discuss and share links -- the best blog posts getting the most links. In the early days of Google, this would guarantee being on the first page of search results. Some great blog posts like Tim O'Reilly's "What Is Web 2.0" have ended up becoming canonical. So when people tell me that their professors don't want them to cite blogs in their academic papers, I'm not feelin' it.

It may be true that peer review is better than the alternatives, but it definitely could be improved. SCIgen, invented in 2005 by MIT researchers creates meaningless papers that have been successfully submitted to conferences. In 2014 Springer and IEEE removed more than 120 papers when a French researcher discovered that they were computer-generated fakes. Even peer review itself has been successfully imitated by machines.

At the Media Lab and MIT Press, we are working on trying to think about new ways to publish with experiments like PubPub. There are discussions about the future of peer review. People like Jess Polka at ASAPbio are working on these issues as well. Very excited about the progress, but a long way to go.

One thing we can do is make blogs more citation friendly. Some people on Twitter mentioned that it's more clear who did what in an academic paper than on a blog post. I started, at the urging of Jeremy Rubin, to put credits at the bottom of blog posts when I received a lot of help -- for example my post on the FinTech Bubble. Also, Boris just added a "cite" button at the bottom of each of my blog posts. Try it! I suppose the next thing is to consider DOI numbers for each post although it seems non-obvious how independent bloggers would get them without paying a bunch of money.

One annoying thing is that the citation format for blogs suck. When you Goggle, "cite blog post," you end up at... a blog post about "How to Cite a Blog Post in MLA, APA, or Chicago." According to that blog post, the APA citation for this post would be, "Ito, J. (2018, May). Citing Blogs. [Blog post]. https://joi.ito.com/weblog/2018/05/28/citing-blogs.html" That's annoying. Isn't the name of my blog relevant? If you look at the Citing Electronic Sources section of the MIT Academic Integrity website, they link to the Purdue OWL page. Purdue gives a slightly more cryptic example using a blog comment in the square brackets, but roughly similar. I don't see why the name of my blog is less important than some random journal so I'm going to put it in italics - APA guidelines be damned. Who do we lobby to change the APA guidelines to lift blog names out of the URL and into the body of the citation?

Credits

Boris Anthony, Travis Rich for the work on citations for this blog and the discussion about the citation format.

Amy Brand for the link to the Peer Review Transparency site and the introduction to Jess Polka.

I received a lot of excited feedback from people who saw the 60 Minutes segment on the Media Lab. I also got a few less congratulatory messages questioning the "gee-whiz-isn't-this-all-great" depiction of the Lab and asking why we seemed so relentlessly upbeat at a time when so many of the negative consequences of technology are coming to light. Juxtaposed with the first segment in the program about Aleksandr Kogan, the academic who created the Cambridge Analytica app that mined Facebook, the Media Lab segment appeared, to some, blithely upbeat. And perhaps it reinforced the sometimes unfair image of the Media Lab as a techno-Utopian hype machine.

Of course, the piece clocked in at about 12 minutes and focused on a small handful of projects; it's to be expected that it didn't represent the full range of research or the full spectrum of ideas and questions that this community brings to its endeavors. In my interview, most of my comments focused on how we need more reflection on where we have come in science and technology over the 30-plus years that the Media Lab has been around. I also stressed how at the Lab we're thinking a lot more about the impact technology is having on society, climate, and other systems. But in such a short piece--and one that was intended to showcase technological achievements, not to question the ethical rigor applied to those achievements--it's no surprise that not much of what I said made it into the final cut.

What was particularly interesting about the 60 Minutes segment was the producers' choice of "Future Factory" for the title. I got a letter from one Randall G. Nichols, of Missouri, pointing out that "No one in the segment seems to be studying the fact that technology is creating harmful conditions for the Earth, worse learning conditions for a substantial number of kids, decreasing judgment and attention in many of us, and so on." If we're manufacturing the future here, shouldn't we be at least a little concerned about the far-reaching and unforeseen impact of what we create here? I think most of us agree that, yes, absolutely, we should be! And what I'd say to Randall is, we are.

In fact, the lack of critical reflection in science and technology has been on my mind-I wrote about it in Resisting Reduction. Much of our work at the Lab helps us better understand and intervene responsibly in societal issues, including Deb Roy's Depolarization by Design class and almost all of the work in the Center for Civic Media. There's Kevin Esvelt's work that involves communities in deployment of the CRISPR gene drive and Danielle Wood's work generally and, more specifically, her interest in science and racial issues. And Pattie Maes is making her students watch Black Mirror to imagine how the work we do in the Lab might unintentionally go wrong. I'm also teaching a class on the ethics and governance of AI with Jonathan Zittrain from Harvard Law School, which aims to ensure that the generation now rising is more thoughtful about the societal impact of AI as it is deployed. I could go on.

It's not that I'm apologetic about the institutional optimism that the 60 Minutes piece captured. Optimism is a necessary part of our work at the Lab. Passion and optimism drive us to push the boundaries of science and technology. It's healthy to have a mix of viewpoints-critical, contemplative, and optimistic-in our ecosystem. Not all aspects of that can necessarily be captured in 12 minutes, though. I'm sure that our balance of caution and optimism isn't satisfactory for quite a few critical social scientists, but I think that a quick look at some of the projects I mention will show a more balanced approach than would appear to be the case from the 60 Minutes segment.

Having said that, I believe that we need to continue to integrate social sciences and reflection even more deeply into our science and technology work. While I have a big voice at the Lab, the Lab operates on a "permissionless innovation" model where I don't tell researchers what to do (and neither do our funders). On the other hand, we have safety and other codes that we have to follow--is there an equivalent ethical or social code that we or other institutions should have? Harrison Eiteljorg, II thinks so. He wrote, "I would like to encourage you to consider adding to your staff at least one scholar whose job is to examine projects for the ethical implications for the work and its potential final outcome." I wonder, what would such a process look like?

More socially integrated work in technology has continued to increase in both the rest of society and at the Lab. One of my questions is whether the Lab is changing fast enough, and whether the somewhat emergent way that the work is infusing itself in the Lab is the appropriate way. Doing my own work in ethical and critical work and having conversations is the easiest way to contribute, but I wonder if there is more that we as a Lab should be doing.

One of the main arcs of the 60 Minutes piece was showing how technology built in the Lab's early days--touch screens, voice command, things that were so far ahead of their time in the 80s and 90s as to seem magical--have gone out into the world and become part of the fabric of our everyday lives. The idea of highlighting the Lab as a "future factory" was to suggest that the loftiest and "craziest" ideas we're working on now might one day be just as commonplace. But I'd like to challenge myself, and everyone at the Media Lab, to demonstrate our evolution in thoughtful critique, as well.









I visited Kuwait November 20 and 21 to accept an award from the Emir of the State of Kuwait on behalf of MIT. The award was for "the extraordinary role of the Media Lab in creativity and innovation of science and technology." Last year, Bill Gates won the award.
2016-11-21 15.49.49.jpg
This is the inscription on the award: "H.H. Sheikh Salem Al-Ali Al-Sabah Informatics Award has named Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) -USA- the recipient of the Informatics Badge of Honor for the extraordinary role of the Media Lab in creativity and innovation of science and technology during its 16th annual awarding ceremony under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah Emir of the State of Kuwait and the humanitarian leader."

The hosts were amazingly gracious and I really enjoyed meeting everyone. Thank you so much for the honor as well as for the hospitality and the engaging conversations. Very excited to visit again.

IMG_0096.jpg
On November 30, 2016, last night, I presented the award to the MIT Corporation Chairman, Robert Millard, and congratulated him and MIT.

Over 300 400 members of the MIT faculty, including myself, have signed the statement below. (You can see all the signers on the mitvalues.org page.) My quote included in a press release issued this afternoon was:

"Academic institutions have historically been havens to protect diversity of opinions and the freedom to express those opinions when the political climate has impinged on this freedom. It appears that we are entering a period where the political climate requires us to assert our leadership to protect and foster diversity and scientific inquiry itself."

The President-elect has appointed individuals to positions of power who have endorsed racism, misogyny and religious bigotry, and denied the widespread scientific consensus on climate change. Regardless of our political views, these endorsements violate principles at the core of MIT's mission. At this time, it is important to reaffirm the values we hold in common.

We, the undersigned faculty at MIT, thus affirm the following principles:

  • We unconditionally reject every form of bigotry, discrimination, hateful rhetoric, and hateful action, whether directed towards one's race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, disability, citizenship, political views, socioeconomic status, veteran status, or immigration status.

  • We endorse MIT's values of open, respectful discourse and exchange of ideas from the widest variety of intellectual, religious, class, cultural, and political perspectives.

  • We uphold the principles of the scientific method, of fact- and reason-based objective inquiry. Science is not a special interest; it is not optional. Science is a foundational ingredient in how we as a society analyze, understand, and solve the most difficult challenges that we face.

For any member of our community who may feel fear or oppression, our doors are open and we are ready to help. We pledge to work with all members of the community - students, faculty, staff, postdoctoral researchers, and administrators - to defend these principles today and in the times ahead.


Copyright xkcd CC BY-NC

Back when I first started blogging, the standard post took about 5 min and was usually written in a hurry after I thought of something to say in the shower. If it had mistakes, I'd add/edit/reblog any fixes.

As my post have gotten longer and the institutions affected by my posts have gotten bigger, fussier and more necessary to protect - I've started becoming a bit more careful about what I say and how I say it.

Instead of blog first, think later - agile blogging - I now have a process that feel a bit more like blogging by committee. (Actually, it's not as bad as it sounds. You, the reader are benefiting from better thought through blog posts because of this process.)

When I have an idea, I usually hammer out a quick draft, stick it in a Google Doc and then invite in anyone that might be able to help including experts, my team working on the particular topic and editors and communications people. It's a different bunch of people depending on the post, but almost everything I've posted recently is a result of a group effort.

Jeremy Rubin, a recent MIT grad who co-founded the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT mentioned that maybe I should be giving people credit for helping - not that he wouldn't help if he didn't get credit, but he thought that as a general rule, it would be a good idea. I agreed, but I wasn't sure exactly how to do it elegantly. (See what I did here?)

I'm going to start adding contributors at the bottom of blog posts as sort of a "credits" section, but if anyone has any good examples or thoughts on how to give people credit for helping edit and contributing ideas to a post or an informal paper like my posts on my blog and pubpub, I'd really like to see them.

Credits
  • Jeremy Rubin came up with the idea.
  • I wrote this all by myself.

Great_Dome,_MIT_-_IMG_8390.JPG
Photo by Daderot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was first appointed as the director of the MIT Media Lab, The New York Times said it was an "unusual choice" - which it was since my highest academic degree was my high school diploma, and, in fact, had dropped out of undergraduate programs at both Tufts and the University of Chicago, as well as a doctoral program at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

When first approached about the position, I was given advice that I shouldn't apply considering my lack of a degree. Months later, I was contacted again by Nicholas Negroponte, who was on the search committee, and who invited me to visit MIT for interviews. Turns out they hadn't come up with a final candidate from the first list.

The interview with the faculty, student and staff went well - two of the most exciting days of my life - although quite painful as well, as a major earthquake in Japan occurred the night between the two days. In so many ways, those two days are etched into my mind.

The committee got back to me quickly. I was their first choice, and needed to come back and have meetings with the School of Architecture + Planning Dean Adele Santos, and possibly the provost (now MIT president) Rafael Reif, since I was such an unorthodox candidate. When I sat down to meet with Rafael in his fancy office, he gave me a bit of a "what are you doing here?" look and asked, "How can I help you?" I explained the unusual circumstance of my candidacy. He smiled and said, "Welcome to MIT!" in the warm and welcoming way he treats everyone.

As the director of the Media Lab, my job is to oversee the operations and research of the Lab. At MIT, the norm is for research labs and academic programs to be separated-like church and state-but the Media Lab is unique in that it has "its own" academic Program in Media Arts and Sciences within the School of Architecture + Planning, which is tightly linked to the research.

Since its inception, the Lab has always emphasized hands-on research: learning by doing, demoing and deploying our works rather than just publishing. The academic program is led by a faculty member, currently Pattie Maes, with whom I work very closely.

My predecessor, as well as Nicholas, the lab's founding director, both had faculty appointments. However, in my case, due to the combination of my not knowing any better and the Institute not being sure about whether I had the chops to advise students and be sufficiently academic, I was not given the faculty position when I joined.

In most cases, it didn't matter. I participated in all of the faculty meetings, and except for rare occasions, was made to feel completely empowered and supported. The only awkward moments were when I was mistakenly addressed as "Professor Ito," or after explaining my position to academics from other universities had to endure responses like, "Oh! I thought you were faculty but you're on the ADMINISTRATIVE side of the house!"

So I didn't feel like I NEEDED to be a professor. When I was offered the opportunity to submit a proposal to become a professor, I wasn't sure exactly how it would help. I asked a few of my mentors and they said that it would allow me to have a life at MIT after I was no longer Lab director. Frankly, I can't imagine ever leaving my role as director of the Lab, but that was a nice option. Also, becoming a professor makes me more formally part of the Institute itself. It is a vote of confidence since it requires approval by the academic council.

I am not interested in starting my own research group, but rather have always viewed the entire Media Lab itself my "research group," as well as my passion. However, as I help start new initiatives and support faculty, from time to time, I have become more involved in thinking and doing things that require a more academic frame of mind. Lastly, I have begun to have more opinions about the academic program at the Media Lab and more broadly at MIT. Becoming a faculty member would give me a much better position from which to express these opinions.

With these thoughts in mind-and with advice from my wise mentors-I requested, and today received, appointment as a member of the MIT faculty, as a Professor of the Practice in Media Arts and Sciences.

I still remember when I used to argue with my sister, a double PhD, researcher, and faculty member, calling her "academic" as a derogatory term. I remember many people warning me when I took the role as the director of the Media Lab that I wouldn't fit in or that I'd get sick of it. I've now been at MIT approximately five years - longer than I've been at any other job - (and my sister, Mimi, is now an entrepreneur.) I feel like I've finally found my true calling and am happier than I've ever been with my work, my community and the potential for growth and impact for myself and the community in which I serve.

So thank you MIT and all of my mentors, peers, students, staff, and friends who have supported me so far. I look forward to continuing this journey to see where it goes.

I've posted the research statement that I submitted to MIT for the promotion case.

The appointment is effective July 1, 2016.