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    Tackling hard computational problems

    The notion that some computational problems in math and computer science can be hard should come as no surprise. There is, in fact, an entire class of problems deemed impossible to solve algorithmically. Just below this class lie slightly “easier” problems that are less well-understood — and may be impossible, too.

    David Gamarnik, professor of operations research at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, is focusing his attention on the latter, less-studied category of problems, which are more relevant to the everyday world because they involve randomness — an integral feature of natural systems. He and his colleagues have developed a potent tool for analyzing these problems called the overlap gap property (or OGP). Gamarnik described the new methodology in a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    P ≠ NP

    Fifty years ago, the most famous problem in theoretical computer science was formulated. Labeled “P ≠ NP,” it asks if problems involving vast datasets exist for which an answer can be verified relatively quickly, but whose solution — even if worked out on the fastest available computers — would take an absurdly long time.

    The P ≠ NP conjecture is still unproven, yet most computer scientists believe that many familiar problems — including, for instance, the traveling salesman problem — fall into this impossibly hard category. The challenge in the salesman example is to find the shortest route, in terms of distance or time, through N different cities. The task is easily managed when N=4, because there are only six possible routes to consider. But for 30 cities, there are more than 1030 possible routes, and the numbers rise dramatically from there. The biggest difficulty comes in designing an algorithm that quickly solves the problem in all cases, for all integer values of N. Computer scientists are confident, based on algorithmic complexity theory, that no such algorithm exists, thus affirming that P ≠ NP.

    There are many other examples of intractable problems like this. Suppose, for instance, you have a giant table of numbers with thousands of rows and thousands of columns. Can you find, among all possible combinations, the precise arrangement of 10 rows and 10 columns such that its 100 entries will have the highest sum attainable? “We call them optimization tasks,” Gamarnik says, “because you’re always trying to find the biggest or best — the biggest sum of numbers, the best route through cities, and so forth.”

    Computer scientists have long recognized that you can’t create a fast algorithm that can, in all cases, efficiently solve problems like the saga of the traveling salesman. “Such a thing is likely impossible for reasons that are well-understood,” Gamarnik notes. “But in real life, nature doesn’t generate problems from an adversarial perspective. It’s not trying to thwart you with the most challenging, hand-picked problem conceivable.” In fact, people normally encounter problems under more random, less contrived circumstances, and those are the problems the OGP is intended to address.

    Peaks and valleys

    To understand what the OGP is all about, it might first be instructive to see how the idea arose. Since the 1970s, physicists have been studying spin glasses — materials with properties of both liquids and solids that have unusual magnetic behaviors. Research into spin glasses has given rise to a general theory of complex systems that’s relevant to problems in physics, math, computer science, materials science, and other fields. (This work earned Giorgio Parisi a 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics.)

    One vexing issue physicists have wrestled with is trying to predict the energy states, and particularly the lowest energy configurations, of different spin glass structures. The situation is sometimes depicted by a “landscape” of countless mountain peaks separated by valleys, where the goal is to identify the highest peak. In this case, the highest peak actually represents the lowest energy state (though one could flip the picture around and instead look for the deepest hole). This turns out to be an optimization problem similar in form to the traveling salesman’s dilemma, Gamarnik explains: “You’ve got this huge collection of mountains, and the only way to find the highest appears to be by climbing up each one” — a Sisyphean chore comparable to finding a needle in a haystack.

    Physicists have shown that you can simplify this picture, and take a step toward a solution, by slicing the mountains at a certain, predetermined elevation and ignoring everything below that cutoff level. You’d then be left with a collection of peaks protruding above a uniform layer of clouds, with each point on those peaks representing a potential solution to the original problem.

    In a 2014 paper, Gamarnik and his coauthors noticed something that had previously been overlooked. In some cases, they realized, the diameter of each peak will be much smaller than the distances between different peaks. Consequently, if one were to pick any two points on this sprawling landscape — any two possible “solutions” — they would either be very close (if they came from the same peak) or very far apart (if drawn from different peaks). In other words, there would be a telltale “gap” in these distances — either small or large, but nothing in-between. A system in this state, Gamarnik and colleagues proposed, is characterized by the OGP.

    “We discovered that all known problems of a random nature that are algorithmically hard have a version of this property” — namely, that the mountain diameter in the schematic model is much smaller than the space between mountains, Gamarnik asserts. “This provides a more precise measure of algorithmic hardness.”

    Unlocking the secrets of algorithmic complexity

    The emergence of the OGP can help researchers assess the difficulty of creating fast algorithms to tackle particular problems. And it has already enabled them “to mathematically [and] rigorously rule out a large class of algorithms as potential contenders,” Gamarnik says. “We’ve learned, specifically, that stable algorithms — those whose output won’t change much if the input only changes a little — will fail at solving this type of optimization problem.” This negative result applies not only to conventional computers but also to quantum computers and, specifically, to so-called “quantum approximation optimization algorithms” (QAOAs), which some investigators had hoped could solve these same optimization problems. Now, owing to Gamarnik and his co-authors’ findings, those hopes have been moderated by the recognition that many layers of operations would be required for QAOA-type algorithms to succeed, which could be technically challenging.

    “Whether that’s good news or bad news depends on your perspective,” he says. “I think it’s good news in the sense that it helps us unlock the secrets of algorithmic complexity and enhances our knowledge as to what is in the realm of possibility and what is not. It’s bad news in the sense that it tells us that these problems are hard, even if nature produces them, and even if they’re generated in a random way.” The news is not really surprising, he adds. “Many of us expected it all along, but we now we have a more solid basis upon which to make this claim.”

    That still leaves researchers light-years away from being able to prove the nonexistence of fast algorithms that could solve these optimization problems in random settings. Having such a proof would provide a definitive answer to the P ≠ NP problem. “If we could show that we can’t have an algorithm that works most of the time,” he says, “that would tell us we certainly can’t have an algorithm that works all the time.”

    Predicting how long it will take before the P ≠ NP problem is resolved appears to be an intractable problem in itself. It’s likely there will be many more peaks to climb, and valleys to traverse, before researchers gain a clearer perspective on the situation. More

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    Q&A: Cathy Wu on developing algorithms to safely integrate robots into our world

    Cathy Wu is the Gilbert W. Winslow Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a member of the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. As an undergraduate, Wu won MIT’s toughest robotics competition, and as a graduate student took the University of California at Berkeley’s first-ever course on deep reinforcement learning. Now back at MIT, she’s working to improve the flow of robots in Amazon warehouses under the Science Hub, a new collaboration between the tech giant and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Outside of the lab and classroom, Wu can be found running, drawing, pouring lattes at home, and watching YouTube videos on math and infrastructure via 3Blue1Brown and Practical Engineering. She recently took a break from all of that to talk about her work.

    Q: What put you on the path to robotics and self-driving cars?

    A: My parents always wanted a doctor in the family. However, I’m bad at following instructions and became the wrong kind of doctor! Inspired by my physics and computer science classes in high school, I decided to study engineering. I wanted to help as many people as a medical doctor could.

    At MIT, I looked for applications in energy, education, and agriculture, but the self-driving car was the first to grab me. It has yet to let go! Ninety-four percent of serious car crashes are caused by human error and could potentially be prevented by self-driving cars. Autonomous vehicles could also ease traffic congestion, save energy, and improve mobility.

    I first learned about self-driving cars from Seth Teller during his guest lecture for the course Mobile Autonomous Systems Lab (MASLAB), in which MIT undergraduates compete to build the best full-functioning robot from scratch. Our ball-fetching bot, Putzputz, won first place. From there, I took more classes in machine learning, computer vision, and transportation, and joined Teller’s lab. I also competed in several mobility-related hackathons, including one sponsored by Hubway, now known as Blue Bike.

    Q: You’ve explored ways to help humans and autonomous vehicles interact more smoothly. What makes this problem so hard?

    A: Both systems are highly complex, and our classical modeling tools are woefully insufficient. Integrating autonomous vehicles into our existing mobility systems is a huge undertaking. For example, we don’t know whether autonomous vehicles will cut energy use by 40 percent, or double it. We need more powerful tools to cut through the uncertainty. My PhD thesis at Berkeley tried to do this. I developed scalable optimization methods in the areas of robot control, state estimation, and system design. These methods could help decision-makers anticipate future scenarios and design better systems to accommodate both humans and robots.

    Q: How is deep reinforcement learning, combining deep and reinforcement learning algorithms, changing robotics?

    A: I took John Schulman and Pieter Abbeel’s reinforcement learning class at Berkeley in 2015 shortly after Deepmind published their breakthrough paper in Nature. They had trained an agent via deep learning and reinforcement learning to play “Space Invaders” and a suite of Atari games at superhuman levels. That created quite some buzz. A year later, I started to incorporate reinforcement learning into problems involving mixed traffic systems, in which only some cars are automated. I realized that classical control techniques couldn’t handle the complex nonlinear control problems I was formulating.

    Deep RL is now mainstream but it’s by no means pervasive in robotics, which still relies heavily on classical model-based control and planning methods. Deep learning continues to be important for processing raw sensor data like camera images and radio waves, and reinforcement learning is gradually being incorporated. I see traffic systems as gigantic multi-robot systems. I’m excited for an upcoming collaboration with Utah’s Department of Transportation to apply reinforcement learning to coordinate cars with traffic signals, reducing congestion and thus carbon emissions.

    Q: You’ve talked about the MIT course, 6.007 (Signals and Systems), and its impact on you. What about it spoke to you?

    A: The mindset. That problems that look messy can be analyzed with common, and sometimes simple, tools. Signals are transformed by systems in various ways, but what do these abstract terms mean, anyway? A mechanical system can take a signal like gears turning at some speed and transform it into a lever turning at another speed. A digital system can take binary digits and turn them into other binary digits or a string of letters or an image. Financial systems can take news and transform it via millions of trading decisions into stock prices. People take in signals every day through advertisements, job offers, gossip, and so on, and translate them into actions that in turn influence society and other people. This humble class on signals and systems linked mechanical, digital, and societal systems and showed me how foundational tools can cut through the noise.

    Q: In your project with Amazon you’re training warehouse robots to pick up, sort, and deliver goods. What are the technical challenges?

    A: This project involves assigning robots to a given task and routing them there. [Professor] Cynthia Barnhart’s team is focused on task assignment, and mine, on path planning. Both problems are considered combinatorial optimization problems because the solution involves a combination of choices. As the number of tasks and robots increases, the number of possible solutions grows exponentially. It’s called the curse of dimensionality. Both problems are what we call NP Hard; there may not be an efficient algorithm to solve them. Our goal is to devise a shortcut.

    Routing a single robot for a single task isn’t difficult. It’s like using Google Maps to find the shortest path home. It can be solved efficiently with several algorithms, including Dijkstra’s. But warehouses resemble small cities with hundreds of robots. When traffic jams occur, customers can’t get their packages as quickly. Our goal is to develop algorithms that find the most efficient paths for all of the robots.

    Q: Are there other applications?

    A: Yes. The algorithms we test in Amazon warehouses might one day help to ease congestion in real cities. Other potential applications include controlling planes on runways, swarms of drones in the air, and even characters in video games. These algorithms could also be used for other robotic planning tasks like scheduling and routing.

    Q: AI is evolving rapidly. Where do you hope to see the big breakthroughs coming?

    A: I’d like to see deep learning and deep RL used to solve societal problems involving mobility, infrastructure, social media, health care, and education. Deep RL now has a toehold in robotics and industrial applications like chip design, but we still need to be careful in applying it to systems with humans in the loop. Ultimately, we want to design systems for people. Currently, we simply don’t have the right tools.

    Q: What worries you most about AI taking on more and more specialized tasks?

    A: AI has the potential for tremendous good, but it could also help to accelerate the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Our political and regulatory systems could help to integrate AI into society and minimize job losses and income inequality, but I worry that they’re not equipped yet to handle the firehose of AI.

    Q: What’s the last great book you read?

    A: “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” by Bill Gates. I absolutely loved the way that Gates was able to take an overwhelmingly complex topic and distill it down into words that everyone can understand. His optimism inspires me to keep pushing on applications of AI and robotics to help avoid a climate disaster. More

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    Nonsense can make sense to machine-learning models

    For all that neural networks can accomplish, we still don’t really understand how they operate. Sure, we can program them to learn, but making sense of a machine’s decision-making process remains much like a fancy puzzle with a dizzying, complex pattern where plenty of integral pieces have yet to be fitted. 

    If a model was trying to classify an image of said puzzle, for example, it could encounter well-known, but annoying adversarial attacks, or even more run-of-the-mill data or processing issues. But a new, more subtle type of failure recently identified by MIT scientists is another cause for concern: “overinterpretation,” where algorithms make confident predictions based on details that don’t make sense to humans, like random patterns or image borders. 

    This could be particularly worrisome for high-stakes environments, like split-second decisions for self-driving cars, and medical diagnostics for diseases that need more immediate attention. Autonomous vehicles in particular rely heavily on systems that can accurately understand surroundings and then make quick, safe decisions. The network used specific backgrounds, edges, or particular patterns of the sky to classify traffic lights and street signs — irrespective of what else was in the image. 

    The team found that neural networks trained on popular datasets like CIFAR-10 and ImageNet suffered from overinterpretation. Models trained on CIFAR-10, for example, made confident predictions even when 95 percent of input images were missing, and the remainder is senseless to humans. 

    “Overinterpretation is a dataset problem that’s caused by these nonsensical signals in datasets. Not only are these high-confidence images unrecognizable, but they contain less than 10 percent of the original image in unimportant areas, such as borders. We found that these images were meaningless to humans, yet models can still classify them with high confidence,” says Brandon Carter, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory PhD student and lead author on a paper about the research. 

    Deep-image classifiers are widely used. In addition to medical diagnosis and boosting autonomous vehicle technology, there are use cases in security, gaming, and even an app that tells you if something is or isn’t a hot dog, because sometimes we need reassurance. The tech in discussion works by processing individual pixels from tons of pre-labeled images for the network to “learn.” 

    Image classification is hard, because machine-learning models have the ability to latch onto these nonsensical subtle signals. Then, when image classifiers are trained on datasets such as ImageNet, they can make seemingly reliable predictions based on those signals. 

    Although these nonsensical signals can lead to model fragility in the real world, the signals are actually valid in the datasets, meaning overinterpretation can’t be diagnosed using typical evaluation methods based on that accuracy. 

    To find the rationale for the model’s prediction on a particular input, the methods in the present study start with the full image and repeatedly ask, what can I remove from this image? Essentially, it keeps covering up the image, until you’re left with the smallest piece that still makes a confident decision. 

    To that end, it could also be possible to use these methods as a type of validation criteria. For example, if you have an autonomously driving car that uses a trained machine-learning method for recognizing stop signs, you could test that method by identifying the smallest input subset that constitutes a stop sign. If that consists of a tree branch, a particular time of day, or something that’s not a stop sign, you could be concerned that the car might come to a stop at a place it’s not supposed to.

    While it may seem that the model is the likely culprit here, the datasets are more likely to blame. “There’s the question of how we can modify the datasets in a way that would enable models to be trained to more closely mimic how a human would think about classifying images and therefore, hopefully, generalize better in these real-world scenarios, like autonomous driving and medical diagnosis, so that the models don’t have this nonsensical behavior,” says Carter. 

    This may mean creating datasets in more controlled environments. Currently, it’s just pictures that are extracted from public domains that are then classified. But if you want to do object identification, for example, it might be necessary to train models with objects with an uninformative background. 

    This work was supported by Schmidt Futures and the National Institutes of Health. Carter wrote the paper alongside Siddhartha Jain and Jonas Mueller, scientists at Amazon, and MIT Professor David Gifford. They are presenting the work at the 2021 Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems. More

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    Systems scientists find clues to why false news snowballs on social media

    The spread of misinformation on social media is a pressing societal problem that tech companies and policymakers continue to grapple with, yet those who study this issue still don’t have a deep understanding of why and how false news spreads.

    To shed some light on this murky topic, researchers at MIT developed a theoretical model of a Twitter-like social network to study how news is shared and explore situations where a non-credible news item will spread more widely than the truth. Agents in the model are driven by a desire to persuade others to take on their point of view: The key assumption in the model is that people bother to share something with their followers if they think it is persuasive and likely to move others closer to their mindset. Otherwise they won’t share.

    The researchers found that in such a setting, when a network is highly connected or the views of its members are sharply polarized, news that is likely to be false will spread more widely and travel deeper into the network than news with higher credibility.

    This theoretical work could inform empirical studies of the relationship between news credibility and the size of its spread, which might help social media companies adapt networks to limit the spread of false information.

    “We show that, even if people are rational in how they decide to share the news, this could still lead to the amplification of information with low credibility. With this persuasion motive, no matter how extreme my beliefs are — given that the more extreme they are the more I gain by moving others’ opinions — there is always someone who would amplify [the information],” says senior author Ali Jadbabaie, professor and head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a core faculty member of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and a principal investigator in the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS).

    Joining Jadbabaie on the paper are first author Chin-Chia Hsu, a graduate student in the Social and Engineering Systems program in IDSS, and Amir Ajorlou, a LIDS research scientist. The research will be presented this week at the IEEE Conference on Decision and Control.

    Pondering persuasion

    This research draws on a 2018 study by Sinan Aral, the David Austin Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management; Deb Roy, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Media Lab; and former postdoc Soroush Vosoughi (now an assistant professor of computer science at Dartmouth University). Their empirical study of data from Twitter found that false news spreads wider, faster, and deeper than real news.

    Jadbabaie and his collaborators wanted to drill down on why this occurs.

    They hypothesized that persuasion might be a strong motive for sharing news — perhaps agents in the network want to persuade others to take on their point of view — and decided to build a theoretical model that would let them explore this possibility.

    In their model, agents have some prior belief about a policy, and their goal is to persuade followers to move their beliefs closer to the agent’s side of the spectrum.

    A news item is initially released to a small, random subgroup of agents, which must decide whether to share this news with their followers. An agent weighs the newsworthiness of the item and its credibility, and updates its belief based on how surprising or convincing the news is. 

    “They will make a cost-benefit analysis to see if, on average, this piece of news will move people closer to what they think or move them away. And we include a nominal cost for sharing. For instance, taking some action, if you are scrolling on social media, you have to stop to do that. Think of that as a cost. Or a reputation cost might come if I share something that is embarrassing. Everyone has this cost, so the more extreme and the more interesting the news is, the more you want to share it,” Jadbabaie says.

    If the news affirms the agent’s perspective and has persuasive power that outweighs the nominal cost, the agent will always share the news. But if an agent thinks the news item is something others may have already seen, the agent is disincentivized to share it.

    Since an agent’s willingness to share news is a product of its perspective and how persuasive the news is, the more extreme an agent’s perspective or the more surprising the news, the more likely the agent will share it.

    The researchers used this model to study how information spreads during a news cascade, which is an unbroken sharing chain that rapidly permeates the network.

    Connectivity and polarization

    The team found that when a network has high connectivity and the news is surprising, the credibility threshold for starting a news cascade is lower. High connectivity means that there are multiple connections between many users in the network.

    Likewise, when the network is largely polarized, there are plenty of agents with extreme views who want to share the news item, starting a news cascade. In both these instances, news with low credibility creates the largest cascades.

    “For any piece of news, there is a natural network speed limit, a range of connectivity, that facilitates good transmission of information where the size of the cascade is maximized by true news. But if you exceed that speed limit, you will get into situations where inaccurate news or news with low credibility has a larger cascade size,” Jadbabaie says.

    If the views of users in the network become more diverse, it is less likely that a poorly credible piece of news will spread more widely than the truth.

    Jadbabaie and his colleagues designed the agents in the network to behave rationally, so the model would better capture actions real humans might take if they want to persuade others.

    “Someone might say that is not why people share, and that is valid. Why people do certain things is a subject of intense debate in cognitive science, social psychology, neuroscience, economics, and political science,” he says. “Depending on your assumptions, you end up getting different results. But I feel like this assumption of persuasion being the motive is a natural assumption.”

    Their model also shows how costs can be manipulated to reduce the spread of false information. Agents make a cost-benefit analysis and won’t share news if the cost to do so outweighs the benefit of sharing.

    “We don’t make any policy prescriptions, but one thing this work suggests is that, perhaps, having some cost associated with sharing news is not a bad idea. The reason you get lots of these cascades is because the cost of sharing the news is actually very low,” he says.

    This work was supported by an Army Research Office Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative grant and a Vannevar Bush Fellowship from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. More

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    Machine learning speeds up vehicle routing

    Waiting for a holiday package to be delivered? There’s a tricky math problem that needs to be solved before the delivery truck pulls up to your door, and MIT researchers have a strategy that could speed up the solution.

    The approach applies to vehicle routing problems such as last-mile delivery, where the goal is to deliver goods from a central depot to multiple cities while keeping travel costs down. While there are algorithms designed to solve this problem for a few hundred cities, these solutions become too slow when applied to a larger set of cities.

    To remedy this, Cathy Wu, the Gilbert W. Winslow Career Development Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, and her students have come up with a machine-learning strategy that accelerates some of the strongest algorithmic solvers by 10 to 100 times.

    The solver algorithms work by breaking up the problem of delivery into smaller subproblems to solve — say, 200 subproblems for routing vehicles between 2,000 cities. Wu and her colleagues augment this process with a new machine-learning algorithm that identifies the most useful subproblems to solve, instead of solving all the subproblems, to increase the quality of the solution while using orders of magnitude less compute.

    Their approach, which they call “learning-to-delegate,” can be used across a variety of solvers and a variety of similar problems, including scheduling and pathfinding for warehouse robots, the researchers say.

    The work pushes the boundaries on rapidly solving large-scale vehicle routing problems, says Marc Kuo, founder and CEO of Routific, a smart logistics platform for optimizing delivery routes. Some of Routific’s recent algorithmic advances were inspired by Wu’s work, he notes.

    “Most of the academic body of research tends to focus on specialized algorithms for small problems, trying to find better solutions at the cost of processing times. But in the real-world, businesses don’t care about finding better solutions, especially if they take too long for compute,” Kuo explains. “In the world of last-mile logistics, time is money, and you cannot have your entire warehouse operations wait for a slow algorithm to return the routes. An algorithm needs to be hyper-fast for it to be practical.”

    Wu, social and engineering systems doctoral student Sirui Li, and electrical engineering and computer science doctoral student Zhongxia Yan presented their research this week at the 2021 NeurIPS conference.

    Selecting good problems

    Vehicle routing problems are a class of combinatorial problems, which involve using heuristic algorithms to find “good-enough solutions” to the problem. It’s typically not possible to come up with the one “best” answer to these problems, because the number of possible solutions is far too huge.

    “The name of the game for these types of problems is to design efficient algorithms … that are optimal within some factor,” Wu explains. “But the goal is not to find optimal solutions. That’s too hard. Rather, we want to find as good of solutions as possible. Even a 0.5% improvement in solutions can translate to a huge revenue increase for a company.”

    Over the past several decades, researchers have developed a variety of heuristics to yield quick solutions to combinatorial problems. They usually do this by starting with a poor but valid initial solution and then gradually improving the solution — by trying small tweaks to improve the routing between nearby cities, for example. For a large problem like a 2,000-plus city routing challenge, however, this approach just takes too much time.

    More recently, machine-learning methods have been developed to solve the problem, but while faster, they tend to be more inaccurate, even at the scale of a few dozen cities. Wu and her colleagues decided to see if there was a beneficial way to combine the two methods to find speedy but high-quality solutions.

    “For us, this is where machine learning comes in,” Wu says. “Can we predict which of these subproblems, that if we were to solve them, would lead to more improvement in the solution, saving computing time and expense?”

    Traditionally, a large-scale vehicle routing problem heuristic might choose the subproblems to solve in which order either randomly or by applying yet another carefully devised heuristic. In this case, the MIT researchers ran sets of subproblems through a neural network they created to automatically find the subproblems that, when solved, would lead to the greatest gain in quality of the solutions. This process sped up subproblem selection process by 1.5 to 2 times, Wu and colleagues found.

    “We don’t know why these subproblems are better than other subproblems,” Wu notes. “It’s actually an interesting line of future work. If we did have some insights here, these could lead to designing even better algorithms.”

    Surprising speed-up

    Wu and colleagues were surprised by how well the approach worked. In machine learning, the idea of garbage-in, garbage-out applies — that is, the quality of a machine-learning approach relies heavily on the quality of the data. A combinatorial problem is so difficult that even its subproblems can’t be optimally solved. A neural network trained on the “medium-quality” subproblem solutions available as the input data “would typically give medium-quality results,” says Wu. In this case, however, the researchers were able to leverage the medium-quality solutions to achieve high-quality results, significantly faster than state-of-the-art methods.

    For vehicle routing and similar problems, users often must design very specialized algorithms to solve their specific problem. Some of these heuristics have been in development for decades.

    The learning-to-delegate method offers an automatic way to accelerate these heuristics for large problems, no matter what the heuristic or — potentially — what the problem.

    Since the method can work with a variety of solvers, it may be useful for a variety of resource allocation problems, says Wu. “We may unlock new applications that now will be possible because the cost of solving the problem is 10 to 100 times less.”

    The research was supported by MIT Indonesia Seed Fund, U.S. Department of Transportation Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program, and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. More

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    Q&A: More-sustainable concrete with machine learning

    As a building material, concrete withstands the test of time. Its use dates back to early civilizations, and today it is the most popular composite choice in the world. However, it’s not without its faults. Production of its key ingredient, cement, contributes 8-9 percent of the global anthropogenic CO2 emissions and 2-3 percent of energy consumption, which is only projected to increase in the coming years. With aging United States infrastructure, the federal government recently passed a milestone bill to revitalize and upgrade it, along with a push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions where possible, putting concrete in the crosshairs for modernization, too.

    Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Jie Chen, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab research scientist and manager, think artificial intelligence can help meet this need by designing and formulating new, more sustainable concrete mixtures, with lower costs and carbon dioxide emissions, while improving material performance and reusing manufacturing byproducts in the material itself. Olivetti’s research improves environmental and economic sustainability of materials, and Chen develops and optimizes machine learning and computational techniques, which he can apply to materials reformulation. Olivetti and Chen, along with their collaborators, have recently teamed up for an MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab project to make concrete more sustainable for the benefit of society, the climate, and the economy.

    Q: What applications does concrete have, and what properties make it a preferred building material?

    Olivetti: Concrete is the dominant building material globally with an annual consumption of 30 billion metric tons. That is over 20 times the next most produced material, steel, and the scale of its use leads to considerable environmental impact, approximately 5-8 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It can be made locally, has a broad range of structural applications, and is cost-effective. Concrete is a mixture of fine and coarse aggregate, water, cement binder (the glue), and other additives.

    Q: Why isn’t it sustainable, and what research problems are you trying to tackle with this project?

    Olivetti: The community is working on several ways to reduce the impact of this material, including alternative fuels use for heating the cement mixture, increasing energy and materials efficiency and carbon sequestration at production facilities, but one important opportunity is to develop an alternative to the cement binder.

    While cement is 10 percent of the concrete mass, it accounts for 80 percent of the GHG footprint. This impact is derived from the fuel burned to heat and run the chemical reaction required in manufacturing, but also the chemical reaction itself releases CO2 from the calcination of limestone. Therefore, partially replacing the input ingredients to cement (traditionally ordinary Portland cement or OPC) with alternative materials from waste and byproducts can reduce the GHG footprint. But use of these alternatives is not inherently more sustainable because wastes might have to travel long distances, which adds to fuel emissions and cost, or might require pretreatment processes. The optimal way to make use of these alternate materials will be situation-dependent. But because of the vast scale, we also need solutions that account for the huge volumes of concrete needed. This project is trying to develop novel concrete mixtures that will decrease the GHG impact of the cement and concrete, moving away from the trial-and-error processes towards those that are more predictive.

    Chen: If we want to fight climate change and make our environment better, are there alternative ingredients or a reformulation we could use so that less greenhouse gas is emitted? We hope that through this project using machine learning we’ll be able to find a good answer.

    Q: Why is this problem important to address now, at this point in history?

    Olivetti: There is urgent need to address greenhouse gas emissions as aggressively as possible, and the road to doing so isn’t necessarily straightforward for all areas of industry. For transportation and electricity generation, there are paths that have been identified to decarbonize those sectors. We need to move much more aggressively to achieve those in the time needed; further, the technological approaches to achieve that are more clear. However, for tough-to-decarbonize sectors, such as industrial materials production, the pathways to decarbonization are not as mapped out.

    Q: How are you planning to address this problem to produce better concrete?

    Olivetti: The goal is to predict mixtures that will both meet performance criteria, such as strength and durability, with those that also balance economic and environmental impact. A key to this is to use industrial wastes in blended cements and concretes. To do this, we need to understand the glass and mineral reactivity of constituent materials. This reactivity not only determines the limit of the possible use in cement systems but also controls concrete processing, and the development of strength and pore structure, which ultimately control concrete durability and life-cycle CO2 emissions.

    Chen: We investigate using waste materials to replace part of the cement component. This is something that we’ve hypothesized would be more sustainable and economic — actually waste materials are common, and they cost less. Because of the reduction in the use of cement, the final concrete product would be responsible for much less carbon dioxide production. Figuring out the right concrete mixture proportion that makes endurable concretes while achieving other goals is a very challenging problem. Machine learning is giving us an opportunity to explore the advancement of predictive modeling, uncertainty quantification, and optimization to solve the issue. What we are doing is exploring options using deep learning as well as multi-objective optimization techniques to find an answer. These efforts are now more feasible to carry out, and they will produce results with reliability estimates that we need to understand what makes a good concrete.

    Q: What kinds of AI and computational techniques are you employing for this?

    Olivetti: We use AI techniques to collect data on individual concrete ingredients, mix proportions, and concrete performance from the literature through natural language processing. We also add data obtained from industry and/or high throughput atomistic modeling and experiments to optimize the design of concrete mixtures. Then we use this information to develop insight into the reactivity of possible waste and byproduct materials as alternatives to cement materials for low-CO2 concrete. By incorporating generic information on concrete ingredients, the resulting concrete performance predictors are expected to be more reliable and transformative than existing AI models.

    Chen: The final objective is to figure out what constituents, and how much of each, to put into the recipe for producing the concrete that optimizes the various factors: strength, cost, environmental impact, performance, etc. For each of the objectives, we need certain models: We need a model to predict the performance of the concrete (like, how long does it last and how much weight does it sustain?), a model to estimate the cost, and a model to estimate how much carbon dioxide is generated. We will need to build these models by using data from literature, from industry, and from lab experiments.

    We are exploring Gaussian process models to predict the concrete strength, going forward into days and weeks. This model can give us an uncertainty estimate of the prediction as well. Such a model needs specification of parameters, for which we will use another model to calculate. At the same time, we also explore neural network models because we can inject domain knowledge from human experience into them. Some models are as simple as multi-layer perceptions, while some are more complex, like graph neural networks. The goal here is that we want to have a model that is not only accurate but also robust — the input data is noisy, and the model must embrace the noise, so that its prediction is still accurate and reliable for the multi-objective optimization.

    Once we have built models that we are confident with, we will inject their predictions and uncertainty estimates into the optimization of multiple objectives, under constraints and under uncertainties.

    Q: How do you balance cost-benefit trade-offs?

    Chen: The multiple objectives we consider are not necessarily consistent, and sometimes they are at odds with each other. The goal is to identify scenarios where the values for our objectives cannot be further pushed simultaneously without compromising one or a few. For example, if you want to further reduce the cost, you probably have to suffer the performance or suffer the environmental impact. Eventually, we will give the results to policymakers and they will look into the results and weigh the options. For example, they may be able to tolerate a slightly higher cost under a significant reduction in greenhouse gas. Alternatively, if the cost varies little but the concrete performance changes drastically, say, doubles or triples, then this is definitely a favorable outcome.

    Q: What kinds of challenges do you face in this work?

    Chen: The data we get either from industry or from literature are very noisy; the concrete measurements can vary a lot, depending on where and when they are taken. There are also substantial missing data when we integrate them from different sources, so, we need to spend a lot of effort to organize and make the data usable for building and training machine learning models. We also explore imputation techniques that substitute missing features, as well as models that tolerate missing features, in our predictive modeling and uncertainty estimate.

    Q: What do you hope to achieve through this work?

    Chen: In the end, we are suggesting either one or a few concrete recipes, or a continuum of recipes, to manufacturers and policymakers. We hope that this will provide invaluable information for both the construction industry and for the effort of protecting our beloved Earth.

    Olivetti: We’d like to develop a robust way to design cements that make use of waste materials to lower their CO2 footprint. Nobody is trying to make waste, so we can’t rely on one stream as a feedstock if we want this to be massively scalable. We have to be flexible and robust to shift with feedstocks changes, and for that we need improved understanding. Our approach to develop local, dynamic, and flexible alternatives is to learn what makes these wastes reactive, so we know how to optimize their use and do so as broadly as possible. We do that through predictive model development through software we have developed in my group to automatically extract data from literature on over 5 million texts and patents on various topics. We link this to the creative capabilities of our IBM collaborators to design methods that predict the final impact of new cements. If we are successful, we can lower the emissions of this ubiquitous material and play our part in achieving carbon emissions mitigation goals.

    Other researchers involved with this project include Stefanie Jegelka, the X-Window Consortium Career Development Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Richard Goodwin, IBM principal researcher; Soumya Ghosh, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab research staff member; and Kristen Severson, former research staff member. Collaborators included Nghia Hoang, former research staff member with MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab and IBM Research; and Jeremy Gregory, research scientist in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and executive director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub.

    This research is supported by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. More

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    Community policing in the Global South

    Community policing is meant to combat citizen mistrust of the police force. The concept was developed in the mid-20th century to help officers become part of the communities they are responsible for. The hope was that such presence would create a partnership between citizens and the police force, leading to reduced crime and increased trust. Studies in the 1990s from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia showed that these goals can be achieved in certain circumstances. Many metropolitan areas in the Global North have since included community policing in their techniques.

    But a recently published study of six different sites in the Global South showed no significant positive effect associated with community policing across a range of countries.

    “We found no reduction in crime or insecurity in these communities, and no increase in trust in the police,” says Fotini Christia, an author of the paper, which was published in Science. Christia is the Ford International Professor in the Social Sciences at MIT and the director of the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) within the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). She was one of three on the steering committee for the research, which also included lead author Graeme Blair at the University of California at Los Angeles and Jeremy Weinstein at Stanford University. Fellow MIT political scientist Lily Tsai was also a co-author on the paper.

    In this study, randomized-control trials of community policing initiatives were implemented at sites in Santa Catarina State, Brazil; Medellín, Colombia; Monrovia, Liberia; Sorsogon Province, Philippines; Ugandan rural areas; and two Punjab Province districts in Pakistan. Each suite of interventions was developed based on the needs of the area but consisted of core elements of community policing such as officer recruitment and training, foot patrols, town hall meetings, and problem-oriented policing. The work was done by a collaboration of several social scientists in the United States and abroad. Major funding for this project was provided by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, awarded through the Evidence in Governance and Politics network.

    The null results were determined after interviewing 18,382 citizens and 874 police officers involved in the experiment over six years.

    The strength of these results lies in the size of the collaboration and the care taken in the research design. Input from researchers representing 22 different departments from universities around the world allowed for a broad diversity of study sites across the Global South. And the study was preregistered to establish a common approach to measurement and indicate exactly which effects the researchers were tracking, to avoid any chance of mining the data to find positive effects.

    “This is a pathbreaking study across a diverse set of sites that provides a new understanding about community policing outside of the Western world” says Christopher Winship, the Diker-Tishman Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, who was not an author on the paper.

    Structural overhaul

    The reasons for the failure of community policing to elicit positive results were as varied as the sites themselves, but an important commonality was difficulties in implementation.

    “We saw three common problems: limited resources, a lack of prioritization of the reform, and rapid rotation of officers,” says Blair. “These challenges lead to weaker implementation of community policing than we’ve seen in ‘success stories’ in the U.S. and may explain why community policing didn’t deliver the same results in these Global South contexts.”

    Citizen attendance at community meetings was variable. And then, resources dedicated to following up on problems identified by citizens were scarce. Police officers in the countries represented in the study are often over-stretched, leaving them unable to adequately follow up on their community policing duties.

    For example, Ugandan police stations averaged one motorbike per whole station, and outposts averaged less than one. At the study sites in Pakistan, fewer than 25 percent of issues that arose in community meetings were followed up on. The police officers tried to push the problems through to other agencies that could assist, but those agencies were also underresourced.            

    There was also significant officer turnover. “In many places, we started with and trained one group of officers and ended with a completely different set of folks,” says Christia.

    In the Philippines, only 25 percent of officers were still in the same post 11 months after the start of the study. Not only is it difficult to train new recruits in the methods of community policing with that rate of turnover, it also makes it extremely difficult to build community respect and familiarity with officers.

    Even in the Global North, the success of community policing can vary. As part of their study, the researchers conducted a review of 43 existing randomized trials conducted since the 1970s to determine the success rate of community policing endeavors already in place.

    They found that in these initiatives, problem-oriented policing reduces crime and likely improves perceptions of safety in a community, but there is mixed-to-negative evidence on the benefits of police presence on crime and perceptions of police. 

    That these initiatives struggle to achieve consistently positive results in countries with better resources indicates there is significant work to be done before success can be achieved in the Global South. Improvements in policing in the Global South may require major structural overhauls of the systems to ensure resource availability, encourage community engagement, and enhance officers’ abilities to follow up on issues of concern.

    “Issues of crime and violence are at the top of the policy agenda in the Global South, and this research demonstrates how universities and government partners can work together to identify the most effective strategies from improving people’s sense of safety,” says Weinstein. “While community policing strategies didn’t deliver the anticipated results on their own, the challenges in implementation point to the need for more systemic reforms that provide the necessary resources and align incentives for police to respond to citizens’ primary concerns.” More

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    The reasons behind lithium-ion batteries’ rapid cost decline

    Lithium-ion batteries, those marvels of lightweight power that have made possible today’s age of handheld electronics and electric vehicles, have plunged in cost since their introduction three decades ago at a rate similar to the drop in solar panel prices, as documented by a study published last March. But what brought about such an astonishing cost decline, of about 97 percent?

    Some of the researchers behind that earlier study have now analyzed what accounted for the extraordinary savings. They found that by far the biggest factor was work on research and development, particularly in chemistry and materials science. This outweighed the gains achieved through economies of scale, though that turned out to be the second-largest category of reductions.

    The new findings are being published today in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, in a paper by MIT postdoc Micah Ziegler, recent graduate student Juhyun Song PhD ’19, and Jessika Trancik, a professor in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society.

    The findings could be useful for policymakers and planners to help guide spending priorities in order to continue the pathway toward ever-lower costs for this and other crucial energy storage technologies, according to Trancik. Their work suggests that there is still considerable room for further improvement in electrochemical battery technologies, she says.

    The analysis required digging through a variety of sources, since much of the relevant information consists of closely held proprietary business data. “The data collection effort was extensive,” Ziegler says. “We looked at academic articles, industry and government reports, press releases, and specification sheets. We even looked at some legal filings that came out. We had to piece together data from many different sources to get a sense of what was happening.” He says they collected “about 15,000 qualitative and quantitative data points, across 1,000 individual records from approximately 280 references.”

    Data from the earliest times are hardest to access and can have the greatest uncertainties, Trancik says, but by comparing different data sources from the same period they have attempted to account for these uncertainties.

    Overall, she says, “we estimate that the majority of the cost decline, more than 50 percent, came from research-and-development-related activities.” That included both private sector and government-funded research and development, and “the vast majority” of that cost decline within that R&D category came from chemistry and materials research.

    That was an interesting finding, she says, because “there were so many variables that people were working on through very different kinds of efforts,” including the design of the battery cells themselves, their manufacturing systems, supply chains, and so on. “The cost improvement emerged from a diverse set of efforts and many people, and not from the work of only a few individuals.”

    The findings about the importance of investment in R&D were especially significant, Ziegler says, because much of this investment happened after lithium-ion battery technology was commercialized, a stage at which some analysts thought the research contribution would become less significant. Over roughly a 20-year period starting five years after the batteries’ introduction in the early 1990s, he says, “most of the cost reduction still came from R&D. The R&D contribution didn’t end when commercialization began. In fact, it was still the biggest contributor to cost reduction.”

    The study took advantage of an analytical approach that Trancik and her team initially developed to analyze the similarly precipitous drop in costs of silicon solar panels over the last few decades. They also applied the approach to understand the rising costs of nuclear energy. “This is really getting at the fundamental mechanisms of technological change,” she says. “And we can also develop these models looking forward in time, which allows us to uncover the levers that people could use to improve the technology in the future.”

    One advantage of the methodology Trancik and her colleagues have developed, she says, is that it helps to sort out the relative importance of different factors when many variables are changing all at once, which typically happens as a technology improves. “It’s not simply adding up the cost effects of these variables,” she says, “because many of these variables affect many different cost components. There’s this kind of intricate web of dependencies.” But the team’s methodology makes it possible to “look at how that overall cost change can be attributed to those variables, by essentially mapping out that network of dependencies,” she says.

    This can help provide guidance on public spending, private investments, and other incentives. “What are all the things that different decision makers could do?” she asks. “What decisions do they have agency over so that they could improve the technology, which is important in the case of low-carbon technologies, where we’re looking for solutions to climate change and we have limited time and limited resources? The new approach allows us to potentially be a bit more intentional about where we make those investments of time and money.”

    “This paper collects data available in a systematic way to determine changes in the cost components of lithium-ion batteries between 1990-1995 and 2010-2015,” says Laura Diaz Anadon, a professor of climate change policy at Cambridge University, who was not connected to this research. “This period was an important one in the history of the technology, and understanding the evolution of cost components lays the groundwork for future work on mechanisms and could help inform research efforts in other types of batteries.”

    The research was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the MIT Technology and Policy Program. More