Inside MIT’s bonkers, $60 million-per-year laboratory for geniuses

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Founded in 1985, the MIT Media Lab is one of the strangest and most exciting academic institutions in the world.

Housed across two buildings on the prestigious university’s Cambridge, Massachusetts campus, the laboratory works to bring together researchers and students across disciplines to build novel tools.

On September 20, I had the opportunity to tour the lab and speak with a number of the researchers. Here’s a peek inside inside what might be one of the most innovative places on the planet, where the future seems to be very much in the present.


Much of the Media Lab looks like the inside of an extremely fancy college dorm, or perhaps an overfunded Silicon Valley startup. The group’s annual budget is about $60 million, before outside grants get factored in. The biggest physical difference from a normal academic building? Researchers share working spaces across disciplines, and most rooms have only glass walls.

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The Biomechatronics group works on artificial limbs. These are 3D-printed sockets, custom-designed to comfortably fit the limbs of individual users.

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Here’s the machine used to plan the sockets.

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Each piston presses on the partial limb, moving up and down to build a map of where an user’s socket needs to be hard or soft to fit comfortably.

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There were a range of prosthetics on display when I visited.

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One of the most advanced: an ankle designed for highly natural motion while walking.

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You can see several more versions of the ankle on this shelf.

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The group also works on exoskeletons designed to aid in basic activities like walking or running. This machine takes the load off of your knee.

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For an exoskeleton to work, it has to be so fast and responsive that users never feel it working against them.

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Elsewhere in the lab: The somewhat-creepy workspace of the Personal Robots group. They build machines designed to engage socially with human beings. Here’s an early project.

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Their machines are built to move and engage with people in ways that seem organic, expressive, and natural.

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…even if their faces sit on top of terminator-like metal bodies.

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Recently, they’ve worked on cheaper social robots like Tega (left, on screen) that hide smartphones inside and use their screens to display facial expressions.

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Don’t worry, this is fine.

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Walk around the lab, and you’ll see plenty of mysterious graduate student projects on display.

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Some are more baffling than others.

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Not everyone in the lab builds physical objects. Cesar Hidalgo, an economist with a PhD in physics, works on smart software to build data visualizations.

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This example, called DataUSA.io, scrapes information from government websites and auto-transforms it into rich charts and graphics.

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Data USA

A whole wall of Hidalgo’s office is made of blackboard material, which he uses extensively as he talks. (I swear I didn’t pose him like this.)

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There are some rooms in the lab I wasn’t allowed to enter.

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The Changing Places groups works on vehicles, buildings, and other designs to improve cities. Here’s a self-driving RC car equipped with a LIDAR system, the same technology Google’s self-driving car uses to navigate the world.

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The group also uses a system of Legos and projected data visualization to help lay people who actually live in communities come up with ideas for re-shaping them.

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As the Lego pieces move around the map, the model changes the motions of dots and lines representing people and traffic.

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They have different Lego maps for different types of city systems, all designed to be intuitive to use.

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And yes, those are real Legos.

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Stick with Business Insider for more on the projects and research underway at the Media Lab.

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Rafi Letzter/Business Insider