Michael Bernstein

Michael Bernstein
Photo: Jason Dorfman, CSAIL photographer

Where did you grow up:

I grew up in the sunny suburbia of Irvine, California. Its greatest accomplishment (in my high school mind) was that it housed Blizzard, the makers of Warcraft and Starcraft. It also meant that I got to go to Disneyland a lot as a kid.

What was your academic path before coming to grad school at MIT?

I did my undergraduate degree in Symbolic Systems at Stanford University. Symbolic Systems was a fantastic deal: It let me take all the upper-division coursework in human-computer interaction that I wanted, then supplemented it with lots of computer science and healthy doses of psychology, philosophy, and linguistics. I had originally thought that my path was decidedly nonstandard for a CS PhD, but I'm seeing more and more people like me, so let's chalk this up to a rising tide.

What did you want to be when you were younger? Is that still an interest of yours?

For a while, I was set on designing video games for a living. I had the chance to intern at a video game studio the summer after my freshman year in college. I learned there that the business is driven by technical folks, not by designers. That drove me to bone up my technical side. Working in games is still a feverish side interest, but research is at least as much fun.

What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?

I sing. I've recorded and mixed album tracks, taken years of voice lessons, and am a nonstop hallway singer. It's an odd alternate life path I could have taken: Some of the folks I sang with in high school work for Disney, have been on Broadway or are making their own way in showbiz now.

What department are you currently working in, and when did you start there?

I started in EECS in 2006, right out of undergrad.

What are you working on and why are you passionate about it?

My focus is human-computer interaction: developing new ways for people to interact with technology. I imagine it a bit like human augmentation: What kinds of new powers and abilities can we develop for technology users? What kinds of changes to computing technology do we need in order to make those abilities happen? Now, I'm working on crowd-powered interfaces, which are interfaces that motivate and embed human activity to support interactive applications. I think it's going to be critical for our computing systems to understand that there are millions of other people using them, and that they can leverage those millions of others into a more powerful experience for you.

What is your favorite thing about working at CSAIL?

I love being embedded in a top-notch computer science environment. My research subfield is inherently interdisciplinary, and I've learned that it can be very helpful to ground myself in a particular disciplinary perspective during graduate school. Applying an interdisciplinary undergraduate worldview to an EECS graduate program is really powerful.

What effect do you think your area of work will have on the world in the next decade?

I think that computer science and social computing will intersect to re-invent some of the most cherished interfaces we know. What if your operating system really, deeply, understood that millions of others had tried to open that file the same mistaken way that you just did? Or, what if crowds of humans stood behind menu commands in your word processor or image manipulation software?

What are your future plans?

I'll be applying for jobs soon. I love the freedom that academia has granted to my research agenda, so I'll be focusing on academic positions and the more academically-oriented industrial labs.

What advice would you give a prospective CSAIL graduate student?

Honestly, the first year can be tough -- this is true of all EECS graduate programs, not just MIT's. MIT's goal in the first year is to take people with radically different experiences and shape them all to be graduate-level computer scientists. This can be painful, but I can't tell you how helpful it has been to me for the rest of my graduate career.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

Speaking as a Southern Californian, Boston winters are nowhere near as bad as they make you believe.