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    Study: Global deforestation leads to more mercury pollution

    About 10 percent of human-made mercury emissions into the atmosphere each year are the result of global deforestation, according to a new MIT study.

    The world’s vegetation, from the Amazon rainforest to the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, acts as a sink that removes the toxic pollutant from the air. However, if the current rate of deforestation remains unchanged or accelerates, the researchers estimate that net mercury emissions will keep increasing.

    “We’ve been overlooking a significant source of mercury, especially in tropical regions,” says Ari Feinberg, a former postdoc in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and lead author of the study.

    The researchers’ model shows that the Amazon rainforest plays a particularly important role as a mercury sink, contributing about 30 percent of the global land sink. Curbing Amazon deforestation could thus have a substantial impact on reducing mercury pollution.

    The team also estimates that global reforestation efforts could increase annual mercury uptake by about 5 percent. While this is significant, the researchers emphasize that reforestation alone should not be a substitute for worldwide pollution control efforts.

    “Countries have put a lot of effort into reducing mercury emissions, especially northern industrialized countries, and for very good reason. But 10 percent of the global anthropogenic source is substantial, and there is a potential for that to be even greater in the future. [Addressing these deforestation-related emissions] needs to be part of the solution,” says senior author Noelle Selin, a professor in IDSS and MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

    Feinberg and Selin are joined on the paper by co-authors Martin Jiskra, a former Swiss National Science Foundation Ambizione Fellow at the University of Basel; Pasquale Borrelli, a professor at Roma Tre University in Italy; and Jagannath Biswakarma, a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. The paper appears today in Environmental Science and Technology.

    Modeling mercury

    Over the past few decades, scientists have generally focused on studying deforestation as a source of global carbon dioxide emissions. Mercury, a trace element, hasn’t received the same attention, partly because the terrestrial biosphere’s role in the global mercury cycle has only recently been better quantified.

    Plant leaves take up mercury from the atmosphere, in a similar way as they take up carbon dioxide. But unlike carbon dioxide, mercury doesn’t play an essential biological function for plants. Mercury largely stays within a leaf until it falls to the forest floor, where the mercury is absorbed by the soil.

    Mercury becomes a serious concern for humans if it ends up in water bodies, where it can become methylated by microorganisms. Methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin, can be taken up by fish and bioaccumulated through the food chain. This can lead to risky levels of methylmercury in the fish humans eat.

    “In soils, mercury is much more tightly bound than it would be if it were deposited in the ocean. The forests are doing a sort of ecosystem service, in that they are sequestering mercury for longer timescales,” says Feinberg, who is now a postdoc in the Blas Cabrera Institute of Physical Chemistry in Spain.

    In this way, forests reduce the amount of toxic methylmercury in oceans.

    Many studies of mercury focus on industrial sources, like burning fossil fuels, small-scale gold mining, and metal smelting. A global treaty, the 2013 Minamata Convention, calls on nations to reduce human-made emissions. However, it doesn’t directly consider impacts of deforestation.

    The researchers launched their study to fill in that missing piece.

    In past work, they had built a model to probe the role vegetation plays in mercury uptake. Using a series of land use change scenarios, they adjusted the model to quantify the role of deforestation.

    Evaluating emissions

    This chemical transport model tracks mercury from its emissions sources to where it is chemically transformed in the atmosphere and then ultimately to where it is deposited, mainly through rainfall or uptake into forest ecosystems.

    They divided the Earth into eight regions and performed simulations to calculate deforestation emissions factors for each, considering elements like type and density of vegetation, mercury content in soils, and historical land use.

    However, good data for some regions were hard to come by.

    They lacked measurements from tropical Africa or Southeast Asia — two areas that experience heavy deforestation. To get around this gap, they used simpler, offline models to simulate hundreds of scenarios, which helped them improve their estimations of potential uncertainties.

    They also developed a new formulation for mercury emissions from soil. This formulation captures the fact that deforestation reduces leaf area, which increases the amount of sunlight that hits the ground and accelerates the outgassing of mercury from soils.

    The model divides the world into grid squares, each of which is a few hundred square kilometers. By changing land surface and vegetation parameters in certain squares to represent deforestation and reforestation scenarios, the researchers can capture impacts on the mercury cycle.

    Overall, they found that about 200 tons of mercury are emitted to the atmosphere as the result of deforestation, or about 10 percent of total human-made emissions. But in tropical and sub-tropical countries, deforestation emissions represent a higher percentage of total emissions. For example, in Brazil deforestation emissions are 40 percent of total human-made emissions.

    In addition, people often light fires to prepare tropical forested areas for agricultural activities, which causes more emissions by releasing mercury stored by vegetation.

    “If deforestation was a country, it would be the second highest emitting country, after China, which emits around 500 tons of mercury a year,” Feinberg adds.

    And since the Minamata Convention is now addressing primary mercury emissions, scientists can expect deforestation to become a larger fraction of human-made emissions in the future.

    “Policies to protect forests or cut them down have unintended effects beyond their target. It is important to consider the fact that these are systems, and they involve human activities, and we need to understand them better in order to actually solve the problems that we know are out there,” Selin says.

    By providing this first estimate, the team hopes to inspire more research in this area.

    In the future, they want to incorporate more dynamic Earth system models into their analysis, which would enable them to interactively track mercury uptake and better model the timescale of vegetation regrowth.

    “This paper represents an important advance in our understanding of global mercury cycling by quantifying a pathway that has long been suggested but not yet quantified. Much of our research to date has focused on primary anthropogenic emissions — those directly resulting from human activity via coal combustion or mercury-gold amalgam burning in artisanal and small-scale gold mining,” says Jackie Gerson, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Michigan State University, who was not involved with this research. “This research shows that deforestation can also result in substantial mercury emissions and needs to be considered both in terms of global mercury models and land management policies. It therefore has the potential to advance our field scientifically as well as to promote policies that reduce mercury emissions via deforestation.

    This work was funded, in part, by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. More

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    Generating the policy of tomorrow

    As first-year students in the Social and Engineering Systems (SES) doctoral program within the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), Eric Liu and Ashely Peake share an interest in investigating housing inequality issues.

    They also share a desire to dive head-first into their research.

    “In the first year of your PhD, you’re taking classes and still getting adjusted, but we came in very eager to start doing research,” Liu says.

    Liu, Peake, and many others found an opportunity to do hands-on research on real-world problems at the MIT Policy Hackathon, an initiative organized by students in IDSS, including the Technology and Policy Program (TPP). The weekend-long, interdisciplinary event — now in its sixth year — continues to gather hundreds of participants from around the globe to explore potential solutions to some of society’s greatest challenges.

    This year’s theme, “Hack-GPT: Generating the Policy of Tomorrow,” sought to capitalize on the popularity of generative AI (like the chatbot ChatGPT) and the ways it is changing how we think about technical and policy-based challenges, according to Dansil Green, a second-year TPP master’s student and co-chair of the event.

    “We encouraged our teams to utilize and cite these tools, thinking about the implications that generative AI tools have on their different challenge categories,” Green says.

    After 2022’s hybrid event, this year’s organizers pivoted back to a virtual-only approach, allowing them to increase the overall number of participants in addition to increasing the number of teams per challenge by 20 percent.

    “Virtual allows you to reach more people — we had a high number of international participants this year — and it helps reduce some of the costs,” Green says. “I think going forward we are going to try and switch back and forth between virtual and in-person because there are different benefits to each.”

    “When the magic hits”

    Liu and Peake competed in the housing challenge category, where they could gain research experience in their actual field of study. 

    “While I am doing housing research, I haven’t necessarily had a lot of opportunities to work with actual housing data before,” says Peake, who recently joined the SES doctoral program after completing an undergraduate degree in applied math last year. “It was a really good experience to get involved with an actual data problem, working closer with Eric, who’s also in my lab group, in addition to meeting people from MIT and around the world who are interested in tackling similar questions and seeing how they think about things differently.”

    Joined by Adrian Butterton, a Boston-based paralegal, as well as Hudson Yuen and Ian Chan, two software engineers from Canada, Liu and Peake formed what would end up being the winning team in their category: “Team Ctrl+Alt+Defeat.” They quickly began organizing a plan to address the eviction crisis in the United States.

    “I think we were kind of surprised by the scope of the question,” Peake laughs. “In the end, I think having such a large scope motivated us to think about it in a more realistic kind of way — how could we come up with a solution that was adaptable and therefore could be replicated to tackle different kinds of problems.”

    Watching the challenge on the livestream together on campus, Liu says they immediately went to work, and could not believe how quickly things came together.

    “We got our challenge description in the evening, came out to the purple common area in the IDSS building and literally it took maybe an hour and we drafted up the entire project from start to finish,” Liu says. “Then our software engineer partners had a dashboard built by 1 a.m. — I feel like the hackathon really promotes that really fast dynamic work stream.”

    “People always talk about the grind or applying for funding — but when that magic hits, it just reminds you of the part of research that people don’t talk about, and it was really a great experience to have,” Liu adds.

    A fresh perspective

    “We’ve organized hackathons internally at our company and they are great for fostering innovation and creativity,” says Letizia Bordoli, senior AI product manager at Veridos, a German-based identity solutions company that provided this year’s challenge in Data Systems for Human Rights. “It is a great opportunity to connect with talented individuals and explore new ideas and solutions that we might not have thought about.”

    The challenge provided by Veridos was focused on finding innovative solutions to universal birth registration, something Bordoli says only benefited from the fact that the hackathon participants were from all over the world.

    “Many had local and firsthand knowledge about certain realities and challenges [posed by the lack of] birth registration,” Bordoli says. “It brings fresh perspectives to existing challenges, and it gave us an energy boost to try to bring innovative solutions that we may not have considered before.”

    New frontiers

    Alongside the housing and data systems for human rights challenges was a challenge in health, as well as a first-time opportunity to tackle an aerospace challenge in the area of space for environmental justice.

    “Space can be a very hard challenge category to do data-wise since a lot of data is proprietary, so this really developed over the last few months with us having to think about how we could do more with open-source data,” Green explains. “But I am glad we went the environmental route because it opened the challenge up to not only space enthusiasts, but also environment and climate people.”

    One of the participants to tackle this new challenge category was Yassine Elhallaoui, a system test engineer from Norway who specializes in AI solutions and has 16 years of experience working in the oil and gas fields. Elhallaoui was a member of Team EcoEquity, which proposed an increase in policies supporting the use of satellite data to ensure proper evaluation and increase water resiliency for vulnerable communities.

    “The hackathons I have participated in in the past were more technical,” Elhallaoui says. “Starting with [MIT Science and Technology Policy Institute Director Kristen Kulinowski’s] workshop about policy writers and the solutions they came up with, and the analysis they had to do … it really changed my perspective on what a hackathon can do.”

    “A policy hackathon is something that can make real changes in the world,” she adds. More

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    Forging climate connections across the Institute

    Climate change is the ultimate cross-cutting issue: Not limited to any one discipline, it ranges across science, technology, policy, culture, human behavior, and well beyond. The response to it likewise requires an all-of-MIT effort.

    Now, to strengthen such an effort, a new grant program spearheaded by the Climate Nucleus, the faculty committee charged with the oversight and implementation of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, aims to build up MIT’s climate leadership capacity while also supporting innovative scholarship on diverse climate-related topics and forging new connections across the Institute.

    Called the Fast Forward Faculty Fund (F^4 for short), the program has named its first cohort of six faculty members after issuing its inaugural call for proposals in April 2023. The cohort will come together throughout the year for climate leadership development programming and networking. The program provides financial support for graduate students who will work with the faculty members on the projects — the students will also participate in leadership-building activities — as well as $50,000 in flexible, discretionary funding to be used to support related activities. 

    “Climate change is a crisis that truly touches every single person on the planet,” says Noelle Selin, co-chair of the nucleus and interim director of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. “It’s therefore essential that we build capacity for every member of the MIT community to make sense of the problem and help address it. Through the Fast Forward Faculty Fund, our aim is to have a cohort of climate ambassadors who can embed climate everywhere at the Institute.”

    F^4 supports both faculty who would like to begin doing climate-related work, as well as faculty members who are interested in deepening their work on climate. The program has the core goal of developing cohorts of F^4 faculty and graduate students who, in addition to conducting their own research, will become climate leaders at MIT, proactively looking for ways to forge new climate connections across schools, departments, and disciplines.

    One of the projects, “Climate Crisis and Real Estate: Science-based Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies,” led by Professor Siqi Zheng of the MIT Center for Real Estate in collaboration with colleagues from the MIT Sloan School of Management, focuses on the roughly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions that come from the buildings and real estate sector. Zheng notes that this sector has been slow to respond to climate change, but says that is starting to change, thanks in part to the rising awareness of climate risks and new local regulations aimed at reducing emissions from buildings.

    Using a data-driven approach, the project seeks to understand the efficient and equitable market incentives, technology solutions, and public policies that are most effective at transforming the real estate industry. Johnattan Ontiveros, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, is working with Zheng on the project.

    “We were thrilled at the incredible response we received from the MIT faculty to our call for proposals, which speaks volumes about the depth and breadth of interest in climate at MIT,” says Anne White, nucleus co-chair and vice provost and associate vice president for research. “This program makes good on key commitments of the Fast Forward plan, supporting cutting-edge new work by faculty and graduate students while helping to deepen the bench of climate leaders at MIT.”

    During the 2023-24 academic year, the F^4 faculty and graduate student cohorts will come together to discuss their projects, explore opportunities for collaboration, participate in climate leadership development, and think proactively about how to deepen interdisciplinary connections among MIT community members interested in climate change.

    The six inaugural F^4 awardees are:

    Professor Tristan Brown, History Section: Humanistic Approaches to the Climate Crisis  

    With this project, Brown aims to create a new community of practice around narrative-centric approaches to environmental and climate issues. Part of a broader humanities initiative at MIT, it brings together a global working group of interdisciplinary scholars, including Serguei Saavedra (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Or Porath (Tel Aviv University; Religion), collectively focused on examining the historical and present links between sacred places and biodiversity for the purposes of helping governments and nongovernmental organizations formulate better sustainability goals. Boyd Ruamcharoen, a PhD student in the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) program, will work with Brown on this project.

    Professor Kerri Cahoy, departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (AeroAstro): Onboard Autonomous AI-driven Satellite Sensor Fusion for Coastal Region Monitoring

    The motivation for this project is the need for much better data collection from satellites, where technology can be “20 years behind,” says Cahoy. As part of this project, Cahoy will pursue research in the area of autonomous artificial intelligence-enabled rapid sensor fusion (which combines data from different sensors, such as radar and cameras) onboard satellites to improve understanding of the impacts of climate change, specifically sea-level rise and hurricanes and flooding in coastal regions. Graduate students Madeline Anderson, a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), and Mary Dahl, a PhD student in AeroAstro, will work with Cahoy on this project.

    Professor Priya Donti, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: Robust Reinforcement Learning for High-Renewables Power Grids 

    With renewables like wind and solar making up a growing share of electricity generation on power grids, Donti’s project focuses on improving control methods for these distributed sources of electricity. The research will aim to create a realistic representation of the characteristics of power grid operations, and eventually inform scalable operational improvements in power systems. It will “give power systems operators faith that, OK, this conceptually is good, but it also actually works on this grid,” says Donti. PhD candidate Ana Rivera from EECS is the F^4 graduate student on the project.

    Professor Jason Jackson, Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP): Political Economy of the Climate Crisis: Institutions, Power and Global Governance

    This project takes a political economy approach to the climate crisis, offering a distinct lens to examine, first, the political governance challenge of mobilizing climate action and designing new institutional mechanisms to address the global and intergenerational distributional aspects of climate change; second, the economic challenge of devising new institutional approaches to equitably finance climate action; and third, the cultural challenge — and opportunity — of empowering an adaptive socio-cultural ecology through traditional knowledge and local-level social networks to achieve environmental resilience. Graduate students Chen Chu and Mrinalini Penumaka, both PhD students in DUSP, are working with Jackson on the project.

    Professor Haruko Wainwright, departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) and Civil and Environmental Engineering: Low-cost Environmental Monitoring Network Technologies in Rural Communities for Addressing Climate Justice 

    This project will establish a community-based climate and environmental monitoring network in addition to a data visualization and analysis infrastructure in rural marginalized communities to better understand and address climate justice issues. The project team plans to work with rural communities in Alaska to install low-cost air and water quality, weather, and soil sensors. Graduate students Kay Whiteaker, an MS candidate in NSE, and Amandeep Singh, and MS candidate in System Design and Management at Sloan, are working with Wainwright on the project, as is David McGee, professor in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences.

    Professor Siqi Zheng, MIT Center for Real Estate and DUSP: Climate Crisis and Real Estate: Science-based Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies 

    See the text above for the details on this project. More

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    Improving US air quality, equitably

    Decarbonization of national economies will be key to achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050, a major stepping stone to the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (and ideally 1.5 C), and thereby averting the worst consequences of climate change. Toward that end, the United States has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, backed by its implementation of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. This strategy is consistent with a 50-percent reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) by the end of the decade.

    If U.S. federal carbon policy is successful, the nation’s overall air quality will also improve. Cutting CO2 emissions reduces atmospheric concentrations of air pollutants that lead to the formation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which causes more than 200,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. But an average nationwide improvement in air quality will not be felt equally; air pollution exposure disproportionately harms people of color and lower-income populations.

    How effective are current federal decarbonization policies in reducing U.S. racial and economic disparities in PM2.5 exposure, and what changes will be needed to improve their performance? To answer that question, researchers at MIT and Stanford University recently evaluated a range of policies which, like current U.S. federal carbon policies, reduce economy-wide CO2 emissions by 40-60 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Their findings appear in an open-access article in the journal Nature Communications.

    First, they show that a carbon-pricing policy, while effective in reducing PM2.5 exposure for all racial/ethnic groups, does not significantly mitigate relative disparities in exposure. On average, the white population undergoes far less exposure than Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations. This policy does little to reduce exposure disparities because the CO2 emissions reductions that it achieves primarily occur in the coal-fired electricity sector. Other sectors, such as industry and heavy-duty diesel transportation, contribute far more PM2.5-related emissions.

    The researchers then examine thousands of different reduction options through an optimization approach to identify whether any possible combination of carbon dioxide reductions in the range of 40-60 percent can mitigate disparities. They find that that no policy scenario aligned with current U.S. carbon dioxide emissions targets is likely to significantly reduce current PM2.5 exposure disparities.

    “Policies that address only about 50 percent of CO2 emissions leave many polluting sources in place, and those that prioritize reductions for minorities tend to benefit the entire population,” says Noelle Selin, supervising author of the study and a professor at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “This means that a large range of policies that reduce CO2 can improve air quality overall, but can’t address long-standing inequities in air pollution exposure.”

    So if climate policy alone cannot adequately achieve equitable air quality results, what viable options remain? The researchers suggest that more ambitious carbon policies could narrow racial and economic PM2.5 exposure disparities in the long term, but not within the next decade. To make a near-term difference, they recommend interventions designed to reduce PM2.5 emissions resulting from non-CO2 sources, ideally at the economic sector or community level.

    “Achieving improved PM2.5 exposure for populations that are disproportionately exposed across the United States will require thinking that goes beyond current CO2 policy strategies, most likely involving large-scale structural changes,” says Selin. “This could involve changes in local and regional transportation and housing planning, together with accelerated efforts towards decarbonization.” More

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    Day of AI curriculum meets the moment

    MIT Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education (RAISE) recently celebrated the second annual Day of AI with two flagship local events. The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston hosted a human rights and data policy-focused event that was streamed worldwide. Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury, Massachusetts, hosted a student workshop in collaboration with Amazon Future Engineer. With over 8,000 registrations across all 50 U.S. states and 108 countries in 2023, participation in Day of AI has more than doubled since its inaugural year.

    Day of AI is a free curriculum of lessons and hands-on activities designed to teach kids of all ages and backgrounds the basics and responsible use of artificial intelligence, designed by researchers at MIT RAISE. This year, resources were available for educators to run at any time and in any increments they chose. The curriculum included five new modules to address timely topics like ChatGPT in School, Teachable Machines, AI and Social Media, Data Science and Me, and more. A collaboration with the International Society for Technology in Education also introduced modules for early elementary students. Educators across the world shared photos, videos, and stories of their students’ engagement, expressing excitement and even relief over the accessible lessons.

    Professor Cynthia Breazeal, director of RAISE, dean for digital learning at MIT, and head of the MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots research group, said, “It’s been a year of extraordinary advancements in AI, and with that comes necessary conversations and concerns about who and what this technology is for. With our Day of AI events, we want to celebrate the teachers and students who are putting in the work to make sure that AI is for everyone.”

    Reflecting community values and protecting digital citizens

    Play video

    On May 18, 2023, MIT RAISE hosted a global Day of AI celebration featuring a flagship local event focused on human rights and data policy at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. Students from the Warren Prescott Middle School and New Mission High School heard from speakers the City of Boston, Liberty Mutual, and MIT to discuss the many benefits and challenges of artificial intelligence education. Video: MIT Open Learning

    MIT President Sally Kornbluth welcomed students from Warren Prescott Middle School and New Mission High School to the Day of AI program at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. Kornbluth reflected on the exciting potential of AI, along with the ethical considerations society needs to be responsible for.

    “AI has the potential to do all kinds of fantastic things, including driving a car, helping us with the climate crisis, improving health care, and designing apps that we can’t even imagine yet. But what we have to make sure it doesn’t do is cause harm to individuals, to communities, to us — society as a whole,” she said.

    This theme resonated with each of the event speakers, whose jobs spanned the sectors of education, government, and business. Yo Deshpande, technologist for the public realm, and Michael Lawrence Evans, program director of new urban mechanics from the Boston Mayor’s Office, shared how Boston thinks about using AI to improve city life in ways that are “equitable, accessible, and delightful.” Deshpande said, “We have the opportunity to explore not only how AI works, but how using AI can line up with our values, the way we want to be in the world, and the way we want to be in our community.”

    Adam L’Italien, chief innovation officer at Liberty Mutual Insurance (one of Day of AI’s founding sponsors), compared our present moment with AI technologies to the early days of personal computers and internet connection. “Exposure to emerging technologies can accelerate progress in the world and in your own lives,” L’Italien said, while recognizing that the AI development process needs to be inclusive and mitigate biases.

    Human policies for artificial intelligence

    So how does society address these human rights concerns about AI? Marc Aidinoff ’21, former White House Office of Science and Technology Policy chief of staff, led a discussion on how government policy can influence the parameters of how technology is developed and used, like the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights. Aidinoff said, “The work of building the world you want to see is far harder than building the technical AI system … How do you work with other people and create a collective vision for what we want to do?” Warren Prescott Middle School students described how AI could be used to solve problems that humans couldn’t. But they also shared their concerns that AI could affect data privacy, learning deficits, social media addiction, job displacement, and propaganda.

    In a mock U.S. Senate trial activity designed by Daniella DiPaola, PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, the middle schoolers investigated what rights might be undermined by AI in schools, hospitals, law enforcement, and corporations. Meanwhile, New Mission High School students workshopped the ideas behind bill S.2314, the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act, in an activity designed by Raechel Walker, graduate research assistant in the Personal Robots Group, and Matt Taylor, research assistant at the Media Lab. They discussed what level of control could or should be introduced at the parental, educational, and governmental levels to reduce the risks of internet addiction.

    “Alexa, how do I program AI?”

    Play video

    The 2023 Day of AI celebration featured a flagship local event at the Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury in collaboration with Amazon Future Engineer. Students participated in a hands-on activity using MIT App Inventor as part of Day of AI’s Alexa lesson. Video: MIT Open Learning

    At Dearborn STEM Academy, Amazon Future Engineer helped students work through the Intro to Voice AI curriculum module in real-time. Students used MIT App Inventor to code basic commands for Alexa. In an interview with WCVB, Principal Darlene Marcano said, “It’s important that we expose our students to as many different experiences as possible. The students that are participating are on track to be future computer scientists and engineers.”

    Breazeal told Dearborn students, “We want you to have an informed voice about how you want AI to be used in society. We want you to feel empowered that you can shape the world. You can make things with AI to help make a better world and a better community.”

    Rohit Prasad ’08, senior vice president and head scientist for Alexa at Amazon, and Victor Reinoso ’97, global director of philanthropic education initiatives at Amazon, also joined the event. “Amazon and MIT share a commitment to helping students discover a world of possibilities through STEM and AI education,” said Reinoso. “There’s a lot of current excitement around the technological revolution with generative AI and large language models, so we’re excited to help students explore careers of the future and navigate the pathways available to them.” To highlight their continued investment in the local community and the school program, Amazon donated a $25,000 Innovation and Early College Pathways Program Grant to the Boston Public School system.

    Day of AI down under

    Not only was the Day of AI program widely adopted across the globe, Australian educators were inspired to adapt their own regionally specific curriculum. An estimated 161,000 AI professionals will be needed in Australia by 2030, according to the National Artificial Intelligence Center in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), an Australian government agency and Day of AI Australia project partner. CSIRO worked with the University of New South Wales to develop supplementary educational resources on AI ethics and machine learning. Day of AI Australia reached 85,000 students at 400-plus secondary schools this year, sparking curiosity in the next generation of AI experts.

    The interest in AI is accelerating as fast as the technology is being developed. Day of AI offers a unique opportunity for K-12 students to shape our world’s digital future and their own.

    “I hope that some of you will decide to be part of this bigger effort to help us figure out the best possible answers to questions that are raised by AI,” Kornbluth told students at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. “We’re counting on you, the next generation, to learn how AI works and help make sure it’s for everyone.” More

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    Bringing the social and ethical responsibilities of computing to the forefront

    There has been a remarkable surge in the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence to address a wide range of problems and challenges. While their adoption, particularly with the rise of AI, is reshaping nearly every industry sector, discipline, and area of research, such innovations often expose unexpected consequences that involve new norms, new expectations, and new rules and laws.

    To facilitate deeper understanding, the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC), a cross-cutting initiative in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, recently brought together social scientists and humanists with computer scientists, engineers, and other computing faculty for an exploration of the ways in which the broad applicability of algorithms and AI has presented both opportunities and challenges in many aspects of society.

    “The very nature of our reality is changing. AI has the ability to do things that until recently were solely the realm of human intelligence — things that can challenge our understanding of what it means to be human,” remarked Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, in his opening address at the inaugural SERC Symposium. “This poses philosophical, conceptual, and practical questions on a scale not experienced since the start of the Enlightenment. In the face of such profound change, we need new conceptual maps for navigating the change.”

    The symposium offered a glimpse into the vision and activities of SERC in both research and education. “We believe our responsibility with SERC is to educate and equip our students and enable our faculty to contribute to responsible technology development and deployment,” said Georgia Perakis, the William F. Pounds Professor of Management in the MIT Sloan School of Management, co-associate dean of SERC, and the lead organizer of the symposium. “We’re drawing from the many strengths and diversity of disciplines across MIT and beyond and bringing them together to gain multiple viewpoints.”

    Through a succession of panels and sessions, the symposium delved into a variety of topics related to the societal and ethical dimensions of computing. In addition, 37 undergraduate and graduate students from a range of majors, including urban studies and planning, political science, mathematics, biology, electrical engineering and computer science, and brain and cognitive sciences, participated in a poster session to exhibit their research in this space, covering such topics as quantum ethics, AI collusion in storage markets, computing waste, and empowering users on social platforms for better content credibility.

    Showcasing a diversity of work

    In three sessions devoted to themes of beneficent and fair computing, equitable and personalized health, and algorithms and humans, the SERC Symposium showcased work by 12 faculty members across these domains.

    One such project from a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, architects, digital artists, and computational social scientists aimed to preserve endangered heritage sites in Afghanistan with digital twins. The project team produced highly detailed interrogable 3D models of the heritage sites, in addition to extended reality and virtual reality experiences, as learning resources for audiences that cannot access these sites.

    In a project for the United Network for Organ Sharing, researchers showed how they used applied analytics to optimize various facets of an organ allocation system in the United States that is currently undergoing a major overhaul in order to make it more efficient, equitable, and inclusive for different racial, age, and gender groups, among others.

    Another talk discussed an area that has not yet received adequate public attention: the broader implications for equity that biased sensor data holds for the next generation of models in computing and health care.

    A talk on bias in algorithms considered both human bias and algorithmic bias, and the potential for improving results by taking into account differences in the nature of the two kinds of bias.

    Other highlighted research included the interaction between online platforms and human psychology; a study on whether decision-makers make systemic prediction mistakes on the available information; and an illustration of how advanced analytics and computation can be leveraged to inform supply chain management, operations, and regulatory work in the food and pharmaceutical industries.

    Improving the algorithms of tomorrow

    “Algorithms are, without question, impacting every aspect of our lives,” said Asu Ozdaglar, deputy dean of academics for the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, in kicking off a panel she moderated on the implications of data and algorithms.

    “Whether it’s in the context of social media, online commerce, automated tasks, and now a much wider range of creative interactions with the advent of generative AI tools and large language models, there’s little doubt that much more is to come,” Ozdaglar said. “While the promise is evident to all of us, there’s a lot to be concerned as well. This is very much time for imaginative thinking and careful deliberation to improve the algorithms of tomorrow.”

    Turning to the panel, Ozdaglar asked experts from computing, social science, and data science for insights on how to understand what is to come and shape it to enrich outcomes for the majority of humanity.

    Sarah Williams, associate professor of technology and urban planning at MIT, emphasized the critical importance of comprehending the process of how datasets are assembled, as data are the foundation for all models. She also stressed the need for research to address the potential implication of biases in algorithms that often find their way in through their creators and the data used in their development. “It’s up to us to think about our own ethical solutions to these problems,” she said. “Just as it’s important to progress with the technology, we need to start the field of looking at these questions of what biases are in the algorithms? What biases are in the data, or in that data’s journey?”

    Shifting focus to generative models and whether the development and use of these technologies should be regulated, the panelists — which also included MIT’s Srini Devadas, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, John Horton, professor of information technology, and Simon Johnson, professor of entrepreneurship — all concurred that regulating open-source algorithms, which are publicly accessible, would be difficult given that regulators are still catching up and struggling to even set guardrails for technology that is now 20 years old.

    Returning to the question of how to effectively regulate the use of these technologies, Johnson proposed a progressive corporate tax system as a potential solution. He recommends basing companies’ tax payments on their profits, especially for large corporations whose massive earnings go largely untaxed due to offshore banking. By doing so, Johnson said that this approach can serve as a regulatory mechanism that discourages companies from trying to “own the entire world” by imposing disincentives.

    The role of ethics in computing education

    As computing continues to advance with no signs of slowing down, it is critical to educate students to be intentional in the social impact of the technologies they will be developing and deploying into the world. But can one actually be taught such things? If so, how?

    Caspar Hare, professor of philosophy at MIT and co-associate dean of SERC, posed this looming question to faculty on a panel he moderated on the role of ethics in computing education. All experienced in teaching ethics and thinking about the social implications of computing, each panelist shared their perspective and approach.

    A strong advocate for the importance of learning from history, Eden Medina, associate professor of science, technology, and society at MIT, said that “often the way we frame computing is that everything is new. One of the things that I do in my teaching is look at how people have confronted these issues in the past and try to draw from them as a way to think about possible ways forward.” Medina regularly uses case studies in her classes and referred to a paper written by Yale University science historian Joanna Radin on the Pima Indian Diabetes Dataset that raised ethical issues on the history of that particular collection of data that many don’t consider as an example of how decisions around technology and data can grow out of very specific contexts.

    Milo Phillips-Brown, associate professor of philosophy at Oxford University, talked about the Ethical Computing Protocol that he co-created while he was a SERC postdoc at MIT. The protocol, a four-step approach to building technology responsibly, is designed to train computer science students to think in a better and more accurate way about the social implications of technology by breaking the process down into more manageable steps. “The basic approach that we take very much draws on the fields of value-sensitive design, responsible research and innovation, participatory design as guiding insights, and then is also fundamentally interdisciplinary,” he said.

    Fields such as biomedicine and law have an ethics ecosystem that distributes the function of ethical reasoning in these areas. Oversight and regulation are provided to guide front-line stakeholders and decision-makers when issues arise, as are training programs and access to interdisciplinary expertise that they can draw from. “In this space, we have none of that,” said John Basl, associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern University. “For current generations of computer scientists and other decision-makers, we’re actually making them do the ethical reasoning on their own.” Basl commented further that teaching core ethical reasoning skills across the curriculum, not just in philosophy classes, is essential, and that the goal shouldn’t be for every computer scientist be a professional ethicist, but for them to know enough of the landscape to be able to ask the right questions and seek out the relevant expertise and resources that exists.

    After the final session, interdisciplinary groups of faculty, students, and researchers engaged in animated discussions related to the issues covered throughout the day during a reception that marked the conclusion of the symposium. More

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    Improving health outcomes by targeting climate and air pollution simultaneously

    Climate policies are typically designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that result from human activities and drive climate change. The largest source of these emissions is the combustion of fossil fuels, which increases atmospheric concentrations of ozone, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and other air pollutants that pose public health risks. While climate policies may result in lower concentrations of health-damaging air pollutants as a “co-benefit” of reducing greenhouse gas emissions-intensive activities, they are most effective at improving health outcomes when deployed in tandem with geographically targeted air-quality regulations.

    Yet the computer models typically used to assess the likely air quality/health impacts of proposed climate/air-quality policy combinations come with drawbacks for decision-makers. Atmospheric chemistry/climate models can produce high-resolution results, but they are expensive and time-consuming to run. Integrated assessment models can produce results for far less time and money, but produce results at global and regional scales, rendering them insufficiently precise to obtain accurate assessments of air quality/health impacts at the subnational level.

    To overcome these drawbacks, a team of researchers at MIT and the University of California at Davis has developed a climate/air-quality policy assessment tool that is both computationally efficient and location-specific. Described in a new study in the journal ACS Environmental Au, the tool could enable users to obtain rapid estimates of combined policy impacts on air quality/health at more than 1,500 locations around the globe — estimates precise enough to reveal the equity implications of proposed policy combinations within a particular region.

    “The modeling approach described in this study may ultimately allow decision-makers to assess the efficacy of multiple combinations of climate and air-quality policies in reducing the health impacts of air pollution, and to design more effective policies,” says Sebastian Eastham, the study’s lead author and a principal research scientist at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. “It may also be used to determine if a given policy combination would result in equitable health outcomes across a geographical area of interest.”

    To demonstrate the efficiency and accuracy of their policy assessment tool, the researchers showed that outcomes projected by the tool within seconds were consistent with region-specific results from detailed chemistry/climate models that took days or even months to run. While continuing to refine and develop their approaches, they are now working to embed the new tool into integrated assessment models for direct use by policymakers.

    “As decision-makers implement climate policies in the context of other sustainability challenges like air pollution, efficient modeling tools are important for assessment — and new computational techniques allow us to build faster and more accurate tools to provide credible, relevant information to a broader range of users,” says Noelle Selin, a professor at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and supervising author of the study. “We are looking forward to further developing such approaches, and to working with stakeholders to ensure that they provide timely, targeted and useful assessments.”

    The study was funded, in part, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Biogen Foundation. More

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    MIT Policy Hackathon produces new solutions for technology policy challenges

    Almost three years ago, the Covid-19 pandemic changed the world. Many are still looking to uncover a “new normal.”

    “Instead of going back to normal, [there’s a new generation that] wants to build back something different, something better,” says Jorge Sandoval, a second-year graduate student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program (TPP) at the Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS). “How do we communicate this mindset to others, that the world cannot be the same as before?”

    This was the inspiration behind “A New (Re)generation,” this year’s theme for the IDSS-student-run MIT Policy Hackathon, which Sandoval helped to organize as the event chair. The Policy Hackathon is a weekend-long, interdisciplinary competition that brings together participants from around the globe to explore potential solutions to some of society’s greatest challenges. 

    Unlike other competitions of its kind, Sandoval says MIT’s event emphasizes a humanistic approach. “The idea of our hackathon is to promote applications of technology that are humanistic or human-centered,” he says. “We take the opportunity to examine aspects of technology in the spaces where they tend to interact with society and people, an opportunity most technical competitions don’t offer because their primary focus is on the technology.”

    The competition started with 50 teams spread across four challenge categories. This year’s categories included Internet and Cybersecurity, Environmental Justice, Logistics, and Housing and City Planning. While some people come into the challenge with friends, Sandoval said most teams form organically during an online networking meeting hosted by MIT.

    “We encourage people to pair up with others outside of their country and to form teams of different diverse backgrounds and ages,” Sandoval says. “We try to give people who are often not invited to the decision-making table the opportunity to be a policymaker, bringing in those with backgrounds in not only law, policy, or politics, but also medicine, and people who have careers in engineering or experience working in nonprofits.”

    Once an in-person event, the Policy Hackathon has gone through its own regeneration process these past three years, according to Sandoval. After going entirely online during the pandemic’s height, last year they successfully hosted the first hybrid version of the event, which served as their model again this year.

    “The hybrid version of the event gives us the opportunity to allow people to connect in a way that is lost if it is only online, while also keeping the wide range of accessibility, allowing people to join from anywhere in the world, regardless of nationality or income, to provide their input,” Sandoval says.

    For Swetha Tadisina, an undergraduate computer science major at Lafayette College and participant in the internet and cybersecurity category, the hackathon was a unique opportunity to meet and work with people much more advanced in their careers. “I was surprised how such a diverse team that had never met before was able to work so efficiently and creatively,” Tadisina says.

    Erika Spangler, a public high school teacher from Massachusetts and member of the environmental justice category’s winning team, says that while each member of “Team Slime Mold” came to the table with a different set of skills, they managed to be in sync from the start — even working across the nine-and-a-half-hour time difference the four-person team faced when working with policy advocate Shruti Nandy from Calcutta, India.

    “We divided the project into data, policy, and research and trusted each other’s expertise,” Spangler says, “Despite having separate areas of focus, we made sure to have regular check-ins to problem-solve and cross-pollinate ideas.”

    During the 48-hour period, her team proposed the creation of an algorithm to identify high-quality brownfields that could be cleaned up and used as sites for building renewable energy. Their corresponding policy sought to mandate additional requirements for renewable energy businesses seeking tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act.

    “Their policy memo had the most in-depth technical assessment, including deep dives in a few key cities to show the impact of their proposed approach for site selection at a very granular level,” says Amanda Levin, director of policy analysis for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Levin acted as both a judge and challenge provider for the environmental justice category.

    “They also presented their policy recommendations in the memo in a well-thought-out way, clearly noting the relevant actor,” she adds. This clarity around what can be done, and who would be responsible for those actions, is highly valuable for those in policy.”

    Levin says the NRDC, one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the United States, provided five “challenge questions,” making it clear that teams did not need to address all of them. She notes that this gave teams significant leeway, bringing a wide variety of recommendations to the table. 

    “As a challenge partner, the work put together by all the teams is already being used to help inform discussions about the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act,” Levin says. “Being able to tap into the collective intelligence of the hackathon helped uncover new perspectives and policy solutions that can help make an impact in addressing the important policy challenges we face today.”

    While having partners with experience in data science and policy definitely helped, fellow Team Slime Mold member Sara Sheffels, a PhD candidate in MIT’s biomaterials program, says she was surprised how much her experiences outside of science and policy were relevant to the challenge: “My experience organizing MIT’s Graduate Student Union shaped my ideas about more meaningful community involvement in renewables projects on brownfields. It is not meaningful to merely educate people about the importance of renewables or ask them to sign off on a pre-planned project without addressing their other needs.”

    “I wanted to test my limits, gain exposure, and expand my world,” Tadisina adds. “The exposure, friendships, and experiences you gain in such a short period of time are incredible.”

    For Willy R. Vasquez, an electrical and computer engineering PhD student at the University of Texas, the hackathon is not to be missed. “If you’re interested in the intersection of tech, society, and policy, then this is a must-do experience.” More