“Joi with Backyard Bamboo” Photo by Mizuka Ito is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
I’ve been passionate about tech for a while, and as I’ve kept up with the news, I’ve gotten a better sense of the tech world as a whole. Most people assume that tech consists of strictly coding and designing websites, apps, etc., but there’s so much more. I’m interested in writing about the areas that aren’t always thought of being involved with tech. I want to talk to the researchers, journalists, professors, lawyers, activists, podcasters, etc. to better understand the work they’re doing and what drives them to keep contributing. The profiles that I’m working on will provide explanations about what these jobs entail and tips for how the next generation can become involved.
I interviewed Joi Ito to learn more about the innovative research that’s taking place at the MIT Media Lab and how it applies to everyday life.
Katie Gorton: What are you working on at the MIT Media Lab?
Joi Ito: Well, I’m the director of the Media Lab, so I pretty much have a hand in everything that goes on here. We have 27 research groups, which are labs in themselves, and they work on hundreds of technology-driven projects. Our research projects draw from design, software, electronics, art, biology, and economics to approach big problems, and the Lab’s professors and students investigate everything from digital currencies, to synthetic biology, to human augmentation.
We’re working on so many things. A few examples: tattoos that act like touchscreens, bionic limbs that you can feel and move just by thinking, and driverless cars. Plus, we have a bunch of other groups—like the one on space exploration or understanding how the brain works. We also have visiting researchers and fellows who work on various issues, such as nonviolent civil resistance, racial discrimination, and farming. There’s a lot going on inside the Media Lab which we tackle with our view to the world outside our buildings.
Some people think we’re predicting the future, but we’re actually just inventing it. You’ve probably used some of our ideas products without even knowing they came from the Lab. Like car navigation, touch screens, Google Street View, LEGO Mindstorms, Makey Makey, and Scratch; Guitar Hero, the platform that powers Twitter, or E Ink (which is used in your phones, watches, wearables, and e-readers) and social robots like JIBO. When we first created these things, they were groundbreaking; now they’re everyday products, and you’ve all grown up using them.
Everyone at the Media Lab is making stuff (whatever their imagination inspires) and my job is mainly to give them the space and the resources —they don’t have to ask permission to try out things; they just start making and fixing and re-making until they feel they’ve come up with something new and useful for the world.
What’s currently going on in the field you’re researching?
We’re researching in many, many fields but I’d say that, overall, the impact and ethics of what we’re doing drive our thinking and doing. For instance, artificial intelligence, which is a fast-growing field, gives us a lot of potential for developing new technologies, but will they actually help or hurt humanity? Same with gene editing; we’re working on this radical new technology, called CRISPR which could allow us to edit your genomes so you don’t get terrible diseases. But some people worry it could lead to “designer babies” where you could choose anything from eye color to athletic ability. That’s kind of scary. So, we and anyone else working in such fields have to keep the ramifications in mind. Always.
We’re interested in “antidisciplinary” research—which doesn’t fit within the traditional boundaries of academia but which brings researchers from different fields together to work on something cool. Antidisciplinary research is hard to fund and manage, but extremely important.
Why should more be interested in your research, and where do you think this field will lead?
With the development of artificial intelligence, the merging of various disciplines like biology, computation and design and the rapidly changing landscape, it’s very likely that both what you will need to learn and how you will learn it will change dramatically by the time you are in college. Just like everyone should learn to code, not just to get a job as a developer but to understand how the world works, something similar might be said about biology.
The future will be both exciting and in many ways scary and dangerous. Understanding science will be essential in understanding and thriving in this future. Also, because of the speed of change, it’s very likely that young people will understand science and technology better and in different ways than adults. We need you and we need you now!
What do you think teens can do to prepare if they want to become involved in this area?
You can learn a lot on the Internet. There are communities, blogs, videos. Also, there are gatherings and conferences and other events that young people can participate in. The key is to find something you’re passionate about, find a community and learn about the thing you’re excited about, but more importantly, learn how to learn.
There are many paths to get up the mountain, but the important thing is to pick a path and start walking.
Different people learn in different ways. Some learn through talking to people, some learn through books, some learn in classes, some learn through building things. Try all of them, but learn in the way that works the best for you.
If you can find a mentor who is doing something you find interesting who can help you learn, that can be invaluable. Sometimes the mentor is a teacher, but sometimes it’s someone online. In high school, I spent a lot of time writing emails to authors of books that I found interesting or asking questions to professors at Universities. It was easier to get responses back then because fewer people used email, but you can use tools like LinkedIn or Facebook too.
School can be inspiring to some people, but if you don’t find inspiration in school, make sure you keep looking for something that gets you excited – that spark is what will fuel your will and creativity in learning.
Do you have any book recommendations or other good resources to help readers find a place to start?
Naturally, I’ll recommend my most recent book, called Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future. Not just because I wrote it (with journalist Jeff Howe) but because it’s like a guidebook for how to make your way in the years to come.
Other books? You can see my favorite ones from 2016 in this article. They’re a good start if technology and science are your thing. You don’t have to stick with non-fiction only, though. Science fiction is fun and it can open up your mind to the possibilities of our future world so that you might work to make those possibilities a reality. Plus, depending on what interests you, you can find niche magazines and blogs online by people who work in those fields. You can also follow them on social media to find out more. Then there are podcasts for everything, and you can search them by subject, etcetera, on iTunes or other places that deliver podcasts. Of course, television and movies are among your resources, as well. There’s no one way to learn. And the learning path can also take you to higher education: As your interest starts to turn into what you think could be your future work, also check out the websites and social media of higher education institutions that offer related courses and programs to see if they might be a good fit for you.
Bottom line: read, watch, and listen to whatever and whoever capture your curiosity. You never know where all your learning could lead you. Keep an open, “antidisciplinary” mind.
MIT Media Lab: https://www.media.mit.edu/
Joi on Prospects of Kidkind, a TV show for young kids: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ssw1KuFAQls
Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future: https://www.media.mit.edu/publications/whiplash-how-to-survive-our-faster-future/
“Ask Me Anything” (Joi on Reddit) https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/37qf9h/i_am_joi_ito_director_of_mit_media_lab_ask_me