Making Ideas Into Reality and the Future of R&D

MIT’s Media Lab produces cutting edge technology by allowing students and faculty to pursue innovative research projects without the burden of bureaucracy. The technology is game changing, but the funding model built on the participation of private business could help revolutionize the research and development process for the Department of Defense.

Estimated time to read:  5 minutes

By Dr. Jared R. Donnelly

Recently 60 Minutes did feature on MIT’s Media Lab that highlighted some of the cutting edge research it is conducting today and presents an innovative model that could supplement the research and development (R&D) process for the Department of Defense (DoD). The Media Lab is a research laboratory and graduate school program that combines innovative researchers with the resources they need to push the envelope of tech development. Students are often selected to the program based on the creativity of the ideas rather than just their academic credentials. The Media Lab at MIT started in the mid-1980s and has produced a large amount of innovative tech such as touch screen displays, turn-by-turn navigation, wearable tech, and electronic ink.

Today they are continuing to develop technology that may be as revolutionary as the touch screen. 60 Minutes called the lab “the Future Factory” as the students and faculty are researching a huge number of technologies that could very well drive our future. When one considers the security and defense implications of these research projects it is not hard to see how important the Media Lab is to our Nation’s future security.

For example, one student is working on a system that allows you to surf the internet with your mind. Basically you wear a device that intercepts the electronic signals that travel from your brain to your vocal chords and then transmits them to a computer that predicts your speech and searches the web. Then the requested information is sent back to the user via vibrations transmitted through their skull and into their inner ear. Quite simply, the user can access the web, or any other information platform, with their thoughts. This could potentially create a dramatic shift in the way we access information.

Another student is researching exoskeletons for able-bodied people. This exoskeleton can allow a person to run faster, jump higher, and lift heavier things, much like we see in science fiction today. There are some obvious implications for the battlefield with stronger, faster soldiers, but with the military technology already available, a soldier who can run fast and carry heavy loads might not be that much more useful. The real game changer may simply be that an exoskeleton could significantly increase a soldier’s endurance so that after a 10 hour hike through mountainous terrain they would be fresh for combat. Furthermore, the reduced stress on a soldier’s body could allow for individuals to serve longer without the bad joints and wear and tear that accumulate with combat duty.

The research project of an architect in the program could radically change food product and help address future environmental crises. This student is building “computer farms” where plants are grown in computer controlled boxes that create an environment to the exact specifications for perfect growing conditions for the plants. The air is saturated with a perfect mix of moisture and nutrients that removes the need for soil. This system allows for plants to be grown almost anywhere at any time. Not only can the technology be combined with organizational systems designed to maximize space, these plants can produce at rates exponentially higher than on a traditional farm.

All of this technological development is exciting and encouraging, but the real story here, from the national security point of view, is the fact that all this research is funded by private enterprise. In the early years of the Cold War the United States government funded nearly all STEM graduate research at universities across the country. For decades technological advances came from government laboratories or from federally funded research. The Shuttle Program was a significant expense but it was understood that a great deal of the initial research for the technology on the Shuttle would make its way into the private sector and eventually space lift and space travel would become profitable for private business. We are seeing the fruits of this investment today, but it took years and billions of dollars to come about. With the Media Lab program at MIT, the $75 million annual budget comes from a consortium of 90 companies that pay a membership fee. These companies have no control over the research topics, but they get the first opportunity to capitalize on the inventions produced at the Lab and acquire the patents. This allows the students and faculty to fully focus on what interests them which fosters a truly innovative an environment.

The Media Lab model leads to a scenario where the costs of research and development are borne by private business. Meanwhile the researchers, unencumbered by grant writing, overly burdensome bureaucracy, and research requirements, are free to push the boundaries of future technology. There are still challenges in getting the technology from prototype to a mature DoD program of record. Innovative technologies often get trapped in a “valley of death” where DoD program managers cannot use immature technology in their programs because of the risk and therefore the new tech cannot get the funding to become mature. Technology readiness level is a major concern for DoD acquisitions, but close partnerships with programs like the Media Lab could lead to solutions for the acquisitions valley of death.

With the rapidity of technological development and ballooning costs of high-end programs, it is challenging for the Department of Defense to stay at the cutting edge with its limited resources. Lengthy acquisitions timelines often fall behind the pace of technological development or exaggerate tech capabilities, which inflate costs. With these realities, it is likely that the DoD will increasingly rely on the private sector to supplement their R&D programs with advances in technology that go beyond traditional defense research. Programs like MIT’s Media Lab can provide the technology and creative thinking required for the future national security environment through the support of private business. That, in itself, is innovative.

Dr. Jared Donnelly is an Assistant Professor at the Air Command and Staff College. He teaches in the Multi Domain Operations Strategists program for the Department of Future Security Studies. Email: Jared.donnelly@us.af.mil

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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