MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is a research institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) formed by the 2003 merger of the Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) and the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (AI Lab). Housed within the Ray and Maria Stata Center, CSAIL is the largest on-campus laboratory as measured by research scope and membership.

MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
EstablishedJuly 1, 1963 (1963-07-01) (as Project MAC)
July 1, 2003 (as CSAIL)
Field of research
Computer science
DirectorDaniela L. Rus
AddressThe Stata Center (Building 32)
32 Vassar Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
LocationCambridge, Massachusetts
Operating agency
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Research activities

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 MIT Radiation Laboratory, the post-war Project Whirlwind and Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), and MIT Lincoln Laboratory's SAGE in the early 1950s. At MIT, researches in the field of artificial intelligence began in late 1950s.[1]

Project MAC

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 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (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) University of Southern California's (USC's) Information Sciences Institute.

An "AI Group" including Marvin Minsky (the director), John McCarthy (inventor of 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 1960s and 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 Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS).[2]

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, Compatible 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 to computer science, that 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. The project enlisted students in various classes to use the terminals simultaneously in problem solving, simulations, and multi-terminal communications as tests for the multi-access computing software being developed.

AI Lab and LCS

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 laboratory 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 laboratory, 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 develop 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 continued 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.

Among much else, the AI Lab led to the invention of Lisp machines and their attempted commercialization by two companies in the 1980s: Symbolics and Lisp Machines Inc. This divided the AI Lab into "camps" which resulted in a hiring away of many of the talented programmers. The incident inspired Richard Stallman's later work on the GNU Project. "Nobody had envisioned that the AI lab's hacker group would be wiped out, but it was." ... "That is the basis for the free software movement — the experience I had, the life that I've lived at the MIT AI lab — to be working on human knowledge, and not be standing in the way of anybody's further using and further disseminating human knowledge".[3]


On the fortieth anniversary of Project MAC's establishment, July 1, 2003, LCS was 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.

In 2018, CSAIL launched a five-year collaboration program with IFlytek, a company sanctioned the following year for allegedly using its technology for surveillance and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.[4][5][6][7] In October 2019, MIT announced that it would review its partnerships with sanctioned firms such iFlyTek and SenseTime.[8]


From 1963 to 2004, Project MAC, LCS, the AI Lab, and CSAIL had their offices at 545 Technology Square, taking over more and more floors of the building over the years. In 2004, CSAIL moved to the new Ray and Maria Stata Center, which was built specifically to house it and other departments.

Outreach activities

The IMARA (from Swahili word for "power") group sponsors a variety of outreach programs that bridge the global digital divide. Its aim is to find and implement long-term, sustainable solutions which will increase the availability of educational technology and resources to domestic and international communities. These projects are run under the aegis of CSAIL and staffed by MIT volunteers who give training, install and donate computer setups in greater Boston, Massachusetts, Kenya, Native American Indian tribal reservations in the American Southwest such as the Navajo Nation, the Middle East, and Fiji Islands. The CommuniTech project strives to empower under-served communities through sustainable technology and education and does this through the MIT Used Computer Factory (UCF), providing refurbished computers to under-served families, and through the Families Accessing Computer Technology (FACT) classes, it trains those families to become familiar and comfortable with computer technology.[9][10][11]

Notable researchers

(Including members and alumni of CSAIL's predecessor laboratories)

Notable alumni


Directors of Project MAC
Directors of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Directors of the Laboratory for Computer Science
Directors of CSAIL

See also


  1. Marvin Minsky. "bibliography".
  2. Eastlake, Donald E. (1969). ITS Reference Manual, Version 1.5 (PDF (large)). MIT AI Laboratory.
  3. Transcript of Richard Stallman's Speech, 28 October 2002, at the International Lisp Conference, from, accessed September 2012
  4. Conner-Simons, Adam (June 15, 2018). "CSAIL launches new five-year collaboration with iFlyTek". MIT News. Retrieved November 9, 2019.
  5. Harney, Alexandra (June 13, 2019). "Risky partner: Top U.S. universities took funds from Chinese firm tied to Xinjiang security". Reuters. Retrieved November 9, 2019.
  6. "US sanctions 8 China tech companies over role in Xinjiang abuses". The Nikkei. Reuters. October 8, 2019. Retrieved November 9, 2019.
  7. Strumpf, Dan; Kubota, Yoko (October 8, 2019). "Expanded U.S. Trade Blacklist Hits Beijing's Artificial-Intelligence Ambitions". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved November 9, 2019.
  8. "MIT reviews partnerships with blacklisted Chinese tech firms". Associated Press. October 11, 2019. Retrieved November 9, 2019.
  9. Outreach activities at CSAIL Archived 2010-06-02 at the Wayback Machine - CSAIL homepage, MIT.
  10. IMARA Project at MIT
  11. Fizz, Robyn; Mansur, Karla (2008-06-04), "Helping MIT neighbors cross the 'digital divide'" (PDF), MIT Tech Talk, Cambridge: MIT, p. 3

Further reading

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