There’s also the strong sense that Bloomberg, who we know dabbled a bit in finance before entering politics, realizes his city’s economy has become way too reliant on Wall Street, and the outlook for those jobs has become dimmer. So this appears to be Bloomberg’s play for the future, and one in which his decision to pony up the city-owned land on Roosevelt Island and $100 million for infrastructure improvements may well prove, like so many of his investments, to have been a wise one.
When Bloomberg put the project out to bid, Stanford, with its Silicon Valley imprimatur, appeared to be the odds-on favorite. But relations between that university and the Bloomberg administration soured, creating an opening for Cornell. It didn’t hurt that Cornell is also an Ivy League school with a highly respected computer science program and that it had just received a $350 million donation from its own superstar investor, Charles Feeney, the quirky billionaire cofounder of Duty Free Shoppers who is known for wearing a $15 watch and flying coach.
Huttenlocher says that what he and Bloomberg’s team most want to create in New York is an “ecosystem” in which higher ed and the high-tech industry work together, fostering innovation. That’s what they have in Palo Alto, and it’s what we have in the Boston/Cambridge/Route 128 belt. Huttenlocher understands the competition particularly well. He logged time working in California and spent part of his childhood in the Boston area, as well as most of the ’80s, when he was earning his master’s and PhD from MIT.
When you walk around Roosevelt Island today, amid the knee-high grass and the peeling paint of that sad, ailing hospital, it’s hard to picture this place ever competing with the brain-fueled dynamism of shiny Kendall Square. Then again, it wasn’t that long ago that Kendall Square, having seen its hopes for becoming a NASA center die with President Kennedy in Dallas, looked like a wasteland. Besides, Roosevelt Island has a lot going for it, including easy subway access on the F train to a metropolis throbbing with both commerce and night life.
A less convenient, though more scenic, route to the island from Manhattan is the red gondola-style tram that runs parallel to the Queensboro Bridge. On the morning I ride it, a throng of excited preschoolers on a field trip crowds one side, pressing faces against the glass as the tram sways in the wind while drifting from the high-rises of midtown. I can’t help but wonder how much ground this Roosevelt Island campus, and New York, will have managed to cover by the time these preschoolers hit grad school.
In his office, Huttenlocher had told me that he saw MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) as an important model of excellence for what he was trying to build. So a few weeks after our meeting, I attend CSAIL’s annual meeting at MIT’s palace of forced architectural funkiness, the Stata Center.
Representatives from 40 tech and engineering powerhouse companies such as Cisco and Lockheed Martin sit in an auditorium, listening to MIT researchers serve as tour guides for the future. The focus of this session is “big data,” a growth area for Boston involving the storage and analysis of massive amounts of digital information. One presenter (the guy who dumped on that thing called Hadoop) predicts that all insurance companies will eventually tie premiums to driving-behavior data they receive from wireless devices planted in our cars. Another speaker explains that for effective treatment, heart patients will need to be monitored by EKG for hours or even days, rather than minutes. The MIT team showcases its latest and greatest ways of making all this unwieldy data somehow wieldy.
By supporting CSAIL financially and otherwise as industry partners, these companies get access to the brightest minds that can help them see around corners and perhaps eventually build their market share. They also get fascinating insights into how the world is really working — and, in some cases, not working. In his talk, veteran MIT computer science professor John Guttag offers this tidbit from his new research in the medical field: At one hospital he visited, “about a third of the lab tests are never picked up by the physicians who ordered them.”
Later, I catch up to Guttag in his office to hear more. It’s not that the doctors are lazy or purposely wasteful, he says. It’s more that they suffer from information overload. Based on the vast amount of data that is now available but too “messy” to allow for sound interpretation, Guttag offers a surprising prediction: “Computer science is going to have more of an impact on medicine in the next two decades than biology.”Continued...