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    Emma Gibson: Optimizing health care logistics in Africa

    Growing up in South Africa at the turn of the century, Emma Gibson saw the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its devastating impact on her home country, where many people lacked life-saving health care. At the time, Gibson was too young to understand what a sexually transmitted infection was, but she knew that HIV was infecting millions of South Africans and AIDS was taking hundreds of thousands of lives. “As a child, I was terrified by this monster that was HIV and felt so powerless to do anything about it,” she says.

    Now, as an adult, her childhood fear of the HIV epidemic has evolved into a desire to fight it. Gibson seeks to improve health care for HIV and other diseases in regions with limited resources, including South Africa. She wants to help health care facilities in these areas to use their resources more effectively so that patients can more easily obtain care.

    To help reach her goal, Gibson sought mathematics and logistics training through higher education in South Africa. She first earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematical sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, and then her master’s degree in operations research at Stellenbosch University. There, she learned to tackle complex decision-making problems using math, statistics, and computer simulations.

    During her master’s, Gibson studied the operational challenges faced in rural South African health care facilities by working with staff at Zithulele Hospital in the Eastern Cape, one of the country’s poorest provinces. Her research focused on ways to reduce hours-long wait times for patients seeking same-day care. In the end, she developed a software tool to model patient congestion throughout the day and optimize staff schedules accordingly, enabling the hospital to care for its patients more efficiently.

    After completing her master’s, Gibson wanted to further her education outside of South Africa and left to pursue a PhD in operations research at MIT. Upon arrival, she branched out in her research and worked on a project to improve breast cancer treatment in U.S. health care, a very different environment from what she was used to.

    Two years later, Gibson had the opportunity to return to researching health care in resource-limited settings and began working with Jónas Jónasson, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, on a new project to improve diagnostic services in sub-Saharan Africa. For the past four years, she has been working diligently on this project in collaboration with researchers at the Indian School of Business and Northwestern University. “My love language is time,” she says. “If I’m investing a lot of time in something, I really value it.”

    Scheduling sample transport

    Diagnostic testing is an essential tool that allows medical professionals to identify new diagnoses in patients and monitor patients’ conditions as they undergo treatment. For example, people living with HIV require regular blood tests to ensure that their prescribed treatments are working effectively and provide an early warning of potential treatment failures.

    For Gibson’s current project, she’s trying to improve diagnostic services in Malawi, a landlocked country in southeast Africa. “We have the tools” to diagnose and treat diseases like HIV, she says. “But in resource-limited settings, we often lack the money, the staff, and the infrastructure to reach every patient that needs them.”

    When diagnostic testing is needed, clinicians collect samples from patients and send the samples to be tested at a laboratory, which then returns the results to the facility where the patient is treated. To move these items between facilities and laboratories, Malawi has developed a national sample transportation network. The transportation system plays an important role in linking remote, rural facilities to laboratory services and ensuring that patients in these areas can access diagnostic testing through community clinics. Samples collected at these clinics are first transported to nearby district hubs, and then forwarded to laboratories located in urban areas. Since most facilities do not have computers or communications infrastructure, laboratories print copies of test results and send them back to facilities through the same transportation process.

    The sample transportation cycle is onerous, but it’s a practical solution to a difficult problem. “During the Covid pandemic, we saw how hard it was to scale up diagnostic infrastructure,” Gibson says. Diagnostic services in sub-Saharan Africa face “similar challenges, but in a much poorer setting.”

    In Malawi, sample transportation is managed by a  nongovernment organization called Riders 4 Health. The organization has around 80 couriers on motorcycles who transport samples and test results between facilities. “When we started working with [Riders], the couriers operated on fixed weekly schedules, visiting each site once or twice a week,” Gibson says. But that led to “a lot of unnecessary trips and delays.”

    To make sample transportation more efficient, Gibson developed a dynamic scheduling system that adapts to the current demand for diagnostic testing. The system consists of two main parts: an information sharing platform that aggregates sample transportation data, and an algorithm that uses the data to generate optimized routes and schedules for sample transport couriers.

    In 2019, Gibson ran a four-month-long pilot test for this system in three out of the 27 districts in Malawi. During the pilot study, six couriers transported over 20,000 samples and results across 51 health care facilities, and 150 health care workers participated in data sharing.

    The pilot was a success. Gibson’s dynamic scheduling system eliminated about half the unnecessary trips and reduced transportation delays by 25 percent — a delay that used to be four days was reduced to three. Now, Riders 4 Health is developing their own version of Gibson’s system to operate nationally in Malawi. Throughout this project, “we focused on making sure this was something that could grow with the organization,” she says. “It’s gratifying to see that actually happening.”

    Leveraging patient data

    Gibson is completing her MIT degree this September but will continue working to improve health care in Africa. After graduation, she will join the technology and analytics health care practice of an established company in South Africa. Her initial focus will be on public health care institutions, including Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Johannesburg, the third-largest hospital in the world.

    In this role, Gibson will work to fill in gaps in African patient data for medical operational research and develop ways to use this data more effectively to improve health care in resource-limited areas. For example, better data systems can help to monitor the prevalence and impact of different diseases, guiding where health care workers and researchers put their efforts to help the most people. “You can’t make good decisions if you don’t have all the information,” Gibson says.

    To best leverage patient data for improving health care, Gibson plans to reevaluate how data systems are structured and used in the hospital. For ideas on upgrading the current system, she’ll look to existing data systems in other countries to see what works and what doesn’t, while also drawing upon her past research experience in U.S. health care. Ultimately, she’ll tailor the new hospital data system to South African needs to accurately inform future directions in health care.

    Gibson’s new job — her “dream job” — will be based in the United Kingdom, but she anticipates spending a significant amount of time in Johannesburg. “I have so many opportunities in the wider world, but the ones that appeal to me are always back in the place I came from,” she says. More

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    Mining social media data for social good

    For Erin Walk, who has loved school since she was a little girl, pursuing a graduate degree always seemed like a given. As a mechanical engineering major at Harvard University with a minor in government, she figured that going to graduate school in engineering would be the next logical step. However, during her senior year, a class on the “Technology of War” changed her trajectory, sparking her interest in technology and policy.

    “[Warfare] seems like a very dark reason for this interest to blossom … but I was so interested in how these technological developments including cyberwar had such a large impact on the entire course of world history,” Walk says. The class took a starkly different perspective from her engineering classes, which often focused on how a revolutionary technology was built. Instead, Walk was challenged to think about “the implications of what this [technology] could do.” 

    Now, Walk is studying the intersection between data science, policy, and technology as a graduate student in the Social and Engineering Systems program (SES), part of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Her research has demonstrated the value and bias inherent in social media data, with a focus on how to mine social media data to better understand the conflict in Syria. 

    Using data for social good

    With a newfound interest in policy developing just as college was drawing to a close, Walk says, “I realized I did not know what I wanted to do research on for five whole years, and the idea of getting a PhD started to feel very daunting.” Instead, she decided to work for a web security company in Washington, as a member of the policy team. “Being in school can be this fast process where you feel like you are being pushed through a tube and all of a sudden you come out the other end. Work gave me a lot more mental time to think about what I enjoyed and what was important to me,” she says.

    Walk served as a liaison between thinktanks and nonprofits in Washington that worked to provide services and encourage policies that enable equitable technology distribution. The role helped her identify what held her interest: corporate social responsibility projects that addressed access to technology, in this case, by donating free web security services to nonprofit organizations and to election websites. She became curious about how access to data and to the Internet can be beneficial for education, and how such access can be leveraged to establish connections to populations that are otherwise hard-to-reach, such as refugees, marginalized groups, or activist communities that rely on anonymity for safety.

    Walk knew she wanted to pursue this kind of tech activism work, but she also recognized that staying with a company driven by profits would not be the best avenue to fulfill her personal career aspirations. Graduate school seemed like the best option to both learn the data science skills she needed, and pursue full-time research focusing on technology and policy.

    Finding new ways to tap social media data

    With these goals in mind, Walk joined the SES graduate program in IDSS. “This program for me had the most balance,” she says. “I have a lot of leeway to explore whatever kind of research I want, provided it has an impact component and a data component.”

    During her first year, she intended to explore a variety of research advisors to find the right fit. Instead, during her first few months on MIT’s campus, she sat down for an introductory meeting with her now-research advisor, Fotini Christia, the Ford International Professor in the Social Sciences, and walked out with a project. Her new task: analyzing “how different social media sources are used differently by groups within the conflict, and how those different narratives present themselves online. So much social science research tends to use just Twitter, or just Facebook, to draw conclusions. It is important to understand how your data set might be skewed,” she says.

    Walk’s current research focuses on another novel way to tap social media. Scholars traditionally use geographic data to understand population movements, but her research has demonstrated that social media can also be a ripe data source. She is analyzing how social media discussions differ in places with and without refugees, with a particular focus on places where refugees have returned to their homelands, including Syria.

    “Now that the [Syrian] civil war has been going on for so long, there is a lot of discussion on how to bring refugees back in [to their homelands],” Walk says. Her research adds to this discussion by using social media sources to understand and predict the factors that encourage refugees to return, such as economic opportunities and decreases in local violence. Her goal is to harness some of the social media data to provide policymakers and nonprofits with information on how to address repatriation and related issues.

    Walk attributes much of her growth as a graduate student to the influence of collaborators, especially Professor Kiran Garimella at Rutgers’ Department of Library and Information Science. “So much of being a graduate student is feeling like you have a stupid question and figuring out who you can be vulnerable with in asking that stupid question,” she says. “I am very lucky to have a lot of those people in my life.”

    Encouraging the next generation

    Now, as a third-year student, Walk is the one whom others go to with their “stupid questions.” This desire to mentor and share her knowledge extends beyond the laboratory. “Something I discovered is that I really like talking to and advising people who are in a similar position to where I was. It is fulfilling to work with smart people close to my age who are just trying to figure out the answers to these meaty life issues that I have also struggled with,” she says.

    This realization led Walk to a position as a resident advisor at Harvard University’s Mather House, an undergraduate dormitory and community center. Walk became a faculty dean aide during her first year at MIT, and since then has served as a full-time Mather House resident tutor. “Every year I advise a new class of students, and I just become invested in their process. I get to talk to people about their lives, about their classes, about what is making them excited and about what is making them sad,” she says.

    After she graduates, Walk plans to explore issues that have a positive, tangible impact on policy outcomes and people, perhaps in an academic lab or in a nonprofit organization. Two such issues that particularly intrigue her are internet access and privacy for underserved populations. Regardless of the issues, she will continue to draw from both political science and data science. “One of my favorite things about being a part of interdisciplinary research is that [experts in] political science and computer science approach these issues so differently, and it is very grounding to have both of those perspectives. Political science thinks so carefully about measurement, population selection, and research design … [while] computer science has so many interesting methods that should be used in other disciplines,” she says.

    No matter what the future holds, Walk already has a sense of contentment. She admits that “my path was much less linear than I expected. I don’t think I even realized that a field like this existed.” Nevertheless, she says with a laugh, “I think that little-girl me would be very proud of present-day me.” More

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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