South scientist brings the future to the present

By Jacqueline Liao

Photo Reproduced by Dr. Alex Wissner-Gross
Photo Reproduced by Dr. Alex Wissner-Gross

When Dr. Alex Wissner-Gross was 18 months old, his family visited a science museum in Switzerland. After a long day of work, the museum workers were ready to turn off the lights and shut the museum down for the day. But Wissner-Gross had other plans. “I cried when the curator tried to close the museum,” Wissner-Gross recalled. “I forced the museum to stay open late just for me.”
This experience was just the beginning of a long journey of scientific achievement and distinction for Wissner-Gross, who graduated from South High in 1999 as the valedictorian of his class of 225. With 20 patents, 15 scientific publications, and 4 technology companies under his belt, he lists completing a triple major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while graduating at the top of his class in engineering as one of his proudest accomplishments. “I also gave a TED Talk on intelligence that has been viewed on YouTube over a million times,” he added.
Wissner-Gross describes his time at South as “enormously influential.” “South started a research program while I was there, getting me local institutional support for pursuing research areas that interested me,” said Wissner-Gross, who was an Intel Science Talent Search finalist and a member of the US Olympic team at the International Olympic in Informatics (IOI) during high school. Furthermore, he completed many courses at South that helped him get a head start. “I took my first AP subject, AP Computer Science, in seventh grade. The school’s support was enormously helpful for me because I had outside teachers for courses that normally wouldn’t be available at a high school level.”
The summer after his senior year of high school, Wissner-Gross applied for a patent that was granted to him two and a half years later. The patent, which deals with his work in robotics technology, was granted for his discovery of fluids that can “manipulate particles and bridge patterns that could be potentially used in the application of material science.” Wissner-Gross said, “I think the patent number was 621631.”
“Since, I have been issued many more patents, but I think I will always be proudest of the first,” he added.
Currently, Wissner-Gross is working on a couple of projects as an Institute Fellow at the Harvard University Institute for Applied Computational Science and as a Research Affiliate at the MIT Media Laboratory.
“Most of my research right now is focused on the future of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.),” Wissner-Gross said. “I think there are many opportunities to take principles from outside A.I., such as physical principles, to move the field of Artifical Intelligence forward even more quickly.” His projects have kept him very busy. He “doesn’t really have hobbies unless you count staying up on current technology and research.”
In the future, Wissner-Gross plans to focus his research on technological singularity, a hypothetical field of science that deals with machines that are smarter than humans. “It’s a foundational technology because you only have to do it once,” Wissner-Gross explained. “Once you do it, you will be able to speed up all other forms of technological development. People predict that this will happen 40 or 50 years in the future, and my goal is to bring technological singularity as friendly and as quickly as possible.”
Ultimately, Wissner-Gross has no plans to stop changing the world. “I’m changing the way intelligence is viewed. I’ve done all sorts of interesting work in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, biology, chemistry, material science, and mathematics. My goal is to bring the future closer faster, and I’m doing exactly that.”