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Michail Bletsas – Fascinated by How Technology Will Affect Our Lives in the Future

Michail Bletsas grew up and finished high school in Chania, Crete, and then studied Electrical Engineering at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. In 1990 he went to the United States to pursue graduate studies in Biomedical and Computer Engineering in Boston. A year later, he met his wife, who was also a graduate student at Boston University. She is a second-generation Greek-American, a lawyer with a national employment law firm, and they have twins, a boy and a girl, that are now sophomores at the University of Miami and USC.

The year following his arrival in America he started working at Aware. When Bletsas was 28, at the end of 1995, he saw Nicholas Negroponte, the renowned founder of the MIT Media Lab, on the cover of Wired magazine. He said, “I bought the magazine primarily out of curiosity about Nicholas. On the last page, there was an ad for the job I currently have. I applied, and the rest is history.”

He is a research scientist and the Director of Computing at the Media Lab.

The National Herald: You were one of the founders of the Greek mobile advertising and marketing company Velti S.A. 

Michail Bletsas: Together with a couple of friends from my graduate school years, we were constantly developing business plans for companies that we could start in Greece, mainly because we wanted to apply what we have learned here and also create a pleasant working environment for ourselves. Velti was our second attempt in 2000. My friends moved to Greece. I chose to stay in the United States (the Media Lab is a pretty unique place) but was loosely involved as a member of the company’s board of directors. In 2006 Velti was the first Greek company to list itself in London’s parallel stock market AIM. The company’s formal base was moved to the Channel Islands, and my involvement with it ended. At their peak in 2011, they employed 500 people in their headquarters in Athens and a similar number all around the world.

Michail Bletsas
Michail Bletsas

TNH: You were also one of the leaders in an effort to provide wireless networking to the island of Patmos, Greece.

MB: Well, yes, since accessing the internet in the late nineties was very expensive and very slow over there. Patmos is where Nicholas Negroponte had his summer house, and one of the things we were always working on at the lab was how to work remotely. So, he lured me there, and he offered me a place to stay anytime I wanted. I went there, saw what he had to go through in order to connect, and decided that we had to fix it. Given that I had already worked on connectivity on far less developed localities as part of my lab research and that cell phone companies had a lot of unused backhaul capacity at the time, we ended up setting the first broadband network in Greece using what we now call WiFi equipment that we bought in the United Statess and carried piece by piece in our suitcases. We used every existing antenna mast we could access, including OTE’s (Hellenic Telecom). People looked the other way, and everybody was happy. It is certainly funny that ten years later, I ended up on the board of directors of OTE. The experience gained in Patmos proved very valuable when designing the ‘$100 laptop’ later in 2006.

Michail Bletsas

TNH: What are the future projects of the Media Lab? What are the current dynamics at play?

MB: Although the Lab continues working on some of its original themes, like learning, design, sensing (with plenty of Machine Learning in the mix), with some small effort, it could be recognized as ‘media’ (to justify our name), but most of the new work expands into the life sciences.  Since the world learned that life is built on top of code (DNA) and developed the ability to work at the same nanoscale that nature works, bio has become the ‘new digital’. So the lab these days builds artificial limbs and tries to connect them more tightly to the body, builds sensors that go in and around the body all the way down to the cellular level, explores the benefits and consequences of gene drives, and tries always to have a high-level view of the larger societal impacts of technology. In a place like MIT, where many people have a narrow and extremely deep focus, there is always room to take a wider view and tell a good story about how technology will affect our lives in the future. After all, if we learned one thing from AI, telling a good story remains one of the most important and fundamental human skills.

Michail Bletsas
Michail Bletsas

TNH: Do individuals define the history and evolution of the world – or groups?

MB: Complexity seems to be like entropy, it only goes up, and the world is an increasingly complex place for individuals to make defining positive contributions. We need to work together across disciplines to be able to address the big issues that we face today. On the other hand, when individuals try to write history these days, they are usually making a mess of things (think of Putin).

TNH: What would you never cut back on?

MB: Learning and being Greek. It is what defines me. And I firmly believe that certain things, like the love of something like Greece, carry a certain quantum quality. Thus, they are better left unsaid. Like quantum states, trying to observe them destroys them.

TNH: Human nature is strong, and innovation is real. The world is moving fast, is connectivity at its highest?

MB: No, it is not. Even by the narrow standards that we define connectivity today, the world is far away from being connected. And although launching massive numbers of satellites to connect the rest of the world looks promising, it is nothing more than a patch. And we have used connectivity mostly to make old processes more efficient instead of really coming up with new innovative ones. Education is an excellent example, where connectivity mostly reinforced the old teaching paradigm and helped less in evolving it.

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