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    Engineers use artificial intelligence to capture the complexity of breaking waves

    Waves break once they swell to a critical height, before cresting and crashing into a spray of droplets and bubbles. These waves can be as large as a surfer’s point break and as small as a gentle ripple rolling to shore. For decades, the dynamics of how and when a wave breaks have been too complex to predict.

    Now, MIT engineers have found a new way to model how waves break. The team used machine learning along with data from wave-tank experiments to tweak equations that have traditionally been used to predict wave behavior. Engineers typically rely on such equations to help them design resilient offshore platforms and structures. But until now, the equations have not been able to capture the complexity of breaking waves.

    The updated model made more accurate predictions of how and when waves break, the researchers found. For instance, the model estimated a wave’s steepness just before breaking, and its energy and frequency after breaking, more accurately than the conventional wave equations.

    Their results, published today in the journal Nature Communications, will help scientists understand how a breaking wave affects the water around it. Knowing precisely how these waves interact can help hone the design of offshore structures. It can also improve predictions for how the ocean interacts with the atmosphere. Having better estimates of how waves break can help scientists predict, for instance, how much carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases the ocean can absorb.

    “Wave breaking is what puts air into the ocean,” says study author Themis Sapsis, an associate professor of mechanical and ocean engineering and an affiliate of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at MIT. “It may sound like a detail, but if you multiply its effect over the area of the entire ocean, wave breaking starts becoming fundamentally important to climate prediction.”

    The study’s co-authors include lead author and MIT postdoc Debbie Eeltink, Hubert Branger and Christopher Luneau of Aix-Marseille University, Amin Chabchoub of Kyoto University, Jerome Kasparian of the University of Geneva, and T.S. van den Bremer of Delft University of Technology.

    Learning tank

    To predict the dynamics of a breaking wave, scientists typically take one of two approaches: They either attempt to precisely simulate the wave at the scale of individual molecules of water and air, or they run experiments to try and characterize waves with actual measurements. The first approach is computationally expensive and difficult to simulate even over a small area; the second requires a huge amount of time to run enough experiments to yield statistically significant results.

    The MIT team instead borrowed pieces from both approaches to develop a more efficient and accurate model using machine learning. The researchers started with a set of equations that is considered the standard description of wave behavior. They aimed to improve the model by “training” the model on data of breaking waves from actual experiments.

    “We had a simple model that doesn’t capture wave breaking, and then we had the truth, meaning experiments that involve wave breaking,” Eeltink explains. “Then we wanted to use machine learning to learn the difference between the two.”

    The researchers obtained wave breaking data by running experiments in a 40-meter-long tank. The tank was fitted at one end with a paddle which the team used to initiate each wave. The team set the paddle to produce a breaking wave in the middle of the tank. Gauges along the length of the tank measured the water’s height as waves propagated down the tank.

    “It takes a lot of time to run these experiments,” Eeltink says. “Between each experiment you have to wait for the water to completely calm down before you launch the next experiment, otherwise they influence each other.”

    Safe harbor

    In all, the team ran about 250 experiments, the data from which they used to train a type of machine-learning algorithm known as a neural network. Specifically, the algorithm is trained to compare the real waves in experiments with the predicted waves in the simple model, and based on any differences between the two, the algorithm tunes the model to fit reality.

    After training the algorithm on their experimental data, the team introduced the model to entirely new data — in this case, measurements from two independent experiments, each run at separate wave tanks with different dimensions. In these tests, they found the updated model made more accurate predictions than the simple, untrained model, for instance making better estimates of a breaking wave’s steepness.

    The new model also captured an essential property of breaking waves known as the “downshift,” in which the frequency of a wave is shifted to a lower value. The speed of a wave depends on its frequency. For ocean waves, lower frequencies move faster than higher frequencies. Therefore, after the downshift, the wave will move faster. The new model predicts the change in frequency, before and after each breaking wave, which could be especially relevant in preparing for coastal storms.

    “When you want to forecast when high waves of a swell would reach a harbor, and you want to leave the harbor before those waves arrive, then if you get the wave frequency wrong, then the speed at which the waves are approaching is wrong,” Eeltink says.

    The team’s updated wave model is in the form of an open-source code that others could potentially use, for instance in climate simulations of the ocean’s potential to absorb carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases. The code can also be worked into simulated tests of offshore platforms and coastal structures.

    “The number one purpose of this model is to predict what a wave will do,” Sapsis says. “If you don’t model wave breaking right, it would have tremendous implications for how structures behave. With this, you could simulate waves to help design structures better, more efficiently, and without huge safety factors.”

    This research is supported, in part, by the Swiss National Science Foundation, and by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. More

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    Seven from MIT elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences for 2022

    Seven MIT faculty members are among more than 250 leaders from academia, the arts, industry, public policy, and research elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced Thursday.

    One of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies, the academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to academy publications, as well as studies of science and technology policy, energy and global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities and culture, and education.

    Those elected from MIT this year are:

    Alberto Abadie, professor of economics and associate director of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
    Regina Barzilay, the School of Engineering Distinguished Professor for AI and Health
    Roman Bezrukavnikov, professor of mathematics
    Michale S. Fee, the Glen V. and Phyllis F. Dorflinger Professor and head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
    Dina Katabi, the Thuan and Nicole Pham Professor
    Ronald T. Raines, the Roger and Georges Firmenich Professor of Natural Products Chemistry
    Rebecca R. Saxe, the John W. Jarve Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

    “We are celebrating a depth of achievements in a breadth of areas,” says David Oxtoby, president of the American Academy. “These individuals excel in ways that excite us and inspire us at a time when recognizing excellence, commending expertise, and working toward the common good is absolutely essential to realizing a better future.”

    Since its founding in 1780, the academy has elected leading thinkers from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Maria Mitchell and Daniel Webster in the 19th century, and Toni Morrison and Albert Einstein in the 20th century. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners. More

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    Looking forward to forecast the risks of a changing climate

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the third in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition, and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    Extreme weather events that were once considered rare have become noticeably less so, from intensifying hurricane activity in the North Atlantic to wildfires generating massive clouds of ozone-damaging smoke. But current climate models are unprepared when it comes to estimating the risk that these increasingly extreme events pose — and without adequate modeling, governments are left unable to take necessary precautions to protect their communities.

    MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science (EAPS) Professor Paul O’Gorman researches this trend by studying how climate affects the atmosphere and incorporating what he learns into climate models to improve their accuracy. One particular focus for O’Gorman has been changes in extreme precipitation and midlatitude storms that hit areas like New England.

    “These extreme events are having a lot of impact, but they’re also difficult to model or study,” he says. Seeing the pressing need for better climate models that can be used to develop preparedness plans and climate change mitigation strategies, O’Gorman and collaborators Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in EAPS, and Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor in MIT’s Department of Architecture, are leading an interdisciplinary group of scientists, engineers, and designers to tackle this problem with their MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project, “Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes.”

    “We know already from observations and from climate model predictions that weather and climate extremes are changing and will change more,” O’Gorman says. “The grand challenge is preparing for those changing extremes.”

    Their proposal is one of five flagship projects recently announced by the MIT Climate Grand Challenges initiative — an Institute-wide effort catalyzing novel research and engineering innovations to address the climate crisis. Selected from a field of almost 100 submissions, the team will receive additional funding and exposure to help accelerate and scale their project goals. Other MIT collaborators on the proposal include researchers from the School of Engineering, the School of Architecture and Planning, the Office of Sustainability, the Center for Global Change Science, and the Institute for Data, Systems and Society.

    Weather risk modeling

    Fifteen years ago, Kerry Emanuel developed a simple hurricane model. It was based on physics equations, rather than statistics, and could run in real time, making it useful for modeling risk assessment. Emanuel wondered if similar models could be used for long-term risk assessment of other things, such as changes in extreme weather because of climate change.

    “I discovered, somewhat to my surprise and dismay, that almost all extant estimates of long-term weather risks in the United States are based not on physical models, but on historical statistics of the hazards,” says Emanuel. “The problem with relying on historical records is that they’re too short; while they can help estimate common events, they don’t contain enough information to make predictions for more rare events.”

    Another limitation of weather risk models which rely heavily on statistics: They have a built-in assumption that the climate is static.

    “Historical records rely on the climate at the time they were recorded; they can’t say anything about how hurricanes grow in a warmer climate,” says Emanuel. The models rely on fixed relationships between events; they assume that hurricane activity will stay the same, even while science is showing that warmer temperatures will most likely push typical hurricane activity beyond the tropics and into a much wider band of latitudes.

    As a flagship project, the goal is to eliminate this reliance on the historical record by emphasizing physical principles (e.g., the laws of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics) in next-generation models. The downside to this is that there are many variables that have to be included. Not only are there planetary-scale systems to consider, such as the global circulation of the atmosphere, but there are also small-scale, extremely localized events, like thunderstorms, that influence predictive outcomes.

    Trying to compute all of these at once is costly and time-consuming — and the results often can’t tell you the risk in a specific location. But there is a way to correct for this: “What’s done is to use a global model, and then use a method called downscaling, which tries to infer what would happen on very small scales that aren’t properly resolved by the global model,” explains O’Gorman. The team hopes to improve downscaling techniques so that they can be used to calculate the risk of very rare but impactful weather events.

    Global climate models, or general circulation models (GCMs), Emanuel explains, are constructed a bit like a jungle gym. Like the playground bars, the Earth is sectioned in an interconnected three-dimensional framework — only it’s divided 100 to 200 square kilometers at a time. Each node comprises a set of computations for characteristics like wind, rainfall, atmospheric pressure, and temperature within its bounds; the outputs of each node are connected to its neighbor. This framework is useful for creating a big picture idea of Earth’s climate system, but if you tried to zoom in on a specific location — like, say, to see what’s happening in Miami or Mumbai — the connecting nodes are too far apart to make predictions on anything specific to those areas.

    Scientists work around this problem by using downscaling. They use the same blueprint of the jungle gym, but within the nodes they weave a mesh of smaller features, incorporating equations for things like topography and vegetation or regional meteorological models to fill in the blanks. By creating a finer mesh over smaller areas they can predict local effects without needing to run the entire global model.

    Of course, even this finer-resolution solution has its trade-offs. While we might be able to gain a clearer picture of what’s happening in a specific region by nesting models within models, it can still make for a computing challenge to crunch all that data at once, with the trade-off being expense and time, or predictions that are limited to shorter windows of duration — where GCMs can be run considering decades or centuries, a particularly complex local model may be restricted to predictions on timescales of just a few years at a time.

    “I’m afraid that most of the downscaling at present is brute force, but I think there’s room to do it in better ways,” says Emanuel, who sees the problem of finding new and novel methods of achieving this goal as an intellectual challenge. “I hope that through the Grand Challenges project we might be able to get students, postdocs, and others interested in doing this in a very creative way.”

    Adapting to weather extremes for cities and renewable energy

    Improving climate modeling is more than a scientific exercise in creativity, however. There’s a very real application for models that can accurately forecast risk in localized regions.

    Another problem is that progress in climate modeling has not kept up with the need for climate mitigation plans, especially in some of the most vulnerable communities around the globe.

    “It is critical for stakeholders to have access to this data for their own decision-making process. Every community is composed of a diverse population with diverse needs, and each locality is affected by extreme weather events in unique ways,” says Mazereeuw, the director of the MIT Urban Risk Lab. 

    A key piece of the team’s project is building on partnerships the Urban Risk Lab has developed with several cities to test their models once they have a usable product up and running. The cities were selected based on their vulnerability to increasing extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones in Broward County, Florida, and Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, and extratropical storms in Boston, Massachusetts, and Cape Town, South Africa.

    In their proposal, the team outlines a variety of deliverables that the cities can ultimately use in their climate change preparations, with ideas such as online interactive platforms and workshops with stakeholders — such as local governments, developers, nonprofits, and residents — to learn directly what specific tools they need for their local communities. By doing so, they can craft plans addressing different scenarios in their region, involving events such as sea-level rise or heat waves, while also providing information and means of developing adaptation strategies for infrastructure under these conditions that will be the most effective and efficient for them.

    “We are acutely aware of the inequity of resources both in mitigating impacts and recovering from disasters. Working with diverse communities through workshops allows us to engage a lot of people, listen, discuss, and collaboratively design solutions,” says Mazereeuw.

    By the end of five years, the team is hoping that they’ll have better risk assessment and preparedness tool kits, not just for the cities that they’re partnering with, but for others as well.

    “MIT is well-positioned to make progress in this area,” says O’Gorman, “and I think it’s an important problem where we can make a difference.” More

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    Computing our climate future

    On Monday, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the first in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition, and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    With improvements to computer processing power and an increased understanding of the physical equations governing the Earth’s climate, scientists are continually working to refine climate models and improve their predictive power. But the tools they’re refining were originally conceived decades ago with only scientists in mind. When it comes to developing tangible climate action plans, these models remain inscrutable to the policymakers, public safety officials, civil engineers, and community organizers who need their predictive insight most.

    “What you end up having is a gap between what’s typically used in practice, and the real cutting-edge science,” says Noelle Selin, a professor in the Institute for Data, Systems and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and co-lead with Professor Raffaele Ferrari on the MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project “Bringing Computation to the Climate Crisis.” “How can we use new computational techniques, new understandings, new ways of thinking about modeling, to really bridge that gap between state-of-the-art scientific advances and modeling, and people who are actually needing to use these models?”

    Using this as a driving question, the team won’t just be trying to refine current climate models, they’re building a new one from the ground up.

    This kind of game-changing advancement is exactly what the MIT Climate Grand Challenges is looking for, which is why the proposal has been named one of the five flagship projects in the ambitious Institute-wide program aimed at tackling the climate crisis. The proposal, which was selected from 100 submissions and was among 27 finalists, will receive additional funding and support to further their goal of reimagining the climate modeling system. It also brings together contributors from across the Institute, including the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, the School of Engineering, and the Sloan School of Management.

    When it comes to pursuing high-impact climate solutions that communities around the world can use, “it’s great to do it at MIT,” says Ferrari, EAPS Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography. “You’re not going to find many places in the world where you have the cutting-edge climate science, the cutting-edge computer science, and the cutting-edge policy science experts that we need to work together.”

    The climate model of the future

    The proposal builds on work that Ferrari began three years ago as part of a joint project with Caltech, the Naval Postgraduate School, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Called the Climate Modeling Alliance (CliMA), the consortium of scientists, engineers, and applied mathematicians is constructing a climate model capable of more accurately projecting future changes in critical variables, such as clouds in the atmosphere and turbulence in the ocean, with uncertainties at least half the size of those in existing models.

    To do this, however, requires a new approach. For one thing, current models are too coarse in resolution — at the 100-to-200-kilometer scale — to resolve small-scale processes like cloud cover, rainfall, and sea ice extent. But also, explains Ferrari, part of this limitation in resolution is due to the fundamental architecture of the models themselves. The languages most global climate models are coded in were first created back in the 1960s and ’70s, largely by scientists for scientists. Since then, advances in computing driven by the corporate world and computer gaming have given rise to dynamic new computer languages, powerful graphics processing units, and machine learning.

    For climate models to take full advantage of these advancements, there’s only one option: starting over with a modern, more flexible language. Written in Julia, a part of Julialab’s Scientific Machine Learning technology, and spearheaded by Alan Edelman, a professor of applied mathematics in MIT’s Department of Mathematics, CliMA will be able to harness far more data than the current models can handle.

    “It’s been real fun finally working with people in computer science here at MIT,” Ferrari says. “Before it was impossible, because traditional climate models are in a language their students can’t even read.”

    The result is what’s being called the “Earth digital twin,” a climate model that can simulate global conditions on a large scale. This on its own is an impressive feat, but the team wants to take this a step further with their proposal.

    “We want to take this large-scale model and create what we call an ‘emulator’ that is only predicting a set of variables of interest, but it’s been trained on the large-scale model,” Ferrari explains. Emulators are not new technology, but what is new is that these emulators, being referred to as the “Earth digital cousins,” will take advantage of machine learning.

    “Now we know how to train a model if we have enough data to train them on,” says Ferrari. Machine learning for projects like this has only become possible in recent years as more observational data become available, along with improved computer processing power. The goal is to create smaller, more localized models by training them using the Earth digital twin. Doing so will save time and money, which is key if the digital cousins are going to be usable for stakeholders, like local governments and private-sector developers.

    Adaptable predictions for average stakeholders

    When it comes to setting climate-informed policy, stakeholders need to understand the probability of an outcome within their own regions — in the same way that you would prepare for a hike differently if there’s a 10 percent chance of rain versus a 90 percent chance. The smaller Earth digital cousin models will be able to do things the larger model can’t do, like simulate local regions in real time and provide a wider range of probabilistic scenarios.

    “Right now, if you wanted to use output from a global climate model, you usually would have to use output that’s designed for general use,” says Selin, who is also the director of the MIT Technology and Policy Program. With the project, the team can take end-user needs into account from the very beginning while also incorporating their feedback and suggestions into the models, helping to “democratize the idea of running these climate models,” as she puts it. Doing so means building an interactive interface that eventually will give users the ability to change input values and run the new simulations in real time. The team hopes that, eventually, the Earth digital cousins could run on something as ubiquitous as a smartphone, although developments like that are currently beyond the scope of the project.

    The next thing the team will work on is building connections with stakeholders. Through participation of other MIT groups, such as the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and the Climate and Sustainability Consortium, they hope to work closely with policymakers, public safety officials, and urban planners to give them predictive tools tailored to their needs that can provide actionable outputs important for planning. Faced with rising sea levels, for example, coastal cities could better visualize the threat and make informed decisions about infrastructure development and disaster preparedness; communities in drought-prone regions could develop long-term civil planning with an emphasis on water conservation and wildfire resistance.

    “We want to make the modeling and analysis process faster so people can get more direct and useful feedback for near-term decisions,” she says.

    The final piece of the challenge is to incentivize students now so that they can join the project and make a difference. Ferrari has already had luck garnering student interest after co-teaching a class with Edelman and seeing the enthusiasm students have about computer science and climate solutions.

    “We’re intending in this project to build a climate model of the future,” says Selin. “So it seems really appropriate that we would also train the builders of that climate model.” More

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    MIT announces five flagship projects in first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition

    MIT today announced the five flagship projects selected in its first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition. These multiyear projects will define a dynamic research agenda focused on unraveling some of the toughest unsolved climate problems and bringing high-impact, science-based solutions to the world on an accelerated basis.

    Representing the most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition, the five flagship projects will receive additional funding and resources from MIT and others to develop their ideas and swiftly transform them into practical solutions at scale.

    “Climate Grand Challenges represents a whole-of-MIT drive to develop game-changing advances to confront the escalating climate crisis, in time to make a difference,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We are inspired by the creativity and boldness of the flagship ideas and by their potential to make a significant contribution to the global climate response. But given the planet-wide scale of the challenge, success depends on partnership. We are eager to work with visionary leaders in every sector to accelerate this impact-oriented research, implement serious solutions at scale, and inspire others to join us in confronting this urgent challenge for humankind.”

    Brief descriptions of the five Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects are provided below.

    Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge

    This project leverages advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data sciences to improve the accuracy of climate models and make them more useful to a variety of stakeholders — from communities to industry. The team is developing a digital twin of the Earth that harnesses more data than ever before to reduce and quantify uncertainties in climate projections.

    Research leads: Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate; and Noelle Eckley Selin, director of the Technology and Policy Program and professor with a joint appointment in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    Center for Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry

    This project seeks to reinvent and electrify the processes and materials behind hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene production. A new innovation hub will perform targeted fundamental research and engineering with urgency, pushing the technological envelope on electricity-driven chemical transformations.

    Research leads: Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Bilge Yıldız, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

    Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes

    This project addresses key gaps in knowledge about intensifying extreme events such as floods, hurricanes, and heat waves, and quantifies their long-term risk in a changing climate. The team is developing a scalable climate-change adaptation toolkit to help vulnerable communities and low-carbon energy providers prepare for these extreme weather events.

    Research leads: Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and co-director of the MIT Lorenz Center; Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab; and Paul O’Gorman, professor in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    The Climate Resilience Early Warning System

    The CREWSnet project seeks to reinvent climate change adaptation with a novel forecasting system that empowers underserved communities to interpret local climate risk, proactively plan for their futures incorporating resilience strategies, and minimize losses. CREWSnet will initially be demonstrated in southwestern Bangladesh, serving as a model for similarly threatened regions around the world.

    Research leads: John Aldridge, assistant leader of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops

    This project works to revolutionize the agricultural sector with climate-resilient crops and fertilizers that have the ability to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production.

    Research lead: Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering

    “As one of the world’s leading institutions of research and innovation, it is incumbent upon MIT to draw on our depth of knowledge, ingenuity, and ambition to tackle the hard climate problems now confronting the world,” says Richard Lester, MIT associate provost for international activities. “Together with collaborators across industry, finance, community, and government, the Climate Grand Challenges teams are looking to develop and implement high-impact, path-breaking climate solutions rapidly and at a grand scale.”

    The initial call for ideas in 2020 yielded nearly 100 letters of interest from almost 400 faculty members and senior researchers, representing 90 percent of MIT departments. After an extensive evaluation, 27 finalist teams received a total of $2.7 million to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans. The projects address four broad research themes:

    To select the winning projects, research plans were reviewed by panels of international experts representing relevant scientific and technical domains as well as experts in processes and policies for innovation and scalability.

    “In response to climate change, the world really needs to do two things quickly: deploy the solutions we already have much more widely, and develop new solutions that are urgently needed to tackle this intensifying threat,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research. “These five flagship projects exemplify MIT’s strong determination to bring its knowledge and expertise to bear in generating new ideas and solutions that will help solve the climate problem.”

    “The Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects set a new standard for inclusive climate solutions that can be adapted and implemented across the globe,” says MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles. “This competition propels the entire MIT research community — faculty, students, postdocs, and staff — to act with urgency around a worsening climate crisis, and I look forward to seeing the difference these projects can make.”

    “MIT’s efforts on climate research amid the climate crisis was a primary reason that I chose to attend MIT, and remains a reason that I view the Institute favorably. MIT has a clear opportunity to be a thought leader in the climate space in our own MIT way, which is why CGC fits in so well,” says senior Megan Xu, who served on the Climate Grand Challenges student committee and is studying ways to make the food system more sustainable.

    The Climate Grand Challenges competition is a key initiative of “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021. Fast Forward outlines MIT’s comprehensive plan for helping the world address the climate crisis. It consists of five broad areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts. More

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    System helps severely motor-impaired individuals type more quickly and accurately

    In 1995, French fashion magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a seizure while driving a car, which left him with a condition known as locked-in syndrome, a neurological disease in which the patient is completely paralyzed and can only move muscles that control the eyes.

    Bauby, who had signed a book contract shortly before his accident, wrote the memoir “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” using a dictation system in which his speech therapist recited the alphabet and he would blink when she said the correct letter. They wrote the 130-page book one blink at a time.

    Technology has come a long way since Bauby’s accident. Many individuals with severe motor impairments caused by locked-in syndrome, cerebral palsy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or other conditions can communicate using computer interfaces where they select letters or words in an onscreen grid by activating a single switch, often by pressing a button, releasing a puff of air, or blinking.

    But these row-column scanning systems are very rigid, and, similar to the technique used by Bauby’s speech therapist, they highlight each option one at a time, making them frustratingly slow for some users. And they are not suitable for tasks where options can’t be arranged in a grid, like drawing, browsing the web, or gaming.

    A more flexible system being developed by researchers at MIT places individual selection indicators next to each option on a computer screen. The indicators can be placed anywhere — next to anything someone might click with a mouse — so a user does not need to cycle through a grid of choices to make selections. The system, called Nomon, incorporates probabilistic reasoning to learn how users make selections, and then adjusts the interface to improve their speed and accuracy.

    Participants in a user study were able to type faster using Nomon than with a row-column scanning system. The users also performed better on a picture selection task, demonstrating how Nomon could be used for more than typing.

    “It is so cool and exciting to be able to develop software that has the potential to really help people. Being able to find those signals and turn them into communication as we are used to it is a really interesting problem,” says senior author Tamara Broderick, an associate professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and a member of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society.

    Joining Broderick on the paper are lead author Nicholas Bonaker, an EECS graduate student; Emli-Mari Nel, head of innovation and machine learning at Averly and a visiting lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa; and Keith Vertanen, an associate professor at Michigan Tech. The research is being presented at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

    On the clock

    In the Nomon interface, a small analog clock is placed next to every option the user can select. (A gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow.) The user looks at one option and then clicks their switch when that clock’s hand passes a red “noon” line. After each click, the system changes the phases of the clocks to separate the most probable next targets. The user clicks repeatedly until their target is selected.

    When used as a keyboard, Nomon’s machine-learning algorithms try to guess the next word based on previous words and each new letter as the user makes selections.

    Broderick developed a simplified version of Nomon several years ago but decided to revisit it to make the system easier for motor-impaired individuals to use. She enlisted the help of then-undergraduate Bonaker to redesign the interface.

    They first consulted nonprofit organizations that work with motor-impaired individuals, as well as a motor-impaired switch user, to gather feedback on the Nomon design.

    Then they designed a user study that would better represent the abilities of motor-impaired individuals. They wanted to make sure to thoroughly vet the system before using much of the valuable time of motor-impaired users, so they first tested on non-switch users, Broderick explains.

    Switching up the switch

    To gather more representative data, Bonaker devised a webcam-based switch that was harder to use than simply clicking a key. The non-switch users had to lean their bodies to one side of the screen and then back to the other side to register a click.

    “And they have to do this at precisely the right time, so it really slows them down. We did some empirical studies which showed that they were much closer to the response times of motor-impaired individuals,” Broderick says.

    They ran a 10-session user study with 13 non-switch participants and one single-switch user with an advanced form of spinal muscular dystrophy. In the first nine sessions, participants used Nomon and a row-column scanning interface for 20 minutes each to perform text entry, and in the 10th session they used the two systems for a picture selection task.

    Non-switch users typed 15 percent faster using Nomon, while the motor-impaired user typed even faster than the non-switch users. When typing unfamiliar words, the users were 20 percent faster overall and made half as many errors. In their final session, they were able to complete the picture selection task 36 percent faster using Nomon.

    “Nomon is much more forgiving than row-column scanning. With row-column scanning, even if you are just slightly off, now you’ve chosen B instead of A and that’s an error,” Broderick says.

    Adapting to noisy clicks

    With its probabilistic reasoning, Nomon incorporates everything it knows about where a user is likely to click to make the process faster, easier, and less error-prone. For instance, if the user selects “Q,” Nomon will make it as easy as possible for the user to select “U” next.

    Nomon also learns how a user clicks. So, if the user always clicks a little after the clock’s hand strikes noon, the system adapts to that in real time. It also adapts to noisiness. If a user’s click is often off the mark, the system requires extra clicks to ensure accuracy.

    This probabilistic reasoning makes Nomon powerful but also requires a higher click-load than row-column scanning systems. Clicking multiple times can be a trying task for severely motor-impaired users.

    Broderick hopes to reduce the click-load by incorporating gaze tracking into Nomon, which would give the system more robust information about what a user might choose next based on which part of the screen they are looking at. The researchers also want to find a better way to automatically adjust the clock speeds to help users be more accurate and efficient.

    They are working on a new series of studies in which they plan to partner with more motor-impaired users.

    “So far, the feedback from motor-impaired users has been invaluable to us; we’re very grateful to the motor-impaired user who commented on our initial interface and the separate motor-impaired user who participated in our study. We’re currently extending our study to work with a bigger and more diverse group of our target population. With their help, we’re already making further improvements to our interface and working to better understand the performance of Nomon,” she says.

    “Nonspeaking individuals with motor disabilities are currently not provided with efficient communication solutions for interacting with either speaking partners or computer systems. This ‘communication gap’ is a known unresolved problem in human-computer interaction, and so far there are no good solutions. This paper demonstrates that a highly creative approach underpinned by a statistical model can provide tangible performance gains to the users who need it the most: nonspeaking individuals reliant on a single switch to communicate,” says Per Ola Kristensson, professor of interactive systems engineering at Cambridge University, who was not involved with this research. “The paper also demonstrates the value of complementing insights from computational experiments with the involvement of end-users and other stakeholders in the design process. I find this a highly creative and important paper in an area where it is notoriously difficult to make significant progress.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the Seth Teller Memorial Fund to Advanced Technology for People with Disabilities, a Peter J. Eloranta Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, the MIT Quest for Intelligence, and the National Science Foundation. More

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    A tool for predicting the future

    Whether someone is trying to predict tomorrow’s weather, forecast future stock prices, identify missed opportunities for sales in retail, or estimate a patient’s risk of developing a disease, they will likely need to interpret time-series data, which are a collection of observations recorded over time.

    Making predictions using time-series data typically requires several data-processing steps and the use of complex machine-learning algorithms, which have such a steep learning curve they aren’t readily accessible to nonexperts.

    To make these powerful tools more user-friendly, MIT researchers developed a system that directly integrates prediction functionality on top of an existing time-series database. Their simplified interface, which they call tspDB (time series predict database), does all the complex modeling behind the scenes so a nonexpert can easily generate a prediction in only a few seconds.

    The new system is more accurate and more efficient than state-of-the-art deep learning methods when performing two tasks: predicting future values and filling in missing data points.

    One reason tspDB is so successful is that it incorporates a novel time-series-prediction algorithm, explains electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) graduate student Abdullah Alomar, an author of a recent research paper in which he and his co-authors describe the algorithm. This algorithm is especially effective at making predictions on multivariate time-series data, which are data that have more than one time-dependent variable. In a weather database, for instance, temperature, dew point, and cloud cover each depend on their past values.

    The algorithm also estimates the volatility of a multivariate time series to provide the user with a confidence level for its predictions.

    “Even as the time-series data becomes more and more complex, this algorithm can effectively capture any time-series structure out there. It feels like we have found the right lens to look at the model complexity of time-series data,” says senior author Devavrat Shah, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in EECS and a member of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems.

    Joining Alomar and Shah on the paper is lead author Anish Agrawal, a former EECS graduate student who is currently a postdoc at the Simons Institute at the University of California at Berkeley. The research will be presented at the ACM SIGMETRICS conference.

    Adapting a new algorithm

    Shah and his collaborators have been working on the problem of interpreting time-series data for years, adapting different algorithms and integrating them into tspDB as they built the interface.

    About four years ago, they learned about a particularly powerful classical algorithm, called singular spectrum analysis (SSA), that imputes and forecasts single time series. Imputation is the process of replacing missing values or correcting past values. While this algorithm required manual parameter selection, the researchers suspected it could enable their interface to make effective predictions using time series data. In earlier work, they removed this need to manually intervene for algorithmic implementation.  

    The algorithm for single time series transformed it into a matrix and utilized matrix estimation procedures. The key intellectual challenge was how to adapt it to utilize multiple time series.  After a few years of struggle, they realized the answer was something very simple: “Stack” the matrices for each individual time series, treat it as a one big matrix, and then apply the single time-series algorithm on it.

    This utilizes information across multiple time series naturally — both across the time series and across time, which they describe in their new paper.

    This recent publication also discusses interesting alternatives, where instead of transforming the multivariate time series into a big matrix, it is viewed as a three-dimensional tensor. A tensor is a multi-dimensional array, or grid, of numbers. This established a promising connection between the classical field of time series analysis and the growing field of tensor estimation, Alomar says.

    “The variant of mSSA that we introduced actually captures all of that beautifully. So, not only does it provide the most likely estimation, but a time-varying confidence interval, as well,” Shah says.

    The simpler, the better

    They tested the adapted mSSA against other state-of-the-art algorithms, including deep-learning methods, on real-world time-series datasets with inputs drawn from the electricity grid, traffic patterns, and financial markets.

    Their algorithm outperformed all the others on imputation and it outperformed all but one of the other algorithms when it came to forecasting future values. The researchers also demonstrated that their tweaked version of mSSA can be applied to any kind of time-series data.

    “One reason I think this works so well is that the model captures a lot of time series dynamics, but at the end of the day, it is still a simple model. When you are working with something simple like this, instead of a neural network that can easily overfit the data, you can actually perform better,” Alomar says.

    The impressive performance of mSSA is what makes tspDB so effective, Shah explains. Now, their goal is to make this algorithm accessible to everyone.

    One a user installs tspDB on top of an existing database, they can run a prediction query with just a few keystrokes in about 0.9 milliseconds, as compared to 0.5 milliseconds for a standard search query. The confidence intervals are also designed to help nonexperts to make a more informed decision by incorporating the degree of uncertainty of the predictions into their decision making.

    For instance, the system could enable a nonexpert to predict future stock prices with high accuracy in just a few minutes, even if the time-series dataset contains missing values.

    Now that the researchers have shown why mSSA works so well, they are targeting new algorithms that can be incorporated into tspDB. One of these algorithms utilizes the same model to automatically enable change point detection, so if the user believes their time series will change its behavior at some point, the system will automatically detect that change and incorporate that into its predictions.

    They also want to continue gathering feedback from current tspDB users to see how they can improve the system’s functionality and user-friendliness, Shah says.

    “Our interest at the highest level is to make tspDB a success in the form of a broadly utilizable, open-source system. Time-series data are very important, and this is a beautiful concept of actually building prediction functionalities directly into the database. It has never been done before, and so we want to make sure the world uses it,” he says.

    “This work is very interesting for a number of reasons. It provides a practical variant of mSSA which requires no hand tuning, they provide the first known analysis of mSSA, and the authors demonstrate the real-world value of their algorithm by being competitive with or out-performing several known algorithms for imputations and predictions in (multivariate) time series for several real-world data sets,” says Vishal Misra, a professor of computer science at Columbia University who was not involved with this research. “At the heart of it all is the beautiful modeling work where they cleverly exploit correlations across time (within a time series) and space (across time series) to create a low-rank spatiotemporal factor representation of a multivariate time series. Importantly this model connects the field of time series analysis to that of the rapidly evolving topic of tensor completion, and I expect a lot of follow-on research spurred by this paper.” More

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    Study: With masking and distancing in place, NFL stadium openings in 2020 had no impact on local Covid-19 infections

    As with most everything in the world, football looked very different in 2020. As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, many National Football League (NFL) games were played in empty stadiums, while other stadiums opened to fans at significantly reduced capacity, with strict safety protocols in place.

    At the time it was unclear what impact such large sporting events would have on Covid-19 case counts, particularly at a time when vaccination against the virus was not widely available.

    Now, MIT engineers have taken a look back at the NFL’s 2020 regular season and found that for this specific period during the pandemic, opening stadiums to fans while requiring face coverings, social distancing, and other measures had no impact on the number of Covid-19 infections in those stadiums’ local counties.

    As they write in a new paper appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “the benefits of providing a tightly controlled outdoor spectating environment — including masking and distancing requirements — counterbalanced the risks associated with opening.”

    The study concentrates on the NFL’s 2020 regular season (September 2020 to early January 2021), at a time when earlier strains of the virus dominated, before the rise of more transmissible Delta and Omicron variants. Nevertheless, the results may inform decisions on whether and how to hold large outdoor gatherings in the face of future public health crises.

    “These results show that the measures adopted by the NFL were effective in safely opening stadiums,” says study author Anette “Peko” Hosoi, the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. “If case counts start to rise again, we know what to do: mask people, put them outside, and distance them from each other.”

    The study’s co-authors are members of MIT’s Institue for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), and include Bernardo García Bulle, Dennis Shen, and Devavrat Shah, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

    Preseason patterns

    Last year a group led by the University of Southern Mississippi compared Covid-19 case counts in the counties of NFL stadiums that allowed fans in, versus those that did not. Their analysis showed that stadiums that opened to large numbers of fans led to “tangible increases” in the local county’s number of Covid-19 cases.

    But there are a number of factors in addition to a stadium’s opening that can affect case counts, including local policies, mandates, and attitudes. As the MIT team writes, “it is not at all obvious that one can attribute the differences in case spikes to the stadiums given the enormous number of confounding factors.”

    To truly isolate the effects of a stadium’s opening, one could imagine tracking Covid cases in a county with an open stadium through the 2020 season, then turning back the clock, closing the stadium, then tracking that same county’s Covid cases through the same season, all things being equal.

    “That’s the perfect experiment, with the exception that you would need a time machine,” Hosoi says.

    As it turns out, the next best thing is synthetic control — a statistical method that is used to determine the effect of an “intervention” (such as the opening of a stadium) compared with the exact same scenario without that intervention.

    In synthetic control, researchers use a weighted combination of groups to construct a “synthetic” version of an actual  scenario. In this case, the actual scenario is a county such as Dallas that hosts an open stadium. A synthetic version would be a county that looks similar to Dallas, only without a stadium. In the context of this study, a county that “looks” like Dallas has a similar preseason pattern of Covid-19 cases.

    To construct a synthetic Dallas, the researchers looked for surrounding counties without stadiums, that had similar Covid-19 trajectories leading up to the 2020 football season. They combined these counties in a way that best fit Dallas’ actual case trajectory. They then used data from the combined counties to calculate the number of Covid cases for this synthetic Dallas through the season, and compared these counts to the real Dallas.

    The team carried out this analysis for every “stadium county.” They determined a county to be a stadium county if more than 10 percent of a stadium’s fans came from that county, which the researchers estimated based on attendance data provided by the NFL.

    “Go outside”

    Of the stadiums included in the study, 13 were closed through the regular season, while 16 opened with reduced capacity and multiple pandemic requirements in place, such as required masking, distanced seating, mobile ticketing, and enhanced cleaning protocols.

    The researchers found the trajectory of infections in all stadium counties mirrored that of synthetic counties, showing that the number of infections would have been the same if the stadiums had remained closed. In other words, they found no evidence that NFL stadium openings led to any increase in local Covid case counts.

    To check that their method wasn’t missing any case spikes, they tested it on a known superspreader: the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which was held in August of 2020. The analysis successfully picked up an increase in cases in Meade, the host county, compared to a synthetic counterpart, in the two weeks following the rally.

    Surprisingly, the researchers found that several stadium counties’ case counts dipped slightly compared to their synthetic counterparts. In these counties — including Hamilton, Ohio, home of the Cincinnati Bengals — it appeared that opening the stadium to fans was tied to a dip in Covid-19 infections. Hosoi has a guess as to why:

    “These are football communities with dedicated fans. Rather than stay home alone, those fans may have gone to a sports bar or hosted indoor football gatherings if the stadium had not opened,” Hosoi proposes. “Opening the stadium under those circumstances would have been beneficial to the community because it makes people go outside.”

    The team’s analysis also revealed another connection: Counties with similar Covid trajectories also shared similar politics. To illustrate this point, the team mapped the county-wide temporal trajectories of Covid case counts in Ohio in 2020 and found them to be a strong predictor of the state’s 2020 electoral map.

    “That is not a coincidence,” Hosoi notes. “It tells us that local political leanings determined the temporal trajectory of the pandemic.”

    The team plans to apply their analysis to see how other factors may have influenced the pandemic.

    “Covid is a different beast [today],” she says. “Omicron is more transmissive, and more of the population is vaccinated. It’s possible we’d find something different if we ran this analysis on the upcoming season, and I think we probably should try.” More