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    “AI for Impact” lives up to its name

    For entrepreneurial MIT students looking to put their skills to work for a greater good, the Media Arts and Sciences class MAS.664 (AI for Impact) has been a destination point. With the onset of the pandemic, that goal came into even sharper focus. Just weeks before the campus shut down in 2020, a team of students from the class launched a project that would make significant strides toward an open-source platform to identify coronavirus exposures without compromising personal privacy.

    Their work was at the heart of Safe Paths, one of the earliest contact tracing apps in the United States. The students joined with volunteers from other universities, medical centers, and companies to publish their code, alongside a well-received white paper describing the privacy-preserving, decentralized protocol, all while working with organizations wishing to launch the app within their communities. The app and related software eventually got spun out into the nonprofit PathCheck Foundation, which today engages with public health entities and is providing exposure notifications in Guam, Cyprus, Hawaii, Minnesota, Alabama, and Louisiana.

    The formation of Safe Paths demonstrates the special sense among MIT researchers that “we can launch something that can help people around the world,” notes Media Lab Associate Professor Ramesh Raskar, who teaches the class together with Media Lab Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland and Media Lab Lecturer Joost Bonsen. “To have that kind of passion and ambition — but also the confidence that what you create here can actually be deployed globally — is kind of amazing.”

    AI for Impact, created by Pentland, began meeting two decades ago under the course name Development Ventures, and has nurtured multiple thriving businesses. Examples of class ventures that Pentland incubated or co-founded include Dimagi, Cogito, Ginger, Prosperia, and Sanergy.

    The aim-high challenge posed to each class is to come up with a business plan that touches a billion people, and it can’t all be in one country, Pentland explains. Not every class effort becomes a business, “but 20 percent to 30 percent of students start something, which is great for an entrepreneur class,” says Pentland.

    Opportunities for Impact

    The numbers behind Dimagi, for instance, are striking. Its core product CommCare has helped front-line health workers provide care for more than 400 million people in more than 130 countries around the world. When it comes to maternal and child care, Dimagi’s platform has registered one in every 110 pregnancies worldwide. This past year, several governments around the world deployed CommCare applications for Covid-19 response — from Sierra Leone and Somalia to New York and Colorado.

    Spinoffs like Cogito, Prosperia, and Ginger have likewise grown into highly successful companies. Cogito helps a million people a day gain access to the health care they need; Prosperia helps manage social support payments to 80 million people in Latin America; and Ginger handles mental health services for over 1 million people.

    The passion behind these and other class ventures points to a central idea of the class, Pentland notes: MIT students are often looking for ways to build entrepreneurial businesses that enable positive social change.

    During the spring 2021 class, for example, a number of promising student projects included tools to help residents of poor communities transition to owning their homes rather than renting, and to take better control of their community health.

    “It’s clear that the people who are graduating from here want to do something significant with their lives … they want to have an impact on their world,” Pentland says. “This class enables them to meet other people who are interested in doing the same thing, and offers them some help in starting a company to do it.”

    Many of the students who join the class come in with a broad set of interests. Guest lectures, case studies of other social entrepreneurship projects, and an introduction to a broad ecosystem of expertise and funding, then helps students to refine their general ideas into specific and viable projects.

    A path toward confronting a pandemic 

    Raskar began co-teaching the class in 2019, and brought a “Big AI” focus to the Development Ventures class, inspired by an AI for Impact team he had set up at his former employer, Facebook. “What I realized is that companies like Google or Facebook or Amazon actually have enough data about all of us that they can solve major problems in our society — climate, transportation, health, and so on,” he says. “This is something we should think about more seriously: how to use AI and data for positive social impact, while protecting privacy.”

    Early into the spring 2020 class, as students were beginning to consider their own projects, Raskar approached the class about the emerging coronavirus outbreak. Students like Kristen Vilcans recognized the urgency, and the opportunity. She and 10 other students joined forces to work on a project that would focus on Covid-19.

    “Students felt empowered to do something to help tackle the spread of this alarming new virus,” Raskar recalls. “They immediately began to develop data- and AI-based solutions to one of the most critical pieces of addressing a pandemic: halting the chain of infections. They created and launched one of the first digital contact tracing and exposure notification solutions in the U.S., developing an early alert system that engaged the public and protected privacy.” 

    Raskar looks back on the moment when a core group of students coalesced into a team. “It was very rare for a significant part of the class to just come together saying, ‘let’s do this, right away.’ It became as much a movement as a venture.”

    Group discussions soon began to center around an open-source, privacy-first digital set of tools for Covid-19 contact tracing. For the next two weeks, right up to the campus shutdown in March 2020, the team took over two adjacent conference rooms in the Media Lab, and started a Slack messaging channel devoted to the project. As the team members reached out to an ever-wider circle of friends, colleagues, and mentors, the number of participants grew to nearly 1,600 people, coming together virtually from all corners of the world.

    Kaushal Jain, a Harvard Business School student who had cross-registered for the spring 2020 class to get to know the MIT ecosystem, was also an early participant in Safe Paths. He wrote up an initial plan for the venture and began working with external organizations to figure out how to structure it into a nonprofit company. Jain eventually became the project’s lead for funding and partnerships.

    Vilcans, a graduate student in system design and management, served as Safe Paths’ communications lead through July 2020, while still working a part-time job at Draper Laboratory and taking classes.

    “There are these moments when you want to dive in, you want to contribute and you want to work nonstop,” she says, adding that the experience was also a wake-up call on how to manage burnout, and how to balance what you need as a person while contributing to a high-impact team. “That’s important to understand as a leader for the future.”

    MIT recognized Vilcan’s contributions later that year with the 2020 SDM Student Award for Leadership, Innovation, and Systems Thinking. 

    Jain, too, says the class gave him more than he could have expected.

    “I made strong friendships with like-minded people from very different backgrounds,” he says. “One key thing that I learned was to be flexible about the kind of work you want to do. Be open and see if there’s an opportunity, either through crisis or through something that you believe could really change a lot of things in the world. And then just go for it.” More

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    “To make even the smallest contribution to improving my country would be my dream”

    Thailand has become an economic leader in Southeast Asia in recent decades, but while the country has rapidly industrialized, many Thai citizens have been left behind. As a child growing up in Bangkok, Pavarin Bhandtivej would watch the news and wonder why families in the nearby countryside had next to nothing. He aspired to become a policy researcher and create beneficial change.

    But Bhandtivej knew his goal wouldn’t be easy. He was born with a visual impairment, making it challenging for him to see, read, and navigate. This meant he had to work twice as hard in school to succeed. It took achieving the highest grades for Bhandtivej to break through stigmas and have his talents recognized. Still, he persevered, with a determination to uplift others. “I would return to that initial motivation I had as a kid. For me, to make even the smallest contribution to improving my country would be my dream,” he says.

    “When I would face these obstacles, I would tell myself that struggling people are waiting for someone to design policies for them to have better lives. And that person could be me. I cannot fall here in front of these obstacles. I must stay motivated and move on.”

    Bhandtivej completed his undergraduate degree in economics at Thailand’s top college, Chulalongkorn University. His classes introduced him to many debates about development policy, such as universal basic income. During one debate, after both sides made compelling arguments about how to alleviate poverty, Bhandtivej realized there was no clear winner. “A question came to my mind: Who’s right?” he says. “In terms of theory, both sides were correct. But how could we know what approach would work in the real world?”

    A new approach to higher education

    The search for those answers would lead Bhandtivej to become interested in data analysis. He began investigating online courses, eventually finding the MIT MicroMasters Program in Data, Economics, and Development Policy (DEDP), which was created by MIT’s Department of Economics and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). The program requires learners to complete five online courses that teach quantitative methods for evaluating social programs, leading to a MicroMasters credential. Students that pass the courses’ proctored exams are then also eligible to apply for a full-time, accelerated, on-campus master’s program at MIT, led by professors Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, and Benjamin Olken.

    The program’s mission to make higher education more accessible worked well for Bhandtivej. He studied tirelessly, listening and relistening to online lectures and pausing to scrutinize equations. By the end, his efforts paid off — Bhandtivej was the MicroMasters program’s top scorer. He was soon admitted into the second cohort of the highly selective DEDP master’s program.

    “You can imagine how time-consuming it was to use text-to-speech to get through a 30-page reading with numerous equations, tables, and graphs,” he explains. “Luckily, Disability and Access Services provided accommodations to timed exams and I was able to push through.”   

    In the gap year before the master’s program began, Bhandtivej returned to Chulalongkorn University as a research assistant with Professor Thanyaporn Chankrajang. He began applying his newfound quantitative skills to study the impacts of climate change in Thailand. His contributions helped uncover how rising temperatures and irregular rainfall are leading to reduced rice crop yields. “Thailand is the world’s second largest exporter of rice, and the vast majority of Thais rely heavily on rice for its nutritional and commercial value. We need more data to encourage leaders to act now,” says Bhandtivej. “As a Buddhist, it was meaningful to be part of generating this evidence, as I am always concerned about my impact on other humans and sentient beings.”

    Staying true to his mission

    Now pursuing his master’s on campus, Bhandtivej is taking courses like 14.320 (Econometric Data Science) and studying how to design, conduct, and analyze empirical studies. “The professors I’ve had have opened a whole new world for me,” says Bhandtivej. “They’ve inspired me to see how we can take rigorous scientific practices and apply them to make informed policy decisions. We can do more than rely on theories.”

    The final portion of the program requires a summer capstone experience, which Bhandtivej is using to work at Innovations for Poverty Action. He has recently begun to analyze how remote learning interventions in Bangladesh have performed since Covid-19. Many teachers are concerned, since disruptions in childhood education can lead to intergenerational poverty. “We have tried interventions that connect students with teachers, provide discounted data packages, and send information on where to access adaptive learning technologies and other remote learning resources,” he says. “It will be interesting to see the results. This is a truly urgent topic, as I don’t believe Covid-19 will be the last pandemic of our lifetime.”

    Enhancing education has always been one of Bhandtivej’s priority interests. He sees education as the gateway that brings a person’s innate talent to light. “There is a misconception in many developing countries that disabled people cannot learn, which is untrue,” says Bhandtivej. “Education provides a critical signal to future employers and overall society that we can work and perform just as well, as long as we have appropriate accommodations.”

    In the future, Bhandtivej plans on returning to Thailand to continue his journey as a policy researcher. While he has many issues he would like to tackle, his true purpose still lies in doing work that makes a positive impact on people’s lives. “My hope is that my story encourages people to think of not only what they are capable of achieving themselves, but also what they can do for others.”

    “You may think you are just a small creature on a large planet. That you have just a tiny role to play. But I think — even if we are just a small part — whatever we can do to make life better for our communities, for our country, for our planet … it’s worth it.” More