More stories

  • in

    Exploring the mysterious alphabet of sperm whales

    The allure of whales has stoked human consciousness for millennia, casting these ocean giants as enigmatic residents of the deep seas. From the biblical Leviathan to Herman Melville’s formidable Moby Dick, whales have been central to mythologies and folklore. And while cetology, or whale science, has improved our knowledge of these marine mammals in the past century in particular, studying whales has remained a formidable a challenge.Now, thanks to machine learning, we’re a little closer to understanding these gentle giants. Researchers from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) recently used algorithms to decode the “sperm whale phonetic alphabet,” revealing sophisticated structures in sperm whale communication akin to human phonetics and communication systems in other animal species. In a new open-access study published in Nature Communications, the research shows that sperm whales codas, or short bursts of clicks that they use to communicate, vary significantly in structure depending on the conversational context, revealing a communication system far more intricate than previously understood. 

    Play video

    The Secret Language of Sperm Whales, DecodedVideo: MIT CSAIL

    Nine thousand codas, collected from Eastern Caribbean sperm whale families observed by the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, proved an instrumental starting point in uncovering the creatures’ complex communication system. Alongside the data gold mine, the team used a mix of algorithms for pattern recognition and classification, as well as on-body recording equipment. It turned out that sperm whale communications were indeed not random or simplistic, but rather structured in a complex, combinatorial manner. The researchers identified something of a “sperm whale phonetic alphabet,” where various elements that researchers call  “rhythm,” “tempo,” “rubato,” and “ornamentation” interplay to form a vast array of distinguishable codas. For example, the whales would systematically modulate certain aspects of their codas based on the conversational context, such as smoothly varying the duration of the calls — rubato — or adding extra ornamental clicks. But even more remarkably, they found that the basic building blocks of these codas could be combined in a combinatorial fashion, allowing the whales to construct a vast repertoire of distinct vocalizations.The experiments were conducted using acoustic bio-logging tags (specifically something called “D-tags”) deployed on whales from the Eastern Caribbean clan. These tags captured the intricate details of the whales’ vocal patterns. By developing new visualization and data analysis techniques, the CSAIL researchers found that individual sperm whales could emit various coda patterns in long exchanges, not just repeats of the same coda. These patterns, they say, are nuanced, and include fine-grained variations that other whales also produce and recognize.“We are venturing into the unknown, to decipher the mysteries of sperm whale communication without any pre-existing ground truth data,” says Daniela Rus, CSAIL director and professor of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) at MIT. “Using machine learning is important for identifying the features of their communications and predicting what they say next. Our findings indicate the presence of structured information content and also challenges the prevailing belief among many linguists that complex communication is unique to humans. This is a step toward showing that other species have levels of communication complexity that have not been identified so far, deeply connected to behavior. Our next steps aim to decipher the meaning behind these communications and explore the societal-level correlations between what is being said and group actions.”Whaling aroundSperm whales have the largest brains among all known animals. This is accompanied by very complex social behaviors between families and cultural groups, necessitating strong communication for coordination, especially in pressurized environments like deep sea hunting.Whales owe much to Roger Payne, former Project CETI advisor, whale biologist, conservationist, and MacArthur Fellow who was a major figure in elucidating their musical careers. In the noted 1971 Science article “Songs of Humpback Whales,” Payne documented how whales can sing. His work later catalyzed the “Save the Whales” movement, a successful and timely conservation initiative.“Roger’s research highlights the impact science can have on society. His finding that whales sing led to the marine mammal protection act and helped save several whale species from extinction. This interdisciplinary research now brings us one step closer to knowing what sperm whales are saying,” says David Gruber, lead and founder of Project CETI and distinguished professor of biology at the City University of New York.Today, CETI’s upcoming research aims to discern whether elements like rhythm, tempo, ornamentation, and rubato carry specific communicative intents, potentially providing insights into the “duality of patterning” — a linguistic phenomenon where simple elements combine to convey complex meanings previously thought unique to human language.Aliens among us“One of the intriguing aspects of our research is that it parallels the hypothetical scenario of contacting alien species. It’s about understanding a species with a completely different environment and communication protocols, where their interactions are distinctly different from human norms,” says Pratyusha Sharma, an MIT PhD student in EECS, CSAIL affiliate, and the study’s lead author. “We’re exploring how to interpret the basic units of meaning in their communication. This isn’t just about teaching animals a subset of human language, but decoding a naturally evolved communication system within their unique biological and environmental constraints. Essentially, our work could lay the groundwork for deciphering how an ‘alien civilization’ might communicate, providing insights into creating algorithms or systems to understand entirely unfamiliar forms of communication.”“Many animal species have repertoires of several distinct signals, but we are only beginning to uncover the extent to which they combine these signals to create new messages,” says Robert Seyfarth, a University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus of psychology who was not involved in the research. “Scientists are particularly interested in whether signal combinations vary according to the social or ecological context in which they are given, and the extent to which signal combinations follow discernible ‘rules’ that are recognized by listeners. The problem is particularly challenging in the case of marine mammals, because scientists usually cannot see their subjects or identify in complete detail the context of communication. Nonetheless, this paper offers new, tantalizing details of call combinations and the rules that underlie them in sperm whales.”Joining Sharma, Rus, and Gruber are two others from MIT, both CSAIL principal investigators and professors in EECS: Jacob Andreas and Antonio Torralba. They join Shane Gero, biology lead at CETI, founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, and scientist-in residence at Carleton University. The paper was funded by Project CETI via Dalio Philanthropies and Ocean X, Sea Grape Foundation, Rosamund Zander/Hansjorg Wyss, and Chris Anderson/Jacqueline Novogratz through The Audacious Project: a collaborative funding initiative housed at TED, with further support from the J.H. and E.V. Wade Fund at MIT. More

  • in

    Fostering research, careers, and community in materials science

    Gabrielle Wood, a junior at Howard University majoring in chemical engineering, is on a mission to improve the sustainability and life cycles of natural resources and materials. Her work in the Materials Initiative for Comprehensive Research Opportunity (MICRO) program has given her hands-on experience with many different aspects of research, including MATLAB programming, experimental design, data analysis, figure-making, and scientific writing.Wood is also one of 10 undergraduates from 10 universities around the United States to participate in the first MICRO Summit earlier this year. The internship program, developed by the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), first launched in fall 2021. Now in its third year, the program continues to grow, providing even more opportunities for non-MIT undergraduate students — including the MICRO Summit and the program’s expansion to include Northwestern University.“I think one of the most valuable aspects of the MICRO program is the ability to do research long term with an experienced professor in materials science and engineering,” says Wood. “My school has limited opportunities for undergraduate research in sustainable polymers, so the MICRO program allowed me to gain valuable experience in this field, which I would not otherwise have.”Like Wood, Griheydi Garcia, a senior chemistry major at Manhattan College, values the exposure to materials science, especially since she is not able to learn as much about it at her home institution.“I learned a lot about crystallography and defects in materials through the MICRO curriculum, especially through videos,” says Garcia. “The research itself is very valuable, as well, because we get to apply what we’ve learned through the videos in the research we do remotely.”Expanding research opportunitiesFrom the beginning, the MICRO program was designed as a fully remote, rigorous education and mentoring program targeted toward students from underserved backgrounds interested in pursuing graduate school in materials science or related fields. Interns are matched with faculty to work on their specific research interests.Jessica Sandland ’99, PhD ’05, principal lecturer in DMSE and co-founder of MICRO, says that research projects for the interns are designed to be work that they can do remotely, such as developing a machine-learning algorithm or a data analysis approach.“It’s important to note that it’s not just about what the program and faculty are bringing to the student interns,” says Sandland, a member of the MIT Digital Learning Lab, a joint program between MIT Open Learning and the Institute’s academic departments. “The students are doing real research and work, and creating things of real value. It’s very much an exchange.”Cécile Chazot PhD ’22, now an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, had helped to establish MICRO at MIT from the very beginning. Once at Northwestern, she quickly realized that expanding MICRO to Northwestern would offer even more research opportunities to interns than by relying on MIT alone — leveraging the university’s strong materials science and engineering department, as well as offering resources for biomaterials research through Northwestern’s medical school. The program received funding from 3M and officially launched at Northwestern in fall 2023. Approximately half of the MICRO interns are now in the program with MIT and half are with Northwestern. Wood and Garcia both participate in the program via Northwestern.“By expanding to another school, we’ve been able to have interns work with a much broader range of research projects,” says Chazot. “It has become easier for us to place students with faculty and research that match their interests.”Building communityThe MICRO program received a Higher Education Innovation grant from the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab, part of MIT Open Learning, to develop an in-person summit. In January 2024, interns visited MIT for three days of presentations, workshops, and campus tours — including a tour of the MIT.nano building — as well as various community-building activities.“A big part of MICRO is the community,” says Chazot. “A highlight of the summit was just seeing the students come together.”The summit also included panel discussions that allowed interns to gain insights and advice from graduate students and professionals. The graduate panel discussion included MIT graduate students Sam Figueroa (mechanical engineering), Isabella Caruso (DMSE), and Eliana Feygin (DMSE). The career panel was led by Chazot and included Jatin Patil PhD ’23, head of product at SiTration; Maureen Reitman ’90, ScD ’93, group vice president and principal engineer at Exponent; Lucas Caretta PhD ’19, assistant professor of engineering at Brown University; Raquel D’Oyen ’90, who holds a PhD from Northwestern University and is a senior engineer at Raytheon; and Ashley Kaiser MS ’19, PhD ’21, senior process engineer at 6K.Students also had an opportunity to share their work with each other through research presentations. Their presentations covered a wide range of topics, including: developing a computer program to calculate solubility parameters for polymers used in textile manufacturing; performing a life-cycle analysis of a photonic chip and evaluating its environmental impact in comparison to a standard silicon microchip; and applying machine learning algorithms to scanning transmission electron microscopy images of CrSBr, a two-dimensional magnetic material. “The summit was wonderful and the best academic experience I have had as a first-year college student,” says MICRO intern Gabriella La Cour, who is pursuing a major in chemistry and dual degree biomedical engineering at Spelman College and participates in MICRO through MIT. “I got to meet so many students who were all in grades above me … and I learned a little about how to navigate college as an upperclassman.” “I actually have an extremely close friendship with one of the students, and we keep in touch regularly,” adds La Cour. “Professor Chazot gave valuable advice about applications and recommendation letters that will be useful when I apply to REUs [Research Experiences for Undergraduates] and graduate schools.”Looking to the future, MICRO organizers hope to continue to grow the program’s reach.“We would love to see other schools taking on this model,” says Sandland. “There are a lot of opportunities out there. The more departments, research groups, and mentors that get involved with this program, the more impact it can have.” More

  • in

    An AI dataset carves new paths to tornado detection

    The return of spring in the Northern Hemisphere touches off tornado season. A tornado’s twisting funnel of dust and debris seems an unmistakable sight. But that sight can be obscured to radar, the tool of meteorologists. It’s hard to know exactly when a tornado has formed, or even why.

    A new dataset could hold answers. It contains radar returns from thousands of tornadoes that have hit the United States in the past 10 years. Storms that spawned tornadoes are flanked by other severe storms, some with nearly identical conditions, that never did. MIT Lincoln Laboratory researchers who curated the dataset, called TorNet, have now released it open source. They hope to enable breakthroughs in detecting one of nature’s most mysterious and violent phenomena.

    “A lot of progress is driven by easily available, benchmark datasets. We hope TorNet will lay a foundation for machine learning algorithms to both detect and predict tornadoes,” says Mark Veillette, the project’s co-principal investigator with James Kurdzo. Both researchers work in the Air Traffic Control Systems Group. 

    Along with the dataset, the team is releasing models trained on it. The models show promise for machine learning’s ability to spot a twister. Building on this work could open new frontiers for forecasters, helping them provide more accurate warnings that might save lives. 

    Swirling uncertainty

    About 1,200 tornadoes occur in the United States every year, causing millions to billions of dollars in economic damage and claiming 71 lives on average. Last year, one unusually long-lasting tornado killed 17 people and injured at least 165 others along a 59-mile path in Mississippi.  

    Yet tornadoes are notoriously difficult to forecast because scientists don’t have a clear picture of why they form. “We can see two storms that look identical, and one will produce a tornado and one won’t. We don’t fully understand it,” Kurdzo says.

    A tornado’s basic ingredients are thunderstorms with instability caused by rapidly rising warm air and wind shear that causes rotation. Weather radar is the primary tool used to monitor these conditions. But tornadoes lay too low to be detected, even when moderately close to the radar. As the radar beam with a given tilt angle travels further from the antenna, it gets higher above the ground, mostly seeing reflections from rain and hail carried in the “mesocyclone,” the storm’s broad, rotating updraft. A mesocyclone doesn’t always produce a tornado.

    With this limited view, forecasters must decide whether or not to issue a tornado warning. They often err on the side of caution. As a result, the rate of false alarms for tornado warnings is more than 70 percent. “That can lead to boy-who-cried-wolf syndrome,” Kurdzo says.  

    In recent years, researchers have turned to machine learning to better detect and predict tornadoes. However, raw datasets and models have not always been accessible to the broader community, stifling progress. TorNet is filling this gap.

    The dataset contains more than 200,000 radar images, 13,587 of which depict tornadoes. The rest of the images are non-tornadic, taken from storms in one of two categories: randomly selected severe storms or false-alarm storms (those that led a forecaster to issue a warning but that didn’t produce a tornado).

    Each sample of a storm or tornado comprises two sets of six radar images. The two sets correspond to different radar sweep angles. The six images portray different radar data products, such as reflectivity (showing precipitation intensity) or radial velocity (indicating if winds are moving toward or away from the radar).

    A challenge in curating the dataset was first finding tornadoes. Within the corpus of weather radar data, tornadoes are extremely rare events. The team then had to balance those tornado samples with difficult non-tornado samples. If the dataset were too easy, say by comparing tornadoes to snowstorms, an algorithm trained on the data would likely over-classify storms as tornadic.

    “What’s beautiful about a true benchmark dataset is that we’re all working with the same data, with the same level of difficulty, and can compare results,” Veillette says. “It also makes meteorology more accessible to data scientists, and vice versa. It becomes easier for these two parties to work on a common problem.”

    Both researchers represent the progress that can come from cross-collaboration. Veillette is a mathematician and algorithm developer who has long been fascinated by tornadoes. Kurdzo is a meteorologist by training and a signal processing expert. In grad school, he chased tornadoes with custom-built mobile radars, collecting data to analyze in new ways.

    “This dataset also means that a grad student doesn’t have to spend a year or two building a dataset. They can jump right into their research,” Kurdzo says.

    This project was funded by Lincoln Laboratory’s Climate Change Initiative, which aims to leverage the laboratory’s diverse technical strengths to help address climate problems threatening human health and global security.

    Chasing answers with deep learning

    Using the dataset, the researchers developed baseline artificial intelligence (AI) models. They were particularly eager to apply deep learning, a form of machine learning that excels at processing visual data. On its own, deep learning can extract features (key observations that an algorithm uses to make a decision) from images across a dataset. Other machine learning approaches require humans to first manually label features. 

    “We wanted to see if deep learning could rediscover what people normally look for in tornadoes and even identify new things that typically aren’t searched for by forecasters,” Veillette says.

    The results are promising. Their deep learning model performed similar to or better than all tornado-detecting algorithms known in literature. The trained algorithm correctly classified 50 percent of weaker EF-1 tornadoes and over 85 percent of tornadoes rated EF-2 or higher, which make up the most devastating and costly occurrences of these storms.

    They also evaluated two other types of machine-learning models, and one traditional model to compare against. The source code and parameters of all these models are freely available. The models and dataset are also described in a paper submitted to a journal of the American Meteorological Society (AMS). Veillette presented this work at the AMS Annual Meeting in January.

    “The biggest reason for putting our models out there is for the community to improve upon them and do other great things,” Kurdzo says. “The best solution could be a deep learning model, or someone might find that a non-deep learning model is actually better.”

    TorNet could be useful in the weather community for others uses too, such as for conducting large-scale case studies on storms. It could also be augmented with other data sources, like satellite imagery or lightning maps. Fusing multiple types of data could improve the accuracy of machine learning models.

    Taking steps toward operations

    On top of detecting tornadoes, Kurdzo hopes that models might help unravel the science of why they form.

    “As scientists, we see all these precursors to tornadoes — an increase in low-level rotation, a hook echo in reflectivity data, specific differential phase (KDP) foot and differential reflectivity (ZDR) arcs. But how do they all go together? And are there physical manifestations we don’t know about?” he asks.

    Teasing out those answers might be possible with explainable AI. Explainable AI refers to methods that allow a model to provide its reasoning, in a format understandable to humans, of why it came to a certain decision. In this case, these explanations might reveal physical processes that happen before tornadoes. This knowledge could help train forecasters, and models, to recognize the signs sooner. 

    “None of this technology is ever meant to replace a forecaster. But perhaps someday it could guide forecasters’ eyes in complex situations, and give a visual warning to an area predicted to have tornadic activity,” Kurdzo says.

    Such assistance could be especially useful as radar technology improves and future networks potentially grow denser. Data refresh rates in a next-generation radar network are expected to increase from every five minutes to approximately one minute, perhaps faster than forecasters can interpret the new information. Because deep learning can process huge amounts of data quickly, it could be well-suited for monitoring radar returns in real time, alongside humans. Tornadoes can form and disappear in minutes.

    But the path to an operational algorithm is a long road, especially in safety-critical situations, Veillette says. “I think the forecaster community is still, understandably, skeptical of machine learning. One way to establish trust and transparency is to have public benchmark datasets like this one. It’s a first step.”

    The next steps, the team hopes, will be taken by researchers across the world who are inspired by the dataset and energized to build their own algorithms. Those algorithms will in turn go into test beds, where they’ll eventually be shown to forecasters, to start a process of transitioning into operations.

    In the end, the path could circle back to trust.

    “We may never get more than a 10- to 15-minute tornado warning using these tools. But if we could lower the false-alarm rate, we could start to make headway with public perception,” Kurdzo says. “People are going to use those warnings to take the action they need to save their lives.” More

  • in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Side-channel susceptibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Safety testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • in

    Using deep learning to image the Earth’s planetary boundary layer

    Although the troposphere is often thought of as the closest layer of the atmosphere to the Earth’s surface, the planetary boundary layer (PBL) — the lowest layer of the troposphere — is actually the part that most significantly influences weather near the surface. In the 2018 planetary science decadal survey, the PBL was raised as an important scientific issue that has the potential to enhance storm forecasting and improve climate projections.  

    “The PBL is where the surface interacts with the atmosphere, including exchanges of moisture and heat that help lead to severe weather and a changing climate,” says Adam Milstein, a technical staff member in Lincoln Laboratory’s Applied Space Systems Group. “The PBL is also where humans live, and the turbulent movement of aerosols throughout the PBL is important for air quality that influences human health.” 

    Although vital for studying weather and climate, important features of the PBL, such as its height, are difficult to resolve with current technology. In the past four years, Lincoln Laboratory staff have been studying the PBL, focusing on two different tasks: using machine learning to make 3D-scanned profiles of the atmosphere, and resolving the vertical structure of the atmosphere more clearly in order to better predict droughts.  

    This PBL-focused research effort builds on more than a decade of related work on fast, operational neural network algorithms developed by Lincoln Laboratory for NASA missions. These missions include the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission as well as Aqua, a satellite that collects data about Earth’s water cycle and observes variables such as ocean temperature, precipitation, and water vapor in the atmosphere. These algorithms retrieve temperature and humidity from the satellite instrument data and have been shown to significantly improve the accuracy and usable global coverage of the observations over previous approaches. For TROPICS, the algorithms help retrieve data that are used to characterize a storm’s rapidly evolving structures in near-real time, and for Aqua, it has helped increase forecasting models, drought monitoring, and fire prediction. 

    These operational algorithms for TROPICS and Aqua are based on classic “shallow” neural networks to maximize speed and simplicity, creating a one-dimensional vertical profile for each spectral measurement collected by the instrument over each location. While this approach has improved observations of the atmosphere down to the surface overall, including the PBL, laboratory staff determined that newer “deep” learning techniques that treat the atmosphere over a region of interest as a three-dimensional image are needed to improve PBL details further.

    “We hypothesized that deep learning and artificial intelligence (AI) techniques could improve on current approaches by incorporating a better statistical representation of 3D temperature and humidity imagery of the atmosphere into the solutions,” Milstein says. “But it took a while to figure out how to create the best dataset — a mix of real and simulated data; we needed to prepare to train these techniques.”

    The team collaborated with Joseph Santanello of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and William Blackwell, also of the Applied Space Systems Group, in a recent NASA-funded effort showing that these retrieval algorithms can improve PBL detail, including more accurate determination of the PBL height than the previous state of the art. 

    While improved knowledge of the PBL is broadly useful for increasing understanding of climate and weather, one key application is prediction of droughts. According to a Global Drought Snapshot report released last year, droughts are a pressing planetary issue that the global community needs to address. Lack of humidity near the surface, specifically at the level of the PBL, is the leading indicator of drought. While previous studies using remote-sensing techniques have examined the humidity of soil to determine drought risk, studying the atmosphere can help predict when droughts will happen.  

    In an effort funded by Lincoln Laboratory’s Climate Change Initiative, Milstein, along with laboratory staff member Michael Pieper, are working with scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to use neural network techniques to improve drought prediction over the continental United States. While the work builds off of existing operational work JPL has done incorporating (in part) the laboratory’s operational “shallow” neural network approach for Aqua, the team believes that this work and the PBL-focused deep learning research work can be combined to further improve the accuracy of drought prediction. 

    “Lincoln Laboratory has been working with NASA for more than a decade on neural network algorithms for estimating temperature and humidity in the atmosphere from space-borne infrared and microwave instruments, including those on the Aqua spacecraft,” Milstein says. “Over that time, we have learned a lot about this problem by working with the science community, including learning about what scientific challenges remain. Our long experience working on this type of remote sensing with NASA scientists, as well as our experience with using neural network techniques, gave us a unique perspective.”

    According to Milstein, the next step for this project is to compare the deep learning results to datasets from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and the Department of Energy collected directly in the PBL using radiosondes, a type of instrument flown on a weather balloon. “These direct measurements can be considered a kind of ‘ground truth’ to quantify the accuracy of the techniques we have developed,” Milstein says.

    This improved neural network approach holds promise to demonstrate drought prediction that can exceed the capabilities of existing indicators, Milstein says, and to be a tool that scientists can rely on for decades to come. More

  • in

    This 3D printer can figure out how to print with an unknown material

    While 3D printing has exploded in popularity, many of the plastic materials these printers use to create objects cannot be easily recycled. While new sustainable materials are emerging for use in 3D printing, they remain difficult to adopt because 3D printer settings need to be adjusted for each material, a process generally done by hand.

    To print a new material from scratch, one must typically set up to 100 parameters in software that controls how the printer will extrude the material as it fabricates an object. Commonly used materials, like mass-manufactured polymers, have established sets of parameters that were perfected through tedious, trial-and-error processes.

    But the properties of renewable and recyclable materials can fluctuate widely based on their composition, so fixed parameter sets are nearly impossible to create. In this case, users must come up with all these parameters by hand.

    Researchers tackled this problem by developing a 3D printer that can automatically identify the parameters of an unknown material on its own.

    A collaborative team from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Center for Scientific Research in Greece (Demokritos) modified the extruder, the “heart” of a 3D printer, so it can measure the forces and flow of a material.

    These data, gathered through a 20-minute test, are fed into a mathematical function that is used to automatically generate printing parameters. These parameters can be entered into off-the-shelf 3D printing software and used to print with a never-before-seen material. 

    The automatically generated parameters can replace about half of the parameters that typically must be tuned by hand. In a series of test prints with unique materials, including several renewable materials, the researchers showed that their method can consistently produce viable parameters.

    This research could help to reduce the environmental impact of additive manufacturing, which typically relies on nonrecyclable polymers and resins derived from fossil fuels.

    “In this paper, we demonstrate a method that can take all these interesting materials that are bio-based and made from various sustainable sources and show that the printer can figure out by itself how to print those materials. The goal is to make 3D printing more sustainable,” says senior author Neil Gershenfeld, who leads CBA.

    His co-authors include first author Jake Read a graduate student in the CBA who led the printer development; Jonathan Seppala, a chemical engineer in the Materials Science and Engineering Division of NIST; Filippos Tourlomousis, a former CBA postdoc who now heads the Autonomous Science Lab at Demokritos; James Warren, who leads the Materials Genome Program at NIST; and Nicole Bakker, a research assistant at CBA. The research is published in the journal Integrating Materials and Manufacturing Innovation.

    Shifting material properties

    In fused filament fabrication (FFF), which is often used in rapid prototyping, molten polymers are extruded through a heated nozzle layer-by-layer to build a part. Software, called a slicer, provides instructions to the machine, but the slicer must be configured to work with a particular material.

    Using renewable or recycled materials in an FFF 3D printer is especially challenging because there are so many variables that affect the material properties.

    For instance, a bio-based polymer or resin might be composed of different mixes of plants based on the season. The properties of recycled materials also vary widely based on what is available to recycle.

    “In ‘Back to the Future,’ there is a ‘Mr. Fusion’ blender where Doc just throws whatever he has into the blender and it works [as a power source for the DeLorean time machine]. That is the same idea here. Ideally, with plastics recycling, you could just shred what you have and print with it. But, with current feed-forward systems, that won’t work because if your filament changes significantly during the print, everything would break,” Read says.

    To overcome these challenges, the researchers developed a 3D printer and workflow to automatically identify viable process parameters for any unknown material.

    They started with a 3D printer their lab had previously developed that can capture data and provide feedback as it operates. The researchers added three instruments to the machine’s extruder that take measurements which are used to calculate parameters.

    A load cell measures the pressure being exerted on the printing filament, while a feed rate sensor measures the thickness of the filament and the actual rate at which it is being fed through the printer.

    “This fusion of measurement, modeling, and manufacturing is at the heart of the collaboration between NIST and CBA, as we work develop what we’ve termed ‘computational metrology,’” says Warren.

    These measurements can be used to calculate the two most important, yet difficult to determine, printing parameters: flow rate and temperature. Nearly half of all print settings in standard software are related to these two parameters. 

    Deriving a dataset

    Once they had the new instruments in place, the researchers developed a 20-minute test that generates a series of temperature and pressure readings at different flow rates. Essentially, the test involves setting the print nozzle at its hottest temperature, flowing the material through at a fixed rate, and then turning the heater off.

    “It was really difficult to figure out how to make that test work. Trying to find the limits of the extruder means that you are going to break the extruder pretty often while you are testing it. The notion of turning the heater off and just passively taking measurements was the ‘aha’ moment,” says Read.

    These data are entered into a function that automatically generates real parameters for the material and machine configuration, based on relative temperature and pressure inputs. The user can then enter those parameters into 3D printing software and generate instructions for the printer.

    In experiments with six different materials, several of which were bio-based, the method automatically generated viable parameters that consistently led to successful prints of a complex object.

    Moving forward, the researchers plan to integrate this process with 3D printing software so parameters don’t need to be entered manually. In addition, they want to enhance their workflow by incorporating a thermodynamic model of the hot end, which is the part of the printer that melts the filament.

    This collaboration is now more broadly developing computational metrology, in which the output of a measurement is a predictive model rather than just a parameter. The researchers will be applying this in other areas of advanced manufacturing, as well as in expanding access to metrology.

    “By developing a new method for the automatic generation of process parameters for fused filament fabrication, this study opens the door to the use of recycled and bio-based filaments that have variable and unknown behaviors. Importantly, this enhances the potential for digital manufacturing technology to utilize locally sourced sustainable materials,” says Alysia Garmulewicz, an associate professor in the Faculty of Administration and Economics at the University of Santiago in Chile who was not involved with this work.

    This research is supported, in part, by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Center for Bits and Atoms Consortia. More

  • in

    Characterizing social networks

    People tend to connect with others who are like them. Alumni from the same alma mater are more likely to collaborate over a research project together, or individuals with the same political beliefs are more likely to join the same political parties, attend rallies, and engage in online discussions. This sociology concept, called homophily, has been observed in many network science studies. But if like-minded individuals cluster in online and offline spaces to reinforce each other’s ideas and form synergies, what does that mean for society?

    Researchers at MIT wanted to investigate homophily further to understand how groups of three or more interact in complex societal settings. Prior research on understanding homophily has studied relationships between pairs of people. For example, when two members of Congress co-sponsor a bill, they are likely to be from the same political party.

    However, less is known about whether group interactions between three or more people are likely to occur between similar individuals. If three members of Congress co-sponsor a bill together, are all three likely to be members of the same party, or would we expect more bipartisanship? When the researchers tried to extend traditional methods to measure homophily in these larger group interactions, they found the results can be misleading.

    “We found that homophily observed in pairs, or one-to-one interactions, can make it seem like there’s more homophily in larger groups than there really is,” says Arnab Sarker, graduate student in the Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS) and lead author of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The previous measure didn’t account for the way in which two people already know each other in friendship settings,” he adds.

    To address this issue, Sarker, along with co-authors Natalie Northrup ’22 and Ali Jadbabaie, the JR East Professor of Engineering, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and core faculty member of IDSS, developed a new way of measuring homophily. Borrowing tools from algebraic topology, a subfield in mathematics typically applied in physics, they developed a new measure to understand whether homophily occurred in group interactions.

    The new measure, called simplicial homophily, separates the homophily seen in one-on-one interactions from those in larger group interactions and is based on the mathematical concept of a simplicial complex. The researchers tested this new measure with real-world data from 16 different datasets and found that simplicial homophily provides more accurate insights into how similar things interact in larger groups. Interestingly, the new measure can better identify instances where there is a lack of similarity in larger group interactions, thus rectifying a weakness observed in the previous measure.

    One such example of this instance was demonstrated in the dataset from the global hotel booking website, Trivago. They found that when travelers are looking at two hotels in one session, they often pick hotels that are close to one another geographically. But when they look at more than two hotels in one session, they are more likely to be searching for hotels that are farther apart from one another (for example, if they are taking a vacation with multiple stops). The new method showed “anti-homophily” — instead of similar hotels being chosen together, different hotels were chosen together.

    “Our measure controls for pairwise connections and is suggesting that there’s more diversity in the hotels that people are looking for as group size increases, which is an interesting economic result,” says Sarker.

    Additionally, they discovered that simplicial homophily can help identify when certain characteristics are important for predicting if groups will interact in the future. They found that when there’s a lot of similarity or a lot of difference between individuals who already interact in groups, then knowing individual characteristics can help predict their connection to each other in the future.

    Northrup was an undergraduate researcher on the project and worked with Sarker and Jadbabaie over three semesters before she graduated. The project gave her an opportunity to take some of the concepts she learned in the classroom and apply them.

    “Working on this project, I really dove into building out the higher-order network model, and understanding the network, the math, and being able to implement it at a large scale,” says Northrup, who was in the civil and environmental engineering systems track with a double major in economics.

    The new measure opens up opportunities to study complex group interactions in a broad range of network applications, from ecology to traffic and socioeconomics. One of the areas Sarker has interest in exploring is the group dynamics of people finding jobs through social networks. “Does higher-order homophily affect how people get information about jobs?” he asks.    

    Northrup adds that it could also be used to evaluate interventions or specific policies to connect people with job opportunities outside of their network. “You can even use it as a measurement to evaluate how effective that might be.”

    The research was supported through funding from a Vannevar Bush Fellowship from the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense and from the U.S. Army Research Office Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative. More

  • in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    De-centering visualization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Helping users communicate about data

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

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

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

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

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

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