Perfecting an imperfect future

The NYC Media Lab’s annual summit spotlighted the importance of university research

A screenshot of Laura Edelson on an online discussion

NYC Media Lab’s Director of Partnerships & New Initiatives, Erica Matsumoto speaks with Ph.D. candidate Laura Edelson, from NYU Tandon’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering

On October 6 and 7, hundreds of virtual attendees gathered for “Future Imperfect,” the 2021 summit of the NYC Media Lab, housed at NYU Tandon and comprised of a consortium that includes NYU, Columbia University, The New School, CUNY, School of Visual Arts, Manhattan College, and Pratt Institute.

The group's goals are to generate research and development, knowledge transfer, and talent across all of the City’s campuses in partnership with its corporate members, which include Bloomberg, Havas, The New York Times, Verizon, and more. And the summit featured a jam-packed roster that provided a glimpse of the incredible variety and scope of the work being done.

NYU Tandon Dean Jelena Kovačević welcomed the first-day audience by explaining, “As the Dean of an engineering school that describes our students and faculty as Unconventional Engineers, I find the theme ‘Future Imperfect’ to be very fitting. Perfect is easy to plan for. But one key characteristic of an unconventional engineer is the ability to embrace the imperfect — and develop an agility and comfort level with working at the messy but productive intersections of different ideas that leads to great innovation.”

“The NYC Media Lab set the bar high this year,” said Steven Rosenbaum, the organization’s Executive Director. “We wanted to be looking at the future honestly, but not with a sense of doom and gloom. We think there’s never been a more important time than now to open the doors of what’s going on at Universities, and share both insights and concerns about the future, which seems to be unfolding with blinding speed.”

The schedule included several panels on such wide-ranging topics as the importance of diverse teams; the Metaverse and storytelling; and green tech, as well as expert-led workshops on next-generation wearables, music tech, data rights, and more.

One undeniable highlight was a presentation by Ph.D. candidate Laura Edelson, from NYU Tandon’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Edelson and Associate Professor Damon McCoy spearheaded the Cybersecurity for Democracy initiative, which operates at the intersection of cybersecurity and data science to study how misinformation about vaccines, the election, and other topics spread on social media, and their work recently made headlines when Facebook disabled their accounts and their access to data they had been using in their studies. Edelson, McCoy, and their team received a groundswell of support — and praise for the critical work they are doing — from more than 200 academic researchers, prominent foundations and organizations, lawmakers, and the FTC, among others. 

In a discussion with the Media Lab’s Director of Partnerships & New Initiatives, Erica Matsumoto, Edelson explained her efforts to ensure greater transparency about the algorithms Facebook employs to promote content and the methods it uses to gain clicks. She stressed a handful of key points that she hoped her listeners would take away with them — and keep in mind during their own social media interactions:  

  • Both independent and Facebook-internal research has made it clear that harmful content is highly engaging
  • Facebook has known this for years, but has resisted making structural changes to its algorithms to reduce the spread of harmful content
  • We need federal legislation to mandate more public transparency so that users and researchers can better understand the harms being done
  • Platforms should be audited to ensure they are not putting profits ahead of user safety

Edelson’s work ties into a theme woven throughout the two days: the remarkable potential, and complex risks, that the fast-moving world of Artificial Intelligence is bringing out of the labs and into our lives. “Talking about AI, it’s impossible not to think about sentient robots like the Terminator and Robocop, and we want to make sure that technologists don’t go down that dark alley,” said Rosenbaum. “Our conversation about AI and Local News was exciting, the Keynote by CEO and co-founder of OpenAI Greg Brockman was amazing, and the live workshop by two OpenAI Dev Ambassadors had the crowd glued to their screens.”

One thing about the future seems certain: if this year is any indication, the NYC Media Lab’s next summit will be engaging, informative, and eagerly anticipated.

View all the sessions of the 2021 NYC Media Lab Summit on YouTube.