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Roots of the Quest

The Roots of the MIT Quest for Intelligence

The MIT Quest for Intelligence is a campus-wide initiative launched in 2018. It is a quest for understanding intelligence – how brains produce it and how it can be replicated in artificial systems to address real world problems that are beyond current artificial machine capabilities. The MIT Quest approaches this as a single grand challenge requiring the organized, collaborative efforts of science, engineering, the humanities and beyond.

The Quest has its roots in two events. First, in 2013, the National Science Foundation awarded long-term funding to a group of faculty from multiple MIT schools and departments, together with colleagues in other Universities, for a Science and Technology Center, named the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines (CBMM). CBMM nucleated out of a small “Intelligence initiative” sponsored by then MIT Provost, Rafael Reif in 2011. CBMM’s ambitious mission, led by Director Tomaso Poggio, was to understand intelligence–how the brain makes the mind, how brain circuits learn and compute, and how intelligence might be replicated in machines. NSF’s support of this mission had a major impact on research and education at MIT and thus paved the way for the Quest.

Second, in 2017, MIT and IBM established the MIT-IBM Watson AI Laboratory, newly lead by Aude Oliva as MIT Director. This collaboration further accelerated intelligence research at MIT, with the technology goal of applying those advances to make positive real-world impact.


With broad faculty interest and industry support, the Quest was launched as a campus-level initiative with Antonio Torralba as its inaugural Director. From its start, the Quest sought to deepen progress made in neuroscience (brains), cognitive science (minds), and computer science and robotics (machines) to secure the future of ongoing efforts. In January 2020, the Quest joined the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, itself launched in 2019.  With the launch of the College, Antonio Torralba stepped down as Director to become head of a newly created academic unit, and BCS Department Head Jim DiCarlo was tapped to serve as Director of the Quest.

colorful image of the brain