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MIT's computer science, AI labs merge

Current LCS director Victor Zue, left, will serve as co-director of the New Laboratory for Computer Science and Artifical Intelligence, and Rodney Brooks, right, currently director of the AI Lab, will serve as director.
Current LCS director Victor Zue, left, will serve as co-director of the New Laboratory for Computer Science and Artifical Intelligence, and Rodney Brooks, right, currently director of the AI Lab, will serve as director.
Photo / Donna Coveney

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Thomas L. Magnanti, dean of the MIT School of Engineering, today announced the merger of two major laboratories at MIT: the Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) and the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (AI Lab). The newly created joint laboratory, to be called the New Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, will be the largest laboratory on the MIT campus in terms of research volume (only Lincoln Lab, headquartered in Lexington, is larger), and will be home to more than 750 students, faculty and staff.

"This is a very important reorganization, and I'm confident that it will serve our intellectual and educational goals well," said MIT President Charles M. Vest. "I truly admire the MIT faculty for its ability to evolve and change as needed to maintain leadership in areas of research that are a fundamental part of MIT."

The new laboratory will be a computing powerhouse. "Drawing upon remarkably talented faculty, students and staff and a tradition of transforming achievements, the new laboratory will aspire to germinate and cultivate the most far-reaching new ideas and carry out the world's best research in information and intelligence technology and science," Magnanti said.

The announcement was made Friday, May 23 at a two-day symposium celebrating the centennial of the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, which is the academic home to most of the members of both laboratories.

Rodney Brooks, currently the director of the AI Lab, will serve as the new lab's director. Victor Zue, currently the director of LCS, a position he has held since the death of long-time director Michael Dertouzos in 2001, will serve as co-director of the lab.

Both the LCS and the AI Lab have shared the same Technology Square building for more than 30 years, but intellectually and culturally they evolved in very different directions. The impetus for the lab merger was increased collaboration across the two laboratories--most recently, both joined forces with six companies to launch the Oxygen project on human-centered computing--and a recognition that the historical, intellectual and administrative divisions between the two labs no longer made sense.

"Despite their long histories and the individual recognition of the two labs in the larger world, the lab members felt that the benefits of the merger outweigh any costs," Magnanti said.

The Laboratory for Computer Science was founded in 1963, in part as a reaction to the surprise launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, with funds from the U.S. Defense Department. Originally known as Project MAC (Multiple Access Computing and Machine-Aided Cognition), its mission was to develop a computer system accessible to a large number of people, and to exploit the computer as an aid to research and education.

LCS members and alumni have been instrumental in the development of the ARPANet, the Internet, Ethernet, the World Wide Web, time-shared computers, RSA encryption and dozens of other technologies. More than 4,000 researchers and students have contributed to the lab's work over the last four decades, and its members have founded over four dozen companies including 3Com, Lotus and Akamai.

The AI Lab was founded as the AI project in 1959, and was briefly a part of Project MAC and LCS before splitting off entirely in 1970. Its goal has always been to understand the nature of intelligence, of which vision, robotics and language are key, and to engineer systems that exhibit intelligence.

Over the last few years, significant applications have built on the AI Lab's robotics, vision, language and circuit design technology. During the last decade, the lab pioneered new methods for image-guided surgery, wired the White House, made haptic interfaces a reality, produced new generations of microdisplays, pioneered natural-language-based web access, developed bacterial robots, and developed behavior-based robots that are now used for planetary exploration, military reconnaissance and in home consumer devices.

Companies that have been spun out of the AI Lab include Imagen, iRobot, SensAble Technologies and Thinking Machines.

The new lab is likely to be organized around significant computer science research themes such as networking, human-computer interaction, bioinformatics, machine learning and traditional robotics, among others.

"There is much shared vision and purpose and great enthusiasm for making the new entity an even stronger presence on the world research stage than its two predecessors," Brooks said.

"In recent years, Rod and I have worked together on a number of large, interlaboratory initiatives including the NTT collaboration and the Oxygen Alliance," said Zue. "I'm confident that our excellent working relationship will be enhanced in the future with the disappearance of the lab boundaries."

The new lab will officially open on July 1, exactly 40 years after the founding of Project MAC. Next winter, it will move into a new home on the MIT campus. The Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences, designed by architect Frank O. Gehry, will be a model for the new academic village, with two-story neighborhoods, an outdoor amphitheater and an expansive interior boulevard that will promote social and intellectual collaboration.

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