Exploring history, particularly the history of science, has been a lifelong passion for veteran software entrepreneur Thomas M. Siebel, who recently established the Thomas M. Siebel Professorship in the History of Science in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS).
Siebel earned his BA in history before going on to complete his MBA and MA in computer science, all at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was later awarded an honorary doctorate in engineering. He held several management positions at the computer software giant Oracle before embarking on a stratospheric career building his own companies. In 1993, Siebel founded the pioneering software company Siebel Systems and is currently the founder, chair, and CEO of C3.ai, an artificial intelligence (AI) software platform and applications company. An AI industry expert, he is the author of four books, including Digital Transformation: Survive and Thrive in an Era of Mass Extinction (RosettaBooks, 2019).
Siebel attributes his success in part to a deep understanding of how information technology evolves, including “making a reasonably well-educated guess about where we’d go next,” he says. “All of my decisions were informed by my interest in the history of science, and so far, we’ve been in the right place at the right time.”
Innovation grounded in history
To help inspire future generations with the lessons of history, Siebel endowed the SHASS professorship. “With MIT, we have one of the most preeminent technological research and education institutions on the planet,” says Siebel. To support this work, he adds, it’s critical to have a solid understanding of the history of science and technology.
The professorship’s inaugural chair, Kate Brown, is an award-winning, internationally recognized historian of science and the environment. Her work explores how history and technology converge in what she calls “modernist wastelands,” particularly those located in the former Soviet Union. Her most recent book, A Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (Norton, 2019) has been translated into eight languages and won numerous awards.
“Professor Brown is doing some fascinating, groundbreaking work in her field,” says Siebel. “It’s a great privilege to be able to support great scholars like her who can help graduates gain a deeper understanding of liberal arts and history.”
Siebel’s SHASS endowment comes four years after he established the Thomas M. Siebel Distinguished Professor in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. The inaugural holder, Tommi Jaakkola PhD ’97, is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and a leader in machine learning. Jaakkola’s work has increasingly contributed to molecular modeling and therapeutic design, including developing machine-learning methods to find promising antiviral molecules for Covid-19 and other emerging pathogens.
Even before endowing the two professorships, Siebel was well-known at MIT for the Siebel Scholars program, which he describes as “the experience of a lifetime.” Established in 1999, the program provides support for 16 MIT graduate students annually (five in EECS, five in the Department of Biological Engineering, five in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and one focusing on energy science). “As we harness the power and the influence of the Siebel Scholars community, I think there’s an enormous opportunity to make change happen in a positive way,” he says.
Transformative changes are already under way, says Siebel, who anticipates the increased importance of AI in almost every part of our lives. Maintaining a leadership role in AI is thus an “urgent matter of national security” for the United States, he says, one that will require major investment in everyday companies as well as in major research institutions like MIT.
Siebel is doing his part by building a legacy of philanthropy to the Institute. “It’s just a great privilege to make some contribution at the edge of that remarkable achievement that is MIT.”