I had no idea about the Media Lab’s radical structure for doing research. Professional fundraisers and PR people — it explains so much, particularly the resentment often directed towards them from people in many mainstream CS/AI departments. The feeling among many people I’ve met is that what they do is more flash than substance.
I had a tour of the lab last summer while attending ICDL’02, and remember thinking that it seemed like a really nice place to work. As for the research, it’s tough to tell from demos, since they can often be mostly smoke and mirrors, but I thought Deb Roy’s work seemed very good. On the other hand, in another part of the lab there was this weird video game thing with wolves. It was very flashy and they obviously had put tons of money into equipment for displaying it (e.g. a plasma display on the wall). I played it, and we all stood around scratching our heads wondering what its scientific contribution was. I never did figure it out.
It’s interesting that the lab’s demise is reported/predicted by Wired, since they were a major conduit for Media Lab PR for much of the last 10 years.