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    System tracks movement of food through global humanitarian supply chain

    Although more than enough food is produced to feed everyone in the world, as many as 828 million people face hunger today. Poverty, social inequity, climate change, natural disasters, and political conflicts all contribute to inhibiting access to food. For decades, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) has been a leader in global food assistance, supplying millions of metric tons of food to recipients worldwide. Alleviating hunger — and the conflict and instability hunger causes — is critical to U.S. national security.

    But BHA is only one player within a large, complex supply chain in which food gets handed off between more than 100 partner organizations before reaching its final destination. Traditionally, the movement of food through the supply chain has been a black-box operation, with stakeholders largely out of the loop about what happens to the food once it leaves their custody. This lack of direct visibility into operations is due to siloed data repositories, insufficient data sharing among stakeholders, and different data formats that operators must manually sort through and standardize. As a result, accurate, real-time information — such as where food shipments are at any given time, which shipments are affected by delays or food recalls, and when shipments have arrived at their final destination — is lacking. A centralized system capable of tracing food along its entire journey, from manufacture through delivery, would enable a more effective humanitarian response to food-aid needs.

    In 2020, a team from MIT Lincoln Laboratory began engaging with BHA to create an intelligent dashboard for their supply-chain operations. This dashboard brings together the expansive food-aid datasets from BHA’s existing systems into a single platform, with tools for visualizing and analyzing the data. When the team started developing the dashboard, they quickly realized the need for considerably more data than BHA had access to.

    “That’s where traceability comes in, with each handoff partner contributing key pieces of information as food moves through the supply chain,” explains Megan Richardson, a researcher in the laboratory’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group.

    Richardson and the rest of the team have been working with BHA and their partners to scope, build, and implement such an end-to-end traceability system. This system consists of serialized, unique identifiers (IDs) — akin to fingerprints — that are assigned to individual food items at the time they are produced. These individual IDs remain linked to items as they are aggregated along the supply chain, first domestically and then internationally. For example, individually tagged cans of vegetable oil get packaged into cartons; cartons are placed onto pallets and transported via railway and truck to warehouses; pallets are loaded onto shipping containers at U.S. ports; and pallets are unloaded and cartons are unpackaged overseas.

    With a trace

    Today, visibility at the single-item level doesn’t exist. Most suppliers mark pallets with a lot number (a lot is a batch of items produced in the same run), but this is for internal purposes (i.e., to track issues stemming back to their production supply, like over-enriched ingredients or machinery malfunction), not data sharing. So, organizations know which supplier lot a pallet and carton are associated with, but they can’t track the unique history of an individual carton or item within that pallet. As the lots move further downstream toward their final destination, they are often mixed with lots from other productions, and possibly other commodity types altogether, because of space constraints. On the international side, such mixing and the lack of granularity make it difficult to quickly pull commodities out of the supply chain if food safety concerns arise. Current response times can span several months.

    “Commodities are grouped differently at different stages of the supply chain, so it is logical to track them in those groupings where needed,” Richardson says. “Our item-level granularity serves as a form of Rosetta Stone to enable stakeholders to efficiently communicate throughout these stages. We’re trying to enable a way to track not only the movement of commodities, including through their lot information, but also any problems arising independent of lot, like exposure to high humidity levels in a warehouse. Right now, we have no way to associate commodities with histories that may have resulted in an issue.”

    “You can now track your checked luggage across the world and the fish on your dinner plate,” adds Brice MacLaren, also a researcher in the laboratory’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group. “So, this technology isn’t new, but it’s new to BHA as they evolve their methodology for commodity tracing. The traceability system needs to be versatile, working across a wide variety of operators who take custody of the commodity along the supply chain and fitting into their existing best practices.”

    As food products make their way through the supply chain, operators at each receiving point would be able to scan these IDs via a Lincoln Laboratory-developed mobile application (app) to indicate a product’s current location and transaction status — for example, that it is en route on a particular shipping container or stored in a certain warehouse. This information would get uploaded to a secure traceability server. By scanning a product, operators would also see its history up until that point.   

    Hitting the mark

    At the laboratory, the team tested the feasibility of their traceability technology, exploring different ways to mark and scan items. In their testing, they considered barcodes and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and handheld and fixed scanners. Their analysis revealed 2D barcodes (specifically data matrices) and smartphone-based scanners were the most feasible options in terms of how the technology works and how it fits into existing operations and infrastructure.

    “We needed to come up with a solution that would be practical and sustainable in the field,” MacLaren says. “While scanners can automatically read any RFID tags in close proximity as someone is walking by, they can’t discriminate exactly where the tags are coming from. RFID is expensive, and it’s hard to read commodities in bulk. On the other hand, a phone can scan a barcode on a particular box and tell you that code goes with that box. The challenge then becomes figuring out how to present the codes for people to easily scan without significantly interrupting their usual processes for handling and moving commodities.” 

    As the team learned from partner representatives in Kenya and Djibouti, offloading at the ports is a chaotic, fast operation. At manual warehouses, porters fling bags over their shoulders or stack cartons atop their heads any which way they can and run them to a drop point; at bagging terminals, commodities come down a conveyor belt and land this way or that way. With this variability comes several questions: How many barcodes do you need on an item? Where should they be placed? What size should they be? What will they cost? The laboratory team is considering these questions, keeping in mind that the answers will vary depending on the type of commodity; vegetable oil cartons will have different specifications than, say, 50-kilogram bags of wheat or peas.

    Leaving a mark

    Leveraging results from their testing and insights from international partners, the team has been running a traceability pilot evaluating how their proposed system meshes with real-world domestic and international operations. The current pilot features a domestic component in Houston, Texas, and an international component in Ethiopia, and focuses on tracking individual cartons of vegetable oil and identifying damaged cans. The Ethiopian team with Catholic Relief Services recently received a container filled with pallets of uniquely barcoded cartons of vegetable oil cans (in the next pilot, the cans will be barcoded, too). They are now scanning items and collecting data on product damage by using smartphones with the laboratory-developed mobile traceability app on which they were trained. 

    “The partners in Ethiopia are comparing a couple lid types to determine whether some are more resilient than others,” Richardson says. “With the app — which is designed to scan commodities, collect transaction data, and keep history — the partners can take pictures of damaged cans and see if a trend with the lid type emerges.”

    Next, the team will run a series of pilots with the World Food Program (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian organization. The first pilot will focus on data connectivity and interoperability, and the team will engage with suppliers to directly print barcodes on individual commodities instead of applying barcode labels to packaging, as they did in the initial feasibility testing. The WFP will provide input on which of their operations are best suited for testing the traceability system, considering factors like the network bandwidth of WFP staff and local partners, the commodity types being distributed, and the country context for scanning. The BHA will likely also prioritize locations for system testing.

    “Our goal is to provide an infrastructure to enable as close to real-time data exchange as possible between all parties, given intermittent power and connectivity in these environments,” MacLaren says.

    In subsequent pilots, the team will try to integrate their approach with existing systems that partners rely on for tracking procurements, inventory, and movement of commodities under their custody so that this information is automatically pushed to the traceability server. The team also hopes to add a capability for real-time alerting of statuses, like the departure and arrival of commodities at a port or the exposure of unclaimed commodities to the elements. Real-time alerts would enable stakeholders to more efficiently respond to food-safety events. Currently, partners are forced to take a conservative approach, pulling out more commodities from the supply chain than are actually suspect, to reduce risk of harm. Both BHA and WHP are interested in testing out a food-safety event during one of the pilots to see how the traceability system works in enabling rapid communication response.

    To implement this technology at scale will require some standardization for marking different commodity types as well as give and take among the partners on best practices for handling commodities. It will also require an understanding of country regulations and partner interactions with subcontractors, government entities, and other stakeholders.

    “Within several years, I think it’s possible for BHA to use our system to mark and trace all their food procured in the United States and sent internationally,” MacLaren says.

    Once collected, the trove of traceability data could be harnessed for other purposes, among them analyzing historical trends, predicting future demand, and assessing the carbon footprint of commodity transport. In the future, a similar traceability system could scale for nonfood items, including medical supplies distributed to disaster victims, resources like generators and water trucks localized in emergency-response scenarios, and vaccines administered during pandemics. Several groups at the laboratory are also interested in such a system to track items such as tools deployed in space or equipment people carry through different operational environments.

    “When we first started this program, colleagues were asking why the laboratory was involved in simple tasks like making a dashboard, marking items with barcodes, and using hand scanners,” MacLaren says. “Our impact here isn’t about the technology; it’s about providing a strategy for coordinated food-aid response and successfully implementing that strategy. Most importantly, it’s about people getting fed.” More

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    Learner in Afghanistan reaches beyond barriers to pursue career in data science

    Tahmina S. was a junior studying computer engineering at a top university in Afghanistan when a new government policy banned women from pursuing education. In August 2021, the Taliban prohibited girls from attending school beyond the sixth grade. While women were initially allowed to continue to attend universities, by October 2021, an order from the Ministry of Higher Education declared that all women in Afghanistan were suspended from attending public and private centers of higher education.

    Determined to continue her studies and pursue her ambitions, Tahmina found the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) and was accepted to its Certificate in Computer Science and Data Science program in 2022.

    “ReACT helped me realize that I can do big things and be a part of big things,” she says.

    MIT ReACT provides education and professional opportunities to learners from refugee and forcibly displaced communities worldwide. ReACT’s core pillars include academic development, human skills development, employment pathways, and network building. Since 2017, ReACT has offered its Certificate in Computer and Data Science (CDS) program free-of-cost to learners wherever they live. In 2022, ReACT welcomed its largest and most diverse cohort to date — 136 learners from 29 countries — including 25 learners from Afghanistan, more than half of whom are women.

    Tahmina was able to select her classes in the program, and especially valued learning Python — which has led to her studying other programming languages and gaining more skills in data science. She’s continuing to take online courses in hopes of completing her undergraduate degree, and someday pursuing a masters degree in computer science and becoming a data scientist.

    “It’s an important and fun career. I really love data,” she says. “If this is my only time for this experience, I will bring to the table what I have, and do my best.”

    In addition to the education ban, Tahmina also faced the challenge of accessing an internet connection, which is expensive where she lives. But she regularly studies between 12 and 14 hours a day to achieve her dreams.

    The ReACT program offers a blend of asynchronous and synchronous learning. Learners complete a curated series of online, rigorous MIT coursework through MITx with the support of teaching assistants and collaborators, and also participate in a series of interactive online workshops in interpersonal skills that are critical to success in education and careers.

    ReACT learners engage with MIT’s global network of experts including MIT staff, faculty, and alumni — as well as collaborators across technology, humanitarian, and government sectors.

    “I loved that experience a lot, it was a huge achievement. I’m grateful ReACT gave me a chance to be a part of that team of amazing people. I’m amazed I completed that program, because it was really challenging.”

    Theory into practice

    Tahmina was one of 10 students from the ReACT cohort accepted to the highly competitive MIT Innovation Leadership Bootcamp program. She worked on a team of five people who initiated a business proposal and took the project through each phase of the development process. Her team’s project was creating an app for finance management for users aged 23-51 — including all the graphic elements and a final presentation. One valuable aspect of the boot camp, Tahmina says, was presenting their project to real investors who then provided business insights and actionable feedback.

    As part of this ReACT cohort, Tahmina also participated in the Global Apprenticeship Program (GAP) pilot, an initiative led by Talanta and with the participation of MIT Open Learning as curriculum provider. The GAP initiative focuses on improving diverse emerging talent job preparedness and exploring how companies can successfully recruit, onboard, and retain this talent through remote, paid internships. Through the GAP pilot, Tahmina received training in professional skills, resume and interview preparation, and was matched with a financial sector firm for a four-month remote internship in data science.

    To prepare Tahmina and other learners for these professional experiences, ReACT trains its cohorts to work with people who have diverse backgrounds, experiences, and challenges. The nonprofit Na’amal offered workshops covering areas such as problem-solving, innovation and ideation, goal-setting, communication, teamwork, and infrastructure and info security. Tahmina was able to access English classes and learn valuable career skills, such as writing a resume.“This was an amazing part for me. There’s a huge difference going from theoretical to practical,” she says. “Not only do you have to have the theoretical experience, you have to have soft skills. You have to communicate everything you learn to other people, because other people in the business might not have that knowledge, so you have to tell the story in a way that they can understand.”

    ReACT wanted the women in the program to be mentored by women who were not only leaders in the tech field, but working in the same geographic region as learners. At the start of the internship, Na’amal connected Tahmina with a mentor, Maha Gad, who is head of talent development at Talabat and lives in Dubai. Tahmina met with Gad at the beginning and end of each month, giving her the opportunity to ask expansive questions. Tahmina says Gad encouraged her to research and plan first, and then worked with her to explore new tools, like Trello.

    Wanting to put her skills to use locally, Tahmina volunteered at the nonprofit Rumie, a community for Afghan women and girls, working as a learning designer, translator, team leader, and social media manager. She currently volunteers at Correspondents of the World as a story ambassador, helping Afghan people share stories, community, and culture — especially telling the stories of Afghan women and the changes they’ve made in the world.

    “It’s been the most beautiful journey of my life that I will never forget,” says Tahmina. “I found ReACT at a time when I had nothing, and I found the most valuable thing.” More

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    Democratizing education: Bringing MIT excellence to the masses

    How do you quantify the value of education or measure success? For the team behind the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society’s (IDSS) MicroMasters Program in Statistics and Data Science (SDS), providing over 1,000 individuals from around the globe with access to MIT-level programming feels like a pretty good place to start. 

    Thanks to the MIT-conceived MicroMasters-style format, SDS faculty director Professor Devavrat Shah and his colleagues have eliminated the physical restrictions created by a traditional brick-and-mortar education, allowing 1,178 learners and counting from 89 countries access to an MIT education.

    “Taking classes from a Nobel Prize winner doesn’t happen every day,” says Oscar Vele, a strategic development worker for the town of Cuenca, Ecuador. “My dream has always been to study at MIT. I knew it was not easy — now, through this program, my dream came true.”

    “With an online forum, in principle, admission is no longer the gate — the merit is a gate,” says Shah. “If you take a class that is MIT-level, and if you perform at MIT-level, then you should get MIT-level credentials.”

    The MM SDS program, delivered in collaboration with MIT Open Learning, plays a key role in the IDSS mission of advancing education in data science, and supports MIT’s overarching belief that everyone should be able to access a quality education no matter what their life circumstances may be.

    “Getting a program like this up and running to the point where it has credentials and credibility across the globe, is an important milestone for us,” says Shah. “Basically, for us, it says we are here to stay, and we are just getting started.”

    Since the program launched in 2018, Shah says he and his team have seen learners from all walks of life, from high-schoolers looking for a challenge to late-in-life learners looking to either evolve or refresh their knowledge.

    “Then there are individuals who want to prove to themselves that they can achieve serious knowledge and build a career,” Shah says. “Circumstances throughout their lives, whether it’s the country or socioeconomic conditions they’re born in, they have never had the opportunity to do something like this, and now they have an MIT-level education and credentials, which is a huge deal for them.”

    Many learners overcome challenges to complete the program, from financial hardships to balancing work, home life, and coursework, and finding private, internet-enabled space for learning — not to mention the added complications of a global pandemic. One Ukrainian learner even finished the program after fleeing her apartment for a bomb shelter.

    Remapping the way to a graduate degree

    For Diogo da Silva Branco Magalhaes, a 44-year-old lifelong learner, curiosity and the desire to evolve within his current profession brought him to the MicroMasters program. Having spent 15 years working in the public transport sector, da Silva Branco Magalhaes had a very specific challenge at the front of his mind: artificial intelligence.

    “It’s not science fiction; it’s already here,” he says. “Think about autonomous vehicles, on-demand transportation, mobility as a service — AI and data, in particular, are the driving force of a number of disruptions that will affect my industry.”

    When he signed up for the MicroMasters Program in Statistics and Data Science, da Silva Branco Magalhaes’ said he had no long-term plans, but was taking a first step. “I just wanted to have a first contact with this reality, understand the basics, and then let’s see how it goes,” he describes.

    Now, after earning his credentials in 2021, he finds himself a few weeks into an accelerated master’s program at Northwestern University, one of several graduate pathways supported by the MM SDS program.

    “I was really looking to gain some basic background knowledge; I didn’t expect the level of quality and depth they were able to provide in an online lecture format,” he says. “Having access to this kind of content — it’s a privilege, and now that we have it, we have to make the most of it.”

    A refreshing investment

    As an applied mathematician with 15 years of experience in the U.S. defense sector, Celia Wilson says she felt comfortable with her knowledge, though not 100 percent confident that her math skills could stand up against the next generation.

    “I felt I was getting left behind,” she says. “So I decided to take some time out and invest in myself, and this program was a great opportunity to systematize and refresh my knowledge of statistics and data science.”

    Since completing the course, Wilson says she has secured a new job as a director of data and analytics, where she is confident in her ability to manage a team of the “new breed of data scientists.” It turns out, however, that completing the program has given her an even greater gift than self-confidence.

    “Most importantly,” she adds, “it’s inspired my daughters to tell anyone who will listen that math is definitely for girls.”

    Connecting an engaged community

    Each course is connected to an online forum that allows learners to enhance their experience through real-time conversations with others in their cohort.

    “We have worked hard to provide a scalable version of the traditional teaching assistant support system that you would get in a usual on-campus class, with a great online forum for people to connect with each other as learners,” Shah says.

    David Khachatrian, a data scientist working on improving the drug discovery pipeline, says that leveraging the community to hone his ability to “think clearly and communicate effectively with others” mattered more than anything.

    “Take the opportunity to engage with your community of fellow learners and facilitators — answer questions for others to give back to the community, solidify your own understanding, and practice your ability to explain clearly,” Khachatrian says. “These skills and behaviors will help you to succeed not just in SDS, but wherever you go in the future.”

    “There were a lot of active contributions from a lot of learners and I felt it was really a very strong component of the course,” da Silva Branco Magalhaes adds. “I had some offline contact with other students who are connections that I’ve kept up with to this day.”

    A solid path forward

    “We have a dedicated team supporting the MM SDS community on the MIT side,” Shah says, citing the contributions of Karene Chu, MM SDS assistant director of education; Susana Kevorkova, the MM SDS program manager; and Jeremy Rossen, MM program coordinator. “They’ve done so much to ensure the success of the program and our learners, and they are constantly adding value to the program — like identifying real-time supplementary opportunities for learners to participate in, including the IDSS Policy Hackathon.”

    The program now holds online “graduation” ceremonies, where credential holders from all over the world share their experiences. Says Shah, who looks forward to celebrating the next 1,000 learners: “Every time I think about it, I feel emotional. It feels great, and it keeps us going.” More

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    Research, education, and connection in the face of war

    When Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Tetiana Herasymova had several decisions to make: What should she do, where should she live, and should she take her MITx MicroMasters capstone exams? She had registered for the Statistics and Data Science Program’s final exams just days prior to moving out of her apartment and into a bomb shelter. Although it was difficult to focus on studying and preparations with air horns sounding overhead and uncertainty lingering around her, she was determined to try. “I wouldn’t let the aggressor in the war squash my dreams,” she says.

    A love of research and the desire to improve teaching 

    An early love of solving puzzles and problems for fun piqued Herasymova’s initial interest in mathematics. When she later pursued her PhD in mathematics at Kiev National Taras Shevchenko University, Herasymova’s love of math evolved into a love of research. Throughout Herasymova’s career, she’s worked to close the gap between scientific researchers and educators. Starting as a math tutor at MBA Strategy, a company that prepares Ukrainian leaders for qualifying standardized tests for MBA programs, she was later promoted as the head of their test preparation department. Afterward, she moved on to an equivalent position at ZNOUA, a new project that prepared high school students for Ukraine’s standardized test, and she eventually became ZNOUA’s CEO.

    In 2018, she founded Prosteer, a “self-learning community” of educators who share research, pedagogy, and experience to learn from one another. “It’s really interesting to have a community of teachers from different domains,” she says, speaking of educators and researchers whose specialties range across language, mathematics, physics, music, and more.

    Implementing new pedagogical research in the classroom is often up to educators who seek out studies on an individual basis, Herasymova has found. “Lots of scientists are not practitioners,” she says, and the reverse is also true. She only became more determined to build these connections once she was promoted to head of test preparation at MBA Strategy because she wanted to share more effective pedagogy with the tutors she was mentoring.

    First, Herasymova knew she needed a way to measure the teachers’ effectiveness. She was able to determine whether students who received the company’s tutoring services improved their scores. Moreover, Ukraine keeps an open-access database of national standardized test scores, so anyone could analyze the data in hopes of improving the level of education in the country. She says, “I could do some analytics because I am a mathematician, but I knew I could do much more with this data if I knew data science and machine learning knowledge.”

    That’s why Herasymova sought out the MITx MicroMasters Program in Statistics and Data Science offered by the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). “I wanted to learn the fundamentals so I could join the Learning Analytics domain,” she says. She was looking for a comprehensive program that covered the foundations without being overly basic. “I had some knowledge from the ground, so I could see the deepness of that course,” she says. Because of her background as an instructional designer, she thought the MicroMasters curriculum was well-constructed, calling the variety of videos, practice problems, and homework assignments that encouraged learners to approach the course material in different ways, “a perfect experience.”

    Another benefit of the MicroMasters program was its online format. “I had my usual work, so it was impossible to study in a stationary way,” she says. She found the structure to be more flexible than other programs. “It’s really great that you can construct your course schedule your own way, especially with your own adult life,” she says.

    Determination and support in the midst of war

    When the war first forced Herasymova to flee her apartment, she had already registered to take the exams for her four courses. “It was quite hard to prepare for exams when you could hear explosions outside of the bomb shelter,” she says. She and other Ukranians were invited to postpone their exams until the following session, but the next available testing period wouldn’t be held until October. “It was a hard decision, but I had to allow myself to try,” she says. “For all people in Ukraine, when you don’t know if you’re going to live or die, you try to live in the now. You have to appreciate every moment and what life brings to you. You don’t say, ‘Someday’ — you do it today or tomorrow.”

    In addition to emotional support from her boyfriend, Herasymova had a group of friends who had also enrolled in the program, and they supported each other through study sessions and an ongoing chat. Herasymova’s personal support network helped her accomplish what she set out to do with her MicroMasters program, and in turn, she was able to support her professional network. While Prosteer halted its regular work during the early stages of the war, Herasymova was determined to support the community of educators and scientists that she had built. They continued meeting weekly to exchange ideas as usual. “It’s intrinsic motivation,” she says. They managed to restore all of their activities by October.

    Despite the factors stacked against her, Herasymova’s determination paid off — she passed all of her exams in May, the final step to earning her MicroMasters certificate in statistics and data science. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she says. “It was definitely a bifurcation point. The moment when you realize that you have something to rely on, and that life is just beginning to show all its diversity despite the fact that you live in war.” With her newly minted certificate in hand, Herasymova has continued her research on the effectiveness of educational models — analyzing the data herself — with a summer research program at New York University. 

    The student becomes the master

    After moving seven times between February and October, heading west from Kyiv until most recently settling near the border of Poland, Herasymova hopes she’s moved for the last time. Ukrainian Catholic University offered her a position teaching both mathematics and programming. Before enrolling in the MicroMasters Program in Statistics and Data Science, she had some prior knowledge of programming languages and mathematical algorithms, but she didn’t know Python. She took MITx’s Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python to prepare. “It gave me a huge step forward,” she says. “I learned a lot. Now, not only can I work with Python machine learning models in programming language R, I also have knowledge of the big picture of the purpose and the point to do so.”

    In addition to the skills the MicroMasters Program trained her in, she gained firsthand experience in learning new subjects and exploring topics more deeply. She will be sharing that practice with the community of students and teachers she’s built, plus, she plans on guiding them through this course during the next year. As a continuation of her own educational growth, says she’s looking forward to her next MITx course this year, Data Analysis.

    Herasymova advises that the best way to keep progressing is investing a lot of time. “Adults don’t want to hear this, but you need one or two years,” she says. “Allow yourself to be stupid. If you’re an expert in one domain and want to switch to another, or if you want to understand something new, a lot of people don’t ask questions or don’t ask for help. But from this point, if I don’t know something, I know I should ask for help because that’s the start of learning. With a fixed mindset, you won’t grow.”

    July 2022 MicroMasters Program Joint Completion Celebration. Ukrainian student Tetiana Herasymova, who completed her program amid war in her home country, speaks at 43:55. More

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    Simulating discrimination in virtual reality

    Have you ever been advised to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes?” Considering another person’s perspective can be a challenging endeavor — but recognizing our errors and biases is key to building understanding across communities. By challenging our preconceptions, we confront prejudice, such as racism and xenophobia, and potentially develop a more inclusive perspective about others.

    To assist with perspective-taking, MIT researchers have developed “On the Plane,” a virtual reality role-playing game (VR RPG) that simulates discrimination. In this case, the game portrays xenophobia directed against a Malaysian America woman, but the approach can be generalized. Situated on an airplane, players can take on the role of characters from different backgrounds, engaging in dialogue with others while making in-game choices to a series of prompts. In turn, players’ decisions control the outcome of a tense conversation between the characters about cultural differences.

    As a VR RPG, “On the Plane” encourages players to take on new roles that may be outside of their personal experiences in the first person, allowing them to confront in-group/out-group bias by incorporating new perspectives into their understanding of different cultures. Players engage with three characters: Sarah, a first-generation Muslim American of Malaysian ancestry who wears a hijab; Marianne, a white woman from the Midwest with little exposure to other cultures and customs; or a flight attendant. Sarah represents the out group, Marianne is a member of the in group, and the flight staffer is a bystander witnessing an exchange between the two passengers.“This project is part of our efforts to harness the power of virtual reality and artificial intelligence to address social ills, such as discrimination and xenophobia,” says Caglar Yildirim, an MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) research scientist who is a co-author and co-game designer on the project. “Through the exchange between the two passengers, players experience how one passenger’s xenophobia manifests itself and how it affects the other passenger. The simulation engages players in critical reflection and seeks to foster empathy for the passenger who was ‘othered’ due to her outfit being not so ‘prototypical’ of what an American should look like.”

    Yildirim worked alongside the project’s principal investigator, D. Fox Harrell, MIT professor of digital media and AI at CSAIL, the Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS), and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and founding director of the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality. “It is not possible for a simulation to give someone the life experiences of another person, but while you cannot ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ in that sense, a system like this can help people recognize and understand the social patterns at work when it comes to issue like bias,” says Harrell, who is also co-author and designer on this project. “An engaging, immersive, interactive narrative can also impact people emotionally, opening the door for users’ perspectives to be transformed and broadened.” This simulation also utilizes an interactive narrative engine that creates several options for responses to in-game interactions based on a model of how people are categorized socially. The tool grants players a chance to alter their standing in the simulation through their reply choices to each prompt, affecting their affinity toward the other two characters. For example, if you play as the flight attendant, you can react to Marianne’s xenophobic expressions and attitudes toward Sarah, changing your affinities. The engine will then provide you with a different set of narrative events based on your changes in standing with others.

    To animate each avatar, “On the Plane” incorporates artificial intelligence knowledge representation techniques controlled by probabilistic finite state machines, a tool commonly used in machine learning systems for pattern recognition. With the help of these machines, characters’ body language and gestures are customizable: if you play as Marianne, the game will customize her mannerisms toward Sarah based on user inputs, impacting how comfortable she appears in front of a member of a perceived out group. Similarly, players can do the same from Sarah or the flight attendant’s point of view.In a 2018 paper based on work done in a collaboration between MIT CSAIL and the Qatar Computing Research Institute, Harrell and co-author Sercan Şengün advocated for virtual system designers to be more inclusive of Middle Eastern identities and customs. They claimed that if designers allowed users to customize virtual avatars more representative of their background, it might empower players to engage in a more supportive experience. Four years later, “On the Plane” accomplishes a similar goal, incorporating a Muslim’s perspective into an immersive environment.

    “Many virtual identity systems, such as avatars, accounts, profiles, and player characters, are not designed to serve the needs of people across diverse cultures. We have used statistical and AI methods in conjunction with qualitative approaches to learn where the gaps are,” they note. “Our project helps engender perspective transformation so that people will treat each other with respect and enhanced understanding across diverse cultural avatar representations.”

    Harrell and Yildirim’s work is part of the MIT IDSS’s Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism (ICSR). Harrell is on the initiative’s steering committee and is the leader of the newly forming Antiracism, Games, and Immersive Media vertical, who study behavior, cognition, social phenomena, and computational systems related to race and racism in video games and immersive experiences.

    The researchers’ latest project is part of the ICSR’s broader goal to launch and coordinate cross-disciplinary research that addresses racially discriminatory processes across American institutions. Using big data, members of the research initiative develop and employ computing tools that drive racial equity. Yildirim and Harrell accomplish this goal by depicting a frequent, problematic scenario that illustrates how bias creeps into our everyday lives.“In a post-9/11 world, Muslims often experience ethnic profiling in American airports. ‘On the Plane’ builds off of that type of in-group favoritism, a well-established finding in psychology,” says MIT Professor Fotini Christia, director of the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) and associate director or IDSS. “This game also takes a novel approach to analyzing hardwired bias by utilizing VR instead of field experiments to simulate prejudice. Excitingly, this research demonstrates that VR can be used as a tool to help us better measure bias, combating systemic racism and other forms of discrimination.”“On the Plane” was developed on the Unity game engine using the XR Interaction Toolkit and Harrell’s Chimeria platform for authoring interactive narratives that involve social categorization. The game will be deployed for research studies later this year on both desktop computers and the standalone, wireless Meta Quest headsets. A paper on the work was presented in December at the 2022 IEEE International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality. More

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    A breakthrough on “loss and damage,” but also disappointment, at UN climate conference

    As the 2022 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP27, stretched into its final hours on Saturday, Nov. 19, it was uncertain what kind of agreement might emerge from two weeks of intensive international negotiations.

    In the end, COP27 produced mixed results: on the one hand, a historic agreement for wealthy countries to compensate low-income countries for “loss and damage,” but on the other, limited progress on new plans for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.

    “We need to drastically reduce emissions now — and this is an issue this COP did not address,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement at the conclusion of COP27. “A fund for loss and damage is essential — but it’s not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map — or turns an entire African country to desert.”

    Throughout the two weeks of the conference, a delegation of MIT students, faculty, and staff was at the Sharm El-Sheikh International Convention Center to observe the negotiations, conduct and share research, participate in panel discussions, and forge new connections with researchers, policymakers, and advocates from around the world.

    Loss and damage

    A key issue coming in to COP27 (COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, held for the 27th time) was loss and damage: a term used by the U.N. to refer to harms caused by climate change — either through acute catastrophes like extreme weather events or slower-moving impacts like sea level rise — to which communities and countries are unable to adapt. 

    Ultimately, a deal on loss and damage proved to be COP27’s most prominent accomplishment. Negotiators reached an eleventh-hour agreement to “establish new funding arrangements for assisting developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” 

    “Providing financial assistance to developing countries so they can better respond to climate-related loss and damage is not only a moral issue, but also a pragmatic one,” said Michael Mehling, deputy director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, who attended COP27 and participated in side events. “Future emissions growth will be squarely centered in the developing world, and offering support through different channels is key to building the trust needed for more robust global cooperation on mitigation.”

    Youssef Shaker, a graduate student in the MIT Technology and Policy Program and a research assistant with the MIT Energy Initiative, attended the second week of the conference, where he followed the negotiations over loss and damage closely. 

    “While the creation of a fund is certainly an achievement,” Shaker said, “significant questions remain to be answered, such as the size of the funding available as well as which countries receive access to it.” A loss-and-damage fund that is not adequately funded, Shaker noted, “would not be an impactful outcome.” 

    The agreement on loss and damage created a new committee, made up of 24 country representatives, to “operationalize” the new funding arrangements, including identifying funding sources. The committee is tasked with delivering a set of recommendations at COP28, which will take place next year in Dubai.

    Advising the U.N. on net zero

    Though the decisions reached at COP27 did not include major new commitments on reducing emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, the transition to a clean global energy system was nevertheless a key topic of conversation throughout the conference.

    The Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition (CEET), an independent, international body of engineers and energy systems experts formed to provide advice to the U.N. on achieving net-zero emissions globally by 2050, convened for the first time at COP27. Jessika Trancik, a professor in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and a member of CEET, spoke on a U.N.-sponsored panel on solutions for the transition to clean energy.

    Trancik noted that the energy transition will look different in different regions of the world. “As engineers, we need to understand those local contexts and design solutions around those local contexts — that’s absolutely essential to support a rapid and equitable energy transition.”

    At the same time, Trancik noted that there is now a set of “low-cost, ready-to-scale tools” available to every region — tools that resulted from a globally competitive process of innovation, stimulated by public policies in different countries, that dramatically drove down the costs of technologies like solar energy and lithium-ion batteries. The key, Trancik said, is for regional transition strategies to “tap into global processes of innovation.”

    Reinventing climate adaptation

    Elfatih Eltahir, the H. M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate, traveled to COP27 to present plans for the Jameel Observatory Climate Resilience Early Warning System (CREWSnet), one of the five projects selected in April 2022 as a flagship in MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges initiative. CREWSnet focuses on climate adaptation, the term for adapting to climate impacts that are unavoidable.

    The aim of CREWSnet, Eltahir told the audience during a panel discussion, is “nothing short of reinventing the process of climate change adaptation,” so that it is proactive rather than reactive; community-led; data-driven and evidence-based; and so that it integrates different climate risks, from heat waves to sea level rise, rather than treating them individually.

    “However, it’s easy to talk about these changes,” said Eltahir. “The real challenge, which we are now just launching and engaging in, is to demonstrate that on the ground.” Eltahir said that early demonstrations will happen in a couple of key locations, including southwest Bangladesh, where multiple climate risks — rising sea levels, increasing soil salinity, and intensifying heat waves and cyclones — are combining to threaten the area’s agricultural production.

    Building on COP26

    Some members of MIT’s delegation attended COP27 to advance efforts that had been formally announced at last year’s U.N. climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.

    At an official U.N. side event co-organized by MIT on Nov. 11, Greg Sixt, the director of the Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance led by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, provided an update on the alliance’s work since its launch at COP26.

    Food systems are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions — and are increasingly vulnerable to climate impacts. The FACT Alliance works to better connect researchers to farmers, food businesses, policymakers, and other food systems stakeholders to make food systems (which include food production, consumption, and waste) more sustainable and resilient. 

    Sixt told the audience that the FACT Alliance now counts over 20 research and stakeholder institutions around the world among its members, but also collaborates with other institutions in an “open network model” to advance work in key areas — such as a new research project exploring how climate scenarios could affect global food supply chains.

    Marcela Angel, research program director for the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), helped convene a meeting at COP27 of the Afro-InterAmerican Forum on Climate Change, which also launched at COP26. The forum works with Afro-descendant leaders across the Americas to address significant environmental issues, including climate risks and biodiversity loss. 

    At the event — convened with the Colombian government and the nonprofit Conservation International — ESI brought together leaders from six countries in the Americas and presented recent work that estimates that there are over 178 million individuals who identify as Afro-descendant living in the Americas, in lands of global environmental importance. 

    “There is a significant overlap between biodiversity hot spots, protected areas, and areas of high Afro-descendant presence,” said Angel. “But the role and climate contributions of these communities is understudied, and often made invisible.”    

    Limiting methane emissions

    Methane is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas: When released into the atmosphere, it immediately traps about 120 times more heat than carbon dioxide does. More than 150 countries have now signed the Global Methane Pledge, launched at COP26, which aims to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2020 levels.

    Sergey Paltsev, the deputy director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative, gave the keynote address at a Nov. 17 event on methane, where he noted the importance of methane reductions from the oil and gas sector to meeting the 2030 goal.

    “The oil and gas sector is where methane emissions reductions could be achieved the fastest,” said Paltsev. “We also need to employ an integrated approach to address methane emissions in all sectors and all regions of the world because methane emissions reductions provide a near-term pathway to avoiding dangerous tipping points in the global climate system.”

    “Keep fighting relentlessly”

    Arina Khotimsky, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering and a co-president of the MIT Energy and Climate Club, attended the first week of COP27. She reflected on the experience in a social media post after returning home. 

    “COP will always have its haters. Is there greenwashing? Of course! Is everyone who should have a say in this process in the room? Not even close,” wrote Khotimsky. “So what does it take for COP to matter? It takes everyone who attended to not only put ‘climate’ on front-page news for two weeks, but to return home and keep fighting relentlessly against climate change. I know that I will.” More

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    Urbanization: No fast lane to transformation

    Accra, Ghana, “is a city I’ve come to know as well as any place in the U.S,” says Associate Professor Noah Nathan, who has conducted research there over the past 15 years. The booming capital of 4 million is an ideal laboratory for investigating the rapid urbanization of nations in Africa and beyond, believes Nathan, who joined the MIT Department of Political Science in July.

    “Accra is vibrant and exciting, with gleaming glass office buildings, shopping centers, and an emerging middle class,” he says. “But at the same time there is enormous poverty, with slums and a mixing pot of ethnic groups.” Cities like Accra that have emerged in developing countries around the world are “hybrid spaces” that provoke a multitude of questions for Nathan.

    “Rich and poor are in incredibly close proximity and I want to know how this dramatic inequality can be sustainable, and what politics looks like with such ethnic and class diversity living side-by-side,” he says.

    With his singular approach to data collection and deep understanding of Accra, its neighborhoods, and increasingly, its built environment, Nathan is generating a body of scholarship on the political impacts of urbanization throughout the global South.

    A trap in the urban transition

    Nathan’s early studies of Accra challenged common expectations about how urbanization shifts political behavior.

    “Modernization theory states that as people become more ‘modern’ and move to cities, ethnicity fades and class becomes the dominant dynamic in political behavior,” explains Nathan. “It predicts that the process of urbanization transforms the relationship between politicians and voters, and elections become more ideologically and policy oriented,” says Nathan.  

    But in Accra, the heart of one of the fastest-growing economies in the developing world, Nathan found “a type of politics stuck in an old equilibrium, hard to dislodge, and not updated by newly wealthy voters,” he says. Using census data revealing the demographic composition of every neighborhood in Accra, Nathan determined that there were many enclaves in which forms of patronage politics and ethnic competition persist. He conducted sample surveys and collected polling-station level results on residents’ voting across the city. “I was able to merge spatial data on where people lived and their answers to survey questions, and determine how different neighborhoods voted,” says Nathan.

    Among his findings: Ethnic politics were thriving in many parts of Accra, and many middle-class voters were withdrawing from politics entirely in reaction to the well-established practice of patronage rather than pressuring politicians to change their approach. “They decided it was better to look out for themselves,” he explains.

    In Nathan’s 2019 book, “Electoral Politics and Africa’s Urban Transition: Class and Ethnicity in Ghana,” he described this situation as a trap. “As the wealthy exit from the state, politicians double down on patronage politics with poor voters, which the middle class views as further evidence of corruption,” he explains. The wealthier citizens “want more public goods, and big policy reforms, such as changes in the health-care and tax systems, while poor voters focus on immediate needs such as jobs, homes, better schools in their communities.”

    In Ghana and other developing countries where the state’s capacity is limited, politicians can’t deliver on the broad-scale changes desired by the middle class. Motivated by their own political survival, they continue dealing with poor voters as clients, trading services for votes. “I connect urban politics in Ghana to the early 20th-century urban machines in the United States, run by party bosses,” says Nathan.

    This may prove sobering news for many engaged with the developing world. “There’s enormous enthusiasm among foreign aid organizations, in the popular press and policy circles, for the idea that urbanization will usher in big, radical political change,” notes Nathan. “But these kinds of transformations will only come about with structural change such as civil service reforms and nonpartisan welfare programs that can push politicians beyond just delivering targeted services to poor voters.”

    Falling in love with Ghana

    For most of his youth, Nathan was a committed jazz saxophonist, toying with going professional. But he had long cultivated another fascination as well. “I was a huge fan of ‘The West Wing’ in middle school” and got into American politics through that,” he says. He volunteered in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign during college, but soon realized work in politics was “both more boring and not as idealistic” as he’d hoped.

    As an undergraduate at Harvard University, where he concentrated in government, he “signed up for African history on a lark — because American high schools didn’t teach anything on the subject — and I loved it,” Nathan says. He took another African history course, and then found his way to classes taught by Harvard political scientist Robert H. Bates PhD ’69 that focused on the political economy of development, ethnic conflict, and state failure in Africa. In the summer before his senior year, he served as a research assistant for one of his professors in Ghana, and then stayed longer, hoping to map out a senior thesis on ethnic conflict.

    “Once I got to Ghana, I was fascinated by the place — the dynamism of this rapidly transforming society,” he recalls. “Growing up in the U.S., there are a lot of stereotypes about the developing world, and I quickly realized how much more complicated everything is.”

    These initial experiences living in Ghana shaped Nathan’s ideas for what became his doctoral dissertation at Harvard and first book on the ethnic and class dynamics driving the nation’s politics. His frequent return visits to that country sparked a wealth of research that built on and branched out from this work.

    One set of studies examines the historical development of Ghana’s rural north in its colonial and post-colonial periods, the center of ethnic conflict in the 1990s. These are communities “where the state delivers few resources, doesn’t seem to do much, yet figures as a central actor in people’s lives,” he says.

    Part of this region had been a German colony, and the other part was originally under British rule, and Nathan compared the political trajectories of these two areas, focusing on differences in early state efforts to impose new forms of local political leadership and gradually build a formal education system.

    “The colonial legacy in the British areas was elite families who came to dominate, entrenching themselves and creating political dynasties and economic inequality,” says Nathan. But similar ethnic groups exposed to different state policies in the original German colony were not riven with the same class inequalities, and enjoy better access to government services today. “This research is changing how we think about state weakness in the developing world, how we tend to see the emergence of inequality where societal elites come into power,” he says. The results of Nathan’s research will be published in a forthcoming book, “The Scarce State: Inequality and Political Power in the Hinterland.”

    Politics of built spaces

    At MIT, Nathan is pivoting to a fresh new framing for questions on urbanization. Wielding a public source map of cities around the world, he is scrutinizing the geometry of street grids in 1,000 of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest cities “to think about urban order,” he says. Digitizing historical street maps of African cities from the Library of Congress’s map collection, he can look at how these cities were built and evolved physically. “When cities emerge based on grids, rather than tangles, they are more legible to governments,” he says. “This means that it’s easier to find people, easier to govern, tax, repress, and politically mobilize them.”  

    Nathan has begun to demonstrate that in the post-colonial period, “cities that were built under authoritarian regimes tend to be most legible, with even low-capacity regimes trying to impose control and make them gridded.” Democratic governments, he says, “lead to more tangled and chaotic built environments, with people doing what they want.” He also draws comparisons to how state policies shaped urban growth in the United States, with local and federal governments exerting control over neighborhood development, leading to redlining and segregation in many cities.

    Nathan’s interests naturally pull him toward the MIT Governance Lab and Global Diversity Lab. “I’m hoping to dive into both,” he says. “One big attraction of the department is the really interesting research that’s being done on developing countries.”  He also plans to use the stature he has built over many years of research in Africa to help “open doors” to African researchers and students, who may not always get the same kind of access to institutions and data that he has had. “I’m hoping to build connections to researchers in the global South,” he says. More

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    Q&A: Global challenges surrounding the deployment of AI

    The AI Policy Forum (AIPF) is an initiative of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing to move the global conversation about the impact of artificial intelligence from principles to practical policy implementation. Formed in late 2020, AIPF brings together leaders in government, business, and academia to develop approaches to address the societal challenges posed by the rapid advances and increasing applicability of AI.

    The co-chairs of the AI Policy Forum are Aleksander Madry, the Cadence Design Systems Professor; Asu Ozdaglar, deputy dean of academics for the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; and Luis Videgaray, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and director of MIT AI Policy for the World Project. Here, they discuss talk some of the key issues facing the AI policy landscape today and the challenges surrounding the deployment of AI. The three are co-organizers of the upcoming AI Policy Forum Summit on Sept. 28, which will further explore the issues discussed here.

    Q: Can you talk about the ­ongoing work of the AI Policy Forum and the AI policy landscape generally?

    Ozdaglar: There is no shortage of discussion about AI at different venues, but conversations are often high-level, focused on questions of ethics and principles, or on policy problems alone. The approach the AIPF takes to its work is to target specific questions with actionable policy solutions and engage with the stakeholders working directly in these areas. We work “behind the scenes” with smaller focus groups to tackle these challenges and aim to bring visibility to some potential solutions alongside the players working directly on them through larger gatherings.

    Q: AI impacts many sectors, which makes us naturally worry about its trustworthiness. Are there any emerging best practices for development and deployment of trustworthy AI?

    Madry: The most important thing to understand regarding deploying trustworthy AI is that AI technology isn’t some natural, preordained phenomenon. It is something built by people. People who are making certain design decisions.

    We thus need to advance research that can guide these decisions as well as provide more desirable solutions. But we also need to be deliberate and think carefully about the incentives that drive these decisions. 

    Now, these incentives stem largely from the business considerations, but not exclusively so. That is, we should also recognize that proper laws and regulations, as well as establishing thoughtful industry standards have a big role to play here too.

    Indeed, governments can put in place rules that prioritize the value of deploying AI while being keenly aware of the corresponding downsides, pitfalls, and impossibilities. The design of such rules will be an ongoing and evolving process as the technology continues to improve and change, and we need to adapt to socio-political realities as well.

    Q: Perhaps one of the most rapidly evolving domains in AI deployment is in the financial sector. From a policy perspective, how should governments, regulators, and lawmakers make AI work best for consumers in finance?

    Videgaray: The financial sector is seeing a number of trends that present policy challenges at the intersection of AI systems. For one, there is the issue of explainability. By law (in the U.S. and in many other countries), lenders need to provide explanations to customers when they take actions deleterious in whatever way, like denial of a loan, to a customer’s interest. However, as financial services increasingly rely on automated systems and machine learning models, the capacity of banks to unpack the “black box” of machine learning to provide that level of mandated explanation becomes tenuous. So how should the finance industry and its regulators adapt to this advance in technology? Perhaps we need new standards and expectations, as well as tools to meet these legal requirements.

    Meanwhile, economies of scale and data network effects are leading to a proliferation of AI outsourcing, and more broadly, AI-as-a-service is becoming increasingly common in the finance industry. In particular, we are seeing fintech companies provide the tools for underwriting to other financial institutions — be it large banks or small, local credit unions. What does this segmentation of the supply chain mean for the industry? Who is accountable for the potential problems in AI systems deployed through several layers of outsourcing? How can regulators adapt to guarantee their mandates of financial stability, fairness, and other societal standards?

    Q: Social media is one of the most controversial sectors of the economy, resulting in many societal shifts and disruptions around the world. What policies or reforms might be needed to best ensure social media is a force for public good and not public harm?

    Ozdaglar: The role of social media in society is of growing concern to many, but the nature of these concerns can vary quite a bit — with some seeing social media as not doing enough to prevent, for example, misinformation and extremism, and others seeing it as unduly silencing certain viewpoints. This lack of unified view on what the problem is impacts the capacity to enact any change. All of that is additionally coupled with the complexities of the legal framework in the U.S. spanning the First Amendment, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and trade laws.

    However, these difficulties in regulating social media do not mean that there is nothing to be done. Indeed, regulators have begun to tighten their control over social media companies, both in the United States and abroad, be it through antitrust procedures or other means. In particular, Ofcom in the U.K. and the European Union is already introducing new layers of oversight to platforms. Additionally, some have proposed taxes on online advertising to address the negative externalities caused by current social media business model. So, the policy tools are there, if the political will and proper guidance exists to implement them. More