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    Growing our donated organ supply

    For those in need of one, an organ transplant is a matter of life and death. 

    Every year, the medical procedure gives thousands of people with advanced or end-stage diseases extended life. This “second chance” is heavily dependent on the availability, compatibility, and proximity of a precious resource that can’t be simply bought, grown, or manufactured — at least not yet.

    Instead, organs must be given — cut from one body and implanted into another. And because living organ donation is only viable in certain cases, many organs are only available for donation after the donor’s death.

    Unsurprisingly, the logistical and ethical complexity of distributing a limited number of transplant organs to a growing wait list of patients has received much attention. There’s an important part of the process that has received less focus, however, and which may hold significant untapped potential: organ procurement itself.

    “If you have a donated organ, who should you give it to? This question has been extensively studied in operations research, economics, and even applied computer science,” says Hammaad Adam, a graduate student in the Social and Engineering Systems (SES) doctoral program at the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). “But there’s been a lot less research on where that organ comes from in the first place.”

    In the United States, nonprofits called organ procurement organizations, or OPOs, are responsible for finding and evaluating potential donors, interacting with grieving families and hospital administrations, and recovering and delivering organs — all while following the federal laws that serve as both their mandate and guardrails. Recent studies estimate that obstacles and inefficiencies lead to thousands of organs going uncollected every year, even as the demand for transplants continues to grow.

    “There’s been little transparent data on organ procurement,” argues Adam. Working with MIT computer science professors Marzyeh Ghassemi and Ashia Wilson, and in collaboration with stakeholders in organ procurement, Adam led a project to create a dataset called ORCHID: Organ Retrieval and Collection of Health Information for Donation. ORCHID contains a decade of clinical, financial, and administrative data from six OPOs.

    “Our goal is for the ORCHID database to have an impact in how organ procurement is understood, internally and externally,” says Ghassemi.

    Efficiency and equity 

    It was looking to make an impact that drew Adam to SES and MIT. With a background in applied math and experience in strategy consulting, solving problems with technical components sits right in his wheelhouse.

    “I really missed challenging technical problems from a statistics and machine learning standpoint,” he says of his time in consulting. “So I went back and got a master’s in data science, and over the course of my master’s got involved in a bunch of academic research projects in a few different fields, including biology, management science, and public policy. What I enjoyed most were some of the more social science-focused projects that had immediate impact.”

    As a grad student in SES, Adam’s research focuses on using statistical tools to uncover health-care inequities, and developing machine learning approaches to address them. “Part of my dissertation research focuses on building tools that can improve equity in clinical trials and other randomized experiments,” he explains.

    One recent example of Adam’s work: developing a novel method to stop clinical trials early if the treatment has an unintended harmful effect for a minority group of participants. “I’ve also been thinking about ways to increase minority representation in clinical trials through improved patient recruitment,” he adds.

    Racial inequities in health care extend into organ transplantation, where a majority of wait-listed patients are not white — far in excess of their demographic groups’ proportion to the overall population. There are fewer organ donations from many of these communities, due to various obstacles in need of better understanding if they are to be overcome. 

    “My work in organ transplantation began on the allocation side,” explains Adam. “In work under review, we examined the role of race in the acceptance of heart, liver, and lung transplant offers by physicians on behalf of their patients. We found that Black race of the patient was associated with significantly lower odds of organ offer acceptance — in other words, transplant doctors seemed more likely to turn down organs offered to Black patients. This trend may have multiple explanations, but it is nevertheless concerning.”

    Adam’s research has also found that donor-candidate race match was associated with significantly higher odds of offer acceptance, an association that Adam says “highlights the importance of organ donation from racial minority communities, and has motivated our work on equitable organ procurement.”

    Working with Ghassemi through the IDSS Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism, Adam was introduced to OPO stakeholders looking to collaborate. “It’s this opportunity to impact not only health-care efficiency, but also health-care equity, that really got me interested in this research,” says Adam.

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    MIT Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism – HealthcareVideo: IDSS

    Making an impact

    Creating a database like ORCHID means solving problems in multiple domains, from the technical to the political. Some efforts never overcome the first step: getting data in the first place. Thankfully, several OPOs were already seeking collaborations and looking to improve their performance.

    “We have been lucky to have a strong partnership with the OPOs, and we hope to work together to find important insights to improve efficiency and equity,” says Ghassemi.

    The value of a database like ORCHID is in its potential for generating new insights, especially through quantitative analysis with statistics and computing tools like machine learning. The potential value in ORCHID was recognized with an MIT Prize for Open Data, an MIT Libraries award highlighting the importance and impact of research data that is openly shared.

    “It’s nice that the work got some recognition,” says Adam of the prize. “And it was cool to see some of the other great open data work that’s happening at MIT. I think there’s real impact in releasing publicly available data in an important and understudied domain.”

    All the same, Adam knows that building the database is only the first step.

    “I’m very interested in understanding the bottlenecks in the organ procurement process,” he explains. “As part of my thesis research, I’m exploring this by modeling OPO decision-making using causal inference and structural econometrics.”

    Using insights from this research, Adam also aims to evaluate policy changes that can improve both equity and efficiency in organ procurement. “And we’re hoping to recruit more OPOs, and increase the amount of data we’re releasing,” he says. “The dream state is every OPO joins our collaboration and provides updated data every year.”

    Adam is excited to see how other researchers might use the data to address inefficiencies in organ procurement. “Every organ donor saves between three and four lives,” he says. “So every research project that comes out of this dataset could make a real impact.” More

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    New software enables blind and low-vision users to create interactive, accessible charts

    A growing number of tools enable users to make online data representations, like charts, that are accessible for people who are blind or have low vision. However, most tools require an existing visual chart that can then be converted into an accessible format.

    This creates barriers that prevent blind and low-vision users from building their own custom data representations, and it can limit their ability to explore and analyze important information.

    A team of researchers from MIT and University College London (UCL) wants to change the way people think about accessible data representations.

    They created a software system called Umwelt (which means “environment” in German) that can enable blind and low-vision users to build customized, multimodal data representations without needing an initial visual chart.

    Umwelt, an authoring environment designed for screen-reader users, incorporates an editor that allows someone to upload a dataset and create a customized representation, such as a scatterplot, that can include three modalities: visualization, textual description, and sonification. Sonification involves converting data into nonspeech audio.

    The system, which can represent a variety of data types, includes a viewer that enables a blind or low-vision user to interactively explore a data representation, seamlessly switching between each modality to interact with data in a different way.

    The researchers conducted a study with five expert screen-reader users who found Umwelt to be useful and easy to learn. In addition to offering an interface that empowered them to create data representations — something they said was sorely lacking — the users said Umwelt could facilitate communication between people who rely on different senses.

    “We have to remember that blind and low-vision people aren’t isolated. They exist in these contexts where they want to talk to other people about data,” says Jonathan Zong, an electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) graduate student and lead author of a paper introducing Umwelt. “I am hopeful that Umwelt helps shift the way that researchers think about accessible data analysis. Enabling the full participation of blind and low-vision people in data analysis involves seeing visualization as just one piece of this bigger, multisensory puzzle.”

    Joining Zong on the paper are fellow EECS graduate students Isabella Pedraza Pineros and Mengzhu “Katie” Chen; Daniel Hajas, a UCL researcher who works with the Global Disability Innovation Hub; and senior author Arvind Satyanarayan, associate professor of computer science at MIT who leads the Visualization Group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The paper will be presented at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing.

    De-centering visualization

    The researchers previously developed interactive interfaces that provide a richer experience for screen reader users as they explore accessible data representations. Through that work, they realized most tools for creating such representations involve converting existing visual charts.

    Aiming to decenter visual representations in data analysis, Zong and Hajas, who lost his sight at age 16, began co-designing Umwelt more than a year ago.

    At the outset, they realized they would need to rethink how to represent the same data using visual, auditory, and textual forms.

    “We had to put a common denominator behind the three modalities. By creating this new language for representations, and making the output and input accessible, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” says Hajas.

    To build Umwelt, they first considered what is unique about the way people use each sense.

    For instance, a sighted user can see the overall pattern of a scatterplot and, at the same time, move their eyes to focus on different data points. But for someone listening to a sonification, the experience is linear since data are converted into tones that must be played back one at a time.

    “If you are only thinking about directly translating visual features into nonvisual features, then you miss out on the unique strengths and weaknesses of each modality,” Zong adds.

    They designed Umwelt to offer flexibility, enabling a user to switch between modalities easily when one would better suit their task at a given time.

    To use the editor, one uploads a dataset to Umwelt, which employs heuristics to automatically creates default representations in each modality.

    If the dataset contains stock prices for companies, Umwelt might generate a multiseries line chart, a textual structure that groups data by ticker symbol and date, and a sonification that uses tone length to represent the price for each date, arranged by ticker symbol.

    The default heuristics are intended to help the user get started.

    “In any kind of creative tool, you have a blank-slate effect where it is hard to know how to begin. That is compounded in a multimodal tool because you have to specify things in three different representations,” Zong says.

    The editor links interactions across modalities, so if a user changes the textual description, that information is adjusted in the corresponding sonification. Someone could utilize the editor to build a multimodal representation, switch to the viewer for an initial exploration, then return to the editor to make adjustments.

    Helping users communicate about data

    To test Umwelt, they created a diverse set of multimodal representations, from scatterplots to multiview charts, to ensure the system could effectively represent different data types. Then they put the tool in the hands of five expert screen reader users.

    Study participants mostly found Umwelt to be useful for creating, exploring, and discussing data representations. One user said Umwelt was like an “enabler” that decreased the time it took them to analyze data. The users agreed that Umwelt could help them communicate about data more easily with sighted colleagues.

    “What stands out about Umwelt is its core philosophy of de-emphasizing the visual in favor of a balanced, multisensory data experience. Often, nonvisual data representations are relegated to the status of secondary considerations, mere add-ons to their visual counterparts. However, visualization is merely one aspect of data representation. I appreciate their efforts in shifting this perception and embracing a more inclusive approach to data science,” says JooYoung Seo, an assistant professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, who was not involved with this work.

    Moving forward, the researchers plan to create an open-source version of Umwelt that others can build upon. They also want to integrate tactile sensing into the software system as an additional modality, enabling the use of tools like refreshable tactile graphics displays.

    “In addition to its impact on end users, I am hoping that Umwelt can be a platform for asking scientific questions around how people use and perceive multimodal representations, and how we can improve the design beyond this initial step,” says Zong.

    This work was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation and the MIT Morningside Academy for Design Fellowship. More

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    Q&A: How refusal can be an act of design

    This month in the ACM Journal on Responsible Computing, MIT graduate student Jonathan Zong SM ’20 and co-author J. Nathan Matias SM ’13, PhD ’17 of the Cornell Citizens and Technology Lab examine how the notion of refusal can open new avenues in the field of data ethics. In their open-access report, “Data Refusal From Below: A Framework for Understanding, Evaluating, and Envisioning Refusal as Design,” the pair proposes a framework in four dimensions to map how individuals can say “no” to technology misuses. At the same time, the researchers argue that just like design, refusal is generative, and has the potential to create alternate futures.

    Zong, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering and computer science, 2022-23 MIT Morningside Academy for Design Design Fellow, and member of the MIT Visualization Group, describes his latest work in this Q&A.

    Q: How do you define the concept of “refusal,” and where does it come from?

    A: Refusal was developed in feminist and Indigenous studies. It’s this idea of saying “no,” without being given permission to say “no.” Scholars like Ruha Benjamin write about refusal in the context of surveillance, race, and bioethics, and talk about it as a necessary counterpart to consent. Others, like the authors of the “Feminist Data Manifest-No,” think of refusal as something that can help us commit to building better futures.

    Benjamin illustrates cases where the choice to refuse is not equally possible for everyone, citing examples involving genetic data and refugee screenings in the U.K. The imbalance of power in these situations underscores the broader concept of refusal, extending beyond rejecting specific options to challenging the entire set of choices presented.

    Q: What inspired you to work on the notion of refusal as an act of design?

    A: In my work on data ethics, I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate processes into research data collection, particularly around consent and opt-out, with a focus on individual autonomy and the idea of giving people choices about the way that their data is used. But when it comes to data privacy, simply making choices available is not enough. Choices can be unequally available, or create no-win situations where all options are bad. This led me to the concept of refusal: questioning the authority of data collectors and challenging their legitimacy.

    The key idea of my work is that refusal is an act of design. I think of refusal as deliberate actions to redesign our socio-technical landscape by exerting some sort of influence. Like design, refusal is generative. Like design, it’s oriented towards creating alternate possibilities and alternate futures. Design is a process of exploring or traversing a space of possibility. Applying a design framework to cases of refusal drawn from scholarly and journalistic sources allowed me to establish a common language for talking about refusal and to imagine refusals that haven’t been explored yet.

    Q: What are the stakes around data privacy and data collection?

    A: The use of data for facial recognition surveillance in the U.S. is a big example we use in the paper. When people do everyday things like post on social media or walk past cameras in public spaces, they might be contributing their data to training facial recognition systems. For instance, a tech company may take photos from a social media site and build facial recognition that they then sell to the government. In the U.S., these systems are disproportionately used by police to surveil communities of color. It is difficult to apply concepts like consent and opt out of these processes, because they happen over time and involve multiple kinds of institutions. It’s also not clear that individual opt-out would do anything to change the overall situation. Refusal then becomes a crucial avenue, at both individual and community levels, to think more broadly of how affected people still exert some kind of voice or agency, without necessarily having an official channel to do so.

    Q: Why do you think these issues are more particularly affecting disempowered communities?

    A: People who are affected by technologies are not always included in the design process for those technologies. Refusal then becomes a meaningful expression of values and priorities for those who were not part of the early design conversations. Actions taken against technologies like face surveillance — be it legal battles against companies, advocacy for stricter regulations, or even direct action like disabling security cameras — may not fit the conventional notion of participating in a design process. And yet, these are the actions available to refusers who may be excluded from other forms of participation.

    I’m particularly inspired by the movement around Indigenous data sovereignty. Organizations like the First Nations Information Governance Centre work towards prioritizing Indigenous communities’ perspectives in data collection, and refuse inadequate representation in official health data from the Canadian government. I think this is a movement that exemplifies the potential of refusal, not only as a way to reject what’s being offered, but also as a means to propose a constructive alternative, very much like design. Refusal is not merely a negation, but a pathway to different futures.

    Q: Can you elaborate on the design framework you propose?

    A: Refusals vary widely across contexts and scales. Developing a framework for refusal is about helping people see actions that are seemingly very different as instances of the same broader idea. Our framework consists of four facets: autonomy, time, power, and cost.

    Consider the case of IBM creating a facial recognition dataset using people’s photos without consent. We saw multiple forms of refusal emerge in response. IBM allowed individuals to opt out by withdrawing their photos. People collectively refused by creating a class-action lawsuit against IBM. Around the same time, many U.S. cities started passing local legislation banning the government use of facial recognition. Evaluating these cases through the framework highlights commonalities and differences. The framework highlights varied approaches to autonomy, like individual opt-out and collective action. Regarding time, opt-outs and lawsuits react to past harm, while legislation might proactively prevent future harm. Power dynamics differ; withdrawing individual photos minimally influences IBM, while legislation could potentially cause longer-term change. And as for cost, individual opt-out seems less demanding, while other approaches require more time and effort, balanced against potential benefits.

    The framework facilitates case description and comparison across these dimensions. I think its generative nature encourages exploration of novel forms of refusal as well. By identifying the characteristics we want to see in future refusal strategies — collective, proactive, powerful, low-cost… — we can aspire to shape future approaches and change the behavior of data collectors. We may not always be able to combine all these criteria, but the framework provides a means to articulate our aspirational goals in this context.

    Q: What impact do you hope this research will have?

    A: I hope to expand the notion of who can participate in design, and whose actions are seen as legitimate expressions of design input. I think a lot of work so far in the conversation around data ethics prioritizes the perspective of computer scientists who are trying to design better systems, at the expense of the perspective of people for whom the systems are not currently working. So, I hope designers and computer scientists can embrace the concept of refusal as a legitimate form of design, and a source of inspiration. There’s a vital conversation happening, one that should influence the design of future systems, even if expressed through unconventional means.

    One of the things I want to underscore in the paper is that design extends beyond software. Taking a socio-technical perspective, the act of designing encompasses software, institutions, relationships, and governance structures surrounding data use. I want people who aren’t software engineers, like policymakers or activists, to view themselves as integral to the technology design process. More

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    “We offer another place for knowledge”

    In the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi, Jospin Hassan didn’t have access to the education opportunities he sought. So, he decided to create his own. 

    Hassan knew the booming fields of data science and artificial intelligence could bring job opportunities to his community and help solve local challenges. After earning a spot in the 2020-21 cohort of the Certificate Program in Computer and Data Science from MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT), Hassan started sharing MIT knowledge and skills with other motivated learners in Dzaleka.

    MIT ReACT is now Emerging Talent, part of the Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) at MIT Open Learning. Currently serving its fifth cohort of global learners, Emerging Talent’s year-long certificate program incorporates high-quality computer science and data analysis coursework from MITx, professional skill building, experiential learning, apprenticeship work, and opportunities for networking with MIT’s global community of innovators. Hassan’s cohort honed their leadership skills through interactive online workshops with J-WEL and the 10-week online MIT Innovation Leadership Bootcamp. 

    “My biggest takeaway was networking, collaboration, and learning from each other,” Hassan says.

    Today, Hassan’s organization ADAI Circle offers mentorship and education programs for youth and other job seekers in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp. The curriculum encourages hands-on learning and collaboration.

    Launched in 2020, ADAI Circle aims to foster job creation and reduce poverty in Malawi through technology and innovation. In addition to their classes in data science, AI, software development, and hardware design, their Innovation Hub offers internet access to anyone in need. 

    Doing something different in the community

    Hassan first had the idea for his organization in 2018 when he reached a barrier in his own education journey. There were several programs in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp teaching learners how to code websites and mobile apps, but Hassan felt that they were limited in scope. 

    “We had good devices and internet access,” he says, “but I wanted to learn something new.” 

    Teaming up with co-founder Patrick Byamasu, Hassan and Byamasu set their sights on the longevity of AI and how that might create more jobs for people in their community. “The world is changing every day, and data scientists are in a higher demand today in various companies,” Hassan says. “For this reason, I decided to expand and share the knowledge that I acquired with my fellow refugees and the surrounding villages.”

    ADAI Circle draws inspiration from Hassan’s own experience with MIT Emerging Talent coursework, community, and training opportunities. For example, the MIT Bootcamps model is now standard practice for ADAI Circle’s annual hackathon. Hassan first introduced the hackathon to ADAI Circle students as part of his final experiential learning project of the Emerging Talent certificate program. 

    ADAI Circle’s annual hackathon is now an interactive — and effective — way to select students who will most benefit from its programs. The local schools’ curricula, Hassan says, might not provide enough of an academic challenge. “We can’t teach everyone and accommodate everyone because there are a lot of schools,” Hassan says, “but we offer another place for knowledge.” 

    The hackathon helps students develop data science and robotics skills. Before they start coding, students have to convince ADAI Circle teachers that their designs are viable, answering questions like, “What problem are you solving?” and “How will this help the community?” A community-oriented mindset is just as important to the curriculum.

    In addition to the practical skills Hassan gained from Emerging Talent, he leveraged the program’s network to help his community. Thanks to a social media connection Hassan made with the nongovernmental organization Give Internet after one of Emerging Talent’s virtual events, Give Internet brought internet access to ADAI Circle.

    Bridging the AI gap to unmet communities

    In 2023, ADAI Circle connected with another MIT Open Learning program, Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education (RAISE), which led to a pilot test of a project-based AI curriculum for middle school students. The Responsible AI for Computational Action (RAICA) curriculum equipped ADAI Circle students with AI skills for chatbots and natural language processing. 

    “I liked that program because it was based on what we’re teaching at the center,” Hassan says, speaking of his organization’s mission of bridging the AI gap to reach unmet communities.

    The RAICA curriculum was designed by education experts at MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program (STEP Lab) and AI experts from MIT Personal Robots group and MIT App Inventor. ADAI Circle teachers gave detailed feedback about the pilot to the RAICA team. During weekly meetings with Glenda Stump, education research scientist for RAICA and J-WEL, and Angela Daniel, teacher development specialist for RAICA, the teachers discussed their experiences, prepared for upcoming lessons, and translated the learning materials in real time. 

    “We are trying to create a curriculum that’s accessible worldwide and to students who typically have little or no access to technology,” says Mary Cate Gustafson-Quiett, curriculum design manager at STEP Lab and project manager for RAICA. “Working with ADAI and students in a refugee camp challenged us to design in more culturally and technologically inclusive ways.”

    Gustafson-Quiett says the curriculum feedback from ADAI Circle helped inform how RAICA delivers teacher development resources to accommodate learning environments with limited internet access. “They also exposed places where our team’s western ideals, specifically around individualism, crept into activities in the lesson and contrasted with their more communal cultural beliefs,” she says.

    Eager to introduce more MIT-developed AI resources, Hassan also shared MIT RAISE’s Day of AI curricula with ADAI Circle teachers. The new ChatGPT module gave students the chance to level up their chatbot programming skills that they gained from the RAICA module. Some of the advanced students are taking initiative to use ChatGPT API to create their own projects in education.

    “We don’t want to tell them what to do, we want them to come up with their own ideas,” Hassan says.

    Although ADAI Circle faces many challenges, Hassan says his team is addressing them one by one. Last year, they didn’t have electricity in their Innovation Hub, but they solved that. This year, they achieved a stable internet connection that’s one of the fastest in Malawi. Next up, they are hoping to secure more devices for their students, create more jobs, and add additional hubs throughout the community. The work is never done, but Hassan is starting to see the impact that ADAI Circle is making. 

    “For those who want to learn data science, let’s let them learn,” Hassan says. More

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    New hope for early pancreatic cancer intervention via AI-based risk prediction

    The first documented case of pancreatic cancer dates back to the 18th century. Since then, researchers have undertaken a protracted and challenging odyssey to understand the elusive and deadly disease. To date, there is no better cancer treatment than early intervention. Unfortunately, the pancreas, nestled deep within the abdomen, is particularly elusive for early detection. 

    MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) scientists, alongside Limor Appelbaum, a staff scientist in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), were eager to better identify potential high-risk patients. They set out to develop two machine-learning models for early detection of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common form of the cancer. To access a broad and diverse database, the team synced up with a federated network company, using electronic health record data from various institutions across the United States. This vast pool of data helped ensure the models’ reliability and generalizability, making them applicable across a wide range of populations, geographical locations, and demographic groups.

    The two models — the “PRISM” neural network, and the logistic regression model (a statistical technique for probability), outperformed current methods. The team’s comparison showed that while standard screening criteria identify about 10 percent of PDAC cases using a five-times higher relative risk threshold, Prism can detect 35 percent of PDAC cases at this same threshold. 

    Using AI to detect cancer risk is not a new phenomena — algorithms analyze mammograms, CT scans for lung cancer, and assist in the analysis of Pap smear tests and HPV testing, to name a few applications. “The PRISM models stand out for their development and validation on an extensive database of over 5 million patients, surpassing the scale of most prior research in the field,” says Kai Jia, an MIT PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), MIT CSAIL affiliate, and first author on an open-access paper in eBioMedicine outlining the new work. “The model uses routine clinical and lab data to make its predictions, and the diversity of the U.S. population is a significant advancement over other PDAC models, which are usually confined to specific geographic regions, like a few health-care centers in the U.S. Additionally, using a unique regularization technique in the training process enhanced the models’ generalizability and interpretability.” 

    “This report outlines a powerful approach to use big data and artificial intelligence algorithms to refine our approach to identifying risk profiles for cancer,” says David Avigan, a Harvard Medical School professor and the cancer center director and chief of hematology and hematologic malignancies at BIDMC, who was not involved in the study. “This approach may lead to novel strategies to identify patients with high risk for malignancy that may benefit from focused screening with the potential for early intervention.” 

    Prismatic perspectives

    The journey toward the development of PRISM began over six years ago, fueled by firsthand experiences with the limitations of current diagnostic practices. “Approximately 80-85 percent of pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed at advanced stages, where cure is no longer an option,” says senior author Appelbaum, who is also a Harvard Medical School instructor as well as radiation oncologist. “This clinical frustration sparked the idea to delve into the wealth of data available in electronic health records (EHRs).”The CSAIL group’s close collaboration with Appelbaum made it possible to understand the combined medical and machine learning aspects of the problem better, eventually leading to a much more accurate and transparent model. “The hypothesis was that these records contained hidden clues — subtle signs and symptoms that could act as early warning signals of pancreatic cancer,” she adds. “This guided our use of federated EHR networks in developing these models, for a scalable approach for deploying risk prediction tools in health care.”Both PrismNN and PrismLR models analyze EHR data, including patient demographics, diagnoses, medications, and lab results, to assess PDAC risk. PrismNN uses artificial neural networks to detect intricate patterns in data features like age, medical history, and lab results, yielding a risk score for PDAC likelihood. PrismLR uses logistic regression for a simpler analysis, generating a probability score of PDAC based on these features. Together, the models offer a thorough evaluation of different approaches in predicting PDAC risk from the same EHR data.

    One paramount point for gaining the trust of physicians, the team notes, is better understanding how the models work, known in the field as interpretability. The scientists pointed out that while logistic regression models are inherently easier to interpret, recent advancements have made deep neural networks somewhat more transparent. This helped the team to refine the thousands of potentially predictive features derived from EHR of a single patient to approximately 85 critical indicators. These indicators, which include patient age, diabetes diagnosis, and an increased frequency of visits to physicians, are automatically discovered by the model but match physicians’ understanding of risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer. 

    The path forward

    Despite the promise of the PRISM models, as with all research, some parts are still a work in progress. U.S. data alone are the current diet for the models, necessitating testing and adaptation for global use. The path forward, the team notes, includes expanding the model’s applicability to international datasets and integrating additional biomarkers for more refined risk assessment.

    “A subsequent aim for us is to facilitate the models’ implementation in routine health care settings. The vision is to have these models function seamlessly in the background of health care systems, automatically analyzing patient data and alerting physicians to high-risk cases without adding to their workload,” says Jia. “A machine-learning model integrated with the EHR system could empower physicians with early alerts for high-risk patients, potentially enabling interventions well before symptoms manifest. We are eager to deploy our techniques in the real world to help all individuals enjoy longer, healthier lives.” 

    Jia wrote the paper alongside Applebaum and MIT EECS Professor and CSAIL Principal Investigator Martin Rinard, who are both senior authors of the paper. Researchers on the paper were supported during their time at MIT CSAIL, in part, by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Boeing, the National Science Foundation, and Aarno Labs. TriNetX provided resources for the project, and the Prevent Cancer Foundation also supported the team. More

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    Inclusive research for social change

    Pair a decades-old program dedicated to creating research opportunities for underrepresented minorities and populations with a growing initiative committed to tackling the very issues at the heart of such disparities, and you’ll get a transformative partnership that only MIT can deliver. 

    Since 1986, the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) has led an institutional effort to prepare underrepresented students (minorities, women in STEM, or students with low socioeconomic status) for doctoral education by pairing them with MIT labs and research groups. For the past three years, the Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism (ICSR), a cross-disciplinary research collaboration led by MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), has joined them in their mission, helping bring the issue full circle by providing MSRP students with the opportunity to use big data and computational tools to create impactful changes toward racial equity.

    “ICSR has further enabled our direct engagement with undergrads, both within and outside of MIT,” says Fotini Christia, the Ford International Professor of the Social Sciences, associate director of IDSS, and co-organizer for the initiative. “We’ve found that this line of research has attracted students interested in examining these topics with the most rigorous methods.”

    The initiative fits well under the IDSS banner, as IDSS research seeks solutions to complex societal issues through a multidisciplinary approach that includes statistics, computation, modeling, social science methodologies, human behavior, and an understanding of complex systems. With the support of faculty and researchers from all five schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, the objective of ICSR is to work on an array of different societal aspects of systemic racism through a set of verticals including policing, housing, health care, and social media.

    Where passion meets impact

    Grinnell senior Mia Hines has always dreamed of using her love for computer science to support social justice. She has experience working with unhoused people and labor unions, and advocating for Indigenous peoples’ rights. When applying to college, she focused her essay on using technology to help Syrian refugees.

    “As a Black woman, it’s very important to me that we focus on these areas, especially on how we can use technology to help marginalized communities,” Hines says. “And also, how do we stop technology or improve technology that is already hurting marginalized communities?”   

    Through MSRP, Hines was paired with research advisor Ufuoma Ovienmhada, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. A member of Professor Danielle Wood’s Space Enabled research group at MIT’s Media Lab, Ovienmhada received funding from an ICSR Seed Grant and NASA’s Applied Sciences Program to support her ongoing research measuring environmental injustice and socioeconomic disparities in prison landscapes. 

    “I had been doing satellite remote sensing for environmental challenges and sustainability, starting out looking at coastal ecosystems, when I learned about an issue called ‘prison ecology,’” Ovienmhada explains. “This refers to the intersection of mass incarceration and environmental justice.”

    Ovienmhada’s research uses satellite remote sensing and environmental data to characterize exposures to different environmental hazards such as air pollution, extreme heat, and flooding. “This allows others to use these datasets for real-time advocacy, in addition to creating public awareness,” she says.

    Focused especially on extreme heat, Hines used satellite remote sensing to monitor the fluctuation of temperature to assess the risk being imposed on prisoners, including death, especially in states like Texas, where 75 percent of prisons either don’t have full air conditioning or have none at all.

    “Before this project I had done little to no work with geospatial data, and as a budding data scientist, getting to work with and understanding different types of data and resources is really helpful,” Hines says. “I was also funded and afforded the flexibility to take advantage of IDSS’s Data Science and Machine Learning online course. It was really great to be able to do that and learn even more.”

    Filling the gap

    Much like Hines, Harvey Mudd senior Megan Li was specifically interested in the IDSS-supported MSRP projects. She was drawn to the interdisciplinary approach, and she seeks in her own work to apply computational methods to societal issues and to make computer science more inclusive, considerate, and ethical. 

    Working with Aurora Zhang, a grad student in IDSS’s Social and Engineering Systems PhD program, Li used county-level data on income and housing prices to quantify and visualize how affordability based on income alone varies across the United States. She then expanded the analysis to include assets and debt to determine the most common barriers to home ownership.

    “I spent my day-to-day looking at census data and writing Python scripts that could work with it,” reports Li. “I also reached out to the Census Bureau directly to learn a little bit more about how they did their data collection, and discussed questions related to some of their previous studies and working papers that I had reviewed.” 

    Outside of actual day-to-day research, Li says she learned a lot in conversations with fellow researchers, particularly changing her “skeptical view” of whether or not mortgage lending algorithms would help or hurt home buyers in the approval process. “I think I have a little bit more faith now, which is a good thing.”

    “Harvey Mudd is undergraduate-only, and while professors do run labs here, my specific research areas are not well represented,” Li says. “This opportunity was enormous in that I got the experience I need to see if this research area is actually something that I want to do long term, and I got more mirrors into what I would be doing in grad school from talking to students and getting to know faculty.”

    Closing the loop

    While participating in MSRP offered crucial research experience to Hines, the ICSR projects enabled her to engage in topics she’s passionate about and work that could drive tangible societal change.

    “The experience felt much more concrete because we were working on these very sophisticated projects, in a supportive environment where people were very excited to work with us,” she says.

    A significant benefit for Li was the chance to steer her research in alignment with her own interests. “I was actually given the opportunity to propose my own research idea, versus supporting a graduate student’s work in progress,” she explains. 

    For Ovienmhada, the pairing of the two initiatives solidifies the efforts of MSRP and closes a crucial loop in diversity, equity, and inclusion advocacy. 

    “I’ve participated in a lot of different DEI-related efforts and advocacy and one thing that always comes up is the fact that it’s not just about bringing people in, it’s also about creating an environment and opportunities that align with people’s values,” Ovienmhada says. “Programs like MSRP and ICSR create opportunities for people who want to do work that’s aligned with certain values by providing the needed mentoring and financial support.” More

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    How an archeological approach can help leverage biased data in AI to improve medicine

    The classic computer science adage “garbage in, garbage out” lacks nuance when it comes to understanding biased medical data, argue computer science and bioethics professors from MIT, Johns Hopkins University, and the Alan Turing Institute in a new opinion piece published in a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). The rising popularity of artificial intelligence has brought increased scrutiny to the matter of biased AI models resulting in algorithmic discrimination, which the White House Office of Science and Technology identified as a key issue in their recent Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights. 

    When encountering biased data, particularly for AI models used in medical settings, the typical response is to either collect more data from underrepresented groups or generate synthetic data making up for missing parts to ensure that the model performs equally well across an array of patient populations. But the authors argue that this technical approach should be augmented with a sociotechnical perspective that takes both historical and current social factors into account. By doing so, researchers can be more effective in addressing bias in public health. 

    “The three of us had been discussing the ways in which we often treat issues with data from a machine learning perspective as irritations that need to be managed with a technical solution,” recalls co-author Marzyeh Ghassemi, an assistant professor in electrical engineering and computer science and an affiliate of the Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health (Jameel Clinic), the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and Institute of Medical Engineering and Science (IMES). “We had used analogies of data as an artifact that gives a partial view of past practices, or a cracked mirror holding up a reflection. In both cases the information is perhaps not entirely accurate or favorable: Maybe we think that we behave in certain ways as a society — but when you actually look at the data, it tells a different story. We might not like what that story is, but once you unearth an understanding of the past you can move forward and take steps to address poor practices.” 

    Data as artifact 

    In the paper, titled “Considering Biased Data as Informative Artifacts in AI-Assisted Health Care,” Ghassemi, Kadija Ferryman, and Maxine Mackintosh make the case for viewing biased clinical data as “artifacts” in the same way anthropologists or archeologists would view physical objects: pieces of civilization-revealing practices, belief systems, and cultural values — in the case of the paper, specifically those that have led to existing inequities in the health care system. 

    For example, a 2019 study showed that an algorithm widely considered to be an industry standard used health-care expenditures as an indicator of need, leading to the erroneous conclusion that sicker Black patients require the same level of care as healthier white patients. What researchers found was algorithmic discrimination failing to account for unequal access to care.  

    In this instance, rather than viewing biased datasets or lack of data as problems that only require disposal or fixing, Ghassemi and her colleagues recommend the “artifacts” approach as a way to raise awareness around social and historical elements influencing how data are collected and alternative approaches to clinical AI development. 

    “If the goal of your model is deployment in a clinical setting, you should engage a bioethicist or a clinician with appropriate training reasonably early on in problem formulation,” says Ghassemi. “As computer scientists, we often don’t have a complete picture of the different social and historical factors that have gone into creating data that we’ll be using. We need expertise in discerning when models generalized from existing data may not work well for specific subgroups.” 

    When more data can actually harm performance 

    The authors acknowledge that one of the more challenging aspects of implementing an artifact-based approach is being able to assess whether data have been racially corrected: i.e., using white, male bodies as the conventional standard that other bodies are measured against. The opinion piece cites an example from the Chronic Kidney Disease Collaboration in 2021, which developed a new equation to measure kidney function because the old equation had previously been “corrected” under the blanket assumption that Black people have higher muscle mass. Ghassemi says that researchers should be prepared to investigate race-based correction as part of the research process. 

    In another recent paper accepted to this year’s International Conference on Machine Learning co-authored by Ghassemi’s PhD student Vinith Suriyakumar and University of California at San Diego Assistant Professor Berk Ustun, the researchers found that assuming the inclusion of personalized attributes like self-reported race improve the performance of ML models can actually lead to worse risk scores, models, and metrics for minority and minoritized populations.  

    “There’s no single right solution for whether or not to include self-reported race in a clinical risk score. Self-reported race is a social construct that is both a proxy for other information, and deeply proxied itself in other medical data. The solution needs to fit the evidence,” explains Ghassemi. 

    How to move forward 

    This is not to say that biased datasets should be enshrined, or biased algorithms don’t require fixing — quality training data is still key to developing safe, high-performance clinical AI models, and the NEJM piece highlights the role of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in driving ethical practices.  

    “Generating high-quality, ethically sourced datasets is crucial for enabling the use of next-generation AI technologies that transform how we do research,” NIH acting director Lawrence Tabak stated in a press release when the NIH announced its $130 million Bridge2AI Program last year. Ghassemi agrees, pointing out that the NIH has “prioritized data collection in ethical ways that cover information we have not previously emphasized the value of in human health — such as environmental factors and social determinants. I’m very excited about their prioritization of, and strong investments towards, achieving meaningful health outcomes.” 

    Elaine Nsoesie, an associate professor at the Boston University of Public Health, believes there are many potential benefits to treating biased datasets as artifacts rather than garbage, starting with the focus on context. “Biases present in a dataset collected for lung cancer patients in a hospital in Uganda might be different from a dataset collected in the U.S. for the same patient population,” she explains. “In considering local context, we can train algorithms to better serve specific populations.” Nsoesie says that understanding the historical and contemporary factors shaping a dataset can make it easier to identify discriminatory practices that might be coded in algorithms or systems in ways that are not immediately obvious. She also notes that an artifact-based approach could lead to the development of new policies and structures ensuring that the root causes of bias in a particular dataset are eliminated. 

    “People often tell me that they are very afraid of AI, especially in health. They’ll say, ‘I’m really scared of an AI misdiagnosing me,’ or ‘I’m concerned it will treat me poorly,’” Ghassemi says. “I tell them, you shouldn’t be scared of some hypothetical AI in health tomorrow, you should be scared of what health is right now. If we take a narrow technical view of the data we extract from systems, we could naively replicate poor practices. That’s not the only option — realizing there is a problem is our first step towards a larger opportunity.”  More

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    Artificial intelligence for augmentation and productivity

    The MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing has awarded seed grants to seven projects that are exploring how artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction can be leveraged to enhance modern work spaces to achieve better management and higher productivity.

    Funded by Andrew W. Houston ’05 and Dropbox Inc., the projects are intended to be interdisciplinary and bring together researchers from computing, social sciences, and management.

    The seed grants can enable the project teams to conduct research that leads to bigger endeavors in this rapidly evolving area, as well as build community around questions related to AI-augmented management.

    The seven selected projects and research leads include:

    “LLMex: Implementing Vannevar Bush’s Vision of the Memex Using Large Language Models,” led by Patti Maes of the Media Lab and David Karger of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Inspired by Vannevar Bush’s Memex, this project proposes to design, implement, and test the concept of memory prosthetics using large language models (LLMs). The AI-based system will intelligently help an individual keep track of vast amounts of information, accelerate productivity, and reduce errors by automatically recording their work actions and meetings, supporting retrieval based on metadata and vague descriptions, and suggesting relevant, personalized information proactively based on the user’s current focus and context.

    “Using AI Agents to Simulate Social Scenarios,” led by John Horton of the MIT Sloan School of Management and Jacob Andreas of EECS and CSAIL. This project imagines the ability to easily simulate policies, organizational arrangements, and communication tools with AI agents before implementation. Tapping into the capabilities of modern LLMs to serve as a computational model of humans makes this vision of social simulation more realistic, and potentially more predictive.

    “Human Expertise in the Age of AI: Can We Have Our Cake and Eat it Too?” led by Manish Raghavan of MIT Sloan and EECS, and Devavrat Shah of EECS and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems. Progress in machine learning, AI, and in algorithmic decision aids has raised the prospect that algorithms may complement human decision-making in a wide variety of settings. Rather than replacing human professionals, this project sees a future where AI and algorithmic decision aids play a role that is complementary to human expertise.

    “Implementing Generative AI in U.S. Hospitals,” led by Julie Shah of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and CSAIL, Retsef Levi of MIT Sloan and the Operations Research Center, Kate Kellog of MIT Sloan, and Ben Armstrong of the Industrial Performance Center. In recent years, studies have linked a rise in burnout from doctors and nurses in the United States with increased administrative burdens associated with electronic health records and other technologies. This project aims to develop a holistic framework to study how generative AI technologies can both increase productivity for organizations and improve job quality for workers in health care settings.

    “Generative AI Augmented Software Tools to Democratize Programming,” led by Harold Abelson of EECS and CSAIL, Cynthia Breazeal of the Media Lab, and Eric Klopfer of the Comparative Media Studies/Writing. Progress in generative AI over the past year is fomenting an upheaval in assumptions about future careers in software and deprecating the role of coding. This project will stimulate a similar transformation in computing education for those who have no prior technical training by creating a software tool that could eliminate much of the need for learners to deal with code when creating applications.

    “Acquiring Expertise and Societal Productivity in a World of Artificial Intelligence,” led by David Atkin and Martin Beraja of the Department of Economics, and Danielle Li of MIT Sloan. Generative AI is thought to augment the capabilities of workers performing cognitive tasks. This project seeks to better understand how the arrival of AI technologies may impact skill acquisition and productivity, and to explore complementary policy interventions that will allow society to maximize the gains from such technologies.

    “AI Augmented Onboarding and Support,” led by Tim Kraska of EECS and CSAIL, and Christoph Paus of the Department of Physics. While LLMs have made enormous leaps forward in recent years and are poised to fundamentally change the way students and professionals learn about new tools and systems, there is often a steep learning curve which people have to climb in order to make full use of the resource. To help mitigate the issue, this project proposes the development of new LLM-powered onboarding and support systems that will positively impact the way support teams operate and improve the user experience. More