Michael Hawley, former professor of media arts and sciences, dies at 58

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Michael Hawley, a former MIT professor who was recognized globally as a modern-day Renaissance man, died on Wednesday, June 24, at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after battling a long illness. He was 58.

Hawley will be remembered for his extraordinary breadth of interests and talents, which spanned the fields of human-computer interfaces and sensing, musical performance and audio signal processing, digital cinema and libraries, documentary photography, exploration, and entrepreneurship. He will also be remembered as a deeply dedicated family man. Parenthood came late to Hawley and his wife, Nina You, who recently wrote: “We spent 15 years trying to have our son, Tycho. Mike’s cancer was discovered on his first Father’s Day last year; Tycho is now 18 months old and was the joy of Mike’s life. He put being a father at the very top of all his contributions to the world.”

Hawley participated in some of the great digital breakthroughs of the last 40 years, from writing UNIX code at Bell Labs as a teenager, to his work pioneering digital cinema and sound technology at LucasFilm, to his innovation of large-imprint digital photo systems, which led to the 2003 publication of “Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom,” measuring 5’ x 7’ and weighing over 150 pounds, giving it the distinction of being documented as the world’s largest published book in the “Guinness Book of World Records.”

Long before arriving at MIT in 1986 as a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering as well as the newly established Program in Media Arts and Sciences, Hawley had already earned an impressive resume. After receiving undergraduate degrees in music and computer science at Yale University in 1983, his research pursuits took him first to Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM in Paris, where he developed one of the first graphic systems for displaying and editing musical scores, and then to Lucasfilm in San Rafael, California, where he helped to develop the SoundDroid, among other technologies. He then helped Steve Jobs start NeXT, working with Jobs to develop the first generation of digital books, including the writings of Charles Darwin and William Shakespeare, as well as the first digital dictionary (Merriam-Webster). “Central to this digital library was one of the very first search algorithms, conceived by Mike and the team to create a bridge between human curiosity and technology,” says Kate Smith, member of the original digital library team at NeXT.

In reviewing Hawley’s application for graduate work at MIT before actually meeting him, Professor Emeritus Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder and former director of the Media Lab, recalls his competing to woo him away from Steve Jobs. “As I recollect,” says Negroponte, “my bait was Marvin Minsky.” 

After completing his doctoral dissertation, “Structure out of Sound,” under the direction of Minsky (for which he created technologies to transform historic early-20th century piano rolls into digital instructions for state-of-the-art robotic pianos), Hawley accepted a faculty appointment in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, where he held the newly endowed Licklider Career Development Professorship, named for J.C.R. Licklider, a pioneer in the field of human-machine interfaces. In 1995, Hawley was named to the Alexander W. Dreyfoos, Jr. ’54 Professorship in Media Arts and Sciences as a faculty member in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences.

Like Minsky, Hawley shared a passion for music, and was a gifted pianist and organist. Tod Machover, composer and Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and Media at the MIT Media Lab, says that “Mike lived and breathed music. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of unusual repertoire from Bach to Bernstein and Bolcom (including little-known Busoni transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies), sported a breathtaking facility at the keyboard which allowed him to sight read just about anything, and communicated through his piano with the same directness, insight, and warmth that made him one of the world’s great public speakers.”

This natural performance talent won Hawley first place (tying with Victoria Bragin) at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 2002. He performed numerous solo recitals, chamber concerts, and as a soloist with major orchestras, and had the distinction of accompanying world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma at the wedding of Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”). He was also prominently featured in the 2010 documentary “Bach & Friends.”

At the Media Lab, Hawley headed the Personal Information Architecture research group and was a co-founder of the Toys of Tomorrow and Things That Think consortia, the latter of which provided an early insight into the myriad of ways that digital technologies would soon be seamlessly integrated with the physical atoms of our everyday world. In 1995, Hawley predicted the seismic societal shift that loomed. “This is an absolutely pivotal era,” he said, “We’re moving from a world where none of our everyday things communicate, to one where all of them will.” He imagined a not-too-distant future when we could send bitstreams into almost anything — even into the body.

By 1997 Hawley and his students did just that. That year, Hawley (with two of his students) ran his first Boston Marathon, wired “inside and out” with their newly developed microelectronic monitoring devices, to transmit data on their vital signs and position during the race. As with many new experiments, there were some glitches. The data transmission did not work in real-time, and the weight of the devices also took a toll: only Hawley managed to carry the gear all the way to the finish line. But this so-called “Black Box” project was pioneering in its ability to monitor the human body under extreme physical conditions, as well as to provide situational information based on context and location. 

Building on the Boston Marathon breakthrough, Hawley and his group created one of the first consumer heart-rate monitors, in the form of a $500,000 red-pulsating diamond brooch developed in collaboration with Harry Winston Jewelers.

Hawley’s experimentation took him to all corners of the world, most notably leading one of the first major scientific expeditions on Mount Everest, which involved the group developing new systems for monitoring geological and ecological phenomena. Other expeditionary research included dog sledding in Norway, plant biology in Hawaii, and reef ecology in Indonesia, all to study new technological ways to sense the environment, and to better understand human performance in — and affect upon — the world around us.

Robert Poor, Hawley’s first PhD student at the Media Lab and a participant on the Everest expedition, says, “Mike crossed and often broke physical and societal rules, playfully disrupting normal life and re-establishing it on a new basis. In doing so, he cajoled many of us students to follow his example: to think bigger and to have the courage to push our own boundaries.”

The eclectic nature of Hawley’s interests always went well beyond his academic pursuits. He was a one-time Duncan yo-yo champion, luger, and member of the U.S. Bobsled Federation. At the Media Lab, he also developed software for a computerized sewing machine that allowed him to translate pictures into thread, and then used this technology to make sweatshirts for the Media Lab’s ice hockey team and to wire antennae for the lab’s cyborgs. 

In 2002, Hawley became director of special projects at the Media Lab, and in 2008 left MIT to become Director of the EG (Entertainment Gathering) conference. Held annually in Monterey, California, EG brings together a broad range of visionaries and inventors, thinkers and makers from essentially every creative field of endeavor, retaining the excitement and profound interdisciplinarity of the Media Lab.   

“One of the qualities I treasured most in Mike was the extraordinary breadth of his talents and intellect, which were always on full display at his EG conference,” says Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of the Emerson Collective. “He had this incredible ability to look at the world in all of its complexity, all of its messiness, and make the connections — of people, of ideas — that so many of us might have otherwise missed. He was also fiercely passionate about our democracy, always urging action, always full of ideas for what needed to be done. Mike enriched the lives of everyone he touched.”

Architect Moshe Safdie, who developed a close friendship with Hawley, remembers him as deeply humanist and overflowing with compassion. “Michael was always the great connector, bringing us knowledge, understanding and pleasure,” Safdie says.

Hawley was honored as the first recipient of the Jack Kilby International Award for innovation in science in 1990. He was a fellow and trustee of Jonathan Edwards College at Yale University and served on the boards of the Rutgers Jazz Institute, the Vanguard Group, and several prominent companies, including Kodak.

Artificial intelligence pioneer Danny Hillis remembers Hawley as “a true polymath who constantly sought out beautiful ideas in art, music, culture and science, and shared them joyfully with his friends.” 

Echoing this sentiment, Robert Millard, chairman of the MIT Corporation, remembers Hawley “as a true artist — not just a craftsman — in everything he touched. He achieved beauty in life by rigorously seeking it, living it, absorbing it, improving it, transforming it. We will miss him, but we will always have him.”

In late April, Millard and 16 other colleagues and friends participated in an online festschrift organized by the Media Lab and hosted by NPR’s Peter Sagal to pay tribute to Hawley. 

In addition to his wife Nina and son Tycho, Hawley is survived by his father, George Hawley, and two brothers, Patrick and Stephen. 

Michael Hawley’s ideas and communities will be celebrated in various forms and at various times, to be announced.

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