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    This tiny chip can safeguard user data while enabling efficient computing on a smartphone

    Health-monitoring apps can help people manage chronic diseases or stay on track with fitness goals, using nothing more than a smartphone. However, these apps can be slow and energy-inefficient because the vast machine-learning models that power them must be shuttled between a smartphone and a central memory server.

    Engineers often speed things up using hardware that reduces the need to move so much data back and forth. While these machine-learning accelerators can streamline computation, they are susceptible to attackers who can steal secret information.

    To reduce this vulnerability, researchers from MIT and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab created a machine-learning accelerator that is resistant to the two most common types of attacks. Their chip can keep a user’s health records, financial information, or other sensitive data private while still enabling huge AI models to run efficiently on devices.

    The team developed several optimizations that enable strong security while only slightly slowing the device. Moreover, the added security does not impact the accuracy of computations. This machine-learning accelerator could be particularly beneficial for demanding AI applications like augmented and virtual reality or autonomous driving.

    While implementing the chip would make a device slightly more expensive and less energy-efficient, that is sometimes a worthwhile price to pay for security, says lead author Maitreyi Ashok, an electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) graduate student at MIT.

    “It is important to design with security in mind from the ground up. If you are trying to add even a minimal amount of security after a system has been designed, it is prohibitively expensive. We were able to effectively balance a lot of these tradeoffs during the design phase,” says Ashok.

    Her co-authors include Saurav Maji, an EECS graduate student; Xin Zhang and John Cohn of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab; and senior author Anantha Chandrakasan, MIT’s chief innovation and strategy officer, dean of the School of Engineering, and the Vannevar Bush Professor of EECS. The research will be presented at the IEEE Custom Integrated Circuits Conference.

    Side-channel susceptibility

    The researchers targeted a type of machine-learning accelerator called digital in-memory compute. A digital IMC chip performs computations inside a device’s memory, where pieces of a machine-learning model are stored after being moved over from a central server.

    The entire model is too big to store on the device, but by breaking it into pieces and reusing those pieces as much as possible, IMC chips reduce the amount of data that must be moved back and forth.

    But IMC chips can be susceptible to hackers. In a side-channel attack, a hacker monitors the chip’s power consumption and uses statistical techniques to reverse-engineer data as the chip computes. In a bus-probing attack, the hacker can steal bits of the model and dataset by probing the communication between the accelerator and the off-chip memory.

    Digital IMC speeds computation by performing millions of operations at once, but this complexity makes it tough to prevent attacks using traditional security measures, Ashok says.

    She and her collaborators took a three-pronged approach to blocking side-channel and bus-probing attacks.

    First, they employed a security measure where data in the IMC are split into random pieces. For instance, a bit zero might be split into three bits that still equal zero after a logical operation. The IMC never computes with all pieces in the same operation, so a side-channel attack could never reconstruct the real information.

    But for this technique to work, random bits must be added to split the data. Because digital IMC performs millions of operations at once, generating so many random bits would involve too much computing. For their chip, the researchers found a way to simplify computations, making it easier to effectively split data while eliminating the need for random bits.

    Second, they prevented bus-probing attacks using a lightweight cipher that encrypts the model stored in off-chip memory. This lightweight cipher only requires simple computations. In addition, they only decrypted the pieces of the model stored on the chip when necessary.

    Third, to improve security, they generated the key that decrypts the cipher directly on the chip, rather than moving it back and forth with the model. They generated this unique key from random variations in the chip that are introduced during manufacturing, using what is known as a physically unclonable function.

    “Maybe one wire is going to be a little bit thicker than another. We can use these variations to get zeros and ones out of a circuit. For every chip, we can get a random key that should be consistent because these random properties shouldn’t change significantly over time,” Ashok explains.

    They reused the memory cells on the chip, leveraging the imperfections in these cells to generate the key. This requires less computation than generating a key from scratch.

    “As security has become a critical issue in the design of edge devices, there is a need to develop a complete system stack focusing on secure operation. This work focuses on security for machine-learning workloads and describes a digital processor that uses cross-cutting optimization. It incorporates encrypted data access between memory and processor, approaches to preventing side-channel attacks using randomization, and exploiting variability to generate unique codes. Such designs are going to be critical in future mobile devices,” says Chandrakasan.

    Safety testing

    To test their chip, the researchers took on the role of hackers and tried to steal secret information using side-channel and bus-probing attacks.

    Even after making millions of attempts, they couldn’t reconstruct any real information or extract pieces of the model or dataset. The cipher also remained unbreakable. By contrast, it took only about 5,000 samples to steal information from an unprotected chip.

    The addition of security did reduce the energy efficiency of the accelerator, and it also required a larger chip area, which would make it more expensive to fabricate.

    The team is planning to explore methods that could reduce the energy consumption and size of their chip in the future, which would make it easier to implement at scale.

    “As it becomes too expensive, it becomes harder to convince someone that security is critical. Future work could explore these tradeoffs. Maybe we could make it a little less secure but easier to implement and less expensive,” Ashok says.

    The research is funded, in part, by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, the National Science Foundation, and a Mathworks Engineering Fellowship. More

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    New software enables blind and low-vision users to create interactive, accessible charts

    A growing number of tools enable users to make online data representations, like charts, that are accessible for people who are blind or have low vision. However, most tools require an existing visual chart that can then be converted into an accessible format.

    This creates barriers that prevent blind and low-vision users from building their own custom data representations, and it can limit their ability to explore and analyze important information.

    A team of researchers from MIT and University College London (UCL) wants to change the way people think about accessible data representations.

    They created a software system called Umwelt (which means “environment” in German) that can enable blind and low-vision users to build customized, multimodal data representations without needing an initial visual chart.

    Umwelt, an authoring environment designed for screen-reader users, incorporates an editor that allows someone to upload a dataset and create a customized representation, such as a scatterplot, that can include three modalities: visualization, textual description, and sonification. Sonification involves converting data into nonspeech audio.

    The system, which can represent a variety of data types, includes a viewer that enables a blind or low-vision user to interactively explore a data representation, seamlessly switching between each modality to interact with data in a different way.

    The researchers conducted a study with five expert screen-reader users who found Umwelt to be useful and easy to learn. In addition to offering an interface that empowered them to create data representations — something they said was sorely lacking — the users said Umwelt could facilitate communication between people who rely on different senses.

    “We have to remember that blind and low-vision people aren’t isolated. They exist in these contexts where they want to talk to other people about data,” says Jonathan Zong, an electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) graduate student and lead author of a paper introducing Umwelt. “I am hopeful that Umwelt helps shift the way that researchers think about accessible data analysis. Enabling the full participation of blind and low-vision people in data analysis involves seeing visualization as just one piece of this bigger, multisensory puzzle.”

    Joining Zong on the paper are fellow EECS graduate students Isabella Pedraza Pineros and Mengzhu “Katie” Chen; Daniel Hajas, a UCL researcher who works with the Global Disability Innovation Hub; and senior author Arvind Satyanarayan, associate professor of computer science at MIT who leads the Visualization Group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The paper will be presented at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing.

    De-centering visualization

    The researchers previously developed interactive interfaces that provide a richer experience for screen reader users as they explore accessible data representations. Through that work, they realized most tools for creating such representations involve converting existing visual charts.

    Aiming to decenter visual representations in data analysis, Zong and Hajas, who lost his sight at age 16, began co-designing Umwelt more than a year ago.

    At the outset, they realized they would need to rethink how to represent the same data using visual, auditory, and textual forms.

    “We had to put a common denominator behind the three modalities. By creating this new language for representations, and making the output and input accessible, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” says Hajas.

    To build Umwelt, they first considered what is unique about the way people use each sense.

    For instance, a sighted user can see the overall pattern of a scatterplot and, at the same time, move their eyes to focus on different data points. But for someone listening to a sonification, the experience is linear since data are converted into tones that must be played back one at a time.

    “If you are only thinking about directly translating visual features into nonvisual features, then you miss out on the unique strengths and weaknesses of each modality,” Zong adds.

    They designed Umwelt to offer flexibility, enabling a user to switch between modalities easily when one would better suit their task at a given time.

    To use the editor, one uploads a dataset to Umwelt, which employs heuristics to automatically creates default representations in each modality.

    If the dataset contains stock prices for companies, Umwelt might generate a multiseries line chart, a textual structure that groups data by ticker symbol and date, and a sonification that uses tone length to represent the price for each date, arranged by ticker symbol.

    The default heuristics are intended to help the user get started.

    “In any kind of creative tool, you have a blank-slate effect where it is hard to know how to begin. That is compounded in a multimodal tool because you have to specify things in three different representations,” Zong says.

    The editor links interactions across modalities, so if a user changes the textual description, that information is adjusted in the corresponding sonification. Someone could utilize the editor to build a multimodal representation, switch to the viewer for an initial exploration, then return to the editor to make adjustments.

    Helping users communicate about data

    To test Umwelt, they created a diverse set of multimodal representations, from scatterplots to multiview charts, to ensure the system could effectively represent different data types. Then they put the tool in the hands of five expert screen reader users.

    Study participants mostly found Umwelt to be useful for creating, exploring, and discussing data representations. One user said Umwelt was like an “enabler” that decreased the time it took them to analyze data. The users agreed that Umwelt could help them communicate about data more easily with sighted colleagues.

    “What stands out about Umwelt is its core philosophy of de-emphasizing the visual in favor of a balanced, multisensory data experience. Often, nonvisual data representations are relegated to the status of secondary considerations, mere add-ons to their visual counterparts. However, visualization is merely one aspect of data representation. I appreciate their efforts in shifting this perception and embracing a more inclusive approach to data science,” says JooYoung Seo, an assistant professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, who was not involved with this work.

    Moving forward, the researchers plan to create an open-source version of Umwelt that others can build upon. They also want to integrate tactile sensing into the software system as an additional modality, enabling the use of tools like refreshable tactile graphics displays.

    “In addition to its impact on end users, I am hoping that Umwelt can be a platform for asking scientific questions around how people use and perceive multimodal representations, and how we can improve the design beyond this initial step,” says Zong.

    This work was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation and the MIT Morningside Academy for Design Fellowship. More

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    Automated method helps researchers quantify uncertainty in their predictions

    Pollsters trying to predict presidential election results and physicists searching for distant exoplanets have at least one thing in common: They often use a tried-and-true scientific technique called Bayesian inference.

    Bayesian inference allows these scientists to effectively estimate some unknown parameter — like the winner of an election — from data such as poll results. But Bayesian inference can be slow, sometimes consuming weeks or even months of computation time or requiring a researcher to spend hours deriving tedious equations by hand. 

    Researchers from MIT and elsewhere have introduced an optimization technique that speeds things up without requiring a scientist to do a lot of additional work. Their method can achieve more accurate results faster than another popular approach for accelerating Bayesian inference.

    Using this new automated technique, a scientist could simply input their model and then the optimization method does all the calculations under the hood to provide an approximation of some unknown parameter. The method also offers reliable uncertainty estimates that can help a researcher understand when to trust its predictions.

    This versatile technique could be applied to a wide array of scientific quandaries that incorporate Bayesian inference. For instance, it could be used by economists studying the impact of microcredit loans in developing nations or sports analysts using a model to rank top tennis players.

    “When you actually dig into what people are doing in the social sciences, physics, chemistry, or biology, they are often using a lot of the same tools under the hood. There are so many Bayesian analyses out there. If we can build a really great tool that makes these researchers lives easier, then we can really make a difference to a lot of people in many different research areas,” says senior author Tamara Broderick, an associate professor in MIT’s 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.

    Broderick is joined on the paper by co-lead authors Ryan Giordano, an assistant professor of statistics at the University of California at Berkeley; and Martin Ingram, a data scientist at the AI company KONUX. The paper was recently published in the Journal of Machine Learning Research.

    Faster results

    When researchers seek a faster form of Bayesian inference, they often turn to a technique called automatic differentiation variational inference (ADVI), which is often both fast to run and easy to use.

    But Broderick and her collaborators have found a number of practical issues with ADVI. It has to solve an optimization problem and can do so only approximately. So, ADVI can still require a lot of computation time and user effort to determine whether the approximate solution is good enough. And once it arrives at a solution, it tends to provide poor uncertainty estimates.

    Rather than reinventing the wheel, the team took many ideas from ADVI but turned them around to create a technique called deterministic ADVI (DADVI) that doesn’t have these downsides.

    With DADVI, it is very clear when the optimization is finished, so a user won’t need to spend extra computation time to ensure that the best solution has been found. DADVI also permits the incorporation of more powerful optimization methods that give it an additional speed and performance boost.

    Once it reaches a result, DADVI is set up to allow the use of uncertainty corrections. These corrections make its uncertainty estimates much more accurate than those of ADVI.

    DADVI also enables the user to clearly see how much error they have incurred in the approximation to the optimization problem. This prevents a user from needlessly running the optimization again and again with more and more resources to try and reduce the error.

    “We wanted to see if we could live up to the promise of black-box inference in the sense of, once the user makes their model, they can just run Bayesian inference and don’t have to derive everything by hand, they don’t need to figure out when to stop their algorithm, and they have a sense of how accurate their approximate solution is,” Broderick says.

    Defying conventional wisdom

    DADVI can be more effective than ADVI because it uses an efficient approximation method, called sample average approximation, which estimates an unknown quantity by taking a series of exact steps.

    Because the steps along the way are exact, it is clear when the objective has been reached. Plus, getting to that objective typically requires fewer steps.

    Often, researchers expect sample average approximation to be more computationally intensive than a more popular method, known as stochastic gradient, which is used by ADVI. But Broderick and her collaborators showed that, in many applications, this is not the case.

    “A lot of problems really do have special structure, and you can be so much more efficient and get better performance by taking advantage of that special structure. That is something we have really seen in this paper,” she adds.

    They tested DADVI on a number of real-world models and datasets, including a model used by economists to evaluate the effectiveness of microcredit loans and one used in ecology to determine whether a species is present at a particular site.

    Across the board, they found that DADVI can estimate unknown parameters faster and more reliably than other methods, and achieves as good or better accuracy than ADVI. Because it is easier to use than other techniques, DADVI could offer a boost to scientists in a wide variety of fields.

    In the future, the researchers want to dig deeper into correction methods for uncertainty estimates so they can better understand why these corrections can produce such accurate uncertainties, and when they could fall short.

    “In applied statistics, we often have to use approximate algorithms for problems that are too complex or high-dimensional to allow exact solutions to be computed in reasonable time. This new paper offers an interesting set of theory and empirical results that point to an improvement in a popular existing approximate algorithm for Bayesian inference,” says Andrew Gelman ’85, ’86, a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University, who was not involved with the study. “As one of the team involved in the creation of that earlier work, I’m happy to see our algorithm superseded by something more stable.”

    This research was supported by a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and the U.S. Office of Naval Research.  More

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    Study: Global deforestation leads to more mercury pollution

    About 10 percent of human-made mercury emissions into the atmosphere each year are the result of global deforestation, according to a new MIT study.

    The world’s vegetation, from the Amazon rainforest to the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, acts as a sink that removes the toxic pollutant from the air. However, if the current rate of deforestation remains unchanged or accelerates, the researchers estimate that net mercury emissions will keep increasing.

    “We’ve been overlooking a significant source of mercury, especially in tropical regions,” says Ari Feinberg, a former postdoc in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and lead author of the study.

    The researchers’ model shows that the Amazon rainforest plays a particularly important role as a mercury sink, contributing about 30 percent of the global land sink. Curbing Amazon deforestation could thus have a substantial impact on reducing mercury pollution.

    The team also estimates that global reforestation efforts could increase annual mercury uptake by about 5 percent. While this is significant, the researchers emphasize that reforestation alone should not be a substitute for worldwide pollution control efforts.

    “Countries have put a lot of effort into reducing mercury emissions, especially northern industrialized countries, and for very good reason. But 10 percent of the global anthropogenic source is substantial, and there is a potential for that to be even greater in the future. [Addressing these deforestation-related emissions] needs to be part of the solution,” says senior author Noelle Selin, a professor in IDSS and MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

    Feinberg and Selin are joined on the paper by co-authors Martin Jiskra, a former Swiss National Science Foundation Ambizione Fellow at the University of Basel; Pasquale Borrelli, a professor at Roma Tre University in Italy; and Jagannath Biswakarma, a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. The paper appears today in Environmental Science and Technology.

    Modeling mercury

    Over the past few decades, scientists have generally focused on studying deforestation as a source of global carbon dioxide emissions. Mercury, a trace element, hasn’t received the same attention, partly because the terrestrial biosphere’s role in the global mercury cycle has only recently been better quantified.

    Plant leaves take up mercury from the atmosphere, in a similar way as they take up carbon dioxide. But unlike carbon dioxide, mercury doesn’t play an essential biological function for plants. Mercury largely stays within a leaf until it falls to the forest floor, where the mercury is absorbed by the soil.

    Mercury becomes a serious concern for humans if it ends up in water bodies, where it can become methylated by microorganisms. Methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin, can be taken up by fish and bioaccumulated through the food chain. This can lead to risky levels of methylmercury in the fish humans eat.

    “In soils, mercury is much more tightly bound than it would be if it were deposited in the ocean. The forests are doing a sort of ecosystem service, in that they are sequestering mercury for longer timescales,” says Feinberg, who is now a postdoc in the Blas Cabrera Institute of Physical Chemistry in Spain.

    In this way, forests reduce the amount of toxic methylmercury in oceans.

    Many studies of mercury focus on industrial sources, like burning fossil fuels, small-scale gold mining, and metal smelting. A global treaty, the 2013 Minamata Convention, calls on nations to reduce human-made emissions. However, it doesn’t directly consider impacts of deforestation.

    The researchers launched their study to fill in that missing piece.

    In past work, they had built a model to probe the role vegetation plays in mercury uptake. Using a series of land use change scenarios, they adjusted the model to quantify the role of deforestation.

    Evaluating emissions

    This chemical transport model tracks mercury from its emissions sources to where it is chemically transformed in the atmosphere and then ultimately to where it is deposited, mainly through rainfall or uptake into forest ecosystems.

    They divided the Earth into eight regions and performed simulations to calculate deforestation emissions factors for each, considering elements like type and density of vegetation, mercury content in soils, and historical land use.

    However, good data for some regions were hard to come by.

    They lacked measurements from tropical Africa or Southeast Asia — two areas that experience heavy deforestation. To get around this gap, they used simpler, offline models to simulate hundreds of scenarios, which helped them improve their estimations of potential uncertainties.

    They also developed a new formulation for mercury emissions from soil. This formulation captures the fact that deforestation reduces leaf area, which increases the amount of sunlight that hits the ground and accelerates the outgassing of mercury from soils.

    The model divides the world into grid squares, each of which is a few hundred square kilometers. By changing land surface and vegetation parameters in certain squares to represent deforestation and reforestation scenarios, the researchers can capture impacts on the mercury cycle.

    Overall, they found that about 200 tons of mercury are emitted to the atmosphere as the result of deforestation, or about 10 percent of total human-made emissions. But in tropical and sub-tropical countries, deforestation emissions represent a higher percentage of total emissions. For example, in Brazil deforestation emissions are 40 percent of total human-made emissions.

    In addition, people often light fires to prepare tropical forested areas for agricultural activities, which causes more emissions by releasing mercury stored by vegetation.

    “If deforestation was a country, it would be the second highest emitting country, after China, which emits around 500 tons of mercury a year,” Feinberg adds.

    And since the Minamata Convention is now addressing primary mercury emissions, scientists can expect deforestation to become a larger fraction of human-made emissions in the future.

    “Policies to protect forests or cut them down have unintended effects beyond their target. It is important to consider the fact that these are systems, and they involve human activities, and we need to understand them better in order to actually solve the problems that we know are out there,” Selin says.

    By providing this first estimate, the team hopes to inspire more research in this area.

    In the future, they want to incorporate more dynamic Earth system models into their analysis, which would enable them to interactively track mercury uptake and better model the timescale of vegetation regrowth.

    “This paper represents an important advance in our understanding of global mercury cycling by quantifying a pathway that has long been suggested but not yet quantified. Much of our research to date has focused on primary anthropogenic emissions — those directly resulting from human activity via coal combustion or mercury-gold amalgam burning in artisanal and small-scale gold mining,” says Jackie Gerson, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Michigan State University, who was not involved with this research. “This research shows that deforestation can also result in substantial mercury emissions and needs to be considered both in terms of global mercury models and land management policies. It therefore has the potential to advance our field scientifically as well as to promote policies that reduce mercury emissions via deforestation.

    This work was funded, in part, by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. More

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    New hope for early pancreatic cancer intervention via AI-based risk prediction

    The first documented case of pancreatic cancer dates back to the 18th century. Since then, researchers have undertaken a protracted and challenging odyssey to understand the elusive and deadly disease. To date, there is no better cancer treatment than early intervention. Unfortunately, the pancreas, nestled deep within the abdomen, is particularly elusive for early detection. 

    MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) scientists, alongside Limor Appelbaum, a staff scientist in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), were eager to better identify potential high-risk patients. They set out to develop two machine-learning models for early detection of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common form of the cancer. To access a broad and diverse database, the team synced up with a federated network company, using electronic health record data from various institutions across the United States. This vast pool of data helped ensure the models’ reliability and generalizability, making them applicable across a wide range of populations, geographical locations, and demographic groups.

    The two models — the “PRISM” neural network, and the logistic regression model (a statistical technique for probability), outperformed current methods. The team’s comparison showed that while standard screening criteria identify about 10 percent of PDAC cases using a five-times higher relative risk threshold, Prism can detect 35 percent of PDAC cases at this same threshold. 

    Using AI to detect cancer risk is not a new phenomena — algorithms analyze mammograms, CT scans for lung cancer, and assist in the analysis of Pap smear tests and HPV testing, to name a few applications. “The PRISM models stand out for their development and validation on an extensive database of over 5 million patients, surpassing the scale of most prior research in the field,” says Kai Jia, an MIT PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), MIT CSAIL affiliate, and first author on an open-access paper in eBioMedicine outlining the new work. “The model uses routine clinical and lab data to make its predictions, and the diversity of the U.S. population is a significant advancement over other PDAC models, which are usually confined to specific geographic regions, like a few health-care centers in the U.S. Additionally, using a unique regularization technique in the training process enhanced the models’ generalizability and interpretability.” 

    “This report outlines a powerful approach to use big data and artificial intelligence algorithms to refine our approach to identifying risk profiles for cancer,” says David Avigan, a Harvard Medical School professor and the cancer center director and chief of hematology and hematologic malignancies at BIDMC, who was not involved in the study. “This approach may lead to novel strategies to identify patients with high risk for malignancy that may benefit from focused screening with the potential for early intervention.” 

    Prismatic perspectives

    The journey toward the development of PRISM began over six years ago, fueled by firsthand experiences with the limitations of current diagnostic practices. “Approximately 80-85 percent of pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed at advanced stages, where cure is no longer an option,” says senior author Appelbaum, who is also a Harvard Medical School instructor as well as radiation oncologist. “This clinical frustration sparked the idea to delve into the wealth of data available in electronic health records (EHRs).”The CSAIL group’s close collaboration with Appelbaum made it possible to understand the combined medical and machine learning aspects of the problem better, eventually leading to a much more accurate and transparent model. “The hypothesis was that these records contained hidden clues — subtle signs and symptoms that could act as early warning signals of pancreatic cancer,” she adds. “This guided our use of federated EHR networks in developing these models, for a scalable approach for deploying risk prediction tools in health care.”Both PrismNN and PrismLR models analyze EHR data, including patient demographics, diagnoses, medications, and lab results, to assess PDAC risk. PrismNN uses artificial neural networks to detect intricate patterns in data features like age, medical history, and lab results, yielding a risk score for PDAC likelihood. PrismLR uses logistic regression for a simpler analysis, generating a probability score of PDAC based on these features. Together, the models offer a thorough evaluation of different approaches in predicting PDAC risk from the same EHR data.

    One paramount point for gaining the trust of physicians, the team notes, is better understanding how the models work, known in the field as interpretability. The scientists pointed out that while logistic regression models are inherently easier to interpret, recent advancements have made deep neural networks somewhat more transparent. This helped the team to refine the thousands of potentially predictive features derived from EHR of a single patient to approximately 85 critical indicators. These indicators, which include patient age, diabetes diagnosis, and an increased frequency of visits to physicians, are automatically discovered by the model but match physicians’ understanding of risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer. 

    The path forward

    Despite the promise of the PRISM models, as with all research, some parts are still a work in progress. U.S. data alone are the current diet for the models, necessitating testing and adaptation for global use. The path forward, the team notes, includes expanding the model’s applicability to international datasets and integrating additional biomarkers for more refined risk assessment.

    “A subsequent aim for us is to facilitate the models’ implementation in routine health care settings. The vision is to have these models function seamlessly in the background of health care systems, automatically analyzing patient data and alerting physicians to high-risk cases without adding to their workload,” says Jia. “A machine-learning model integrated with the EHR system could empower physicians with early alerts for high-risk patients, potentially enabling interventions well before symptoms manifest. We are eager to deploy our techniques in the real world to help all individuals enjoy longer, healthier lives.” 

    Jia wrote the paper alongside Applebaum and MIT EECS Professor and CSAIL Principal Investigator Martin Rinard, who are both senior authors of the paper. Researchers on the paper were supported during their time at MIT CSAIL, in part, by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Boeing, the National Science Foundation, and Aarno Labs. TriNetX provided resources for the project, and the Prevent Cancer Foundation also supported the team. More

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    Multiple AI models help robots execute complex plans more transparently

    Your daily to-do list is likely pretty straightforward: wash the dishes, buy groceries, and other minutiae. It’s unlikely you wrote out “pick up the first dirty dish,” or “wash that plate with a sponge,” because each of these miniature steps within the chore feels intuitive. While we can routinely complete each step without much thought, a robot requires a complex plan that involves more detailed outlines.

    MIT’s Improbable AI Lab, a group within the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), has offered these machines a helping hand with a new multimodal framework: Compositional Foundation Models for Hierarchical Planning (HiP), which develops detailed, feasible plans with the expertise of three different foundation models. Like OpenAI’s GPT-4, the foundation model that ChatGPT and Bing Chat were built upon, these foundation models are trained on massive quantities of data for applications like generating images, translating text, and robotics.Unlike RT2 and other multimodal models that are trained on paired vision, language, and action data, HiP uses three different foundation models each trained on different data modalities. Each foundation model captures a different part of the decision-making process and then works together when it’s time to make decisions. HiP removes the need for access to paired vision, language, and action data, which is difficult to obtain. HiP also makes the reasoning process more transparent.

    What’s considered a daily chore for a human can be a robot’s “long-horizon goal” — an overarching objective that involves completing many smaller steps first — requiring sufficient data to plan, understand, and execute objectives. While computer vision researchers have attempted to build monolithic foundation models for this problem, pairing language, visual, and action data is expensive. Instead, HiP represents a different, multimodal recipe: a trio that cheaply incorporates linguistic, physical, and environmental intelligence into a robot.

    “Foundation models do not have to be monolithic,” says NVIDIA AI researcher Jim Fan, who was not involved in the paper. “This work decomposes the complex task of embodied agent planning into three constituent models: a language reasoner, a visual world model, and an action planner. It makes a difficult decision-making problem more tractable and transparent.”The team believes that their system could help these machines accomplish household chores, such as putting away a book or placing a bowl in the dishwasher. Additionally, HiP could assist with multistep construction and manufacturing tasks, like stacking and placing different materials in specific sequences.Evaluating HiP

    The CSAIL team tested HiP’s acuity on three manipulation tasks, outperforming comparable frameworks. The system reasoned by developing intelligent plans that adapt to new information.

    First, the researchers requested that it stack different-colored blocks on each other and then place others nearby. The catch: Some of the correct colors weren’t present, so the robot had to place white blocks in a color bowl to paint them. HiP often adjusted to these changes accurately, especially compared to state-of-the-art task planning systems like Transformer BC and Action Diffuser, by adjusting its plans to stack and place each square as needed.

    Another test: arranging objects such as candy and a hammer in a brown box while ignoring other items. Some of the objects it needed to move were dirty, so HiP adjusted its plans to place them in a cleaning box, and then into the brown container. In a third demonstration, the bot was able to ignore unnecessary objects to complete kitchen sub-goals such as opening a microwave, clearing a kettle out of the way, and turning on a light. Some of the prompted steps had already been completed, so the robot adapted by skipping those directions.

    A three-pronged hierarchy

    HiP’s three-pronged planning process operates as a hierarchy, with the ability to pre-train each of its components on different sets of data, including information outside of robotics. At the bottom of that order is a large language model (LLM), which starts to ideate by capturing all the symbolic information needed and developing an abstract task plan. Applying the common sense knowledge it finds on the internet, the model breaks its objective into sub-goals. For example, “making a cup of tea” turns into “filling a pot with water,” “boiling the pot,” and the subsequent actions required.

    “All we want to do is take existing pre-trained models and have them successfully interface with each other,” says Anurag Ajay, a PhD student in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and a CSAIL affiliate. “Instead of pushing for one model to do everything, we combine multiple ones that leverage different modalities of internet data. When used in tandem, they help with robotic decision-making and can potentially aid with tasks in homes, factories, and construction sites.”

    These models also need some form of “eyes” to understand the environment they’re operating in and correctly execute each sub-goal. The team used a large video diffusion model to augment the initial planning completed by the LLM, which collects geometric and physical information about the world from footage on the internet. In turn, the video model generates an observation trajectory plan, refining the LLM’s outline to incorporate new physical knowledge.This process, known as iterative refinement, allows HiP to reason about its ideas, taking in feedback at each stage to generate a more practical outline. The flow of feedback is similar to writing an article, where an author may send their draft to an editor, and with those revisions incorporated in, the publisher reviews for any last changes and finalizes.

    In this case, the top of the hierarchy is an egocentric action model, or a sequence of first-person images that infer which actions should take place based on its surroundings. During this stage, the observation plan from the video model is mapped over the space visible to the robot, helping the machine decide how to execute each task within the long-horizon goal. If a robot uses HiP to make tea, this means it will have mapped out exactly where the pot, sink, and other key visual elements are, and begin completing each sub-goal.Still, the multimodal work is limited by the lack of high-quality video foundation models. Once available, they could interface with HiP’s small-scale video models to further enhance visual sequence prediction and robot action generation. A higher-quality version would also reduce the current data requirements of the video models.That being said, the CSAIL team’s approach only used a tiny bit of data overall. Moreover, HiP was cheap to train and demonstrated the potential of using readily available foundation models to complete long-horizon tasks. “What Anurag has demonstrated is proof-of-concept of how we can take models trained on separate tasks and data modalities and combine them into models for robotic planning. In the future, HiP could be augmented with pre-trained models that can process touch and sound to make better plans,” says senior author Pulkit Agrawal, MIT assistant professor in EECS and director of the Improbable AI Lab. The group is also considering applying HiP to solving real-world long-horizon tasks in robotics.Ajay and Agrawal are lead authors on a paper describing the work. They are joined by MIT professors and CSAIL principal investigators Tommi Jaakkola, Joshua Tenenbaum, and Leslie Pack Kaelbling; CSAIL research affiliate and MIT-IBM AI Lab research manager Akash Srivastava; graduate students Seungwook Han and Yilun Du ’19; former postdoc Abhishek Gupta, who is now assistant professor at University of Washington; and former graduate student Shuang Li PhD ’23.

    The team’s work was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Army Research Office, the U.S. Office of Naval Research Multidisciplinary University Research Initiatives, and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. Their findings were presented at the 2023 Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS). More

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    AI accelerates problem-solving in complex scenarios

    While Santa Claus may have a magical sleigh and nine plucky reindeer to help him deliver presents, for companies like FedEx, the optimization problem of efficiently routing holiday packages is so complicated that they often employ specialized software to find a solution.

    This software, called a mixed-integer linear programming (MILP) solver, splits a massive optimization problem into smaller pieces and uses generic algorithms to try and find the best solution. However, the solver could take hours — or even days — to arrive at a solution.

    The process is so onerous that a company often must stop the software partway through, accepting a solution that is not ideal but the best that could be generated in a set amount of time.

    Researchers from MIT and ETH Zurich used machine learning to speed things up.

    They identified a key intermediate step in MILP solvers that has so many potential solutions it takes an enormous amount of time to unravel, which slows the entire process. The researchers employed a filtering technique to simplify this step, then used machine learning to find the optimal solution for a specific type of problem.

    Their data-driven approach enables a company to use its own data to tailor a general-purpose MILP solver to the problem at hand.

    This new technique sped up MILP solvers between 30 and 70 percent, without any drop in accuracy. One could use this method to obtain an optimal solution more quickly or, for especially complex problems, a better solution in a tractable amount of time.

    This approach could be used wherever MILP solvers are employed, such as by ride-hailing services, electric grid operators, vaccination distributors, or any entity faced with a thorny resource-allocation problem.

    “Sometimes, in a field like optimization, it is very common for folks to think of solutions as either purely machine learning or purely classical. I am a firm believer that we want to get the best of both worlds, and this is a really strong instantiation of that hybrid approach,” says senior author Cathy Wu, the Gilbert W. Winslow Career Development Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), and a member of a member of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS).

    Wu wrote the paper with co-lead authors Siriu Li, an IDSS graduate student, and Wenbin Ouyang, a CEE graduate student; as well as Max Paulus, a graduate student at ETH Zurich. The research will be presented at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems.

    Tough to solve

    MILP problems have an exponential number of potential solutions. For instance, say a traveling salesperson wants to find the shortest path to visit several cities and then return to their city of origin. If there are many cities which could be visited in any order, the number of potential solutions might be greater than the number of atoms in the universe.  

    “These problems are called NP-hard, which means it is very unlikely there is an efficient algorithm to solve them. When the problem is big enough, we can only hope to achieve some suboptimal performance,” Wu explains.

    An MILP solver employs an array of techniques and practical tricks that can achieve reasonable solutions in a tractable amount of time.

    A typical solver uses a divide-and-conquer approach, first splitting the space of potential solutions into smaller pieces with a technique called branching. Then, the solver employs a technique called cutting to tighten up these smaller pieces so they can be searched faster.

    Cutting uses a set of rules that tighten the search space without removing any feasible solutions. These rules are generated by a few dozen algorithms, known as separators, that have been created for different kinds of MILP problems. 

    Wu and her team found that the process of identifying the ideal combination of separator algorithms to use is, in itself, a problem with an exponential number of solutions.

    “Separator management is a core part of every solver, but this is an underappreciated aspect of the problem space. One of the contributions of this work is identifying the problem of separator management as a machine learning task to begin with,” she says.

    Shrinking the solution space

    She and her collaborators devised a filtering mechanism that reduces this separator search space from more than 130,000 potential combinations to around 20 options. This filtering mechanism draws on the principle of diminishing marginal returns, which says that the most benefit would come from a small set of algorithms, and adding additional algorithms won’t bring much extra improvement.

    Then they use a machine-learning model to pick the best combination of algorithms from among the 20 remaining options.

    This model is trained with a dataset specific to the user’s optimization problem, so it learns to choose algorithms that best suit the user’s particular task. Since a company like FedEx has solved routing problems many times before, using real data gleaned from past experience should lead to better solutions than starting from scratch each time.

    The model’s iterative learning process, known as contextual bandits, a form of reinforcement learning, involves picking a potential solution, getting feedback on how good it was, and then trying again to find a better solution.

    This data-driven approach accelerated MILP solvers between 30 and 70 percent without any drop in accuracy. Moreover, the speedup was similar when they applied it to a simpler, open-source solver and a more powerful, commercial solver.

    In the future, Wu and her collaborators want to apply this approach to even more complex MILP problems, where gathering labeled data to train the model could be especially challenging. Perhaps they can train the model on a smaller dataset and then tweak it to tackle a much larger optimization problem, she says. The researchers are also interested in interpreting the learned model to better understand the effectiveness of different separator algorithms.

    This research is supported, in part, by Mathworks, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the MIT Amazon Science Hub, and MIT’s Research Support Committee. More

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    Technique enables AI on edge devices to keep learning over time

    Personalized deep-learning models can enable artificial intelligence chatbots that adapt to understand a user’s accent or smart keyboards that continuously update to better predict the next word based on someone’s typing history. This customization requires constant fine-tuning of a machine-learning model with new data.

    Because smartphones and other edge devices lack the memory and computational power necessary for this fine-tuning process, user data are typically uploaded to cloud servers where the model is updated. But data transmission uses a great deal of energy, and sending sensitive user data to a cloud server poses a security risk.  

    Researchers from MIT, the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, and elsewhere developed a technique that enables deep-learning models to efficiently adapt to new sensor data directly on an edge device.

    Their on-device training method, called PockEngine, determines which parts of a huge machine-learning model need to be updated to improve accuracy, and only stores and computes with those specific pieces. It performs the bulk of these computations while the model is being prepared, before runtime, which minimizes computational overhead and boosts the speed of the fine-tuning process.    

    When compared to other methods, PockEngine significantly sped up on-device training, performing up to 15 times faster on some hardware platforms. Moreover, PockEngine didn’t cause models to have any dip in accuracy. The researchers also found that their fine-tuning method enabled a popular AI chatbot to answer complex questions more accurately.

    “On-device fine-tuning can enable better privacy, lower costs, customization ability, and also lifelong learning, but it is not easy. Everything has to happen with a limited number of resources. We want to be able to run not only inference but also training on an edge device. With PockEngine, now we can,” says Song Han, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), a member of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, a distinguished scientist at NVIDIA, and senior author of an open-access paper describing PockEngine.

    Han is joined on the paper by lead author Ligeng Zhu, an EECS graduate student, as well as others at MIT, the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, and the University of California San Diego. The paper was recently presented at the IEEE/ACM International Symposium on Microarchitecture.

    Layer by layer

    Deep-learning models are based on neural networks, which comprise many interconnected layers of nodes, or “neurons,” that process data to make a prediction. When the model is run, a process called inference, a data input (such as an image) is passed from layer to layer until the prediction (perhaps the image label) is output at the end. During inference, each layer no longer needs to be stored after it processes the input.

    But during training and fine-tuning, the model undergoes a process known as backpropagation. In backpropagation, the output is compared to the correct answer, and then the model is run in reverse. Each layer is updated as the model’s output gets closer to the correct answer.

    Because each layer may need to be updated, the entire model and intermediate results must be stored, making fine-tuning more memory demanding than inference

    However, not all layers in the neural network are important for improving accuracy. And even for layers that are important, the entire layer may not need to be updated. Those layers, and pieces of layers, don’t need to be stored. Furthermore, one may not need to go all the way back to the first layer to improve accuracy — the process could be stopped somewhere in the middle.

    PockEngine takes advantage of these factors to speed up the fine-tuning process and cut down on the amount of computation and memory required.

    The system first fine-tunes each layer, one at a time, on a certain task and measures the accuracy improvement after each individual layer. In this way, PockEngine identifies the contribution of each layer, as well as trade-offs between accuracy and fine-tuning cost, and automatically determines the percentage of each layer that needs to be fine-tuned.

    “This method matches the accuracy very well compared to full back propagation on different tasks and different neural networks,” Han adds.

    A pared-down model

    Conventionally, the backpropagation graph is generated during runtime, which involves a great deal of computation. Instead, PockEngine does this during compile time, while the model is being prepared for deployment.

    PockEngine deletes bits of code to remove unnecessary layers or pieces of layers, creating a pared-down graph of the model to be used during runtime. It then performs other optimizations on this graph to further improve efficiency.

    Since all this only needs to be done once, it saves on computational overhead for runtime.

    “It is like before setting out on a hiking trip. At home, you would do careful planning — which trails are you going to go on, which trails are you going to ignore. So then at execution time, when you are actually hiking, you already have a very careful plan to follow,” Han explains.

    When they applied PockEngine to deep-learning models on different edge devices, including Apple M1 Chips and the digital signal processors common in many smartphones and Raspberry Pi computers, it performed on-device training up to 15 times faster, without any drop in accuracy. PockEngine also significantly slashed the amount of memory required for fine-tuning.

    The team also applied the technique to the large language model Llama-V2. With large language models, the fine-tuning process involves providing many examples, and it’s crucial for the model to learn how to interact with users, Han says. The process is also important for models tasked with solving complex problems or reasoning about solutions.

    For instance, Llama-V2 models that were fine-tuned using PockEngine answered the question “What was Michael Jackson’s last album?” correctly, while models that weren’t fine-tuned failed. PockEngine cut the time it took for each iteration of the fine-tuning process from about seven seconds to less than one second on a NVIDIA Jetson Orin, an edge GPU platform.

    In the future, the researchers want to use PockEngine to fine-tune even larger models designed to process text and images together.

    “This work addresses growing efficiency challenges posed by the adoption of large AI models such as LLMs across diverse applications in many different industries. It not only holds promise for edge applications that incorporate larger models, but also for lowering the cost of maintaining and updating large AI models in the cloud,” says Ehry MacRostie, a senior manager in Amazon’s Artificial General Intelligence division who was not involved in this study but works with MIT on related AI research through the MIT-Amazon Science Hub.

    This work was supported, in part, by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, the MIT AI Hardware Program, the MIT-Amazon Science Hub, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Qualcomm Innovation Fellowship. More