David A. Mindell, an historian and electrical engineer, is Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. From 2005-2011 he was director of MIT’s Program on Science, Technology, and Society (STS), an interdisciplinary department. He is an expert on human/machine relationships in broad technical, social, and historical context.
Mindell’s current research examines human/machine relationships in extreme environments, including human spaceflight, military robotics, undersea exploration, aviation, and surgery, with the goal of understanding the fundamental phenomena at work in complex socio-technical systems. This is the subject of the new book, Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy published by Viking/Penguin in October, 2015.
For the past fifteen years, Mindell has been combining engineering and historical research into the evolution humans’ relationships to machines. His previous book, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight (MIT Press, 2008) examined the computers, automation, and software in the Apollo moon landings their effects on human performance and won the Gardner Lasser award from the American institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The recent white paper, “The Future of Human Spaceflight,” showed how clarifying the human role in space exploration has national policy implications. Mindell’s previous book, Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics (Johns Hopkins, 2002) rewrote at the history of computing through the lens of human/machine interaction. His first book, War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor (Johns Hopkins, 2000) explored personal and professional dimensions of mechanization in the U.S. Civil War and was awarded the Sally Hacker Prize by the Society for the History of Technology. It was recently updated and reissued as Iron Coffin (2012).
Mindell’s engineering work has been primarily in the field of deep ocean robotics and archaeology. He is founder and director of MIT’s “DeepArch” research group in technology, archaeology, and the deep sea. Before coming to MIT Mindell worked as a research engineer in the Deep Submergence Laboratory of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he is currently a Visiting Investigator. There he conducted research in parallel distributed control systems for remotely-operated and autonomous underwater vehicles for exploring the deepest parts of the ocean. He developed the control system and pilot interface for Woods Hole’s JASON vehicle, as well as its high-frequency acoustic navigation system, called SHARPS II, which has been licensed for commercial production by Marine Sonic Technology Ltd. (Gloucester, Virginia). Mindell has participated in over twenty-five oceanographic cruises, including expeditions to hydrothermal vents, Guadalcanal, the Lusitania, the Yorktown, Carthaginian and Phoenician shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea. He is co-leading a 10-year collaborative project with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Greek Ministry of Culture to explore the deep Aegean Sea for ancient and bronze-age shipwrecks using autonomous underwater vehicles. He recently served a five-month stint as Planning Coordinator for Woods Hole’s new Center for Marine Robotics.
At MIT, Mindell teaches courses that combine engineering and the history of technology, including a doctoral seminar in engineering systems. He teaches “Engineering Apollo: The Moon Project as a Complex System,” which integrates technical, political, and operational perspectives on the history of space exploration.
He has degrees in Literature and in Electrical Engineering from Yale University, and a doctorate in the history of technology from MIT. He is a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and a Fellow of the Explorer’s Club of New York City.