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Q&A on Design, Science and the Future of the Internet
Director, MIT Media Lab
This Q&A took place between 4/21/16 and 4/24/16. Unanswered questions have been hidden
31 questions
Author of "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are"
Do you think it's still worthwhile to get a degree in liberal arts? Why or why not?
I’m somewhat famously a college dropout, and I do like to talk about the differences between education and learning (you can learn pretty much whatever you want to without a formal education). But for most people (especially people who aren’t white men), a college degree will increase your options and probably your base income. People learn in different ways - I have a disability that doesn’t allow me to learn well in structured systems - but if it works for you, take advantage of it. If a liberal arts field (if it’s writing or art or history or whatever else) is what you’re passionate about, then you should definitely pursue it, and a degree can only help.
Founder of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab
What kind of roles will open source (both software and hardware) play in the next stage of design and science?
Oh I think free and open-source hardware and software will be critical to the continuing evolution of design and science. I’ve written extensively about the dynamic relationship between design and science (, but a key element of my argument is this: “I believe that by bringing together design and science we can produce a rigorous but flexible approach that will allow us to explore, understand, and contribute to science in an antidisciplinary way.” Free and open source software and hardware system are essential for the complex antidsciplinary communities that have to work together for this new kind of design.

I talk more about the importance of hardware in design in this conversation with Jon Bruner:
Product Guy / Fellow @ Harvard Ash Center
How significant was the role of social media in the rise of Donald Trump?
Interestingly, one of the research groups at the Media Lab is studying exactly this question with their project Electome. Electome analyzes and compares data from journalism and Twitter to identify the election influencers at the intersection of news and social media. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump tops the list. Here are a couple of pieces that go much more in-depth about this:

All of the candidates who are still in the running are at the center of extremely powerful media machines, and the echo chamber effect of social media is increasingly a factor in how people learn about and think about candidates. Trump’s populist platform is tailor-made for the kind of amplification effect that social media can have.

Clay Shirky, in his now “Twitter for essays” format talks about this topic too.
Special Forces Combat Veteran & Current Public Relations Pro
With true Quantum Computing growing ever closer on the horizon, how should companies begin preparing for the reality of current encryption being completely obsolete in the face of the potentials of Quantum Hacking?
This isn't my area of expertise so I asked Seth Lloyd who knows about these things. He says:

I hate predicting the future of any kind of technology, but large-scale quantum computers that can break RSA are at least 10 years away, and might not even happen. As we discussed, for the government, if you have to look 20-30 years in the future to protect information, this is important. If you just want to protect credit card info for the next 5 years, probably you don't need to worry that much compared with the multiple other security issues.

Over the next 5-10 years quantum computers will likely provide a variety of applications such as quantum simulation and quantum machine learning that will change the game, but factoring and code breaking is further away.
Lawyer, Public Interest Advocacy Centre
If privacy is in fact dead (a notion I disagree with), is it too late to revive it?
My view is privacy is dying and it will get worse before it gets better, but we are starting to feel the pain and the public now knows that it wants it - maybe for some of the wrong reasons. However, it's a big deal now.

The problem is that some of the architectural things we need to do require big investments, policy changes and some really detailed and precision thinking - not just the blunt emotional reaction that people have from the headlines.

I'm not sure how much we can "save it" and how bad it will get before it gets better. Maybe really bad. But it is never "dead".

My concern however, is less about someone finding out that I have weird habits or serving me creepy ads, but rather that governments and other organizations use it for systematic profiling that starts to have an impact on your future, the future of your children, etc. which will cause a chilling effect on speech, actions and other things and reduce the ability to question authority without fear of retribution. This will grind down on public discourse and could be deadly for democracy and open society.

I think we have to fight and fight and fight to get the balance between privacy and security right and that because we are reactive, we tend to give up privacy for security as well as convenience.

However, having the public care will help convince people to invest in it.
In an increasingly open and densely connected internet, how do you think we can design internet platforms that can mitigate the misinformation and echo-chambers resulting from the vastness of knowledge/experience sources this openness creates?
Read Ethan Zuckerman’s book Rewire, which explores this in depth. He explains that the Internet didn't democratize and make "cosmopolitan" create the global collective intelligence that many of us had hoped for.

Here’s an article/interview with Ethan about this:
“We can work toward engineering serendipity,” said Zuckerman. We shouldn’t rely on people wanting to experience different people and places because it’ll make them better—but because serendipity “is one of the most amazing things” that can happen to a person. And we can work toward engineering it.”
senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center
You've helped MIT focus on Bitcoin and the blockchain. What about their potential excites you so much?
I’ve talked a lot about my hopes and concerns about bitcoin and the blockchain on my blog (Here and here But the short answer is that what excites me about bitcoin and the bitcoin blockchain is its potential as an open, distributed, censorship-resistant protocol for exchanging value. The idea of a blockchain is inspiring a new way of building applications that compute on shared data in an interoperable and connected network that removes intermediaries and requires less trust from participants.

From previous blog post: “Bitcoin is the first "killer app" of The Blockchain as email was the killer app for the beginning of the Internet. We are in the process of inventing eBay, Amazon and Google. My hunch is that The Blockchain will be to banking, law and accountancy as The Internet was to media, commerce and advertising. It will lower costs, disintermediate many layers of business and reduce friction. As we know, one person's friction is another person's revenue.”

I can expand more if you have more specifics.
What are your thoughts on the transition of news media from the hands of traditional publications to the hands of social networks? Have we begun a race to the bottom?
I fear that we are entering a "dark time" for investigative and many forms of journalism. Watching "Spotlight" the other day made me think - where else could a story like that happen. I don't think it's just "social media". I think the fundamental business model of traditional media - especially local news right now - is very challenging. At the Knight Foundation, we are looking for and betting on a variety of new models and experiments, but I don't think we know the answer. This is one of the biggest questions that I am working on right now and one of the things that gives me the most anxiety.
I would love to hear your thoughts about AlphaGo and artificial intelligence. How much AlphaGo is real AI vs. just a very powerful computer processing algorithms? How about things that require emotion? How far are we from an AI that can differentiate between art and pornography, for example?
I think that AlphaGo and all of the AI work is fascinating. However, I think that what's really interesting is how human and machines, both at the individual level but also at the network level merge together into what we are calling an "extended intelligence." I'm less interested in what AI's can do alone and more interested in what we can do together. Here's a short post about this:
Village finance specialist, social entrepreneur, INTP
Nearly a billion adults are illiterate on earth today, and the number is dropping very slowly. In a world with a smartphone in every pocket, packed with responsive, streaming video and audio, do you think literacy will cease to be a development priority? If not, why not?
This is a good question and a complex one. I think there are a lot of new technologies being develop here at the Lab and across the world with innovative new ideas on how to engage the literacy problem. However, I think that other modes of learning and communicating can augment those who can't or haven't been given the opportunity to learn to read and write.

I think it should still be a development priority, but that there will be some interesting edge cases that involve learning and producing without literacy - but I don't think, although I could be wrong, that it will be mainstream for awhile.
Senior Director of Strategy for Free Press
How can contemporary artists (especially those working with new media) help reinvent public space?
This is an area that is full of potential, and the collision of art and technology is an area of increasing interest to me. As technology has become more accessible to more people, and more tools and platforms pop up, the likelihood for unexpected collisions and results in the art world keeps growing. This isn’t my area of expertise, but I’m interested in contemporary art and have been paying more and deeper attention over the last few years. Some past work at the Lab, such as the work of Kelly Dobson (who did her PhD here in Chris Csikszentmihalyi’s Computing Culture group), explored the relationship between tech and public spaces (I’m thinking specifically of her Agoraphone project:
Other than Parlio, have you seen much technology (or research) that enables strangers to have civil and productive discussions online?
I think everyone - the newspapers, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter... they're all trying to do this. Everyone is researching it....
Do you believe (in the mode of Sam Harris's work) that science can provide us with moral guidance? Or do you think that we still need philosophy, artistic metaphor, or theology etc. to guide us in coexistence?
I think that science and philosophy need to come together. When I say "design and science" I'm using "design" to mean, in part, the critical and social way in which we think about and participate in the world. I think that we can bring science into philosophy, ethics and society more but that we have to bring philosophy and critical design into science. This "coexisting" lens is essential for our survival and flourishing.
Among the corporate and nonprofit boards on which you have served, which has been best-positioned to lead its organization forward? Why?
Very good question. The PureTech Health board that I'm on is an amazing board. We have some of the greatest minds in biotech and a scientific advisory board that also amazing. The staff/team use the board and the advisory board very well to source ideas, vet ideas and to help develop the technologies and companies. The relationship between the board and the staff is very healthy, rigorous and strong.
What impact will Augmented Reality have in our future? Smart objects are great! I like how we could use AR in connecting with objects around us. But how could this technology be used in community services and connecting people?
One use would be to have some sort of AI looking over your shoulder and letting you know when you are doing anything biased. Knowing your unconscious biases could be super-interesting and super-helpful and AR allows you to see them without exposing the information to everyone else. :-)

Just in time learning is also really interesting.

AR has a lot of great applications, but I think that if you look at the work we are doing at the Lab in fluid interfaces and object based media, I think the world will be a hybrid of screens, AR, VR and all sorts of interfaces.
Senior Officer, Singapore Economic Development Board
What kind of platforms/modalities do we need, at both global and national levels, to allow for the anti-disciplinary creation of "knotty solutions" in various themes such as healthcare, education and manufacturing?
I think that you need funding sources that allows research, development and entrepreneurship in a "permissionless" or discretionary way. At the Media Lab, the consortium model allows me to allocate our resources so that students and faculty don't have to ask me permission and often discover things while looking for something else. The ability to embrace serendipity, bring people in from unrelated fields and to answer questions that haven't been asked yet requires a understanding at the institutional level that most traditional peer-reviewed system, government granting organizations and companies don't believe.
It seems like our civic discourse is increasingly becomes unmoored from reality. Saying things that are untrue or wildly unrealistic no longer seems to carry a cost. Is there any way to restore accountability for accuracy to public life, or our discussions online? Or are we doomed to a future of nihilism where nobody acknowledges or even knows what is true?
I wrote another answer about the future of journalism, but I "HOPE" that it will get better, but feel it will get worse before it gets better. I'm counting on it getting better...
Globally curious, business, world traveler, parent
Where do you think the future will take us with regard to social media commentary and discourse? Comments today are mostly worthless, so how can we inject value into the medium?
Commenting is a place where things are pretty broken online. We’ve been thinking about this quite a bit at the Media Lab. One approach to “fixing” online commenting is PubPub, a project at the Lab that is a new model for online discourse. But this is just one approach, and I for one am curious to see other ideas in this area.
Intern at CSIRO | B Applied Physics / B Creative Intelligence and Innovation
Employers these days are demanding a wider range of skills from millennials, expertise in one specific skill is no longer a reliable option. To broaden students' toolbox of skills, should Science, Design and the Humanities be offered as a combined degree (or at least should permeate all other degrees)?
Student-at-Law, Public Interest Advocacy Centre
I really liked what you wrote about being antidisciplinary, and the idea seems to suit Internet-related pursuits especially. With most of society driven to focus or used to focusing on individual silos at a time--not just scientists and other academics, but politicians, decision-makers, general populace, etc.--how would you suggest increasing people's awareness of and ability to see /notice /understand /appreciate /act on antidisciplinary issues/ideas beyond their specific areas of focus?
Don't over-plan. Network with and go to meetings and gatherings outside of your core area of interest. Look for opportunities in adjacent spaces and your peripheral vision. Look for roles in your company or your institution where there is more antidisciplinary work going on. Follow your passion and interest. Question authority and think for yourself. ;-)
Should rules to ensure an open Internet be enacted into law? Are those national laws or should there should be something beyond nation-states? Do you have any advice on the harvesting of bamboo shoots?
Haha. Of course the answer is YES. And you are the master at this. Lets work together on this.

Bamboo shoots:
I love the "Salon des Refusés" image - what a magnet, and not only for a Frenchman! Should the internet be not as open as it should, what kind of salon do you think Refusés 3.0 would turn to or build?
The closed vs open is really interesting and really tricky. I think it's like being a DJ at a nightclub. (Which I was at one point.) What you want are the edgy interesting people to hang out and you don't want some sort of velvet rope keeping people out - you want to be inclusive. But if all of the "wrong people" show up the interesting people will leave. The key is to set a strong culture - through music in a nightclub - but other ways online - so that the people you want get attracted to the beacon but the beacon doesn't attract the wrong people people. "Wrong people" isn't about some people being right and other people being wrong, but just about the wrong people for the particular kind of thing you're trying to do. I think it's a combination of making a clear beacon that attracts the right people, creating a culture that keep the right people and also a search process that also finds the people you are looking for. For that you need good stories, strong values and strong will.
If you could buy a robot like Commander Data now, would you do it? And why?
If I could buy a robot like Commander Data, that would feel like slavery. I would probably buy them to set them free.
How can designers be responsible for what they make if they cannot even predict how their designs are going to be used or deployed?
Given that designers may not be aware of how their products will behave, who's task is it to create social parameters for new technologies?
Are modern societies falling behind in their ability to absorb and use new technologies?
You're responsible for your kids, but you can't predict or control them.
Researcher @ Harvard | Parlio community manager
Thank you so much for doing this Q&A.
Do you think Uber is overvalued?
No comment. ;-)
Student at Hobart William Smith Colleges
Who do you see as some of the most important people in the development of new technologies? Also how was working with Casey Neistat? I am a big fan of his work.
Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity of working with Casey directly.
what will be the role of technology within 15 to 20 years to uproot corruption?
I think it requires political and social will. Technology can help if we want to uproot it - technologies like digital currencies - but without the will, I think it's unlikely to happen with just technology.
What do you think about the idea of an initiative for global internet police that makes sure to catch and report acts of plagiarism, dishonesty, hacking, scamming or any illegal activities?
Sounds like a bad idea... Where do they come from and who do they work for?
How do you see the intersection between EI, education and love? I talked with children who came to a university to make presentations about their projects on what they found interesting.During the presentation, they passionately talked to me, trying to convey what they found. I like what someone like Sugata Mitra has been doing for education. I think their imaginations are and will be crucial for innovations. What do you think will be a trigger for people's mind to shift from exam based study to collaborative learning? Since I want to change the current education system, I ask this question.
I certainly home so. I hope that with EI we can leave more and more of the knowledge and skills work to the machines and allow us to focus on the curiosity, passion, creativity, love, community - the sloppy, messy, funny and lovely stuff that we're better designed for. Maybe the machines might even eventually figure out how to measure our happiness, but I'd rather first get away from the obsession with measurement in education.
Can you help us organize free coding workshops for elementary school students in Tokyo? (CoderDojo or other style)
what is the definition of space? and how it can be the definition of space is relatively compare to something? please elaborate
I asked Lisa Randall:

Stage for physical activity
Space stretching means things inside (such as galaxies) move apart