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    Machine learning speeds up vehicle routing

    Waiting for a holiday package to be delivered? There’s a tricky math problem that needs to be solved before the delivery truck pulls up to your door, and MIT researchers have a strategy that could speed up the solution.

    The approach applies to vehicle routing problems such as last-mile delivery, where the goal is to deliver goods from a central depot to multiple cities while keeping travel costs down. While there are algorithms designed to solve this problem for a few hundred cities, these solutions become too slow when applied to a larger set of cities.

    To remedy this, Cathy Wu, the Gilbert W. Winslow Career Development Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, and her students have come up with a machine-learning strategy that accelerates some of the strongest algorithmic solvers by 10 to 100 times.

    The solver algorithms work by breaking up the problem of delivery into smaller subproblems to solve — say, 200 subproblems for routing vehicles between 2,000 cities. Wu and her colleagues augment this process with a new machine-learning algorithm that identifies the most useful subproblems to solve, instead of solving all the subproblems, to increase the quality of the solution while using orders of magnitude less compute.

    Their approach, which they call “learning-to-delegate,” can be used across a variety of solvers and a variety of similar problems, including scheduling and pathfinding for warehouse robots, the researchers say.

    The work pushes the boundaries on rapidly solving large-scale vehicle routing problems, says Marc Kuo, founder and CEO of Routific, a smart logistics platform for optimizing delivery routes. Some of Routific’s recent algorithmic advances were inspired by Wu’s work, he notes.

    “Most of the academic body of research tends to focus on specialized algorithms for small problems, trying to find better solutions at the cost of processing times. But in the real-world, businesses don’t care about finding better solutions, especially if they take too long for compute,” Kuo explains. “In the world of last-mile logistics, time is money, and you cannot have your entire warehouse operations wait for a slow algorithm to return the routes. An algorithm needs to be hyper-fast for it to be practical.”

    Wu, social and engineering systems doctoral student Sirui Li, and electrical engineering and computer science doctoral student Zhongxia Yan presented their research this week at the 2021 NeurIPS conference.

    Selecting good problems

    Vehicle routing problems are a class of combinatorial problems, which involve using heuristic algorithms to find “good-enough solutions” to the problem. It’s typically not possible to come up with the one “best” answer to these problems, because the number of possible solutions is far too huge.

    “The name of the game for these types of problems is to design efficient algorithms … that are optimal within some factor,” Wu explains. “But the goal is not to find optimal solutions. That’s too hard. Rather, we want to find as good of solutions as possible. Even a 0.5% improvement in solutions can translate to a huge revenue increase for a company.”

    Over the past several decades, researchers have developed a variety of heuristics to yield quick solutions to combinatorial problems. They usually do this by starting with a poor but valid initial solution and then gradually improving the solution — by trying small tweaks to improve the routing between nearby cities, for example. For a large problem like a 2,000-plus city routing challenge, however, this approach just takes too much time.

    More recently, machine-learning methods have been developed to solve the problem, but while faster, they tend to be more inaccurate, even at the scale of a few dozen cities. Wu and her colleagues decided to see if there was a beneficial way to combine the two methods to find speedy but high-quality solutions.

    “For us, this is where machine learning comes in,” Wu says. “Can we predict which of these subproblems, that if we were to solve them, would lead to more improvement in the solution, saving computing time and expense?”

    Traditionally, a large-scale vehicle routing problem heuristic might choose the subproblems to solve in which order either randomly or by applying yet another carefully devised heuristic. In this case, the MIT researchers ran sets of subproblems through a neural network they created to automatically find the subproblems that, when solved, would lead to the greatest gain in quality of the solutions. This process sped up subproblem selection process by 1.5 to 2 times, Wu and colleagues found.

    “We don’t know why these subproblems are better than other subproblems,” Wu notes. “It’s actually an interesting line of future work. If we did have some insights here, these could lead to designing even better algorithms.”

    Surprising speed-up

    Wu and colleagues were surprised by how well the approach worked. In machine learning, the idea of garbage-in, garbage-out applies — that is, the quality of a machine-learning approach relies heavily on the quality of the data. A combinatorial problem is so difficult that even its subproblems can’t be optimally solved. A neural network trained on the “medium-quality” subproblem solutions available as the input data “would typically give medium-quality results,” says Wu. In this case, however, the researchers were able to leverage the medium-quality solutions to achieve high-quality results, significantly faster than state-of-the-art methods.

    For vehicle routing and similar problems, users often must design very specialized algorithms to solve their specific problem. Some of these heuristics have been in development for decades.

    The learning-to-delegate method offers an automatic way to accelerate these heuristics for large problems, no matter what the heuristic or — potentially — what the problem.

    Since the method can work with a variety of solvers, it may be useful for a variety of resource allocation problems, says Wu. “We may unlock new applications that now will be possible because the cost of solving the problem is 10 to 100 times less.”

    The research was supported by MIT Indonesia Seed Fund, U.S. Department of Transportation Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program, and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. More

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    Q&A: More-sustainable concrete with machine learning

    As a building material, concrete withstands the test of time. Its use dates back to early civilizations, and today it is the most popular composite choice in the world. However, it’s not without its faults. Production of its key ingredient, cement, contributes 8-9 percent of the global anthropogenic CO2 emissions and 2-3 percent of energy consumption, which is only projected to increase in the coming years. With aging United States infrastructure, the federal government recently passed a milestone bill to revitalize and upgrade it, along with a push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions where possible, putting concrete in the crosshairs for modernization, too.

    Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Jie Chen, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab research scientist and manager, think artificial intelligence can help meet this need by designing and formulating new, more sustainable concrete mixtures, with lower costs and carbon dioxide emissions, while improving material performance and reusing manufacturing byproducts in the material itself. Olivetti’s research improves environmental and economic sustainability of materials, and Chen develops and optimizes machine learning and computational techniques, which he can apply to materials reformulation. Olivetti and Chen, along with their collaborators, have recently teamed up for an MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab project to make concrete more sustainable for the benefit of society, the climate, and the economy.

    Q: What applications does concrete have, and what properties make it a preferred building material?

    Olivetti: Concrete is the dominant building material globally with an annual consumption of 30 billion metric tons. That is over 20 times the next most produced material, steel, and the scale of its use leads to considerable environmental impact, approximately 5-8 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It can be made locally, has a broad range of structural applications, and is cost-effective. Concrete is a mixture of fine and coarse aggregate, water, cement binder (the glue), and other additives.

    Q: Why isn’t it sustainable, and what research problems are you trying to tackle with this project?

    Olivetti: The community is working on several ways to reduce the impact of this material, including alternative fuels use for heating the cement mixture, increasing energy and materials efficiency and carbon sequestration at production facilities, but one important opportunity is to develop an alternative to the cement binder.

    While cement is 10 percent of the concrete mass, it accounts for 80 percent of the GHG footprint. This impact is derived from the fuel burned to heat and run the chemical reaction required in manufacturing, but also the chemical reaction itself releases CO2 from the calcination of limestone. Therefore, partially replacing the input ingredients to cement (traditionally ordinary Portland cement or OPC) with alternative materials from waste and byproducts can reduce the GHG footprint. But use of these alternatives is not inherently more sustainable because wastes might have to travel long distances, which adds to fuel emissions and cost, or might require pretreatment processes. The optimal way to make use of these alternate materials will be situation-dependent. But because of the vast scale, we also need solutions that account for the huge volumes of concrete needed. This project is trying to develop novel concrete mixtures that will decrease the GHG impact of the cement and concrete, moving away from the trial-and-error processes towards those that are more predictive.

    Chen: If we want to fight climate change and make our environment better, are there alternative ingredients or a reformulation we could use so that less greenhouse gas is emitted? We hope that through this project using machine learning we’ll be able to find a good answer.

    Q: Why is this problem important to address now, at this point in history?

    Olivetti: There is urgent need to address greenhouse gas emissions as aggressively as possible, and the road to doing so isn’t necessarily straightforward for all areas of industry. For transportation and electricity generation, there are paths that have been identified to decarbonize those sectors. We need to move much more aggressively to achieve those in the time needed; further, the technological approaches to achieve that are more clear. However, for tough-to-decarbonize sectors, such as industrial materials production, the pathways to decarbonization are not as mapped out.

    Q: How are you planning to address this problem to produce better concrete?

    Olivetti: The goal is to predict mixtures that will both meet performance criteria, such as strength and durability, with those that also balance economic and environmental impact. A key to this is to use industrial wastes in blended cements and concretes. To do this, we need to understand the glass and mineral reactivity of constituent materials. This reactivity not only determines the limit of the possible use in cement systems but also controls concrete processing, and the development of strength and pore structure, which ultimately control concrete durability and life-cycle CO2 emissions.

    Chen: We investigate using waste materials to replace part of the cement component. This is something that we’ve hypothesized would be more sustainable and economic — actually waste materials are common, and they cost less. Because of the reduction in the use of cement, the final concrete product would be responsible for much less carbon dioxide production. Figuring out the right concrete mixture proportion that makes endurable concretes while achieving other goals is a very challenging problem. Machine learning is giving us an opportunity to explore the advancement of predictive modeling, uncertainty quantification, and optimization to solve the issue. What we are doing is exploring options using deep learning as well as multi-objective optimization techniques to find an answer. These efforts are now more feasible to carry out, and they will produce results with reliability estimates that we need to understand what makes a good concrete.

    Q: What kinds of AI and computational techniques are you employing for this?

    Olivetti: We use AI techniques to collect data on individual concrete ingredients, mix proportions, and concrete performance from the literature through natural language processing. We also add data obtained from industry and/or high throughput atomistic modeling and experiments to optimize the design of concrete mixtures. Then we use this information to develop insight into the reactivity of possible waste and byproduct materials as alternatives to cement materials for low-CO2 concrete. By incorporating generic information on concrete ingredients, the resulting concrete performance predictors are expected to be more reliable and transformative than existing AI models.

    Chen: The final objective is to figure out what constituents, and how much of each, to put into the recipe for producing the concrete that optimizes the various factors: strength, cost, environmental impact, performance, etc. For each of the objectives, we need certain models: We need a model to predict the performance of the concrete (like, how long does it last and how much weight does it sustain?), a model to estimate the cost, and a model to estimate how much carbon dioxide is generated. We will need to build these models by using data from literature, from industry, and from lab experiments.

    We are exploring Gaussian process models to predict the concrete strength, going forward into days and weeks. This model can give us an uncertainty estimate of the prediction as well. Such a model needs specification of parameters, for which we will use another model to calculate. At the same time, we also explore neural network models because we can inject domain knowledge from human experience into them. Some models are as simple as multi-layer perceptions, while some are more complex, like graph neural networks. The goal here is that we want to have a model that is not only accurate but also robust — the input data is noisy, and the model must embrace the noise, so that its prediction is still accurate and reliable for the multi-objective optimization.

    Once we have built models that we are confident with, we will inject their predictions and uncertainty estimates into the optimization of multiple objectives, under constraints and under uncertainties.

    Q: How do you balance cost-benefit trade-offs?

    Chen: The multiple objectives we consider are not necessarily consistent, and sometimes they are at odds with each other. The goal is to identify scenarios where the values for our objectives cannot be further pushed simultaneously without compromising one or a few. For example, if you want to further reduce the cost, you probably have to suffer the performance or suffer the environmental impact. Eventually, we will give the results to policymakers and they will look into the results and weigh the options. For example, they may be able to tolerate a slightly higher cost under a significant reduction in greenhouse gas. Alternatively, if the cost varies little but the concrete performance changes drastically, say, doubles or triples, then this is definitely a favorable outcome.

    Q: What kinds of challenges do you face in this work?

    Chen: The data we get either from industry or from literature are very noisy; the concrete measurements can vary a lot, depending on where and when they are taken. There are also substantial missing data when we integrate them from different sources, so, we need to spend a lot of effort to organize and make the data usable for building and training machine learning models. We also explore imputation techniques that substitute missing features, as well as models that tolerate missing features, in our predictive modeling and uncertainty estimate.

    Q: What do you hope to achieve through this work?

    Chen: In the end, we are suggesting either one or a few concrete recipes, or a continuum of recipes, to manufacturers and policymakers. We hope that this will provide invaluable information for both the construction industry and for the effort of protecting our beloved Earth.

    Olivetti: We’d like to develop a robust way to design cements that make use of waste materials to lower their CO2 footprint. Nobody is trying to make waste, so we can’t rely on one stream as a feedstock if we want this to be massively scalable. We have to be flexible and robust to shift with feedstocks changes, and for that we need improved understanding. Our approach to develop local, dynamic, and flexible alternatives is to learn what makes these wastes reactive, so we know how to optimize their use and do so as broadly as possible. We do that through predictive model development through software we have developed in my group to automatically extract data from literature on over 5 million texts and patents on various topics. We link this to the creative capabilities of our IBM collaborators to design methods that predict the final impact of new cements. If we are successful, we can lower the emissions of this ubiquitous material and play our part in achieving carbon emissions mitigation goals.

    Other researchers involved with this project include Stefanie Jegelka, the X-Window Consortium Career Development Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Richard Goodwin, IBM principal researcher; Soumya Ghosh, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab research staff member; and Kristen Severson, former research staff member. Collaborators included Nghia Hoang, former research staff member with MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab and IBM Research; and Jeremy Gregory, research scientist in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and executive director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub.

    This research is supported by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. More

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    One autonomous taxi, please

    If you don’t get seasick, an autonomous boat might be the right mode of transportation for you. 

    Scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Senseable City Laboratory, together with Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) in the Netherlands, have now created the final project in their self-navigating trilogy: a full-scale, fully autonomous robotic boat that’s ready to be deployed along the canals of Amsterdam. 

    “Roboat” has come a long way since the team first started prototyping small vessels in the MIT pool in late 2015. Last year, the team released their half-scale, medium model that was 2 meters long and demonstrated promising navigational prowess. 

    This year, two full-scale Roboats were launched, proving more than just proof-of-concept: these craft can comfortably carry up to five people, collect waste, deliver goods, and provide on-demand infrastructure. 

    The boat looks futuristic — it’s a sleek combination of black and gray with two seats that face each other, with orange block letters on the sides that illustrate the makers’ namesakes. It’s a fully electrical boat with a battery that’s the size of a small chest, enabling up to 10 hours of operation and wireless charging capabilities. 

    Play video

    Autonomous Roboats set sea in the Amsterdam canals and can comfortably carry up to five people, collect waste, deliver goods, and provide on-demand infrastructure.

    “We now have higher precision and robustness in the perception, navigation, and control systems, including new functions, such as close-proximity approach mode for latching capabilities, and improved dynamic positioning, so the boat can navigate real-world waters,” says Daniela Rus, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of CSAIL. “Roboat’s control system is adaptive to the number of people in the boat.” 

    To swiftly navigate the bustling waters of Amsterdam, Roboat needs a meticulous fusion of proper navigation, perception, and control software. 

    Using GPS, the boat autonomously decides on a safe route from A to B, while continuously scanning the environment to  avoid collisions with objects, such as bridges, pillars, and other boats.

    To autonomously determine a free path and avoid crashing into objects, Roboat uses lidar and a number of cameras to enable a 360-degree view. This bundle of sensors is referred to as the “perception kit” and lets Roboat understand its surroundings. When the perception picks up an unseen object, like a canoe, for example, the algorithm flags the item as “unknown.” When the team later looks at the collected data from the day, the object is manually selected and can be tagged as “canoe.” 

    The control algorithms — similar to ones used for self-driving cars — function a little like a coxswain giving orders to rowers, by translating a given path into instructions toward the “thrusters,” which are the propellers that help the boat move.  

    If you think the boat feels slightly futuristic, its latching mechanism is one of its most impressive feats: small cameras on the boat guide it to the docking station, or other boats, when they detect specific QR codes. “The system allows Roboat to connect to other boats, and to the docking station, to form temporary bridges to alleviate traffic, as well as floating stages and squares, which wasn’t possible with the last iteration,” says Carlo Ratti, professor of the practice in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and director of the Senseable City Lab. 

    Roboat, by design, is also versatile. The team created a universal “hull” design — that’s the part of the boat that rides both in and on top of the water. While regular boats have unique hulls, designed for specific purposes, Roboat has a universal hull design where the base is the same, but the top decks can be switched out depending on the use case.

    “As Roboat can perform its tasks 24/7, and without a skipper on board, it adds great value for a city. However, for safety reasons it is questionable if reaching level A autonomy is desirable,” says Fabio Duarte, a principal research scientist in DUSP and lead scientist on the project. “Just like a bridge keeper, an onshore operator will monitor Roboat remotely from a control center. One operator can monitor over 50 Roboat units, ensuring smooth operations.”

    The next step for Roboat is to pilot the technology in the public domain. “The historic center of Amsterdam is the perfect place to start, with its capillary network of canals suffering from contemporary challenges, such as mobility and logistics,” says Stephan van Dijk, director of innovation at AMS Institute. 

    Previous iterations of Roboat have been presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. The boats will be unveiled on Oct. 28 in the waters of Amsterdam. 

    Ratti, Rus, Duarte, and Dijk worked on the project alongside Andrew Whittle, MIT’s Edmund K Turner Professor in civil and environmental engineering; Dennis Frenchman, professor at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning; and Ynse Deinema of AMS Institute. The full team can be found at Roboat’s website. The project is a joint collaboration with AMS Institute. The City of Amsterdam is a project partner. More

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    Research collaboration puts climate-resilient crops in sight

    Any houseplant owner knows that changes in the amount of water or sunlight a plant receives can put it under immense stress. A dying plant brings certain disappointment to anyone with a green thumb. 

    But for farmers who make their living by successfully growing plants, and whose crops may nourish hundreds or thousands of people, the devastation of failing flora is that much greater. As climate change is poised to cause increasingly unpredictable weather patterns globally, crops may be subject to more extreme environmental conditions like droughts, fluctuating temperatures, floods, and wildfire. 

    Climate scientists and food systems researchers worry about the stress climate change may put on crops, and on global food security. In an ambitious interdisciplinary project funded by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), David Des Marais, the Gale Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, and Caroline Uhler, an associate professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, are investigating how plant genes communicate with one another under stress. Their research results can be used to breed plants more resilient to climate change.

    Crops in trouble

    Governing plants’ responses to environmental stress are gene regulatory networks, or GRNs, which guide the development and behaviors of living things. A GRN may be comprised of thousands of genes and proteins that all communicate with one another. GRNs help a particular cell, tissue, or organism respond to environmental changes by signaling certain genes to turn their expression on or off.

    Even seemingly minor or short-term changes in weather patterns can have large effects on crop yield and food security. An environmental trigger, like a lack of water during a crucial phase of plant development, can turn a gene on or off, and is likely to affect many others in the GRN. For example, without water, a gene enabling photosynthesis may switch off. This can create a domino effect, where the genes that rely on those regulating photosynthesis are silenced, and the cycle continues. As a result, when photosynthesis is halted, the plant may experience other detrimental side effects, like no longer being able to reproduce or defend against pathogens. The chain reaction could even kill a plant before it has the chance to be revived by a big rain.

    Des Marais says he wishes there was a way to stop those genes from completely shutting off in such a situation. To do that, scientists would need to better understand how exactly gene networks respond to different environmental triggers. Bringing light to this molecular process is exactly what he aims to do in this collaborative research effort.

    Solving complex problems across disciplines

    Despite their crucial importance, GRNs are difficult to study because of how complex and interconnected they are. Usually, to understand how a particular gene is affecting others, biologists must silence one gene and see how the others in the network respond. 

    For years, scientists have aspired to an algorithm that could synthesize the massive amount of information contained in GRNs to “identify correct regulatory relationships among genes,” according to a 2019 article in the Encyclopedia of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. 

    “A GRN can be seen as a large causal network, and understanding the effects that silencing one gene has on all other genes requires understanding the causal relationships among the genes,” says Uhler. “These are exactly the kinds of algorithms my group develops.”

    Des Marais and Uhler’s project aims to unravel these complex communication networks and discover how to breed crops that are more resilient to the increased droughts, flooding, and erratic weather patterns that climate change is already causing globally.

    In addition to climate change, by 2050, the world will demand 70 percent more food to feed a booming population. “Food systems challenges cannot be addressed individually in disciplinary or topic area silos,” says Greg Sixt, J-WAFS’ research manager for climate and food systems. “They must be addressed in a systems context that reflects the interconnected nature of the food system.”

    Des Marais’ background is in biology, and Uhler’s in statistics. “Dave’s project with Caroline was essentially experimental,” says Renee J. Robins, J-WAFS’ executive director. “This kind of exploratory research is exactly what the J-WAFS seed grant program is for.”

    Getting inside gene regulatory networks

    Des Marais and Uhler’s work begins in a windowless basement on MIT’s campus, where 300 genetically identical Brachypodium distachyon plants grow in large, temperature-controlled chambers. The plant, which contains more than 30,000 genes, is a good model for studying important cereal crops like wheat, barley, maize, and millet. For three weeks, all plants receive the same temperature, humidity, light, and water. Then, half are slowly tapered off water, simulating drought-like conditions.

    Six days into the forced drought, the plants are clearly suffering. Des Marais’ PhD student Jie Yun takes tissues from 50 hydrated and 50 dry plants, freezes them in liquid nitrogen to immediately halt metabolic activity, grinds them up into a fine powder, and chemically separates the genetic material. The genes from all 100 samples are then sequenced at a lab across the street.

    The team is left with a spreadsheet listing the 30,000 genes found in each of the 100 plants at the moment they were frozen, and how many copies there were. Uhler’s PhD student Anastasiya Belyaeva inputs the massive spreadsheet into the computer program she developed and runs her novel algorithm. Within a few hours, the group can see which genes were most active in one condition over another, how the genes were communicating, and which were causing changes in others. 

    The methodology captures important subtleties that could allow researchers to eventually alter gene pathways and breed more resilient crops. “When you expose a plant to drought stress, it’s not like there’s some canonical response,” Des Marais says. “There’s lots of things going on. It’s turning this physiologic process up, this one down, this one didn’t exist before, and now suddenly is turned on.” 

    In addition to Des Marais and Uhler’s research, J-WAFS has funded projects in food and water from researchers in 29 departments across all five MIT schools as well as the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. J-WAFS seed grants typically fund seven to eight new projects every year.

    “The grants are really aimed at catalyzing new ideas, providing the sort of support [for MIT researchers] to be pushing boundaries, and also bringing in faculty who may have some interesting ideas that they haven’t yet applied to water or food concerns,” Robins says. “It’s an avenue for researchers all over the Institute to apply their ideas to water and food.”

    Alison Gold is a student in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. More