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AI Lab, LCS to Merge After Stata Center Completed

By Kevin R. Lang

NEWS AND FEATURES DIRECTOR

The Laboratory for Computer Science and the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, separate since 1970, plan to merge after they move into the new Stata Center in 2004.

AI Lab Director Rodney A. Brooks and LCS Director Victor W. Zue ScD ’76 announced the decision of a joint LCS-AI committee co-chaired by Professor Ronald L. Rivest of LCS and Professor Tomas Lozano-Perez ’73 of the AI Lab in an Aug. 30 e-mail message.

The committee “unanimously endorsed” a plan to merge the AI Lab and LCS “no later than eighteen months after we have moved into the Stata Center,” the announcement said. Dean of Engineering Thomas L. Magnanti also endorsed the committee’s recommendations.

Zue hails ‘intellectual synergy’

“I think it will create even more intellectual synergy than we’ve had in the past,” Zue said. “It’s very exciting, because we have complimentary strengths and we have proven to ourselves that we can work very nicely together.”

Increasing collaboration between members of the two labs, he said, made people question why the labs were separate in the first place. “It just didn’t make sense any more,” Zue said, citing the example of machine learning projects that are currently split between the two labs.

The two labs are each among MIT’s largest, and the combined lab may become the single largest research group on campus. Zue said that the success of the two labs helped to make the idea of a merger feasible in the first place.

“Many people believe that the right time to consider a merger is when both labs are doing well,” Zue said. “It’s an opportune time, because we’re all moving into the Stata Center.”

Move prompted by joint research

Lozano-Perez said that the growing impact of research spanning the two labs made the idea of a merger desirable.

“The primary reason was to make it easier to pursue research that spans the traditional boundaries of the two labs,” he said. “The feeling was that cross-laboratory interactions were growing to be the norm rather than the exceptions, and that we should adjust the organization to reflect this.”

Locating both groups in the Stata Center would make space allocation, faculty hiring, and assigning students to research group easier if they had a single administrative structure, he said. Currently, the two labs share building NE43.

Transition to precede merger

The two groups are expected to move to the Stata Center, currently under construction, in January 2004, at which time a transition period is to begin while the labs reorganize. To lead this transition, the committee recommended the designation of an LCSAI Coordinator, Senior Lecturer Christopher J. Terman, currently the acting associate director of LCS. Terman will be responsible for coordinating space and infrastructure allocations between the two groups.

During the transition period, the two groups are to combine tracking of their research volume as soon as possible, but funding is to remain distinct. The AI Lab and LCS would also maintain separate headquarters during the transition.

Before the merger becomes final, an official ratification process will take place roughly 12 months after moving into the Stata Center. The committee recommended that the lab directors establish a working group “to develop a plan for a full merger of the two labs.”

In the meantime, Brooks and Zue are working “very aggressively” to have much of the new organization in place before the move, Zue said, acknowledging significant cultural differences between the labs.

Committee disbands

The committee, which disbanded following its recommendation to Magnanti, consisted of Professor Harold Abelson PhD ’73, Brooks, Professor Trevor J. Darrell PhD ’96, Professor Randall Davis, Professor David K. Gifford ’76, Professor M. Frans Kaashoek, AI Lab Associate Director Leslie P. Kaelbling, Lozano-Perez, Professor Leonard McMillan, Rivest, Terman, and Zue.

No students served on the committee, but Lozano-Perez said that the lab directors held a public meeting with students to solicit feedback. A new working group will be established to continue planning for the merger.