MIT Media Lab, in wake of scandal, seeks restart with new director

Dava Newman discusses her vision for the innovation factory, which was rocked by a funding scandal last year.

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A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
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6 min read
Dava Newman

Dava Newman, a longtime Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, has been named the next director of the MIT Media Lab.

Dominick Reuter

The MIT Media Lab has always been about rethinking society's paths to the future, about melding technological systems and human behavior. Lately, it's been thinking a lot about its own future, following a disastrous blow to its reputation in a 2019 scandal tied to taking funds from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

A key step in that process came Tuesday when the Media Lab named its next director: the aerospace researcher, spacesuit designer and longtime MIT professor Dava Newman, who also served a two-year stint as deputy administrator of NASA in the latter part of the Obama administration. Among the many traits and talents the university administration noted about Newman -- designer, engineer, thinker and more -- it pointed out that she is "importantly, an optimist."

The positive vibes will no doubt be welcome in settling the question of who will lead the Media Lab into the 2020s. Newman's appointment comes after a great deal of soul-searching by the institution, whose previous director, Joi Ito, resigned amid the Epstein scandal. A blockbuster expose in The New Yorker detailed the entanglements of Ito and others, and the revelations led Wired to question whether the Media Lab had "lost its moral bearings."

Since Ito's departure in September 2019, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Media Lab has been run by a five-member executive committee. That group will be supporting Newman, whose appointment takes effect July 1, as she works with faculty members to define the lab's research direction. Among the expected changes: how the institution vets the people who support the lab and how donations are solicited.

"The Media Lab's been really, really busy assessing culture and climate," Newman said in an interview Wednesday. Her top priority as the new director: "I'll be doing a lot of listening."

Founded in 1985, the MIT Media Lab is renowned for its free-wheeling, interdisciplinary approach to research. It has a diverse, even dizzying, array of programs, ranging from personal robots, poetic justice and human dynamics to affective computing, biomechatronics and "nano-cybernetic biotrek."

Below is my conversation with Newman, edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your vision for the Media Lab. What do you see going forward?
Newman: Really, fundamentally, I call the Media Lab the magical place that really first and foremost strives to benefit society. How we do that is by inventing technologies and experiences, [and] immerse people in that, so can we transform [and] improve lives and communities. It's multidisciplinary. [Among] emerging technologies, we're pretty focused on digital, materials and biological.

It's a very broad portfolio of things the Media Lab does.
It's humans and machines [and] information. Now, given the pandemic, given the nature of all this interacting virtually, we really have a great opportunity to look at open learning, collaborative education. Some of it's going to be virtual -- what I call the hybrid model, because some of it's going to be in person, some of it's going to be virtual and digital. Also, thinking about the environment, climate, sustainability, because whatever we do, we have to be focused on the benefit for society and, of course, we have to be looking at humanity's biggest challenges.

What's your first priority, what's the first thing you're going to do?
The first part is I'm going to listen. There's been incredible work going on the last 15 months by the faculty leadership, by the executive committee, the working groups. The Media Lab's been really, really busy assessing culture and climate.

So first I'll get up to speed. I'll be doing a lot of listening, then working together. Really excited about: OK, what's the shared mission, do we have shared values, how are we going to work together to do this?

Your predecessor, Joi Ito, stepped down under a cloud, a scandal. How do you go about reestablishing trust and confidence?
The best way I know how to do that as a leader is to be inclusive, to invite everyone to the table. Everyone comes at it from a different perspective, so that's why I say listening, really making sure that the staff, the students, if they feel like they haven't been heard -- I know they do feel like they've been heard over the last year, but we'll just keep that dialogue going. It has to be very open, very transparent. That's how we can get to shared values and shared dreams. We also want to focus on critical mass, critical contributions.

Are there specific aspects of your work in the aeronautics and astronautics department that you'll bring over to the Media Lab?
Absolutely. It's my aerospace work, but also my career is dedicated to STEM, education and teaching. And I always talk about it as STEAM, so I bring in the arts, I bring in design. It's to have a conversation, especially with young girls and boys, and I get to teach these lucky college students, but lots of my speaking is for outreach -- and I always say: Don't I look like a rocket scientist? Because you have to open up people's minds because we know that people are going to draw a fellow with glasses and a white lab coat, that's a scientist. 

Design is also the making and the doing, and that's what the Media Lab does, prototyping and failing, getting it right -- we never get it right the first time, so we have to iterate, we have to design and design and make and make, and we're always trying to improve, but we have to kind of put ourselves out there as well. You're never going to design something perfectly the first time.

You spent two years at NASA. What kind of lessons can you bring from that to your work at the Media Lab?
That was a huge portfolio. I focused at NASA on innovation and technology, [and] approached it as an educator and a teacher. 

There's a lot about people, as well, and diversity and inclusion, at NASA. It's pretty pervasive, I find -- [with] both industry and government -- I go in and you hear the data and the numbers, and they're always pretty darn disappointing. At NASA, it's 13% women engineers. I was aghast. At MIT, we have parity, we have 50% women undergraduates. We're working on our graduate students, we're working on faculty representation, things like this. But going from academia, and especially MIT, we've been working on this hard over the decades. That's an interesting discussion to have with industry and government as well.

The Media Lab works closely with private industry. Can you speak specifically about work between the Media Lab and Silicon Valley in particular?
You asked me about NASA too, so I'll actually start there. At NASA I was in charge of partnerships. Public-private partnerships were really important, and we really did try to innovate. Going from the government way to do business, we really did business a different way. And so the public-private partnerships at NASA that resulted in Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo -- that was over a decade to get that right. Now the wonderful thing is we're seeing the payback. 

I kind of take those learnings to academia, and the portfolio at the Media Lab is definitely some traditional funding, absolutely government funding for research and also industry funding, and we're really excited to work with industry. We're after the same thing: transformative technology. Inventing the future -- that's like the best job in the world.

Tell me about the status of the BioSuit [Newman's spacesuit design project]. How are things going with that?
It's still research, there's definitely students working on it. We have probably two or three new versions of both mockups and prototypes. The technology part of it really moved into advanced materials, actually thinking about -- they're fantastic -- hydrogenated boron nitride nanotubes. Now [we're thinking about] the coat, the overgarment, because we really are going back to the moon, so now we have to think about the thermal condition and radiation. Now we're starting to think a lot more about materials and the life support systems, things like keeping people very mobile and also healthy and well.