Media Lab serves up coffee and a weather report

February 4, 2000


One of the latest gadgets being developed by the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is an espresso machine that is designed to read the user's coffee preference from a bar code on the bottom of a mug while supplying news, weather, music and stock market quotes.

But the machine - which is one of a flood of new domestic products coming out of the laboratory, whose director has claimed it "invents the future" and which late last year announced it will expand into Europe - failed to work during a demonstration for a journalist.

A growing number of scientists in the United States are joining critics who are wondering how the "Mr Java" machine will advance the cause of human civilisation. They say the Media Lab has little to show for itself beside publicity and multi million-dollar grants and deride its emphasis on toys and kitchen appliances.

They contrast it unfavourably with MIT's rival Computer Lab, which was involved in the creation of the world wide web, time-shared computers, spreadsheets and dozens of other technologies, and has spun off more than 30 corporations including 3Com, Lotus, Open Market and RSA Data Security.

Companies based on technology developed by the Computer Lab had $40 billion worth of revenues last year, said the lab's director, Michael Dertouzos. The Media Lab, on the other hand, will not give a figure. "We are not a product lab. We're an idea lab," said its spokeswoman, Alexandra Kahn.

Media Lab's new Dublin operation, MediaLabEurope, will be an independent, university-level research and education centre focusing on internet-related technologies and applications, including e-commerce. It will cost $130 million over the first ten years, about a quarter of it provided by the Irish government.

Critics say the Media Lab routinely overstates its claims and has turned out an embarrassingly small stream of products of questionable value, among them a bagel-cutting laser. Supporters say the carping comes from scientists jealous of the lab's resources and success, which played a part in the development of digital television and produced a "whiteboard" that allows engineers in different locations to work on the same drawing simultaneously.

Ms Kahn said Media Lab's 400 scientists have 200 research projects under way, although its detractors focus on the toys and kitchen gizmos. "And when we're talking about toys, we're talking about theories of education and learning and child development through play," said Ms Kahn. As for kitchens, she said: "The kitchen just isn't a place where technology has yet been focused."

Faculty are classically trained, she said, and students attached to the lab must have their work approved through traditional academic channels. "But this is an environment that allows them to express their ideas as differently as they can."

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