In November 2019 LIDS marked its 80th anniversary with LIDS@80: A Celebration — a two-day event that explored the past, present, and future of the information and decision sciences.
Welcoming over 400 people from around the world, LIDS@80 brought togeth- er LIDS alumni and students, members of the MIT community, friends of the lab from academia, government, and industry, and many others working in the field. Together with an impressive set of speakers, the celebration was an inspiring reminder of the lab’s tremendous history and impact, as well as the many ways LIDS is poised to continue leading the field.
The LIDS@80 technical program consisted of four sessions: Systems, Optimization, and Control; Communications, Information Theory, and Networks; From Data to Inference and Machine Learning; and Transitions. The event also held a strong focus on community, providing opportunities for connection between current students and alumni, as well as honoring major figures in the lab’s history, and the field: Michael Athans (in absentia), Dimitri Bertsekas, G. David Forney, Jr., Robert Gallager, Sanjoy Mitter, and Alan Willsky.
“This is really a tremendous opportunity to celebrate the LIDS community and its rich technical accomplishments,” said Anantha Chandrasakan, Dean of the MIT School of Engineering, as part of the event’s opening remarks. “It is also a great opportunity to look forward to the amazing innovations expected from the LIDS community.”
These sentiments were echoed by Dean Dan Huttenlocher of the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, which LIDS joined in January 2020. “With regards to LIDS and the intellectual fabric of the world today I think the time couldn’t be more exciting,” said Huttenlocher, whose vision for the lab’s future is expansive: “If you think about what’s on the horizon for automated decision making, the breadth of real-world impact of the kind of work that goes on in LIDS is, I think, unprecedented in the 80-year history of the lab.”
Launched in 1940, LIDS was originally called the Servomechanisms Laboratory. Much of the lab’s early work centered on WWII and post-war military applications including the celebrated Whirlwind Project, which contributed to the development of ran- dom access, magnetic core memory. The ensuing decades saw continued pioneering work in theory, education, and research, including major advances in feedback control, ground-breaking contributions to modern control theory and robust control, and the publication of landmark textbooks, such as Optimal Control (Athans and Falb), The Analysis of Feedback Systems (Willems), and Neurodynamic Programming (Bertsekas and Tsitsiklis). These decades also saw two more name changes for the lab, each reflecting a broadening of the LIDS research agenda to meet the needs of the time: The lab became the Electronic Systems Laboratory in 1959 and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems in 1978.
LIDS director John Tsitsiklis (EECS) highlighted these key moments and drivers of the lab’s evolution in his remarks, noting that LIDS research, though deeply theoretical, often finds its inspiration in real-world challenges. He described this combination of theory and application, and its frequently cross-cutting — sometimes unexpected — impact, as the “magic” of LIDS research. Elegant models, he explained, “have this property that many many years after they are developed they end up getting used in contexts that you would never have imagined when you first worked on them.”
This timeless quality of the research and advances produced by LIDS emerged as a theme of the event, with presenters highlighting the lab’s significant influence across a wide range of fields, including the evolution of modern communication networks, the algorithms that drive autonomous vehicles and on-line rec- ommendation systems, the development of digital computing, advances in mapping gene regulatory networks, and much more.
“LIDS has been around for eighty years because it reinvents itself as opportunities emerge over time, maintaining rigor, but continuing to look at where the applications are and how we can make a difference,” said IDSS director, former interim LIDS director, and long-time LIDS faculty member Munther Dahleh (EECS).
This capacity for reinvention was viewed as further testament to the power of LIDS-style thinking — an approach that does not produce traditional deliverables, but rather “foundational research and the next generation of leaders in the field.” Asu Ozdaglar, a former LIDS director and current EECS department head, spoke of this idea in her presentation, noting that LIDS students are not just getting a degree, but are “learning tools that allow them to apply [their knowledge] to whatever problem they find interesting in a systematic and insightful way.”
The lab’s enduring success was also credited to the character and cohesiveness of the LIDS community — another theme celebrated throughout the event by both speakers and attendees. Many expressed heartfelt appreciation of the lab’s welcoming spirit, intellectual freedom, and deeply accomplished and generous community. G. David Forney, an event honoree, mentioned this in his remarks, calling LIDS “a high-powered place” but also “a kind and gentle place.” Prof. Caroline Uhler (EECS), who joined MIT and LIDS in 2015, offered a similar reflection when describing her first impressions of the lab: “Just being in LIDS you could really feel what a supportive place it is, which allows you to do the best research you could possibly do.”
These ideas were also emphasized by long-time faculty members Alan Willsky, a former LIDS director and event honoree, and Tsitsiklis, who is also a LIDS alum. “LIDS is an amazing place,” said Willsky, “where seminal contributions are produced at a staggering clip from an extraordinary set of people — demonstrating clearly what a small intellectually cohesive lab can do.” Tsitsiklis, drawing on decades of experience in the lab, put this thought even more succinctly: “The best deliverable LIDS has created is the people in this room, and our community. That’s the most important product of the lab.”
Please visit the event's website for additional event photos, videos, and more.