Geek of the Week

MIT President Rafael Reif believes that tech, science and college students can change the world

MIT President Rafael Reif outside the GeekWire offices in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Can a better understanding of human intelligence make for smarter machines?

Rafael Reif thinks so. He’s an internationally renowned electrical engineer, researcher, and professor and for the past five years, he’s served as the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Reif spends a lot of his time thinking about how we better understand the world around us, and now he’s applying that perspective to artificial intelligence with MIT’s Intelligence Quest project. We spoke with Reif about the project on a recent episode of the GeekWire podcast, which you can hear in the player below.

But we wanted to know more about Reif, the man behind some of MIT’s signature initiatives from the past decade. He was born and raised in Venezuela, studied at Stanford and, as we learned, enjoys a good game of chess.

GeekWire interviewed Reif for this Geek of the Week. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

What do you do and why do you do it? “Well, I’m the MIT president. Why do I do it? Because I honestly admire and love the mission of MIT, which is not just to advance knowledge and educate students but — in our mission statement — bring that knowledge to bear on the great challenges for the benefit of humankind. Basically, just make the world better. I love that mission and I love the people of MIT. They all just believe in this mission.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “Well, let me just define the field as the job. I think many people, when they see a college president, they run the other way because they think those people are only fundraisers and that’s all they do. There is much more to it than fundraising. For instance, right now we’re facing huge changes in automation and we have to worry about their impact on society. So college presidents actually think not just about how to advance the field, how to advance knowledge, but the impact of knowledge on society and how to prepare society for it.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “MIT students. They are the best.”

What’s the one piece of technology you could not live without and why? “My smartphone! I use it all the time for everything. I mean, if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t know what to do.”

What’s your workspace like and why does it work for you? “I have a decent office, but basically, what I need is a desk, a drawer to put stuff in, a file cabinet, and a bookcase. Maybe some light and a plug to plug in my iPhone when it runs out of battery, and that’s pretty much it. I do have a few chairs for people to sit and talk to me.”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life? “I try to have a consistent daily schedule for weekdays and weekends. I try to stick to what I’m doing and focus on just that at the moment and try to forget about everything else and focus on what I’m doing at the moment.”

Mac, Windows, or Linux? Mac.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “This is embarrassing: I don’t watch TV.”

Transporter, Time Machine, or Cloak of Invisibility? “Time machine. I would love to go back and go to the future. I always think about the future and I always learn from the past.”

If someone gave me one million dollars to launch a startup, I would: “I would invest it in 10 startups by MIT students.”

I once waited in line for: “Glass pumpkins. Every year at MIT, we have a fall event around Halloween in which students and artists use our glass lab to, basically, create glass pumpkins. They put them on the grass in an area that MIT people stand in line to go and then walk around the grass and pick their pumpkins.”

Your role models: “My parents and my brothers. They showed me the way to the education that changed my life.”

Greatest game in history: “Chess. I have a chess set in my office… I don’t play that often anymore but it’s a strategic game and, to me, strategy is at the heart of a lot of what we do.”

Best gadget ever: Screwdriver

First computer: IBM PC

Current phone: iPhone

Favorite App: Dropbox

Favorite cause: These days, the foundations of our democracy.

Most important technology of 2018? I wish for virtual reality for education.

Most important technology of 2020? A cure for Alzheimer’s.


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