The Value of Answers in Search of Questions

Nicholas Negroponte famously called the Media Lab a place full of answers looking for questions.


The really important thing about the Media Lab is that we actually encourage doing research in areas that aren’t necessarily hot or big or even very clearly defined as to exactly what the application will be.  The idea is that we are trying to do the sorts of things that wouldn’t typically be done by other institutions and we’re trying also to really push and discover the boundaries.  And when you’re doing this kind of discovery, it’s actually very difficult to tell which technology is going to have the most impact.  

Every single project in the Media Lab, I think, has the potential to become incredibly impactful because we don’t necessarily know what question the answer is actually for. Nicholas Negroponte famously called the Media Lab a place full of answers looking for questions. It is interesting because in some of the most unexpected ways, technologies that we’re working on turn out to have tons of impact.  For instance, there’s a project where we’re testing skin conductivity, working with autistic kids.  There’s a huge problem in some of the developing countries in terms ort infant mortality.  Now they can measure when a woman goes into labor.  And so they’re trying to build these low cost devices that the women can wear in which as soon as she goes into labor, it sends a message to a hospital with GPS coordinates so that a doctor knows that the woman in going into labor.  

With these sorts of devices, the impact is really difficult to tell because it wasn’t until that NGO and that engineer or that student got together that they realized that this sort of solution could happen.  So I think the importance is that research is unbounded.  And so for me, it’s really very difficult to say that any particular piece of research is more important or more interesting than others.  To me what’s most exciting is the process that we use for discovery, the process of looking for the questions for the answers we’re developing.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy fo Shutterstock. 

How to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable? Build global partnerships.

Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.

Susan Silbermann, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, looks on as a health care worker administers a vaccine in Rwanda. Photo: Courtesy of Pfizer.
  • Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
  • Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
  • Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Keep reading Show less
Sponsored

Why Henry David Thoreau was drawn to yoga

The famed author headed to the pond thanks to Indian philosophy.

Image: Public Domain / Shutterstock / Big Think
Personal Growth
  • The famed author was heavily influenced by Indian literature, informing his decision to self-exile on Walden Pond.
  • He was introduced to these texts by his good friend's father, William Emerson.
  • Yoga philosophy was in America a century before any physical practices were introduced.
Keep reading Show less

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue

Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.

Image: Dicken Schrader
Strange Maps
  • America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
  • Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
  • Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
Keep reading Show less
Photo: Shutterstock / Big Think
Personal Growth
    • A recent study from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 80 percent of Americans don't exercise enough.
    • Small breaks from work add up, causing experts to recommend short doses of movement rather than waiting to do longer workouts.
    • Rethinking what exercise is can help you frame how you move throughout your day.
    Keep reading Show less