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New MIT Museum showcases latest scientific advancements


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Artificial intelligence, robotics, gene sequencing, the stuff of headlines, science fiction, and sometimes even our own worst fears, it's all on view at the brand-new MIT Museum, a place where the latest scientific advancements fill galleries, but only really work with your input.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston takes a look at this artistic frontier for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: On the third floor of the new MIT Museum, there's a robotics lab, and not for show.

Ph.D. Students like Yanwei Wang staff it, compiling research from visitors like me willing to sit down for an experiment, collecting data about how the robot works with me.

Yanwei Wang, College Student: And the idea is, a human is going to teach this robot to do a motion.

Jared Bowen: A simple task, guiding in the robot to move a block from one side of the table to the other. But then I'm asked to disrupt it.

Yanwei Wang: OK, now you can push it a little bit gently. You can sort of push it back.

Jared Bowen: The goal here is to teach robots to operate alongside humans in settings like a factory, places where they're typically cordoned off.

Yanwei Wang: We want to show that robots are inherently safe.

Jared Bowen: There are people who fear that robots may take over manufacturing, they may take over the world in some regard,.

Yanwei Wang: We don't want a future where robots sort of replace human jobs. And that's why building this trust, for humans to trust robots to be a reliable partner, is so important.

Jared Bowen: This is one of myriad exhibits that make this a museum of the now, says director John Durant.

John Durant, Director, MIT Museum: We're here to turn MIT inside out. We want people to understand what contemporary research and innovation are all about and what they mean for everyday life.

Jared Bowen: The MIT Museum recently reopened in a new building on the school's Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus. Directly across from Google, it's deliberately centered in the heart of one of the world's chief innovation hubs.

So, while you will find a history of MIT benchmarks here, like early computing systems, much of the focus is on the science advancing our world.

John Durant: A great deal of the research that's done today is done with public expenditure, taxpayer dollars. The public deserves to know what's being done with their money.

Jared Bowen: And it's all within reach here, the star-shade petal will allow NASA to detect exoplanets, part of the machine used to sequence the human genome, a prototype of the LIGO detector that measured what Einstein could only predict in his theory of relativity, all triumphs of scientific ingenuity.

But then there are other pursuits that raise ethical eyebrows.

John Durant: When might it be appropriate to go in and permanently changed the genetic structure of living things in the wild to try and alleviate diseases, things like Lyme disease?

Jared Bowen: To answer those questions, the MIT Museum has invited artists to interrogate innovation with artwork and installations, like artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg imagining the future pig bred to be the size of a cow to have colorful coats or for an altogether different use.

John Durant: Altering the genetic structure of, for example, pigs so that, in principle, their organs could be used for transplantation into humans, do we think that's OK? Is it safe? Is it ethical?

Lindsay Bartholomew, Exhibit Content and Experience Developer, MIT Museum: If people walk out of here with more questions than they came in with, I think that's a good thing.

Jared Bowen: Especially as it relates to artificial intelligence, says Lindsay Bartholomew, the museum's exhibit and experience developer.

We sat down in front of the speech President Nixon delivered in 1969, when the moon landing ended in tragedy.

Richard Nixon, Former President of the United States: Fate has ordained that the men went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

Jared Bowen: That never happened.

Lindsay Bartholomew: It didn't happen. Right.

The -- President Nixon had two speeches written for him, one if the moon landing succeeded and one if the moon landing failed. He never gave the failed speech, until a couple of artists that we worked with, Fran Panetta and Halsey Burgund, with support from the Center for Advanced Virtuality here at MIT, basically made Nixon give that speech using A.I.

Jared Bowen: I got right up on that screen thinking that I would be able to detect something, I could figure out maybe where the audio cuts are, I could see the digital manipulation or animation, whatever they did.

I couldn't see anything.

Lindsay Bartholomew: Yes, it's really, really well done. What I think is really interesting about this is, it just invites the question that I think we all have been considering more lately of, can technology affect what's real? Who gets to decide what's real?

Jared Bowen: It's also here where art and A.I. coalesce or collide, depending on where you come down.

Visitors are invited to sit down and co-author a poem with artificial intelligence software, just as others have done in a river of poems that runs overhead. It prompts you to choose a mood -- we went with inspiring -- and a title. Mine was pointed, "The purity of Artists."

The machine sends up the first line, and then it's a volley of verbiage.

Lindsay Bartholomew: So, we have gone from kind of a fire metaphor to a weaving metaphor.

Jared Bowen: It likes its metaphors.

Lindsay Bartholomew: It likes those metaphors.


Lindsay Bartholomew: So how does it feel as you're doing this? Do you feel like you're being kind of supported in your artistic process?

Jared Bowen: I do. There is an intellectual rigor to this to try -- I feel like I'm trying to keep up with the A.I.

Lindsay Bartholomew: So, we start out thinking, what does it mean for machines to be creative? We end up learning a little bit about what it means for us to be creative.

Jared Bowen: A few lines later, our co-authored poem floats off overhead.

And, in this museum filled with technology that has changed the nature of humanity, the nature of art and artist suddenly blurs, line by line.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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