Computer passwords. The PC. The World Wide Web.
Over the last half-century, many of the world’s most important technological innovations were developed by MIT computer scientists.
On May 28 and 29, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) commemorated 50 years of computer science research with "MAC50: The Future of Computing," a two-day conference featuring talks by the leading thinkers in the field, including the founders of iRobot, Ethernet, and Google's Boston Dynamics.
Presenters discussed their involvement in some of MIT’s biggest computing breakthroughs, as well as the areas in which the technologies have not yet reached their full potential.
Tom Leighton, an MIT professor of applied mathematics and co-founder of Akamai Technologies, spoke about the technical challenges that arise when consumers expect high-quality video and “instant web performance, from any device, anytime.”
Rodney Brooks, the former MIT AI Lab director who co-founded iRobot and now leads Rethink Robotics, discussed the difficulties of developing the sort of dexterous robotic hands regularly seen in sci-fi films.
Bob Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, talked about his early days at MIT building hardware for Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet. “Harvard told me that this sort of work was ‘too important’ for a graduate student,” he told attendees, “so I walked down Broadway to 545 Technology Square, and took a job at MIT.”
The general vibe was one of optimism and enthusiasm, with many talks focusing on issues that could be solved by computing over the next decade.
“I picture a world where it’s as easy to operate a driverless car or program a robot to play with your cat as it is to use a smartphone,” CSAIL Director Daniela Rus said. “People thought President Kennedy was crazy when he said we were going to the moon; at CSAIL, we’ve dreamed up dozens of moonshot goals and then said, 'Let's make them happen.'”
The symposium celebrated 50 years since "Project MAC," an MIT program whose goal was to make computers an everyday “utility,” much like heat or electricity. The initiative’s research on time-sharing spurred the founding of MIT’s Lab for Computer Science (LCS) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab, which merged in 2003 to become CSAIL.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif spoke about all of the Institute’s areas of research that have been impacted by CSAIL — from aerospace and architecture to genomics and musicology. “Subtract CSAIL,” he said, “and you subtract a central part of MIT’s intellectual character, many of our most important analytical tools, and a fundamental way that we think about solving problems for society.”
During the evening program, Rus presented a special “Founder’s Award” to Robert Fano, a long-time MIT researcher and professor who founded Project MAC in the face of a culture that, he said, often viewed computing as a passing fad rather a legitimate academic discipline.
“I believed computer science would be an important competence for MIT to develop,” Fano said. “There were a lot of people who didn’t agree with me at the time.”
Also in attendance were multiple other former directors of CSAIL and its predecessors, including Anant Agarwal, Ed Fredkin, Patrick Winston, and Victor Zue.