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Monday, October 22, 2007

Building tomorrow's technology today

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It's a place where light bulbs speak to each other, where car steering wheels can take life-saving action, and where computers like to show their emotional side.

Welcome to the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in America - a place that brings a unique creative perspective to technological and social research. Here, the unofficial motto is: "If you've got an idea - you ought to build it."

Established as part of MIT in 1982, the Media Lab is a multi-disciplinary fusion of science, the arts and the business world. You'll find students, professors, industrial scientists and entrepreneurs all working together on a range of diverse projects.

From smart prosthetics for amputees to a system which helps autistic children recognise the emotions of others; from sensors which detect tired drivers to ambitious prototypes of the city car of the future; from computers with in-built common sense to light bulbs that pass instructions to each other over a network - the lab brings deep technical expertise and a distinct social and design sensibility to its research work.

This approach is now going global with services including new tools to enable kids to explore and design their own worlds, and "fab-labs" that "shrink-wrap" the advanced tools of a leading research university and deploy them to developing nations to find solutions to local problems.

One of the most ambitious projects to spin-out is the $100 laptop, which is part of an initiative to transform education in developing nations. To develop such a device, a range of new technologies were needed including whole new approaches to displays, power, wireless networking and user interfaces - developments which will all have impact in traditional markets.

"The Media Lab works best for those who are intellectually curious and naturally cross boundaries," said Steve Whittaker, BT's visiting scientist who is based at the lab. "Some of the projects being worked on here may sound a bit eclectic but the truth is that they form part of a much bigger innovation and research picture.

"Essentially it's the development of technologies and approaches that will be needed to tackle some of the big opportunities and issues facing business, society and individuals in the future. That means my problems, your problems, BT's problems and our customers' problems."

Research relationships

Steve's role as a visiting scientist is to look after BT's research relationships with universities and business schools in the United States such as MIT, Stanford and Berkeley.

"My job is to develop relationships so that BT people throughout the company, not just our own researchers, have access to the academic expertise of the world's best minds," he said.

"To do this effectively, we involve ourselves very closely with a broad range of disciplines and technical experts, from computer scientists, physicists and engineers to economists, artists, architects and business strategists. MIT and the Media Lab form a key part of that global team."

Partnerships with leading academic research institutions have long been a component of BT's open innovation programme and have delivered a range of benefits to BT - including a number of innovative additions to the company's products and services portfolio.

"A good example of how this can work well is in the area of radio frequency identity (RFID) - replacing the retail bar-code we all know with unique identities embedded in radio tags," said Steve. "What began as an effort by MIT to examine the potential of an emerging technology has resulted in the transformation of the way we think about supply chain solutions. These activities have also resulted in the creation of a whole BT division, BT Auto-ID.

"Often we have close collaborations between our own research people and their peers at places such as MIT - for example in our work in Liverpool on using in-home sensors to help people to live independent lives for longer.

"We are also very interested in understanding more about who we are and how we work. Learning how humans actually learn will help us to build IT systems which can learn along with their users."

Steve concluded: "It can be both eye-opening and eyebrow-raising to see some of the wonderfully creative projects being worked on at MIT and the Media Lab. But the big excitement for me is seeing my colleagues across BT collaborating with some of the world's leading minds on projects that really will make a difference."

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