MIT Reports to the President 1996-97


The Artificial Intelligence Laboratory has as its scientific mission the goal of answering the question: How does the human mind work? There are many corollary questions to answer: Where does the mind reside? What is the nature of memory? What are the roles of emotions? What sort of representations does the brain use? What does our visual system compute? How did evolution shape us? How do we learn? What is consciousness?

Today we have the first opportunity in twenty years to attack all these questions in decisive new ways. New tools, new resources and new information are all available. If we can think imaginatively enough and turn that imagination into solid scientific theories and solid engineering demonstrations then we can meet this grand challenge.


A number of events are converging that make this time one of great promise for our research:

We are thus armed with a new direction, we have new data on how natural systems work, and we have significant new levels of computation available.

Our challenge is to take these three components that have been thrust upon us (to a greater or lesser degree by developments over the last thirty years made within the Lab itself, mixed with many outside developments) and synthesize new scientific results, create new engineering applications, and to answer the big question.


Since Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy formed the Lab in 1959 it has always been a place where significant new tools and applications have been developed.

The great strength of the AI Lab has always been a willingness to put together large scale systems in ways that others have either not dared or for which they have not been able to marshal the required resources. Since the very early days the Lab has also been a place where robotics and computer vision have been great strengths. In all areas we have had much success in the building of software and computer hardware systems.

These traditions are all alive and well, and the last few years have seen significant applications built on our robotics, vision, language, and circuit design technology. We have recently pioneered new methods for image guided surgery, wired the Whitehouse, made haptic interfaces a reality, produced new generations of micro displays, and changed the way NASA explores planets. Twenty active companies have spun off from the Lab in just the last few years.

This activity will not abate any time soon. There are dozens of new applications currently being developed at the Lab helping surgeons, assisting the disabled, replacing precision mechanical components with computation, building new classes of human computer interfaces, providing new capabilities in image indexing, and hijacking biochemistry to do computation for us.

Our work in exploring intelligence feeds these applications. Our work on applications gives us new tools to explore intelligence. It is a symbiosis that has worked for us for a long time, and it appears that it will continue to work for the foreseeable future.


The last year has seen a number of our areas of our research come to fruition.

More information about the Artificial Intelligence Lab can be found on the World Wide Web at the following URL:

Rodney A. Brooks

MIT Reports to the President 1996-97