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FIRST PERSON

Digital Revolutionary

MIT'S media lab helped launch the tech age. Now its new director, Frank Moss, wants to save the world.

You have said you want to refocus the Media Lab’s resources on fields that will really have an impact on society.

We have so many problems we face now: autism, Alzheimer’s disease, identity theft and privacy, economic problems in the Third World. There are so many problems for which technology could be making a difference.

What do you think will be the biggest breakthrough of the next 20 years?

I think we’re going to fundamentally redefine the notion of human abilities and disabilities. Let me give you an example. As you probably know, people with autism are unable to, in many cases, relate socially and emotionally to other people, because literally they can’t understand social and emotional cues. We have a technology here at the Media Lab called effective computing that would enable a person with autism to use a device that would literally image the person’s face that they’re talking to and then decompose the gestures down to algorithms that could then say: “This person is angry.” “This person is bored.” “This person is mad.” “This person is sad.” So a person with autism – or even a blind person – could be using technology to now relate to other people in ways they never could have dreamed of before.

This spring, you’re planning to put up a new $120 million building next to your current building. How much space do you need?

One of the magical things about the Media Lab is the space: It’s open and feels more like an artist’s studio than it does like a research lab. We have a few spaces in the current Media Lab that are double-height and open in this way, where this kind of activity takes place. The new building will provide over 10 of those.

Over the course of your career, you’ve done a lot: software, pharmaceuticals, starting companies, selling companies – like the one you sold to IBM in 1996 for $743 million. How did that change your life?

It’s really not about the money, I think. What really changed my life was I was at the right place at the right time to realize what I’d been trying to do all my life, which was to get together a smart group of people and do something that other people think wasn’t possible.

As a boy, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be an astronaut. That was my passion. I actually wanted to be in space medicine, because coming from the kind of family where I was from, my parents wanted me to become a doctor.

Were your parents doctors?

No. But when you grow up Jewish, your parents want you to become a doctor. That’s the thing.
– Keith O’Brien

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Globe magazine interview on Sunday with Frank Moss from the MIT Media Lab mistakenly used the term "effective computing" instead of "affective computing" for the lab's work involving computers that sense, recognize, and understand human emotions and respond.)

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