More stories

  • in

    Gaining real-world industry experience through Break Through Tech AI at MIT

    Taking what they learned conceptually about artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML) this year, students from across the Greater Boston area had the opportunity to apply their new skills to real-world industry projects as part of an experiential learning opportunity offered through Break Through Tech AI at MIT.

    Hosted by the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, Break Through Tech AI is a pilot program that aims to bridge the talent gap for women and underrepresented genders in computing fields by providing skills-based training, industry-relevant portfolios, and mentoring to undergraduate students in regional metropolitan areas in order to position them more competitively for careers in data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

    “Programs like Break Through Tech AI gives us opportunities to connect with other students and other institutions, and allows us to bring MIT’s values of diversity, equity, and inclusion to the learning and application in the spaces that we hold,” says Alana Anderson, assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing.

    The inaugural cohort of 33 undergraduates from 18 Greater Boston-area schools, including Salem State University, Smith College, and Brandeis University, began the free, 18-month program last summer with an eight-week, online skills-based course to learn the basics of AI and machine learning. Students then split into small groups in the fall to collaborate on six machine learning challenge projects presented to them by MathWorks, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, and Replicate. The students dedicated five hours or more each week to meet with their teams, teaching assistants, and project advisors, including convening once a month at MIT, while juggling their regular academic course load with other daily activities and responsibilities.

    The challenges gave the undergraduates the chance to help contribute to actual projects that industry organizations are working on and to put their machine learning skills to the test. Members from each organization also served as project advisors, providing encouragement and guidance to the teams throughout.

    “Students are gaining industry experience by working closely with their project advisors,” says Aude Oliva, director of strategic industry engagement at the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the MIT director of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. “These projects will be an add-on to their machine learning portfolio that they can share as a work example when they’re ready to apply for a job in AI.”

    Over the course of 15 weeks, teams delved into large-scale, real-world datasets to train, test, and evaluate machine learning models in a variety of contexts.

    In December, the students celebrated the fruits of their labor at a showcase event held at MIT in which the six teams gave final presentations on their AI projects. The projects not only allowed the students to build up their AI and machine learning experience, it helped to “improve their knowledge base and skills in presenting their work to both technical and nontechnical audiences,” Oliva says.

    For a project on traffic data analysis, students got trained on MATLAB, a programming and numeric computing platform developed by MathWorks, to create a model that enables decision-making in autonomous driving by predicting future vehicle trajectories. “It’s important to realize that AI is not that intelligent. It’s only as smart as you make it and that’s exactly what we tried to do,” said Brandeis University student Srishti Nautiyal as she introduced her team’s project to the audience. With companies already making autonomous vehicles from planes to trucks a reality, Nautiyal, a physics and mathematics major, shared that her team was also highly motivated to consider the ethical issues of the technology in their model for the safety of passengers, drivers, and pedestrians.

    Using census data to train a model can be tricky because they are often messy and full of holes. In a project on algorithmic fairness for the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, the hardest task for the team was having to clean up mountains of unorganized data in a way where they could still gain insights from them. The project — which aimed to create demonstration of fairness applied on a real dataset to evaluate and compare effectiveness of different fairness interventions and fair metric learning techniques — could eventually serve as an educational resource for data scientists interested in learning about fairness in AI and using it in their work, as well as to promote the practice of evaluating the ethical implications of machine learning models in industry.

    Other challenge projects included an ML-assisted whiteboard for nontechnical people to interact with ready-made machine learning models, and a sign language recognition model to help disabled people communicate with others. A team that worked on a visual language app set out to include over 50 languages in their model to increase access for the millions of people that are visually impaired throughout the world. According to the team, similar apps on the market currently only offer up to 23 languages. 

    Throughout the semester, students persisted and demonstrated grit in order to cross the finish line on their projects. With the final presentations marking the conclusion of the fall semester, students will return to MIT in the spring to continue their Break Through Tech AI journey to tackle another round of AI projects. This time, the students will work with Google on new machine learning challenges that will enable them to hone their AI skills even further with an eye toward launching a successful career in AI. More

  • in

    Q&A: A fresh look at data science

    As the leaders of a developing field, data scientists must often deal with a frustratingly slippery question: What is data science, precisely, and what is it good for?

    Alfred Spector is a visiting scholar in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), an influential developer of distributed computing systems and applications, and a successful tech executive with companies including IBM and Google. Along with three co-authors — Peter Norvig at Stanford University and Google, Chris Wiggins at Columbia University and The New York Times, and Jeannette M. Wing at Columbia — Spector recently published “Data Science in Context: Foundations, Challenges, Opportunities” (Cambridge University Press), which provides a broad, conversational overview of the wide-ranging field driving change in sectors ranging from health care to transportation to commerce to entertainment. 

    Here, Spector talks about data-driven life, what makes a good data scientist, and how his book came together during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

    Q: One of the most common buzzwords Americans hear is “data-driven,” but many might not know what that term is supposed to mean. Can you unpack it for us?

    A: Data-driven broadly refers to techniques or algorithms powered by data — they either provide insight or reach conclusions, say, a recommendation or a prediction. The algorithms power models which are increasingly woven into the fabric of science, commerce, and life, and they often provide excellent results. The list of their successes is really too long to even begin to list. However, one concern is that the proliferation of data makes it easy for us as students, scientists, or just members of the public to jump to erroneous conclusions. As just one example, our own confirmation biases make us prone to believing some data elements or insights “prove” something we already believe to be true. Additionally, we often tend to see causal relationships where the data only shows correlation. It might seem paradoxical, but data science makes critical reading and analysis of data all the more important.

    Q: What, to your mind, makes a good data scientist?

    A: [In talking to students and colleagues] I optimistically emphasize the power of data science and the importance of gaining the computational, statistical, and machine learning skills to apply it. But, I also remind students that we are obligated to solve problems well. In our book, Chris [Wiggins] paraphrases danah boyd, who says that a successful application of data science is not one that merely meets some technical goal, but one that actually improves lives. More specifically, I exhort practitioners to provide a real solution to problems, or else clearly identify what we are not solving so that people see the limitations of our work. We should be extremely clear so that we do not generate harmful results or lead others to erroneous conclusions. I also remind people that all of us, including scientists and engineers, are human and subject to the same human foibles as everyone else, such as various biases. 

    Q: You discuss Covid-19 in your book. While some short-range models for mortality were very accurate during the heart of the pandemic, you note the failure of long-range models to predict any of 2020’s four major geotemporal Covid waves in the United States. Do you feel Covid was a uniquely hard situation to model? 

    A: Covid was particularly difficult to predict over the long term because of many factors — the virus was changing, human behavior was changing, political entities changed their minds. Also, we didn’t have fine-grained mobility data (perhaps, for good reasons), and we lacked sufficient scientific understanding of the virus, particularly in the first year.

    I think there are many other domains which are similarly difficult. Our book teases out many reasons why data-driven models may not be applicable. Perhaps it’s too difficult to get or hold the necessary data. Perhaps the past doesn’t predict the future. If data models are being used in life-and-death situations, we may not be able to make them sufficiently dependable; this is particularly true as we’ve seen all the motivations that bad actors have to find vulnerabilities. So, as we continue to apply data science, we need to think through all the requirements we have, and the capability of the field to meet them. They often align, but not always. And, as data science seeks to solve problems into ever more important areas such as human health, education, transportation safety, etc., there will be many challenges.

    Q: Let’s talk about the power of good visualization. You mention the popular, early 2000’s Baby Name Voyager website as one that changed your view on the importance of data visualization. Tell us how that happened. 

    A: That website, recently reborn as the Name Grapher, had two characteristics that I thought were brilliant. First, it had a really natural interface, where you type the initial characters of a name and it shows a frequency graph of all the names beginning with those letters, and their popularity over time. Second, it’s so much better than a spreadsheet with 140 columns representing years and rows representing names, despite the fact it contains no extra information. It also provided instantaneous feedback with its display graph dynamically changing as you type. To me, this showed the power of a very simple transformation that is done correctly.

    Q: When you and your co-authors began planning “Data Science In Context,” what did you hope to offer?

    A: We portray present data science as a field that’s already had enormous benefits, that provides even more future opportunities, but one that requires equally enormous care in its use. Referencing the word “context” in the title, we explain that the proper use of data science must consider the specifics of the application, the laws and norms of the society in which the application is used, and even the time period of its deployment. And, importantly for an MIT audience, the practice of data science must go beyond just the data and the model to the careful consideration of an application’s objectives, its security, privacy, abuse, and resilience risks, and even the understandability it conveys to humans. Within this expansive notion of context, we finally explain that data scientists must also carefully consider ethical trade-offs and societal implications.

    Q: How did you keep focus throughout the process?

    A: Much like in open-source projects, I played both the coordinating author role and also the role of overall librarian of all the material, but we all made significant contributions. Chris Wiggins is very knowledgeable on the Belmont principles and applied ethics; he was the major contributor of those sections. Peter Norvig, as the coauthor of a bestselling AI textbook, was particularly involved in the sections on building models and causality. Jeannette Wing worked with me very closely on our seven-element Analysis Rubric and recognized that a checklist for data science practitioners would end up being one of our book’s most important contributions. 

    From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, we wrote the book during Covid, using one large shared Google doc with weekly video conferences. Amazingly enough, Chris, Jeannette, and I didn’t meet in person at all, and Peter and I met only once — sitting outdoors on a wooden bench on the Stanford campus.

    Q: That is an unusual way to write a book! Do you recommend it?

    A: It would be nice to have had more social interaction, but a shared document, at least with a coordinating author, worked pretty well for something up to this size. The benefit is that we always had a single, coherent textual base, not dissimilar to how a programming team works together.

    This is a condensed, edited version of a longer interview that originally appeared on the MIT EECS website. More

  • in

    Simulating discrimination in virtual reality

    Have you ever been advised to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes?” Considering another person’s perspective can be a challenging endeavor — but recognizing our errors and biases is key to building understanding across communities. By challenging our preconceptions, we confront prejudice, such as racism and xenophobia, and potentially develop a more inclusive perspective about others.

    To assist with perspective-taking, MIT researchers have developed “On the Plane,” a virtual reality role-playing game (VR RPG) that simulates discrimination. In this case, the game portrays xenophobia directed against a Malaysian America woman, but the approach can be generalized. Situated on an airplane, players can take on the role of characters from different backgrounds, engaging in dialogue with others while making in-game choices to a series of prompts. In turn, players’ decisions control the outcome of a tense conversation between the characters about cultural differences.

    As a VR RPG, “On the Plane” encourages players to take on new roles that may be outside of their personal experiences in the first person, allowing them to confront in-group/out-group bias by incorporating new perspectives into their understanding of different cultures. Players engage with three characters: Sarah, a first-generation Muslim American of Malaysian ancestry who wears a hijab; Marianne, a white woman from the Midwest with little exposure to other cultures and customs; or a flight attendant. Sarah represents the out group, Marianne is a member of the in group, and the flight staffer is a bystander witnessing an exchange between the two passengers.“This project is part of our efforts to harness the power of virtual reality and artificial intelligence to address social ills, such as discrimination and xenophobia,” says Caglar Yildirim, an MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) research scientist who is a co-author and co-game designer on the project. “Through the exchange between the two passengers, players experience how one passenger’s xenophobia manifests itself and how it affects the other passenger. The simulation engages players in critical reflection and seeks to foster empathy for the passenger who was ‘othered’ due to her outfit being not so ‘prototypical’ of what an American should look like.”

    Yildirim worked alongside the project’s principal investigator, D. Fox Harrell, MIT professor of digital media and AI at CSAIL, the Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS), and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and founding director of the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality. “It is not possible for a simulation to give someone the life experiences of another person, but while you cannot ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ in that sense, a system like this can help people recognize and understand the social patterns at work when it comes to issue like bias,” says Harrell, who is also co-author and designer on this project. “An engaging, immersive, interactive narrative can also impact people emotionally, opening the door for users’ perspectives to be transformed and broadened.” This simulation also utilizes an interactive narrative engine that creates several options for responses to in-game interactions based on a model of how people are categorized socially. The tool grants players a chance to alter their standing in the simulation through their reply choices to each prompt, affecting their affinity toward the other two characters. For example, if you play as the flight attendant, you can react to Marianne’s xenophobic expressions and attitudes toward Sarah, changing your affinities. The engine will then provide you with a different set of narrative events based on your changes in standing with others.

    To animate each avatar, “On the Plane” incorporates artificial intelligence knowledge representation techniques controlled by probabilistic finite state machines, a tool commonly used in machine learning systems for pattern recognition. With the help of these machines, characters’ body language and gestures are customizable: if you play as Marianne, the game will customize her mannerisms toward Sarah based on user inputs, impacting how comfortable she appears in front of a member of a perceived out group. Similarly, players can do the same from Sarah or the flight attendant’s point of view.In a 2018 paper based on work done in a collaboration between MIT CSAIL and the Qatar Computing Research Institute, Harrell and co-author Sercan Şengün advocated for virtual system designers to be more inclusive of Middle Eastern identities and customs. They claimed that if designers allowed users to customize virtual avatars more representative of their background, it might empower players to engage in a more supportive experience. Four years later, “On the Plane” accomplishes a similar goal, incorporating a Muslim’s perspective into an immersive environment.

    “Many virtual identity systems, such as avatars, accounts, profiles, and player characters, are not designed to serve the needs of people across diverse cultures. We have used statistical and AI methods in conjunction with qualitative approaches to learn where the gaps are,” they note. “Our project helps engender perspective transformation so that people will treat each other with respect and enhanced understanding across diverse cultural avatar representations.”

    Harrell and Yildirim’s work is part of the MIT IDSS’s Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism (ICSR). Harrell is on the initiative’s steering committee and is the leader of the newly forming Antiracism, Games, and Immersive Media vertical, who study behavior, cognition, social phenomena, and computational systems related to race and racism in video games and immersive experiences.

    The researchers’ latest project is part of the ICSR’s broader goal to launch and coordinate cross-disciplinary research that addresses racially discriminatory processes across American institutions. Using big data, members of the research initiative develop and employ computing tools that drive racial equity. Yildirim and Harrell accomplish this goal by depicting a frequent, problematic scenario that illustrates how bias creeps into our everyday lives.“In a post-9/11 world, Muslims often experience ethnic profiling in American airports. ‘On the Plane’ builds off of that type of in-group favoritism, a well-established finding in psychology,” says MIT Professor Fotini Christia, director of the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) and associate director or IDSS. “This game also takes a novel approach to analyzing hardwired bias by utilizing VR instead of field experiments to simulate prejudice. Excitingly, this research demonstrates that VR can be used as a tool to help us better measure bias, combating systemic racism and other forms of discrimination.”“On the Plane” was developed on the Unity game engine using the XR Interaction Toolkit and Harrell’s Chimeria platform for authoring interactive narratives that involve social categorization. The game will be deployed for research studies later this year on both desktop computers and the standalone, wireless Meta Quest headsets. A paper on the work was presented in December at the 2022 IEEE International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality. More

  • in

    Subtle biases in AI can influence emergency decisions

    It’s no secret that people harbor biases — some unconscious, perhaps, and others painfully overt. The average person might suppose that computers — machines typically made of plastic, steel, glass, silicon, and various metals — are free of prejudice. While that assumption may hold for computer hardware, the same is not always true for computer software, which is programmed by fallible humans and can be fed data that is, itself, compromised in certain respects.

    Artificial intelligence (AI) systems — those based on machine learning, in particular — are seeing increased use in medicine for diagnosing specific diseases, for example, or evaluating X-rays. These systems are also being relied on to support decision-making in other areas of health care. Recent research has shown, however, that machine learning models can encode biases against minority subgroups, and the recommendations they make may consequently reflect those same biases.

    A new study by researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the MIT Jameel Clinic, which was published last month in Communications Medicine, assesses the impact that discriminatory AI models can have, especially for systems that are intended to provide advice in urgent situations. “We found that the manner in which the advice is framed can have significant repercussions,” explains the paper’s lead author, Hammaad Adam, a PhD student at MIT’s Institute for Data Systems and Society. “Fortunately, the harm caused by biased models can be limited (though not necessarily eliminated) when the advice is presented in a different way.” The other co-authors of the paper are Aparna Balagopalan and Emily Alsentzer, both PhD students, and the professors Fotini Christia and Marzyeh Ghassemi.

    AI models used in medicine can suffer from inaccuracies and inconsistencies, in part because the data used to train the models are often not representative of real-world settings. Different kinds of X-ray machines, for instance, can record things differently and hence yield different results. Models trained predominately on white people, moreover, may not be as accurate when applied to other groups. The Communications Medicine paper is not focused on issues of that sort but instead addresses problems that stem from biases and on ways to mitigate the adverse consequences.

    A group of 954 people (438 clinicians and 516 nonexperts) took part in an experiment to see how AI biases can affect decision-making. The participants were presented with call summaries from a fictitious crisis hotline, each involving a male individual undergoing a mental health emergency. The summaries contained information as to whether the individual was Caucasian or African American and would also mention his religion if he happened to be Muslim. A typical call summary might describe a circumstance in which an African American man was found at home in a delirious state, indicating that “he has not consumed any drugs or alcohol, as he is a practicing Muslim.” Study participants were instructed to call the police if they thought the patient was likely to turn violent; otherwise, they were encouraged to seek medical help.

    The participants were randomly divided into a control or “baseline” group plus four other groups designed to test responses under slightly different conditions. “We want to understand how biased models can influence decisions, but we first need to understand how human biases can affect the decision-making process,” Adam notes. What they found in their analysis of the baseline group was rather surprising: “In the setting we considered, human participants did not exhibit any biases. That doesn’t mean that humans are not biased, but the way we conveyed information about a person’s race and religion, evidently, was not strong enough to elicit their biases.”

    The other four groups in the experiment were given advice that either came from a biased or unbiased model, and that advice was presented in either a “prescriptive” or a “descriptive” form. A biased model would be more likely to recommend police help in a situation involving an African American or Muslim person than would an unbiased model. Participants in the study, however, did not know which kind of model their advice came from, or even that models delivering the advice could be biased at all. Prescriptive advice spells out what a participant should do in unambiguous terms, telling them they should call the police in one instance or seek medical help in another. Descriptive advice is less direct: A flag is displayed to show that the AI system perceives a risk of violence associated with a particular call; no flag is shown if the threat of violence is deemed small.  

    A key takeaway of the experiment is that participants “were highly influenced by prescriptive recommendations from a biased AI system,” the authors wrote. But they also found that “using descriptive rather than prescriptive recommendations allowed participants to retain their original, unbiased decision-making.” In other words, the bias incorporated within an AI model can be diminished by appropriately framing the advice that’s rendered. Why the different outcomes, depending on how advice is posed? When someone is told to do something, like call the police, that leaves little room for doubt, Adam explains. However, when the situation is merely described — classified with or without the presence of a flag — “that leaves room for a participant’s own interpretation; it allows them to be more flexible and consider the situation for themselves.”

    Second, the researchers found that the language models that are typically used to offer advice are easy to bias. Language models represent a class of machine learning systems that are trained on text, such as the entire contents of Wikipedia and other web material. When these models are “fine-tuned” by relying on a much smaller subset of data for training purposes — just 2,000 sentences, as opposed to 8 million web pages — the resultant models can be readily biased.  

    Third, the MIT team discovered that decision-makers who are themselves unbiased can still be misled by the recommendations provided by biased models. Medical training (or the lack thereof) did not change responses in a discernible way. “Clinicians were influenced by biased models as much as non-experts were,” the authors stated.

    “These findings could be applicable to other settings,” Adam says, and are not necessarily restricted to health care situations. When it comes to deciding which people should receive a job interview, a biased model could be more likely to turn down Black applicants. The results could be different, however, if instead of explicitly (and prescriptively) telling an employer to “reject this applicant,” a descriptive flag is attached to the file to indicate the applicant’s “possible lack of experience.”

    The implications of this work are broader than just figuring out how to deal with individuals in the midst of mental health crises, Adam maintains.  “Our ultimate goal is to make sure that machine learning models are used in a fair, safe, and robust way.” More

  • in

    3 Questions: Why cybersecurity is on the agenda for corporate boards of directors

    Organizations of every size and in every industry are vulnerable to cybersecurity risks — a dynamic landscape of threats and vulnerabilities and a corresponding overload of possible mitigating controls. MIT Senior Lecturer Keri Pearlson, who is also the executive director of the research consortium Cybersecurity at MIT Sloan (CAMS) and an instructor for the new MIT Sloan Executive Education course Cybersecurity Governance for the Board of Directors, knows how business can get ahead of this risk. Here, she describes the current threat and explores how boards can mitigate their risk against cybercrime.

    Q: What does the current state of cyberattacks mean for businesses in 2023?

    A: Last year we were discussing how the pandemic heightened fear, uncertainty, doubt and chaos, opening new doors for malicious actors to do their cyber mischief in our organizations and our families. We saw an increase in ransomware and other cyber attacks, and we saw an increase in concern from operating executives and board of directors wondering how to keep the organization secure. Since then, we have seen a continued escalation of cyber incidents, many of which no longer make the headlines unless they are wildly unique, damaging, or different than previous incidents. For every new technology that cybersecurity professionals invent, it’s only a matter of time until malicious actors find a way around it. New leadership approaches are needed for 2023 as we move into the next phase of securing our organizations.

    In great part, this means ensuring deep cybersecurity competencies on our boards of directors. Cyber risk is so significant that a responsible board can no longer ignore it or just delegate it to risk management experts. In fact, an organization’s board of directors holds a uniquely vital role in safeguarding data and systems for the future because of their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders and their responsibility to oversee and mitigate business risk.

    As these cyber threats increase, and as companies bolster their cybersecurity budgets accordingly, the regulatory community is also advancing new requirements of companies. In March of this year, the SEC issued a proposed rule titled Cybersecurity Risk Management, Strategy, Governance, and Incident Disclosure. In it, the SEC describes its intention to require public companies to disclose whether their boards have members with cybersecurity expertise. Specifically, registrants will be required to disclose whether the entire board, a specific board member, or a board committee is responsible for the oversight of cyber risks; the processes by which the board is informed about cyber risks, and the frequency of its discussions on this topic; and whether and how the board or specified board committee considers cyber risks as part of its business strategy, risk management, and financial oversight.

    Q: How can boards help their organizations mitigate cyber risk?

    A: According to the studies I’ve conducted with my CAMS colleagues, most organizations focus on cyber protection rather than cyber resilience, and we believe that is a mistake. A company that invests only in protection is not managing the risk associated with getting up and running again in the event of a cyber incident, and they are not going to be able to respond appropriately to new regulations, either. Resiliency means having a practical plan for recovery and business continuation.

    Certainly, protection is part of the resilience equation, but if the pandemic taught us anything, it taught us that resilience is the ability to weather an attack and recover quickly with minimal impact to our operations. The ultimate goal of a cyber-resilient organization would be zero disruption from a cyber breach — no impact on operations, finances, technologies, supply chain or reputation. Board members should ask, What would it take for this to be the case? And they should ensure that executives and managers have made proper and appropriate preparations to respond and recover.

    Being a knowledgeable board member does not mean becoming a cybersecurity expert, but it does mean understanding basic concepts, risks, frameworks, and approaches. And it means having the ability to assess whether management appropriately comprehends related threats, has an appropriate cyber strategy, and can measure its effectiveness. Board members today require focused training on these critical areas to carry out their mission. Unfortunately, many enterprises fail to leverage their boards of directors in this capacity or prepare board members to actively contribute to strategy, protocols, and emergency action plans.

    Alongside my CAMS colleagues Stuart Madnick and Kevin Powers, I’m teaching a new  MIT Sloan Executive Education course, Cybersecurity Governance for the Board of Directors, designed to help organizations and their boards get up to speed. Participants will explore the board’s role in cybersecurity, as well as breach planning, response, and mitigation. And we will discuss the impact and requirements of the many new regulations coming forward, not just from the SEC, but also White House, Congress, and most states and countries around the world, which are imposing more high-level responsibilities on companies.

    Q: What are some examples of how companies, and specifically boards of directors, have successfully upped their cybersecurity game?

    A: To ensure boardroom skills reflect the patterns of the marketplace, companies such as FedEx, Hasbro, PNC, and UPS have transformed their approach to governing cyber risk, starting with board cyber expertise. In companies like these, building resiliency started with a clear plan — from the boardroom — built on business and economic analysis.

    In one company we looked at, the CEO realized his board was not well versed in the business context or financial exposure risk from a cyber attack, so he hired a third-party consulting firm to conduct a cybersecurity maturity assessment. The company CISO presented the results of the report to the enterprise risk management subcommittee, creating a productive dialogue around the business and financial impact of different investments in cybersecurity.  

    Another organization focused their board on the alignment of their cybersecurity program and operational risk. The CISO, chief risk officer, and board collaborated to understand the exposure of the organization from a risk perspective, resulting in optimizing their cyber insurance policy to mitigate the newly understood risk.

    One important takeaway from these examples is the importance of using the language of risk, resiliency, and reputation to bridge the gaps between technical cybersecurity needs and the oversight responsibilities executed by boards. Boards need to understand the financial exposure resulting from cyber risk, not just the technical components typically found in cyber presentations.

    Cyber risk is not going away. It’s escalating and becoming more sophisticated every day. Getting your board “on board” is key to meeting new guidelines, providing sufficient oversight to cybersecurity plans, and making organizations more resilient. More

  • in

    A breakthrough on “loss and damage,” but also disappointment, at UN climate conference

    As the 2022 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP27, stretched into its final hours on Saturday, Nov. 19, it was uncertain what kind of agreement might emerge from two weeks of intensive international negotiations.

    In the end, COP27 produced mixed results: on the one hand, a historic agreement for wealthy countries to compensate low-income countries for “loss and damage,” but on the other, limited progress on new plans for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.

    “We need to drastically reduce emissions now — and this is an issue this COP did not address,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement at the conclusion of COP27. “A fund for loss and damage is essential — but it’s not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map — or turns an entire African country to desert.”

    Throughout the two weeks of the conference, a delegation of MIT students, faculty, and staff was at the Sharm El-Sheikh International Convention Center to observe the negotiations, conduct and share research, participate in panel discussions, and forge new connections with researchers, policymakers, and advocates from around the world.

    Loss and damage

    A key issue coming in to COP27 (COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, held for the 27th time) was loss and damage: a term used by the U.N. to refer to harms caused by climate change — either through acute catastrophes like extreme weather events or slower-moving impacts like sea level rise — to which communities and countries are unable to adapt. 

    Ultimately, a deal on loss and damage proved to be COP27’s most prominent accomplishment. Negotiators reached an eleventh-hour agreement to “establish new funding arrangements for assisting developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” 

    “Providing financial assistance to developing countries so they can better respond to climate-related loss and damage is not only a moral issue, but also a pragmatic one,” said Michael Mehling, deputy director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, who attended COP27 and participated in side events. “Future emissions growth will be squarely centered in the developing world, and offering support through different channels is key to building the trust needed for more robust global cooperation on mitigation.”

    Youssef Shaker, a graduate student in the MIT Technology and Policy Program and a research assistant with the MIT Energy Initiative, attended the second week of the conference, where he followed the negotiations over loss and damage closely. 

    “While the creation of a fund is certainly an achievement,” Shaker said, “significant questions remain to be answered, such as the size of the funding available as well as which countries receive access to it.” A loss-and-damage fund that is not adequately funded, Shaker noted, “would not be an impactful outcome.” 

    The agreement on loss and damage created a new committee, made up of 24 country representatives, to “operationalize” the new funding arrangements, including identifying funding sources. The committee is tasked with delivering a set of recommendations at COP28, which will take place next year in Dubai.

    Advising the U.N. on net zero

    Though the decisions reached at COP27 did not include major new commitments on reducing emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, the transition to a clean global energy system was nevertheless a key topic of conversation throughout the conference.

    The Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition (CEET), an independent, international body of engineers and energy systems experts formed to provide advice to the U.N. on achieving net-zero emissions globally by 2050, convened for the first time at COP27. Jessika Trancik, a professor in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and a member of CEET, spoke on a U.N.-sponsored panel on solutions for the transition to clean energy.

    Trancik noted that the energy transition will look different in different regions of the world. “As engineers, we need to understand those local contexts and design solutions around those local contexts — that’s absolutely essential to support a rapid and equitable energy transition.”

    At the same time, Trancik noted that there is now a set of “low-cost, ready-to-scale tools” available to every region — tools that resulted from a globally competitive process of innovation, stimulated by public policies in different countries, that dramatically drove down the costs of technologies like solar energy and lithium-ion batteries. The key, Trancik said, is for regional transition strategies to “tap into global processes of innovation.”

    Reinventing climate adaptation

    Elfatih Eltahir, the H. M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate, traveled to COP27 to present plans for the Jameel Observatory Climate Resilience Early Warning System (CREWSnet), one of the five projects selected in April 2022 as a flagship in MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges initiative. CREWSnet focuses on climate adaptation, the term for adapting to climate impacts that are unavoidable.

    The aim of CREWSnet, Eltahir told the audience during a panel discussion, is “nothing short of reinventing the process of climate change adaptation,” so that it is proactive rather than reactive; community-led; data-driven and evidence-based; and so that it integrates different climate risks, from heat waves to sea level rise, rather than treating them individually.

    “However, it’s easy to talk about these changes,” said Eltahir. “The real challenge, which we are now just launching and engaging in, is to demonstrate that on the ground.” Eltahir said that early demonstrations will happen in a couple of key locations, including southwest Bangladesh, where multiple climate risks — rising sea levels, increasing soil salinity, and intensifying heat waves and cyclones — are combining to threaten the area’s agricultural production.

    Building on COP26

    Some members of MIT’s delegation attended COP27 to advance efforts that had been formally announced at last year’s U.N. climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.

    At an official U.N. side event co-organized by MIT on Nov. 11, Greg Sixt, the director of the Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance led by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, provided an update on the alliance’s work since its launch at COP26.

    Food systems are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions — and are increasingly vulnerable to climate impacts. The FACT Alliance works to better connect researchers to farmers, food businesses, policymakers, and other food systems stakeholders to make food systems (which include food production, consumption, and waste) more sustainable and resilient. 

    Sixt told the audience that the FACT Alliance now counts over 20 research and stakeholder institutions around the world among its members, but also collaborates with other institutions in an “open network model” to advance work in key areas — such as a new research project exploring how climate scenarios could affect global food supply chains.

    Marcela Angel, research program director for the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), helped convene a meeting at COP27 of the Afro-InterAmerican Forum on Climate Change, which also launched at COP26. The forum works with Afro-descendant leaders across the Americas to address significant environmental issues, including climate risks and biodiversity loss. 

    At the event — convened with the Colombian government and the nonprofit Conservation International — ESI brought together leaders from six countries in the Americas and presented recent work that estimates that there are over 178 million individuals who identify as Afro-descendant living in the Americas, in lands of global environmental importance. 

    “There is a significant overlap between biodiversity hot spots, protected areas, and areas of high Afro-descendant presence,” said Angel. “But the role and climate contributions of these communities is understudied, and often made invisible.”    

    Limiting methane emissions

    Methane is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas: When released into the atmosphere, it immediately traps about 120 times more heat than carbon dioxide does. More than 150 countries have now signed the Global Methane Pledge, launched at COP26, which aims to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2020 levels.

    Sergey Paltsev, the deputy director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative, gave the keynote address at a Nov. 17 event on methane, where he noted the importance of methane reductions from the oil and gas sector to meeting the 2030 goal.

    “The oil and gas sector is where methane emissions reductions could be achieved the fastest,” said Paltsev. “We also need to employ an integrated approach to address methane emissions in all sectors and all regions of the world because methane emissions reductions provide a near-term pathway to avoiding dangerous tipping points in the global climate system.”

    “Keep fighting relentlessly”

    Arina Khotimsky, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering and a co-president of the MIT Energy and Climate Club, attended the first week of COP27. She reflected on the experience in a social media post after returning home. 

    “COP will always have its haters. Is there greenwashing? Of course! Is everyone who should have a say in this process in the room? Not even close,” wrote Khotimsky. “So what does it take for COP to matter? It takes everyone who attended to not only put ‘climate’ on front-page news for two weeks, but to return home and keep fighting relentlessly against climate change. I know that I will.” More

  • in

    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

  • in

    Q&A: Global challenges surrounding the deployment of AI

    The AI Policy Forum (AIPF) is an initiative of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing to move the global conversation about the impact of artificial intelligence from principles to practical policy implementation. Formed in late 2020, AIPF brings together leaders in government, business, and academia to develop approaches to address the societal challenges posed by the rapid advances and increasing applicability of AI.

    The co-chairs of the AI Policy Forum are Aleksander Madry, the Cadence Design Systems Professor; Asu Ozdaglar, deputy dean of academics for the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; and Luis Videgaray, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and director of MIT AI Policy for the World Project. Here, they discuss talk some of the key issues facing the AI policy landscape today and the challenges surrounding the deployment of AI. The three are co-organizers of the upcoming AI Policy Forum Summit on Sept. 28, which will further explore the issues discussed here.

    Q: Can you talk about the ­ongoing work of the AI Policy Forum and the AI policy landscape generally?

    Ozdaglar: There is no shortage of discussion about AI at different venues, but conversations are often high-level, focused on questions of ethics and principles, or on policy problems alone. The approach the AIPF takes to its work is to target specific questions with actionable policy solutions and engage with the stakeholders working directly in these areas. We work “behind the scenes” with smaller focus groups to tackle these challenges and aim to bring visibility to some potential solutions alongside the players working directly on them through larger gatherings.

    Q: AI impacts many sectors, which makes us naturally worry about its trustworthiness. Are there any emerging best practices for development and deployment of trustworthy AI?

    Madry: The most important thing to understand regarding deploying trustworthy AI is that AI technology isn’t some natural, preordained phenomenon. It is something built by people. People who are making certain design decisions.

    We thus need to advance research that can guide these decisions as well as provide more desirable solutions. But we also need to be deliberate and think carefully about the incentives that drive these decisions. 

    Now, these incentives stem largely from the business considerations, but not exclusively so. That is, we should also recognize that proper laws and regulations, as well as establishing thoughtful industry standards have a big role to play here too.

    Indeed, governments can put in place rules that prioritize the value of deploying AI while being keenly aware of the corresponding downsides, pitfalls, and impossibilities. The design of such rules will be an ongoing and evolving process as the technology continues to improve and change, and we need to adapt to socio-political realities as well.

    Q: Perhaps one of the most rapidly evolving domains in AI deployment is in the financial sector. From a policy perspective, how should governments, regulators, and lawmakers make AI work best for consumers in finance?

    Videgaray: The financial sector is seeing a number of trends that present policy challenges at the intersection of AI systems. For one, there is the issue of explainability. By law (in the U.S. and in many other countries), lenders need to provide explanations to customers when they take actions deleterious in whatever way, like denial of a loan, to a customer’s interest. However, as financial services increasingly rely on automated systems and machine learning models, the capacity of banks to unpack the “black box” of machine learning to provide that level of mandated explanation becomes tenuous. So how should the finance industry and its regulators adapt to this advance in technology? Perhaps we need new standards and expectations, as well as tools to meet these legal requirements.

    Meanwhile, economies of scale and data network effects are leading to a proliferation of AI outsourcing, and more broadly, AI-as-a-service is becoming increasingly common in the finance industry. In particular, we are seeing fintech companies provide the tools for underwriting to other financial institutions — be it large banks or small, local credit unions. What does this segmentation of the supply chain mean for the industry? Who is accountable for the potential problems in AI systems deployed through several layers of outsourcing? How can regulators adapt to guarantee their mandates of financial stability, fairness, and other societal standards?

    Q: Social media is one of the most controversial sectors of the economy, resulting in many societal shifts and disruptions around the world. What policies or reforms might be needed to best ensure social media is a force for public good and not public harm?

    Ozdaglar: The role of social media in society is of growing concern to many, but the nature of these concerns can vary quite a bit — with some seeing social media as not doing enough to prevent, for example, misinformation and extremism, and others seeing it as unduly silencing certain viewpoints. This lack of unified view on what the problem is impacts the capacity to enact any change. All of that is additionally coupled with the complexities of the legal framework in the U.S. spanning the First Amendment, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and trade laws.

    However, these difficulties in regulating social media do not mean that there is nothing to be done. Indeed, regulators have begun to tighten their control over social media companies, both in the United States and abroad, be it through antitrust procedures or other means. In particular, Ofcom in the U.K. and the European Union is already introducing new layers of oversight to platforms. Additionally, some have proposed taxes on online advertising to address the negative externalities caused by current social media business model. So, the policy tools are there, if the political will and proper guidance exists to implement them. More