The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: January 14th, 2012 by bobmorris

Illustration from around 1882 by S. Barth

The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives
Frank Moss
Crown Business (2011)

How and why “individuals empowered with radically new technologies…can succeed in transforming society”

Note: The title of my review is taken from one of the observations made by Frank Moss in the Preface: “I am convinced now that individuals, empowered with radically new technologies that you will read about in the pages ahead, can succeed in transforming society” from the bottom up where our institutions have dismally failed. This has greatly increased my sense of optimism for the future, and I hope it will do the same for you.”

As Moss’s background clearly indicates, he is eminently well-qualified to discuss these and other issues. Currently, he is managing partner of Strategic Software Ventures, LLC, and a part-time professor of the practice at the MIT Media Lab, where he heads the New Media Medicine group. He has spent his career developing innovative technologies and bringing them to market. He was director of the MIT Media Lab from 2006-2011, where he held the Jerome Wiesner Professorship of Media Technology, and before that he had a 30-year career as an entrepreneur in the software and computer industries. Moss holds a BSE from Princeton University in Aerospace and Mechanical Sciences and a PhD from MIT in Aeronautics and Astronautics. He serves on Princeton University’s board of trustees

I agree with Oliver Sacks: “We must humanize technology before it dehumanizes us.” I also agree with Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That is to say, technology will dehumanize us only if we allow it to. Hence the delicious as well as daunting relevance of this book’s title, one that can be traced back at least to one of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poems, Der Zauberlehrling, written in 1797.

What Moss offers in this book is a personal and extended tour of the MIT Media Lab where “digital magicians” (modern day “sorcerers”) are “creating innovative technologies that will transform our lives.” In fact, several already have or are now in the process of doing so. He carefully explains the process by which the Lab’s capabilities are developed, who have been centrally involved in that process, and what lessons can be learned that increase our understanding of what the probable relationship will be between “sorcerers” and their “apprentices” in years to come.

Here are a few of the dozens of passages that caught my eye, then engaged me within Moss’s lively as well as eloquent narrative:

“Media Lab [isn’t] just a place where you dream up inventions. Here, you are expected to actually build, test, and demonstrate them.” (Page 13)

“Sometimes designed serendipity can lead to inventions that are quite literally magic. To see how, press the rewind button back to 1967 when fourteen-year-old Tod Machover, now a world-renowned composer of ‘Hyper’-symphonies and robotic operas, inventor of electronic instruments, and head of the lab’s Opera of the Future group, first heard the Beatles’ album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Page 98)

“How close are we, you might be wondering, to having a sophisticated robot housekeeper like the Jetsons’ Rosie (only less clumsy, who helps you cook the family dinner, does the dishes, and then helps the kids with their homework? [Matt] Berlin concedes, ‘We’re not there yet.’” (Page 171)

John Moore. MD, a PhD student in the Lab’s New Media Medicine group, takes an approach that enables ordinary people to take control of their own health. It is based on the conviction that “if given access to in formation about their health, and the deep understanding of what it means, patients can collaborate better with their physicians and play a much more proactive role in their own health care.” (Page 195)

These are but a few of dozens (hundreds?) of passages in which Moss examines very real people involved in a wide range of experiments at the MIT Media Lab whose common purpose is to improve the quality of human life with new or better, more effective applications of radically new technologies.

I cannot recall another book that I enjoyed reading more while learning so much about so many different subjects about which I knew little (if anything) previously. Also, I appreciate having had the pleasure of Frank Moss’s company and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to meet so many of his colleagues.

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