What does it mean to be human in an age when artificial intelligence agents make decisions that shape human actions? It’s a deep question with no easy answers, and it’s been on the mind of Dan Huttenlocher SM ’84, PhD ’88, Dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, for the past few years.
“Advances in AI are going to happen, but where we get to with those advances is up to us, and that’s far from certain,” says Huttenlocher, who is also Henry Ellis Warren Professor in the Department of Engineering. electrical and IT.
Along with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and statesman Henry Kissinger, Huttenlocher recently explored some of the dilemmas posed by the rise of AI, in the book “The Age of AI: And Our Human Future”. For Huttenlocher and his co-authors, “Our belief is that to get there, we need a much more informed dialogue and a much more multilateral dialogue. Our hope is that the book will inspire people to do this in a wide range of places,” he says.
Now, with nearly two-and-a-half years as dean of the university, Huttenlocher isn’t just talking about interdisciplinarity. He leads the college as he integrates computer science into all areas of study at MIT while teaching students to use awesome tools like artificial intelligence in an ethical and responsible way.
This mission is accomplished, in part, through two campus-wide initiatives of particular interest to Huttenlocher: Common ground for computer science education and Social and Ethical Responsibilities of IT (SERC). The SERC is complemented by numerous research and scholarship activities, such as AI for healthcare equity and the Research Initiative to Combat Systemic Racism. The Common Ground supports the development of interdisciplinary courses that integrate computer science into other fields of study, while the SERC initiative provides tools that help researchers, educators and students understand how to conceptualize problems related to impacts of IT at the start of the research process.
“When I was a grad student, you were working on computer vision assuming it was going to be a research problem for the rest of your life,” he says. “Now research problems have practical applications almost overnight in computer-related disciplines. The social impacts and ethical implications around computing are things that need to be considered from the start, not an afterthought.
Budding interest in a budding field
A deep thinker from an early age, Huttenlocher began thinking about questions at the intersection of human intelligence and computing as a teenager.
With a mind for math, the Chicago native learned to program before entering high school, which was rare in the 1970s. His parents, both academics who studied aspects of the human mind, influenced the path he would follow. Her father was a neurologist at the University of Chicago Medical School who studied brain development, while her mother was a professor of cognitive psychology at the same institution.
Huttenlocher pursued a joint major in computer science and cognitive psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in an effort to bring these two disciplines together. When it came time to apply for graduate school, he found the perfect fit for his dual interest in the burgeoning field of AI and enrolled at MIT.
While earning his M.Sc. and Ph.D. (in 1984 and 1988, respectively), he researched speech recognition, object recognition, and computer vision. He became fascinated with how machines can directly perceive the world around them. Huttenlocher was also attracted to the entrepreneurial activity then developing around Cambridge. He spent summers interning at Silicon Valley startups and smaller Boston-area tech companies, which piqued his interest in the industry.
“I grew up in a family of academics and was skeptical about following in my parents’ footsteps. So when I graduated, I wasn’t quite sure whether or not I wanted an academic path. And to be honest, I’ve been a little ambivalent about it ever since. For better or for worse, I often ended up doing both at the same time,” he says.
Big problems, direct impact
Huttenlocher joined the Computer Science faculty at Cornell University in 1988 and also held a position at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where he had completed an internship as a graduate student. He taught computer science courses and worked on university research projects when Cornell was in session, and spent his summers at Xerox PARC, as well as one day a week consulting remotely. (Long before Zoom, remote connectivity was “still pretty sketchy” at that time, he says.)
“I’ve long wanted to combine the deeper, bigger issues that we tend to try to make progress on in academia with a more direct and immediate impact on people, so spending time at Xerox PARC and Cornell was a good way to do it,” he says.
Early in his research career, Huttenlocher took a more algorithmic approach to solving computer vision problems, rather than adopting the generic optimization approaches that were more common at the time. Some of the techniques he and his collaborators developed, such as using a graphical representation of an image, are still in use more than 20 years later.
Later, he and his colleagues conducted some of the first studies of how communities come together on social media. In the pre-Facebook era, they studied LiveJournal, a social networking site popular in the early 2000s. Their work revealed that a person’s tendency to join an online community is not only influenced by the number of friends she has in that community, but also by how those friends are connected to each other.
In addition to research, Huttenlocher was passionate about bridging the gaps between disciplines. He was named Dean of the Interdisciplinary College of Computing and Information Science at Cornell in 2009. Three years later, he brought his bridge building skills to New York when he became the founding Dean of Cornell Tech, a new graduate school being created. Roosevelt Island.
This role was a huge challenge, but also an amazing opportunity to create a campus that combined academia in computer science-related disciplines with the growing tech community in New York, he says.
In a way, this role prepared him well to be the founding dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, the launch of which represented the Institute’s most significant structural change since the early 1950s.
“I think this place is very special. MIT has its own culture. It is a distinctive place in the positive sense of the word “distinctive”. People are incredibly curious here and very collaborative when it comes to solving problems. Just the opportunity to help build something new at MIT, something that will be important for the Institute but also for the country and the world, is incredible,” he says.
While Huttenlocher oversaw the creation of Cornell Tech, he also forged ties around New York. Before the Roosevelt Island campus was built, the school was renting space in Google’s Eighth Avenue building, which is how he met Eric Schmidt, then Google CEO. The two enjoyed talking (and sometimes arguing) about the promises and perils of artificial intelligence. At the same time, Schmidt was discussing AI with Henry Kissinger, whom he had befriended at a conference. By chance, the three got together and started talking about AI, which led to an article in Atlantic and, finally, the book.
“What we realized when we started talking about these issues is that the larger historical and philosophical context of an AI era hasn’t been looked at much. When people look at social issues and IT-related ethics, they usually focus on the current problem, which is vital, but we think that larger framework is also important,” he says.
And when it comes to questions about AI, Huttenlocher feels a sense of urgency.
Progress is happening so rapidly that there is immense pressure for educational institutions to keep up. University courses need to weave computing into their intellectual fabric, especially as AI continues to take an increasingly prominent place in everyday life, he says. This underscores the important work the college is doing and the challenge it faces moving forward.
For Huttenlocher, who found himself at the center of a veritable Venn diagram of disciplines since his undergraduate days, it was a challenge he fully embraced.
“It shouldn’t just be computer scientists or engineers looking at these issues. But it shouldn’t just be social scientists or humanists looking at them either,” he says. “We really need to bring different groups together.”