The Sorcerer’s Apprentice


In Goethe’s 1797 poem "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice"—and in countless later versions of the story, including the famous sequence in Disney’s "Fantasia" in 1940—disaster results when a young man, taking advantage of his wizardly master’s absence, uses sorcery to lighten his chores. The poem ends with the admonition that magic should be used solely by experienced sorcerers.

No such prohibition applies in Frank Moss’s "The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices"—the students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab don’t have to wait until the professors aren’t around before they can start tinkering. The students work essentially as partners with their teachers, and together they have produced technological innovations that often seem touched by magic, from the e-reader to the lifelike robotic prosthesis now in development.

The Media Lab was founded about 25 years ago by Jerome Wiesner, MIT’s president at the time, and computer-savvy architect Nicholas Negroponte, who became its first director. Mr. Moss, who was the lab’s director from 2006 until he recently stepped down, tells us in "The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices" that the lab remains administratively where it was founded, in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, but its reach has stretched well beyond that. And the term "media" in the lab’s title has taken on seemingly unbounded meaning.

MEDIALABMedia Lab professor Cynthia Breazeal with Nexi, a 4-foot-tall robot that uses facial expressions to convey emotions and learns from its interactions with people.

With a stated goal to "invent the future," the Media Lab has a $35 million annual budget, a good portion of which comes from sponsors, many of them major corporations. Bank of America, for example, leads the online list as the lab’s "corporate research partner."

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