• A view from the ninth floor of the Stata Center.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • Aaron Edsinger, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, demonstrates some of the robot research going on in the Stata Center.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • Professor Anant Agarwal, associate director of CSAIL, demonstrates another piece of Stata Center research: a 1,020-node microphone array utilizing the RAW tile parallel processor architecture for computation. The device is designed to make a clean recording of speech in computing environments characterized by much noise and crosstalk.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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Digital tools went into it; innovation will come out

MIT celebrates Stata Center

Two events to celebrate the opening of the Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences offered different perspectives on designing, constructing and using the new building.

Stata Center architect Frank Gehry and four MIT researchers now working in the new building addressed the media and the MIT community on Wednesday, May 5. The following day, members of Gehry's office joined the construction manager from Skanksa USA to discuss the role of digital technology in the building process.

Gehry described the cultural questions that his Stata design addressed, as well as his own design process. "Cars, TV and computers all tend to alienate people, and there is a yearning in any building for a sense of community. So we needed to create a space where collisions between people occurred by accident," he said, noting with special pride the Student Street, the village center on the fourth floor and the sun-washed steps of the Dertouzos amphitheater.

Gehry's design process balanced an "intuitive" approach for the building itself with a deliberate sense of place among its neighbors, he said. To appreciate this, he suggested the audience go outside, gaze north to see the "collage of buildings" there, then turn and face the Stata Center--another collage of shapes that offers similar visual intrigue.

But don't let the layering of forms in Stata leave the impression of hopeless complexity, he warned. "It's simply two C-shaped buildings with a communal thing in the middle. Inside, the natural light makes the same areas seem different at various times of day. There's nothing precious in it. If the yellow thing no longer serves, they could tear it down and put another piece there," Gehry said.

Four MIT researchers gave visitors an insiders' view of research already underway inside the Stata Center. Professor John V. Guttag, head of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), contrasted the costs of health care (rising) and of semiconductors (falling) to set up a question that drives his research. Improved medical software will make diagnoses more accurate and eventually make health care itself less expensive, he said.

Tim Berners-Lee, senior research scientist in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), is popularly known as the father of the World Wide Web. As a huge slide displayed his first drawing of the web, known in 1989 as "The Mesh," he discussed new frontiers in connectivity, or "getting applications to understand each other so your digital camera's idea of time of day is the same as your calendar's," he said.

Professor Alec Marantz, head of linguistics and philosophy, summarized current research on how the brain uses language and described how linguists use diagnostic technology such as magnetoencephalography to discern which areas of the human brain are activated by certain words.

Victor Zue, professor of EECS and co-director of CSAIL, focuses on how to get computers to understand language, how to get them to behave in a natural, intuitive human way and how to integrate speech recognition with recognition of gestural and expressive cues. He demonstrated a new bilingual speech recognition program, a voice-activated mapping program (it found Boston museums by spoken request), and a woman's face on a screen perkily delivering flight information and weather news.

Provost Robert Brown, CSAIL co-director Rodney Brooks and Professor William J. Mitchell, head of media arts and sciences and architectural advisor to President Vest, also gave introductory remarks at Wednesday's events.

On Thursday, seven key managers of the Stata Center project described how the latest digital technologies were key to the building's design and construction but also noted that pen, paper and personal interactions were still vital.

"We got into this with the full intent of making it a paperless project," said Ron Lee of John A. Martin & Associates, but software limitations and human nature got in the way. For example, he found it more efficient to review some designs on paper rather than using their corresponding 3-D models alone. The latter remained important, however, "to see more complicated connections."

Paul Hewins, the construction manager from Skanska USA, said he started the project "open to coming at it from a different perspective," but knew that convincing colleagues might be challenging. "I can't tell you how many times in my career I've heard, 'That's the way we've done it for 20 years and that's how we're going to continue to do it.'" But he added it was clear that business as usual wasn't going to work for the Stata Center.

Computer literacy also affected use of the technology. When the project began, one contractor didn't yet have e-mail.

Marc Salette of Gehry Partners ex-plained how his team developed physical models of the building, collected 3-D data on those models and put that information into forms a computer could use. The resulting computer models allowed the designers to simulate shadows, daylight and room acoustics and also to show how the building would respond to high winds.

"This building itself is an experiment," said Jim Glymph of Gehry Partners. "The people brought together to build and design it are all pioneers."

At the luncheon following Thursday morning's session, President Charles M. Vest described an incident early in the construction process. He was touring the work site when several members of the construction crew came up to him.

"We want you to know something," they told Vest. "Every one of us was working on another job in Boston when [Stata was first announced], but we knew that something important was going on at MIT so we dropped everything and knocked on the door to work here."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 12, 2004 (download PDF).

Topics: Campus buildings and architecture, Special events and guest speakers


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