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    Generating the policy of tomorrow

    As first-year students in the Social and Engineering Systems (SES) doctoral program within the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), Eric Liu and Ashely Peake share an interest in investigating housing inequality issues.

    They also share a desire to dive head-first into their research.

    “In the first year of your PhD, you’re taking classes and still getting adjusted, but we came in very eager to start doing research,” Liu says.

    Liu, Peake, and many others found an opportunity to do hands-on research on real-world problems at the MIT Policy Hackathon, an initiative organized by students in IDSS, including the Technology and Policy Program (TPP). The weekend-long, interdisciplinary event — now in its sixth year — continues to gather hundreds of participants from around the globe to explore potential solutions to some of society’s greatest challenges.

    This year’s theme, “Hack-GPT: Generating the Policy of Tomorrow,” sought to capitalize on the popularity of generative AI (like the chatbot ChatGPT) and the ways it is changing how we think about technical and policy-based challenges, according to Dansil Green, a second-year TPP master’s student and co-chair of the event.

    “We encouraged our teams to utilize and cite these tools, thinking about the implications that generative AI tools have on their different challenge categories,” Green says.

    After 2022’s hybrid event, this year’s organizers pivoted back to a virtual-only approach, allowing them to increase the overall number of participants in addition to increasing the number of teams per challenge by 20 percent.

    “Virtual allows you to reach more people — we had a high number of international participants this year — and it helps reduce some of the costs,” Green says. “I think going forward we are going to try and switch back and forth between virtual and in-person because there are different benefits to each.”

    “When the magic hits”

    Liu and Peake competed in the housing challenge category, where they could gain research experience in their actual field of study. 

    “While I am doing housing research, I haven’t necessarily had a lot of opportunities to work with actual housing data before,” says Peake, who recently joined the SES doctoral program after completing an undergraduate degree in applied math last year. “It was a really good experience to get involved with an actual data problem, working closer with Eric, who’s also in my lab group, in addition to meeting people from MIT and around the world who are interested in tackling similar questions and seeing how they think about things differently.”

    Joined by Adrian Butterton, a Boston-based paralegal, as well as Hudson Yuen and Ian Chan, two software engineers from Canada, Liu and Peake formed what would end up being the winning team in their category: “Team Ctrl+Alt+Defeat.” They quickly began organizing a plan to address the eviction crisis in the United States.

    “I think we were kind of surprised by the scope of the question,” Peake laughs. “In the end, I think having such a large scope motivated us to think about it in a more realistic kind of way — how could we come up with a solution that was adaptable and therefore could be replicated to tackle different kinds of problems.”

    Watching the challenge on the livestream together on campus, Liu says they immediately went to work, and could not believe how quickly things came together.

    “We got our challenge description in the evening, came out to the purple common area in the IDSS building and literally it took maybe an hour and we drafted up the entire project from start to finish,” Liu says. “Then our software engineer partners had a dashboard built by 1 a.m. — I feel like the hackathon really promotes that really fast dynamic work stream.”

    “People always talk about the grind or applying for funding — but when that magic hits, it just reminds you of the part of research that people don’t talk about, and it was really a great experience to have,” Liu adds.

    A fresh perspective

    “We’ve organized hackathons internally at our company and they are great for fostering innovation and creativity,” says Letizia Bordoli, senior AI product manager at Veridos, a German-based identity solutions company that provided this year’s challenge in Data Systems for Human Rights. “It is a great opportunity to connect with talented individuals and explore new ideas and solutions that we might not have thought about.”

    The challenge provided by Veridos was focused on finding innovative solutions to universal birth registration, something Bordoli says only benefited from the fact that the hackathon participants were from all over the world.

    “Many had local and firsthand knowledge about certain realities and challenges [posed by the lack of] birth registration,” Bordoli says. “It brings fresh perspectives to existing challenges, and it gave us an energy boost to try to bring innovative solutions that we may not have considered before.”

    New frontiers

    Alongside the housing and data systems for human rights challenges was a challenge in health, as well as a first-time opportunity to tackle an aerospace challenge in the area of space for environmental justice.

    “Space can be a very hard challenge category to do data-wise since a lot of data is proprietary, so this really developed over the last few months with us having to think about how we could do more with open-source data,” Green explains. “But I am glad we went the environmental route because it opened the challenge up to not only space enthusiasts, but also environment and climate people.”

    One of the participants to tackle this new challenge category was Yassine Elhallaoui, a system test engineer from Norway who specializes in AI solutions and has 16 years of experience working in the oil and gas fields. Elhallaoui was a member of Team EcoEquity, which proposed an increase in policies supporting the use of satellite data to ensure proper evaluation and increase water resiliency for vulnerable communities.

    “The hackathons I have participated in in the past were more technical,” Elhallaoui says. “Starting with [MIT Science and Technology Policy Institute Director Kristen Kulinowski’s] workshop about policy writers and the solutions they came up with, and the analysis they had to do … it really changed my perspective on what a hackathon can do.”

    “A policy hackathon is something that can make real changes in the world,” she adds. More

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    Leveraging language to understand machines

    Natural language conveys ideas, actions, information, and intent through context and syntax; further, there are volumes of it contained in databases. This makes it an excellent source of data to train machine-learning systems on. Two master’s of engineering students in the 6A MEng Thesis Program at MIT, Irene Terpstra ’23 and Rujul Gandhi ’22, are working with mentors in the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab to use this power of natural language to build AI systems.

    As computing is becoming more advanced, researchers are looking to improve the hardware that they run on; this means innovating to create new computer chips. And, since there is literature already available on modifications that can be made to achieve certain parameters and performance, Terpstra and her mentors and advisors Anantha Chandrakasan, MIT School of Engineering dean and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and IBM’s researcher Xin Zhang, are developing an AI algorithm that assists in chip design.

    “I’m creating a workflow to systematically analyze how these language models can help the circuit design process. What reasoning powers do they have, and how can it be integrated into the chip design process?” says Terpstra. “And then on the other side, if that proves to be useful enough, [we’ll] see if they can automatically design the chips themselves, attaching it to a reinforcement learning algorithm.”

    To do this, Terpstra’s team is creating an AI system that can iterate on different designs. It means experimenting with various pre-trained large language models (like ChatGPT, Llama 2, and Bard), using an open-source circuit simulator language called NGspice, which has the parameters of the chip in code form, and a reinforcement learning algorithm. With text prompts, researchers will be able to query how the physical chip should be modified to achieve a certain goal in the language model and produced guidance for adjustments. This is then transferred into a reinforcement learning algorithm that updates the circuit design and outputs new physical parameters of the chip.

    “The final goal would be to combine the reasoning powers and the knowledge base that is baked into these large language models and combine that with the optimization power of the reinforcement learning algorithms and have that design the chip itself,” says Terpstra.

    Rujul Gandhi works with the raw language itself. As an undergraduate at MIT, Gandhi explored linguistics and computer sciences, putting them together in her MEng work. “I’ve been interested in communication, both between just humans and between humans and computers,” Gandhi says.

    Robots or other interactive AI systems are one area where communication needs to be understood by both humans and machines. Researchers often write instructions for robots using formal logic. This helps ensure that commands are being followed safely and as intended, but formal logic can be difficult for users to understand, while natural language comes easily. To ensure this smooth communication, Gandhi and her advisors Yang Zhang of IBM and MIT assistant professor Chuchu Fan are building a parser that converts natural language instructions into a machine-friendly form. Leveraging the linguistic structure encoded by the pre-trained encoder-decoder model T5, and a dataset of annotated, basic English commands for performing certain tasks, Gandhi’s system identifies the smallest logical units, or atomic propositions, which are present in a given instruction.

    “Once you’ve given your instruction, the model identifies all the smaller sub-tasks you want it to carry out,” Gandhi says. “Then, using a large language model, each sub-task can be compared against the available actions and objects in the robot’s world, and if any sub-task can’t be carried out because a certain object is not recognized, or an action is not possible, the system can stop right there to ask the user for help.”

    This approach of breaking instructions into sub-tasks also allows her system to understand logical dependencies expressed in English, like, “do task X until event Y happens.” Gandhi uses a dataset of step-by-step instructions across robot task domains like navigation and manipulation, with a focus on household tasks. Using data that are written just the way humans would talk to each other has many advantages, she says, because it means a user can be more flexible about how they phrase their instructions.

    Another of Gandhi’s projects involves developing speech models. In the context of speech recognition, some languages are considered “low resource” since they might not have a lot of transcribed speech available, or might not have a written form at all. “One of the reasons I applied to this internship at the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab was an interest in language processing for low-resource languages,” she says. “A lot of language models today are very data-driven, and when it’s not that easy to acquire all of that data, that’s when you need to use the limited data efficiently.” 

    Speech is just a stream of sound waves, but humans having a conversation can easily figure out where words and thoughts start and end. In speech processing, both humans and language models use their existing vocabulary to recognize word boundaries and understand the meaning. In low- or no-resource languages, a written vocabulary might not exist at all, so researchers can’t provide one to the model. Instead, the model can make note of what sound sequences occur together more frequently than others, and infer that those might be individual words or concepts. In Gandhi’s research group, these inferred words are then collected into a pseudo-vocabulary that serves as a labeling method for the low-resource language, creating labeled data for further applications.

    The applications for language technology are “pretty much everywhere,” Gandhi says. “You could imagine people being able to interact with software and devices in their native language, their native dialect. You could imagine improving all the voice assistants that we use. You could imagine it being used for translation or interpretation.” More

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    Three MIT students selected as inaugural MIT-Pillar AI Collective Fellows

    MIT-Pillar AI Collective has announced three inaugural fellows for the fall 2023 semester. With support from the program, the graduate students, who are in their final year of a master’s or PhD program, will conduct research in the areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science with the aim of commercializing their innovations.

    Launched by MIT’s School of Engineering and Pillar VC in 2022, the MIT-Pillar AI Collective supports faculty, postdocs, and students conducting research on AI, machine learning, and data science. Supported by a gift from Pillar VC and administered by the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, the mission of the program is to advance research toward commercialization.

    The fall 2023 MIT-Pillar AI Collective Fellows are:

    Alexander Andonian SM ’21 is a PhD candidate in electrical engineering and computer science whose research interests lie in computer vision, deep learning, and artificial intelligence. More specifically, he is focused on building a generalist, multimodal AI scientist driven by generative vision-language model agents capable of proposing scientific hypotheses, running computational experiments, evaluating supporting evidence, and verifying conclusions in the same way as a human researcher or reviewer. Such an agent could be trained to optimally distill and communicate its findings for human consumption and comprehension. Andonian’s work holds the promise of creating a concrete foundation for rigorously building and holistically testing the next-generation autonomous AI agent for science. In addition to his research, Andonian is the CEO and co-founder of Reelize, a startup that offers a generative AI video tool that effortlessly turns long videos into short clips — and originated from his business coursework and was supported by MIT Sandbox. Andonian is also a founding AI researcher at Poly AI, an early-stage YC-backed startup building AI design tools. Andonian earned an SM from MIT and a BS in neuroscience, physics, and mathematics from Bates College.

    Daniel Magley is a PhD candidate in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology who is passionate about making a healthy, fully functioning mind and body a reality for all. His leading-edge research is focused on developing a swallowable wireless thermal imaging capsule that could be used in treating and monitoring inflammatory bowel diseases and their manifestations, such as Crohn’s disease. Providing increased sensitivity and eliminating the need for bowel preparation, the capsule has the potential to vastly improve treatment efficacy and overall patient experience in routine monitoring. The capsule has completed animal studies and is entering human studies at Mass General Brigham, where Magley leads a team of engineers in the hospital’s largest translational research lab, the Tearney Lab. Following the human pilot studies, the largest technological and regulatory risks will be cleared for translation. Magley will then begin focusing on a multi-site study to get the device into clinics, with the promise of benefiting patients across the country. Magley earned a BS in electrical engineering from Caltech.

    Madhumitha Ravichandra is a PhD candidate interested in advancing heat transfer and surface engineering techniques to enhance the safety and performance of nuclear energy systems and reduce their environmental impacts. Leveraging her deep knowledge of the integration of explainable AI with high-throughput autonomous experimentation, she seeks to transform the development of radiation-hardened (rad-hard) sensors, which could potentially withstand and function amidst radiation levels that would render conventional sensors useless. By integrating explainable AI with high-throughput autonomous experimentation, she aims to rapidly iterate designs, test under varied conditions, and ensure that the final product is both robust and transparent in its operations. Her work in this space could shift the paradigm in rad-hard sensor development, addressing a glaring void in the market and redefining standards, ensuring that nuclear and space applications are safer, more efficient, and at the cutting edge of technological progress. Ravichandran earned a BTech in mechanical engineering from SASTRA University, India. More

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    2023-24 Takeda Fellows: Advancing research at the intersection of AI and health

    The School of Engineering has selected 13 new Takeda Fellows for the 2023-24 academic year. With support from Takeda, the graduate students will conduct pathbreaking research ranging from remote health monitoring for virtual clinical trials to ingestible devices for at-home, long-term diagnostics.

    Now in its fourth year, the MIT-Takeda Program, a collaboration between MIT’s School of Engineering and Takeda, fuels the development and application of artificial intelligence capabilities to benefit human health and drug development. Part of the Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health, the program coalesces disparate disciplines, merges theory and practical implementation, combines algorithm and hardware innovations, and creates multidimensional collaborations between academia and industry.

    The 2023-24 Takeda Fellows are:

    Adam Gierlach

    Adam Gierlach is a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Gierlach’s work combines innovative biotechnology with machine learning to create ingestible devices for advanced diagnostics and delivery of therapeutics. In his previous work, Gierlach developed a non-invasive, ingestible device for long-term gastric recordings in free-moving patients. With the support of a Takeda Fellowship, he will build on this pathbreaking work by developing smart, energy-efficient, ingestible devices powered by application-specific integrated circuits for at-home, long-term diagnostics. These revolutionary devices — capable of identifying, characterizing, and even correcting gastrointestinal diseases — represent the leading edge of biotechnology. Gierlach’s innovative contributions will help to advance fundamental research on the enteric nervous system and help develop a better understanding of gut-brain axis dysfunctions in Parkinson’s disease, autism spectrum disorder, and other prevalent disorders and conditions.

    Vivek Gopalakrishnan

    Vivek Gopalakrishnan is a PhD candidate in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. Gopalakrishnan’s goal is to develop biomedical machine-learning methods to improve the study and treatment of human disease. Specifically, he employs computational modeling to advance new approaches for minimally invasive, image-guided neurosurgery, offering a safe alternative to open brain and spinal procedures. With the support of a Takeda Fellowship, Gopalakrishnan will develop real-time computer vision algorithms that deliver high-quality, 3D intraoperative image guidance by extracting and fusing information from multimodal neuroimaging data. These algorithms could allow surgeons to reconstruct 3D neurovasculature from X-ray angiography, thereby enhancing the precision of device deployment and enabling more accurate localization of healthy versus pathologic anatomy.

    Hao He

    Hao He is a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. His research interests lie at the intersection of generative AI, machine learning, and their applications in medicine and human health, with a particular emphasis on passive, continuous, remote health monitoring to support virtual clinical trials and health-care management. More specifically, He aims to develop trustworthy AI models that promote equitable access and deliver fair performance independent of race, gender, and age. In his past work, He has developed monitoring systems applied in clinical studies of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and epilepsy. Supported by a Takeda Fellowship, He will develop a novel technology for the passive monitoring of sleep stages (using radio signaling) that seeks to address existing gaps in performance across different demographic groups. His project will tackle the problem of imbalance in available datasets and account for intrinsic differences across subpopulations, using generative AI and multi-modality/multi-domain learning, with the goal of learning robust features that are invariant to different subpopulations. He’s work holds great promise for delivering advanced, equitable health-care services to all people and could significantly impact health care and AI.

    Chengyi Long

    Chengyi Long is a PhD candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Long’s interdisciplinary research integrates the methodology of physics, mathematics, and computer science to investigate questions in ecology. Specifically, Long is developing a series of potentially groundbreaking techniques to explain and predict the temporal dynamics of ecological systems, including human microbiota, which are essential subjects in health and medical research. His current work, supported by a Takeda Fellowship, is focused on developing a conceptual, mathematical, and practical framework to understand the interplay between external perturbations and internal community dynamics in microbial systems, which may serve as a key step toward finding bio solutions to health management. A broader perspective of his research is to develop AI-assisted platforms to anticipate the changing behavior of microbial systems, which may help to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy hosts and design probiotics for the prevention and mitigation of pathogen infections. By creating novel methods to address these issues, Long’s research has the potential to offer powerful contributions to medicine and global health.

    Omar Mohd

    Omar Mohd is a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Mohd’s research is focused on developing new technologies for the spatial profiling of microRNAs, with potentially important applications in cancer research. Through innovative combinations of micro-technologies and AI-enabled image analysis to measure the spatial variations of microRNAs within tissue samples, Mohd hopes to gain new insights into drug resistance in cancer. This work, supported by a Takeda Fellowship, falls within the emerging field of spatial transcriptomics, which seeks to understand cancer and other diseases by examining the relative locations of cells and their contents within tissues. The ultimate goal of Mohd’s current project is to find multidimensional patterns in tissues that may have prognostic value for cancer patients. One valuable component of his work is an open-source AI program developed with collaborators at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School to auto-detect cancer epithelial cells from other cell types in a tissue sample and to correlate their abundance with the spatial variations of microRNAs. Through his research, Mohd is making innovative contributions at the interface of microsystem technology, AI-based image analysis, and cancer treatment, which could significantly impact medicine and human health.

    Sanghyun Park

    Sanghyun Park is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Park specializes in the integration of AI and biomedical engineering to address complex challenges in human health. Drawing on his expertise in polymer physics, drug delivery, and rheology, his research focuses on the pioneering field of in-situ forming implants (ISFIs) for drug delivery. Supported by a Takeda Fellowship, Park is currently developing an injectable formulation designed for long-term drug delivery. The primary goal of his research is to unravel the compaction mechanism of drug particles in ISFI formulations through comprehensive modeling and in-vitro characterization studies utilizing advanced AI tools. He aims to gain a thorough understanding of this unique compaction mechanism and apply it to drug microcrystals to achieve properties optimal for long-term drug delivery. Beyond these fundamental studies, Park’s research also focuses on translating this knowledge into practical applications in a clinical setting through animal studies specifically aimed at extending drug release duration and improving mechanical properties. The innovative use of AI in developing advanced drug delivery systems, coupled with Park’s valuable insights into the compaction mechanism, could contribute to improving long-term drug delivery. This work has the potential to pave the way for effective management of chronic diseases, benefiting patients, clinicians, and the pharmaceutical industry.

    Huaiyao Peng

    Huaiyao Peng is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biological Engineering. Peng’s research interests are focused on engineered tissue, microfabrication platforms, cancer metastasis, and the tumor microenvironment. Specifically, she is advancing novel AI techniques for the development of pre-cancer organoid models of high-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSOC), an especially lethal and difficult-to-treat cancer, with the goal of gaining new insights into progression and effective treatments. Peng’s project, supported by a Takeda Fellowship, will be one of the first to use cells from serous tubal intraepithelial carcinoma lesions found in the fallopian tubes of many HGSOC patients. By examining the cellular and molecular changes that occur in response to treatment with small molecule inhibitors, she hopes to identify potential biomarkers and promising therapeutic targets for HGSOC, including personalized treatment options for HGSOC patients, ultimately improving their clinical outcomes. Peng’s work has the potential to bring about important advances in cancer treatment and spur innovative new applications of AI in health care. 

    Priyanka Raghavan

    Priyanka Raghavan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Raghavan’s research interests lie at the frontier of predictive chemistry, integrating computational and experimental approaches to build powerful new predictive tools for societally important applications, including drug discovery. Specifically, Raghavan is developing novel models to predict small-molecule substrate reactivity and compatibility in regimes where little data is available (the most realistic regimes). A Takeda Fellowship will enable Raghavan to push the boundaries of her research, making innovative use of low-data and multi-task machine learning approaches, synthetic chemistry, and robotic laboratory automation, with the goal of creating an autonomous, closed-loop system for the discovery of high-yielding organic small molecules in the context of underexplored reactions. Raghavan’s work aims to identify new, versatile reactions to broaden a chemist’s synthetic toolbox with novel scaffolds and substrates that could form the basis of essential drugs. Her work has the potential for far-reaching impacts in early-stage, small-molecule discovery and could help make the lengthy drug-discovery process significantly faster and cheaper.

    Zhiye Song

    Zhiye “Zoey” Song is a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Song’s research integrates cutting-edge approaches in machine learning (ML) and hardware optimization to create next-generation, wearable medical devices. Specifically, Song is developing novel approaches for the energy-efficient implementation of ML computation in low-power medical devices, including a wearable ultrasound “patch” that captures and processes images for real-time decision-making capabilities. Her recent work, conducted in collaboration with clinicians, has centered on bladder volume monitoring; other potential applications include blood pressure monitoring, muscle diagnosis, and neuromodulation. With the support of a Takeda Fellowship, Song will build on that promising work and pursue key improvements to existing wearable device technologies, including developing low-compute and low-memory ML algorithms and low-power chips to enable ML on smart wearable devices. The technologies emerging from Song’s research could offer exciting new capabilities in health care, enabling powerful and cost-effective point-of-care diagnostics and expanding individual access to autonomous and continuous medical monitoring.

    Peiqi Wang

    Peiqi Wang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Wang’s research aims to develop machine learning methods for learning and interpretation from medical images and associated clinical data to support clinical decision-making. He is developing a multimodal representation learning approach that aligns knowledge captured in large amounts of medical image and text data to transfer this knowledge to new tasks and applications. Supported by a Takeda Fellowship, Wang will advance this promising line of work to build robust tools that interpret images, learn from sparse human feedback, and reason like doctors, with potentially major benefits to important stakeholders in health care.

    Oscar Wu

    Haoyang “Oscar” Wu is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Wu’s research integrates quantum chemistry and deep learning methods to accelerate the process of small-molecule screening in the development of new drugs. By identifying and automating reliable methods for finding transition state geometries and calculating barrier heights for new reactions, Wu’s work could make it possible to conduct the high-throughput ab initio calculations of reaction rates needed to screen the reactivity of large numbers of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). A Takeda Fellowship will support his current project to: (1) develop open-source software for high-throughput quantum chemistry calculations, focusing on the reactivity of drug-like molecules, and (2) develop deep learning models that can quantitatively predict the oxidative stability of APIs. The tools and insights resulting from Wu’s research could help to transform and accelerate the drug-discovery process, offering significant benefits to the pharmaceutical and medical fields and to patients.

    Soojung Yang

    Soojung Yang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Yang’s research applies cutting-edge methods in geometric deep learning and generative modeling, along with atomistic simulations, to better understand and model protein dynamics. Specifically, Yang is developing novel tools in generative AI to explore protein conformational landscapes that offer greater speed and detail than physics-based simulations at a substantially lower cost. With the support of a Takeda Fellowship, she will build upon her successful work on the reverse transformation of coarse-grained proteins to the all-atom resolution, aiming to build machine-learning models that bridge multiple size scales of protein conformation diversity (all-atom, residue-level, and domain-level). Yang’s research holds the potential to provide a powerful and widely applicable new tool for researchers who seek to understand the complex protein functions at work in human diseases and to design drugs to treat and cure those diseases.

    Yuzhe Yang

    Yuzhe Yang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Yang’s research interests lie at the intersection of machine learning and health care. In his past and current work, Yang has developed and applied innovative machine-learning models that address key challenges in disease diagnosis and tracking. His many notable achievements include the creation of one of the first machine learning-based solutions using nocturnal breathing signals to detect Parkinson’s disease (PD), estimate disease severity, and track PD progression. With the support of a Takeda Fellowship, Yang will expand this promising work to develop an AI-based diagnosis model for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) using sleep-breathing data that is significantly more reliable, flexible, and economical than current diagnostic tools. This passive, in-home, contactless monitoring system — resembling a simple home Wi-Fi router — will also enable remote disease assessment and continuous progression tracking. Yang’s groundbreaking work has the potential to advance the diagnosis and treatment of prevalent diseases like PD and AD, and it offers exciting possibilities for addressing many health challenges with reliable, affordable machine-learning tools.  More

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    Forging climate connections across the Institute

    Climate change is the ultimate cross-cutting issue: Not limited to any one discipline, it ranges across science, technology, policy, culture, human behavior, and well beyond. The response to it likewise requires an all-of-MIT effort.

    Now, to strengthen such an effort, a new grant program spearheaded by the Climate Nucleus, the faculty committee charged with the oversight and implementation of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, aims to build up MIT’s climate leadership capacity while also supporting innovative scholarship on diverse climate-related topics and forging new connections across the Institute.

    Called the Fast Forward Faculty Fund (F^4 for short), the program has named its first cohort of six faculty members after issuing its inaugural call for proposals in April 2023. The cohort will come together throughout the year for climate leadership development programming and networking. The program provides financial support for graduate students who will work with the faculty members on the projects — the students will also participate in leadership-building activities — as well as $50,000 in flexible, discretionary funding to be used to support related activities. 

    “Climate change is a crisis that truly touches every single person on the planet,” says Noelle Selin, co-chair of the nucleus and interim director of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. “It’s therefore essential that we build capacity for every member of the MIT community to make sense of the problem and help address it. Through the Fast Forward Faculty Fund, our aim is to have a cohort of climate ambassadors who can embed climate everywhere at the Institute.”

    F^4 supports both faculty who would like to begin doing climate-related work, as well as faculty members who are interested in deepening their work on climate. The program has the core goal of developing cohorts of F^4 faculty and graduate students who, in addition to conducting their own research, will become climate leaders at MIT, proactively looking for ways to forge new climate connections across schools, departments, and disciplines.

    One of the projects, “Climate Crisis and Real Estate: Science-based Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies,” led by Professor Siqi Zheng of the MIT Center for Real Estate in collaboration with colleagues from the MIT Sloan School of Management, focuses on the roughly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions that come from the buildings and real estate sector. Zheng notes that this sector has been slow to respond to climate change, but says that is starting to change, thanks in part to the rising awareness of climate risks and new local regulations aimed at reducing emissions from buildings.

    Using a data-driven approach, the project seeks to understand the efficient and equitable market incentives, technology solutions, and public policies that are most effective at transforming the real estate industry. Johnattan Ontiveros, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, is working with Zheng on the project.

    “We were thrilled at the incredible response we received from the MIT faculty to our call for proposals, which speaks volumes about the depth and breadth of interest in climate at MIT,” says Anne White, nucleus co-chair and vice provost and associate vice president for research. “This program makes good on key commitments of the Fast Forward plan, supporting cutting-edge new work by faculty and graduate students while helping to deepen the bench of climate leaders at MIT.”

    During the 2023-24 academic year, the F^4 faculty and graduate student cohorts will come together to discuss their projects, explore opportunities for collaboration, participate in climate leadership development, and think proactively about how to deepen interdisciplinary connections among MIT community members interested in climate change.

    The six inaugural F^4 awardees are:

    Professor Tristan Brown, History Section: Humanistic Approaches to the Climate Crisis  

    With this project, Brown aims to create a new community of practice around narrative-centric approaches to environmental and climate issues. Part of a broader humanities initiative at MIT, it brings together a global working group of interdisciplinary scholars, including Serguei Saavedra (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Or Porath (Tel Aviv University; Religion), collectively focused on examining the historical and present links between sacred places and biodiversity for the purposes of helping governments and nongovernmental organizations formulate better sustainability goals. Boyd Ruamcharoen, a PhD student in the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) program, will work with Brown on this project.

    Professor Kerri Cahoy, departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (AeroAstro): Onboard Autonomous AI-driven Satellite Sensor Fusion for Coastal Region Monitoring

    The motivation for this project is the need for much better data collection from satellites, where technology can be “20 years behind,” says Cahoy. As part of this project, Cahoy will pursue research in the area of autonomous artificial intelligence-enabled rapid sensor fusion (which combines data from different sensors, such as radar and cameras) onboard satellites to improve understanding of the impacts of climate change, specifically sea-level rise and hurricanes and flooding in coastal regions. Graduate students Madeline Anderson, a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), and Mary Dahl, a PhD student in AeroAstro, will work with Cahoy on this project.

    Professor Priya Donti, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: Robust Reinforcement Learning for High-Renewables Power Grids 

    With renewables like wind and solar making up a growing share of electricity generation on power grids, Donti’s project focuses on improving control methods for these distributed sources of electricity. The research will aim to create a realistic representation of the characteristics of power grid operations, and eventually inform scalable operational improvements in power systems. It will “give power systems operators faith that, OK, this conceptually is good, but it also actually works on this grid,” says Donti. PhD candidate Ana Rivera from EECS is the F^4 graduate student on the project.

    Professor Jason Jackson, Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP): Political Economy of the Climate Crisis: Institutions, Power and Global Governance

    This project takes a political economy approach to the climate crisis, offering a distinct lens to examine, first, the political governance challenge of mobilizing climate action and designing new institutional mechanisms to address the global and intergenerational distributional aspects of climate change; second, the economic challenge of devising new institutional approaches to equitably finance climate action; and third, the cultural challenge — and opportunity — of empowering an adaptive socio-cultural ecology through traditional knowledge and local-level social networks to achieve environmental resilience. Graduate students Chen Chu and Mrinalini Penumaka, both PhD students in DUSP, are working with Jackson on the project.

    Professor Haruko Wainwright, departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) and Civil and Environmental Engineering: Low-cost Environmental Monitoring Network Technologies in Rural Communities for Addressing Climate Justice 

    This project will establish a community-based climate and environmental monitoring network in addition to a data visualization and analysis infrastructure in rural marginalized communities to better understand and address climate justice issues. The project team plans to work with rural communities in Alaska to install low-cost air and water quality, weather, and soil sensors. Graduate students Kay Whiteaker, an MS candidate in NSE, and Amandeep Singh, and MS candidate in System Design and Management at Sloan, are working with Wainwright on the project, as is David McGee, professor in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences.

    Professor Siqi Zheng, MIT Center for Real Estate and DUSP: Climate Crisis and Real Estate: Science-based Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies 

    See the text above for the details on this project. More

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    Improving accessibility of online graphics for blind users

    The beauty of a nice infographic published alongside a news or magazine story is that it makes numeric data more accessible to the average reader. But for blind and visually impaired users, such graphics often have the opposite effect.

    For visually impaired users — who frequently rely on screen-reading software that speaks words or numbers aloud as the user moves a cursor across the screen — a graphic may be nothing more than a few words of alt text, such as a chart’s title. For instance, a map of the United States displaying population rates by county might have alt text in the HTML that says simply, “A map of the United States with population rates by county.” The data has been buried in an image, making it entirely inaccessible.

    “Charts have these various visual features that, as a [sighted] reader, you can shift your attention around, look at high-level patterns, look at individual data points, and you can do this on the fly,” says Jonathan Zong, a 2022 MIT Morningside Academy for Design (MAD) Fellow and PhD student in computer science, who points out that even when a graphic includes alt text that interprets the data, the visually impaired user must accept the findings as presented.

    “If you’re [blind and] using a screen reader, the text description imposes a linear predefined reading order. So, you’re beholden to the decisions that the person who wrote the text made about what information was important to include.”

    While some graphics do include data tables that a screen reader can read, it requires the user to remember all the data from each row and column as they move on to the next one. According to the National Federation of the Blind, Zong says, there are 7 million people living in the United States with visual disabilities, and nearly 97 percent of top-level pages on the internet are not accessible to screen readers. The problem, he points out, is an especially difficult one for blind researchers to get around. Some researchers with visual impairments rely on a sighted collaborator to read and help interpret graphics in peer-reviewed research.

    Working with the Visualization Group at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) on a project led by Associate Professor Arvind Satyanarayan that includes Daniel Hajas, a blind researcher and innovation manager at the Global Disability Innovation Hub in England, Zong and others have written an open-source Javascript software program named Olli that solves this problem when it’s included on a website. Olli is able to go from big-picture analysis of a chart to the finest grain of detail to give the user the ability to select the degree of granularity that interests them.

    “We want to design richer screen-reader experiences for visualization with a hierarchical structure, multiple ways to navigate, and descriptions at varying levels of granularity to provide self-guided, open-ended exploration for the user.”

    Next steps with Olli are incorporating multi-sensory software to integrate text and visuals with sound, such as having a musical note that moves up or down the harmonic scale to indicate the direction of data on a linear graph, and possibly even developing tactile interpretations of data. Like most of the MAD Fellows, Zong integrates his science and engineering skills with design and art to create solutions to real-world problems affecting individuals. He’s been recognized for his work in both the visual arts and computer science. He holds undergraduate degrees in computer science and visual arts with a focus on graphic design from Princeton University, where his research was on the ethics of data collection.

    “The throughline is the idea that design can help us make progress on really tough social and ethical questions,” Zong says, calling software for accessible data visualization an “intellectually rich area for design.” “We’re thinking about ways to translate charts and graphs into text descriptions that can get read aloud as speech, or thinking about other kinds of audio mappings to sonify data, and we’re even exploring some tactile methods to understand data,” he says.

    “I get really excited about design when it’s a way to both create things that are useful to people in everyday life and also make progress on larger conversations about technology and society. I think working in accessibility is a great way to do that.”

    Another problem at the intersection of technology and society is the ethics of taking user data from social media for large-scale studies without the users’ awareness. While working as a summer graduate research fellow at Cornell’s Citizens and Technology Lab, Zong helped create an open-source software called Bartleby that can be used in large anonymous data research studies. After researchers collect data, but before analysis, Bartleby would automatically send an email message to every user whose data was included, alert them to that fact and offer them the choice to review the resulting data table and opt out of the study. Bartleby was honored in the student category of Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Awards for 2022. In November the same year, Forbes magazine named Jonathan Zong in its Forbes 30 Under 30 in Science 2023 list for his work in data visualization accessibility.

    The underlying theme to all Zong’s work is the exploration of autonomy and agency, even in his artwork, which is heavily inclusive of text and semiotic play. In “Public Display,” he created a handmade digital display font by erasing parts of celebrity faces that were taken from a facial recognition dataset. The piece was exhibited in 2020 in MIT’s Wiesner Gallery, and received the third-place prize in the MIT Schnitzer Prize in the Visual Arts that year. The work deals not only with the neurological aspects of distinguishing faces from typefaces, but also with the implications for erasing individuals’ identities through the practice of using facial recognition programs that often target individuals in communities of color in unfair ways. Another of his works, “Biometric Sans,” a typography system that stretches letters based on a person’s typing speed, will be included in a show at the Harvard Science Center sometime next fall.

    “MAD, particularly the large events MAD jointly hosted, played a really important function in showing the rest of MIT that this is the kind of work we value. This is what design can look like and is capable of doing. I think it all contributes to that culture shift where this kind of interdisciplinary work can be valued, recognized, and serve the public.

    “There are shared ideas around embodiment and representation that tie these different pursuits together for me,” Zong says. “In the ethics work, and the art on surveillance, I’m thinking about whether data collectors are representing people the way they want to be seen through data. And similarly, the accessibility work is about whether we can make systems that are flexible to the way people want to use them.” More

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    On the hunt for sustainable materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Meet the 2023-24 Accenture Fellows

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

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

    The 2023-24 Accenture Fellows are:

    Yiyue Luo

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

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

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

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

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