Pattie Maes #1

MIT Media Lab

Founder, Fluid Interfaces Research Group

You have to be a bit naïve sometimes to try new things and take risks. We are naïve optimists who believe that we can improve the world and have a positive impact through technology. 


Interview by Heidi Legg

How do you describe the Lab’s mission?

We try to come up with technical solutions to human problems.

Who’s the “we”?

We are all builders in some way. We all create things. We have that in common, but the tools that we use are different. For some people it may be mechanical engineering, for others, it may be brain science, for others, it is electrical engineering, computer science, music. We try to look for people who are passionate about something, who have a vision for the things they want to accomplish, who already have a proven track record for being very creative and accomplishing things.

It sounds like a Utopian society.

You have to be a little bit naïve sometimes to really try new things and take risks.  I actually like the fact that we have this naivety about us.  We are all optimists.  We are naïve optimists that believe that we can improve the world or have a positive impact on the world through technology.

Who pays for all this optimism?

Unlike a lot of university research labs, the Media Lab is primarily funded by industry, Fortune 1000 companies from all over the world.

How are they involved in the work?

They have access to any of the intellectual property that is developed during the time of their sponsorship, royalty-free. But the interesting thing is that they are not, actually, primarily there for the IP.  They are really there to be involved in the brainstorming, the thinking about where technology is going, the intersection between technology and people.

Why do you think the keyboard and mouse are dinosaurs?

Personal computers were invented forty years ago. Back then we were using them for computation. They were meant to be better calculators.

Why is that a problem?

Today we use computers to learn and hang out with our friends, to express ourselves in creative ways, to manage our health and our finances, to engage in the political process. Computers have become an integral part of every aspect of our lives, but we are still using the desktop metaphor. There is a big mismatch here.  

What’s wrong with my computer?

Whenever you use it, whether it’s your laptop or your smart phone, you have to completely change your focus of attention to that device.

How are you changing this?

We try to come up with new ideas for human-computer interaction that better integrate the digital world and our physical experience. Using technology should be as natural as one of our five senses. You can smell a product, you can see it, you can touch it, and you can taste it.  What if it were just as easy to get all the information that exists online about a particular object? What if you didn’t have to think about it, you just perceived the useful, relevant information about the stuff around you and could take it into account in your decision-making.

When can I buy this experience?

Because our members are Fortune 1000 companies, they are often not agile. So if we come up with something radically new and different, they often aren’t very good at productizing it.  It’s a lot easier for them if we have an invention that is an incremental improvement to something they are already making. 

Is it difficult to give up control in the commercialization process?

There are lots of ways in which you have to give in when you make something into a commercial product. I am worried that companies will provide this service more as a marketing and advertising tool. I hope that it becomes a system where users have a lot of control about what information they see at what time, and where that information comes from.

What else are you inventing?

One project is called LuminAR.  And it’s related our popular SixthSense initiative.  We are trying to make a light bulb that you could literally screw into the light socket and create an augmented, reality-projected surface -- let’s say, on the kitchen island. You would have a projected interface wherever you install it. Any surface can become a computer.

You are one of a few high-profile women in your space.  Does that occur to you on a regular basis?

I think that women, in general, should be more encouraged. We have more women now in other sciences, like psychology, biology.  Women outnumber men, actually, in PhDs received.  But in computer science, that’s not the case.  And it’s unfortunate because I think that women, on average, have, better intuition about interesting research directions.  Men often are too infatuated with the technology for the sake of the technology.  On average women think more about implications and potential use and how this can change people and society.

Are there people along the way who really made a difference in your research?

Nicholas Negroponte, who founded and ran The Media Lab for many years, is always challenging us to think bigger and to have an impact in the world out there. I appreciate his way of thinking, and the way that he pushed me and the other faculty so much. 

And Rodney Brooks is actually the reason why I came here.  He was a professor at The Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT (AI), and he was always very much a rebel in his own discipline.  While everybody else was building robots in one way, he decided to do it in a completely different way.  It was inspiring to see that, to see someone be daring like that and approach things in a way that was opposite from what everyone else thought.  I was very narrow-minded, initially.  The mentors I appreciated the most are the ones that broadened my view of things.

“A day in the life of ” Pattie Maes?

I get up very early.  And get the kids out of the door.  And then have a cup of coffee, read my e-mail, read the New York Times online.  Usually I spend a big part of the morning at home catching up on things. The reason why I like to do that from home is that I can take a little break and tend my garden-- weeding or checking on how my vegetables are doing. Then I can go back to e-mails.  I love to be able to mix these different things. I am probably an undiagnosed ADD case. I go to the office at eleven.  Usually until six.  And then I come home and, again, it’s kids' time until nine o’clock.  Finally, I read at night, usually with a glass of wine, or occasionally watch a movie, or more e-mail, more work.

Favorite florist?

My own garden.

Power lunch?

These days, Area Four

Secret source?

One of my very good friends, Elaine Hsieh, makes incredible chocolates.  She was a primary care physician who was always passionate about cooking.  She gave up her job as a doctor to become a chocolatier. I’m so inspired by her story. You can find it at Formaggio and online.