Monday, August 11, 2008

A Playground for the Mind

Back in early June we had four delightful days in Cambridge, MA. It was Phil's mumbledy-fifth reunion at MIT, and the second time I've been able to be part of that stimulating company. While it's fun to see him reconnect with old friends, and to meet and appreciate them myself, one of the best part for me is what's known as Tech Day.

Every year as part of reunions and graduation weekend, Tech Day is presented by the MIT Alumni Association. On Saturday morning people file into Kresge Auditorium to hear about the latest work being done by Institute professors. The event is free and open to anyone who wants to stop in; if I lived in the area I'd be there every year.

This time the theme was, "Out of this World." After a welcome by MIT President Susan Hockfield, three professors held the audience in thrall.

First was Max Tegmark, Associate Professor of Physics, whose presentation was on Precision Cosmology. Starting from an aerial view of the auditorium where we sat, he drew us with him to outer space and the far reaches of the universe. Dr. Tegmark was an engaging speaker and illustrated his work with jaw-droppingly beautiful images and mind-bending representations of the size of the universe and our place as a tiny speck in an insignificant galaxy.

Still in space but closer to home, Dava Newman, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems was next. Dr. Newman's expertise is in human performance across the spectrum of gravity, and several of her experiments have flown on board shuttle missions and the Russian Mir space station. She is currently studying human adaptation to extreme environments including and advanced space suit design for extravehicular activity. Her BioSuit ™ won her recognition as a Best Inventor of 2007 by Time Magazine.

The final presentation began with a surprise celebrity introduction. The curtains parted and a toddler-sized creature with enormous, expressive eyes and a gentle voice rolled out to introduce her creator, Cynthia Breazeal. As Associate Professor of Media Arts and Science, Dr. Breazeal is a pioneer in social robotics and human-robot interaction. You might have seen Kismet, her appealing social robot in news stories. Her ongoing research includes developing socially intelligent robots that can interact with humans, work with people as peers, and learn from humans as apprentices.

It was only three hours out of a four-day weekend, but Tech Day alone would have been worth the trip. With such creative minds at work, I have renewed hope for the future of the human race.

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