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    Living better with algorithms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Auditing social media algorithms

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

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

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

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

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

    Who gets good outcomes and who gets bad ones?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What is the effect of X on Y?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Frequent encounters build familiarity

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

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

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

    Mapping urban networks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    MIT Schwarzman College of Computing unveils Break Through Tech AI

    Aimed at driving diversity and inclusion in artificial intelligence, the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing is launching Break Through Tech AI, a new program to bridge the talent gap for women and underrepresented genders in AI positions in industry.

    Break Through Tech AI will provide skills-based training, industry-relevant portfolios, and mentoring to qualified undergraduate students in the Greater Boston area in order to position them more competitively for careers in data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. The free, 18-month program will also provide each student with a stipend for participation to lower the barrier for those typically unable to engage in an unpaid, extra-curricular educational opportunity.

    “Helping position students from diverse backgrounds to succeed in fields such as data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence is critical for our society’s future,” says Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and Henry Ellis Warren Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “We look forward to working with students from across the Greater Boston area to provide them with skills and mentorship to help them find careers in this competitive and growing industry.”

    The college is collaborating with Break Through Tech — a national initiative launched by Cornell Tech in 2016 to increase the number of women and underrepresented groups graduating with degrees in computing — to host and administer the program locally. In addition to Boston, the inaugural artificial intelligence and machine learning program will be offered in two other metropolitan areas — one based in New York hosted by Cornell Tech and another in Los Angeles hosted by the University of California at Los Angeles Samueli School of Engineering.

    “Break Through Tech’s success at diversifying who is pursuing computer science degrees and careers has transformed lives and the industry,” says Judith Spitz, executive director of Break Through Tech. “With our new collaborators, we can apply our impactful model to drive inclusion and diversity in artificial intelligence.”

    The new program will kick off this summer at MIT with an eight-week, skills-based online course and in-person lab experience that teaches industry-relevant tools to build real-world AI solutions. Students will learn how to analyze datasets and use several common machine learning libraries to build, train, and implement their own ML models in a business context.

    Following the summer course, students will be matched with machine-learning challenge projects for which they will convene monthly at MIT and work in teams to build solutions and collaborate with an industry advisor or mentor throughout the academic year, resulting in a portfolio of resume-quality work. The participants will also be paired with young professionals in the field to help build their network, prepare their portfolio, practice for interviews, and cultivate workplace skills.

    “Leveraging the college’s strong partnership with industry, Break Through AI will offer unique opportunities to students that will enhance their portfolio in machine learning and AI,” says Asu Ozdaglar, deputy dean of academics of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Ozdaglar, who will be the MIT faculty director of Break Through Tech AI, adds: “The college is committed to making computing inclusive and accessible for all. We’re thrilled to host this program at MIT for the Greater Boston area and to do what we can to help increase diversity in computing fields.”

    Break Through Tech AI is part of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing’s focus to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in computing. The college aims to improve and create programs and activities that broaden participation in computing classes and degree programs, increase the diversity of top faculty candidates in computing fields, and ensure that faculty search and graduate admissions processes have diverse slates of candidates and interviews.

    “By engaging in activities like Break Through Tech AI that work to improve the climate for underrepresented groups, we’re taking an important step toward creating more welcoming environments where all members can innovate and thrive,” says Alana Anderson, assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion for the Schwarzman College of Computing. More

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    Transforming the travel experience for the Hong Kong airport

    MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node welcomed 33 students to its flagship program, MIT Entrepreneurship and Maker Skills Integrator (MEMSI). Designed to develop entrepreneurial prowess through exposure to industry-driven challenges, MIT students joined forces with Hong Kong peers in this two-week hybrid bootcamp, developing unique proposals for the Airport Authority of Hong Kong.

    Many airports across the world continue to be affected by the broader impact of Covid-19 with reduced air travel, prompting airlines to cut capacity. The result is a need for new business opportunities to propel economic development. For Hong Kong, the expansion toward non-aeronautical activities to boost regional consumption is therefore crucial, and included as part of the blueprint to transform the city’s airport into an airport city — characterized by capacity expansion, commercial developments, air cargo leadership, an autonomous transport system, connectivity to neighboring cities in mainland China, and evolution into a smart airport guided by sustainable practices. To enhance the customer experience, a key focus is capturing business opportunities at the nexus of digital and physical interactions. 

    These challenges “bring ideas and talent together to tackle real-world problems in the areas of digital service creation for the airport and engaging regional customers to experience the new airport city,” says Charles Sodini, the LeBel Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT and faculty director at the Node. 

    The new travel standard

    Businesses are exploring new digital technologies, both to drive bookings and to facilitate safe travel. Developments such as Hong Kong airport’s Flight Token, a biometric technology using facial recognition to enable contactless check-ins and boarding at airports, unlock enormous potential that speeds up the departure journey of passengers. Seamless virtual experiences are not going to disappear.

    “What we may see could be a strong rebounce especially for travelers after the travel ban lifts … an opportunity to make travel easier, flying as simple as riding the bus,” says Chris Au Young, general manager of smart airport and general manager of data analytics at the Airport Authority of Hong Kong. 

    The passenger experience of the future will be “enabled by mobile technology, internet of things, and digital platforms,” he explains, adding that in the aviation community, “international organizations have already stipulated that biometric technology will be the new standard for the future … the next question is how this can be connected across airports.”  

    This extends further beyond travel, where Au Young illustrates, “If you go to a concert at Asia World Expo, which is the airport’s new arena in the future, you might just simply show your face rather than queue up in a long line waiting to show your tickets.”

    Accelerating the learning curve with industry support

    Working closely with industry mentors involved in the airport city’s development, students dived deep into discussions on the future of adapted travel, interviewed and surveyed travelers, and plowed through a range of airport data to uncover business insights.

    “With the large amount of data provided, my teammates and I worked hard to identify modeling opportunities that were both theoretically feasible and valuable in a business sense,” says Sean Mann, a junior at MIT studying computer science.

    Mann and his team applied geolocation data to inform machine learning predictions on a passenger’s journey once they enter the airside area. Coupled with biometric technology, passengers can receive personalized recommendations with improved accuracy via the airport’s bespoke passenger app, powered by data collected through thousands of iBeacons dispersed across the vicinity. Armed with these insights, the aim is to enhance the user experience by driving meaningful footfall to retail shops, restaurants, and other airport amenities.

    The support of industry partners inspired his team “with their deep understanding of the aviation industry,” he added. “In a short period of two weeks, we built a proof-of-concept and a rudimentary business plan — the latter of which was very new to me.”

    Collaborating across time zones, Rumen Dangovski, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, joined MEMSI from his home in Bulgaria. For him, learning “how to continually revisit ideas to discover important problems and meaningful solutions for a large and complex real-world system” was a key takeaway. The iterative process helped his team overcome the obstacle of narrowing down the scope of their proposal, with the help of industry mentors and advisors. 

    “Without the feedback from industry partners, we would not have been able to formulate a concrete solution that is actually helpful to the airport,” says Dangovski.  

    Beyond valuable mentorship, he adds, “there was incredible energy in our team, consisting of diverse talent, grit, discipline and organization. I was positively surprised how MEMSI can form quickly and give continual support to our team. The overall experience was very fun.“

    A sustainable future

    Mrigi Munjal, a PhD candidate studying materials science and engineering at MIT, had just taken a long-haul flight from Boston to Delhi prior to the program, and “was beginning to fully appreciate the scale of carbon emissions from aviation.” For her, “that one journey basically overshadowed all of my conscious pro-sustainability lifestyle changes,” she says.

    Knowing that international flights constitute the largest part of an individual’s carbon footprint, Munjal and her team wanted “to make flying more sustainable with an idea that is economically viable for all of the stakeholders involved.” 

    They proposed a carbon offset API that integrates into an airline’s ticket payment system, empowering individuals to take action to offset their carbon footprint, track their personal carbon history, and pick and monitor green projects. The advocacy extends to a digital display of interactive art featured in physical installations across the airport city. The intent is to raise community awareness about one’s impact on the environment and making carbon offsetting accessible. 

    Shaping the travel narrative

    Six teams of students created innovative solutions for the Hong Kong airport which they presented in hybrid format to a panel of judges on Showcase Day. The diverse ideas included an app-based airport retail recommendations supported by iBeacons; a platform that empowers customers to offset their carbon footprint; an app that connects fellow travelers for social and incentive-driven retail experiences; a travel membership exchange platform offering added flexibility to earn and redeem loyalty rewards; an interactive and gamified location-based retail experience using augmented reality; and a digital companion avatar to increase adoption of the airport’s Flight Token and improve airside passenger experience.

    Among the judges was Julian Lee ’97, former president of the MIT Club of Hong Kong and current executive director of finance at the Airport Authority of Hong Kong, who commended the students for demonstrably having “worked very thoroughly and thinking through the specific challenges,” addressing the real pain points that the airport is experiencing.

    “The ideas were very thoughtful and very unique to us. Some of you defined transit passengers as a sub-segment of the market that works. It only happens at the airport and you’ve been able to leverage this transit time in between,” remarked Lee. 

    Strong solutions include an implementation plan to see a path for execution and a viable future. Among the solutions proposed, Au Young was impressed by teams for “paying a lot of attention to the business model … a very important aspect in all the ideas generated.”  

    Addressing the students, Au Young says, “What we love is the way you reinvent the airport business and partnerships, presenting a new way of attracting people to engage more in new services and experiences — not just returning for a flight or just shopping with us, but innovating beyond the airport and using emerging technologies, using location data, using the retailer’s capability and adding some social activities in your solutions.”

    Despite today’s rapidly evolving travel industry, what remains unchanged is a focus on the customer. In the end, “it’s still about the passengers,” added Au Young.  More

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    Unlocking new doors to artificial intelligence

    Artificial intelligence research is constantly developing new hypotheses that have the potential to benefit society and industry; however, sometimes these benefits are not fully realized due to a lack of engineering tools. To help bridge this gap, graduate students in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science’s 6-A Master of Engineering (MEng) Thesis Program work with some of the most innovative companies in the world and collaborate on cutting-edge projects, while contributing to and completing their MEng thesis.

    During a portion of the last year, four 6-A MEng students teamed up and completed an internship with IBM Research’s advanced prototyping team through the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab on AI projects, often developing web applications to solve a real-world issue or business use cases. Here, the students worked alongside AI engineers, user experience engineers, full-stack researchers, and generalists to accommodate project requests and receive thesis advice, says Lee Martie, IBM research staff member and 6-A manager. The students’ projects ranged from generating synthetic data to allow for privacy-sensitive data analysis to using computer vision to identify actions in video that allows for monitoring human safety and tracking build progress on a construction site.

    “I appreciated all of the expertise from the team and the feedback,” says 6-A graduate Violetta Jusiega ’21, who participated in the program. “I think that working in industry gives the lens of making sure that the project’s needs are satisfied and [provides the opportunity] to ground research and make sure that it is helpful for some use case in the future.”

    Jusiega’s research intersected the fields of computer vision and design to focus on data visualization and user interfaces for the medical field. Working with IBM, she built an application programming interface (API) that let clinicians interact with a medical treatment strategy AI model, which was deployed in the cloud. Her interface provided a medical decision tree, as well as some prescribed treatment plans. After receiving feedback on her design from physicians at a local hospital, Jusiega developed iterations of the API and how the results where displayed, visually, so that it would be user-friendly and understandable for clinicians, who don’t usually code. She says that, “these tools are often not acquired into the field because they lack some of these API principles which become more important in an industry where everything is already very fast paced, so there’s little time to incorporate a new technology.” But this project might eventually allow for industry deployment. “I think this application has a bunch of potential, whether it does get picked up by clinicians or whether it’s simply used in research. It’s very promising and very exciting to see how technology can help us modify, or I can improve, the health-care field to be even more custom-tailored towards patients and giving them the best care possible,” she says.

    Another 6-A graduate student, Spencer Compton, was also considering aiding professionals to make more informed decisions, for use in settings including health care, but he was tackling it from a causal perspective. When given a set of related variables, Compton was investigating if there was a way to determine not just correlation, but the cause-and-effect relationship between them (the direction of the interaction) from the data alone. For this, he and his collaborators from IBM Research and Purdue University turned to a field of math called information theory. With the goal of designing an algorithm to learn complex networks of causal relationships, Compton used ideas relating to entropy, the randomness in a system, to help determine if a causal relationship is present and how variables might be interacting. “When judging an explanation, people often default to Occam’s razor” says Compton. “We’re more inclined to believe a simpler explanation than a more complex one.” In many cases, he says, it seemed to perform well. For instance, they were able to consider variables such as lung cancer, pollution, and X-ray findings. He was pleased that his research allowed him to help create a framework of “entropic causal inference” that could aid in safe and smart decisions in the future, in a satisfying way. “The math is really surprisingly deep, interesting, and complex,” says Compton. “We’re basically asking, ‘when is the simplest explanation correct?’ but as a math question.”

    Determining relationships within data can sometimes require large volumes of it to suss out patterns, but for data that may contain sensitive information, this may not be available. For her master’s work, Ivy Huang worked with IBM Research to generate synthetic tabular data using a natural language processing tool called a transformer model, which can learn and predict future values from past values. Trained on real data, the model can produce new data with similar patterns, properties, and relationships without restrictions like privacy, availability, and access that might come with real data in financial transactions and electronic medical records. Further, she created an API and deployed the model in an IBM cluster, which allowed users increased access to the model and abilities to query it without compromising the original data.

    Working with the advanced prototyping team, MEng candidate Brandon Perez also considered how to gather and investigate data with restrictions, but in his case it was to use computer vision frameworks, centered on an action recognition model, to identify construction site happenings. The team based their work on the Moments in Time dataset, which contains over a million three-second video clips with about 300 attached classification labels, and has performed well during AI training. However, the group needed more construction-based video data. For this, they used YouTube-8M. Perez built a framework for testing and fine-tuning existing object detection models and action recognition models that could plug into an automatic spatial and temporal localization tool — how they would identify and label particular actions in a video timeline. “I was satisfied that I was able to explore what made me curious, and I was grateful for the autonomy that I was given with this project,” says Perez. “I felt like I was always supported, and my mentor was a great support to the project.”

    “The kind of collaborations that we have seen between our MEng students and IBM researchers are exactly what the 6-A MEng Thesis program at MIT is all about,” says Tomas Palacios, professor of electrical engineering and faculty director of the MIT 6-A MEng Thesis program. “For more than 100 years, 6-A has been connecting MIT students with industry to solve together some of the most important problems in the world.” More

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    Meet the 2021-22 Accenture Fellows

    Launched in October of 2020, the MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology underscores the ways in which industry and technology come together to spur innovation. The five-year initiative aims to achieve its mission through research, education, and fellowships. To that end, Accenture has once again awarded five annual fellowships to MIT graduate students working on research in industry and technology convergence who are underrepresented, including by race, ethnicity, and gender.

    This year’s Accenture Fellows work across disciplines including robotics, manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and biomedicine. Their research covers a wide array of subjects, including: advancing manufacturing through computational design, with the potential to benefit global vaccine production; designing low-energy robotics for both consumer electronics and the aerospace industry; developing robotics and machine learning systems that may aid the elderly in their homes; and creating ingestible biomedical devices that can help gather medical data from inside a patient’s body.

    Student nominations from each unit within the School of Engineering, as well as from the four other MIT schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, were invited as part of the application process. Five exceptional students were selected as fellows in the initiative’s second year.

    Xinming (Lily) Liu is a PhD student in operations research at MIT Sloan School of Management. Her work is focused on behavioral and data-driven operations for social good, incorporating human behaviors into traditional optimization models, designing incentives, and analyzing real-world data. Her current research looks at the convergence of social media, digital platforms, and agriculture, with particular attention to expanding technological equity and economic opportunity in developing countries. Liu earned her BS from Cornell University, with a double major in operations research and computer science.

    Caris Moses is a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science specializing inartificial intelligence. Moses’ research focuses on using machine learning, optimization, and electromechanical engineering to build robotics systems that are robust, flexible, intelligent, and can learn on the job. The technology she is developing holds promise for industries including flexible, small-batch manufacturing; robots to assist the elderly in their households; and warehouse management and fulfillment. Moses earned her BS in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and her MS in computer science from Northeastern University.

    Sergio Rodriguez Aponte is a PhD student in biological engineering. He is working on the convergence of computational design and manufacturing practices, which have the potential to impact industries such as biopharmaceuticals, food, and wellness/nutrition. His current research aims to develop strategies for applying computational tools, such as multiscale modeling and machine learning, to the design and production of manufacturable and accessible vaccine candidates that could eventually be available globally. Rodriguez Aponte earned his BS in industrial biotechnology from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.

    Soumya Sudhakar SM ’20 is a PhD student in aeronautics and astronautics. Her work is focused on theco-design of new algorithms and integrated circuits for autonomous low-energy robotics that could have novel applications in aerospace and consumer electronics. Her contributions bring together the emerging robotics industry, integrated circuits industry, aerospace industry, and consumer electronics industry. Sudhakar earned her BSE in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University and her MS in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT.

    So-Yoon Yang is a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science. Her work on the development of low-power, wireless, ingestible biomedical devices for health care is at the intersection of the medical device, integrated circuit, artificial intelligence, and pharmaceutical fields. Currently, the majority of wireless biomedical devices can only provide a limited range of medical data measured from outside the body. Ingestible devices hold promise for the next generation of personal health care because they do not require surgical implantation, can be useful for detecting physiological and pathophysiological signals, and can also function as therapeutic alternatives when treatment cannot be done externally. Yang earned her BS in electrical and computer engineering from Seoul National University in South Korea and her MS in electrical engineering from Caltech. More

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    Data flow’s decisive role on the global stage

    In 2016, Meicen Sun came to a profound realization: “The control of digital information will lie at the heart of all the big questions and big contentions in politics.” A graduate student in her final year of study who is specializing in international security and the political economy of technology, Sun vividly recalls the emergence of the internet “as a democratizing force, an opener, an equalizer,” helping give rise to the Arab Spring. But she was also profoundly struck when nations in the Middle East and elsewhere curbed internet access to throttle citizens’ efforts to speak and mobilize freely.

    During her undergraduate and graduate studies, which came to focus on China and its expanding global role, Sun became convinced that digital constraints initially intended to prevent the free flow of ideas were also having enormous and growing economic impacts.

    “With an exceptionally high mobile internet adoption rate and the explosion of indigenous digital apps, China’s digital economy was surging, helping to drive the nation’s broader economic growth and international competitiveness,” Sun says. “Yet at the same time, the country maintained the most tightly controlled internet ecosystem in the world.”

    Sun set out to explore this apparent paradox in her dissertation. Her research to date has yielded both novel findings and troubling questions.  

    “Through its control of the internet, China has in effect provided protectionist benefits to its own data-intensive domestic sectors,” she says. “If there is a benefit to imposing internet control, given the absence of effective international regulations, does this give authoritarian states an advantage in trade and national competitiveness?” Following this thread, Sun asks, “What might this mean for the future of democracy as the world grows increasingly dependent on digital technology?”

    Protect or innovate

    Early in her graduate program, classes in capitalism and technology and public policy, says Sun, “cemented for me the idea of data as a factor of production, and the importance of cross-border information flow in making a country innovative.” This central premise serves as a springboard for Sun’s doctoral studies.

    In a series of interconnected research papers using China as her primary case, she is examining the double-edged nature of internet limits. “They accord protectionist benefits to domestic data-internet-intensive sectors, on the one hand, but on the other, act as a potential longer-term deterrent to the country’s capacity to innovate.”

    To pursue her doctoral project, advised by professor of political science Kenneth Oye, Sun is extracting data from a multitude of sources, including a website that has been routinely testing web domain accessibility from within China since 2011. This allows her to pin down when and to what degree internet control occurs. She can then compare this information to publicly available records on the expansion or contraction of data-intensive industrial sectors, enabling her to correlate internet control to a sector’s performance.

    Sun has also compiled datasets for firm-level revenue, scientific citations, and patents that permit her to measure aspects of China’s innovation culture. In analyzing her data she leverages both quantitative and qualitative methods, including one co-developed by her dissertation co-advisor, associate professor of political science In Song Kim. Her initial analysis suggests internet control prevents scholars from accessing knowledge available on foreign websites, and that if sustained, such control could take a toll on the Chinese economy over time.

    Of particular concern is the possibility that the economic success that flows from strict internet controls, as exemplified by the Chinese model, may encourage the rise of similar practices among emerging states or those in political flux.

    “The grim implication of my research is that without international regulation on information flow restrictions, democracies will be at a disadvantage against autocracies,” she says. “No matter how short-term or narrow these curbs are, they confer concrete benefits on certain economic sectors.”

    Data, politics, and economy

    Sun got a quick start as a student of China and its role in the world. She was born in Xiamen, a coastal Chinese city across from Taiwan, to academic parents who cultivated her interest in international politics. “My dad would constantly talk to me about global affairs, and he was passionate about foreign policy,” says Sun.

    Eager for education and a broader view of the world, Sun took a scholarship at 15 to attend school in Singapore. “While this experience exposed me to a variety of new ideas and social customs, I felt the itch to travel even farther away, and to meet people with different backgrounds and viewpoints from mine,” than she says.

    Sun attended Princeton University where, after two years sticking to her “comfort zone” — writing and directing plays and composing music for them — she underwent a process of intellectual transition. Political science classes opened a window onto a larger landscape to which she had long been connected: China’s behavior as a rising power and the shifting global landscape.

    She completed her undergraduate degree in politics, and followed up with a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, where she focused on China-U.S. relations and China’s participation in international institutions. She was on the path to completing a PhD at Penn when, Sun says, “I became confident in my perception that digital technology, and especially information sharing, were becoming critically important factors in international politics, and I felt a strong desire to devote my graduate studies, and even my career, to studying these topics,”

    Certain that the questions she hoped to pursue could best be addressed through an interdisciplinary approach with those working on similar issues, Sun began her doctoral program anew at MIT.

    “Doer mindset”

    Sun is hopeful that her doctoral research will prove useful to governments, policymakers, and business leaders. “There are a lot of developing states actively shopping between data governance and development models for their own countries,” she says. “My findings around the pros and cons of information flow restrictions should be of interest to leaders in these places, and to trade negotiators and others dealing with the global governance of data and what a fair playing field for digital trade would be.”

    Sun has engaged directly with policy and industry experts through her fellowships with the World Economic Forum and the Pacific Forum. And she has embraced questions that touch on policy outside of her immediate research: Sun is collaborating with her dissertation co-advisor, MIT Sloan Professor Yasheng Huang, on a study of the political economy of artificial intelligence in China for the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future.

    This year, as she writes her dissertation papers, Sun will be based at Georgetown University, where she has a Mortara Center Global Political Economy Project Predoctoral Fellowship. In Washington, she will continue her journey to becoming a “policy-minded scholar, a thinker with a doer mindset, whose findings have bearing on things that happen in the world.” More

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    3 Questions: Peko Hosoi on the data-driven reasoning behind MIT’s Covid-19 policies for the fall

    As students, faculty, and staff prepare for a full return to the MIT campus in the weeks ahead, procedures for entering buildings, navigating classrooms and labs, and interacting with friends and colleagues will likely take some getting used to.

    The Institute recently reinforced its policies for indoor masking and has also continued to require regular testing for people who live, work, or study on campus — procedures that apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Vaccination is required for all students, faculty, and staff on campus unless a medical or religious exemption is granted.

    These and other policies adopted by MIT to control the spread of Covid-19 have been informed by modeling efforts from a volunteer group of MIT faculty, students, and postdocs. The collaboration, dubbed Isolat, was co-founded by Anette “Peko” Hosoi, the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering and associate dean in the School of Engineering.

    The group, which is organized through MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), has run numerous models to show how measures such as mask wearing, testing, ventilation, and quarantining could affect Covid-19’s spread. These models have helped to shape MIT’s Covid-19 policies throughout the pandemic, including its procedures for returning to campus this fall.

    Hosoi spoke with MIT News about the data-backed reasoning behind some of these procedures, including indoor masking and regular testing, and how a “generous community” will help MIT safely weather the virus and its variants.

    Q: Take us through how you have been modeling Covid-19 and its variants, in regard to helping MIT shape its Covid policies. What’s the approach you’ve taken, and why?

    A: The approach we’re taking uses a simple counting exercise developed in IDSS to estimate the balance of testing, masking, and vaccination that is required to keep the virus in check. The underlying objective is to find infected people faster, on average, than they can infect others, which is captured in a simple algebraic expression. Our objective can be accomplished either by speeding up the rate of finding infected people (i.e. increasing testing frequency) or slowing down the rate of infection (i.e. increasing masking and vaccination) or by a combination of both. To give you a sense of the numbers, balances for different levels of testing are shown in the chart below for a vaccine efficacy of 67 percent and a contagious period of 18 days (which are the CDC’s latest parameters for the Delta variant).

    The vertical axis shows the now-famous reproduction number R0, i.e. the average number of people that one infected person will infect throughout the course of their illness. These R0 are averages for the population, and in specific circumstances the spreading could be more than that.

    Each blue line represents a different testing frequency: Below the line, the virus is controlled; above the line, it spreads. For example, the dotted blue line shows the boundary if we rely solely on vaccination with no testing. In that case, even if everyone is vaccinated, we can only control up to an R0 of about 3.  Unfortunately, the CDC places R0 of the Delta variant somewhere between 5 and 9, so vaccination alone is insufficient to control the spread. (As an aside, this also means that given the efficacy estimates for the current vaccines, herd immunity is not possible.)

    Next consider the dashed blue line, which represents the stability boundary if we test everyone once per week. If our vaccination rate is greater than about 90 percent, testing one time per week can control even the CDC’s most pessimistic estimate for the Delta variant’s R0.

    Q: In returning to campus over the next few weeks, indoor masking and regular testing are required of every MIT community member, even those who are vaccinated. What in your modeling has shown that each of these policies is necessary?

    A: Given that the chart above shows that vaccination and weekly testing are sufficient to control the virus, one should certainly ask “Why have we reinstated indoor masking?” The answer is related to the fact that, as a university, our population turns over once a year; every September we bring in a few thousand new people. Those people are coming from all over the world, and some of them may not have had the opportunity to get vaccinated yet. The good news is that MIT Medical has vaccines and will be administering them to any unvaccinated students as soon as they arrive; the bad news is that, as we all know, it takes three to five weeks for resistance to build up, depending on the vaccine. This means that we should think of August and September as a transition period during which the vaccination rates may fluctuate as new people arrive. 

    The other revelation that has informed our policies for September is the recent report from the CDC that infected vaccinated people carry roughly the same viral load as unvaccinated infected people. This suggests that vaccinated people — although they are highly unlikely to get seriously ill — are a consequential part of the transmission chain and can pass the virus along to others. So, in order to avoid giving the virus to people who are not yet fully vaccinated during the transition period, we all need to exercise a little extra care to give the newly vaccinated time for their immune systems to ramp up. 

    Q: As the fall progresses, what signs are you looking for that might shift decisions on masking and testing on campus?

    A: Eventually we will have to shift responsibility toward individuals rather than institutions, and allow people to make decisions about masks and testing based on their own risk tolerance. The success of the vaccines in suppressing severe illness will enable us to shift to a position in which our objective is not necessarily to control the spread of the virus, but rather to reduce the risk of serious outcomes to an acceptable level. There are many people who believe we need to make this adjustment and wean ourselves off pandemic living. They are right; we cannot continue like this forever. However, we have not played all our cards yet, and, in my opinion, we need to carefully consider what’s left in our hand before we abdicate institutional responsibility.

    The final ace we have to play is vaccinating kids. It is important to remember that we have many people in our community with kids who are too young to be vaccinated and, understandably, those parents do not want to bring Covid home to their children. Furthermore, our campus is not just a workplace; it is also home to thousands of people, some of whom have children living in our residences or attending an MIT childcare center. Given that context, and the high probability that a vaccine will be approved for children in the near future, it is my belief that our community has the empathy and fortitude to try to keep the virus in check until parents have the option to protect their children with vaccines. 

    Bearing in mind that children constitute an unprotected portion of our population, let me return to the original question and speculate on the fate of masks and testing in the fall. Regarding testing, the analysis suggests that we cannot give that up entirely if we would like to control the spread of the virus. Second, control of the virus is not the only benefit we get from testing. It also gives us situational awareness, serves as an early warning beacon, and provides information that individual members of the community can use as they make decisions about their own risk budget. Personally, I’ve been testing for a year now and I find it easy and reassuring. Honestly, it’s nice to know that I’m Covid-free before I see friends (outside!) or go home to my family.

    Regarding masks, there is always uncertainty around whether a new variant will arise or whether vaccine efficacy will fade, but, given the current parameters and our analysis, my hope is that we will be in a position to provide some relief on the mask mandate once the incoming members of our population have been fully vaccinated. I also suspect that whenever the mask mandate is lifted, masks are not likely to go away. There are certainly situations in which I will continue to wear a mask regardless of the mandate, and many in our community will continue to feel safer wearing masks even when they are not required.

    I believe that we are a generous community and that we will be willing to take precautions to help keep each other healthy. The students who were on campus last year did an outstanding job, and they have given me a tremendous amount of faith that we can be considerate and good to one another even in extremely trying times.

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