50 key MIT-related innovations


In May CSAIL will commemorate a half-century of computer science at MIT with “MAC50,” a two-day symposium that both reflects on MIT’s history and explores the future of computing, with talks on robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, privacy, and other pressing topics.

Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, MIT President L. Rafael Reif and Boston Dynamics co-founder Marc Raibert are among the speakers at the event, which takes place May 28 to 29 at the Stata Center.

To celebrate, read our list of 50 ways that MIT has transformed the field of computer science. These include achievements or notable technologies that either happened at Project MAC (or LCS, the AI Lab or CSAIL), or were spearheaded by MIT EECS alums or lab researchers.

In the 50 days leading up to MAC50 we’ll be Tweeting out 50 relevant links about these achievements.  Think of something we’ve missed? Tweet it to us (@MIT_CSAIL) with the hashtag #MAC50 and join the conversation.

Check out the full event agenda here, and register here.

1. The digital computer (1944) digital_computer

Don’t take that MacBook for granted! The first digital computer that could operate in real-time came out of Project Whirlwind, a initiative during World War II in which MIT worked with the U.S. Navy to develop a universal flight simulator. The device’s success led to the creation of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, which helped create the SAGE computer and radar-based air defense system.

2. The fax (1959)

The fax facts: in 1959 MIT Fulbright student Sam Asano was on the phone explaining a complex camera design to a co-worker with a strong Southern accent. Frustrated that he couldn’t just draw a picture and send it instantly, he developing a technology to transmit scanned printed material through phone lines, which was licensed to a Japanese telecom company before becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

3. The video game (1962)

When a PDP-1 arrived at MIT’s Electrical Engineering Department, a group of crafty students – including Steven “Slug” Russell from Marvin Minsky’s AI group – went to work at creating a computerized video game. In six weeks, they had created “SpaceWar!,” a shoot-em-up that represented the first multiplayer game. (Play it here.)

4. Time-sharing (1963)

Before Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, researchers at MIT’s Project MAC helped pioneer a very different kind of sharing called “time-sharing,” which let multiple users run programs from the same computer. MIT’s Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) created wider access to computers on campus – and, soon enough, around the world.

5. The computer password (1963)

The average person types 8 passwords a day – and you can indirectly thank CTSS, which by many accounts represented the first instance of passwords in computing. “We were setting up multiple terminals which were to be used by multiple persons but with each person having his own private set of files,” Prof. Corby Corbato told Wired. “Putting a password on for each individual user as a lock seemed like a very straightforward solution.”

6. Graphical user interfaces (1963) UI

Nearly 50 years before the iPad, an MIT PhD student had already come up with the idea of directly interfacing with a computer screen. Ivan Sutherland’s “Sketchpad” allowed users to draw geometric shapes with a touch-pen, pioneering the practice of “computer-assisted drafting” that has proven vital for architects, planners, and now even toddlers.

7. Multics (1964)

MIT researchers helped develop the Multics time-sharing system that was a predecessor to the UNIX operating system and spawned the creation of the “video display terminal,” which lets users see the text they’re typing on a screen. The system furthered the idea of the computer as a “utility” that can be operated by multiple users separately.

8. Minicomputers (1965)

The computer “industry” effectively began with the PDP-8, the first mass-produced mini-computer. Created by MIT Lincoln Lab researchers and Digital Equipment Corporation co-founders Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, these machines were smaller, simpler and more affordable than the mainframes that existed at universities – allowing businesses and even private citizens to start incorporating computing into their lives.

9. Chess-playing computers (1967)

Several decades before Deep Blue, MIT’s Richard Greenblatt built a knowledge-based chess-playing program, MacHack, that was the first to ever defeat a human in tournament play. Good enough to get a class-C rating, it also beat AI skeptic Hubert Dreyfus, who had famously claimed that computers would never be able to play high-quality chess.

10. Arpanet (1969)

Founded by two MIT faculty, Bolt Beranek & Newman (now BBN Technologies) has done everything from examining the vibrations of NASA’s Mercury launch to analyzing the 18-minute gap in Richard Nixon’s infamous White House tapes. The company designed a large portion of the early hardware for Arpanet, the Pentagon-funded network that predated the Internet.

11. Email (1971)

Did you know that the first email to ever travel across a computer network was sent to two computers that were right next to each other? It came from MIT alum Ray Tomlinson of BBN Technologies – he’s the one you can credit (or blame) for the @ symbol.

12. The PC (1973) pc

In the 70s MIT’s Butler Lampson founded Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where he became known as “the father of the modern PC” for creating the Alto, the first computer to feature a mouse and a graphical user interface (GUI) – an important ancestor of the Apple Macintosh and the Windows operating system.

13. Ethernet (1973)

Before there was ubiquitious Wi-Fi, there was Ethernet – the LAN networking technology that lets you get online with a simple cable plug-in. Co-invented by MIT alum Bob Metcalfe, who was part of MIT’s Project MAC team and later went on to found 3Com, Ethernet helped make the Internet the fast, convenient platform that it is today.

14. The robotic arm (1974)

David Silver’s “Silver Arm,” which was actually mostly black, was the first computer-controlled robot intended for small-parts assembly. Its fine movements and high precision required great mechanical engineering skill and used feedback from touch and pressure sensors.

15. Text-to-speech (1976)

Long before Siri started reading us Yelp reviews, an MIT alum created the Kurzweil Reading Machine, a device for the blind that can recognize text and “speak” it back to the user. Its breakthrough technologies include the first CCD (“charge coupled device”) flatbed scanner and omni-font OCR (“optical character recognition”) software.

16. Data encryption (1977)

Why are we comfortable giving Amazon our credit-card number? You can partially thank CSAIL’s Ron Rivest, who in 1977 co-invented the “RSA” algorithm, a revolutionary method of data encryption based on the concept of how difficult it is to factor huge prime numbers. Who knew that math would be why you can get your last-minute holiday shopping done?

17. TCP/IP (1977)

After a stint teaching at MIT, Bob Kahn co-invented TCP/IP – the communication protocol at the heart of the Internet. Before TCP/IP, messages had been sent across the government-run ARPAnet, but never across multiple independent computer networks – a development that’s essential to the interconnectedness of the Internet.

18. The spreadsheet (1979)

In 1979, Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin worked late into the night on the MIT mainframe computers to create VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet, which sold more than 100,000 copies its first year. Three years later, Microsoft got into the game with the “Multiplan” program that soon morphed into Excel.

19. Lisp machine (1979)

It only sold about 7,000 commercial units, but the Lisp machine pioneered some important technologies like laser-printing and high-resolution graphics, and is often viewed as the first commercial single-user workstation.
20. Optical mouse (1980)

While a student at MIT, Steve Kirsch ’78 SM ’80 wanted to make a “pointing device” with a minimum of precision moving parts. He was the first to patent an optical mouse, and went on to found Mouse Systems Corp. (He also patented the method of tracking online ad impressions through click-counting.)

21. Parallel computing (1981)

As a PhD at MIT, Danny Hillis pioneered the concept of parallel computers that is now the basis for most supercomputers. His leadership of Thinking Machines Corporation spearheaded technology that allowed computers to use a large number of processors to perform sets of coordinated computations in parallel.

22. Quantum computer (1982)

In a conference at MIT, Richard Feynman – an MIT alum then teaching at CalTech – proposed a universal quantum simulator that could simulate an evolution of a quantum system on a classical computer in an efficient way. This was an essential revelation that paved the way for further inquiry in the field of quantum computing.

23. The free software movement (1983)

Early AI Lab programmer Richard Stallman was a major pioneer in hacker culture and started the freesoftware movement by launching the GNU operating system, a compatible replacement for the (nonfree) Unix OS. The last gap in GNU was filled by the kernel Linux, yielding the widely used GNU/Linux system.

24. “The mother of the Internet” (1985)

The Internet wasn’t quite so fast before Radia Perlman was around. The MIT alum invented the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), an important contribution to the underlying infrastructure of the Internet that allows for loop-free network connectivity. (Check out the poem/song she wrote about it.)

25. GUI systems (1987)

Remember when computer screens just displayed text and commands? In the ‘80s LCS researcher (and undergrad/grad alum) Bob Scheifler helped develop X Window System, a cross-platform system for managing “graphical user interfaces” (GUI) that helped bring icons and other graphic elements into consumer computing.

26. Underwater robots (1988) underwater

MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab pioneered the field of underwater robotics with “Sea Squirt,” a three-foot-long autonomous underwater robot (AUV) used for naval experiments around the globe. Such innovations spurred the exploration of our deepest seas for everything from sunken treasure to new aquatic species.

27. AI meets cog-sci (1988)

Marvin Minsky’s seminal 1988 book “The Society of Mind” outlines his theory of natural intelligence, which includes the concept that our mind is made up of the interactions of simple parts of the brain that he calls “agents.” “What magical trick makes us intelligent?,” he asks. “The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle.”

28. The World Wide Web (1989)

In 1989 CSAIL researcher Tim Berners-Lee, then at CERN, proposed his idea for “a distributed hypertext system” that eventually became the World Wide Web. He invented HTTP, HTML, URL, the first web browser (Nexus) and many of the elements that make up our online lives today.

29. Genghis (1989)

MIT’s 6-legged Genghis robot demonstrated that small, mobile bots were perfect for exploring environments like the surface of Mars. Weighing only 2.2 pounds, with6 sensors and 12 motors, it served as the protoype for later “spider” robots like Attila and Hannibal. (Check out a video of Genghis in action.)

30. The all-bandwidth Bard (1993)

While studying at CSAIL, Jeremy Hylton published “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” the first online compilation of Shakespeare. He later joined Google and helped develop Google Blog Search and Google Real Time Search.

31. Internet Archive (1996)

MIT alum Brewster Kahle not-for-profit digital library has evolved from a hodge-podge of old Grateful Dead bootlegs to a compendium of more than 10 petabytes of data, including more than 150 billion web captures. Kahle’s goal? “Universal access to all knowledge.”

32. Akamai  (1996)

“We’re probably the biggest entity on the Web that regular people haven’t heard of, but that you’re using us every day,” said MIT professor Tom Leighton, who in the ’90s developed algorithms with then-PhD student Daniel Lewin that formed the basis of their company Akamai Technologies, a content-delivery network responsible for 30 percent of all web traffic.

33. Creative Commons (2001)

In 2001 MIT professor and CSAIL researcher Hal Abelson co-founded Creative Commons with Lawrence Lessig and Eric Eldred. The nonprofit’s goal is to develop better ways for artists, writers and other creative professionals to designate their work as freely shareable.

34. The Roomba (2002) Roomba_original

Few robotics companies have been as commercially successful as iRobot, founded in 1990 by MIT alums Helen Greiner and Colin Angle. 2013 revenues reached $500 million, thanks largely to their Roomba vacuum cleaner, as well as robots for the Department of Defense and the health-care industry.

35. MIT Open Courseware (2002)

Before Coursera, Udacity or even MIT’s own EdX, MIT started offering free online access to materials for select courses (which now number more than 2,000). The materials have reached an estimated 100 million people around the world.

36. The science of folding (2003)

Erik Demaine’ work on folding has helped demonstrate the topic’s far-reaching implications, from proteins and medicine to robotic arms and airbags. The 2003 MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient has even designed complex origami that’s been showcased at the MOMA.

37. Database entrepreneurship (2003)

PI Michael Stonebraker is a founder of the relational database industry and the preeminent academic research in database systems. He has founded no fewer than six technology companies, including Vertica, a data platform that was bought by Hewlett Packard for $350 million.

38. Gestural interfaces (2005)

Remember “Minority Report” and that eye-popping interface that Tom Cruise uses to view future crimes? MIT alum John Underkoffler created the real-life technology (“g-speak”), which allows users to navigate data with hand movements in unprecedented way. Check out his TED talk to learn more.

39. Google Analytics and Google Voice (2005)

Some might have thought Wesley Chan ’00 crazy for giving valuable web tools away, but his efforts in launching Google Analytics (in 2005) and Google Voice (in 2009) have been huge successes. Now he’s an “entrepreneur-in-residence” working on secret projects at Google Ventures.

40. The mobile personal assistant (2006)

Before Siri ever existed, there was StartMobile, a prototype based on Boris Katz’s natural-language processing (NLP) research that allows you to use your cellphone to schedule appointments, get information and do other tasks using everyday language. His work laid the groundwork for today’s mobile-based “robot assistants.”

41. Cheetah (2008)

Working with its hardware developer Boston Dynamics, CSAIL’s Russ Tedrake helped program “Cheetah,” a two-legged robot that set the robotic land speed record of 30.1 mph – faster than any human being can run.

42. Crowd computing (2009)

Rob Miller was one of the first researchers to investigate the power of crowd computing, in which tasks that are difficult for computers or individual users are sourced out to larger groups on the web. His VizWiz mobile app lets blind people take a photo, speak a question about the photo, and receive answers from the crowd quickly from their iPhone.

43. The “intelligent wheelchair” (2010)

Seth Teller and Nick Roy have developed many different applications of assistive technology for the blind and physically disabled, including a self-driving robotic wheelchair that learns floor plans and responds to verbal requests like “Take me to the kitchen.”

44. Predicting the future(2011)

Devavrat Shah has created algorithms for predicting Twitter trending topics and car purchases. His latter work, which outperformed existing research in the field by a factor of 20 percent, spurred Netflix to hire him as a consultant for their movie recommendation formulas.

45. Baxter (2012ROBOTS

As part of his company Rethink Robotics, former MIT professor Rodney Brooks built a revolutionary manufacturing robot that has cameras, sensors and an LCD-screen “face”that allows it to safely work alongside humans.

46. EdX (2012)

Former CSAIL Director Anant Agarwal is president of EdX, MIT’s not-for-profit online platform. In collaboration with schools like Harvard and UC-Berkeley, EdX offers free online courses with a certificate of completion. Agarwal’s first course drew 155,000 students.

47. Atlas (2013)

Former CSAIL researcher Marc Raibert’s company Boston Dynamics builds bots to run, climb, jump and drive – and gives them names like Little Dog, Big Dog, and (of course) Atlas, the 330-pound robot that MIT is now programming as part of the DARPA Robotics Challenge run by the Department of Defense’s research arm.

48. M-Blocks (2013)

Proving we’re not far off from a world filled with Transformers, CSAIL Director Daniela Rus’ research group has developed self-assembling cubes that can scoot, skip and slide into different configurations on their own. These agility could have interesting implications for disaster-relief, scaffolding and perhaps even self-assembling furniture.

49. X-ray vision (2013)

Are superpowers in our near future? Dina Katabi’s “Wi-Vi” technology allows you to see through walls using wireless. By tracking radio signals that reflect off a person’s body, the system can track movement through walls and behind closed doors, which could prove helpful in disaster-relief and law-enforcement scenarios.

50. Soft robots (2014)

CSAIL researchers have spearheaded the field of soft robotics with a robotic fish that can convulse its body to change direction almost as fast as a real one. Soft robots offer some exciting advantages over traditional “hinged” robots – they are safer to use around people, more collision-resilient, and potentially capable of squeezing into tight spaces that other machines (and humans) can’t.

This post originally appeared on the MIT CSAIL website. Check out the discussion about the list on Hacker News or leave your comments on this post below.

MIT CSAIL is the university's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
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