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    MIT welcomes nine MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars for 2023-24

    Established in 1990, the MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars Program at MIT welcomes outstanding scholars to the Institute for visiting appointments. MIT aspires to attract candidates who are, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “trailblazers in human, academic, scientific and religious freedom.” The program honors King’s life and legacy by expanding and extending the reach of our community. 

    The MLK Scholars Program has welcomed more than 140 professors, practitioners, and professionals at the forefront of their respective fields to MIT. They contribute to the growth and enrichment of the community through their interactions with students, staff, and faculty. They pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy of service and social justice, and they embody MIT’s values: excellence and curiosity, openness and respect, and belonging and community.  

    Each new cohort of scholars actively participates in community engagement and supports MIT’s mission of “advancing knowledge and educating students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.” 

    The 2023-2024 MLK Scholars:

    Tawanna Dillahunt is an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information with a joint appointment in their electrical engineering and computer science department. She is joining MIT at the end of a one-year visiting appointment as a Harvard Radcliffe Fellow. Her faculty hosts at the Institute are Catherine D’Ignazio in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Fotini Christia in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Dillahunt’s research focuses on equitable and inclusive computing. During her appointment, she will host a podcast to explore ethical and socially responsible ways to engage with communities, with a special emphasis on technology. 

    Kwabena Donkor is an assistant professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business; he is hosted by Dean Eckles, an associate professor of marketing at MIT Sloan School of Management. Donkor’s work bridges economics, psychology, and marketing. His scholarship combines insights from behavioral economics with data and field experiments to study social norms, identity, and how these constructs interact with policy in the marketplace.

    Denise Frazier joins MIT from Tulane University, where she is an assistant director in the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South. She is a researcher and performer and brings a unique interdisciplinary approach to her work at the intersection of cultural studies, environmental justice, and music. Frazier is hosted by Christine Ortiz, the Morris Cohen Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. 

    Wasalu Jaco, an accomplished performer and artist, is renewing his appointment at MIT for a second year; he is hosted jointly by Nick Montfort, a professor of digital media in the Comparative Media Studies Program/Writing, and Mary Fuller, a professor in the Literature Section and the current chair of the MIT faculty. In his second year, Jaco will work on Cyber/Cypher Rapper, a research project to develop a computational system that participates in responsive and improvisational rap.

    Morgane Konig first joined the Center for Theoretical Physics at MIT in December 2021 as a postdoc. Now a member of the 2023–24 MLK Visiting Scholars Program cohort, she will deepen her ties with scholars and research groups working in cosmology, primarily on early-universe inflation and late-universe signatures that could enable the scientific community to learn more about the mysterious nature of dark matter and dark energy. Her faculty hosts are David Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and professor of physics, and Alan Guth, the Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics, both from the Department of Physics.

    The former minister of culture for Colombia and a transformational leader dedicated to environmental protection, Angelica Mayolo-Obregon joins MIT from Buenaventura, Colombia. During her time at MIT, she will serve as an advisor and guest speaker, and help MIT facilitate gatherings of environmental leaders committed to addressing climate action and conserving biodiversity across the Americas, with a special emphasis on Afro-descendant communities. Mayolo-Obregon is hosted by John Fernandez, a professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture and director of MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative, and by J. Phillip Thompson, an associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (and a former MLK Scholar).

    Jean-Luc Pierite is a member of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana and the president of the board of directors of North American Indian Center of Boston. While at MIT, Pierite will build connections between MIT and the local Indigenous communities. His research focuses on enhancing climate resilience planning by infusing Indigenous knowledge and ecological practices into scientific and other disciplines. His faculty host is Janelle Knox-Hayes, the Lister Brothers Professor of Economic Geography and Planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

    Christine Taylor-Butler ’81 is a children’s book author who has written over 90 books; she is hosted by Graham Jones, an associate professor of anthropology. An advocate for literacy and STEAM education in underserved urban and rural schools, Taylor-Butler will partner with community organizations in the Boston area. She is also completing the fourth installment of her middle-grade series, “The Lost Tribe.” These books follow a team of five kids as they use science and technology to crack codes and solve mysteries.

    Angelino Viceisza, a professor of economics at Spelman College, joins MIT Sloan as an MLK Visiting Professor and the Phyllis Wallace Visiting Professor; he is hosted by Robert Gibbons, Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management, and Ray Reagans, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Management, professor of organization studies, and associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at MIT Sloan. Viceisza has strong, ongoing connections with MIT. His research focuses on remittances, retirement, and household finance in low-income countries and is relevant to public finance and financial economics, as well as the development and organizational economics communities at MIT. 

    Javit Drake, Moriba Jah, and Louis Massiah, members of last year’s cohort of MLK Scholars, will remain at MIT through the end of 2023.

    There are multiple opportunities throughout the year to meet our MLK Visiting Scholars and learn more about their research projects and their social impact. 

    For more information about the MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars Program and upcoming events, visit the website. More

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    Improving US air quality, equitably

    Decarbonization of national economies will be key to achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050, a major stepping stone to the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (and ideally 1.5 C), and thereby averting the worst consequences of climate change. Toward that end, the United States has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, backed by its implementation of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. This strategy is consistent with a 50-percent reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) by the end of the decade.

    If U.S. federal carbon policy is successful, the nation’s overall air quality will also improve. Cutting CO2 emissions reduces atmospheric concentrations of air pollutants that lead to the formation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which causes more than 200,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. But an average nationwide improvement in air quality will not be felt equally; air pollution exposure disproportionately harms people of color and lower-income populations.

    How effective are current federal decarbonization policies in reducing U.S. racial and economic disparities in PM2.5 exposure, and what changes will be needed to improve their performance? To answer that question, researchers at MIT and Stanford University recently evaluated a range of policies which, like current U.S. federal carbon policies, reduce economy-wide CO2 emissions by 40-60 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Their findings appear in an open-access article in the journal Nature Communications.

    First, they show that a carbon-pricing policy, while effective in reducing PM2.5 exposure for all racial/ethnic groups, does not significantly mitigate relative disparities in exposure. On average, the white population undergoes far less exposure than Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations. This policy does little to reduce exposure disparities because the CO2 emissions reductions that it achieves primarily occur in the coal-fired electricity sector. Other sectors, such as industry and heavy-duty diesel transportation, contribute far more PM2.5-related emissions.

    The researchers then examine thousands of different reduction options through an optimization approach to identify whether any possible combination of carbon dioxide reductions in the range of 40-60 percent can mitigate disparities. They find that that no policy scenario aligned with current U.S. carbon dioxide emissions targets is likely to significantly reduce current PM2.5 exposure disparities.

    “Policies that address only about 50 percent of CO2 emissions leave many polluting sources in place, and those that prioritize reductions for minorities tend to benefit the entire population,” says Noelle Selin, supervising author of the study and a professor at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “This means that a large range of policies that reduce CO2 can improve air quality overall, but can’t address long-standing inequities in air pollution exposure.”

    So if climate policy alone cannot adequately achieve equitable air quality results, what viable options remain? The researchers suggest that more ambitious carbon policies could narrow racial and economic PM2.5 exposure disparities in the long term, but not within the next decade. To make a near-term difference, they recommend interventions designed to reduce PM2.5 emissions resulting from non-CO2 sources, ideally at the economic sector or community level.

    “Achieving improved PM2.5 exposure for populations that are disproportionately exposed across the United States will require thinking that goes beyond current CO2 policy strategies, most likely involving large-scale structural changes,” says Selin. “This could involve changes in local and regional transportation and housing planning, together with accelerated efforts towards decarbonization.” More

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    From physics to generative AI: An AI model for advanced pattern generation

    Generative AI, which is currently riding a crest of popular discourse, promises a world where the simple transforms into the complex — where a simple distribution evolves into intricate patterns of images, sounds, or text, rendering the artificial startlingly real. 

    The realms of imagination no longer remain as mere abstractions, as researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have brought an innovative AI model to life. Their new technology integrates two seemingly unrelated physical laws that underpin the best-performing generative models to date: diffusion, which typically illustrates the random motion of elements, like heat permeating a room or a gas expanding into space, and Poisson Flow, which draws on the principles governing the activity of electric charges.

    This harmonious blend has resulted in superior performance in generating new images, outpacing existing state-of-the-art models. Since its inception, the “Poisson Flow Generative Model ++” (PFGM++) has found potential applications in various fields, from antibody and RNA sequence generation to audio production and graph generation.

    The model can generate complex patterns, like creating realistic images or mimicking real-world processes. PFGM++ builds off of PFGM, the team’s work from the prior year. PFGM takes inspiration from the means behind the mathematical equation known as the “Poisson” equation, and then applies it to the data the model tries to learn from. To do this, the team used a clever trick: They added an extra dimension to their model’s “space,” kind of like going from a 2D sketch to a 3D model. This extra dimension gives more room for maneuvering, places the data in a larger context, and helps one approach the data from all directions when generating new samples. 

    “PFGM++ is an example of the kinds of AI advances that can be driven through interdisciplinary collaborations between physicists and computer scientists,” says Jesse Thaler, theoretical particle physicist in MIT’s Laboratory for Nuclear Science’s Center for Theoretical Physics and director of the National Science Foundation’s AI Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions (NSF AI IAIFI), who was not involved in the work. “In recent years, AI-based generative models have yielded numerous eye-popping results, from photorealistic images to lucid streams of text. Remarkably, some of the most powerful generative models are grounded in time-tested concepts from physics, such as symmetries and thermodynamics. PFGM++ takes a century-old idea from fundamental physics — that there might be extra dimensions of space-time — and turns it into a powerful and robust tool to generate synthetic but realistic datasets. I’m thrilled to see the myriad of ways ‘physics intelligence’ is transforming the field of artificial intelligence.”

    The underlying mechanism of PFGM isn’t as complex as it might sound. The researchers compared the data points to tiny electric charges placed on a flat plane in a dimensionally expanded world. These charges produce an “electric field,” with the charges looking to move upwards along the field lines into an extra dimension and consequently forming a uniform distribution on a vast imaginary hemisphere. The generation process is like rewinding a videotape: starting with a uniformly distributed set of charges on the hemisphere and tracking their journey back to the flat plane along the electric lines, they align to match the original data distribution. This intriguing process allows the neural model to learn the electric field, and generate new data that mirrors the original. 

    The PFGM++ model extends the electric field in PFGM to an intricate, higher-dimensional framework. When you keep expanding these dimensions, something unexpected happens — the model starts resembling another important class of models, the diffusion models. This work is all about finding the right balance. The PFGM and diffusion models sit at opposite ends of a spectrum: one is robust but complex to handle, the other simpler but less sturdy. The PFGM++ model offers a sweet spot, striking a balance between robustness and ease of use. This innovation paves the way for more efficient image and pattern generation, marking a significant step forward in technology. Along with adjustable dimensions, the researchers proposed a new training method that enables more efficient learning of the electric field. 

    To bring this theory to life, the team resolved a pair of differential equations detailing these charges’ motion within the electric field. They evaluated the performance using the Frechet Inception Distance (FID) score, a widely accepted metric that assesses the quality of images generated by the model in comparison to the real ones. PFGM++ further showcases a higher resistance to errors and robustness toward the step size in the differential equations.

    Looking ahead, they aim to refine certain aspects of the model, particularly in systematic ways to identify the “sweet spot” value of D tailored for specific data, architectures, and tasks by analyzing the behavior of estimation errors of neural networks. They also plan to apply the PFGM++ to the modern large-scale text-to-image/text-to-video generation.

    “Diffusion models have become a critical driving force behind the revolution in generative AI,” says Yang Song, research scientist at OpenAI. “PFGM++ presents a powerful generalization of diffusion models, allowing users to generate higher-quality images by improving the robustness of image generation against perturbations and learning errors. Furthermore, PFGM++ uncovers a surprising connection between electrostatics and diffusion models, providing new theoretical insights into diffusion model research.”

    “Poisson Flow Generative Models do not only rely on an elegant physics-inspired formulation based on electrostatics, but they also offer state-of-the-art generative modeling performance in practice,” says NVIDIA Senior Research Scientist Karsten Kreis, who was not involved in the work. “They even outperform the popular diffusion models, which currently dominate the literature. This makes them a very powerful generative modeling tool, and I envision their application in diverse areas, ranging from digital content creation to generative drug discovery. More generally, I believe that the exploration of further physics-inspired generative modeling frameworks holds great promise for the future and that Poisson Flow Generative Models are only the beginning.”

    Authors on a paper about this work include three MIT graduate students: Yilun Xu of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and CSAIL, Ziming Liu of the Department of Physics and the NSF AI IAIFI, and Shangyuan Tong of EECS and CSAIL, as well as Google Senior Research Scientist Yonglong Tian PhD ’23. MIT professors Max Tegmark and Tommi Jaakkola advised the research.

    The team was supported by the MIT-DSTA Singapore collaboration, the MIT-IBM Grand Challenge project, National Science Foundation grants, The Casey and Family Foundation, the Foundational Questions Institute, the Rothberg Family Fund for Cognitive Science, and the ML for Pharmaceutical Discovery and Synthesis Consortium. Their work was presented at the International Conference on Machine Learning this summer. More

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    3 Questions: A new PhD program from the Center for Computational Science and Engineering

    This fall, the Center for Computational Science and Engineering (CCSE), an academic unit in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, is introducing a new standalone PhD degree program that will enable students to pursue research in cross-cutting methodological aspects of computational science and engineering. The launch follows approval of the center’s degree program proposal at the May 2023 Institute faculty meeting.

    Doctoral-level graduate study in computational science and engineering (CSE) at MIT has, for the past decade, been offered through an interdisciplinary program in which CSE students are admitted to one of eight participating academic departments in the School of Engineering or School of Science. While this model adds a strong disciplinary component to students’ education, the rapid growth of the CSE field and the establishment of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing have prompted an exciting expansion of MIT’s graduate-level offerings in computation.

    The new degree, offered by the college, will run alongside MIT’s existing interdisciplinary offerings in CSE, complementing these doctoral training programs and preparing students to contribute to the leading edge of the field. Here, CCSE co-directors Youssef Marzouk and Nicolas Hadjiconstantinou discuss the standalone program and how they expect it to elevate the visibility and impact of CSE research and education at MIT.

    Q: What is computational science and engineering?

    Marzouk: Computational science and engineering focuses on the development and analysis of state-of-the-art methods for computation and their innovative application to problems of science and engineering interest. It has intellectual foundations in applied mathematics, statistics, and computer science, and touches the full range of science and engineering disciplines. Yet, it synthesizes these foundations into a discipline of its own — one that links the digital and physical worlds. It’s an exciting and evolving multidisciplinary field.

    Hadjiconstantinou: Examples of CSE research happening at MIT include modeling and simulation techniques, the underlying computational mathematics, and data-driven modeling of physical systems. Computational statistics and scientific machine learning have become prominent threads within CSE, joining high-performance computing, mathematically-oriented programming languages, and their broader links to algorithms and software. Application domains include energy, environment and climate, materials, health, transportation, autonomy, and aerospace, among others. Some of our researchers focus on general and widely applicable methodology, while others choose to focus on methods and algorithms motivated by a specific domain of application.

    Q: What was the motivation behind creating a standalone PhD program?

    Marzouk: The new degree focuses on a particular class of students whose background and interests are primarily in CSE methodology, in a manner that cuts across the disciplinary research structure represented by our current “with-departments” degree program. There is a strong research demand for such methodologically-focused students among CCSE faculty and MIT faculty in general. Our objective is to create a targeted, coherent degree program in this field that, alongside our other thriving CSE offerings, will create the leading environment for top CSE students worldwide.

    Hadjiconstantinou: One of CCSE’s most important functions is to recruit exceptional students who are trained in and want to work in computational science and engineering. Experience with our CSE master’s program suggests that students with a strong background and interests in the discipline prefer to apply to a pure CSE program for their graduate studies. The standalone degree aims to bring these students to MIT and make them available to faculty across the Institute.

    Q: How will this impact computing education and research at MIT? 

    Hadjiconstantinou: We believe that offering a standalone PhD program in CSE alongside the existing “with-departments” programs will significantly strengthen MIT’s graduate programs in computing. In particular, it will strengthen the methodological core of CSE research and education at MIT, while continuing to support the disciplinary-flavored CSE work taking place in our participating departments, which include Aeronautics and Astronautics; Chemical Engineering; Civil and Environmental Engineering; Materials Science and Engineering; Mechanical Engineering; Nuclear Science and Engineering; Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; and Mathematics. Together, these programs will create a stronger CSE student cohort and facilitate deeper exchanges between the college and other units at MIT.

    Marzouk: In a broader sense, the new program is designed to help realize one of the key opportunities presented by the college, which is to create a richer variety of graduate degrees in computation and to involve as many faculty and units in these educational endeavors as possible. The standalone CSE PhD will join other distinguished doctoral programs of the college — such as the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science PhD; the Operations Research Center PhD; and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in Statistics and the Social and Engineering Systems PhD within the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society — and grow in a way that is informed by them. The confluence of these academic programs, and natural synergies among them, will make MIT quite unique. More

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    On the hunt for sustainable materials

    By the time she started high school, Avni Singhal had attended six different schools in a variety of settings, from a traditional public school to a self-paced program. The transitions opened her eyes to how widely educational environments can vary, and made her think about that impact on students.

    “Experiencing so many different types of educational systems exposed me to different ways of looking at things and how that shapes people’s worldviews,” says Singhal.

    Now a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Singhal is still thinking about increasing opportunities for her fellow students, while also pursuing her research. She devotes herself to both developing sustainable materials and improving the graduate experience in her department.

    She recently completed her two-year term as a student representative on the department’s graduate studies committee. In this role, she helped revamp the communication around the qualifying exams and introducing student input to the faculty search process.

    “It’s given me a lot of insight into how our department works,” says Singhal. “It’s a chance to get to know faculty, bring up issues that students experience, and work on changing things that we think could be improved.”

    At the same time, Singhal uses atomistic simulations to model material properties, with an eye toward sustainability. She is a part of the Learning Matter Lab, a group that merges data science tools with engineering and physics-based simulation to better design and understand materials. As part of a computational group, Singhal has worked on a range of projects in collaboration with other labs that are looking to combine computing with other disciplines. Some of this work is sponsored by the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium, which facilitates connections across MIT labs and industry.

    Joining the Learning Matter Lab was a step out of Singhal’s comfort zone. She arrived at MIT from the University of California at Berkeley with a joint degree in materials science and bioengineering, as well as a degree in electrical engineering and computer science.

    “I was generally interested in doing work on environment-related applications,” says Singhal. “I was pretty hesitant at first to switch entirely to computation because it’s a very different type of lifestyle of research than what I was doing before.”

    Singhal has taken the challenge in stride, contributing to projects including improving carbon capture molecules and developing new deconstructable, degradable plastics. Not only does Singhal have to understand the technical details of her own work, she also needs to understand the big picture and how to best wield the expertise of her collaborators.

    “When I came in, I was very wide-eyed, thinking computation can do everything because I had never done it before,” says Singhal. “It’s that curve where you know a little bit about something, and you think it can do everything. And then as you learn more, you learn where it can and can’t help us, where it can be valuable, and how to figure out in what part of a project it’s useful.”

    Singhal applies a similarly critical lens when thinking about graduate school as a whole. She notes that access to information and resources is often the main factor determining who enters selective educational programs, and that such access becomes increasingly limited at the graduate level.

    “I realized just how much applying is a function of knowing how to do it,” says Singhal, who co-organized and volunteers with the DMSE Application Assistance Program. The program matches prospective applicants with current students to give feedback on their application materials and provide insight into what it’s like attending MIT. Some of the first students Singhal mentored through the program are now also participants as well.

    “The further you get in your educational career, the more you realize how much assistance you got along the way to get where you are,” says Singhal. “That happens at every stage.”

    Looking toward the future, Singhal wants to continue to pursue research with a sustainability impact. She also wants to continue mentoring in some capacity but isn’t in a rush to figure out exactly what that will look like.

    “Grad school doesn’t mean I have to do one thing. I can stay open to all the possibilities of what comes next.”  More

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    Meet the 2023-24 Accenture Fellows

    The MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology has selected five new research fellows for 2023-24. Now in its third year, the initiative underscores the ways in which industry and research can collaborate to spur technological innovation.

    Through its partnership with the School of Engineering, Accenture provides five annual fellowships awarded to graduate students with the aim of generating powerful new insights on the convergence of business and technology with the potential to transform society. The 2023-24 fellows will conduct research in areas including artificial intelligence, sustainability, and robotics.

    The 2023-24 Accenture Fellows are:

    Yiyue Luo

    Yiyue Luo is a PhD candidate who is developing innovative integrations of tactile sensing and haptics, interactive sensing and AI, digital fabrication, and smart wearables. Her work takes advantage of recent advances in digital manufacturing and AI, and the convergence in advanced sensing and actuation mechanisms, scalable digital manufacturing, and emerging computational techniques, with the goal of creating novel sensing and actuation devices that revolutionize interactions between people and their environments. In past projects, Luo has developed tactile sensing apparel including socks, gloves, and vests, as well as a workflow for computationally designing and digitally fabricating soft textiles-based pneumatic actuators. With the support of an Accenture Fellowship, she will advance her work of combining sensing and actuating devices and explore the development of haptic devices that simulate tactile cues captured by tactile sensors. Her ultimate aim is to build a scalable, textile-based, closed-loop human-machine interface. Luo’s research holds exciting potential to advance ground-breaking applications for smart textiles, health care, artificial and virtual reality, human-machine interactions, and robotics.

    Zanele Munyikwa is a PhD candidate whose research explores foundation models, a class of models that forms the basis of transformative general-purpose technologies (GPTs) such as GPT4. An Accenture Fellowship will enable Munyikwa to conduct research aimed at illuminating the current and potential impact of foundation models (including large language models) on work and tasks common to “high-skilled” knowledge workers in industries such as marketing, legal services, and medicine, in which foundation models are expected to have significant economic and social impacts. A primary goal of her project is to observe the impact of AI augmentation on tasks like copywriting and long-form writing. A second aim is to explore two primary ways that foundation models are driving the convergence of creative and technological industries, namely: reducing the cost of content generation and enabling the development of tools and platforms for education and training. Munyikwa’s work has important implications for the use of foundation models in many fields, from health care and education to legal services, business, and technology.

    Michelle Vaccaro is a PhD candidate in social engineering systems whose research explores human-AI collaboration with the goals of developing a deeper understanding of AI-based technologies (including ChatGPT and DALL-E), evaluating their performance and evolution, and steering their development toward societally beneficial applications, like climate change mitigation. An Accenture Fellowship will support Vaccaro’s current work toward two key objectives: identifying synergies between humans and AI-based software to help design human-AI systems that address persistent problems better than existing approaches; and investigating applications of human-AI collaboration for forecasting technological change, specifically for renewable energy technologies. By integrating the historically distinct domains of AI, systems engineering, and cognitive science with a wide range of industries, technical fields, and social applications, Vaccaro’s work has the potential to advance individual and collective productivity and creativity in all these areas.

    Chonghuan Wang is a PhD candidate in computational science and engineering whose research employs statistical learning, econometrics theory, and experimental design to create efficient, reliable, and sustainable field experiments in various domains. In his current work, Wang is applying statistical learning techniques such as online learning and bandit theory to test the effectiveness of new treatments, vaccinations, and health care interventions. With the support of an Accenture Fellowship, he will design experiments with the specific aim of understanding the trade-off between the loss of a patient’s welfare and the accuracy of estimating the treatment effect. The results of this research could help to save lives and contain disease outbreaks during pandemics like Covid-19. The benefits of enhanced experiment design and the collection of high-quality data extend well beyond health care; for example, these tools could help businesses optimize user engagement, test pricing impacts, and increase the usage of platforms and services. Wang’s research holds exciting potential to harness statistical learning, econometrics theory, and experimental design in support of strong businesses and the greater social good.

    Aaron Michael West Jr. is a PhD candidate whose research seeks to enhance our knowledge of human motor control and robotics. His work aims to advance rehabilitation technologies and prosthetic devices, as well as improve robot dexterity. His previous work has yielded valuable insights into the human ability to extract information solely from visual displays. Specifically, he demonstrated humans’ ability to estimate stiffness based solely on the visual observation of motion. These insights could advance the development of software applications with the same capability (e.g., using machine learning methods applied to video data) and may enable roboticists to develop enhanced motion control such that a robot’s intention is perceivable by humans. An Accenture Fellowship will enable West to continue this work, as well as new investigations into the functionality of the human hand to aid in the design of a prosthetic hand that better replicates human dexterity. By advancing understandings of human bio- and neuro-mechanics, West’s work has the potential to support major advances in robotics and rehabilitation technologies, with profound impacts on human health and well-being. More

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    How an archeological approach can help leverage biased data in AI to improve medicine

    The classic computer science adage “garbage in, garbage out” lacks nuance when it comes to understanding biased medical data, argue computer science and bioethics professors from MIT, Johns Hopkins University, and the Alan Turing Institute in a new opinion piece published in a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). The rising popularity of artificial intelligence has brought increased scrutiny to the matter of biased AI models resulting in algorithmic discrimination, which the White House Office of Science and Technology identified as a key issue in their recent Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights. 

    When encountering biased data, particularly for AI models used in medical settings, the typical response is to either collect more data from underrepresented groups or generate synthetic data making up for missing parts to ensure that the model performs equally well across an array of patient populations. But the authors argue that this technical approach should be augmented with a sociotechnical perspective that takes both historical and current social factors into account. By doing so, researchers can be more effective in addressing bias in public health. 

    “The three of us had been discussing the ways in which we often treat issues with data from a machine learning perspective as irritations that need to be managed with a technical solution,” recalls co-author Marzyeh Ghassemi, an assistant professor in electrical engineering and computer science and an affiliate of the Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health (Jameel Clinic), the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and Institute of Medical Engineering and Science (IMES). “We had used analogies of data as an artifact that gives a partial view of past practices, or a cracked mirror holding up a reflection. In both cases the information is perhaps not entirely accurate or favorable: Maybe we think that we behave in certain ways as a society — but when you actually look at the data, it tells a different story. We might not like what that story is, but once you unearth an understanding of the past you can move forward and take steps to address poor practices.” 

    Data as artifact 

    In the paper, titled “Considering Biased Data as Informative Artifacts in AI-Assisted Health Care,” Ghassemi, Kadija Ferryman, and Maxine Mackintosh make the case for viewing biased clinical data as “artifacts” in the same way anthropologists or archeologists would view physical objects: pieces of civilization-revealing practices, belief systems, and cultural values — in the case of the paper, specifically those that have led to existing inequities in the health care system. 

    For example, a 2019 study showed that an algorithm widely considered to be an industry standard used health-care expenditures as an indicator of need, leading to the erroneous conclusion that sicker Black patients require the same level of care as healthier white patients. What researchers found was algorithmic discrimination failing to account for unequal access to care.  

    In this instance, rather than viewing biased datasets or lack of data as problems that only require disposal or fixing, Ghassemi and her colleagues recommend the “artifacts” approach as a way to raise awareness around social and historical elements influencing how data are collected and alternative approaches to clinical AI development. 

    “If the goal of your model is deployment in a clinical setting, you should engage a bioethicist or a clinician with appropriate training reasonably early on in problem formulation,” says Ghassemi. “As computer scientists, we often don’t have a complete picture of the different social and historical factors that have gone into creating data that we’ll be using. We need expertise in discerning when models generalized from existing data may not work well for specific subgroups.” 

    When more data can actually harm performance 

    The authors acknowledge that one of the more challenging aspects of implementing an artifact-based approach is being able to assess whether data have been racially corrected: i.e., using white, male bodies as the conventional standard that other bodies are measured against. The opinion piece cites an example from the Chronic Kidney Disease Collaboration in 2021, which developed a new equation to measure kidney function because the old equation had previously been “corrected” under the blanket assumption that Black people have higher muscle mass. Ghassemi says that researchers should be prepared to investigate race-based correction as part of the research process. 

    In another recent paper accepted to this year’s International Conference on Machine Learning co-authored by Ghassemi’s PhD student Vinith Suriyakumar and University of California at San Diego Assistant Professor Berk Ustun, the researchers found that assuming the inclusion of personalized attributes like self-reported race improve the performance of ML models can actually lead to worse risk scores, models, and metrics for minority and minoritized populations.  

    “There’s no single right solution for whether or not to include self-reported race in a clinical risk score. Self-reported race is a social construct that is both a proxy for other information, and deeply proxied itself in other medical data. The solution needs to fit the evidence,” explains Ghassemi. 

    How to move forward 

    This is not to say that biased datasets should be enshrined, or biased algorithms don’t require fixing — quality training data is still key to developing safe, high-performance clinical AI models, and the NEJM piece highlights the role of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in driving ethical practices.  

    “Generating high-quality, ethically sourced datasets is crucial for enabling the use of next-generation AI technologies that transform how we do research,” NIH acting director Lawrence Tabak stated in a press release when the NIH announced its $130 million Bridge2AI Program last year. Ghassemi agrees, pointing out that the NIH has “prioritized data collection in ethical ways that cover information we have not previously emphasized the value of in human health — such as environmental factors and social determinants. I’m very excited about their prioritization of, and strong investments towards, achieving meaningful health outcomes.” 

    Elaine Nsoesie, an associate professor at the Boston University of Public Health, believes there are many potential benefits to treating biased datasets as artifacts rather than garbage, starting with the focus on context. “Biases present in a dataset collected for lung cancer patients in a hospital in Uganda might be different from a dataset collected in the U.S. for the same patient population,” she explains. “In considering local context, we can train algorithms to better serve specific populations.” Nsoesie says that understanding the historical and contemporary factors shaping a dataset can make it easier to identify discriminatory practices that might be coded in algorithms or systems in ways that are not immediately obvious. She also notes that an artifact-based approach could lead to the development of new policies and structures ensuring that the root causes of bias in a particular dataset are eliminated. 

    “People often tell me that they are very afraid of AI, especially in health. They’ll say, ‘I’m really scared of an AI misdiagnosing me,’ or ‘I’m concerned it will treat me poorly,’” Ghassemi says. “I tell them, you shouldn’t be scared of some hypothetical AI in health tomorrow, you should be scared of what health is right now. If we take a narrow technical view of the data we extract from systems, we could naively replicate poor practices. That’s not the only option — realizing there is a problem is our first step towards a larger opportunity.”  More

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    Helping computer vision and language models understand what they see

    Powerful machine-learning algorithms known as vision and language models, which learn to match text with images, have shown remarkable results when asked to generate captions or summarize videos.

    While these models excel at identifying objects, they often struggle to understand concepts, like object attributes or the arrangement of items in a scene. For instance, a vision and language model might recognize the cup and table in an image, but fail to grasp that the cup is sitting on the table.

    Researchers from MIT, the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, and elsewhere have demonstrated a new technique that utilizes computer-generated data to help vision and language models overcome this shortcoming.

    The researchers created a synthetic dataset of images that depict a wide range of scenarios, object arrangements, and human actions, coupled with detailed text descriptions. They used this annotated dataset to “fix” vision and language models so they can learn concepts more effectively. Their technique ensures these models can still make accurate predictions when they see real images.

    When they tested models on concept understanding, the researchers found that their technique boosted accuracy by up to 10 percent. This could improve systems that automatically caption videos or enhance models that provide natural language answers to questions about images, with applications in fields like e-commerce or health care.

    “With this work, we are going beyond nouns in the sense that we are going beyond just the names of objects to more of the semantic concept of an object and everything around it. Our idea was that, when a machine-learning model sees objects in many different arrangements, it will have a better idea of how arrangement matters in a scene,” says Khaled Shehada, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and co-author of a paper on this technique.

    Shehada wrote the paper with lead author Paola Cascante-Bonilla, a computer science graduate student at Rice University; Aude Oliva, director of strategic industry engagement at the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, MIT director of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, and a senior research scientist in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); senior author Leonid Karlinsky, a research staff member in the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab; and others at MIT, the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, Georgia Tech, Rice University, École des Ponts, Weizmann Institute of Science, and IBM Research. The paper will be presented at the International Conference on Computer Vision.

    Focusing on objects

    Vision and language models typically learn to identify objects in a scene, and can end up ignoring object attributes, such as color and size, or positional relationships, such as which object is on top of another object.

    This is due to the method with which these models are often trained, known as contrastive learning. This training method involves forcing a model to predict the correspondence between images and text. When comparing natural images, the objects in each scene tend to cause the most striking differences. (Perhaps one image shows a horse in a field while the second shows a sailboat on the water.)

    “Every image could be uniquely defined by the objects in the image. So, when you do contrastive learning, just focusing on the nouns and objects would solve the problem. Why would the model do anything differently?” says Karlinsky.

    The researchers sought to mitigate this problem by using synthetic data to fine-tune a vision and language model. The fine-tuning process involves tweaking a model that has already been trained to improve its performance on a specific task.

    They used a computer to automatically create synthetic videos with diverse 3D environments and objects, such as furniture and luggage, and added human avatars that interacted with the objects.

    Using individual frames of these videos, they generated nearly 800,000 photorealistic images, and then paired each with a detailed caption. The researchers developed a methodology for annotating every aspect of the image to capture object attributes, positional relationships, and human-object interactions clearly and consistently in dense captions.

    Because the researchers created the images, they could control the appearance and position of objects, as well as the gender, clothing, poses, and actions of the human avatars.

    “Synthetic data allows a lot of diversity. With real images, you might not have a lot of elephants in a room, but with synthetic data, you could actually have a pink elephant in a room with a human, if you want,” Cascante-Bonilla says.

    Synthetic data have other advantages, too. They are cheaper to generate than real data, yet the images are highly photorealistic. They also preserve privacy because no real humans are shown in the images. And, because data are produced automatically by a computer, they can be generated quickly in massive quantities.

    By using different camera viewpoints, or slightly changing the positions or attributes of objects, the researchers created a dataset with a far wider variety of scenarios than one would find in a natural dataset.

    Fine-tune, but don’t forget

    However, when one fine-tunes a model with synthetic data, there is a risk that model might “forget” what it learned when it was originally trained with real data.

    The researchers employed a few techniques to prevent this problem, such as adjusting the synthetic data so colors, lighting, and shadows more closely match those found in natural images. They also made adjustments to the model’s inner-workings after fine-tuning to further reduce any forgetfulness.

    Their synthetic dataset and fine-tuning strategy improved the ability of popular vision and language models to accurately recognize concepts by up to 10 percent. At the same time, the models did not forget what they had already learned.

    Now that they have shown how synthetic data can be used to solve this problem, the researchers want to identify ways to improve the visual quality and diversity of these data, as well as the underlying physics that makes synthetic scenes look realistic. In addition, they plan to test the limits of scalability, and investigate whether model improvement starts to plateau with larger and more diverse synthetic datasets.

    This research is funded, in part, by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. More