Schwarzman College of Computing Looks to the Future

“Technological advancements must go hand in hand with the development of ethical guidelines that anticipate the risks of such enormously powerful innovations. This is why are making sure that the leaders we graduate offer the world not only technological wizardry but also human wisdom.”

—L. Rafael Reif
MIT President

From the advent of the printing press to the Industrial Revolution, transformative new technologies have conferred great benefits on a broad spectrum of people, but they have also carried collateral effects—disruptions and dislocations not foreseen when they were adopted.

Today, the prevalence of computing and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) are driving yet another tectonic shift, bringing with them enormous opportunities and also tremendous challenges. In 2018, MIT responded by establishing the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing—a $1.1 billion commitment by the Institute, spearheaded by a $350 million gift from Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group—to foster a new generation of highly trained computational thinkers and doers who also bring a broader cultural, ethical, and historical context to computing technology.

“We created the college to lead the transformation of education and research in this time of rapid advances in computing and its increasing influence on so many aspects of daily life,” says Daniel P. Huttenlocher SM ’84, PhD ’88, dean of the college and the Henry Ellis Warren (1894) Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Now, more than ever, we need the brightest minds focused on the challenges and opportunities of new computing technologies and their societal implications.”

Since opening in 2019, the college, which cuts across MIT’s five schools as well as numerous departments, labs, and centers, has been hard at work building a foundation upon which to carry out its mission: piloting programs and activities, adding new faculty voices, creating interdisciplinary academic programs, and advancing the fundamentals of computer science and AI. A new building for the college, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is scheduled for completion in 2023 on Vassar Street at the heart of MIT’s campus.

“These early years have been nothing short of extraordinary,” Huttenlocher says. “Many members of the MIT community have given, and continue to give, their time and effort to building the college. While much remains to be done, we are making great strides.”

Educators for the Future

At its launch, the college committed to creating 50 new faculty positions: 25 focused on the core areas of computing and AI and 25 shared with other academic departments across MIT. To date, 13 world-class researchers have come on board, a number residing in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), which reports jointly to the college and the School of Engineering. The college’s new faculty bring expertise in core computing areas such as machine learning, computer vision, robotics, and security, and knowledge at the nexus of computing and other disciplines, such as management and brain and cognitive sciences.

“Hiring outstanding faculty whose research and teaching advance computing and its applications in every domain remains one of the college’s top priorities,” says Huttenlocher.

“The philanthropy fueling the Campaign for Better World is enabling us to make a huge commitment to hiring faculty who have brilliant, out-of-the-box expertise,” he says. “People who can advance all the technology that will be essential for solving any number of human problems.”

A Generation of “Bilinguals”

The college’s educational aspirations are anchored in the creation of a generation of “bilinguals”—students who are fluent both in technology and in another specialty, such as business or biology or urban planning or even music. Students who, on graduation, can help implement AI and computing in a way that enhances their chosen fields and helps solve some of the world’s biggest problems, like climate change, disease, and poverty.

In this vein, one of the earliest educational initiatives in the college, the Common Ground for Computing Education, is summoning experts from all MIT departments to work together to pitch, develop, and launch new courses and programs that infuse computing education across MIT. “Common Ground reaches all parts of the Institute, enabling students to frame disciplinary problems using a rich computational framework,” says Asu Ozdaglar SM ’98, PhD ’03, the college’s deputy dean of academics, EECS department head, and the MathWorks Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“The philanthropy fueling the Campaign for Better World is enabling us to make a huge commitment to hiring faculty who have brilliant, out-of-the-box expertise. People who can advance the technology that will be essential for solving any number of human problems.”

—Daniel P. Huttenlocher SM ’84, PhD ’88
Dean, MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing; Henry Ellis Warren (1894) Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Several pilot courses in the Common Ground are underway, such as Modeling with Machine Learning: From Algorithms to Applications, with disciplinary modules developed by multiple engineering departments and MIT Supply Chain Management. The course focuses on modeling with machine-learning methods for applications in engineering and the sciences. Another pilot is Introduction to Computational Science and Engineering (CSE), which provides an introduction to computational algorithms for understanding scientific phenomena and designing engineering systems.

Mechanical engineering major Penelope Herrero-Marques ’24 says she was glad she took CSE in her first year at MIT because it exposed her to a breadth of science and engineering applications. “Taking this class so early opened my eyes to the exciting, powerful, interdisciplinary field of CSE before getting too focused on any particular discipline,” she says.

Adding to the rich interdisciplinary experience for students, the college also incorporates a number of established academic units that reach across the Institute, including the Center for Computational Science and Engineering; EECS; the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society; and the Operations Research Center, joint with the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Responsible Habits of Mind and Action

A significant mission of the college is preparing students to lead in seizing the opportunities and meeting the challenges that computing and AI present today and in the future. These technologies, created to solve problems of unprecedented scale, are also generating unanticipated outcomes that are difficult to chart.

“At the top of our list of learning objectives is the idea that technology alone can’t solve many problems,” says Julie Shah ’04, SM ’06, PhD ’11, a professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and associate dean of the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC) initiative within the college.

The initiative is working to develop responsible “habits of mind and action” in those who create and deploy computing technologies. “Our tools come with values incorporated in them,” says Shah. “We need to complicate students’ thinking, so as they code, experiment, and build systems, they are cognizant of ethics and impacts.”

SERC has created a series of case studies that delves into a range of from-the-headlines topics such as facial recognition technology and maps generated by data from human behavior. Students (and the public) are challenged to think about these topics from the technical, societal, and moral point of view.

Like the Common Ground, SERC invites perspectives from all disciplines. “We want to make sure that there are substantial, unavoidable moments throughout undergraduate training that equip our students to analyze and make sense of hard problems involving social and ethical responsibility,” says SERC associate dean David Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, and professor of physics. “To do this, they need to get tools and ideas about how different disciplines assess these challenges.”

Research Building Blocks

The college has integrated many existing MIT departments, labs, and centers into one powerful locus of computing research and innovation. Research units include the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, joint with the School of Engineering; the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, and the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center.

With support from the MIT Campaign for a Better World, MIT established the MIT Quest for Intelligence (MIT Quest), which seeks to understand how human intelligence works and apply that understanding to build smarter machines for the benefit of society, and the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health (Jameel Clinic), which works to develop AI technologies that can transform the health care landscape. Both MIT Quest and Jameel Clinic are now part of the college.

“As humanity works to solve problems ranging from climate change to curing disease, removing inequality, ensuring sustainability, and eliminating poverty, computing opens the door to powerful new solutions,” says Daniela Rus, deputy dean of research at the MIT Schwarzman College, director of CSAIL, and the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Engineering and Computer Science. “And with the college as our foundation, I believe MIT will be at the forefront of those solutions.”

—Ken Shulman

This article was originally published in August 2021.

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