Frank Moss: An interview by Bob Morris

An entrepreneur and veteran of the computer industry, Frank Moss spent his career bringing innovative technologies to market. Ten years ago he set out to make a broader contribution to the world, leading him to cofound a cancer drug discovery company and then to the MIT Media Lab, where he served as director from 2006 – 2011, and where today he is Professor of the Practice of New Media Medicine. Moss was born in Baltimore, Maryland, where as a teenager he became hooked on America’s fledgling space program, and went on to earn a BSE from Princeton and a PhD in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT.

His career began at IBM in Haifa, Israel and he held management positions at IBM research, Apollo Computer and Lotus Development. He was CEO and chairman of Tivoli Systems, which he took public in 1995 and merged with IBM a year later. He cofounded many companies, including Stellar Computer, Bowstreet, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, and Bluefin Labs. Moss was a trustee of Princeton from 2007-2011 and is currently serves on the advisory councils there, the Mayo Clinic and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. His book The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives was published in June 2011. Twitter @frank_moss and www.frankmoss.com.

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Morris: Before discussing Sorcerers, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? Please explain.

Moss: Definitely my dad, Sam Moss. He instilled in his children the core values that have driven my life: family, humor and the passion to make the world a better place.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development?

Moss: While I was just starting my career at the IBM TJ Watson Labs I had the opportunity to work on occasion with Dr. Ralph Gomory, a prominent mathematician who was head of the Research division. He was truly a strategic thinker, always questioning conventional wisdom and willing to take huge risks. His philosophy for managing innovation was to gather the very best possible people, from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines, and give them the freedom to explore their passions, make mistakes and learn. I tried to bring these values to all my companies.

Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Moss: Actually, my “epiphany” occurred just in the past five years, after joining the MIT Media Lab as its director. Many of the innovations at the lab were directed at people who are disabled or disadvantaged. But I began to notice that many of these innovations could also apply more broadly to the general population. For instance, a “social emotional prosthetic” that enables people with autism to better “read faces” could also by marketing professionals in organizations to understand the reaction of customers to their products. This “epiphany” has greatly influenced the direction of my career, both in the new areas of research I took the Media Lab and in the new companies that I am now creating.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished in your life thus far?

Moss: It is really very hard to say what has been truly “invaluable” about my formal education. I suspect that the network of friends and acquaintances that I met during my college years – not the courses I took – continues to nourish me the most in both my professional and personal life.

Morris: As you know, there has been sometimes quite severe criticism in recent years of MBA programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools, including MIT Sloan and Harvard. In your opinion, in which area is there greatest need for immediate improvement? Why?

Moss: The business world is changing at such a dramatic rate that it is becoming hard to see the role that a traditional MBA degree will play in the future. In the era of large corporations, business schools produced graduates who understood process, governance and strategy by studying “business cases” and best practices. But all of that is now virtually obsolete with the emergence of startups as the driver of the economy. But how do you teach entrepreneurship? From what I have seen, business schools are now not much more than fancy startup incubators. They need to evolve dramatically if they are to remain relevant by becoming a much more integral part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work for IBM in Haifa, Israel?

Moss: Business success is all about being able to tell compelling stories – drop the slides and Powerpoint presentations completely.

Morris: Is starting a company today easier, more difficult, or about the same as it was (let’s say) 20 years ago? Why?

Moss:  A lot easier in some ways, but a lot harder in others. On the easy side, technology has lowered the bar by providing the basic infrastructure that enables one to create a new product or service quickly and cheaply. On the hard side, investors have become more risk averse, so if you have a truly novel idea that has not already been proven, at least to some extent, it is very difficult to get it funded.

Morris: Here’s a related question. Are the chances for a start-up’s success today better, worse, or about the same as they were then? Why?

Moss: In general, I think they are probably worse.  There are too many startups out there with propositions that are incremental or not unique. Sometimes there are hundreds or even thousands of startups going after the same derivative idea. On the other hand, I think that if you have a product or service that is truly revolutionary, the chances are actually better than before but there are precious few of these.

Morris: Please explain the process by which you became director of the MIT Media Lab. For example, which issues had to be addressed? How and why did you eventually accept the offer?

Moss: I was happily on my way to starting a new company when I got a call from a headhunter asking if I would like to interview for the position of director of the MIT Media Lab. I answered that although I appreciated the offer, I had left the academic world for the business world a long time ago, and had no desire to return. I believed that all academic researchers did was write papers and attend conferences.  But the headhunter was insistent that I visit the lab, and I finally gave in. What I discovered during my visit completely changed my mind about what a university research lab could be. Students from a wide variety of backgrounds were hunched over worktables, tinkering with hardware and building working prototypes of their ideas; and when I stopped by they described and demoed their inventions with unbridled enthusiasm and passion. Several weeks later, late at night in a weekend, I visited the lab with my kids, and it was buzzing with activity.  After we left, they insisted that I take the job.

Morris: For those unfamiliar with the Lab, when and why was it founded?

Moss: The Media Lab was founded over twenty-five years ago by a band of professors who wanted to completely change the model of academic research. They believed in creating an environment where researchers from a broad array of disciplines  – from artists to designers to computer scientist to physicists to architects – would have the freedom to invent and create according to their passions. One of the basic precepts was that the best way to predict the future is to invent it (as described by an early collaborator and famous computer scientist Alan Kay) and that the best way to invent is to “just do it” – build what you are thinking about rather than thinking about what to build. In that way, you often end up solving big problems in a novel way by the process of serendipity.

Morris: Here’s a two-part follow-up question: To what extent (if any) has that original mission changed? What are the defining responsibilities of its director?

Moss:  The mission of the Media Lab is essentially the same: inventing digital technologies that can improve our everyday lives, and in the process, transform society.

The role of director of the Media Lab does not have a job description attached to it. Each director, from the Media Lab co-founder and first director Nicholas Negroponte, to my successor Joi Ito, has brought different experiences and skills to the table. Negroponte was a great visionary and a prolific fundraiser, exactly the skills that were needed to get the nascent lab off the ground. When I arrived, the Media Lab had different needs, one of which was to find a way to provide increased value to its corporate sponsors. Therefore, my experience in the business world at both large companies and startups, from research to product development and marketing, was a plus. All directors of the Media Lab need to be good storytellers, able to paint a picture of where technology is taking humanity in the future, and how the lab is helping to make that future happen.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices. Please explain and meaning and significance of its title.

Moss: The title borrows from the eighteenth century poem by Goethe, “The Sorcerers Apprentice”, which has inspired many stories over the centuries, including Hollywood films. I thought was an apt metaphor for how Media Lab professors (the “sorcerers”) and their students (the “apprentices”) conjure digital inventions in their 21st century workshops.

Morris: When and why did you decide to write it?

Moss: During my tenure as director of the Media Lab, I had the pleasure of taking many people on a tour of its open and chaotic workshops, where students proudly demonstrated their latest prototypes, many of which were trying to solve profound human challenges, such as those of the disabled and disadvantaged of society. I enjoyed seeing the looks of inspiration and excitement, and optimism for the future, which came across the faces of my guests as they toured. I wanted to give the same experience to many people throughout the world that would never have a chance to visit the Media Lab in person, particularly young people.

Another reason I wrote the book is that I fear that the type of unconstrained, risky and audacious innovation that existed in the 20th century, putting men on the moon and sequencing the human genome, no longer exists in the 21st century, and this is a tragedy.  I think the methods of creativity and invention that exist at the Media Lab can serve as a beacon for re-igniting fervor for true innovation, and in the process set the stage for radical new approaches to the many challenges we face as a society, from health care to education to the environment.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Moss: One of the four major principles of creativity and invention at the Media Lab that I describe in the book is something I call “Serendipity by Design.” The idea is that really big innovations – those that change our lives and society – often come about literally by “mistake”. This was not a brand new revelation to me, but as I began to do research for the stories in the book, the degree to which this was true at the Media Lab was truly astonishing.  Just as one example, the research of Professor Tod Machover and his students began as an attempt to understand how virtuosos such as Yo Yo Ma created great music, but led to a sensor device which is used in millions of automobiles today to prevent injuries and death of children and small adults in the front passenger seat when airbags deploy.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from the one you originally envisioned?

Moss: The stories of the professors and their students are much more “personal” than I originally anticipated. That is because many of their inventions were designed to overcome challenges they faced in their own lives, or experiences that shaped them.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Sorcerers, you provide what becomes a guided tour of the Lab and remind me of Scrooge’s three ghosts in that you take your reader back in time, you explain what the Lab is and does today, and then you suggest the Lab’s probable role in months and years to come. Is that a fair assessment?

Moss: I suppose so, in the sense that to understand where the Media Lab is taking us in the future, it is useful to look back at the past – things that are the same, and some which have changed with technology, society and business.

Morris: You explain, indeed celebrate the achievements of dozens of different “sorcerers” and their “apprentices.” Please provide a brief explanation of the significance of each of these whom I found especially interesting, provided in alpha order. First, Adam Boulanger

Moss:  Adam Boulanger grew up around music, and for his undergraduate degree attended the Berkley School of Music. When he joined Professor Machover’s “Opera of the Future” group, he began to explore how digital technology for the creation of music could help improve the lives of people with disabilities, both mental and physical.  He collaborated with staff and residents of the Tewksbury State Hospital in Massachusetts, in particular a young man named Dan Ellsey, who has cerebral palsy. The story of how Boulanger used technology – a musical composition software program called Hyperscore – to unleash the musical potential of Ellsey, and the impact that this has had on Ellsey’s life, is extremely inspirational to everyone.

Morris: Next, Cynthia Breazeal

Moss: Professor Cynthia Breazeal, the daughter of a mathematician father and a computer scientist mother, grew up enchanted by the humanoid robots R2-D2 and C3P0 in the movie Stars Wars, dreaming that someday she would build them herself. She went on to get degrees in computer engineering from University of California and MIT, and today is the foremost inventor and designer of personal robots. Together with her student apprentices, in a workshop at the Media Lab that looks like a combination of a Hollywood studio prop room and a high-tech startup, Breazeal designs, builds and tests sociable robots like Nexi and Huggable, which learn from and understand people. The goal is to produce robots that can become helpful companions to humans as we live, work, play and age.  She and her students are making amazing progress toward that goal, and Professor Breazeal is a role model for young girls who are interested in science and technology but have been hesitant to adopt that as their profession.

Morris: Also, Riley Crane

Moss: Riley Crane is a physicist and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Media Lab when he and colleagues from the Human Dynamics group responded to a contest issued by the US Department of Defense to devise a mechanism to be the first to devise a scheme to locate red weather balloons which were to be inflated and moored at ten locations in the United States on December 5, 2009. The contest was conducted to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Internet, and was designed to demonstrate how it could unleash the power of a dispersed group of people to work together to solve difficult problems. Crane and his team learned of the contest, which offered a prize of $40,000 to the team that first located all ten balloons, only a few days before December 5th.  Although many teams from throughout the world had been preparing their approaches for months, in just a few days Riley and his team from the Media Lab devised a clever “recursive incentive” scheme that would reward not just the finders of the balloons, but also the chain of people who lead up to a successful finding. On the day of the balloon launch, they had used the Internet and social media to recruit thousands of “finders” with whom they communicated in real time – and successfully located all ten balloons before any other team, winning first prize.

Morris: And then Grant Elliot

Moss: Grant Elliot, a PhD student in electrical engineering and Andrew Marecki, a senior in mechanical engineering at MIT, are both “apprentices” in the lab of “sorcerer” Professor Hugh Herr, head of the Biomechatronics group at the Media Lab.  Professor Herr lost both of his lower legs as a teenager after being caught in a snowstorm while ice climbing on a mountain in New Hampshire, and was told by his doctors that he would never climb again, let alone walk or run normally. Herr was not one to take such news as inevitable, and set out on a lifelong mission to develop robotic leg prosthetics that would not only restore normal motion in amputees and others, but enable them to move better than ever. Elliot and Marecki are going even further, seeking to augment normal biological legs with an “exoskeleton,” worn on the outside of the body by anyone like an electromechanical pair of tights. The version that they were building and testing in the book, called a “running exo”, is designed to enable anyone to run with the metabolic output of walking. Imagine “running lanes” for commuters and exciting new “exo-sports”.

Morris: Finally, William Mitchell

Moss: Professor William (Bill) Mitchell, who passed away almost two years ago, was the driving force behind on of the most significant innovations to come out of the Media Lab in its history – the CityCar. Mitchell was a prominent architect, technologist, urban designer and auto enthusiast who issued the following challenge to his students: “Imagine the type of city you would like to live in, and then design a car for that city”. This began a process of iterative collaborative design and prototyping which along the way resulted in the invention of the “wheeled robot”, a wheel that within its perimeter contains all of the mechanical elements of a car: electric motor, suspension, steering and brakes. From there, the students designed a car that could fold and be stacked like shopping carts in front of a supermarket, and from there a one-way rental system that would completely revolutionize urban transportation. A production version of the CityCar and the rental system is being developed for deployment in a city in Spain within the next year.

Morris:  You also introduce your reader to a number of Lab programs that help to transform our lives. Again, for those who have not as yet read the book, please discuss a few.  First, Affective Computing

Moss:  Affective Computing is a branch of the field of artificial intelligence, pioneered by the Media Lab’s Professor Rosalind Picard, that designs and develops computers and technology with ‘emotional intelligence”. Such computers can literally detect and understand human social/emotional and behavioral signals – such as excitement, stress, happiness, boredom, anger, etc. Her group has developed “social emotion prostheses”, a special set of glasses that enable people on the autism spectrum to read the faces of people to whom they are talking. But that is only the beginning. Affective Computing technologies, when integrated into wrist bands, smart phones and other consumer electronic devices could literally transform the way businesses relate to their customers, the way teachers relate to their students and the way performers relate to their audiences.

Morris: Next, Lifelong Kindergarten

Moss:  Lifelong Kindergarten, one of the oldest Media Lab programs under the leadership of Professor Mitchell Resnick, is using digital technology to enable kids and adults alike to experience learning through the process of building and creativity. Resnick and his students believe that the best way to learn is through a constructive process of trying and failing, and then trying again, just like kids in kindergarten do when they are playing with blocks. Over the years they have translated this concept into many inventions like LEGO Mindstorms, the popular robotic building kit, and a website called “Scratch” where million of kids create and share their own animations, games and stories.

Morris: Also, New Media Medicine

Moss: New Media Medicine is a program I created several years ago at the Media Lab to explore the ways in which technology can enable ordinary people to take control of their health in ways previously thought impossible. One project in the group being developed by my PhD student Dr John Moore (a medical doctor who quit the practice of medicine to join the Media Lab) enables patients to collaborate as peers with their physicians in their own care, such as for patients with HIV, diabetes and hypertension. By providing patients with transparent access to their own medical data, and the visualizations to understand how lifestyle changes and medication affect their health, he seeks to literally transform the practice of primary and chronic care.

Morris: What are the defining values of the Lab’s culture?

Moss: There are four key values that I describe in my book:

The Power of Passion: Students and their professors at the Media Lab have the freedom to invent, create and take risks according to their passions, without any specific set of rules other than (i) What they are doing can someday transform people’s lives and society in a positive way and (ii) no one else in the world is doing what they are doing

Disappearing Disciplines:  The greatest innovations in the 21st century will occur at the boundaries between different disciplines, not in the academic and scientific silos of the 20th century. Therefore, the Media Lab has a highly eclectic mix of artists, designers, computer scientists, engineers, neuroscientists, physicists, mathematicians, etc, all working together in a boundary-less physical and intellectual environment.

Hard Fun: Since its inception, the Media Lab has an ethos of playful learning, based upon the idea that creativity and invention is an enjoyable and flexible endeavor, not a formal and rigid process as taught by innovation consultants and business schools. On of the most important principles is that the students build what they are thinking about, rather than spending much time at all thinking about what to build, and then see what happens when people use their prototypes in the real world. In short, that can often be very hard work but is always a lot of fun.

Serendipity by Design: A key ethos of the Media Lab is that the greatest innovations often come from directions in which you were not looking in the first place. Therefore, Media Lab researchers are given the freedom, indeed encouraged, to continually take their creations and inventions in directions which were not possible to anticipate, often brought about by accidents or chance encounters. In one classic example, a sensor technology that was designed to measure the process by which virtuosos such as cellist Yo Yo Ma create music ended up being used in automobiles to detect when children or small adults are seated in the passenger side, and subsequently cut off the airbag mechanism to prevent injury or even death in the event of an accident. This has saved hundreds if not thousands of lives over several decades.

Morris: The Media Lab’s facilities were expanded in 2010 with the a new, six-floor structure designed by the Tokyo-based architectural firm of Maki and Associates together with the existing Wiesner Building designed by MIT alumnus I. M. Pei. Here’s my question: How specifically does the Lab’s physical environment support, indeed nourish creative and innovative thinking? Collaboration?

Moss: Quite simply by providing a transparent, open environment that removes the physical boundaries between the researchers and their research. The result is a level of cross-pollination and collaboration that is impossible in traditional lab architectures.

Morris: In your opinion, what can be learned from the Lab that can help to improve the quality of education in U.S. public schools?

Moss: All schools, public and private, from kindergarten through graduate level, need to understand that the best way to teach is to have students learn, and the best way to do this is by encouraging them to take risks and fail. Today, the opposite is true. Students are programmed from the very beginning that “failure is not an option.”

Morris: According to recent research conducted by highly-reputable firms such as Gallup and Towers Watson, on average, fewer that 30% of the employees in a U.S, workplace are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of operations.  In your opinion, what can be learned from the Lab that can help to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged members of a workforce?

Moss: The best way to get people engaged is by giving them the freedom to create and contribute according to their passions, no matter what the nature of the tasks at hand.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of leadership that is most effective in a community such as the Lab?

Moss: Leaders in highly creative environments such as the Media Lab must exhibit the same level of passion and curiosity that they expect and require of everyone.

Morris: Here are three of my favorite quotations. Please share your thoughts about each. First, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Moss: I really like this one. The search for truth is unending, and this applies to the challenges of our modern technologic society as much as it did in Voltaire’s time. All too often today we believe that because we have all the data, we have the answers. But today the data is constantly changing.

Morris: Next, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Moss: This is another way of stating one of my favorite maxims: “The best way to make true progress is by asking the right questions. Once you do that, the answers are the easy part.”

Morris: Finally, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Moss: Lau-Tzu nailed it with this one. He knew that the leader should never be the smartest one in the room, or at least appear to be!

Morris: Here are two separate but related questions: To what extent (if any) can “sorcerers” be developed through formal education and cultural support? To what extent (if any) will they develop naturally, what the nature of their personal circumstances may be?

Moss:  The best way to create “sorcerers” is by having them first be apprentices in the type of informal, creative and open environments such as the Media Lab, where action and risk taking are prized over just thinking and planning.

Morris: If there were a monument carved out of a mountain to honor sorcerers such as the one Gutzon Borglum created in the Black Hills of South Dakota to honor U.S. presidents, who would be your four selections? Please explain your reasons for each.

Moss:  It would be four ordinary citizens who use technology to take control of their lives in profound ways, alone and in collaboration with others, and who in the process transform society from the bottom up. They will be the “sorcerers” who have the greatest impact in the long run.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Moss: None, Bob, you were amazingly thorough.

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Frank cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites.

My author website: www.frankmoss.com

My twitter handle: @frank_moss


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