Close encounters with the Willy Wonkas of Tech

By Henadi Al-Saleh

Some of the most mind-opening moments of my career have come from Agility’s decision last year to become a consortium member of the MIT Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Behind-the-scenes access to the lab’s latest innovations has changed the way I think about our challenges. It’s been a long time since I was a kid marveling at the sweets in a candy store, but spending time at the lab is like being with the Willy Wonkas of technology.

The Media Lab is creativity in action. The people there describe their research as “anti-disciplinary,” meaning they want to free themselves from the limitations imposed by dividing knowledge up into different school subjects. Lots of universities describe their research as “interdisciplinary” – crossing the boundaries of academic disciplines – but the MIT Media Lab is taking it to the next level.

The lab’s mission is to use technology to create a better future for humanity. Whatever helps them fulfill this mission, they’ll do it. From the stuff I’ve seen coming out this liberated mind-set, it really works! They aren’t just thinking outside the box, they’re tearing the cardboard up. Just being involved with the Media Lab makes you think sideways, upside-down and back-to-front. What if clothes adapted themselves depending on your body temperature, rather than you having to change clothes, or buy different garments? What if the healthy things we don’t fancy eating tasted like the things we love most?

What’s lettuce got to do with logistics?

Sure, this stuff is exciting and cool, but what’s it got to do with being a global logistics provider? Well, nothing. And at the same time, kind of everything.

The lab has developed drones and object-locating technology that could revolutionize warehousing, but the bulk of its work has little obvious or direct connection to logistics. We joined because we want to explore new ideas and push the boundaries – and because we want to be inspired. Researchers at the lab approach their jobs with a sense of wonder and discovery, often stumbling on real world applications as they go along. What they love is when consortium members like Agility come to them with problems, such as how to more efficiently deliver humanitarian aid in Africa.

Culture change and radical thinking are notoriously hard in business. Disruption is scary because you’ve got to keep executing every day. But this is the way to open your mind to the possibilities. When our team travelled to Boston for the Media Lab’s Spring Member Summit a couple of months ago, we weren’t just tapping into a wealth of knowledge, we were tapping into a mindset. For me, these experiences are about sparking the “why,” and showing the incredible things humanity is able to achieve.

Chocolate-flavored lettuce is pretty out-there. At first it seems like a silly novelty, but then you realize how it’s thinking around a problem in a creative way. We all know that poor nutrition is damaging to our health, but many of us prefer tasty junk food and sweets to healthy, good-for-you foods. Well, what if healthy foods were just as tasty and appealing? I love chocolate, so the lab’s answer certainly set my mouth watering.

The WOW! Factor

Many of the other amazing things we saw at the lab are still top secret, but here’s one from the Affective Computing research group. It shows Agility Ventures’ very own Lamia Hayat making friends with a robot—an off-the-shelf Cozmo that the researchers are using in their experiments with machine learning.

He’s super cute, but the capabilities the researchers are working on giving artificial intelligence could ultimately help give children with autism the ability to learn how to read different emotions. Discover more about the lab’s incredible “deep learning” program and perhaps you’ll be as inspired by its infectious, hands-on creativity as I am.

We’re thrilled that we became consortium members. If you want to find out more about the lab and its work – and you definitely should! – visit the MIT Media Lab website and check out its amazing innovations in action on the lab’s YouTube channel. And if you hate vegetables, keep your eyes peeled. It might not be long before they taste a whole lot different …