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MIT, Indian government establishing Media Laboratory Asia joint project

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the government of India are establishing a one-year exploratory project to create the Media Laboratory Asia (MLA), which is conceived as an independent, non-profit organization.

The Indian government has committed $12 million toward this one-year program, $1.7 million of which has been earmarked for MIT's participation. Seed funding will be provided by the government of India, and the remaining funds will be raised by MLA from private-sector and other non-governmental sources. Findings at the end of the program's first year will form the framework for making decisions concerning a 10-year MLA project and will determine the role that MIT would play in its development.

"The overarching goal of MLA will be to facilitate the invention, refinement and deployment of innovations to benefit all sectors of Indian society," noted Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder and senior director of the MIT Media Lab. "MLA will not be a bricks and mortar initiative. Rather, it is intended to be a distributed organization that will work with industry, non-government organizations (NGOs), government, and most importantly, ordinary people, to bring these innovations to villages across all of India."

MIT plans to develop ways to bring the benefits of the most sophisticated emerging technologies to the daily problems of India's poorest and least educated people. This would include assistance in formulating an innovative approach to research at MLA, providing guidance in identifying potential funding partners, and establishing working relationships between organizations in India and research groups at MIT.

Once the MLA is formed and definitive agreements are reached, the program, based in India, will be staffed by project developers from India, visiting researchers from MIT, and participants from numerous NGOs. Though the program's agenda has yet to be formulated, the research agenda envisioned will be rooted in a handful of basic tenets, including:

  • Young people are a country's most precious natural resource and with the aid of new technologies can serve as an army of innovators and teachers.
  • Penetration of new technologies is best achieved through a self-perpetuating and entrepreneurial approach.
  • Technology-enabled innovations will only flourish if they are part of the daily lives of all people, at all levels, including entertainment and leisure.
  • Rural communities can sustain lucrative enterprises, and inventive telecommunications can stem the tide of urbanization and the growth of slums.

The MLA program would apply a project-based approach to research throughout India, and draw on the MIT Media Laboratory's experiences in converting research into widely distributed, on-the-ground projects. Two recent examples include the Computer Clubhouse Network (with over 100 locations scheduled, winner of Drucker Award for best not-for-profit in America), and the LINCOS (Little Intelligent Communities) projects (with over 60 locations scheduled, winner of Alcatel Award for science and technology-based development projects in Latin America).

While there are many areas where technological innovation could affect development, MLA research would place special emphasis on projects that would touch all sectors of Indian society from villages to cities, from government officials to local agriculturists, from kids to seniors, from athletes to the disabled.

The following project ideas give a glimpse into potential MLA research topics:

Changing Lives
  • Disaster control: The development of new sensors and wireless technologies could help locate people, detect contaminated water, and avoid illness; new types of emergency shelters could provide inexpensive and immediate housing. Information technology and communication tools could assist in the coordination of relief efforts, and could link and reunite families.
  • Learning communities: New technologies could bring Internet exposure to hundreds of millions of children. These children could then take the lead in introducing the practical uses of these technologies to their communities.
  • Digital health: Small, low-cost, wireless, position-aware telemedicine appliances and sensors could allow auxiliary nurse-midwives to perform simple diagnostics, environmental analysis, and gathering of epidemiological information. These systems could likewise support bi-directional information flow to the primary health centers and to district hospitals.
  • Local entrepreneurs: As rural India relies on the informal and agricultural sectors for most of its economic activities, new digital financial products and services, as well as innovative forms of e-commerce, could support these economic sectors with more efficient information flows and cheaper transactions.
Enabling Technologies
  • Multi-lingual and multi-literate systems: Innovative technologies could support content and applications that speak to people in their local tongues. These systems could respect a range of written literacy levels, ensuring that information technologies could benefit all members of society.
  • Access and beyond: Today, 300,000 Indian villages are without telephones. Through innovative technologies, applications, assessments, and entrepreneurial business models, a vast number of these villages could be connected to the Internet.
  • Inexpensive computers: New ultra-low-cost technologies -- from open-source hardware to technologies for printing circuits -- promise to bring the cost of computing down to dollars and eventually to pennies. These could be produced locally and deployed widely.
  • Personal fabrication: The means for rapid prototyping of mechanical, electronic, and computational function could be reduced to small-scale facilities that could be made accessible to rural entrepreneurs -- initially for access to labor in technology deployment, and perhaps eventually as a platform for the indigenous development of appropriate information technology.
  • Television: With 70 percent of India viewing television, popular programs such as soap operas could be an effective means of reaching people. New forms of TV soap operas could explore ways to educate, excite, and enliven Indian communities on the role of technologies in humanistic development.
  • Rural service provision. The current regulatory environment discourages Internet and basic service operators from moving into rural communities. New Internet and telecommunications policy work could help foster universal rural service.

The MLA would bring together scientists, students, industry, NGOs, and investment and multilateral organizations to create new opportunities for people across all of India. The MLA will not be in one place, or even in one country. It will instead be a distributed community working to invent a richer, healthier, and more creative society.

The MLA would pursue projects designed to improve the lives of people by leveraging new technologies. In parallel, the design model developed would enable these projects to be applied in countries throughout Asia.

Projects would typically have an area of technical innovation, in-the-field testing, and a plan for sustainable deployment. Project partners would include not-for-profit organizations such as technical and management universities and NGOs. Partner organizations benefit from the MLA through sharing of MLA staff, equipment, and other resources. Partners participate through in-kind contributions to MLA projects.

The MLA is intended to attract a large number of sponsors and investors, primarily for deployment of innovative infrastructure and services in rural communities. The plan calls for MLA to be sponsored by industry, foundations, investment and multilateral organizations. Sponsors would be asked to contribute to the MLA finances, with the government of India providing seed funding.

The research will respect the sensibility, values, and tradition of the people of India. The program will need to function on multiple scales:

  • Helping to guide a national operational office to coordinate logistics across the country, interface with senior contacts in the government, industry, and non-governmental organizations, and suggest national-scale resources (e.g., satellite transponder and broadcast television time).
  • Creating a network of regional research centers that harness local strengths and provide focus for particular problems. These would be based at places that already have a group of people who can provide intellectual leadership.
  • Working with grass-roots organizations to develop and assess projects based on scalable entrepreneurial models.

Through participation in selected projects, the Media Lab at MIT would help develop frameworks by which national, regional, and village level participants could perform effective collaborative research. The MLA research program interface to the MIT campus could evolve from bringing in senior collaborators and selected graduate students for joint exploratory work to establish one of the MLA research branches at MIT, in order to manage the exchange of people and projects between the institutions, as well as to provide a focus for the fundamental research activities.

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