How did I get to MIT?
It’s complicated. Here are my official interactions with MIT, in order:
1. 1978: As a senior at San Benito Joint Union High School (known as “the joint”) in Hollister California (go, Haybalers!), I applied to MIT for early action (or admission or decision or whatever it was called then). I was rejected, probably at least partly because I was in the 10th (yes, 10th, not 90th) percentile on the Chemistry SAT subject test. In my chemistry class at the joint, we made window cleaner and car wax and distilled alcohol. But I didn’t know what argon was or what any of the numbers in the periodic table meant. (I don’t know how I managed to even be in the 10th percentile.)
But, I was taking Physics at the time and the class was much more real (and only had 5 kids in it) and I did better on the Physics exam, and actually got admitted to MIT. Woo hoo! I ended up going to Stanford (which was close by—and I had only flown on an airplane once before so Massachusetts was sort of inconceivable). MIT did try to recruit me, though. I got a call on the phone one evening from a female MIT student encouraging me to come. What was her argument? “The men here aren’t that bad.”
2. 1990: I was just about to finish my PhD in Computer Science at Stanford and knew I wanted to be a professor. I got an interview at MIT for a faculty position. I didn’t get an offer.
3. 1991: I finished my PhD in Computer Science at Stanford and . I took a faculty position at Brown University, and had a lot of fun. (I wrote letters of recommendation for at least two awesome Brown undergrads who ended up being rejected by the MIT PhD program but who are now illustrious faculty members in top-ranked CS departments.)
4. 1997: Some colleagues from MIT approached me to ask me to apply for a faculty position at MIT. I got an interview. I got an offer! I reflected that I really liked Brown and my colleagues and decided to reject the MIT offer and stay at Brown. Ha.
5. 1999: I had been itchy about MIT since my previous interaction, and eventually curiosity got the best of me. I applied again for a position at MIT, got an interview, got an offer, and accepted it.
I went to MIT thinking it was going to be difficult and unpleasant, but it wasn’t! I’ve really enjoyed being here and find that people are still people, even if they are at MIT, and most are kind and funny and welcoming.
Research activities
I want to solve the problem of AI! That is, making a computational system that behaves as apparently intelligently as a human. I don’t expect to succeed in my lifetime, but I do hope to make real progress! I’m particularly focused on how to integrate together work on the variety of aspects of intelligence, ranging from robotics to vision to language to representation to learning to planning to reasoning. The students in our research group work on a variety of different topics. We try to give them a lot of autonomy and they do all kinds of things, some close to my own areas of expertise and some very far away. I learn an enormous amount from them! I also really like to stay closely engaged in technical work (hacking code, playing with robots, figuring out algorithms) and do some of my own personal research work, and try to resist getting dragged (too much) into administrative work, with mixed success.
I’m an introvert! I run away from receptions and hate group fun. But I’m happy to talk to individual students and try to offer whatever advice and support I can. I haven’t been at all strategic in managing my own trajectory but I can do my best to help and also to not be terrifying.