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Negroponte, Nicholas

NEGROPONTE, NICHOLAS

Computer-aided design expert Nicholas Negroponte is the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Laboratory, a leading $35 million research facility funded by MIT itself and several governmental bodies, as well as by more than 175 corporations across the globe. The lab focuses its efforts on communications methods of the future. Its programs include Information and Entertainment Systems, Schools of the Future, and Television of Tomorrow. Negroponte is also the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Technology at MIT, a member of Motorola Inc.'s board of directors, and a columnist for Wired magazine, which he co-founded in 1993. In 2000, at the age of 56, Negroponte began reducing his activities at the lab and spending more time on other ventures, including Webswappers.com, a European online swapping site in which he had invested heavily, and Protos LLC, an investment fund which he created with CCBN.com CEO Jeff Parker, Harvard Business School professor Bill Sahlman, and venture capitalist Thomas Grant.

Negroponte has served as a faculty member of MIT since 1966. When he first enrolled there as a student, Negroponte was interested in studying architecture. However, by the time he graduated he had become more intrigued by the fledgling concept of computer-aided design, which became the topic of his thesis. In 1968, Negroponte established the Architecture Machine Group at MIT, a research group focused on developing new types of interactions between humans and computers. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Negroponte also taught courses at Yale University, the University of Michigan, and the University of California at Berkeley. At the time, he was considered a bit of a fanatic by many of his colleagues for his ideas about how computers, telephones, and televisions might one day work together to offer something called "multimedia."

Negroponte was named the first chairman of the Computers in Everyday Life subgroup of the International Federation of Information Processing Societies in 1980. The World Center for Personal Computation and Human Development, based in Paris, appointed him executive director in 1982. Three years later, Negroponte co-founded the MIT Media Laboratory with Jerome Weisner, a former president of MIT. The new research center began studying things like artificial intelligence, a topic considered radical by many critics. As a result, the lab generated unanticipated publicity, which allowed Negroponte to secure more corporate funding than he otherwise might have obtained with the lab's unusual sponsorship model. Rather than offer corporate sponsors rights to any new technological developments or allow them to control the direction of research, Negroponte and his cohorts decided to simply allow sponsors access to the lab, where they could interact with any of the researchers there by asking questions, making suggestions, and so on. According to a September 2000 article in Technology Review, although corporations would receive no tangible reward from funding research at the lab, "Negroponte proved remarkably adept at selling the proposition, bolstered by the growing perception that something magical was happening."

In 1995, Negroponte published his book Being Digital, which lingered on the bestseller list for more than a year and eventually was translated into more than 40 languages. According to Jennifer O'Connell in a July 2000 issue of The Sunday Business Post, it was this book that "transformed Negroponte from an obscure Bostonian professor to the leading authority on tomorrow's world." His predictions about the growth of online traffic (1 billion people by the year 2000) and Internet-based commerce ($1 trillion by 2001) became commonly used benchmarks in technology circles, and Negroponte became known as one of the most electronically connected individuals in the worldone who refused to use a traditional telephone phone and shunned paper and pens in favor of e-mail.

By the late 1990s, Negroponte's lab had started to outgrow the model of intimate collaboration that had worked so well to foster innovation. Decisions like the one to establish MediaLab Europe in Dublin, Irelandone of the largest investments in Ireland's e-business infrastructure to dateforced Negroponte and his colleagues to begin rethinking the strategy that would best cultivate future ingenuity. Also impacting the lab was the ease with which Internet-based startups were securing funding from venture capitalists. Recognizing that his lab could benefit from access to such funding, Negroponte began meeting with officials at MIT in an effort to secure approval for the lab to begin pursuing deals with venture capitalists. In 2000, just as the lab was poised to launch the most dramatic restructuring in its 15-year history, Negroponte began delegating many management tasks to his colleagues. While some industry observers believed Negroponte's absence would leave the lab floundering, others saw the upcoming management transitions as essential for the lab to successfully reinvent itself in the rapidly shifting technological landscape of the twenty-first century.

FURTHER READING:

Freedman, David H. "The Media Lab Crossroads." Technology Review. September 2000.

"The Importance of Being Digital." Industry Week. February 19, 1996.

O'Connell, Jennifer. "Digital Evangelist." The Sunday Business Post. July 30, 2000. Available from www.sbpost.ie.

SEE ALSO: MIT and the Galactic Network

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