MIT Reports to the President 1998-99


The MIT Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) is an interdepartmental laboratory whose principal goal is to create computer-communications technologies of high social utility with equal attention to forefront technological underpinnings and human and human utility.

Founded as Project MAC in 1963, the Laboratory developed one of the world's earliest time-shared computer systems: the Compatible Time Sharing System (CTSS) and its successor, Multics, which laid the foundation for many of today's systems and approaches, such as virtual memory, tree directories, on-line scheduling algorithms, line and page editors, secure operating systems, access control techniques, computer-aided design, and two of the earliest computer games, space wars and computer chess. Our partner in the Multics effort, AT&T, used many of the early ideas in their design of Unix.

These early developments laid the foundation for the Laboratory's work on knowledge based systems–the Macsyma program for symbolic mathematics–natural language understanding, and (with BBN) the development and use of packet networks in the Arpanet. In the late 1970s, Project MAC, renamed as the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, embarked on research in clinical decision making, public cryptography, distributed systems and languages and parallel systems. These led to the RSA encryption algorithm, data abstractions which served as foundations of object oriented programming, the Clu and Argus distributed systems, the dataflow principle and associated languages and architectures of parallel systems (Monsoon, Id and StarT), local area networks, program specification and workstation development, where the Laboratory contributed the earliest UNIX ports and compilers and the Nubus architecture. This research also led to the X Window System, a computer intercommunication and user interface system which was further developed by the Laboratory's X-Consortium and was widely used in over one thousand different software products. Since 1994, LCS has been the principal host of the World Wide Web Consortium of some 260 organizations that helps set the standard of a continuously evolving world wide web.

The Laboratory's current research falls into four principal categories: Information Infrastructure and Distributed Systems; Human-machine interaction; Science and Computer Science research; and Theory. The principal goals of these four categories are as follows:

In the areas of Information Infrastructure and Distributed Systems, we wish to understand principles and develop technologies for the architecture and use of highly scaleable information infrastructures that interconnect human-operated and autonomous computers. Transactions among such distributed systems involve the purchase, sale and free exchange of information and information work toward electronic commerce and shopping, health care, education, business, government and many other uses as well as increased automation of human work. We wish to explore new emerging forces such as groupwork across space and time and automation of computer-to-computer actions. We also expect this overall research to have a broad impact on future systems because virtually every machine will be connected to some information infrastructure and such infrastructures are expected to last for a very long time. The Laboratory's World Wide Web Consortium is a significant and major focus of our work in this area.

In the Human-Machine Interaction area, our technical goals are to understand and construct programs and machines that have greater and more useful sensory and cognitive capabilities so that they may communicate with one another and with people toward useful ends. The two principal areas of our focus are conversational spoken dialogue systems between people and machines and graphics systems used predominantly for output. In this area, we also strive to construct tomorrow's servers by harnessing the power and economy of numerous processors working on the same task; relevant research spans parallel hardware and software architectures, that yield cost-performance improvements of several orders of magnitude relative to single processors.

In the Science and Computer-Science area, we are interested in exploring opportunities at the boundary of traditional science and information technology. Our research includes an extensive program of clinical decision systems research between medicine and computer science, and several research activities in biology and computer science.

Taken together, these three thrusts define the Laboratory's overarching goal: development, understanding and better human communication with tomorrow's information systems. In the Laboratory's fourth category of research, Theory, we strive to discover and understand the fundamental forces, rules, and limits of Information Science and Technology. As a result, theoretical work permeates our research efforts in the other three areas; for example, in the pursuit of parallel algorithms, fault tolerant computer networks, and privacy and authentication of communications. Theory also touches on the logic of programs, the inherent complexity of computations, and the use of cryptography and randomness in the formal characterization of knowledge. The Laboratory expends a great deal of effort in theoretical computer science because its impact upon our world is expected to continue its past record of improving our understanding and helping us pursue new frontiers with new models, concepts, methods, and algorithms.


The Laboratory celebrated its 35th Anniversary on April 13 and 14, 1999 with a reception at the Museum of Science, attended by 1,500 guests, where some 50 of the lab's innovations were sealed in a time capsule; a two-day conference highlighting the Lab's research and particularly Oxygen (see below); publication of a book, Architects of the Information Society, by Simson L. Garfinkel, edited by Hal Abelson, outlining some of LCS's history; and, celebration of a major donation by Bill and Melinda Gates toward the Lab's new home, which will be called the William H. Gates building; this building is a part of the Stata Center, which is being designed by Architect Frank O. Gehry. The 35th anniversary was a successful event that celebrated past accomplishments, established new vistas and increased public awareness.

Oxygen is a new computer system whose purpose is to enable people to do more by doing less. This major research project was launched in April 1999, following acceptance by DARPA of a proposal for research to that end. Led by LCS, Oxygen is a collaborative effort with the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and involves some 30 faculty. Oxygen consists of eight new technologies–handheld units (Handy 21's); stationary computers (Enviro 21's), which are also connected to physical devices; a new network approach (Net21) that establishes rapidly secure collaborative regions; built-in speech understanding; individualized knowledge access; automation; collaboration and customization. The first prototype of Oxygen should be ready two years hence. The project's duration is five years.

This group has expanded its activities by constructing a graphics research laboratory, funded, in part, by a five-year National Science Foundation CISE Research Infrastructure award. The focus of this grant is to build the computational infrastructure for a major computer graphics research effort at LCS. During the first year of the grant, the group has made progress on several fronts: it now has a 64-processor compute server, several high-performance graphics engines, and a centralized file server, all connected by a high-speed network. It also has a variety of workstations, personal computers, and graphics peripherals scattered throughout the laboratory and the surrounding offices, all maintained by a system manager, a new staff position funded through the NSF award. The group's research involves the automatic acquisition of 3D urban scenes; computational video techniques for organizing and interacting with video objects; immersive image-based virtual environments; hybrid geometry and image-based representations for accelerated walk-throughs of complex scenes; acoustic design and modeling; interactive high-fidelity rendering; and texture and surface appearance models. The group is also developing a new curriculum in computer graphics and visualization and a system for collaborative pedagogy of algorithmic concepts.

This group continues to conduct research in human language technologies leading to the development of conversational interfaces; interfaces that will enable users to access information using spoken dialogue. The Galaxy architecture that they introduced five years ago has been designated by DARPA as the reference architecture for the Communicator program; all contractors are now required to use it in their DARPA-sponsored research. While continuing to develop narrow domain applications such as weather, flight status, and urban navigation, the group is moving towards applications such as travel planning for which the dialogue is more complex. In conjunction with the Advanced Networks Architecture group, they are developing a keyboardless handheld device that will serve as the prototype of Handy21 of the Oxygen project.

As of this report, 339 organizations have joined the consortium in order to participate in and contribute to the orderly evolution of the World Wide Web (W3). With three hosts and seven offices worldwide, the W3C is growing in influence, as offices succeed in promoting W3C work in specific regions. Key W3C technical developments include the growth of Extensible Markup Language (XML) and metadata efforts resulting in the W3C recommendation for Resource Description Framework (RDF). During this reporting period, Mr. Tim Berners Lee, director of the W3C, was named by Time Magazine as one of the twenty leading Scientists and Thinkers of the 20th Century. He was also awarded the 3Com Founders Chair, a newly established chair for LCS senior researchers.


The Laboratory's Distinguished Lecturer Series included presentations by Donald E. Norman, Professor Emeritus, University California San Diego, Michael Dell, Chairman and CEO, Dell Corporation and Barton Smith, Chairman and Chief Scientist, Tera Computer Company.

The Laboratory is organized into 15 research groups, an administrative unit, and a computer service support unit. The Laboratory's membership comprises a total of 532 people, including 89 faculty and research staff, 173 graduate students, 154 undergraduate students, 85 visitors, affiliates, and postdoctoral associates and fellows, and 31 support staff. The academic affiliation of most of the Laboratory's faculty and students is with the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). About 60 percent of the Laboratory's funding comes from the US Government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The Laboratory is also funded by and has extensive links with industrial organizations. These include partnerships for the construction of major hardware systems, consortia for the development and maintenance of standards, such as the World Wide Web, and joint studies on research areas of common concern.

More information about the Laboratory can be found on the World Wide Web at

Michael L. Dertouzos

MIT Reports to the President 1998-99