Since announcing the MIT Campaign for a Better World nearly two years ago, I have been on the road extensively telling anyone who will listen about the work our brilliant faculty, students, and alumni are doing to advance knowledge and to apply it whenever they see things that need fixing. From devices to diseases, systems to structures, the MIT community shares an irrepressible drive to design and implement remedies. At last fall’s Better World event in Boston, Regina Barzilay, MIT’s Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, told a wonderful crowd of more than 1,000 about an especially personal effort to engineer a better outcome. The winner of a MacArthur “genius grant” for her creative research at the intersection of machine learning and natural language processing, Professor Barzilay was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014.

In the months that followed, she was shocked to learn that massive amounts of data about patients and the outcomes of their treatments are severely underutilized in oncology. Desperate for facts, she set out to find them, armed with her machine learning tools.

That night in Boston, Professor Barzilay shared her dream to leverage the extraordinary promise of machine intelligence to revolutionize cancer care—to mine a treasure trove of information to identify patterns and personalize treatment. In fact, that dream is already becoming reality: she and her research team recently deployed machine learning tools to several area hospitals. I believe the technology will prove similarly transformative across disciplines and throughout society.

It is with that broader inspiration that, this winter, we launched the MIT Intelligence Quest, an Institute-wide initiative on human and machine intelligence with two parts: The Core, which will advance the science and engineering of intelligence, and The Bridge, which will provide custom-built artificial intelligence tools to researchers in any discipline who do not see themselves as AI experts.

In effect, we aim to gain a deeper understanding of human and machine intelligence, as well as to give researchers who may not have Professor Barzilay’s expertise in machine learning access to the same sophisticated toolbox.

Making a better world means repairing the one we have. By harnessing the potential of machine intelligence to attack intractable problems, the MIT Intelligence Quest offers exciting opportunities for impact.

Let the Quest begin.


L. Rafael Reif

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