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    Professors Elchanan Mossel and Rosalind Picard named 2021 ACM Fellows

    The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) has named MIT professors Elchanan Mossel and Rosalind Picard as fellows for outstanding accomplishments in computing and information technology.

    The ACM Fellows program recognizes wide-ranging and fundamental contributions in areas including algorithms, computer science education, cryptography, data security and privacy, medical informatics, and mobile and networked systems, among many other areas. The accomplishments of the 2021 ACM Fellows underpin important innovations that shape the technologies we use every day.

    Elchanan Mossel

    Mossel is a professor of mathematics and a member at the Statistics and Data Science Center of the MIT Institute for Data, Systems and Society. His research in discrete functional inequalities, isoperimetry, and hypercontractivity led to the proof that Majority is Stablest and confirmed the optimality of the Goemans-Williamson MAX-CUT algorithm under the unique games conjecture from computational complexity. His work on the reconstruction problem on trees provides optimal algorithms and bounds for phylogenetic reconstruction in molecular biology and has led to sharp results in the analysis of Gibbs samplers from statistical physics and inference problems on graphs. His research has resolved open problems in computational biology, machine learning, social choice theory, and economics.Mossel received a BS from the Open University in Israel in 1992, and MS (1997) and PhD (2000) degrees in mathematics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was a postdoc at the Microsoft Research Theory Group and a Miller Fellow at University of California at Berkeley. He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 2003 as a professor of statistics and computer science, and spent leaves as a professor at the Weizmann Institute and at the Wharton School before joining MIT in 2016 as a full professor.

    In 2020, he received the Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship of the U.S. Department of Defense. Other distinctions include being named a Simons Investigator in Mathematics in 2019, being selected as a fellow of the AMS, and receiving a Sloan Research Fellowship, NSF CAREER Award, and the Bergmann Memorial Award from the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation.

    “I am honored by this award,” says Mossel. “It makes me realize how fortunate I’ve been, working with creative and generous colleagues, and mentoring brilliant young minds.”

    Rosalind Picard

    Picard is a scientist, engineer, author, and professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab. She is recognized as the founder of the field of affective computing, and has carried this research forward as head of the Media Lab’s Affective Computing research group. She is also a founding faculty chair of MIT’s MindHandHeart Initiative, and a faculty member of the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering. Picard is an IEEE fellow, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. 

    Picard’s inventions are in use by thousands of research teams worldwide as well as in numerous products and services. She has co-founded two companies: Affectiva (now part of Smart Eye), providing emotion AI technologies now used by more than 25 percent of the Global Fortune 500, and Empatica, providing wearable sensors and analytics to improve health. Starting from inventions by Picard and her team, Empatica created the first AI-based smart watch cleared by the FDA (in neurology for monitoring seizures), which is now helping to bring potentially lifesaving help for people with epilepsy. 

    “This award makes me think of how blessed I am to work with so many amazing people here at MIT, especially at the Media Lab,” Picard notes. “Whenever any one of us has our contributions recognized, it is also a recognition of how special a place this is.” More

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    The promise and pitfalls of artificial intelligence explored at TEDxMIT event

    Scientists, students, and community members came together last month to discuss the promise and pitfalls of artificial intelligence at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) for the fourth TEDxMIT event held at MIT. 

    Attendees were entertained and challenged as they explored “the good and bad of computing,” explained CSAIL Director Professor Daniela Rus, who organized the event with John Werner, an MIT fellow and managing director of Link Ventures; MIT sophomore Lucy Zhao; and grad student Jessica Karaguesian. “As you listen to the talks today,” Rus told the audience, “consider how our world is made better by AI, and also our intrinsic responsibilities for ensuring that the technology is deployed for the greater good.”

    Rus mentioned some new capabilities that could be enabled by AI: an automated personal assistant that could monitor your sleep phases and wake you at the optimal time, as well as on-body sensors that monitor everything from your posture to your digestive system. “Intelligent assistance can help empower and augment our lives. But these intriguing possibilities should only be pursued if we can simultaneously resolve the challenges that these technologies bring,” said Rus. 

    The next speaker, CSAIL principal investigator and professor of electrical engineering and computer science Manolis Kellis, started off by suggesting what sounded like an unattainable goal — using AI to “put an end to evolution as we know it.” Looking at it from a computer science perspective, he said, what we call evolution is basically a brute force search. “You’re just exploring all of the search space, creating billions of copies of every one of your programs, and just letting them fight against each other. This is just brutal. And it’s also completely slow. It took us billions of years to get here.” Might it be possible, he asked, to speed up evolution and make it less messy?

    The answer, Kellis said, is that we can do better, and that we’re already doing better: “We’re not killing people like Sparta used to, throwing the weaklings off the mountain. We are truly saving diversity.”

    Knowledge, moreover, is now being widely shared, passed on “horizontally” through accessible information sources, he noted, rather than “vertically,” from parent to offspring. “I would like to argue that competition in the human species has been replaced by collaboration. Despite having a fixed cognitive hardware, we have software upgrades that are enabled by culture, by the 20 years that our children spend in school to fill their brains with everything that humanity has learned, regardless of which family came up with it. This is the secret of our great acceleration” — the fact that human advancement in recent centuries has vastly out-clipped evolution’s sluggish pace.

    The next step, Kellis said, is to harness insights about evolution in order to combat an individual’s genetic susceptibility to disease. “Our current approach is simply insufficient,” he added. “We’re treating manifestations of disease, not the causes of disease.” A key element in his lab’s ambitious strategy to transform medicine is to identify “the causal pathways through which genetic predisposition manifests. It’s only by understanding these pathways that we can truly manipulate disease causation and reverse the disease circuitry.” 

    Kellis was followed by Aleksander Madry, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and CSAIL principal investigator, who told the crowd, “progress in AI is happening, and it’s happening fast.” Computer programs can routinely beat humans in games like chess, poker, and Go. So should we be worried about AI surpassing humans? 

    Madry, for one, is not afraid — or at least not yet. And some of that reassurance stems from research that has led him to the following conclusion: Despite its considerable success, AI, especially in the form of machine learning, is lazy. “Think about being lazy as this kind of smart student who doesn’t really want to study for an exam. Instead, what he does is just study all the past years’ exams and just look for patterns. Instead of trying to actually learn, he just tries to pass the test. And this is exactly the same way in which current AI is lazy.”

    A machine-learning model might recognize grazing sheep, for instance, simply by picking out pictures that have green grass in them. If a model is trained to identify fish from photos of anglers proudly displaying their catches, Madry explained, “the model figures out that if there’s a human holding something in the picture, I will just classify it as a fish.” The consequences can be more serious for an AI model intended to pick out malignant tumors. If the model is trained on images containing rulers that indicate the size of tumors, the model may end up selecting only those photos that have rulers in them.

    This leads to Madry’s biggest concerns about AI in its present form. “AI is beating us now,” he noted. “But the way it does it [involves] a little bit of cheating.” He fears that we will apply AI “in some way in which this mismatch between what the model actually does versus what we think it does will have some catastrophic consequences.” People relying on AI, especially in potentially life-or-death situations, need to be much more mindful of its current limitations, Madry cautioned.

    There were 10 speakers altogether, and the last to take the stage was MIT associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and CSAIL principal investigator Marzyeh Ghassemi, who laid out her vision for how AI could best contribute to general health and well-being. But in order for that to happen, its models must be trained on accurate, diverse, and unbiased medical data.

    It’s important to focus on the data, Ghassemi stressed, because these models are learning from us. “Since our data is human-generated … a neural network is learning how to practice from a doctor. But doctors are human, and humans make mistakes. And if a human makes a mistake, and we train an AI from that, the AI will, too. Garbage in, garbage out. But it’s not like the garbage is distributed equally.”

    She pointed out that many subgroups receive worse care from medical practitioners, and members of these subgroups die from certain conditions at disproportionately high rates. This is an area, Ghassemi said, “where AI can actually help. This is something we can fix.” Her group is developing machine-learning models that are robust, private, and fair. What’s holding them back is neither algorithms nor GPUs. It’s data. Once we collect reliable data from diverse sources, Ghassemi added, we might start reaping the benefits that AI can bring to the realm of health care.

    In addition to CSAIL speakers, there were talks from members across MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society; the MIT Mobility Initiative; the MIT Media Lab; and the SENSEable City Lab.

    The proceedings concluded on that hopeful note. Rus and Werner then thanked everyone for coming. “Please continue to reflect about the good and bad of computing,” Rus urged. “And we look forward to seeing you back here in May for the next TEDxMIT event.”

    The exact theme of the spring 2022 gathering will have something to do with “superpowers.” But — if December’s mind-bending presentations were any indication — the May offering is almost certain to give its attendees plenty to think about. And maybe provide the inspiration for a startup or two. More

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    Enabling AI-driven health advances without sacrificing patient privacy

    There’s a lot of excitement at the intersection of artificial intelligence and health care. AI has already been used to improve disease treatment and detection, discover promising new drugs, identify links between genes and diseases, and more.

    By analyzing large datasets and finding patterns, virtually any new algorithm has the potential to help patients — AI researchers just need access to the right data to train and test those algorithms. Hospitals, understandably, are hesitant to share sensitive patient information with research teams. When they do share data, it’s difficult to verify that researchers are only using the data they need and deleting it after they’re done.

    Secure AI Labs (SAIL) is addressing those problems with a technology that lets AI algorithms run on encrypted datasets that never leave the data owner’s system. Health care organizations can control how their datasets are used, while researchers can protect the confidentiality of their models and search queries. Neither party needs to see the data or the model to collaborate.

    SAIL’s platform can also combine data from multiple sources, creating rich insights that fuel more effective algorithms.

    “You shouldn’t have to schmooze with hospital executives for five years before you can run your machine learning algorithm,” says SAIL co-founder and MIT Professor Manolis Kellis, who co-founded the company with CEO Anne Kim ’16, SM ’17. “Our goal is to help patients, to help machine learning scientists, and to create new therapeutics. We want new algorithms — the best algorithms — to be applied to the biggest possible data set.”

    SAIL has already partnered with hospitals and life science companies to unlock anonymized data for researchers. In the next year, the company hopes to be working with about half of the top 50 academic medical centers in the country.

    Unleashing AI’s full potential

    As an undergraduate at MIT studying computer science and molecular biology, Kim worked with researchers in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) to analyze data from clinical trials, gene association studies, hospital intensive care units, and more.

    “I realized there is something severely broken in data sharing, whether it was hospitals using hard drives, ancient file transfer protocol, or even sending stuff in the mail,” Kim says. “It was all just not well-tracked.”

    Kellis, who is also a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, has spent years establishing partnerships with hospitals and consortia across a range of diseases including cancers, heart disease, schizophrenia, and obesity. He knew that smaller research teams would struggle to get access to the same data his lab was working with.

    In 2017, Kellis and Kim decided to commercialize technology they were developing to allow AI algorithms to run on encrypted data.

    In the summer of 2018, Kim participated in the delta v startup accelerator run by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. The founders also received support from the Sandbox Innovation Fund and the Venture Mentoring Service, and made various early connections through their MIT network.

    To participate in SAIL’s program, hospitals and other health care organizations make parts of their data available to researchers by setting up a node behind their firewall. SAIL then sends encrypted algorithms to the servers where the datasets reside in a process called federated learning. The algorithms crunch the data locally in each server and transmit the results back to a central model, which updates itself. No one — not the researchers, the data owners, or even SAIL —has access to the models or the datasets.

    The approach allows a much broader set of researchers to apply their models to large datasets. To further engage the research community, Kellis’ lab at MIT has begun holding competitions in which it gives access to datasets in areas like protein function and gene expression, and challenges researchers to predict results.

    “We invite machine learning researchers to come and train on last year’s data and predict this year’s data,” says Kellis. “If we see there’s a new type of algorithm that is performing best in these community-level assessments, people can adopt it locally at many different institutions and level the playing field. So, the only thing that matters is the quality of your algorithm rather than the power of your connections.”

    By enabling a large number of datasets to be anonymized into aggregate insights, SAIL’s technology also allows researchers to study rare diseases, in which small pools of relevant patient data are often spread out among many institutions. That has historically made the data difficult to apply AI models to.

    “We’re hoping that all of these datasets will eventually be open,” Kellis says. “We can cut across all the silos and enable a new era where every patient with every rare disorder across the entire world can come together in a single keystroke to analyze data.”

    Enabling the medicine of the future

    To work with large amounts of data around specific diseases, SAIL has increasingly sought to partner with patient associations and consortia of health care groups, including an international health care consulting company and the Kidney Cancer Association. The partnerships also align SAIL with patients, the group they’re most trying to help.

    Overall, the founders are happy to see SAIL solving problems they faced in their labs for researchers around the world.

    “The right place to solve this is not an academic project. The right place to solve this is in industry, where we can provide a platform not just for my lab but for any researcher,” Kellis says. “It’s about creating an ecosystem of academia, researchers, pharma, biotech, and hospital partners. I think it’s the blending all of these different areas that will make that vision of medicine of the future become a reality.” More

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    End-to-end supply chain transparency

    For years, companies have managed their extended supply chains with intermittent audits and certifications while attempting to persuade their suppliers to adhere to certain standards and codes of conduct. But they’ve lacked the concrete data necessary to prove their supply chains were working as they should. They most likely had baseline data about their suppliers — what they bought and who they bought it from — but knew little else about the rest of the supply chain.

    With Sourcemap, companies can now trace their supply chains from raw material to finished good with certainty, keeping track of the mines and farms that produce the commodities they rely on to take their goods to market. This unprecedented level of transparency provides Sourcemap’s customers with the assurance that the entire end-to-end supply chain operates within their standards while living up to social and environmental targets.

    And they’re doing it at scale for large multinationals across the food, agricultural, automotive, tech, and apparel industries. Thanks to Sourcemap founder and CEO Leonardo Bonanni MA ’03, SM ’05, PhD ’10, companies like VF Corporation, owner of brands like Timberland, The North Face, Mars, Hershey, and Ferrero, now have enough data to confidently tell the story of how they’re sourcing their raw materials.

    “Coming from the Media Lab, we recognized early on the power of the cloud, the power of social networking-type databases and smartphone diffusion around the world,” says Bonanni of his company’s MIT roots. Rather than providing intermittent glances at the supply chain via an auditor, Sourcemap collects data continuously, in real-time, every step of the way, flagging anything that could indicate counterfeiting, adulteration, fraud, waste, or abuse.

    “We’ve taken our customers from a situation where they had very little control to a world where they have direct visibility over their entire global operations, even allowing them to see ahead of time — before a container reaches the port — whether there is any indication that there might be something wrong with it,” says Bonanni.

    The key problem Sourcemap addresses is a lack of data in companies’ supply chain management databases. According to Bonanni, most Sourcemap customers have invested millions of dollars in enterprise resource planning (ERP) databases, which provide information about internal operations and direct suppliers, but fall short when it comes to global operations, where their secondary and tertiary suppliers operate. Built on relational databases, ERP systems have been around for more than 40 years and work well for simple, static data structures. But they aren’t agile enough to handle big data and rapidly evolving, complex data structures

    Sourcemap, on the other hand, uses NoSQL (non-relational) database technology, which is more flexible, cost-efficient, and scalable. “Our platform is like a LinkedIn for the supply chain,” explains Bonanni. Customers provide information about where they buy their raw materials, the suppliers get invited to the network and provide information to validate those relationships, right down to the farms and the mines where the raw materials are extracted — which is often where the biggest risks lie.

    Initially, the entire supply chain database of a Sourcemap customer might amount to a few megabytes of spreadsheets listing their purchase orders and the names of their suppliers. Sourcemap delivers terabytes of data that paint a detailed picture of the supply chain, capturing everything, right down to the moment a farmer in West Africa delivers cocoa beans to a warehouse, onto a truck heading to a port, to a factory, all the way to the finished goods.

    “We’ve seen the amount of data collected grow by a factor of 1 million, which tells us that the world is finally ready for full visibility of supply chains,” says Bonanni. “The fact is that we’ve seen supply chain transparency go from a fringe concern to a broad-based requirement as a license to operate in most of Europe and North America,” says Bonanni.

    These days, disruptions in supply chains, combined with price volatility and new laws requiring companies to prove that the goods they import were not made illegally (such as by causing deforestation or involving forced or child labor), means that companies are often required to know where they source their raw materials from, even if they only import the materials through an intermediary.

    Sourcemap uses its full suite of tools to walk customers through a step-by-step process that maps their suppliers while measuring performance, ultimately verifying the entire supply chain and providing them with the confidence to import goods while being customs-compliant. At the end of the day, Sourcemap customers can communicate to their stakeholders and the end consumer exactly where their commodities come from while ensuring that social, environmental, and compliance standards are met.

    The company was recently named to the newest cohort of firms honored by the MIT Startup Exchange (STEX) as STEX25 startups. Bonanni is quick to point out the benefits of STEX and of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP): “Our best feedback and our most constructive relationships have been with companies that sponsored our research early on at the Media Lab and ILP,” he says. “The innovative exchange of ideas inherent in the MIT startup ecosystem has helped to build up Sourcemap as a company and to grow supply chain transparency as a future-facing technology that more and more companies are now scrambling to adopt.” More

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    MIT welcomes nine MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars for 2021-22

    In its 31st year, the Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Visiting Professors and Scholars Program will host nine outstanding scholars from across the Americas. The flagship program honors the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by increasing the presence and recognizing the contributions of underrepresented minority scholars at MIT. Throughout the year, the cohort will enhance their scholarship through intellectual engagement with the MIT community and enrich the cultural, academic, and professional experience of students.

    The 2021-22 scholars

    Sanford Biggers is an interdisciplinary artist hosted by the Department of Architecture. His work is an interplay of narrative, perspective, and history that speaks to current social, political, and economic happenings while examining their contexts. His diverse practice positions him as a collaborator with the past through explorations of often-overlooked cultural and political narratives from American history. Through collaboration with his faculty host, Brandon Clifford, he will spend the year contributing to projects with Architecture; Art, Culture and Technology; the Transmedia Storytelling initiatives; and community workshops and engagement with local K-12 education.

    Kristen Dorsey is an assistant professor of engineering at Smith College. She will be hosted by the Program in Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab. Her research focuses on the fabrication and characterization of microscale sensors and microelectromechanical systems. Dorsey tries to understand “why things go wrong” by investigating device reliability and stability. At MIT, Dorsey is interested in forging collaborations to consider issues of access and equity as they apply to wearable health care devices.

    Omolola “Lola” Eniola-Adefeso is the associate dean for graduate and professional education and associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan. She will join MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering (ChemE). Eniola-Adefeso will work with Professor Paula Hammond on developing electrostatically assembled nanoparticle coatings that enable targeting of specific immune cell types. A co-founder and chief scientific officer of Asalyxa Bio, she is interested in the interactions between blood leukocytes and endothelial cells in vessel lumen lining, and how they change during inflammation response. Eniola-Adefeso will also work with the Diversity in Chemical Engineering (DICE) graduate student group in ChemE and the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.

    Robert Gilliard Jr. is an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Virginia and will join the MIT chemistry department, working closely with faculty host Christopher Cummins. His research focuses on various aspects of group 15 element chemistry. He was a founding member of the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers UGA section, and he has served as an American Chemical Society (ACS) Bridge Program mentor as well as an ACS Project Seed mentor. Gilliard has also collaborated with the Cleveland Public Library to expose diverse young scholars to STEM fields.

    Valencia Joyner Koomson ’98, MNG ’99 will return for the second semester of her appointment this fall in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Based at Tufts University, where she is an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Koomson has focused her research on microelectronic systems for cell analysis and biomedical applications. In the past semester, she has served as a judge for the Black Alumni/ae of MIT Research Slam and worked closely with faculty host Professor Akintunde Akinwande.

    Luis Gilberto Murillo-Urrutia will continue his appointment in MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative. He has 30 years of experience in public policy design, implementation, and advocacy, most notably in the areas of sustainable regional development, environmental protection and management of natural resources, social inclusion, and peace building. At MIT, he has continued his research on environmental justice, with a focus on carbon policy and its impacts on Afro-descendant communities in Colombia.

    Sonya T. Smith was the first female professor of mechanical engineering at Howard University. She will join the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. Her research involves computational fluid dynamics and thermal management of electronics for air and space vehicles. She is looking forward to serving as a mentor to underrepresented students across MIT and fostering new research collaborations with her home lab at Howard.

    Lawrence Udeigwe is an associate professor of mathematics at Manhattan College and will join MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. He plans to co-teach a graduate seminar course with Professor James DiCarlo to explore practical and philosophical questions regarding the use of simulations to build theories in neuroscience. Udeigwe also leads the Lorens Chuno group; as a singer-songwriter, his work tackles intersectionality issues faced by contemporary Africans.

    S. Craig Watkins is an internationally recognized expert in media and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He will join MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society to assist in researching the role of big data in enabling deep structural changes with regard to systemic racism. He will continue to expand on his work as founding director of the Institute for Media Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin, exploring the intersections of critical AI studies, critical race studies, and design. He will also work with MIT’s Center for Advanced Virtuality to develop computational systems that support social perspective-taking.

    Community engagement

    Throughout the 2021-22 academic year, MLK professors and scholars will be presenting their research at a monthly speaker series. Events will be held in an in-person/Zoom hybrid environment. All members of the MIT community are encouraged to attend and hear directly from this year’s cohort of outstanding scholars. To hear more about upcoming events, subscribe to their mailing list.

    On Sept. 15, all are invited to join the Institute Community and Equity Office in welcoming the scholars to campus by attending a welcome luncheon. More

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    “AI for Impact” lives up to its name

    For entrepreneurial MIT students looking to put their skills to work for a greater good, the Media Arts and Sciences class MAS.664 (AI for Impact) has been a destination point. With the onset of the pandemic, that goal came into even sharper focus. Just weeks before the campus shut down in 2020, a team of students from the class launched a project that would make significant strides toward an open-source platform to identify coronavirus exposures without compromising personal privacy.

    Their work was at the heart of Safe Paths, one of the earliest contact tracing apps in the United States. The students joined with volunteers from other universities, medical centers, and companies to publish their code, alongside a well-received white paper describing the privacy-preserving, decentralized protocol, all while working with organizations wishing to launch the app within their communities. The app and related software eventually got spun out into the nonprofit PathCheck Foundation, which today engages with public health entities and is providing exposure notifications in Guam, Cyprus, Hawaii, Minnesota, Alabama, and Louisiana.

    The formation of Safe Paths demonstrates the special sense among MIT researchers that “we can launch something that can help people around the world,” notes Media Lab Associate Professor Ramesh Raskar, who teaches the class together with Media Lab Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland and Media Lab Lecturer Joost Bonsen. “To have that kind of passion and ambition — but also the confidence that what you create here can actually be deployed globally — is kind of amazing.”

    AI for Impact, created by Pentland, began meeting two decades ago under the course name Development Ventures, and has nurtured multiple thriving businesses. Examples of class ventures that Pentland incubated or co-founded include Dimagi, Cogito, Ginger, Prosperia, and Sanergy.

    The aim-high challenge posed to each class is to come up with a business plan that touches a billion people, and it can’t all be in one country, Pentland explains. Not every class effort becomes a business, “but 20 percent to 30 percent of students start something, which is great for an entrepreneur class,” says Pentland.

    Opportunities for Impact

    The numbers behind Dimagi, for instance, are striking. Its core product CommCare has helped front-line health workers provide care for more than 400 million people in more than 130 countries around the world. When it comes to maternal and child care, Dimagi’s platform has registered one in every 110 pregnancies worldwide. This past year, several governments around the world deployed CommCare applications for Covid-19 response — from Sierra Leone and Somalia to New York and Colorado.

    Spinoffs like Cogito, Prosperia, and Ginger have likewise grown into highly successful companies. Cogito helps a million people a day gain access to the health care they need; Prosperia helps manage social support payments to 80 million people in Latin America; and Ginger handles mental health services for over 1 million people.

    The passion behind these and other class ventures points to a central idea of the class, Pentland notes: MIT students are often looking for ways to build entrepreneurial businesses that enable positive social change.

    During the spring 2021 class, for example, a number of promising student projects included tools to help residents of poor communities transition to owning their homes rather than renting, and to take better control of their community health.

    “It’s clear that the people who are graduating from here want to do something significant with their lives … they want to have an impact on their world,” Pentland says. “This class enables them to meet other people who are interested in doing the same thing, and offers them some help in starting a company to do it.”

    Many of the students who join the class come in with a broad set of interests. Guest lectures, case studies of other social entrepreneurship projects, and an introduction to a broad ecosystem of expertise and funding, then helps students to refine their general ideas into specific and viable projects.

    A path toward confronting a pandemic 

    Raskar began co-teaching the class in 2019, and brought a “Big AI” focus to the Development Ventures class, inspired by an AI for Impact team he had set up at his former employer, Facebook. “What I realized is that companies like Google or Facebook or Amazon actually have enough data about all of us that they can solve major problems in our society — climate, transportation, health, and so on,” he says. “This is something we should think about more seriously: how to use AI and data for positive social impact, while protecting privacy.”

    Early into the spring 2020 class, as students were beginning to consider their own projects, Raskar approached the class about the emerging coronavirus outbreak. Students like Kristen Vilcans recognized the urgency, and the opportunity. She and 10 other students joined forces to work on a project that would focus on Covid-19.

    “Students felt empowered to do something to help tackle the spread of this alarming new virus,” Raskar recalls. “They immediately began to develop data- and AI-based solutions to one of the most critical pieces of addressing a pandemic: halting the chain of infections. They created and launched one of the first digital contact tracing and exposure notification solutions in the U.S., developing an early alert system that engaged the public and protected privacy.” 

    Raskar looks back on the moment when a core group of students coalesced into a team. “It was very rare for a significant part of the class to just come together saying, ‘let’s do this, right away.’ It became as much a movement as a venture.”

    Group discussions soon began to center around an open-source, privacy-first digital set of tools for Covid-19 contact tracing. For the next two weeks, right up to the campus shutdown in March 2020, the team took over two adjacent conference rooms in the Media Lab, and started a Slack messaging channel devoted to the project. As the team members reached out to an ever-wider circle of friends, colleagues, and mentors, the number of participants grew to nearly 1,600 people, coming together virtually from all corners of the world.

    Kaushal Jain, a Harvard Business School student who had cross-registered for the spring 2020 class to get to know the MIT ecosystem, was also an early participant in Safe Paths. He wrote up an initial plan for the venture and began working with external organizations to figure out how to structure it into a nonprofit company. Jain eventually became the project’s lead for funding and partnerships.

    Vilcans, a graduate student in system design and management, served as Safe Paths’ communications lead through July 2020, while still working a part-time job at Draper Laboratory and taking classes.

    “There are these moments when you want to dive in, you want to contribute and you want to work nonstop,” she says, adding that the experience was also a wake-up call on how to manage burnout, and how to balance what you need as a person while contributing to a high-impact team. “That’s important to understand as a leader for the future.”

    MIT recognized Vilcan’s contributions later that year with the 2020 SDM Student Award for Leadership, Innovation, and Systems Thinking. 

    Jain, too, says the class gave him more than he could have expected.

    “I made strong friendships with like-minded people from very different backgrounds,” he says. “One key thing that I learned was to be flexible about the kind of work you want to do. Be open and see if there’s an opportunity, either through crisis or through something that you believe could really change a lot of things in the world. And then just go for it.” More