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    Mining social media data for social good

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

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

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

    Using data for social good

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

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

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

    Finding new ways to tap social media data

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

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

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

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

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

    Encouraging the next generation

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

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

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

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

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    Living better with algorithms

    Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) student Sarah Cen remembers the lecture that sent her down the track to an upstream question.

    At a talk on ethical artificial intelligence, the speaker brought up a variation on the famous trolley problem, which outlines a philosophical choice between two undesirable outcomes.

    The speaker’s scenario: Say a self-driving car is traveling down a narrow alley with an elderly woman walking on one side and a small child on the other, and no way to thread between both without a fatality. Who should the car hit?

    Then the speaker said: Let’s take a step back. Is this the question we should even be asking?

    That’s when things clicked for Cen. Instead of considering the point of impact, a self-driving car could have avoided choosing between two bad outcomes by making a decision earlier on — the speaker pointed out that, when entering the alley, the car could have determined that the space was narrow and slowed to a speed that would keep everyone safe.

    Recognizing that today’s AI safety approaches often resemble the trolley problem, focusing on downstream regulation such as liability after someone is left with no good choices, Cen wondered: What if we could design better upstream and downstream safeguards to such problems? This question has informed much of Cen’s work.

    “Engineering systems are not divorced from the social systems on which they intervene,” Cen says. Ignoring this fact risks creating tools that fail to be useful when deployed or, more worryingly, that are harmful.

    Cen arrived at LIDS in 2018 via a slightly roundabout route. She first got a taste for research during her undergraduate degree at Princeton University, where she majored in mechanical engineering. For her master’s degree, she changed course, working on radar solutions in mobile robotics (primarily for self-driving cars) at Oxford University. There, she developed an interest in AI algorithms, curious about when and why they misbehave. So, she came to MIT and LIDS for her doctoral research, working with Professor Devavrat Shah in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, for a stronger theoretical grounding in information systems.

    Auditing social media algorithms

    Together with Shah and other collaborators, Cen has worked on a wide range of projects during her time at LIDS, many of which tie directly to her interest in the interactions between humans and computational systems. In one such project, Cen studies options for regulating social media. Her recent work provides a method for translating human-readable regulations into implementable audits.

    To get a sense of what this means, suppose that regulators require that any public health content — for example, on vaccines — not be vastly different for politically left- and right-leaning users. How should auditors check that a social media platform complies with this regulation? Can a platform be made to comply with the regulation without damaging its bottom line? And how does compliance affect the actual content that users do see?

    Designing an auditing procedure is difficult in large part because there are so many stakeholders when it comes to social media. Auditors have to inspect the algorithm without accessing sensitive user data. They also have to work around tricky trade secrets, which can prevent them from getting a close look at the very algorithm that they are auditing because these algorithms are legally protected. Other considerations come into play as well, such as balancing the removal of misinformation with the protection of free speech.

    To meet these challenges, Cen and Shah developed an auditing procedure that does not need more than black-box access to the social media algorithm (which respects trade secrets), does not remove content (which avoids issues of censorship), and does not require access to users (which preserves users’ privacy).

    In their design process, the team also analyzed the properties of their auditing procedure, finding that it ensures a desirable property they call decision robustness. As good news for the platform, they show that a platform can pass the audit without sacrificing profits. Interestingly, they also found the audit naturally incentivizes the platform to show users diverse content, which is known to help reduce the spread of misinformation, counteract echo chambers, and more.

    Who gets good outcomes and who gets bad ones?

    In another line of research, Cen looks at whether people can receive good long-term outcomes when they not only compete for resources, but also don’t know upfront what resources are best for them.

    Some platforms, such as job-search platforms or ride-sharing apps, are part of what is called a matching market, which uses an algorithm to match one set of individuals (such as workers or riders) with another (such as employers or drivers). In many cases, individuals have matching preferences that they learn through trial and error. In labor markets, for example, workers learn their preferences about what kinds of jobs they want, and employers learn their preferences about the qualifications they seek from workers.

    But learning can be disrupted by competition. If workers with a particular background are repeatedly denied jobs in tech because of high competition for tech jobs, for instance, they may never get the knowledge they need to make an informed decision about whether they want to work in tech. Similarly, tech employers may never see and learn what these workers could do if they were hired.

    Cen’s work examines this interaction between learning and competition, studying whether it is possible for individuals on both sides of the matching market to walk away happy.

    Modeling such matching markets, Cen and Shah found that it is indeed possible to get to a stable outcome (workers aren’t incentivized to leave the matching market), with low regret (workers are happy with their long-term outcomes), fairness (happiness is evenly distributed), and high social welfare.

    Interestingly, it’s not obvious that it’s possible to get stability, low regret, fairness, and high social welfare simultaneously.  So another important aspect of the research was uncovering when it is possible to achieve all four criteria at once and exploring the implications of those conditions.

    What is the effect of X on Y?

    For the next few years, though, Cen plans to work on a new project, studying how to quantify the effect of an action X on an outcome Y when it’s expensive — or impossible — to measure this effect, focusing in particular on systems that have complex social behaviors.

    For instance, when Covid-19 cases surged in the pandemic, many cities had to decide what restrictions to adopt, such as mask mandates, business closures, or stay-home orders. They had to act fast and balance public health with community and business needs, public spending, and a host of other considerations.

    Typically, in order to estimate the effect of restrictions on the rate of infection, one might compare the rates of infection in areas that underwent different interventions. If one county has a mask mandate while its neighboring county does not, one might think comparing the counties’ infection rates would reveal the effectiveness of mask mandates. 

    But of course, no county exists in a vacuum. If, for instance, people from both counties gather to watch a football game in the maskless county every week, people from both counties mix. These complex interactions matter, and Sarah plans to study questions of cause and effect in such settings.

    “We’re interested in how decisions or interventions affect an outcome of interest, such as how criminal justice reform affects incarceration rates or how an ad campaign might change the public’s behaviors,” Cen says.

    Cen has also applied the principles of promoting inclusivity to her work in the MIT community.

    As one of three co-presidents of the Graduate Women in MIT EECS student group, she helped organize the inaugural GW6 research summit featuring the research of women graduate students — not only to showcase positive role models to students, but also to highlight the many successful graduate women at MIT who are not to be underestimated.

    Whether in computing or in the community, a system taking steps to address bias is one that enjoys legitimacy and trust, Cen says. “Accountability, legitimacy, trust — these principles play crucial roles in society and, ultimately, will determine which systems endure with time.”  More

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    Zero-trust architecture may hold the answer to cybersecurity insider threats

    For years, organizations have taken a defensive “castle-and-moat” approach to cybersecurity, seeking to secure the perimeters of their networks to block out any malicious actors. Individuals with the right credentials were assumed to be trustworthy and allowed access to a network’s systems and data without having to reauthorize themselves at each access attempt. However, organizations today increasingly store data in the cloud and allow employees to connect to the network remotely, both of which create vulnerabilities to this traditional approach. A more secure future may require a “zero-trust architecture,” in which users must prove their authenticity each time they access a network application or data.

    In May 2021, President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity outlined a goal for federal agencies to implement zero-trust security. Since then, MIT Lincoln Laboratory has been performing a study on zero-trust architectures, with the goals of reviewing their implementation in government and industry, identifying technical gaps and opportunities, and developing a set of recommendations for the United States’ approach to a zero-trust system.

    The study team’s first step was to define the term “zero trust” and understand the misperceptions in the field surrounding the concept. Some of these misperceptions suggest that a zero-trust architecture requires entirely new equipment to implement, or that it makes systems so “locked down” they’re not usable. 

    “Part of the reason why there is a lot of confusion about what zero trust is, is because it takes what the cybersecurity world has known about for many years and applies it in a different way,” says Jeffrey Gottschalk, the assistant head of Lincoln Laboratory’s Cyber Security and Information Sciences Division and study’s co-lead. “It is a paradigm shift in terms of how to think about security, but holistically it takes a lot of things that we already know how to do — such as multi-factor authentication, encryption, and software-defined networking­ — and combines them in different ways.”

    Play video

    Presentation: Overview of Zero Trust Architectures

    Recent high-profile cybersecurity incidents — such as those involving the National Security Agency, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Colonial Pipeline, SolarWinds, and Sony Pictures — highlight the vulnerability of systems and the need to rethink cybersecurity approaches.

    The study team reviewed recent, impactful cybersecurity incidents to identify which security principles were most responsible for the scale and impact of the attack. “We noticed that while a number of these attacks exploited previously unknown implementation vulnerabilities (also known as ‘zero-days’), the vast majority actually were due to the exploitation of operational security principles,” says Christopher Roeser, study co-lead and the assistant head of the Homeland Protection and Air Traffic Control Division, “that is, the gaining of individuals’ credentials, and the movement within a well-connected network that allows users to gather a significant amount of information or have very widespread effects.”

    In other words, the malicious actor had “breached the moat” and effectively became an insider.

    Zero-trust security principles could protect against this type of insider threat by treating every component, service, and user of a system as continuously exposed to and potentially compromised by a malicious actor. A user’s identity is verified each time that they request to access a new resource, and every access is mediated, logged, and analyzed. It’s like putting trip wires all over the inside of a network system, says Gottschalk. “So, when an adversary trips over that trip wire, you’ll get a signal and can validate that signal and see what’s going on.”

    In practice, a zero-trust approach could look like replacing a single-sign-on system, which lets users sign in just once for access to multiple applications, with a cloud-based identity that is known and verified. “Today, a lot of organizations have different ways that people authenticate and log onto systems, and many of those have been aggregated for expediency into single-sign-on capabilities, just to make it easier for people to log onto their systems. But we envision a future state that embraces zero trust, where identity verification is enabled by cloud-based identity that’s portable and ubiquitous, and very secure itself.”

    While conducting their study, the team spoke to approximately 10 companies and government organizations that have adopted zero-trust implementations — either through cloud services, in-house management, or a combination of both. They found the hybrid approach to be a good model for government organizations to adopt. They also found that the implementation could take from three to five years. “We talked to organizations that have actually done implementations of zero trust, and all of them have indicated that significant organizational commitment and change was required to be able to implement them,” Gottschalk says.

    But a key takeaway from the study is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to zero trust. “It’s why we think that having test-bed and pilot efforts are going to be very important to balance out zero-trust security with the mission needs of those systems,” Gottschalk says. The team also recognizes the importance of conducting ongoing research and development beyond initial zero-trust implementations, to continue to address evolving threats.

    Lincoln Laboratory will present further findings from the study at its upcoming Cyber Technology for National Security conference, which will be held June 28-29. The conference will also offer a short course for attendees to learn more about the benefits and implementations of zero-trust architectures.  More

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    Frequent encounters build familiarity

    Do better spatial networks make for better neighbors? There is evidence that they do, according to Paige Bollen, a sixth-year political science graduate student at MIT. The networks Bollen works with are not virtual but physical, part of the built environment in which we are all embedded. Her research on urban spaces suggests that the routes bringing people together or keeping them apart factor significantly in whether individuals see each other as friend or foe.

    “We all live in networks of streets, and come across different types of people,” says Bollen. “Just passing by others provides information that informs our political and social views of the world.” In her doctoral research, Bollen is revealing how physical context matters in determining whether such ordinary encounters engender suspicion or even hostility, while others can lead to cooperation and tolerance.

    Through her in-depth studies mapping the movement of people in urban communities in Ghana and South Africa, Bollen is demonstrating that even in diverse communities, “when people repeatedly come into contact, even if that contact is casual, they can build understanding that can lead to cooperation and positive outcomes,” she says. “My argument is that frequent, casual contact, facilitated by street networks, can make people feel more comfortable with those unlike themselves,” she says.

    Mapping urban networks

    Bollen’s case for the benefits of casual contact emerged from her pursuit of several related questions: Why do people in urban areas who regard other ethnic groups with prejudice and economic envy nevertheless manage to collaborate for a collective good? How do you reduce fears that arise from differences? How do the configuration of space and the built environment influence contact patterns among people?

    While other social science research suggests that there are weak ties in ethnically mixed urban communities, with casual contact exacerbating hostility, Bollen noted that there were plenty of examples of “cooperation across ethnic divisions in ethnically mixed communities.” She absorbed the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose 1972 research showed that strangers seen frequently in certain places become familiar — less anonymous or threatening. So she set out to understand precisely how “the built environment of a neighborhood interacts with its demography to create distinct patterns of contact between social groups.”

    With the support of MIT Global Diversity Lab and MIT GOV/LAB, Bollen set out to develop measures of intergroup contact in cities in Ghana and South Africa. She uses street network data to predict contact patterns based on features of the built environment and then combines these measures with mobility data on peoples’ actual movement.

    “I created a huge dataset for every intersection in these cities, to determine the central nodes where many people are passing through,” she says. She combined these datasets with census data to determine which social groups were most likely to use specific intersections based on their position in a particular street network. She mapped these measures of casual contact to outcomes, such as inter-ethnic cooperation in Ghana and voting behavior in South Africa.

    “My analysis [in Ghana] showed that in areas that are more ethnically heterogeneous and where there are more people passing through intersections, we find more interconnections among people and more cooperation within communities in community development efforts,” she says.

    In a related survey experiment conducted on Facebook with 1,200 subjects, Bollen asked Accra residents if they would help an unknown non-co-ethnic in need with a financial gift. She found that the likelihood of offering such help was strongly linked to the frequency of interactions. “Helping behavior occurred when the subjects believed they would see this person again, even when they did not know the person in need well,” says Bollen. “They figured if they helped, they could count on this person’s reciprocity in the future.”

    For Bollen, this was “a powerful gut check” for her hypothesis that “frequency builds familiarity, because frequency provides information and drives expectations, which means it can reduce uncertainty and fear of the other.”

    In research underway in South Africa, a nation increasingly dealing with anti-immigrant violence, Bollen is investigating whether frequency of contact reduces prejudice against foreigners. Using her detailed street maps, 1.1 billion unique geolocated cellphone pings, and election data, she finds that frequent contact opportunities with immigrants are associated with lower support for anti-immigrant party voting.    Passion for places and spaces

    Bollen never anticipated becoming a political scientist. The daughter of two academics, she was “bent on becoming a data scientist.” But she was also “always interested in why people behave in certain ways and how this influences macro trends.”

    As an undergraduate at Tufts University, she became interested in international affairs. But it was her 2013 fieldwork studying women-only carriages in Delhi, India’s metro system, that proved formative. “I interviewed women for a month, talking to them about how these cars enabled them to participate in public life,” she recalls. Another project involving informal transportation routes in Cape Town, South Africa, immersed her more deeply in the questions of people’s experience of public space. “I left college thinking about mobility and public space, and I discovered how much I love geographic information systems,” she says.

    A gig with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to improve the 911 emergency service — updating and cleaning geolocations of addresses using Google Street View — further piqued her interest. “The job was tedious, but I realized you can really understand a place, and how people move around, from these images.” Bollen began thinking about a career in urban planning.

    Then a two-year stint as a researcher at MIT GOV/LAB brought Bollen firmly into the political science fold. Working with Lily Tsai, the Ford Professor of Political Science, on civil society partnerships in the developing world, Bollen realized that “political science wasn’t what I thought it was,” she says. “You could bring psychology, economics, and sociology into thinking about politics.” Her decision to join the doctoral program was simple: “I knew and loved the people I was with at MIT.”

    Bollen has not regretted that decision. “All the things I’ve been interested in are finally coming together in my dissertation,” she says. Due to the pandemic, questions involving space, mobility, and contact became sharper to her. “I shifted my research emphasis from asking people about inter-ethnic differences and inequality through surveys, to using contact and context information to measure these variables.”

    She sees a number of applications for her work, including working with civil society organizations in communities touched by ethnic or other frictions “to rethink what we know about contact, challenging some of the classic things we think we know.”

    As she moves into the final phases of her dissertation, which she hopes to publish as a book, Bollen also relishes teaching comparative politics to undergraduates. “There’s something so fun engaging with them, and making their arguments stronger,” she says. With the long process of earning a PhD, this helps her “enjoy what she is doing every single day.” More

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    Computing our climate future

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The climate model of the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Adaptable predictions for average stakeholders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    How artificial intelligence can help combat systemic racism

    In 2020, Detroit police arrested a Black man for shoplifting almost $4,000 worth of watches from an upscale boutique. He was handcuffed in front of his family and spent a night in lockup. After some questioning, however, it became clear that they had the wrong man. So why did they arrest him in the first place?

    The reason: a facial recognition algorithm had matched the photo on his driver’s license to grainy security camera footage.

    Facial recognition algorithms — which have repeatedly been demonstrated to be less accurate for people with darker skin — are just one example of how racial bias gets replicated within and perpetuated by emerging technologies.

    “There’s an urgency as AI is used to make really high-stakes decisions,” says MLK Visiting Professor S. Craig Watkins, whose academic home for his time at MIT is the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). “The stakes are higher because new systems can replicate historical biases at scale.”

    Watkins, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the founding director of the Institute for Media Innovation​, researches the impacts of media and data-based systems on human behavior, with a specific concentration on issues related to systemic racism. “One of the fundamental questions of the work is: how do we build AI models that deal with systemic inequality more effectively?”

    Play video

    Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Racial Justice | S. Craig Watkins | TEDxMIT

    Ethical AI

    Inequality is perpetuated by technology in many ways across many sectors. One broad domain is health care, where Watkins says inequity shows up in both quality of and access to care. The demand for mental health care, for example, far outstrips the capacity for services in the United States. That demand has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and access to care is harder for communities of color.

    For Watkins, taking the bias out of the algorithm is just one component of building more ethical AI. He works also to develop tools and platforms that can address inequality outside of tech head-on. In the case of mental health access, this entails developing a tool to help mental health providers deliver care more efficiently.

    “We are building a real-time data collection platform that looks at activities and behaviors and tries to identify patterns and contexts in which certain mental states emerge,” says Watkins. “The goal is to provide data-informed insights to care providers in order to deliver higher-impact services.”

    Watkins is no stranger to the privacy concerns such an app would raise. He takes a user-centered approach to the development that is grounded in data ethics. “Data rights are a significant component,” he argues. “You have to give the user complete control over how their data is shared and used and what data a care provider sees. No one else has access.”

    Combating systemic racism

    Here at MIT, Watkins has joined the newly launched Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism (ICSR), an IDSS research collaboration that brings together faculty and researchers from the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing and beyond. The aim of the ICSR is to develop and harness computational tools that can help effect structural and normative change toward racial equity.

    The ICSR collaboration has separate project teams researching systemic racism in different sectors of society, including health care. Each of these “verticals” addresses different but interconnected issues, from sustainability to employment to gaming. Watkins is a part of two ICSR groups, policing and housing, that aim to better understand the processes that lead to discriminatory practices in both sectors. “Discrimination in housing contributes significantly to the racial wealth gap in the U.S.,” says Watkins.

    The policing team examines patterns in how different populations get policed. “There is obviously a significant and charged history to policing and race in America,” says Watkins. “This is an attempt to understand, to identify patterns, and note regional differences.”

    Watkins and the policing team are building models using data that details police interventions, responses, and race, among other variables. The ICSR is a good fit for this kind of research, says Watkins, who notes the interdisciplinary focus of both IDSS and the SCC. 

    “Systemic change requires a collaborative model and different expertise,” says Watkins. “We are trying to maximize influence and potential on the computational side, but we won’t get there with computation alone.”

    Opportunities for change

    Models can also predict outcomes, but Watkins is careful to point out that no algorithm alone will solve racial challenges.

    “Models in my view can inform policy and strategy that we as humans have to create. Computational models can inform and generate knowledge, but that doesn’t equate with change.” It takes additional work — and additional expertise in policy and advocacy — to use knowledge and insights to strive toward progress.

    One important lever of change, he argues, will be building a more AI-literate society through access to information and opportunities to understand AI and its impact in a more dynamic way. He hopes to see greater data rights and greater understanding of how societal systems impact our lives.

    “I was inspired by the response of younger people to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” he says. “Their tragic deaths shine a bright light on the real-world implications of structural racism and has forced the broader society to pay more attention to this issue, which creates more opportunities for change.” More

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    3 Questions: Fotini Christia on racial equity and data science

    Fotini Christia is the Ford International Professor in the Social Sciences in the Department of Political Science, associate director of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), and director of the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC). Her research interests include issues of conflict and cooperation in the Muslim world, and she has conducted fieldwork in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iran, the Palestinian Territories, Syria, and Yemen. She has co-organized the IDSS Research Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism (ICSR), which works to bridge the social sciences, data science, and computation by bringing researchers from these disciplines together to address systemic racism across housing, health care, policing, education, employment, and other sectors of society.

    Q: What is the IDSS/ICSR approach to systemic racism research?

    A: The Research Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism (ICSR) aims to seed and coordinate cross-disciplinary research to identify and overcome racially discriminatory processes and outcomes across a range of U.S. institutions and policy domains.

    Building off the extensive social science literature on systemic racism, the focus of this research initiative is to use big data to develop and harness computational tools that can help effect structural and normative change toward racial equity.

    The initiative aims to create a visible presence at MIT for cutting-edge computational research with a racial equity lens, across societal domains that will attract and train students and scholars.

    The steering committee for this research initiative is composed of underrepresented minority faculty members from across MIT’s five schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Members will serve as close advisors to the initiative as well as share the findings of our work beyond MIT’s campus. MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles heads this committee.

    Q: What role can data science play in helping to effect change toward racial equity?

    A: Existing work has shown racial discrimination in the job market, in the criminal justice system, as well as in education, health care, and access to housing, among other places. It has also underlined how algorithms could further entrench such bias — be it in training data or in the people who build them. Data science tools can not only help identify, but also contribute to, proposing fixes on racially inequitable outcomes that result from implicit or explicit biases in governing institutional practices in the public and private sector, and more recently from the use of AI and algorithmic methods in decision-making.

    To that effect, this initiative will produce research that explores and collects the relevant big data across domains, while paying attention to the ways such data are collected, and focus on improving and developing data-driven computational tools to address racial disparities in structures and institutions that have reproduced racially discriminatory outcomes in American society.

    The strong correlation between race, class, educational attainment, and various attitudes and behaviors in the American context can make it extremely difficult to rule out the influence of confounding factors. Thus, a key motivation for our research initiative is to highlight the importance of causal analysis using computational methods, and focus on understanding the opportunities of big data and algorithmic decision-making to address racial inequities and promote racial justice — beyond de-biasing algorithms. The intent is to also codify methodologies on equity-informed research practices and produce tools that are clear on the quantifiable expected social costs and benefits, as well as on the downstream effects on systemic racism more broadly.

    Q: What are some ways that the ICSR might conduct or follow-up on research seeking real-world impact or policy change?

    A: This type of research has ethical and societal considerations at its core, especially as they pertain to historically disadvantaged groups in the U.S., and will be coordinated with and communicated to local stakeholders to drive relevant policy decisions. This initiative intends to establish connections to URM [underrepresented minority] researchers and students at underrepresented universities and to directly collaborate with them on these research efforts. To that effect, we are leveraging existing programs such as the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP).

    To ensure that our research targets the right problems bringing a racial equity lens with an interest to effect policy change, we will also connect with community organizations in minority neighborhoods who often bear the brunt of the direct and indirect effects of systemic racism, as well as with local government offices that work to address inequity in service provision in these communities. Our intent is to directly engage IDSS students with these organizations to help develop and test algorithmic tools for racial equity. More

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    Q&A: Can the world change course on climate?

    In this ongoing series on climate issues, MIT faculty, students, and alumni in the humanistic fields share perspectives that are significant for solving climate change and mitigating its myriad social and ecological impacts. Nazli Choucri is a professor of political science and an expert on climate issues, who also focuses on international relations and cyberpolitics. She is the architect and director of the Global System for Sustainable Development, an evolving knowledge networking system centered on sustainability problems and solution strategies. The author and/or editor of 12 books, she is also the founding editor of the MIT Press book series “Global Environmental Accord: Strategies for Sustainability and Institutional Innovation.” Q: The impacts of climate change — including storms, floods, wildfires, and droughts — have the potential to destabilize nations, yet they are not constrained by borders. What international developments most concern you in terms of addressing climate change and its myriad ecological and social impacts?

    A: Climate change is a global issue. By definition, and a long history of practice, countries focus on their own priorities and challenges. Over time, we have seen the gradual development of norms reflecting shared interests, and the institutional arrangements to support and pursue the global good. What concerns me most is that general responses to the climate crisis are being framed in broad terms; the overall pace of change remains perilously slow; and uncertainty remains about operational action and implementation of stated intent. We have just seen the completion of the 26th meeting of states devoted to climate change, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). In some ways this is positive. Yet, past commitments remain unfulfilled, creating added stress in an already stressful political situation. Industrial countries are uneven in their recognition of, and responses to, climate change. This may signal uncertainty about whether climate matters are sufficiently compelling to call for immediate action. Alternatively, the push for changing course may seem too costly at a time when other imperatives — such as employment, economic growth, or protecting borders — inevitably dominate discourse and decisions. Whatever the cause, the result has been an unwillingness to take strong action. Unfortunately, climate change remains within the domain of “low politics,” although there are signs the issue is making a slow but steady shift to “high politics” — those issues deemed vital to the existence of the state. This means that short-term priorities, such as those noted above, continue to shape national politics and international positions and, by extension, to obscure the existential threat revealed by scientific evidence. As for developing countries, these are overwhelmed by internal challenges, and managing the difficulties of daily life always takes priority over other challenges, however compelling. Long-term thinking is a luxury, but daily bread is a necessity. Non-state actors — including registered nongovernmental organizations, climate organizations, sustainability support groups, activists of various sorts, and in some cases much of civil society — have been left with a large share of the responsibility for educating and convincing diverse constituencies of the consequences of inaction on climate change. But many of these institutions carry their own burdens and struggle to manage current pressures. The international community, through its formal and informal institutions, continues to articulate the perils of climate change and to search for a powerful consensus that can prove effective both in form and in function. The general contours are agreed upon — more or less. But leadership of, for, and by the global collective is elusive and difficult to shape. Most concerning of all is the clear reluctance to address head-on the challenge of planning for changes that we know will occur. The reality that we are all being affected — in different ways and to different degrees — has yet to be sufficiently appreciated by everyone, everywhere. Yet, in many parts of the world, major shifts in climate will create pressures on human settlements, spur forced migrations, or generate social dislocations. Some small island states, for example, may not survive a sea-level surge. Everywhere there is a need to cut emissions, and this means adaptation and/or major changes in economic activity and in lifestyle.The discourse and debate at COP26 reflect all of such persistent features in the international system. So far, the largest achievements center on the common consensus that more must be done to prevent the rise in temperature from creating a global catastrophe. This is not enough, however. Differences remain, and countries have yet to specify what cuts in emissions they are willing to make.Echoes of who is responsible for what remains strong. The thorny matter of the unfulfilled pledge of $100 billion once promised by rich countries to help countries to reduce their emissions remained unresolved. At the same time, however, some important agreements were reached. The United States and China announced they would make greater efforts to cut methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. More than 100 countries agreed to end deforestation. India joined the countries committed to attain zero emissions by 2070. And on matters of finance, countries agreed to a two-year plan to determine how to meet the needs of the most-vulnerable countries. Q: In what ways do you think the tools and insights from political science can advance efforts to address climate change and its impacts?A: I prefer to take a multidisciplinary view of the issues at hand, rather than focus on the tools of political science alone. Disciplinary perspectives can create siloed views and positions that undermine any overall drive toward consensus. The scientific evidence is pointing to, even anticipating, pervasive changes that transcend known and established parameters of social order all across the globe.That said, political science provides important insight, even guidance, for addressing the impacts of climate change in some notable ways. One is understanding the extent to which our formal institutions enable discussion, debate, and decisions about the directions we can take collectively to adapt, adjust, or even depart from the established practices of managing social order.If we consider politics as the allocation of values in terms of who gets what, when, and how, then it becomes clear that the current allocation requires a change in course. Coordination and cooperation across the jurisdictions of sovereign states is foundational for any response to climate change impacts.We have already recognized, and to some extent, developed targets for reducing carbon emissions — a central impact from traditional forms of energy use — and are making notable efforts to shift toward alternatives. This move is an easy one compared to all the work that needs to be done to address climate change. But, in taking this step we have learned quite a bit that might help in creating a necessary consensus for cross-jurisdiction coordination and response.Respecting individuals and protecting life is increasingly recognized as a global value — at least in principle. As we work to change course, new norms will be developed, and political science provides important perspectives on how to establish such norms. We will be faced with demands for institutional design, and these will need to embody our guiding values. For example, having learned to recognize the burdens of inequity, we can establish the value of equity as foundational for our social order both now and as we recognize and address the impacts of climate change.

    Q: You teach a class on “Sustainability Development: Theory and Practice.” Broadly speaking, what are goals of this class? What lessons do you hope students will carry with them into the future?A: The goal of 17.181, my class on sustainability, is to frame as clearly as possible the concept of sustainable development (sustainability) with attention to conceptual, empirical, institutional, and policy issues.The course centers on human activities. Individuals are embedded in complex interactive systems: the social system, the natural environment, and the constructed cyber domain — each with distinct temporal, special, and dynamic features. Sustainability issues intersect with, but cannot be folded into, the impacts of climate change. Sustainability places human beings in social systems at the core of what must be done to respect the imperatives of a highly complex natural environment.We consider sustainability an evolving knowledge domain with attendant policy implications. It is driven by events on the ground, not by revolution in academic or theoretical concerns per se. Overall, sustainable development refers to the process of meeting the needs of current and future generations, without undermining the resilience of the life-supporting properties, the integrity of social systems, or the supports of the human-constructed cyberspace.More specifically, we differentiate among four fundamental dimensions and their necessary conditions:

    (a) ecological systems — exhibiting balance and resilience;(b) economic production and consumption — with equity and efficiency;(c) governance and politics — with participation and responsiveness; and(d) institutional performance — demonstrating adaptation and incorporating feedback.The core proposition is this: If all conditions hold, then the system is (or can be) sustainable. Then, we must examine the critical drivers — people, resources, technology, and their interactions — followed by a review and assessment of evolving policy responses. Then we ask: What are new opportunities?I would like students to carry forward these ideas and issues: what has been deemed “normal” in modern Western societies and in developing societies seeking to emulate the Western model is damaging humans in many ways — all well-known. Yet only recently have alternatives begun to be considered to the traditional economic growth model based on industrialization and high levels of energy use. To make changes, we must first understand the underlying incentives, realities, and choices that shape a whole set of dysfunctional behaviors and outcomes. We then need to delve deep into the driving sources and consequences, and to consider the many ways in which our known “normal” can be adjusted — in theory and in practice. Q: In confronting an issue as formidable as global climate change, what gives you hope?  A: I see a few hopeful signs; among them:The scientific evidence is clear and compelling. We are no longer discussing whether there is climate change, or if we will face major challenges of unprecedented proportions, or even how to bring about an international consensus on the salience of such threats.Climate change has been recognized as a global phenomenon. Imperatives for cooperation are necessary. No one can go it alone. Major efforts have and are being made in world politics to forge action agendas with specific targets.The issue appears to be on the verge of becoming one of “high politics” in the United States.Younger generations are more sensitive to the reality that we are altering the life-supporting properties of our planet. They are generally more educated, skilled, and open to addressing such challenges than their elders.However disappointing the results of COP26 might seem, the global community is moving in the right direction.None of the above points, individually or jointly, translates into an effective response to the known impacts of climate change — let alone the unknown. But, this is what gives me hope.

    Interview prepared by MIT SHASS CommunicationsEditorial, design, and series director: Emily HiestandSenior writer: Kathryn O’Neill More