The Sorcereres and Their Apprentices, by Frank Moss

4: Serendipity by Design

... in which seemingly random connections spark truly big ideas.

Ever notice that some of the best things happen to you when you least expect them, as if by accident?

If so, you’re in good company.  Throughout history, many of the most important innovations —such as the typewriter and the telephone—were the result of totally unexpected and surprising connections. This is why the Media Lab creates an environment that encourages such “accidents” to happen on a regular basis.

It’s called serendipity by design, and it’s a tenet of the Lab’s approach to innovation.  There’s no official “Office of A-ha Management,” but producing a-ha moments—lots of them—is the goal.

  • See how seemingly random connections between people and people, and people and ideas, produce innovations that may change the world.
  • Learn why taking a detour is not only perfectly permissible for researchers but also encouraged—and the only “failure” is failing to follow your instincts.
  • Understand what a bunch of bankers in suits could possibly have in common with a gurgling baby (a lot).
  • Read about how baseball, baby-talk and a very big home video system came together to forever change the advertising business.

  • Follow how a souped-up cello led to a Las Vegas magic trick—and eventually to safer automobile airbags for children.
Inside the Speechome: A birds-eye view of a day in the Life of Baby Roy Watch (Credit: MIT Media Lab Cognitive Machines Group)
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Deb Roy tells the story of Speechome at TED 2011 Watch (TED Talk)
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Yo Yo Ma expresses a symphony of sounds with Tod Machover’s Hypercello Watch (Credit: MIT Media Lab Opera of the Future Group)
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MIT Media Lab Professor Joe Paradiso (a.k.a. Sensorman) knows the power of serendipity.  Sensor technology that started as part of a musical instrument became a tool for cutting-edge medical research – and eventually a way to prevent shoulder and elbow injuries in baseball pitchers. Here, he models a wireless inertial measurement unit of the type used to monitor Boston Red Sox players. (Photo: Jeannie Finks, MIT Media Lab) Performer Penn Jillette using the MIT Media Lab’s famed “Spirit Chair” to “conjure up” spirits in a Las Vegas stage show.  The chair used sensor technology that later led to other applications in health care and sports medicine.  (Photo:  Webb Chappell) The MIT Media Lab’s Speechome project continuously studied Professor Deb Roy’s son from birth to age three to understand how speech forms.  Here, the Speechome system – a massive audio and video system built into Professor Roy’s home – shows a single video frame of the Roy kitchen. The results of the Speechome research have led to technology that helps advertisers understand audience response to their television ads in real time.  (Photo:  MIT Media Lab, Cognitive Machines) Serendipity by design in action: MIT Media Lab researcher Michael Fleischman’s early work was creating software that could “learn” the language of baseball games by searching and analyzing thousands of hours of games on videotape. This technology eventually led to commercial technology that today helps advertisers understand audience response to their television ads in real time. (Photo: Michael Fleischman)

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