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    Methane research takes on new urgency at MIT

    One of the most notable climate change provisions in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act is the first U.S. federal tax on a greenhouse gas (GHG). That the fee targets methane (CH4), rather than carbon dioxide (CO2), emissions is indicative of the urgency the scientific community has placed on reducing this short-lived but powerful gas. Methane persists in the air about 12 years — compared to more than 1,000 years for CO2 — yet it immediately causes about 120 times more warming upon release. The gas is responsible for at least a quarter of today’s gross warming. 

    “Methane has a disproportionate effect on near-term warming,” says Desiree Plata, the director of MIT Methane Network. “CH4 does more damage than CO2 no matter how long you run the clock. By removing methane, we could potentially avoid critical climate tipping points.” 

    Because GHGs have a runaway effect on climate, reductions made now will have a far greater impact than the same reductions made in the future. Cutting methane emissions will slow the thawing of permafrost, which could otherwise lead to massive methane releases, as well as reduce increasing emissions from wetlands.  

    “The goal of MIT Methane Network is to reduce methane emissions by 45 percent by 2030, which would save up to 0.5 degree C of warming by 2100,” says Plata, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT and director of the Plata Lab. “When you consider that governments are trying for a 1.5-degree reduction of all GHGs by 2100, this is a big deal.” 

    Under normal concentrations, methane, like CO2, poses no health risks. Yet methane assists in the creation of high levels of ozone. In the lower atmosphere, ozone is a key component of air pollution, which leads to “higher rates of asthma and increased emergency room visits,” says Plata. 

    Methane-related projects at the Plata Lab include a filter made of zeolite — the same clay-like material used in cat litter — designed to convert methane into CO2 at dairy farms and coal mines. At first glance, the technology would appear to be a bit of a hard sell, since it converts one GHG into another. Yet the zeolite filter’s low carbon and dollar costs, combined with the disproportionate warming impact of methane, make it a potential game-changer.

    The sense of urgency about methane has been amplified by recent studies that show humans are generating far more methane emissions than previously estimated, and that the rates are rising rapidly. Exactly how much methane is in the air is uncertain. Current methods for measuring atmospheric methane, such as ground, drone, and satellite sensors, “are not readily abundant and do not always agree with each other,” says Plata.  

    The Plata Lab is collaborating with Tim Swager in the MIT Department of Chemistry to develop low-cost methane sensors. “We are developing chemiresisitive sensors that cost about a dollar that you could place near energy infrastructure to back-calculate where leaks are coming from,” says Plata.  

    The researchers are working on improving the accuracy of the sensors using machine learning techniques and are planning to integrate internet-of-things technology to transmit alerts. Plata and Swager are not alone in focusing on data collection: the Inflation Reduction Act adds significant funding for methane sensor research. 

    Other research at the Plata Lab includes the development of nanomaterials and heterogeneous catalysis techniques for environmental applications. The lab also explores mitigation solutions for industrial waste, particularly those related to the energy transition. Plata is the co-founder of an lithium-ion battery recycling startup called Nth Cycle. 

    On a more fundamental level, the Plata Lab is exploring how to develop products with environmental and social sustainability in mind. “Our overarching mission is to change the way that we invent materials and processes so that environmental objectives are incorporated along with traditional performance and cost metrics,” says Plata. “It is important to do that rigorous assessment early in the design process.”

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    MIT amps up methane research 

    The MIT Methane Network brings together 26 researchers from MIT along with representatives of other institutions “that are dedicated to the idea that we can reduce methane levels in our lifetime,” says Plata. The organization supports research such as Plata’s zeolite and sensor projects, as well as designing pipeline-fixing robots, developing methane-based fuels for clean hydrogen, and researching the capture and conversion of methane into liquid chemical precursors for pharmaceuticals and plastics. Other members are researching policies to encourage more sustainable agriculture and land use, as well as methane-related social justice initiatives. 

    “Methane is an especially difficult problem because it comes from all over the place,” says Plata. A recent Global Carbon Project study estimated that half of methane emissions are caused by humans. This is led by waste and agriculture (28 percent), including cow and sheep belching, rice paddies, and landfills.  

    Fossil fuels represent 18 percent of the total budget. Of this, about 63 percent is derived from oil and gas production and pipelines, 33 percent from coal mining activities, and 5 percent from industry and transportation. Human-caused biomass burning, primarily from slash-and-burn agriculture, emits about 4 percent of the global total.  

    The other half of the methane budget includes natural methane emissions from wetlands (20 percent) and other natural sources (30 percent). The latter includes permafrost melting and natural biomass burning, such as forest fires started by lightning.  

    With increases in global warming and population, the line between anthropogenic and natural causes is getting fuzzier. “Human activities are accelerating natural emissions,” says Plata. “Climate change increases the release of methane from wetlands and permafrost and leads to larger forest and peat fires.”  

    The calculations can get complicated. For example, wetlands provide benefits from CO2 capture, biological diversity, and sea level rise resiliency that more than compensate for methane releases. Meanwhile, draining swamps for development increases emissions. 

    Over 100 nations have signed onto the U.N.’s Global Methane Pledge to reduce at least 30 percent of anthropogenic emissions within the next 10 years. The U.N. report estimates that this goal can be achieved using proven technologies and that about 60 percent of these reductions can be accomplished at low cost. 

    Much of the savings would come from greater efficiencies in fossil fuel extraction, processing, and delivery. The methane fees in the Inflation Reduction Act are primarily focused on encouraging fossil fuel companies to accelerate ongoing efforts to cap old wells, flare off excess emissions, and tighten pipeline connections.  

    Fossil fuel companies have already made far greater pledges to reduce methane than they have with CO2, which is central to their business. This is due, in part, to the potential savings, as well as in preparation for methane regulations expected from the Environmental Protection Agency in late 2022. The regulations build upon existing EPA oversight of drilling operations, and will likely be exempt from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that limits the federal government’s ability to regulate GHGs. 

    Zeolite filter targets methane in dairy and coal 

    The “low-hanging fruit” of gas stream mitigation addresses most of the 20 percent of total methane emissions in which the gas is released in sufficiently high concentrations for flaring. Plata’s zeolite filter aims to address the thornier challenge of reducing the 80 percent of non-flammable dilute emissions. 

    Plata found inspiration in decades-old catalysis research for turning methane into methanol. One strategy has been to use an abundant, low-cost aluminosilicate clay called zeolite.  

    “The methanol creation process is challenging because you need to separate a liquid, and it has very low efficiency,” says Plata. “Yet zeolite can be very efficient at converting methane into CO2, and it is much easier because it does not require liquid separation. Converting methane to CO2 sounds like a bad thing, but there is a major anti-warming benefit. And because methane is much more dilute than CO2, the relative CO2 contribution is minuscule.”  

    Using zeolite to create methanol requires highly concentrated methane, high temperatures and pressures, and industrial processing conditions. Yet Plata’s process, which dopes the zeolite with copper, operates in the presence of oxygen at much lower temperatures under typical pressures. “We let the methane proceed the way it wants from a thermodynamic perspective from methane to methanol down to CO2,” says Plata. 

    Researchers around the world are working on other dilute methane removal technologies. Projects include spraying iron salt aerosols into sea air where they react with natural chlorine or bromine radicals, thereby capturing methane. Most of these geoengineering solutions, however, are difficult to measure and would require massive scale to make a difference.  

    Plata is focusing her zeolite filters on environments where concentrations are high, but not so high as to be flammable. “We are trying to scale zeolite into filters that you could snap onto the side of a cross-ventilation fan in a dairy barn or in a ventilation air shaft in a coal mine,” says Plata. “For every packet of air we bring in, we take a lot of methane out, so we get more bang for our buck.”  

    The major challenge is creating a filter that can handle high flow rates without getting clogged or falling apart. Dairy barn air handlers can push air at up to 5,000 cubic feet per minute and coal mine handlers can approach 500,000 CFM. 

    Plata is exploring engineering options including fluidized bed reactors with floating catalyst particles. Another filter solution, based in part on catalytic converters, features “higher-order geometric structures where you have a porous material with a long path length where the gas can interact with the catalyst,” says Plata. “This avoids the challenge with fluidized beds of containing catalyst particles in the reactor. Instead, they are fixed within a structured material.”  

    Competing technologies for removing methane from mine shafts “operate at temperatures of 1,000 to 1,200 degrees C, requiring a lot of energy and risking explosion,” says Plata. “Our technology avoids safety concerns by operating at 300 to 400 degrees C. It reduces energy use and provides more tractable deployment costs.” 

    Potentially, energy and dollar costs could be further reduced in coal mines by capturing the heat generated by the conversion process. “In coal mines, you have enrichments above a half-percent methane, but below the 4 percent flammability threshold,” says Plata. “The excess heat from the process could be used to generate electricity using off-the-shelf converters.” 

    Plata’s dairy barn research is funded by the Gerstner Family Foundation and the coal mining project by the U.S. Department of Energy. “The DOE would like us to spin out the technology for scale-up within three years,” says Plata. “We cannot guarantee we will hit that goal, but we are trying to develop this as quickly as possible. Our society needs to start reducing methane emissions now.”  More

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    Coordinating climate and air-quality policies to improve public health

    As America’s largest investment to fight climate change, the Inflation Reduction Act positions the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But as it edges the United States closer to achieving its international climate commitment, the legislation is also expected to yield significant — and more immediate — improvements in the nation’s health. If successful in accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives, the IRA will sharply reduce atmospheric concentrations of fine particulates known to exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular disease and cause premature deaths, along with other air pollutants that degrade human health. One recent study shows that eliminating air pollution from fossil fuels in the contiguous United States would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths and avoid more than $600 billion in health costs each year.

    While national climate policies such as those advanced by the IRA can simultaneously help mitigate climate change and improve air quality, their results may vary widely when it comes to improving public health. That’s because the potential health benefits associated with air quality improvements are much greater in some regions and economic sectors than in others. Those benefits can be maximized, however, through a prudent combination of climate and air-quality policies.

    Several past studies have evaluated the likely health impacts of various policy combinations, but their usefulness has been limited due to a reliance on a small set of standard policy scenarios. More versatile tools are needed to model a wide range of climate and air-quality policy combinations and assess their collective effects on air quality and human health. Now researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and MIT Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS) have developed a publicly available, flexible scenario tool that does just that.

    In a study published in the journal Geoscientific Model Development, the MIT team introduces its Tool for Air Pollution Scenarios (TAPS), which can be used to estimate the likely air-quality and health outcomes of a wide range of climate and air-quality policies at the regional, sectoral, and fuel-based level. 

    “This tool can help integrate the siloed sustainability issues of air pollution and climate action,” says the study’s lead author William Atkinson, who recently served as a Biogen Graduate Fellow and research assistant at the IDSS Technology and Policy Program’s (TPP) Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. “Climate action does not guarantee a clean air future, and vice versa — but the issues have similar sources that imply shared solutions if done right.”

    The study’s initial application of TAPS shows that with current air-quality policies and near-term Paris Agreement climate pledges alone, short-term pollution reductions give way to long-term increases — given the expected growth of emissions-intensive industrial and agricultural processes in developing regions. More ambitious climate and air-quality policies could be complementary, each reducing different pollutants substantially to give tremendous near- and long-term health benefits worldwide.

    “The significance of this work is that we can more confidently identify the long-term emission reduction strategies that also support air quality improvements,” says MIT Joint Program Deputy Director C. Adam Schlosser, a co-author of the study. “This is a win-win for setting climate targets that are also healthy targets.”

    TAPS projects air quality and health outcomes based on three integrated components: a recent global inventory of detailed emissions resulting from human activities (e.g., fossil fuel combustion, land-use change, industrial processes); multiple scenarios of emissions-generating human activities between now and the year 2100, produced by the MIT Economic Projection and Policy Analysis model; and emissions intensity (emissions per unit of activity) scenarios based on recent data from the Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies model.

    “We see the climate crisis as a health crisis, and believe that evidence-based approaches are key to making the most of this historic investment in the future, particularly for vulnerable communities,” says Johanna Jobin, global head of corporate reputation and responsibility at Biogen. “The scientific community has spoken with unanimity and alarm that not all climate-related actions deliver equal health benefits. We’re proud of our collaboration with the MIT Joint Program to develop this tool that can be used to bridge research-to-policy gaps, support policy decisions to promote health among vulnerable communities, and train the next generation of scientists and leaders for far-reaching impact.”

    The tool can inform decision-makers about a wide range of climate and air-quality policies. Policy scenarios can be applied to specific regions, sectors, or fuels to investigate policy combinations at a more granular level, or to target short-term actions with high-impact benefits.

    TAPS could be further developed to account for additional emissions sources and trends.

    “Our new tool could be used to examine a large range of both climate and air quality scenarios. As the framework is expanded, we can add detail for specific regions, as well as additional pollutants such as air toxics,” says study supervising co-author Noelle Selin, professor at IDSS and the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of TPP.    

    This research was supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program; Biogen; TPP’s Leading Technology and Policy Initiative; and TPP’s Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. More

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    Deep learning with light

    Ask a smart home device for the weather forecast, and it takes several seconds for the device to respond. One reason this latency occurs is because connected devices don’t have enough memory or power to store and run the enormous machine-learning models needed for the device to understand what a user is asking of it. The model is stored in a data center that may be hundreds of miles away, where the answer is computed and sent to the device.

    MIT researchers have created a new method for computing directly on these devices, which drastically reduces this latency. Their technique shifts the memory-intensive steps of running a machine-learning model to a central server where components of the model are encoded onto light waves.

    The waves are transmitted to a connected device using fiber optics, which enables tons of data to be sent lightning-fast through a network. The receiver then employs a simple optical device that rapidly performs computations using the parts of a model carried by those light waves.

    This technique leads to more than a hundredfold improvement in energy efficiency when compared to other methods. It could also improve security, since a user’s data do not need to be transferred to a central location for computation.

    This method could enable a self-driving car to make decisions in real-time while using just a tiny percentage of the energy currently required by power-hungry computers. It could also allow a user to have a latency-free conversation with their smart home device, be used for live video processing over cellular networks, or even enable high-speed image classification on a spacecraft millions of miles from Earth.

    “Every time you want to run a neural network, you have to run the program, and how fast you can run the program depends on how fast you can pipe the program in from memory. Our pipe is massive — it corresponds to sending a full feature-length movie over the internet every millisecond or so. That is how fast data comes into our system. And it can compute as fast as that,” says senior author Dirk Englund, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and member of the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics.

    Joining Englund on the paper is lead author and EECS grad student Alexander Sludds; EECS grad student Saumil Bandyopadhyay, Research Scientist Ryan Hamerly, as well as others from MIT, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Nokia Corporation. The research is published today in Science.

    Lightening the load

    Neural networks are machine-learning models that use layers of connected nodes, or neurons, to recognize patterns in datasets and perform tasks, like classifying images or recognizing speech. But these models can contain billions of weight parameters, which are numeric values that transform input data as they are processed. These weights must be stored in memory. At the same time, the data transformation process involves billions of algebraic computations, which require a great deal of power to perform.

    The process of fetching data (the weights of the neural network, in this case) from memory and moving them to the parts of a computer that do the actual computation is one of the biggest limiting factors to speed and energy efficiency, says Sludds.

    “So our thought was, why don’t we take all that heavy lifting — the process of fetching billions of weights from memory — move it away from the edge device and put it someplace where we have abundant access to power and memory, which gives us the ability to fetch those weights quickly?” he says.

    The neural network architecture they developed, Netcast, involves storing weights in a central server that is connected to a novel piece of hardware called a smart transceiver. This smart transceiver, a thumb-sized chip that can receive and transmit data, uses technology known as silicon photonics to fetch trillions of weights from memory each second.

    It receives weights as electrical signals and imprints them onto light waves. Since the weight data are encoded as bits (1s and 0s) the transceiver converts them by switching lasers; a laser is turned on for a 1 and off for a 0. It combines these light waves and then periodically transfers them through a fiber optic network so a client device doesn’t need to query the server to receive them.

    “Optics is great because there are many ways to carry data within optics. For instance, you can put data on different colors of light, and that enables a much higher data throughput and greater bandwidth than with electronics,” explains Bandyopadhyay.

    Trillions per second

    Once the light waves arrive at the client device, a simple optical component known as a broadband “Mach-Zehnder” modulator uses them to perform super-fast, analog computation. This involves encoding input data from the device, such as sensor information, onto the weights. Then it sends each individual wavelength to a receiver that detects the light and measures the result of the computation.

    The researchers devised a way to use this modulator to do trillions of multiplications per second, which vastly increases the speed of computation on the device while using only a tiny amount of power.   

    “In order to make something faster, you need to make it more energy efficient. But there is a trade-off. We’ve built a system that can operate with about a milliwatt of power but still do trillions of multiplications per second. In terms of both speed and energy efficiency, that is a gain of orders of magnitude,” Sludds says.

    They tested this architecture by sending weights over an 86-kilometer fiber that connects their lab to MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Netcast enabled machine-learning with high accuracy — 98.7 percent for image classification and 98.8 percent for digit recognition — at rapid speeds.

    “We had to do some calibration, but I was surprised by how little work we had to do to achieve such high accuracy out of the box. We were able to get commercially relevant accuracy,” adds Hamerly.

    Moving forward, the researchers want to iterate on the smart transceiver chip to achieve even better performance. They also want to miniaturize the receiver, which is currently the size of a shoe box, down to the size of a single chip so it could fit onto a smart device like a cell phone.

    “Using photonics and light as a platform for computing is a really exciting area of research with potentially huge implications on the speed and efficiency of our information technology landscape,” says Euan Allen, a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow at the University of Bath, who was not involved with this work. “The work of Sludds et al. is an exciting step toward seeing real-world implementations of such devices, introducing a new and practical edge-computing scheme whilst also exploring some of the fundamental limitations of computation at very low (single-photon) light levels.”

    The research is funded, in part, by NTT Research, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the Army Research Office. More

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    Ad hoc committee releases report on remote teaching best practices for on-campus education

    The Ad Hoc Committee on Leveraging Best Practices from Remote Teaching for On-Campus Education has released a report that captures how instructors are weaving lessons learned from remote teaching into in-person classes. Despite the challenges imposed by teaching and learning remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, the report says, “there were seeds planted then that, we hope, will bear fruit in the coming years.”

    “In the long run, one of the best things about having lived through our remote learning experience may be the intense and broad focus on pedagogy that it necessitated,” the report continues. “In a moment when nobody could just teach the way they had always done before, all of us had to go back to first principles and ask ourselves: What are our learning goals for our students? How can we best help them to achieve these goals?”

    The committee’s work is a direct response to one of the Refinement and Implementation Committees (RIC) formed as part of Task Force 2021 and Beyond. Led by co-chairs Krishna Rajagopal, the William A. M. Burden Professor of Physics, and Janet Rankin, director of the MIT Teaching + Learning Lab, the committee engaged with faculty and instructional staff, associate department heads, and undergraduate and graduate officers across MIT.

    The findings are distilled into four broad themes:

    Community, Well-being, and Belonging. Conversations revealed new ways that instructors cultivated these key interrelated concepts, all of which are fundamental to student learning and success. Many instructors focused more on supporting well-being and building community and belonging during the height of the pandemic precisely because the MIT community, and everyone in it, was under such great stress. Some of the resulting practices are continuing, the committee found. Examples include introducing simple gestures, such as start-of-class welcoming practices, and providing extensions and greater flexibility on student assignments. Also, many across MIT felt that the week-long Thanksgiving break offered in 2020 should become a permanent fixture in the academic calendar, because it enhances the well-being of both students and instructors at a time in the fall semester when everyone’s batteries need recharging. 
    Enhancing Engagement. The committee found a variety of practices that have enhanced engagement between students and instructors; among students; and among instructors. For example, many instructors have continued to offer some office hours on Zoom, which seems to reduce barriers to participation for many students, while offering in-person office hours for those who want to take advantage of opportunities for more open-ended conversations. Several departments increased their usage of undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs) in ways that make students’ learning experience more engaging and give the UTAs a real teaching experience. In addition, many instructors are leveraging out-of-class communication spaces like Slack, Perusall, and Piazza so students can work together, ask questions, and share ideas. 
    Enriching and Augmenting the Learning Environment. The report presents two ways in which instructors have enhanced learning within the classroom: through blended learning and by incorporating authentic experiences. Although blended learning techniques are not new at MIT, after having made it through remote teaching many faculty have found new ways to combine synchronous in-person teaching with asynchronous activities for on-campus students, such as pre-class or pre-lab sequences of videos with exercises interspersed, take-home lab kits, auto-graded online problems that give students immediate feedback, and recorded lab experiences for subsequent review. In addition, instructors found many creative ways to make students’ learning more authentic by going on virtual field trips, using Zoom to bring experts from around the world into MIT classrooms or to enable interactions with students at other universities, and live-streaming experiments that students could not otherwise experience since they cannot be performed in a teaching lab.   
     Assessing Learning. For all its challenges, the report notes, remote teaching prompted instructors to take a step back and think about what they wanted students to learn, how to support it, and how to measure it. The committee found a variety of examples of alternatives to traditional assessments, such as papers or timed, written exams, that instructors tried during the pandemic and are continuing to use. These alternatives include shorter, more frequent, lower-stakes assessments; oral exams or debates; asynchronous, open-book/notes exams; virtual poster sessions; alternate grading schemes; and uploading paper psets and exams into Gradescope to use its logistics and rubrics to improve grading effectiveness and efficiency.
    A large portion of the report is devoted to an extensive, annotated list of best practices from remote instruction that are being used in the classroom. Interestingly, Rankin says, “so many of the strategies and practices developed and used during the pandemic are based on, and supported by, solid educational research.”

    The report concludes with one broad recommendation: that all faculty and instructors read the findings and experiment with some of the best practices in their own instruction. “Our hope is that the practices shared in the report will continue to be adopted, adapted, and expanded by members of the teaching community at MIT, and that instructors’ openness in sharing and learning from each will continue,” Rankin says.

    Two additional, specific recommendations are included in the report. First, the committee endorses the RIC 16 recommendation that a Classroom Advisory Board be created to provide strategic input grounded in evolving pedagogy about future classroom use and technology needs. In its conversations, the committee found a number of ways that remote teaching and learning have impacted students’ and instructors’ perceptions as they have returned to the classroom. For example, during the pandemic students benefited from being able to see everyone else’s faces on Zoom. As a result, some instructors would prefer classrooms that enable students to face each other, such as semi-circular classrooms instead of rectangular ones.

    More generally, the committee concluded, MIT needs classrooms with seats and tables that can be quickly and flexibly reconfigured to facilitate varying pedagogical objectives. The Classroom Advisory Board could also examine classroom technology; this includes the role of videoconferencing to create authentic engagement between MIT students and people far from campus, and blended learning that allows students to experience more of the in-classroom engagement with their peers and instructors from which the “magic of MIT” originates.

    Second, the committee recommends that an implementation group be formed to investigate the possibility of changing the MIT academic calendar to create a one-week break over Thanksgiving. “Finalizing an implementation plan will require careful consideration of various significant logistical challenges,” the report says. “However, the resulting gains to both well-being and learning from this change to the fall calendar make doing so worthwhile.”

    Rankin notes that the report findings dovetail with the recently released MIT Strategic Action Plan for Belonging, Achievement and Composition. “I believe that one of the most important things that became really apparent during remote teaching was that community, inclusion, and belonging really matter and are necessary for both learning and teaching, and that instructors can and should play a central role in creating structures and processes to support them in their classrooms and other learning environments,” she says.

    Rajagopal finds it inspiring that “during a time of intense stress — that nobody ever wants to relive — there was such an intense focus on how we teach and how our students learn that, today, in essentially every direction we look we see colleagues improving on-campus education for tomorrow. I hope that the report will help instructors across the Institute, and perhaps elsewhere, learn from each other. Its readers will see, as our committee did, new ways in which students and instructors are finding those moments, those interactions, where the magic of MIT is created.”

    In addition to the report, the co-chairs recommend two other valuable remote teaching resources: a video interview series, TLL’s Fresh Perspectives, and Open Learning’s collection of examples of how MIT faculty and instructors leveraged digital technology to support and transform teaching and learning during the heart of the pandemic. More

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    Study finds the risks of sharing health care data are low

    In recent years, scientists have made great strides in their ability to develop artificial intelligence algorithms that can analyze patient data and come up with new ways to diagnose disease or predict which treatments work best for different patients.

    The success of those algorithms depends on access to patient health data, which has been stripped of personal information that could be used to identify individuals from the dataset. However, the possibility that individuals could be identified through other means has raised concerns among privacy advocates.

    In a new study, a team of researchers led by MIT Principal Research Scientist Leo Anthony Celi has quantified the potential risk of this kind of patient re-identification and found that it is currently extremely low relative to the risk of data breach. In fact, between 2016 and 2021, the period examined in the study, there were no reports of patient re-identification through publicly available health data.

    The findings suggest that the potential risk to patient privacy is greatly outweighed by the gains for patients, who benefit from better diagnosis and treatment, says Celi. He hopes that in the near future, these datasets will become more widely available and include a more diverse group of patients.

    “We agree that there is some risk to patient privacy, but there is also a risk of not sharing data,” he says. “There is harm when data is not shared, and that needs to be factored into the equation.”

    Celi, who is also an instructor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and an attending physician with the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, is the senior author of the new study. Kenneth Seastedt, a thoracic surgery fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, is the lead author of the paper, which appears today in PLOS Digital Health.

    Risk-benefit analysis

    Large health record databases created by hospitals and other institutions contain a wealth of information on diseases such as heart disease, cancer, macular degeneration, and Covid-19, which researchers use to try to discover new ways to diagnose and treat disease.

    Celi and others at MIT’s Laboratory for Computational Physiology have created several publicly available databases, including the Medical Information Mart for Intensive Care (MIMIC), which they recently used to develop algorithms that can help doctors make better medical decisions. Many other research groups have also used the data, and others have created similar databases in countries around the world.

    Typically, when patient data is entered into this kind of database, certain types of identifying information are removed, including patients’ names, addresses, and phone numbers. This is intended to prevent patients from being re-identified and having information about their medical conditions made public.

    However, concerns about privacy have slowed the development of more publicly available databases with this kind of information, Celi says. In the new study, he and his colleagues set out to ask what the actual risk of patient re-identification is. First, they searched PubMed, a database of scientific papers, for any reports of patient re-identification from publicly available health data, but found none.

    To expand the search, the researchers then examined media reports from September 2016 to September 2021, using Media Cloud, an open-source global news database and analysis tool. In a search of more than 10,000 U.S. media publications during that time, they did not find a single instance of patient re-identification from publicly available health data.

    In contrast, they found that during the same time period, health records of nearly 100 million people were stolen through data breaches of information that was supposed to be securely stored.

    “Of course, it’s good to be concerned about patient privacy and the risk of re-identification, but that risk, although it’s not zero, is minuscule compared to the issue of cyber security,” Celi says.

    Better representation

    More widespread sharing of de-identified health data is necessary, Celi says, to help expand the representation of minority groups in the United States, who have traditionally been underrepresented in medical studies. He is also working to encourage the development of more such databases in low- and middle-income countries.

    “We cannot move forward with AI unless we address the biases that lurk in our datasets,” he says. “When we have this debate over privacy, no one hears the voice of the people who are not represented. People are deciding for them that their data need to be protected and should not be shared. But they are the ones whose health is at stake; they’re the ones who would most likely benefit from data-sharing.”

    Instead of asking for patient consent to share data, which he says may exacerbate the exclusion of many people who are now underrepresented in publicly available health data, Celi recommends enhancing the existing safeguards that are in place to protect such datasets. One new strategy that he and his colleagues have begun using is to share the data in a way that it can’t be downloaded, and all queries run on it can be monitored by the administrators of the database. This allows them to flag any user inquiry that seems like it might not be for legitimate research purposes, Celi says.

    “What we are advocating for is performing data analysis in a very secure environment so that we weed out any nefarious players trying to use the data for some other reasons apart from improving population health,” he says. “We’re not saying that we should disregard patient privacy. What we’re saying is that we have to also balance that with the value of data sharing.”

    The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health through the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. More

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    Four from MIT receive NIH New Innovator Awards for 2022

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded grants to four MIT faculty members as part of its High-Risk, High-Reward Research program.

    The program supports unconventional approaches to challenges in biomedical, behavioral, and social sciences. Each year, NIH Director’s Awards are granted to program applicants who propose high-risk, high-impact research in areas relevant to the NIH’s mission. In doing so, the NIH encourages innovative proposals that, due to their inherent risk, might struggle in the traditional peer-review process.

    This year, Lindsay Case, Siniša Hrvatin, Deblina Sarkar, and Caroline Uhler have been chosen to receive the New Innovator Award, which funds exceptionally creative research from early-career investigators. The award, which was established in 2007, supports researchers who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.

    Lindsay Case, the Irwin and Helen Sizer Department of Biology Career Development Professor and an extramural member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, uses biochemistry and cell biology to study the spatial organization of signal transduction. Her work focuses on understanding how signaling molecules assemble into compartments with unique biochemical and biophysical properties to enable cells to sense and respond to information in their environment. Earlier this year, Case was one of two MIT assistant professors named as Searle Scholars.

    Siniša Hrvatin, who joined the School of Science faculty this past winter, is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and a core member at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. He studies how animals and cells enter, regulate, and survive states of dormancy such as torpor and hibernation, aiming to harness the potential of these states therapeutically.

    Deblina Sarkar is an assistant professor and AT&T Career Development Chair Professor at the MIT Media Lab​. Her research combines the interdisciplinary fields of nanoelectronics, applied physics, and biology to invent disruptive technologies for energy-efficient nanoelectronics and merge such next-generation technologies with living matter to create a new paradigm for life-machine symbiosis. Her high-risk, high-reward proposal received the rare perfect impact score of 10, which is the highest score awarded by NIH.

    Caroline Uhler is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. In addition, she is a core institute member at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she co-directs the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Center. By combining machine learning, statistics, and genomics, she develops representation learning and causal inference methods to elucidate gene regulation in health and disease.

    The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program is supported by the NIH Common Fund, which oversees programs that pursue major opportunities and gaps in biomedical research that require collaboration across NIH Institutes and Centers. In addition to the New Innovator Award, the NIH also issues three other awards each year: the Pioneer Award, which supports bold and innovative research projects with unusually broad scientific impact; the Transformative Research Award, which supports risky and untested projects with transformative potential; and the Early Independence Award, which allows especially impressive junior scientists to skip the traditional postdoctoral training program to launch independent research careers.

    This year, the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program is awarding 103 awards, including eight Pioneer Awards, 72 New Innovator Awards, nine Transformative Research Awards, and 14 Early Independence Awards. These 103 awards total approximately $285 million in support from the institutes, centers, and offices across NIH over five years. “The science advanced by these researchers is poised to blaze new paths of discovery in human health,” says Lawrence A. Tabak DDS, PhD, who is performing the duties of the director of NIH. “This unique cohort of scientists will transform what is known in the biological and behavioral world. We are privileged to support this innovative science.” More

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    Learning on the edge

    Microcontrollers, miniature computers that can run simple commands, are the basis for billions of connected devices, from internet-of-things (IoT) devices to sensors in automobiles. But cheap, low-power microcontrollers have extremely limited memory and no operating system, making it challenging to train artificial intelligence models on “edge devices” that work independently from central computing resources.

    Training a machine-learning model on an intelligent edge device allows it to adapt to new data and make better predictions. For instance, training a model on a smart keyboard could enable the keyboard to continually learn from the user’s writing. However, the training process requires so much memory that it is typically done using powerful computers at a data center, before the model is deployed on a device. This is more costly and raises privacy issues since user data must be sent to a central server.

    To address this problem, researchers at MIT and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab developed a new technique that enables on-device training using less than a quarter of a megabyte of memory. Other training solutions designed for connected devices can use more than 500 megabytes of memory, greatly exceeding the 256-kilobyte capacity of most microcontrollers (there are 1,024 kilobytes in one megabyte).

    The intelligent algorithms and framework the researchers developed reduce the amount of computation required to train a model, which makes the process faster and more memory efficient. Their technique can be used to train a machine-learning model on a microcontroller in a matter of minutes.

    This technique also preserves privacy by keeping data on the device, which could be especially beneficial when data are sensitive, such as in medical applications. It also could enable customization of a model based on the needs of users. Moreover, the framework preserves or improves the accuracy of the model when compared to other training approaches.

    “Our study enables IoT devices to not only perform inference but also continuously update the AI models to newly collected data, paving the way for lifelong on-device learning. The low resource utilization makes deep learning more accessible and can have a broader reach, especially for low-power edge devices,” says Song Han, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), a member of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, and senior author of the paper describing this innovation.

    Joining Han on the paper are co-lead authors and EECS PhD students Ji Lin and Ligeng Zhu, as well as MIT postdocs Wei-Ming Chen and Wei-Chen Wang, and Chuang Gan, a principal research staff member at the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. The research will be presented at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems.

    Han and his team previously addressed the memory and computational bottlenecks that exist when trying to run machine-learning models on tiny edge devices, as part of their TinyML initiative.

    Lightweight training

    A common type of machine-learning model is known as a neural network. Loosely based on the human brain, these models contain layers of interconnected nodes, or neurons, that process data to complete a task, such as recognizing people in photos. The model must be trained first, which involves showing it millions of examples so it can learn the task. As it learns, the model increases or decreases the strength of the connections between neurons, which are known as weights.

    The model may undergo hundreds of updates as it learns, and the intermediate activations must be stored during each round. In a neural network, activation is the middle layer’s intermediate results. Because there may be millions of weights and activations, training a model requires much more memory than running a pre-trained model, Han explains.

    Han and his collaborators employed two algorithmic solutions to make the training process more efficient and less memory-intensive. The first, known as sparse update, uses an algorithm that identifies the most important weights to update at each round of training. The algorithm starts freezing the weights one at a time until it sees the accuracy dip to a set threshold, then it stops. The remaining weights are updated, while the activations corresponding to the frozen weights don’t need to be stored in memory.

    “Updating the whole model is very expensive because there are a lot of activations, so people tend to update only the last layer, but as you can imagine, this hurts the accuracy. For our method, we selectively update those important weights and make sure the accuracy is fully preserved,” Han says.

    Their second solution involves quantized training and simplifying the weights, which are typically 32 bits. An algorithm rounds the weights so they are only eight bits, through a process known as quantization, which cuts the amount of memory for both training and inference. Inference is the process of applying a model to a dataset and generating a prediction. Then the algorithm applies a technique called quantization-aware scaling (QAS), which acts like a multiplier to adjust the ratio between weight and gradient, to avoid any drop in accuracy that may come from quantized training.

    The researchers developed a system, called a tiny training engine, that can run these algorithmic innovations on a simple microcontroller that lacks an operating system. This system changes the order of steps in the training process so more work is completed in the compilation stage, before the model is deployed on the edge device.

    “We push a lot of the computation, such as auto-differentiation and graph optimization, to compile time. We also aggressively prune the redundant operators to support sparse updates. Once at runtime, we have much less workload to do on the device,” Han explains.

    A successful speedup

    Their optimization only required 157 kilobytes of memory to train a machine-learning model on a microcontroller, whereas other techniques designed for lightweight training would still need between 300 and 600 megabytes.

    They tested their framework by training a computer vision model to detect people in images. After only 10 minutes of training, it learned to complete the task successfully. Their method was able to train a model more than 20 times faster than other approaches.

    Now that they have demonstrated the success of these techniques for computer vision models, the researchers want to apply them to language models and different types of data, such as time-series data. At the same time, they want to use what they’ve learned to shrink the size of larger models without sacrificing accuracy, which could help reduce the carbon footprint of training large-scale machine-learning models.

    “AI model adaptation/training on a device, especially on embedded controllers, is an open challenge. This research from MIT has not only successfully demonstrated the capabilities, but also opened up new possibilities for privacy-preserving device personalization in real-time,” says Nilesh Jain, a principal engineer at Intel who was not involved with this work. “Innovations in the publication have broader applicability and will ignite new systems-algorithm co-design research.”

    “On-device learning is the next major advance we are working toward for the connected intelligent edge. Professor Song Han’s group has shown great progress in demonstrating the effectiveness of edge devices for training,” adds Jilei Hou, vice president and head of AI research at Qualcomm. “Qualcomm has awarded his team an Innovation Fellowship for further innovation and advancement in this area.”

    This work is funded by the National Science Foundation, the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, the MIT AI Hardware Program, Amazon, Intel, Qualcomm, Ford Motor Company, and Google. More

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    Making each vote count

    Graduate student Jacob Jaffe wants to improve the administration of American elections. To do that, he is posing “questions in political science that we haven’t been asking enough,” he says, “and solving them with methods we haven’t been using enough.”

    Considerable research has been devoted to understanding “who votes, and what makes people vote or not vote,” says Jaffe. He is training his attention on questions of a different nature: Does providing practical information to voters about how to cast their ballots change how they will vote? Is it possible to increase the accuracy of vote-counting, on a state-by-state and even precinct-by-precinct basis? How do voters experience polling places? These problems form the core of his dissertation.

    Taking advantage of the resources at the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, where he serves as a researcher, Jaffe conducts novel field experiments to gather highly detailed information on local, state, and federal elections, and analyzes this trove with advanced statistical techniques. Whether investigating the probability of miscounts in voting, or the possibility of changing a voter’s mode of voting, Jaffe intends to strengthen the scaffolding that supports representative government. “Elections are both theoretically and normatively important; they’re the basis of our belief in the moral rightness of the state to do the things the state does,” he says.

    Click this link

    For one of his keystone projects, Jaffe seized a unique opportunity to run a big field experiment. In summer 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, he emailed 80,000 Floridians instructions on how to vote in an upcoming primary by mail. His email contained a link enabling recipients to fill out two simple questions to receive a ballot. “I wanted to learn if this was an effective method for getting people to vote by mail, and I proved it is, statistically,” he says. “This is important to know because if elections are held in times when we might need people to vote nonlocally or vote using one method over another — if they’re displaced by a hurricane or another emergency, for instance — I learned that we can effect a new vote mode practically and quickly.”

    One of Jaffe’s insights from this experiment is that “people do read their voting-related emails, but the content of the email has to be something they can act on proximately,” he says. “A message reminding them to vote two weeks from now is not so helpful.” The lower the burden on an individual to participate in voting, whether due to proximity to a polling site or instructions on how to receive and cast a ballot, the greater the likelihood of that person engaging in the election.

    “If we want people to vote by mail, we need to reduce the informational cost so it’s easier for voters to understand how the system works,” he says.

    Another significant research thrust for Jaffe involves scrutinizing accuracy in vote counting, using instances of recounts in presidential elections. Ensuring each vote counts, he says, “is one of the most fundamental questions in democracy,” he says.

    With access to 20 elections in 2020, Jaffe is comparing original vote totals for each candidate to the recounted, correct tally, on a precinct-level basis. “Using original combinatorial techniques, I can estimate the probability of miscounting ballots,” he says. The ultimate goal is to generate a granular picture of the efficacy of election administration across the country.

    “It varies a lot by state, and most states do a good job,” he says. States that take their time in counting perform better. “There’s a phenomenon where some towns race to get results in as quickly as possible, and this affects their accuracy.”

    In spite of the bright spots, Jaffe sees chronic underfunding of American elections. “We need to give local administrators the resources, the time and money to fund employees to do their jobs,” he says. The worse the situation is, “the more likely that elections will be called wrong, with no one knowing.” Jaffe believes that his analysis can offer states useful information for improving election administration. “Determining how good a place is historically at counting ballots can help determine the likelihood of needing costly recounts in future elections,” he says.

    The ballot box and beyond

    It didn’t take Jaffe long to decide on a life dedicated to studying politics. Part of a Boston-area family who, he says, “liked discussing what was going on in the world,” he had his own subscriptions to Time magazine at age 9, and to The Economist in middle school. During high school, he volunteered for then-Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank and Senator John Kerry, working on constituent services. At Rice University, he interned all four years with political scientist Robert M. Stein, an expert on voting and elections. With Stein’s help, Jaffe landed a position the summer before his senior year with the Department of Justice (DOJ), researching voting rights cases.

    “The experience was fascinating, and the work felt super important,” says Jaffe. His portfolio involved determining whether legal challenges to particular elections met the statistical standard for racial gerrymandering. “I had to answer hard quantitative questions about the relationship between race and voting in an area, and whether minority candidates were systematically prevented from winning,” he says.

    But while Jaffe cared a lot about this work, he didn’t feel adequately challenged. “As a 21-year-old at DOJ, I learned that I could address problems in the world using statistics,” he says. “But I felt I could have a greater impact addressing tougher questions outside of voting rights.”

    Jaffe was drawn to political science at MIT, and specifically to the research of Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science, director of the MIT Election Lab, and head of Jaffe’s thesis committee. It wasn’t just the opportunity to plumb the lab’s singular repository of voting data that attracted Jaffe, but its commitment to making every vote count. For Jaffe, this was a call to arms to investigate the many, and sometimes quotidian, obstacles, between citizens and ballot boxes.

    To this end, he has been analyzing, with the help of mathematical methods from queuing theory, why some elections involve wait lines of six hours and longer at polling sites. “We know that simpler ballots mean people move don’t get stuck in these lines, where they might potentially give up before voting,” he says. “Looking at the content of ballots and the interval between voter check-in and check-out, I learned that adding races, rather than candidates, to a ballot, means that people take more time completing ballots, leading to interminable lines.”

    A key takeaway from his ensemble of studies is that “while it’s relatively rare that elections are bad, we shouldn’t think that we’re good to go,” he says. “Instead, we need to be asking under what conditions do things get bad, and how can we make them better.” More