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    Visualizing migration stories

    On July 27, 2020, 51 people migrating to the United States were found dead in an overheated trailer near the Mexican border. Understanding why migrants willingly take such risks is the topic of a recent exhibition and report, co-authored by researchers at MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab (CDDL). The research has been used by the U.S. Senate and the United Nations to develop new policies to address the challenges, dangers, and opportunities presented by migration in the Americas.

    To illustrate these motivations and risks, researchers at CDDL have designed an exhibition featuring digital and physical visualizations that encourage visitors to engage with migrants’ experiences more fully. “Distance Unknown” made its debut at the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) executive board meeting in Rome earlier this summer, with plans for additional exhibition stops over the next year.

    The exhibition is inspired by the 2021 report about migration, co-authored by CDDL, that highlighted economic distress as the main factor pushing migrants from Central America to the United States. The report’s findings were cited in a January 2022 letter from 35 U.S. senators to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (who leads the Biden administration’s migration task force) that advocated for addressing humanitarian needs in Central America. In June, the United States joined 20 countries in issuing the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, which proposed expanded legal avenues to migration.

    “This exhibition takes a unique approach to visualizing migration stories by humanizing the data. Visitors to the exhibition can see the data in aggregate, but then they can dive deeper and learn migrants’ individual motivations,” says Sarah Williams, associate professor of technology and urban planning, director of the Civic Data Design Lab and the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism, and the lead designer of the exhibition.

    The data for the exhibition were taken from a survey of over 5,000 people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras conducted by the WFP and analyzed in the subsequent report. The report showed that approximately 43 percent of people surveyed in 2021 were considering migrating in the prior year, compared to 8 percent in 2019 — a change that comes after nearly two years of impacts from a global pandemic and as food insecurity dramatically increased in that region. Survey respondents cited low wages, unemployment, and minimal income levels as factors increasing their desire to migrate — ahead of reasons such as violence or natural disasters. 

    On the wall of the exhibition is a vibrant tapestry made of paper currency woven by 13 Latin American immigrants. Approximately 15-by-8 feet, this physical data visualization explains the root causes of migration from Central America documented by CDDL research. Each bill in the tapestry represents one migrant; visitors are invited to take a piece of the tapestry and scan it at a touch-screen station, where the story of that migrant appears. This allows visitors to dive deeper into the causes of migration by learning more about why an individual migrant family in the study left home, their household circumstances, and their personal stories.

    Another feature of the exhibition is an interactive map that allows visitors to explore the journeys and barriers that migrants face along the way. Created from a unique dataset collected by researchers from internet hotspots along the migration trail, the data showed that migrants from 43 countries (some as distant as China and Afghanistan) used this Latin American trail. The map highlights the Darien Gap region of Central America, one of the most dangerous and costly migration routes. The area is remote, without roads, and consists of swamps and dense jungle.

    The “Distance Unknown” exhibition represented data taken from internet hotspots on the migration pathway from the Darien Gap in Colombia to the Mexican border. This image shows migrant routes from 43 countries.

    Image courtesy of the Civic Data Design Lab.

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    The intense multimedia exhibition demonstrates the approach that Williams takes with her research. “One of the exciting features of the exhibition is that it shows that artistic forms of data visualization start new conversations, which create the dialogue necessary for policy change. We couldn’t be more thrilled with the way the exhibition helped influence the hearts and minds of people who have the political will to impact policy,” says Williams.

    In his opening remarks to the exhibition, David Beasley, executive director of WFP, explained that “when people have to migrate because they have no choice, it creates political problems on all sides,” and emphasized the importance of proposing solutions. Citing the 2021 report, Beasley noted that migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras collectively spent $2.2 billion to migrate to the United States in 2021, which is comparable to what their respective governments spend on primary education.

    The WFP hopes to bring the exhibition to other locations, including Washington, Geneva, New York, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Panama. More

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    Caspar Hare, Georgia Perakis named associate deans of Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing

    Caspar Hare and Georgia Perakis have been appointed the new associate deans of the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC), a cross-cutting initiative in the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. Their new roles will take effect on Sept. 1.

    “Infusing social and ethical aspects of computing in academic research and education is a critical component of the college mission,” says Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the Henry Ellis Warren Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “I look forward to working with Caspar and Georgia on continuing to develop and advance SERC and its reach across MIT. Their complementary backgrounds and their broad connections across MIT will be invaluable to this next chapter of SERC.”

    Caspar Hare

    Hare is a professor of philosophy in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. A member of the MIT faculty since 2003, his main interests are in ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. The general theme of his recent work has been to bring ideas about practical rationality and metaphysics to bear on issues in normative ethics and epistemology. He is the author of two books: “On Myself, and Other, Less Important Subjects” (Princeton University Press 2009), about the metaphysics of perspective, and “The Limits of Kindness” (Oxford University Press 2013), about normative ethics.

    Georgia Perakis

    Perakis is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management and professor of operations research, statistics, and operations management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where she has been a faculty member since 1998. She investigates the theory and practice of analytics and its role in operations problems and is particularly interested in how to solve complex and practical problems in pricing, revenue management, supply chains, health care, transportation, and energy applications, among other areas. Since 2019, she has been the co-director of the Operations Research Center, an interdepartmental PhD program that jointly reports to MIT Sloan and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, a role in which she will remain. Perakis will also assume an associate dean role at MIT Sloan in recognition of her leadership.

    Hare and Perakis succeed David Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and professor of physics, and Julie Shah, the H.N. Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, who will be stepping down from their roles at the conclusion of their three-year term on Aug. 31.

    “My deepest thanks to Dave and Julie for their tremendous leadership of SERC and contributions to the college as associate deans,” says Huttenlocher.

    SERC impact

    As the inaugural associate deans of SERC, Kaiser and Shah have been responsible for advancing a mission to incorporate humanist, social science, social responsibility, and civic perspectives into MIT’s teaching, research, and implementation of computing. In doing so, they have engaged dozens of faculty members and thousands of students from across MIT during these first three years of the initiative.

    They have brought together people from a broad array of disciplines to collaborate on crafting original materials such as active learning projects, homework assignments, and in-class demonstrations. A collection of these materials was recently published and is now freely available to the world via MIT OpenCourseWare.

    In February 2021, they launched the MIT Case Studies in Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing for undergraduate instruction across a range of classes and fields of study. The specially commissioned and peer-reviewed cases are based on original research and are brief by design. Three issues have been published to date and a fourth will be released later this summer. Kaiser will continue to oversee the successful new series as editor.

    Last year, 60 undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs joined a community of SERC Scholars to help advance SERC efforts in the college. The scholars participate in unique opportunities throughout, such as the summer Experiential Ethics program. A multidisciplinary team of graduate students last winter worked with the instructors and teaching assistants of class 6.036 (Introduction to Machine Learning), MIT’s largest machine learning course, to infuse weekly labs with material covering ethical computing, data and model bias, and fairness in machine learning through SERC.

    Through efforts such as these, SERC has had a substantial impact at MIT and beyond. Over the course of their tenure, Kaiser and Shah have engaged about 80 faculty members, and more than 2,100 students took courses that included new SERC content in the last year alone. SERC’s reach extended well beyond engineering students, with about 500 exposed to SERC content through courses offered in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the School of Architecture and Planning. More

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    MIT welcomes eight MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars for 2022-23

    From space traffic to virus evolution, community journalism to hip-hop, this year’s cohort in the Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Visiting Professors and Scholars Program will power an unprecedented range of intellectual pursuits during their time on the MIT campus. 

    “MIT is so fortunate to have this group of remarkable individuals join us,” says Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier. “They bring a range and depth of knowledge to share with our students and faculty, and we look forward to working with them to build a stronger sense of community across the Institute.”

    Since its inception in 1990, the MLK Scholars Program has hosted more than 135 visiting professors, practitioners, and intellectuals who enhance and enrich the MIT community through their engagement with students and faculty. The program, which honors the life and legacy of MLK by increasing the presence and recognizing the contributions of underrepresented scholars, is supported by the Office of the Provost with oversight from the Institute Community and Equity Office. 

    In spring 2022, MIT President Rafael Reif committed to MIT to adding two new positions in the MLK Visiting Scholars Program, including an expert in Native American studies. Those additional positions will be filled in the coming year.  

    The 2022-23 MLK Scholars:

    Daniel Auguste is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Florida Atlantic University and is hosted by Roberto Fernandez in MIT Sloan School of Management. Auguste’s research interests include social inequalities in entrepreneurship development. During his visit, Auguste will study the impact of education debt burden and wealth inequality on business ownership and success, and how these consequences differ by race and ethnicity.

    Tawanna Dillahunt is an associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, where she also holds an appointment with the electrical engineering and computer science department. Catherine D’Ignazio in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Fotini Christia in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society are her faculty hosts. Dillahunt’s scholarship focuses on equitable and inclusive computing. She identifies technological opportunities and implements tools to address and alleviate employment challenges faced by marginalized people. Dillahunt’s visiting appointment begins in September 2023.

    Javit Drake ’94 is a principal scientist in modeling and simulation and measurement sciences at Proctor & Gamble. His faculty host is Fikile Brushett in the Department of Chemical Engineering. An industry researcher with electrochemical energy expertise, Drake is a Course 10 (chemical engineering) alumnus, repeat lecturer, and research affiliate in the department. During his visit, he will continue to work with the Brushett Research Group to deepen his research and understanding of battery technologies while he innovates from those discoveries.

    Eunice Ferreira is an associate professor in the Department of Theater at Skidmore College and is hosted by Claire Conceison in Music and Theater Arts. This fall, Ferreira will teach “Black Theater Matters,” a course where students will explore performance and the cultural production of Black intellectuals and artists on Broadway and in local communities. Her upcoming book projects include “Applied Theatre and Racial Justice: Radical Imaginings for Just Communities” (forthcoming from Routledge) and “Crioulo Performance: Remapping Creole and Mixed Race Theatre” (forthcoming from Vanderbilt University Press). 

    Wasalu Jaco, widely known as Lupe Fiasco, is a rapper, record producer, and entrepreneur. He will be co-hosted by Nick Montfort of Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Mary Fuller of Literature. Jaco’s interests lie in the nexus of rap, computing, and activism. As a former visiting artist in MIT’s Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST), he will leverage existing collaborations and participate in digital media and art research projects that use computing to explore novel questions related to hip-hop and rap. In addition to his engagement in cross-departmental projects, Jaco will teach a spring course on rap in the media and social contexts.

    Moribah Jah is an associate professor in the Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Department at the University of Texas at Austin. He is hosted by Danielle Wood in Media Arts and Sciences and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Richard Linares in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Jah’s research interests include space sustainability and space traffic management; as a visiting scholar, he will develop and strengthen a joint MIT/UT-Austin research program to increase resources and visibility of space sustainability. Jah will also help host the AeroAstro Rising Stars symposium, which highlights graduate students, postdocs, and early-career faculty from backgrounds underrepresented in aerospace engineering. 

    Louis Massiah SM ’82 is a documentary filmmaker and the founder and director of community media of Scribe Video Center, a nonprofit organization that uses media as a tool for social change. His work focuses on empowering Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) filmmakers to tell the stories of/by BIPOC communities. Massiah is hosted by Vivek Bald in Creative Media Studies/Writing. Massiah’s first project will be the launch of a National Community Media Journalism Consortium, a platform to share local news on a broader scale across communities.

    Brian Nord, a scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, will join the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, hosted by Jesse Thaler in the Department of Physics. Nord’s research interests include the connection between ethics, justice, and scientific discovery. His efforts will be aimed at introducing new insights into how we model physical systems, design scientific experiments, and approach the ethics of artificial intelligence. As a lead organizer of the Strike for Black Lives in 2020, Nord will engage with justice-oriented members of the MIT physics community to strategize actions for advocacy and activism.

    Brandon Ogbunu, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University, will be hosted by Matthew Shoulders in the Department of Chemistry. Ogbunu’s research focus is on implementing chemistry and materials science perspectives into his work on virus evolution. In addition to serving as a guest lecturer in graduate courses, he will be collaborating with the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs on their K-12 outreach and recruitment efforts.

    For more information about these scholars and the program, visit mlkscholars.mit.edu. More

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    Exploring emerging topics in artificial intelligence policy

    Members of the public sector, private sector, and academia convened for the second AI Policy Forum Symposium last month to explore critical directions and questions posed by artificial intelligence in our economies and societies.

    The virtual event, hosted by the AI Policy Forum (AIPF) — an undertaking by the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing to bridge high-level principles of AI policy with the practices and trade-offs of governing — brought together an array of distinguished panelists to delve into four cross-cutting topics: law, auditing, health care, and mobility.

    In the last year there have been substantial changes in the regulatory and policy landscape around AI in several countries — most notably in Europe with the development of the European Union Artificial Intelligence Act, the first attempt by a major regulator to propose a law on artificial intelligence. In the United States, the National AI Initiative Act of 2020, which became law in January 2021, is providing a coordinated program across federal government to accelerate AI research and application for economic prosperity and security gains. Finally, China recently advanced several new regulations of its own.

    Each of these developments represents a different approach to legislating AI, but what makes a good AI law? And when should AI legislation be based on binding rules with penalties versus establishing voluntary guidelines?

    Jonathan Zittrain, professor of international law at Harvard Law School and director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, says the self-regulatory approach taken during the expansion of the internet had its limitations with companies struggling to balance their interests with those of their industry and the public.

    “One lesson might be that actually having representative government take an active role early on is a good idea,” he says. “It’s just that they’re challenged by the fact that there appears to be two phases in this environment of regulation. One, too early to tell, and two, too late to do anything about it. In AI I think a lot of people would say we’re still in the ‘too early to tell’ stage but given that there’s no middle zone before it’s too late, it might still call for some regulation.”

    A theme that came up repeatedly throughout the first panel on AI laws — a conversation moderated by Dan Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and chair of the AI Policy Forum — was the notion of trust. “If you told me the truth consistently, I would say you are an honest person. If AI could provide something similar, something that I can say is consistent and is the same, then I would say it’s trusted AI,” says Bitange Ndemo, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Nairobi and the former permanent secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communication.

    Eva Kaili, vice president of the European Parliament, adds that “In Europe, whenever you use something, like any medication, you know that it has been checked. You know you can trust it. You know the controls are there. We have to achieve the same with AI.” Kalli further stresses that building trust in AI systems will not only lead to people using more applications in a safe manner, but that AI itself will reap benefits as greater amounts of data will be generated as a result.

    The rapidly increasing applicability of AI across fields has prompted the need to address both the opportunities and challenges of emerging technologies and the impact they have on social and ethical issues such as privacy, fairness, bias, transparency, and accountability. In health care, for example, new techniques in machine learning have shown enormous promise for improving quality and efficiency, but questions of equity, data access and privacy, safety and reliability, and immunology and global health surveillance remain at large.

    MIT’s Marzyeh Ghassemi, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, and David Sontag, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, collaborated with Ziad Obermeyer, an associate professor of health policy and management at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health, to organize AIPF Health Wide Reach, a series of sessions to discuss issues of data sharing and privacy in clinical AI. The organizers assembled experts devoted to AI, policy, and health from around the world with the goal of understanding what can be done to decrease barriers to access to high-quality health data to advance more innovative, robust, and inclusive research results while being respectful of patient privacy.

    Over the course of the series, members of the group presented on a topic of expertise and were tasked with proposing concrete policy approaches to the challenge discussed. Drawing on these wide-ranging conversations, participants unveiled their findings during the symposium, covering nonprofit and government success stories and limited access models; upside demonstrations; legal frameworks, regulation, and funding; technical approaches to privacy; and infrastructure and data sharing. The group then discussed some of their recommendations that are summarized in a report that will be released soon.

    One of the findings calls for the need to make more data available for research use. Recommendations that stem from this finding include updating regulations to promote data sharing to enable easier access to safe harbors such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has for de-identification, as well as expanding funding for private health institutions to curate datasets, amongst others. Another finding, to remove barriers to data for researchers, supports a recommendation to decrease obstacles to research and development on federally created health data. “If this is data that should be accessible because it’s funded by some federal entity, we should easily establish the steps that are going to be part of gaining access to that so that it’s a more inclusive and equitable set of research opportunities for all,” says Ghassemi. The group also recommends taking a careful look at the ethical principles that govern data sharing. While there are already many principles proposed around this, Ghassemi says that “obviously you can’t satisfy all levers or buttons at once, but we think that this is a trade-off that’s very important to think through intelligently.”

    In addition to law and health care, other facets of AI policy explored during the event included auditing and monitoring AI systems at scale, and the role AI plays in mobility and the range of technical, business, and policy challenges for autonomous vehicles in particular.

    The AI Policy Forum Symposium was an effort to bring together communities of practice with the shared aim of designing the next chapter of AI. In his closing remarks, Aleksander Madry, the Cadence Designs Systems Professor of Computing at MIT and faculty co-lead of the AI Policy Forum, emphasized the importance of collaboration and the need for different communities to communicate with each other in order to truly make an impact in the AI policy space.

    “The dream here is that we all can meet together — researchers, industry, policymakers, and other stakeholders — and really talk to each other, understand each other’s concerns, and think together about solutions,” Madry said. “This is the mission of the AI Policy Forum and this is what we want to enable.” More

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    MIT to launch new Office of Research Computing and Data

    As the computing and data needs of MIT’s research community continue to grow — both in their quantity and complexity — the Institute is launching a new effort to ensure that researchers have access to the advanced computing resources and data management services they need to do their best work. 

    At the core of this effort is the creation of the new Office of Research Computing and Data (ORCD), to be led by Professor Peter Fisher, who will step down as head of the Department of Physics to serve as the office’s inaugural director. The office, which formally opens in September, will build on and replace the MIT Research Computing Project, an initiative supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research, which contributed in recent years to improving the computing resources available to MIT researchers.

    “Almost every scientific field makes use of research computing to carry out our mission at MIT — and computing needs vary between different research groups. In my world, high-energy physics experiments need large amounts of storage and many identical general-purpose CPUs, while astrophysical theorists simulating the formation of galaxy clusters need relatively little storage, but many CPUs with high-speed connections between them,” says Fisher, the Thomas A. Frank (1977) Professor of Physics, who will take up the mantle of ORCD director on Sept. 1.

    “I envision ORCD to be, at a minimum, a centralized system with a spectrum of different capabilities to allow our MIT researchers to start their projects and understand the computational resources needed to execute them,” Fisher adds.

    The Office of Research Computing and Data will provide services spanning hardware, software, and cloud solutions, including data storage and retrieval, and offer advice, training, documentation, and data curation for MIT’s research community. It will also work to develop innovative solutions that address emerging or highly specialized needs, and it will advance strategic collaborations with industry.

    The exceptional performance of MIT’s endowment last year has provided a unique opportunity for MIT to distribute endowment funds to accelerate progress on an array of Institute priorities in fiscal year 2023, beginning July 1, 2022. On the basis of community input and visiting committee feedback, MIT’s leadership identified research computing as one such priority, enabling the expanded effort that the Institute commenced today. Future operation of ORCD will incorporate a cost-recovery model.

    In his new role, Fisher will report to Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, and coordinate closely with MIT Information Systems and Technology (IS&T), MIT Libraries, and the deans of the five schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, among others. He will also work closely with Provost Cindy Barnhart.

    “I am thrilled that Peter has agreed to take on this important role,” says Zuber. “Under his leadership, I am confident that we’ll be able to build on the important progress of recent years to deliver to MIT researchers best-in-class infrastructure, services, and expertise so they can maximize the performance of their research.”

    MIT’s research computing capabilities have grown significantly in recent years. Ten years ago, the Institute joined with a number of other Massachusetts universities to establish the Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) in Holyoke to provide the high-performance, low-carbon computing power necessary to carry out cutting-edge research while reducing its environmental impact. MIT’s capacity at the MGHPCC is now almost fully utilized, however, and an expansion is underway.

    The need for more advanced computing capacity is not the only issue to be addressed. Over the last decade, there have been considerable advances in cloud computing, which is increasingly used in research computing, requiring the Institute to take a new look at how it works with cloud services providers and then allocates cloud resources to departments, labs, and centers. And MIT’s longstanding model for research computing — which has been mostly decentralized — can lead to inefficiencies and inequities among departments, even as it offers flexibility.

    The Institute has been carefully assessing how to address these issues for several years, including in connection with the establishment of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. In August 2019, a college task force on computing infrastructure found a “campus-wide preference for an overarching organizational model of computing infrastructure that transcends a college or school and most logically falls under senior leadership.” The task force’s report also addressed the need for a better balance between centralized and decentralized research computing resources.

    “The needs for computing infrastructure and support vary considerably across disciplines,” says Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the Henry Ellis Warren Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “With the new Office of Research Computing and Data, the Institute is seizing the opportunity to transform its approach to supporting research computing and data, including not only hardware and cloud computing but also expertise. This move is a critical step forward in supporting MIT’s research and scholarship.”

    Over time, ORCD (pronounced “orchid”) aims to recruit a staff of professionals, including data scientists and engineers and system and hardware administrators, who will enhance, support, and maintain MIT’s research computing infrastructure, and ensure that all researchers on campus have access to a minimum level of advanced computing and data management.

    The new research computing and data effort is part of a broader push to modernize MIT’s information technology infrastructure and systems. “We are at an inflection point, where we have a significant opportunity to invest in core needs, replace or upgrade aging systems, and respond fully to the changing needs of our faculty, students, and staff,” says Mark Silis, MIT’s vice president for information systems and technology. “We are thrilled to have a new partner in the Office of Research Computing and Data as we embark on this important work.” More

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    Looking forward to forecast the risks of a changing climate

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the third in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition, and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    Extreme weather events that were once considered rare have become noticeably less so, from intensifying hurricane activity in the North Atlantic to wildfires generating massive clouds of ozone-damaging smoke. But current climate models are unprepared when it comes to estimating the risk that these increasingly extreme events pose — and without adequate modeling, governments are left unable to take necessary precautions to protect their communities.

    MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science (EAPS) Professor Paul O’Gorman researches this trend by studying how climate affects the atmosphere and incorporating what he learns into climate models to improve their accuracy. One particular focus for O’Gorman has been changes in extreme precipitation and midlatitude storms that hit areas like New England.

    “These extreme events are having a lot of impact, but they’re also difficult to model or study,” he says. Seeing the pressing need for better climate models that can be used to develop preparedness plans and climate change mitigation strategies, O’Gorman and collaborators Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in EAPS, and Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor in MIT’s Department of Architecture, are leading an interdisciplinary group of scientists, engineers, and designers to tackle this problem with their MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project, “Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes.”

    “We know already from observations and from climate model predictions that weather and climate extremes are changing and will change more,” O’Gorman says. “The grand challenge is preparing for those changing extremes.”

    Their proposal is one of five flagship projects recently announced by the MIT Climate Grand Challenges initiative — an Institute-wide effort catalyzing novel research and engineering innovations to address the climate crisis. Selected from a field of almost 100 submissions, the team will receive additional funding and exposure to help accelerate and scale their project goals. Other MIT collaborators on the proposal include researchers from the School of Engineering, the School of Architecture and Planning, the Office of Sustainability, the Center for Global Change Science, and the Institute for Data, Systems and Society.

    Weather risk modeling

    Fifteen years ago, Kerry Emanuel developed a simple hurricane model. It was based on physics equations, rather than statistics, and could run in real time, making it useful for modeling risk assessment. Emanuel wondered if similar models could be used for long-term risk assessment of other things, such as changes in extreme weather because of climate change.

    “I discovered, somewhat to my surprise and dismay, that almost all extant estimates of long-term weather risks in the United States are based not on physical models, but on historical statistics of the hazards,” says Emanuel. “The problem with relying on historical records is that they’re too short; while they can help estimate common events, they don’t contain enough information to make predictions for more rare events.”

    Another limitation of weather risk models which rely heavily on statistics: They have a built-in assumption that the climate is static.

    “Historical records rely on the climate at the time they were recorded; they can’t say anything about how hurricanes grow in a warmer climate,” says Emanuel. The models rely on fixed relationships between events; they assume that hurricane activity will stay the same, even while science is showing that warmer temperatures will most likely push typical hurricane activity beyond the tropics and into a much wider band of latitudes.

    As a flagship project, the goal is to eliminate this reliance on the historical record by emphasizing physical principles (e.g., the laws of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics) in next-generation models. The downside to this is that there are many variables that have to be included. Not only are there planetary-scale systems to consider, such as the global circulation of the atmosphere, but there are also small-scale, extremely localized events, like thunderstorms, that influence predictive outcomes.

    Trying to compute all of these at once is costly and time-consuming — and the results often can’t tell you the risk in a specific location. But there is a way to correct for this: “What’s done is to use a global model, and then use a method called downscaling, which tries to infer what would happen on very small scales that aren’t properly resolved by the global model,” explains O’Gorman. The team hopes to improve downscaling techniques so that they can be used to calculate the risk of very rare but impactful weather events.

    Global climate models, or general circulation models (GCMs), Emanuel explains, are constructed a bit like a jungle gym. Like the playground bars, the Earth is sectioned in an interconnected three-dimensional framework — only it’s divided 100 to 200 square kilometers at a time. Each node comprises a set of computations for characteristics like wind, rainfall, atmospheric pressure, and temperature within its bounds; the outputs of each node are connected to its neighbor. This framework is useful for creating a big picture idea of Earth’s climate system, but if you tried to zoom in on a specific location — like, say, to see what’s happening in Miami or Mumbai — the connecting nodes are too far apart to make predictions on anything specific to those areas.

    Scientists work around this problem by using downscaling. They use the same blueprint of the jungle gym, but within the nodes they weave a mesh of smaller features, incorporating equations for things like topography and vegetation or regional meteorological models to fill in the blanks. By creating a finer mesh over smaller areas they can predict local effects without needing to run the entire global model.

    Of course, even this finer-resolution solution has its trade-offs. While we might be able to gain a clearer picture of what’s happening in a specific region by nesting models within models, it can still make for a computing challenge to crunch all that data at once, with the trade-off being expense and time, or predictions that are limited to shorter windows of duration — where GCMs can be run considering decades or centuries, a particularly complex local model may be restricted to predictions on timescales of just a few years at a time.

    “I’m afraid that most of the downscaling at present is brute force, but I think there’s room to do it in better ways,” says Emanuel, who sees the problem of finding new and novel methods of achieving this goal as an intellectual challenge. “I hope that through the Grand Challenges project we might be able to get students, postdocs, and others interested in doing this in a very creative way.”

    Adapting to weather extremes for cities and renewable energy

    Improving climate modeling is more than a scientific exercise in creativity, however. There’s a very real application for models that can accurately forecast risk in localized regions.

    Another problem is that progress in climate modeling has not kept up with the need for climate mitigation plans, especially in some of the most vulnerable communities around the globe.

    “It is critical for stakeholders to have access to this data for their own decision-making process. Every community is composed of a diverse population with diverse needs, and each locality is affected by extreme weather events in unique ways,” says Mazereeuw, the director of the MIT Urban Risk Lab. 

    A key piece of the team’s project is building on partnerships the Urban Risk Lab has developed with several cities to test their models once they have a usable product up and running. The cities were selected based on their vulnerability to increasing extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones in Broward County, Florida, and Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, and extratropical storms in Boston, Massachusetts, and Cape Town, South Africa.

    In their proposal, the team outlines a variety of deliverables that the cities can ultimately use in their climate change preparations, with ideas such as online interactive platforms and workshops with stakeholders — such as local governments, developers, nonprofits, and residents — to learn directly what specific tools they need for their local communities. By doing so, they can craft plans addressing different scenarios in their region, involving events such as sea-level rise or heat waves, while also providing information and means of developing adaptation strategies for infrastructure under these conditions that will be the most effective and efficient for them.

    “We are acutely aware of the inequity of resources both in mitigating impacts and recovering from disasters. Working with diverse communities through workshops allows us to engage a lot of people, listen, discuss, and collaboratively design solutions,” says Mazereeuw.

    By the end of five years, the team is hoping that they’ll have better risk assessment and preparedness tool kits, not just for the cities that they’re partnering with, but for others as well.

    “MIT is well-positioned to make progress in this area,” says O’Gorman, “and I think it’s an important problem where we can make a difference.” More

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    MIT announces five flagship projects in first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition

    MIT today announced the five flagship projects selected in its first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition. These multiyear projects will define a dynamic research agenda focused on unraveling some of the toughest unsolved climate problems and bringing high-impact, science-based solutions to the world on an accelerated basis.

    Representing the most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition, the five flagship projects will receive additional funding and resources from MIT and others to develop their ideas and swiftly transform them into practical solutions at scale.

    “Climate Grand Challenges represents a whole-of-MIT drive to develop game-changing advances to confront the escalating climate crisis, in time to make a difference,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We are inspired by the creativity and boldness of the flagship ideas and by their potential to make a significant contribution to the global climate response. But given the planet-wide scale of the challenge, success depends on partnership. We are eager to work with visionary leaders in every sector to accelerate this impact-oriented research, implement serious solutions at scale, and inspire others to join us in confronting this urgent challenge for humankind.”

    Brief descriptions of the five Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects are provided below.

    Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge

    This project leverages advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data sciences to improve the accuracy of climate models and make them more useful to a variety of stakeholders — from communities to industry. The team is developing a digital twin of the Earth that harnesses more data than ever before to reduce and quantify uncertainties in climate projections.

    Research leads: Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate; and Noelle Eckley Selin, director of the Technology and Policy Program and professor with a joint appointment in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    Center for Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry

    This project seeks to reinvent and electrify the processes and materials behind hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene production. A new innovation hub will perform targeted fundamental research and engineering with urgency, pushing the technological envelope on electricity-driven chemical transformations.

    Research leads: Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Bilge Yıldız, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

    Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes

    This project addresses key gaps in knowledge about intensifying extreme events such as floods, hurricanes, and heat waves, and quantifies their long-term risk in a changing climate. The team is developing a scalable climate-change adaptation toolkit to help vulnerable communities and low-carbon energy providers prepare for these extreme weather events.

    Research leads: Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and co-director of the MIT Lorenz Center; Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab; and Paul O’Gorman, professor in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    The Climate Resilience Early Warning System

    The CREWSnet project seeks to reinvent climate change adaptation with a novel forecasting system that empowers underserved communities to interpret local climate risk, proactively plan for their futures incorporating resilience strategies, and minimize losses. CREWSnet will initially be demonstrated in southwestern Bangladesh, serving as a model for similarly threatened regions around the world.

    Research leads: John Aldridge, assistant leader of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops

    This project works to revolutionize the agricultural sector with climate-resilient crops and fertilizers that have the ability to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production.

    Research lead: Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering

    “As one of the world’s leading institutions of research and innovation, it is incumbent upon MIT to draw on our depth of knowledge, ingenuity, and ambition to tackle the hard climate problems now confronting the world,” says Richard Lester, MIT associate provost for international activities. “Together with collaborators across industry, finance, community, and government, the Climate Grand Challenges teams are looking to develop and implement high-impact, path-breaking climate solutions rapidly and at a grand scale.”

    The initial call for ideas in 2020 yielded nearly 100 letters of interest from almost 400 faculty members and senior researchers, representing 90 percent of MIT departments. After an extensive evaluation, 27 finalist teams received a total of $2.7 million to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans. The projects address four broad research themes:

    To select the winning projects, research plans were reviewed by panels of international experts representing relevant scientific and technical domains as well as experts in processes and policies for innovation and scalability.

    “In response to climate change, the world really needs to do two things quickly: deploy the solutions we already have much more widely, and develop new solutions that are urgently needed to tackle this intensifying threat,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research. “These five flagship projects exemplify MIT’s strong determination to bring its knowledge and expertise to bear in generating new ideas and solutions that will help solve the climate problem.”

    “The Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects set a new standard for inclusive climate solutions that can be adapted and implemented across the globe,” says MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles. “This competition propels the entire MIT research community — faculty, students, postdocs, and staff — to act with urgency around a worsening climate crisis, and I look forward to seeing the difference these projects can make.”

    “MIT’s efforts on climate research amid the climate crisis was a primary reason that I chose to attend MIT, and remains a reason that I view the Institute favorably. MIT has a clear opportunity to be a thought leader in the climate space in our own MIT way, which is why CGC fits in so well,” says senior Megan Xu, who served on the Climate Grand Challenges student committee and is studying ways to make the food system more sustainable.

    The Climate Grand Challenges competition is a key initiative of “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021. Fast Forward outlines MIT’s comprehensive plan for helping the world address the climate crisis. It consists of five broad areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts. More

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    Ocean vital signs

    Without the ocean, the climate crisis would be even worse than it is. Each year, the ocean absorbs billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere, preventing warming that greenhouse gas would otherwise cause. Scientists estimate about 25 to 30 percent of all carbon released into the atmosphere by both human and natural sources is absorbed by the ocean.

    “But there’s a lot of uncertainty in that number,” says Ryan Woosley, a marine chemist and a principal research scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT. Different parts of the ocean take in different amounts of carbon depending on many factors, such as the season and the amount of mixing from storms. Current models of the carbon cycle don’t adequately capture this variation.

    To close the gap, Woosley and a team of other MIT scientists developed a research proposal for the MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition — an Institute-wide campaign to catalyze and fund innovative research addressing the climate crisis. The team’s proposal, “Ocean Vital Signs,” involves sending a fleet of sailing drones to cruise the oceans taking detailed measurements of how much carbon the ocean is really absorbing. Those data would be used to improve the precision of global carbon cycle models and improve researchers’ ability to verify emissions reductions claimed by countries.

    “If we start to enact mitigation strategies—either through removing CO2 from the atmosphere or reducing emissions — we need to know where CO2 is going in order to know how effective they are,” says Woosley. Without more precise models there’s no way to confirm whether observed carbon reductions were thanks to policy and people, or thanks to the ocean.

    “So that’s the trillion-dollar question,” says Woosley. “If countries are spending all this money to reduce emissions, is it enough to matter?”

    In February, the team’s Climate Grand Challenges proposal was named one of 27 finalists out of the almost 100 entries submitted. From among this list of finalists, MIT will announce in April the selection of five flagship projects to receive further funding and support.

    Woosley is leading the team along with Christopher Hill, a principal research engineer in EAPS. The team includes physical and chemical oceanographers, marine microbiologists, biogeochemists, and experts in computational modeling from across the department, in addition to collaborators from the Media Lab and the departments of Mathematics, Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

    Today, data on the flux of carbon dioxide between the air and the oceans are collected in a piecemeal way. Research ships intermittently cruise out to gather data. Some commercial ships are also fitted with sensors. But these present a limited view of the entire ocean, and include biases. For instance, commercial ships usually avoid storms, which can increase the turnover of water exposed to the atmosphere and cause a substantial increase in the amount of carbon absorbed by the ocean.

    “It’s very difficult for us to get to it and measure that,” says Woosley. “But these drones can.”

    If funded, the team’s project would begin by deploying a few drones in a small area to test the technology. The wind-powered drones — made by a California-based company called Saildrone — would autonomously navigate through an area, collecting data on air-sea carbon dioxide flux continuously with solar-powered sensors. This would then scale up to more than 5,000 drone-days’ worth of observations, spread over five years, and in all five ocean basins.

    Those data would be used to feed neural networks to create more precise maps of how much carbon is absorbed by the oceans, shrinking the uncertainties involved in the models. These models would continue to be verified and improved by new data. “The better the models are, the more we can rely on them,” says Woosley. “But we will always need measurements to verify the models.”

    Improved carbon cycle models are relevant beyond climate warming as well. “CO2 is involved in so much of how the world works,” says Woosley. “We’re made of carbon, and all the other organisms and ecosystems are as well. What does the perturbation to the carbon cycle do to these ecosystems?”

    One of the best understood impacts is ocean acidification. Carbon absorbed by the ocean reacts to form an acid. A more acidic ocean can have dire impacts on marine organisms like coral and oysters, whose calcium carbonate shells and skeletons can dissolve in the lower pH. Since the Industrial Revolution, the ocean has become about 30 percent more acidic on average.

    “So while it’s great for us that the oceans have been taking up the CO2, it’s not great for the oceans,” says Woosley. “Knowing how this uptake affects the health of the ocean is important as well.” More