September 30, 2023

M.I.T. Media Lab Names a New Director

That makes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s decision to name a 44-year old Japanese venture capitalist who attended, but did not graduate, from two American colleges as the director of one of the world’s top computing science laboratories an unusual choice.

On Tuesday, the university plans to announce that Joichi Ito, known as Joi, will become the fourth director of the M.I.T. Media Laboratory, which was originally founded by the architect Nicholas Negroponte in 1985 and has since become recognized for its willingness to take risks in developing technologies that are at the edge of the computing frontier.

The Media Laboratory gained a global reputation during the 1990s as an avant-garde research center known for stunning high-technology demonstrations that pointed toward a future digital society.

Indeed, the Media Lab has on occasion been criticized for overemphasizing flashy demos. During the 1990s, under Dr. Negroponte, the lab evolved a research culture of “demo or die,” rather than the standard academic “publish or perish” model.

The Media Lab pioneered a range of computing-based technologies like the Aspen Movie Map, a forerunner of Google Street View, the $100 Laptop, an educational tool intend for students in the developing world, and E Ink, the display technology that makes an Amazon Kindle book reader viewable in bright sunlight.

Perhaps its most important role, however, has been in helping to nurture a generation of innovative designers like John Underkoffler, a user-interface designer who is now a Hollywood consultant and who provided most of the futuristic interface ideas seen in the movie “Minority Report.”

In 1990, with American fears about Japan as a high-technology competitor running high, the Media Lab also briefly became a lightning rod for criticism after it struck a deal to transfer its research approach to Japanese industry and educational institutions.

Although that adds a touch of irony to the decision to choose Mr. Ito, he is neither a conventional Japanese technologist, nor your average college dropout.

Raised in both Tokyo and Silicon Valley, Mr. Ito was part of the first generation to grow up with the Internet. His career includes serving as a board member of Icann, the Internet’s governance organization; becoming a “guild master” in the World of Warcraft online fantasy game; and more than a dozen investments in start-ups like Flickr, and Twitter. In 1994 he helped establish the first commercial Internet service provider in Japan.

He was also an early participant in the open-source software movement and is a board member of the Mozilla Foundation, which oversees the development of the Firefox Web browse, as well as being the co-founder and chairman of Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that has sought to create a middle ground to promote the sharing of digital information.

“The choice is radical, but brilliant,” said Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, a University of California laboratory that pursues a similar research agenda to the Media Laboratory. “He can position the lab at the edge of change and propel it for a decade.”

Mr. Ito’s appointment comes at a time when the Media Lab, as well as other information technology research centers, have struggled to reclaim the financing levels that were characteristic of the era of the dot-com boom. Although the lab gets the bulk of its $35 million annual budget from corporate and government sponsors, that amount has declined measurably as a percentage of the overall budget during the last decade, Dr. Negroponte said.

“Funding got tight in 2002 and even tighter in the last economic downturn,” he said. That has made fund-raising the highest priority for the new director, he said. However, he added that Mr. Ito’s particular leadership qualities made him stand out among the 250 candidates who were considered for the position.

“Joi is very good at enabling others,” he said. “I’ve never met a 44-year-old who is able to enable others in this way. Most people who are at that age are into themselves and their career.”

L. Rafael Reif, the provost of M.I.T., called Mr. Ito “the right person to lead the Media Lab today,” describing him as “an innovative thinker who understands the tremendous potential of technology and, in particular, the Internet, to influence education, business, and society in general.”

Directing the Media Lab is an alluring challenge because of the potential of blending the longer term focus of university research and development efforts with the agility and risk-taking approach of Silicon Valley start-ups, Mr. Ito said.

“You embrace serendipity and you pivot as you go along this longer term arc. That’s the way I have lived my life. I’ve jumped around in terms of career and geography,” he said.

Mr. Ito, who maintains a home outside of Tokyo, became a resident of Dubai at the end of 2008 to gain a better understanding of the Middle East. He said that was part of his desire to understand intellectual property issues internationally and to become what he described as a “global citizen.”

Even among the Internet generation, Mr. Ito has been extraordinary in the degree to which he has lived his life publicly and online in blog posts and on a dizzying array of social media. Last year he traveled about 230 days, and it is possible to follow his adventures on a Web site he maintains in text, images and video including a diving trip this month that involved feeding sharks in the Caribbean.

Mr. Ito first attended Tufts where he briefly studied computer science but wrote that he found it drudge work. Later he attended the University of Chicago where he studied physics, but once again found it stultifying. He later wrote of his experience: “I once asked a professor to explain the solution to a problem so I could understand it more intuitively. He said, ‘You can’t understand it intuitively. Just learn the formula so you’ll get the right answer.’ That was it for me.”

Mr. Ito’s colleagues minimize the fact that he is without academic credentials. “He has credibility in an academic context,” said Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School who co-founded Creative Commons. Mr. Ito is currently chairman. “We’ve been collaborators, and I’ve stolen many ideas from him and turned them into my own.”

The Media Lab will benefit from a director who has Mr. Ito’s global connections, said John Seely Brown, former director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. “What they really need right now is to have a two-way connection to the outside world. Who more to do that than Joi?”

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