Ushering in a new era of computing | MIT News

As a graduate student doing his master’s thesis on speech recognition at the MIT AI Lab (now the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), Dan Huttenlocher worked closely with Professor Victor Zue. Best known for pioneering the development of software that allows the user to interact with computers using spoken language, Zue often traveled to Asia – where much of the early research into speech recognition took place in the mid-1980s. Huttenlocher occasionally accompanied his professor on these trips, many of which involved networking with members of the MIT Industrial Liaison Program, as he recalls. “It was a great opportunity,” according to Huttenlocher, “and it was a big part of what formed my interest in connecting with companies and industries in addition to the academic side.”

Huttenlocher went on to earn his PhD in computer vision at the Institute and has since embarked on a career spanning academia, industry and the philanthropic sector. In addition to solidifying his status as a respected researcher in the field of education, he spent 12 years as a scientist at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center before leaving to co-found a financial technology company. He served on the board of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation from 2010-22 (including chairman beginning in 2018), and serves on the boards of directors of and Corning, Inc. He also helped found Cornell I-Tech, a technology, business, law, and design campus in New York City built by Cornell University. There, he was the school’s first dean and vice provost, directing its efforts to bring together industry and computing to develop New York’s tech ecosystem.

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Today, Huttenlocher serves as the first dean at the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. To highlight the importance of this period over time, and the need for an interdisciplinary computing hub such as a computer college, he refers to the oft-cited prediction that software will rise and disrupt traditional industrial structures. Huttenlocher believes that although this understanding was correct, what we are seeing now is something different, larger, with a greater impact on humanity. Computing as a whole – not just software but also hardware, algorithms, and machine learning – has evolved to the point where it is redefining the way we solve problems in almost every industry, discipline, and research area. This, he suggests, also redefines reality as we experience it.

Under Huttenlocher’s direction, the college is a recognition and reaction to the new computer age. It explores ways to support, but also lead, the technological changes that are reshaping the world. A bidirectional, interdisciplinary approach is key to the agenda, according to Huttenlocher. “We want to use the best results in computing and use them in other fields,” he said. “This means helping departments outside of computing reach into computing, but we also want to help computer fields reach into other fields.” To achieve this, Huttenlocher and the college aim to create strong ties and collaborations in education and research between computing and a wide range of subjects at MIT, across five schools, departments, and programs at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

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From an operational point of view, the college is not yet three years old, but Huttenlocher is already overseeing the release of several programs and programs that build on computing and other fields. MIT has committed to the creation of 50 new faculty positions for the college: 25 in computer science and artificial intelligence, and 25 joint positions focused on other academic departments that are not heavily focused on computing. To date, we have hired 25 new members with a dozen in shared positions.

He also oversaw the development of Common Ground for Computing Education, a platform that brings together experts from across the Institute’s departments to develop and teach new courses and implement programs that integrate computing with other disciplines. It aims to benefit from universal access to computers through an integrated approach to computer-based teaching at the Institute. Current regular courses offered include “Social and interactive data visualization,” “Solving real-world problems with optimization and computational thinking: Physics to algorithms,” and “Julia: Solving real-world problems with computing.”

The Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC), on the other hand, is an interdisciplinary program that promotes responsible technology development and deployment by combining insights and methods from the humanities and social sciences with an emphasis on social responsibility. “SERC brings together many perspectives – social and human scientists, engineers and computer scientists – because much of the understanding of the social and ethical challenges of computing is about integrating technology across these disciplines,” said Huttenlocher. The initiative relies on a clear framework for teaching, research, and engagement designed to explore the broad challenges and opportunities associated with computing while focusing on what it refers to as “responsible habits of mind and action” for MIT students who create and use computing technologies. Proving the need and impact, in 2021 more than 2,100 students were enrolled in courses where SERC worked with educators to include social and ethical issues in the syllabus.

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In his book, “The Age of AI: And Our Human Future” (Little, Brown, 2021), co-authored with Henry Kissinger and Eric Schmidt, Huttenlocher examines the ways in which artificial intelligence is changing the way we see ourselves as humans. people, our role in society, the way we see the world around us, and the need for collaboration at all levels to define the future. Reflecting on what he and his colleagues have been able to accomplish at the college in such a short time, Huttenlocher says he is impressed and proud of what so many at MIT have contributed to. But that the work is not finished: “I believe that now we are getting to the point where we are starting to have an impact on parts of MIT, but we are working to have a wider impact, inclusion between computing and courses throughout the Institute – that is the desire of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing,” he said.


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