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. 

Related Articles

A controversial theory claims past, present, and future exist at the same time

Our experience of time may be blinding us to its true nature, say scientists.

Back to the Future.
Surprising Science
  • Time may not be passing at all, says the Block Universe Theory.
  • Time travel may be possible.
  • Your perception of time is likely relative to you and limited.
Keep reading Show less

Six disastrous encounters with the world’s most hostile uncontacted tribe

From questionable shipwrecks to outright attacks, they clearly don't want to be bothered.

Culture & Religion
  • Many have tried to contact the Sentinelese, to write about them, or otherwise.
  • But the inhabitants of the 23 square mile island in the Bay of Bengal don't want anything to do with the outside world.
  • Their numbers are unknown, but either 40 or 500 remain.
Keep reading Show less

Found: second draft of Galileo's argument for a heliocentric model

At least he wasn't burned at the stake, right?

The original letter in which Galileo argued against the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church has been rediscovered in London. Image credit: The Royal Society
Surprising Science
  • The letter suggests Galileo censored himself a bit in order to fly more under the radar. It didn't work, though.
  • The Royal Society Journal will publish the variants of the letters shortly, and scholars will begin to analyze the results.
  • The letter was in obscurity for hundreds of years in Royal Society Library in London.
Keep reading Show less