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Q+A With The First Female Director Of MIT’s Largest Research Lab

Peter High

9/12/2016

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory is the largest on-campus laboratory as measured by research scope and membership. More than 250 companies have been hatched through CSAIL, including Akamai, iRobot, 3Com, and Meraki. CSAIL’s research activities are divided into seven areas of emphasis:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Computational biology
  • Graphics and vision
  • Language and learning
  • Theory of computation
  • Robotics
  • Systems

CSAIL’s Director is Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT and a 2002 MacArthur Fellow. She is the first female head of CSAIL, a distinction she has used to help inspire other women to follow in her footsteps into the fields emphasized by the laboratory. From her post, she has been able to witness and influence a number of rising trends in technology that are driving the current digital revolution, all of which we cover in this interview.

Peter High: Can you give some background on your lab?

Daniela Rus:For more than 50 years, CSAIL’s research has pushed the boundaries of computing and played a vital role in the digital revolution, from the first time-sharing systems and the first computer password to public key encryption and the free-software movement.

CSAIL has more than one thousand members, including five hundred PhD students and postdocs, making it the largest interdepartmental research lab at MIT. Members range from roboticists like myself, to experts in data security, computational biology, software design and predictive analytics. This diverse set of interests allows the lab to conduct important interdisciplinary research that we believe will make a major global impact.

CSAIL started as “Project MAC,” with the idea that two people could use the same computer at the same time, and that machine was about as big as a room. It is amazing to me that in just 50 years we moved from dreaming about multiple people using the same machine to a world where computing is indispensable.

High:What is the goal of CSAIL?

Rus:Our goal is to invent the future of computing. We want to use computer science to tackle major challenges in fields like healthcare and education, from creating better tools for medical diagnosis, to developing accident-free cars, to inspiring kids to learn to code.

Our founders set out to allow multiple users to compute simultaneously, seeing this as the first step to enable humans to use machines in a way that augments our intelligence. That’s the goal CSAIL has pursued ever since.

Of course, the most pressing problems in computing are always changing. Computers have shrunk right alongside our bell-bottom jeans, and today they are in our phones, cars, TVs, and even our washing machines!  There are always new challenges on the horizon to think about how to make computing better, more powerful and more capable. We also want to use computing to solve important problems facing the world, for example in healthcare, education, and privacy. We strive to move the world of science fiction into science and then the realm of reality.

High:How do you set priorities for the lab?

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