When Frank Moss was director of the MIT Media Lab, one of his major duties was discussing what was going on there. In The Sorcerers And Their Apprentices: How The Digital Magicians Of The MIT Media Lab Are Creating The Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives, Moss often writes about how impressed representative of big companies like General Motors and Apple were with the demos students gave. The demos do sound impressive, but Moss’ writing fails to stir up the same excitement. His book reads like a collection of speeches meant to draw in investors, too often talking up the Media Lab’s philosophy rather than the fascinating inventions being built there.
The first half of Sorcerers And Their Apprentices is almost entirely dedicated to discussing how the Media Lab works, which might be worthwhile reading for businesspeople looking for ways to increase innovation at their companies, but is a slog for anyone primarily interested in the lab’s crazy new technologies. Moss is overly fond of buzzwords and cute descriptors like “hard fun” and “serendipity by design,” which gets repetitive as he gushes about how amazing the lab is. The jargon gets in the way of portraying a unique place, where brilliant people from all disciplines work on whatever strikes their fancy without having to worry about grant proposals or making their work profitable. The latter concern is left up to the companies that fund the Media Lab, then use the discoveries to do everything from make banking customers comfortable to designing safer airbags for children.
It’s a shame Moss doesn’t devote more time to the research and science, because the stories coming out of the Media Lab are amazing. For instance, the mountain climber who dedicated himself to science after losing his legs to frostbite. He’s already helped invent prosthetics that allow him to run, climb, and ski better than ever, but he won’t be satisfied until he can feel the sand between his artificial toes. Or the robot weight-loss coach that’s been programmed to chat with dieters and even make jokes, and has proven incredibly effective in early tests. While Moss is persistently enthusiastic, other stories about the Media Lab’s robotics work sound a little creepy, including a robot that learns like a kindergarten student and gets jealous of other robots, and a future Moss envisions where sensors will be placed throughout people’s homes to monitor their health and deliver the data to a digital avatar who reports to their doctors. Many of the creations Moss discusses are still far from common use, and some may wind up among the countless Media Lab projects broken down for spare parts. As much as it may feel like a sales pitch, The Sorcerers And Their Apprentices is a fundamentally optimistic work, envisioning a better future through technology that is being built right now.