Computer scientists explain what they do, in very simple words

In honor of the recent bestseller “Thing Explainer,” CSAIL researchers describe what they study using only the 1000 most common English words
In honor of the recent bestseller “Thing Explainer,” CSAIL researchers describe what they study using only the 1000 most common English words

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This fall xkcd web cartoonist Randall Munroe published “Thing Explainer,” a book that explains the mechanics behind concepts like smartphones and nuclear reactors using only the English language’s 1,000 most commonly used words. (Well, technically, “ten hundred” - the word “thousand” isn’t on the list.)

Inspired by Munroe, here are some of the top researchers from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab taking on the same task of explaining what they study at MIT. (Try your own

Jim Glass
Humans don't have much trouble using, learning and understanding spoken words, but computers do. I study the way we humans speak and hear words, and take what I know from that to make computers be able to do the same, so that they can help us do things. When you speak to your phone to ask it for directions, that is because of people like me who put stuff into the phone that allow it to understand what you say.


Julie Shah
I work with moving-computers that do things to help humans, like make cars and other goods. In the past people who study moving-computers could only get
them to do simple things, but now they can do much more, and so I study how to get humans and moving-computers to work together to do these things in ways that are better, faster and safer.


Srini Devadas
I am interested in building computers that
keep stored bits safe. I do this by carefully building doors in the computer that need to be opened in order to read or write the bits. The only person who can open any of the doors is the computer's owner and the owner always closes doors after he or she opens them.


Erik Demaine
If you put lines on a piece of paper, and move the paper between the lines, you can change the paper into beautiful things. We use computers to figure out where to put the lines on the paper to make exactly the thing we want. Although the lines are more than a human can imagine, we still move the paper by hand.


Adam Chlipala
I work on ways to show a computer that another computer does the right thing. The reason must be explained in very small, simple steps. The first computer can check the reason very well, and we learn that there is probably not a problem in the second computer.


Daniela Rus
I build moving-computers that help people in different ways. I have made moving-computers that can build chairs, go under the water, change into different forms, and even make food! Using computers is like having powers, and I use these powers to try to make the world a better place.


David Karger
I build computer things that help people find, read, learn and understand all sorts of stuff, like pictures, stories, ideas and numbers. People want to do interesting things with this stuff, but sometimes computers make it too hard or don't let them do it at all. I try to build things that make everyone as good at working with their stuff as we computer people are.


Polina Golland
I use pictures that look inside our bodies and brains to learn hidden things that cannot be seen with the human eye. I use computers to study lots of pictures together to understand how sick people are different from people who are well, and help doctors to see what is wrong with someone and how to best fix it.