MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (also CSAIL) is a research laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology formed by the 2003 merger of the Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Housed within the Stata Center, CSAIL is the largest on-campus laboratory as measured by research scope and membership.
CSAIL's research activities are organized around a number of semi-autonomous research groups, each of which is headed by one or more professors or research scientists. These groups are divided up into seven general areas of research:
In addition, CSAIL hosts the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
Computing research at MIT began with Vannevar Bush's research into a differential analyzer and Claude Shannon's electronic Boolean algebra in the 1930s, the wartime Radiation Laboratory, the post-war Project Whirlwind and Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), and Lincoln Laboratory's SAGE in the early 1950s.
Research at MIT in the field of artificial intelligence began in 1959.
On July 1, 1963, Project MAC (the Project on Mathematics and Computation, later backronymed to Multiple Access Computer, Machine Aided Cognitions, or Man and Computer) was launched with a $2 million grant from DARPA. Project MAC's original director was Robert Fano of MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE). Fano decided to call MAC a "project" rather than a "laboratory" for reasons of internal MIT politics—if MAC had been called a laboratory, then it would have been more difficult to raid other MIT departments for research staff. The program manager responsible for the DARPA grant was J.C.R. Licklider, who had previously been at MIT conducting research in RLE, and would later succeed Fano as director of Project MAC.
Project MAC would become famous for groundbreaking research in operating systems, artificial intelligence, and the theory of computation. Its contemporaries included Project Genie at Berkeley, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and (somewhat later) USC's Information Sciences Institute.
An "AI Group" including Marvin Minsky (the director), John McCarthy (who invented Lisp) and a talented community of computer programmers was incorporated into the newly-formed Project MAC. It was interested principally in the problems of vision, mechanical motion and manipulation, and language, which they view as the keys to more intelligent machines. In the 1950s - 1970s the AI Group shared a computer room with a computer (initially a PDP-6, and later a PDP-10) for which they built a time-sharing operating system called ITS.
The early Project MAC community included Fano, Minsky, Licklider, Fernando J. Corbató, and a community of computer programmers and enthusiasts among others who drew their inspiration from former colleague John McCarthy. These founders envisioned the creation of a computer utility whose computational power would be as reliable as an electric utility. To this end, Corbató brought the first computer time-sharing system, CTSS, with him from the MIT Computation Center, using the DARPA funding to purchase an IBM 7094 for research use. One of the early focuses of Project MAC would be the development of a successor to CTSS, Multics, which was to be the first high availability computer system, developed as a part of an industry consortium including General Electric and Bell Laboratories.
In 1966, Scientific American featured Project MAC in the September thematic issue devoted computer science, which was later published in book form. At the time, the system was described as having approximately 100 TTY terminals, mostly on campus but with a few in private homes. Only 30 users could be logged in at the same time.
In the late 1960s, Minsky's artificial intelligence group was seeking more space, and was unable to get satisfaction from project director Licklider. University space-allocation politics being what it is, Minsky found that although Project MAC as a single entity could not get the additional space he wanted, he could split off to form his own lab and then be entitled to more office space. As a result, the MIT AI Lab was formed in 1970, and many of Minsky's AI colleagues left Project MAC to join him in the new lab, while most of the remaining members went on to form the Laboratory for Computer Science. Talented programmers such as Richard Stallman, who used TECO to write EMACS, flourished in the AI Lab during this time.
Those researchers who did not join the smaller AI Lab formed the Laboratory for Computer Science and continue their research into operating systems, programming languages, distributed systems, and the theory of computation. Two professors, Hal Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman, chose to remain neutral – their group was referred to variously as Switzerland and Project MAC for the next 30 years.
On the fortieth anniversary of Project MAC's establishment, July 1, 2003, LCS re-merged with the AI Lab to form the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL. This merger created the largest laboratory (over 600 personnel) on the MIT campus and was regarded as a reuniting of the diversified elements of Project MAC.
(Including members and alumni of CSAIL's predecessor labs.)
Several Project MAC alumni went on to further revolutionize the computer industry.