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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

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    Visualizing migration stories

    On July 27, 2020, 51 people migrating to the United States were found dead in an overheated trailer near the Mexican border. Understanding why migrants willingly take such risks is the topic of a recent exhibition and report, co-authored by researchers at MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab (CDDL). The research has been used by the U.S. Senate and the United Nations to develop new policies to address the challenges, dangers, and opportunities presented by migration in the Americas.

    To illustrate these motivations and risks, researchers at CDDL have designed an exhibition featuring digital and physical visualizations that encourage visitors to engage with migrants’ experiences more fully. “Distance Unknown” made its debut at the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) executive board meeting in Rome earlier this summer, with plans for additional exhibition stops over the next year.

    The exhibition is inspired by the 2021 report about migration, co-authored by CDDL, that highlighted economic distress as the main factor pushing migrants from Central America to the United States. The report’s findings were cited in a January 2022 letter from 35 U.S. senators to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (who leads the Biden administration’s migration task force) that advocated for addressing humanitarian needs in Central America. In June, the United States joined 20 countries in issuing the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, which proposed expanded legal avenues to migration.

    “This exhibition takes a unique approach to visualizing migration stories by humanizing the data. Visitors to the exhibition can see the data in aggregate, but then they can dive deeper and learn migrants’ individual motivations,” says Sarah Williams, associate professor of technology and urban planning, director of the Civic Data Design Lab and the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism, and the lead designer of the exhibition.

    The data for the exhibition were taken from a survey of over 5,000 people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras conducted by the WFP and analyzed in the subsequent report. The report showed that approximately 43 percent of people surveyed in 2021 were considering migrating in the prior year, compared to 8 percent in 2019 — a change that comes after nearly two years of impacts from a global pandemic and as food insecurity dramatically increased in that region. Survey respondents cited low wages, unemployment, and minimal income levels as factors increasing their desire to migrate — ahead of reasons such as violence or natural disasters. 

    On the wall of the exhibition is a vibrant tapestry made of paper currency woven by 13 Latin American immigrants. Approximately 15-by-8 feet, this physical data visualization explains the root causes of migration from Central America documented by CDDL research. Each bill in the tapestry represents one migrant; visitors are invited to take a piece of the tapestry and scan it at a touch-screen station, where the story of that migrant appears. This allows visitors to dive deeper into the causes of migration by learning more about why an individual migrant family in the study left home, their household circumstances, and their personal stories.

    Another feature of the exhibition is an interactive map that allows visitors to explore the journeys and barriers that migrants face along the way. Created from a unique dataset collected by researchers from internet hotspots along the migration trail, the data showed that migrants from 43 countries (some as distant as China and Afghanistan) used this Latin American trail. The map highlights the Darien Gap region of Central America, one of the most dangerous and costly migration routes. The area is remote, without roads, and consists of swamps and dense jungle.

    The “Distance Unknown” exhibition represented data taken from internet hotspots on the migration pathway from the Darien Gap in Colombia to the Mexican border. This image shows migrant routes from 43 countries.

    Image courtesy of the Civic Data Design Lab.

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    The intense multimedia exhibition demonstrates the approach that Williams takes with her research. “One of the exciting features of the exhibition is that it shows that artistic forms of data visualization start new conversations, which create the dialogue necessary for policy change. We couldn’t be more thrilled with the way the exhibition helped influence the hearts and minds of people who have the political will to impact policy,” says Williams.

    In his opening remarks to the exhibition, David Beasley, executive director of WFP, explained that “when people have to migrate because they have no choice, it creates political problems on all sides,” and emphasized the importance of proposing solutions. Citing the 2021 report, Beasley noted that migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras collectively spent $2.2 billion to migrate to the United States in 2021, which is comparable to what their respective governments spend on primary education.

    The WFP hopes to bring the exhibition to other locations, including Washington, Geneva, New York, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Panama. More

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    Emma Gibson: Optimizing health care logistics in Africa

    Growing up in South Africa at the turn of the century, Emma Gibson saw the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its devastating impact on her home country, where many people lacked life-saving health care. At the time, Gibson was too young to understand what a sexually transmitted infection was, but she knew that HIV was infecting millions of South Africans and AIDS was taking hundreds of thousands of lives. “As a child, I was terrified by this monster that was HIV and felt so powerless to do anything about it,” she says.

    Now, as an adult, her childhood fear of the HIV epidemic has evolved into a desire to fight it. Gibson seeks to improve health care for HIV and other diseases in regions with limited resources, including South Africa. She wants to help health care facilities in these areas to use their resources more effectively so that patients can more easily obtain care.

    To help reach her goal, Gibson sought mathematics and logistics training through higher education in South Africa. She first earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematical sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, and then her master’s degree in operations research at Stellenbosch University. There, she learned to tackle complex decision-making problems using math, statistics, and computer simulations.

    During her master’s, Gibson studied the operational challenges faced in rural South African health care facilities by working with staff at Zithulele Hospital in the Eastern Cape, one of the country’s poorest provinces. Her research focused on ways to reduce hours-long wait times for patients seeking same-day care. In the end, she developed a software tool to model patient congestion throughout the day and optimize staff schedules accordingly, enabling the hospital to care for its patients more efficiently.

    After completing her master’s, Gibson wanted to further her education outside of South Africa and left to pursue a PhD in operations research at MIT. Upon arrival, she branched out in her research and worked on a project to improve breast cancer treatment in U.S. health care, a very different environment from what she was used to.

    Two years later, Gibson had the opportunity to return to researching health care in resource-limited settings and began working with Jónas Jónasson, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, on a new project to improve diagnostic services in sub-Saharan Africa. For the past four years, she has been working diligently on this project in collaboration with researchers at the Indian School of Business and Northwestern University. “My love language is time,” she says. “If I’m investing a lot of time in something, I really value it.”

    Scheduling sample transport

    Diagnostic testing is an essential tool that allows medical professionals to identify new diagnoses in patients and monitor patients’ conditions as they undergo treatment. For example, people living with HIV require regular blood tests to ensure that their prescribed treatments are working effectively and provide an early warning of potential treatment failures.

    For Gibson’s current project, she’s trying to improve diagnostic services in Malawi, a landlocked country in southeast Africa. “We have the tools” to diagnose and treat diseases like HIV, she says. “But in resource-limited settings, we often lack the money, the staff, and the infrastructure to reach every patient that needs them.”

    When diagnostic testing is needed, clinicians collect samples from patients and send the samples to be tested at a laboratory, which then returns the results to the facility where the patient is treated. To move these items between facilities and laboratories, Malawi has developed a national sample transportation network. The transportation system plays an important role in linking remote, rural facilities to laboratory services and ensuring that patients in these areas can access diagnostic testing through community clinics. Samples collected at these clinics are first transported to nearby district hubs, and then forwarded to laboratories located in urban areas. Since most facilities do not have computers or communications infrastructure, laboratories print copies of test results and send them back to facilities through the same transportation process.

    The sample transportation cycle is onerous, but it’s a practical solution to a difficult problem. “During the Covid pandemic, we saw how hard it was to scale up diagnostic infrastructure,” Gibson says. Diagnostic services in sub-Saharan Africa face “similar challenges, but in a much poorer setting.”

    In Malawi, sample transportation is managed by a  nongovernment organization called Riders 4 Health. The organization has around 80 couriers on motorcycles who transport samples and test results between facilities. “When we started working with [Riders], the couriers operated on fixed weekly schedules, visiting each site once or twice a week,” Gibson says. But that led to “a lot of unnecessary trips and delays.”

    To make sample transportation more efficient, Gibson developed a dynamic scheduling system that adapts to the current demand for diagnostic testing. The system consists of two main parts: an information sharing platform that aggregates sample transportation data, and an algorithm that uses the data to generate optimized routes and schedules for sample transport couriers.

    In 2019, Gibson ran a four-month-long pilot test for this system in three out of the 27 districts in Malawi. During the pilot study, six couriers transported over 20,000 samples and results across 51 health care facilities, and 150 health care workers participated in data sharing.

    The pilot was a success. Gibson’s dynamic scheduling system eliminated about half the unnecessary trips and reduced transportation delays by 25 percent — a delay that used to be four days was reduced to three. Now, Riders 4 Health is developing their own version of Gibson’s system to operate nationally in Malawi. Throughout this project, “we focused on making sure this was something that could grow with the organization,” she says. “It’s gratifying to see that actually happening.”

    Leveraging patient data

    Gibson is completing her MIT degree this September but will continue working to improve health care in Africa. After graduation, she will join the technology and analytics health care practice of an established company in South Africa. Her initial focus will be on public health care institutions, including Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Johannesburg, the third-largest hospital in the world.

    In this role, Gibson will work to fill in gaps in African patient data for medical operational research and develop ways to use this data more effectively to improve health care in resource-limited areas. For example, better data systems can help to monitor the prevalence and impact of different diseases, guiding where health care workers and researchers put their efforts to help the most people. “You can’t make good decisions if you don’t have all the information,” Gibson says.

    To best leverage patient data for improving health care, Gibson plans to reevaluate how data systems are structured and used in the hospital. For ideas on upgrading the current system, she’ll look to existing data systems in other countries to see what works and what doesn’t, while also drawing upon her past research experience in U.S. health care. Ultimately, she’ll tailor the new hospital data system to South African needs to accurately inform future directions in health care.

    Gibson’s new job — her “dream job” — will be based in the United Kingdom, but she anticipates spending a significant amount of time in Johannesburg. “I have so many opportunities in the wider world, but the ones that appeal to me are always back in the place I came from,” she says. More

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    Exploring emerging topics in artificial intelligence policy

    Members of the public sector, private sector, and academia convened for the second AI Policy Forum Symposium last month to explore critical directions and questions posed by artificial intelligence in our economies and societies.

    The virtual event, hosted by the AI Policy Forum (AIPF) — an undertaking by the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing to bridge high-level principles of AI policy with the practices and trade-offs of governing — brought together an array of distinguished panelists to delve into four cross-cutting topics: law, auditing, health care, and mobility.

    In the last year there have been substantial changes in the regulatory and policy landscape around AI in several countries — most notably in Europe with the development of the European Union Artificial Intelligence Act, the first attempt by a major regulator to propose a law on artificial intelligence. In the United States, the National AI Initiative Act of 2020, which became law in January 2021, is providing a coordinated program across federal government to accelerate AI research and application for economic prosperity and security gains. Finally, China recently advanced several new regulations of its own.

    Each of these developments represents a different approach to legislating AI, but what makes a good AI law? And when should AI legislation be based on binding rules with penalties versus establishing voluntary guidelines?

    Jonathan Zittrain, professor of international law at Harvard Law School and director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, says the self-regulatory approach taken during the expansion of the internet had its limitations with companies struggling to balance their interests with those of their industry and the public.

    “One lesson might be that actually having representative government take an active role early on is a good idea,” he says. “It’s just that they’re challenged by the fact that there appears to be two phases in this environment of regulation. One, too early to tell, and two, too late to do anything about it. In AI I think a lot of people would say we’re still in the ‘too early to tell’ stage but given that there’s no middle zone before it’s too late, it might still call for some regulation.”

    A theme that came up repeatedly throughout the first panel on AI laws — a conversation moderated by Dan Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and chair of the AI Policy Forum — was the notion of trust. “If you told me the truth consistently, I would say you are an honest person. If AI could provide something similar, something that I can say is consistent and is the same, then I would say it’s trusted AI,” says Bitange Ndemo, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Nairobi and the former permanent secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communication.

    Eva Kaili, vice president of the European Parliament, adds that “In Europe, whenever you use something, like any medication, you know that it has been checked. You know you can trust it. You know the controls are there. We have to achieve the same with AI.” Kalli further stresses that building trust in AI systems will not only lead to people using more applications in a safe manner, but that AI itself will reap benefits as greater amounts of data will be generated as a result.

    The rapidly increasing applicability of AI across fields has prompted the need to address both the opportunities and challenges of emerging technologies and the impact they have on social and ethical issues such as privacy, fairness, bias, transparency, and accountability. In health care, for example, new techniques in machine learning have shown enormous promise for improving quality and efficiency, but questions of equity, data access and privacy, safety and reliability, and immunology and global health surveillance remain at large.

    MIT’s Marzyeh Ghassemi, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, and David Sontag, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, collaborated with Ziad Obermeyer, an associate professor of health policy and management at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health, to organize AIPF Health Wide Reach, a series of sessions to discuss issues of data sharing and privacy in clinical AI. The organizers assembled experts devoted to AI, policy, and health from around the world with the goal of understanding what can be done to decrease barriers to access to high-quality health data to advance more innovative, robust, and inclusive research results while being respectful of patient privacy.

    Over the course of the series, members of the group presented on a topic of expertise and were tasked with proposing concrete policy approaches to the challenge discussed. Drawing on these wide-ranging conversations, participants unveiled their findings during the symposium, covering nonprofit and government success stories and limited access models; upside demonstrations; legal frameworks, regulation, and funding; technical approaches to privacy; and infrastructure and data sharing. The group then discussed some of their recommendations that are summarized in a report that will be released soon.

    One of the findings calls for the need to make more data available for research use. Recommendations that stem from this finding include updating regulations to promote data sharing to enable easier access to safe harbors such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has for de-identification, as well as expanding funding for private health institutions to curate datasets, amongst others. Another finding, to remove barriers to data for researchers, supports a recommendation to decrease obstacles to research and development on federally created health data. “If this is data that should be accessible because it’s funded by some federal entity, we should easily establish the steps that are going to be part of gaining access to that so that it’s a more inclusive and equitable set of research opportunities for all,” says Ghassemi. The group also recommends taking a careful look at the ethical principles that govern data sharing. While there are already many principles proposed around this, Ghassemi says that “obviously you can’t satisfy all levers or buttons at once, but we think that this is a trade-off that’s very important to think through intelligently.”

    In addition to law and health care, other facets of AI policy explored during the event included auditing and monitoring AI systems at scale, and the role AI plays in mobility and the range of technical, business, and policy challenges for autonomous vehicles in particular.

    The AI Policy Forum Symposium was an effort to bring together communities of practice with the shared aim of designing the next chapter of AI. In his closing remarks, Aleksander Madry, the Cadence Designs Systems Professor of Computing at MIT and faculty co-lead of the AI Policy Forum, emphasized the importance of collaboration and the need for different communities to communicate with each other in order to truly make an impact in the AI policy space.

    “The dream here is that we all can meet together — researchers, industry, policymakers, and other stakeholders — and really talk to each other, understand each other’s concerns, and think together about solutions,” Madry said. “This is the mission of the AI Policy Forum and this is what we want to enable.” More

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    Mining social media data for social good

    For Erin Walk, who has loved school since she was a little girl, pursuing a graduate degree always seemed like a given. As a mechanical engineering major at Harvard University with a minor in government, she figured that going to graduate school in engineering would be the next logical step. However, during her senior year, a class on the “Technology of War” changed her trajectory, sparking her interest in technology and policy.

    “[Warfare] seems like a very dark reason for this interest to blossom … but I was so interested in how these technological developments including cyberwar had such a large impact on the entire course of world history,” Walk says. The class took a starkly different perspective from her engineering classes, which often focused on how a revolutionary technology was built. Instead, Walk was challenged to think about “the implications of what this [technology] could do.” 

    Now, Walk is studying the intersection between data science, policy, and technology as a graduate student in the Social and Engineering Systems program (SES), part of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Her research has demonstrated the value and bias inherent in social media data, with a focus on how to mine social media data to better understand the conflict in Syria. 

    Using data for social good

    With a newfound interest in policy developing just as college was drawing to a close, Walk says, “I realized I did not know what I wanted to do research on for five whole years, and the idea of getting a PhD started to feel very daunting.” Instead, she decided to work for a web security company in Washington, as a member of the policy team. “Being in school can be this fast process where you feel like you are being pushed through a tube and all of a sudden you come out the other end. Work gave me a lot more mental time to think about what I enjoyed and what was important to me,” she says.

    Walk served as a liaison between thinktanks and nonprofits in Washington that worked to provide services and encourage policies that enable equitable technology distribution. The role helped her identify what held her interest: corporate social responsibility projects that addressed access to technology, in this case, by donating free web security services to nonprofit organizations and to election websites. She became curious about how access to data and to the Internet can be beneficial for education, and how such access can be leveraged to establish connections to populations that are otherwise hard-to-reach, such as refugees, marginalized groups, or activist communities that rely on anonymity for safety.

    Walk knew she wanted to pursue this kind of tech activism work, but she also recognized that staying with a company driven by profits would not be the best avenue to fulfill her personal career aspirations. Graduate school seemed like the best option to both learn the data science skills she needed, and pursue full-time research focusing on technology and policy.

    Finding new ways to tap social media data

    With these goals in mind, Walk joined the SES graduate program in IDSS. “This program for me had the most balance,” she says. “I have a lot of leeway to explore whatever kind of research I want, provided it has an impact component and a data component.”

    During her first year, she intended to explore a variety of research advisors to find the right fit. Instead, during her first few months on MIT’s campus, she sat down for an introductory meeting with her now-research advisor, Fotini Christia, the Ford International Professor in the Social Sciences, and walked out with a project. Her new task: analyzing “how different social media sources are used differently by groups within the conflict, and how those different narratives present themselves online. So much social science research tends to use just Twitter, or just Facebook, to draw conclusions. It is important to understand how your data set might be skewed,” she says.

    Walk’s current research focuses on another novel way to tap social media. Scholars traditionally use geographic data to understand population movements, but her research has demonstrated that social media can also be a ripe data source. She is analyzing how social media discussions differ in places with and without refugees, with a particular focus on places where refugees have returned to their homelands, including Syria.

    “Now that the [Syrian] civil war has been going on for so long, there is a lot of discussion on how to bring refugees back in [to their homelands],” Walk says. Her research adds to this discussion by using social media sources to understand and predict the factors that encourage refugees to return, such as economic opportunities and decreases in local violence. Her goal is to harness some of the social media data to provide policymakers and nonprofits with information on how to address repatriation and related issues.

    Walk attributes much of her growth as a graduate student to the influence of collaborators, especially Professor Kiran Garimella at Rutgers’ Department of Library and Information Science. “So much of being a graduate student is feeling like you have a stupid question and figuring out who you can be vulnerable with in asking that stupid question,” she says. “I am very lucky to have a lot of those people in my life.”

    Encouraging the next generation

    Now, as a third-year student, Walk is the one whom others go to with their “stupid questions.” This desire to mentor and share her knowledge extends beyond the laboratory. “Something I discovered is that I really like talking to and advising people who are in a similar position to where I was. It is fulfilling to work with smart people close to my age who are just trying to figure out the answers to these meaty life issues that I have also struggled with,” she says.

    This realization led Walk to a position as a resident advisor at Harvard University’s Mather House, an undergraduate dormitory and community center. Walk became a faculty dean aide during her first year at MIT, and since then has served as a full-time Mather House resident tutor. “Every year I advise a new class of students, and I just become invested in their process. I get to talk to people about their lives, about their classes, about what is making them excited and about what is making them sad,” she says.

    After she graduates, Walk plans to explore issues that have a positive, tangible impact on policy outcomes and people, perhaps in an academic lab or in a nonprofit organization. Two such issues that particularly intrigue her are internet access and privacy for underserved populations. Regardless of the issues, she will continue to draw from both political science and data science. “One of my favorite things about being a part of interdisciplinary research is that [experts in] political science and computer science approach these issues so differently, and it is very grounding to have both of those perspectives. Political science thinks so carefully about measurement, population selection, and research design … [while] computer science has so many interesting methods that should be used in other disciplines,” she says.

    No matter what the future holds, Walk already has a sense of contentment. She admits that “my path was much less linear than I expected. I don’t think I even realized that a field like this existed.” Nevertheless, she says with a laugh, “I think that little-girl me would be very proud of present-day me.” More