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Aug 20 2019

MIT Media Lab Director Apologizes For Epstein Connection

by Ysabelle Cheung

MIT Media Lab director JOI ITO (left) published a short statement of apology regarding the organization’s and his affiliations with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein (right). Image of Ito by Diana Levine; courtesy MIT Media Lab, Cambridge. Image of Epstein by Florida Department of Law Enforcement, via Wikimedia Commons.

On August 15, Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, released a short public apology regarding the organization’s and his personal affiliations with accused sex trafficker and pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. 

The short blog post, published on the Lab’s website, began with a detailed account of Ito’s relationship with Epstein, who, according to the United States Bureau of Prisons, committed suicide in holding on August 10 while awaiting trial. “I owe it to you to address my prior affiliation with him,” wrote Ito in his introduction. The brief letter goes on to explain how the Media Lab director met Epstein at a conference in 2013, which led to the financier visiting the research laboratory and developing streams of funding from his foundations to the organization as well as to Ito’s private funds for seeding tech startup companies such as Kickstarter. 

Ito’s connection to Epstein first came to light in July, when the online personal calendar of George Church, a geneticist with professorships at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology—where the Media Lab is based—was leaked to the press. The calendar revealed that Epstein had met with various Harvard scientists and professors in 2014, in keeping with his well-known interests in funding tech startups and research on genetics and artificial intelligence. (Epstein is also connected to and has discussed funding with Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.) 

The “antidisciplinary” Media Lab supports and collaborates with multiple artists, curators, technologists, and architects who marry their respective fields with research—such as the study of ethics—into future ways of living and connecting, with past residents including artists Sputniko! (Hiromi Ozaki) and Ekene Ijeoma. One of the Media Lab’s founding members, Marvin Minsky (1927–2016), known as the “father of artificial intelligence,” was named in a recently unsealed deposition as one of the people whom Virginia Giuffre, a sex trafficking victim, was forced to have sex with at Epstein’s private compound in the US Virgin Islands, the alleged site of a massive sex trafficking ring. Epstein was first investigated in 2005, after he was accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl. He avoided federal prosecution on charges of sex abuse and trafficking of minors after accepting a controversial deal in which he plead guilty to lesser state prostitution charges, eventually serving 13 months of his 18-month prison sentence.  

Ito joined the Media Lab in 2011. In his letter, Ito claimed to have had no knowledge of Epstein’s crimes at the time of their meeting in 2013. He closed his letter with a vow to “raise an amount equivalent to the donations the Media Lab received from Epstein,” which he will donate to nonprofits that support trafficking survivors. He also pledged to return the money that Epstein donated to his investment funds. ArtAsiaPacific reached out to Ito for clarification about the exact donated amount from Epstein and the extent of their collaborations, but received no response. 

The investigation into the sex-trafficking ring and Epstein’s alleged co-conspirators is ongoing. 

Ysabelle Cheung is managing editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

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