More stories

  • in

    Q&A: Cathy Wu on developing algorithms to safely integrate robots into our world

    Cathy Wu is the Gilbert W. Winslow Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a member of the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. As an undergraduate, Wu won MIT’s toughest robotics competition, and as a graduate student took the University of California at Berkeley’s first-ever course on deep reinforcement learning. Now back at MIT, she’s working to improve the flow of robots in Amazon warehouses under the Science Hub, a new collaboration between the tech giant and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Outside of the lab and classroom, Wu can be found running, drawing, pouring lattes at home, and watching YouTube videos on math and infrastructure via 3Blue1Brown and Practical Engineering. She recently took a break from all of that to talk about her work.

    Q: What put you on the path to robotics and self-driving cars?

    A: My parents always wanted a doctor in the family. However, I’m bad at following instructions and became the wrong kind of doctor! Inspired by my physics and computer science classes in high school, I decided to study engineering. I wanted to help as many people as a medical doctor could.

    At MIT, I looked for applications in energy, education, and agriculture, but the self-driving car was the first to grab me. It has yet to let go! Ninety-four percent of serious car crashes are caused by human error and could potentially be prevented by self-driving cars. Autonomous vehicles could also ease traffic congestion, save energy, and improve mobility.

    I first learned about self-driving cars from Seth Teller during his guest lecture for the course Mobile Autonomous Systems Lab (MASLAB), in which MIT undergraduates compete to build the best full-functioning robot from scratch. Our ball-fetching bot, Putzputz, won first place. From there, I took more classes in machine learning, computer vision, and transportation, and joined Teller’s lab. I also competed in several mobility-related hackathons, including one sponsored by Hubway, now known as Blue Bike.

    Q: You’ve explored ways to help humans and autonomous vehicles interact more smoothly. What makes this problem so hard?

    A: Both systems are highly complex, and our classical modeling tools are woefully insufficient. Integrating autonomous vehicles into our existing mobility systems is a huge undertaking. For example, we don’t know whether autonomous vehicles will cut energy use by 40 percent, or double it. We need more powerful tools to cut through the uncertainty. My PhD thesis at Berkeley tried to do this. I developed scalable optimization methods in the areas of robot control, state estimation, and system design. These methods could help decision-makers anticipate future scenarios and design better systems to accommodate both humans and robots.

    Q: How is deep reinforcement learning, combining deep and reinforcement learning algorithms, changing robotics?

    A: I took John Schulman and Pieter Abbeel’s reinforcement learning class at Berkeley in 2015 shortly after Deepmind published their breakthrough paper in Nature. They had trained an agent via deep learning and reinforcement learning to play “Space Invaders” and a suite of Atari games at superhuman levels. That created quite some buzz. A year later, I started to incorporate reinforcement learning into problems involving mixed traffic systems, in which only some cars are automated. I realized that classical control techniques couldn’t handle the complex nonlinear control problems I was formulating.

    Deep RL is now mainstream but it’s by no means pervasive in robotics, which still relies heavily on classical model-based control and planning methods. Deep learning continues to be important for processing raw sensor data like camera images and radio waves, and reinforcement learning is gradually being incorporated. I see traffic systems as gigantic multi-robot systems. I’m excited for an upcoming collaboration with Utah’s Department of Transportation to apply reinforcement learning to coordinate cars with traffic signals, reducing congestion and thus carbon emissions.

    Q: You’ve talked about the MIT course, 6.007 (Signals and Systems), and its impact on you. What about it spoke to you?

    A: The mindset. That problems that look messy can be analyzed with common, and sometimes simple, tools. Signals are transformed by systems in various ways, but what do these abstract terms mean, anyway? A mechanical system can take a signal like gears turning at some speed and transform it into a lever turning at another speed. A digital system can take binary digits and turn them into other binary digits or a string of letters or an image. Financial systems can take news and transform it via millions of trading decisions into stock prices. People take in signals every day through advertisements, job offers, gossip, and so on, and translate them into actions that in turn influence society and other people. This humble class on signals and systems linked mechanical, digital, and societal systems and showed me how foundational tools can cut through the noise.

    Q: In your project with Amazon you’re training warehouse robots to pick up, sort, and deliver goods. What are the technical challenges?

    A: This project involves assigning robots to a given task and routing them there. [Professor] Cynthia Barnhart’s team is focused on task assignment, and mine, on path planning. Both problems are considered combinatorial optimization problems because the solution involves a combination of choices. As the number of tasks and robots increases, the number of possible solutions grows exponentially. It’s called the curse of dimensionality. Both problems are what we call NP Hard; there may not be an efficient algorithm to solve them. Our goal is to devise a shortcut.

    Routing a single robot for a single task isn’t difficult. It’s like using Google Maps to find the shortest path home. It can be solved efficiently with several algorithms, including Dijkstra’s. But warehouses resemble small cities with hundreds of robots. When traffic jams occur, customers can’t get their packages as quickly. Our goal is to develop algorithms that find the most efficient paths for all of the robots.

    Q: Are there other applications?

    A: Yes. The algorithms we test in Amazon warehouses might one day help to ease congestion in real cities. Other potential applications include controlling planes on runways, swarms of drones in the air, and even characters in video games. These algorithms could also be used for other robotic planning tasks like scheduling and routing.

    Q: AI is evolving rapidly. Where do you hope to see the big breakthroughs coming?

    A: I’d like to see deep learning and deep RL used to solve societal problems involving mobility, infrastructure, social media, health care, and education. Deep RL now has a toehold in robotics and industrial applications like chip design, but we still need to be careful in applying it to systems with humans in the loop. Ultimately, we want to design systems for people. Currently, we simply don’t have the right tools.

    Q: What worries you most about AI taking on more and more specialized tasks?

    A: AI has the potential for tremendous good, but it could also help to accelerate the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Our political and regulatory systems could help to integrate AI into society and minimize job losses and income inequality, but I worry that they’re not equipped yet to handle the firehose of AI.

    Q: What’s the last great book you read?

    A: “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” by Bill Gates. I absolutely loved the way that Gates was able to take an overwhelmingly complex topic and distill it down into words that everyone can understand. His optimism inspires me to keep pushing on applications of AI and robotics to help avoid a climate disaster. More

  • in

    Machine learning speeds up vehicle routing

    Waiting for a holiday package to be delivered? There’s a tricky math problem that needs to be solved before the delivery truck pulls up to your door, and MIT researchers have a strategy that could speed up the solution.

    The approach applies to vehicle routing problems such as last-mile delivery, where the goal is to deliver goods from a central depot to multiple cities while keeping travel costs down. While there are algorithms designed to solve this problem for a few hundred cities, these solutions become too slow when applied to a larger set of cities.

    To remedy this, Cathy Wu, the Gilbert W. Winslow Career Development Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, and her students have come up with a machine-learning strategy that accelerates some of the strongest algorithmic solvers by 10 to 100 times.

    The solver algorithms work by breaking up the problem of delivery into smaller subproblems to solve — say, 200 subproblems for routing vehicles between 2,000 cities. Wu and her colleagues augment this process with a new machine-learning algorithm that identifies the most useful subproblems to solve, instead of solving all the subproblems, to increase the quality of the solution while using orders of magnitude less compute.

    Their approach, which they call “learning-to-delegate,” can be used across a variety of solvers and a variety of similar problems, including scheduling and pathfinding for warehouse robots, the researchers say.

    The work pushes the boundaries on rapidly solving large-scale vehicle routing problems, says Marc Kuo, founder and CEO of Routific, a smart logistics platform for optimizing delivery routes. Some of Routific’s recent algorithmic advances were inspired by Wu’s work, he notes.

    “Most of the academic body of research tends to focus on specialized algorithms for small problems, trying to find better solutions at the cost of processing times. But in the real-world, businesses don’t care about finding better solutions, especially if they take too long for compute,” Kuo explains. “In the world of last-mile logistics, time is money, and you cannot have your entire warehouse operations wait for a slow algorithm to return the routes. An algorithm needs to be hyper-fast for it to be practical.”

    Wu, social and engineering systems doctoral student Sirui Li, and electrical engineering and computer science doctoral student Zhongxia Yan presented their research this week at the 2021 NeurIPS conference.

    Selecting good problems

    Vehicle routing problems are a class of combinatorial problems, which involve using heuristic algorithms to find “good-enough solutions” to the problem. It’s typically not possible to come up with the one “best” answer to these problems, because the number of possible solutions is far too huge.

    “The name of the game for these types of problems is to design efficient algorithms … that are optimal within some factor,” Wu explains. “But the goal is not to find optimal solutions. That’s too hard. Rather, we want to find as good of solutions as possible. Even a 0.5% improvement in solutions can translate to a huge revenue increase for a company.”

    Over the past several decades, researchers have developed a variety of heuristics to yield quick solutions to combinatorial problems. They usually do this by starting with a poor but valid initial solution and then gradually improving the solution — by trying small tweaks to improve the routing between nearby cities, for example. For a large problem like a 2,000-plus city routing challenge, however, this approach just takes too much time.

    More recently, machine-learning methods have been developed to solve the problem, but while faster, they tend to be more inaccurate, even at the scale of a few dozen cities. Wu and her colleagues decided to see if there was a beneficial way to combine the two methods to find speedy but high-quality solutions.

    “For us, this is where machine learning comes in,” Wu says. “Can we predict which of these subproblems, that if we were to solve them, would lead to more improvement in the solution, saving computing time and expense?”

    Traditionally, a large-scale vehicle routing problem heuristic might choose the subproblems to solve in which order either randomly or by applying yet another carefully devised heuristic. In this case, the MIT researchers ran sets of subproblems through a neural network they created to automatically find the subproblems that, when solved, would lead to the greatest gain in quality of the solutions. This process sped up subproblem selection process by 1.5 to 2 times, Wu and colleagues found.

    “We don’t know why these subproblems are better than other subproblems,” Wu notes. “It’s actually an interesting line of future work. If we did have some insights here, these could lead to designing even better algorithms.”

    Surprising speed-up

    Wu and colleagues were surprised by how well the approach worked. In machine learning, the idea of garbage-in, garbage-out applies — that is, the quality of a machine-learning approach relies heavily on the quality of the data. A combinatorial problem is so difficult that even its subproblems can’t be optimally solved. A neural network trained on the “medium-quality” subproblem solutions available as the input data “would typically give medium-quality results,” says Wu. In this case, however, the researchers were able to leverage the medium-quality solutions to achieve high-quality results, significantly faster than state-of-the-art methods.

    For vehicle routing and similar problems, users often must design very specialized algorithms to solve their specific problem. Some of these heuristics have been in development for decades.

    The learning-to-delegate method offers an automatic way to accelerate these heuristics for large problems, no matter what the heuristic or — potentially — what the problem.

    Since the method can work with a variety of solvers, it may be useful for a variety of resource allocation problems, says Wu. “We may unlock new applications that now will be possible because the cost of solving the problem is 10 to 100 times less.”

    The research was supported by MIT Indonesia Seed Fund, U.S. Department of Transportation Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program, and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. More

  • in

    One autonomous taxi, please

    If you don’t get seasick, an autonomous boat might be the right mode of transportation for you. 

    Scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Senseable City Laboratory, together with Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) in the Netherlands, have now created the final project in their self-navigating trilogy: a full-scale, fully autonomous robotic boat that’s ready to be deployed along the canals of Amsterdam. 

    “Roboat” has come a long way since the team first started prototyping small vessels in the MIT pool in late 2015. Last year, the team released their half-scale, medium model that was 2 meters long and demonstrated promising navigational prowess. 

    This year, two full-scale Roboats were launched, proving more than just proof-of-concept: these craft can comfortably carry up to five people, collect waste, deliver goods, and provide on-demand infrastructure. 

    The boat looks futuristic — it’s a sleek combination of black and gray with two seats that face each other, with orange block letters on the sides that illustrate the makers’ namesakes. It’s a fully electrical boat with a battery that’s the size of a small chest, enabling up to 10 hours of operation and wireless charging capabilities. 

    Play video

    Autonomous Roboats set sea in the Amsterdam canals and can comfortably carry up to five people, collect waste, deliver goods, and provide on-demand infrastructure.

    “We now have higher precision and robustness in the perception, navigation, and control systems, including new functions, such as close-proximity approach mode for latching capabilities, and improved dynamic positioning, so the boat can navigate real-world waters,” says Daniela Rus, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of CSAIL. “Roboat’s control system is adaptive to the number of people in the boat.” 

    To swiftly navigate the bustling waters of Amsterdam, Roboat needs a meticulous fusion of proper navigation, perception, and control software. 

    Using GPS, the boat autonomously decides on a safe route from A to B, while continuously scanning the environment to  avoid collisions with objects, such as bridges, pillars, and other boats.

    To autonomously determine a free path and avoid crashing into objects, Roboat uses lidar and a number of cameras to enable a 360-degree view. This bundle of sensors is referred to as the “perception kit” and lets Roboat understand its surroundings. When the perception picks up an unseen object, like a canoe, for example, the algorithm flags the item as “unknown.” When the team later looks at the collected data from the day, the object is manually selected and can be tagged as “canoe.” 

    The control algorithms — similar to ones used for self-driving cars — function a little like a coxswain giving orders to rowers, by translating a given path into instructions toward the “thrusters,” which are the propellers that help the boat move.  

    If you think the boat feels slightly futuristic, its latching mechanism is one of its most impressive feats: small cameras on the boat guide it to the docking station, or other boats, when they detect specific QR codes. “The system allows Roboat to connect to other boats, and to the docking station, to form temporary bridges to alleviate traffic, as well as floating stages and squares, which wasn’t possible with the last iteration,” says Carlo Ratti, professor of the practice in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and director of the Senseable City Lab. 

    Roboat, by design, is also versatile. The team created a universal “hull” design — that’s the part of the boat that rides both in and on top of the water. While regular boats have unique hulls, designed for specific purposes, Roboat has a universal hull design where the base is the same, but the top decks can be switched out depending on the use case.

    “As Roboat can perform its tasks 24/7, and without a skipper on board, it adds great value for a city. However, for safety reasons it is questionable if reaching level A autonomy is desirable,” says Fabio Duarte, a principal research scientist in DUSP and lead scientist on the project. “Just like a bridge keeper, an onshore operator will monitor Roboat remotely from a control center. One operator can monitor over 50 Roboat units, ensuring smooth operations.”

    The next step for Roboat is to pilot the technology in the public domain. “The historic center of Amsterdam is the perfect place to start, with its capillary network of canals suffering from contemporary challenges, such as mobility and logistics,” says Stephan van Dijk, director of innovation at AMS Institute. 

    Previous iterations of Roboat have been presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. The boats will be unveiled on Oct. 28 in the waters of Amsterdam. 

    Ratti, Rus, Duarte, and Dijk worked on the project alongside Andrew Whittle, MIT’s Edmund K Turner Professor in civil and environmental engineering; Dennis Frenchman, professor at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning; and Ynse Deinema of AMS Institute. The full team can be found at Roboat’s website. The project is a joint collaboration with AMS Institute. The City of Amsterdam is a project partner. More

  • in

    Deep learning helps predict traffic crashes before they happen

    Today’s world is one big maze, connected by layers of concrete and asphalt that afford us the luxury of navigation by vehicle. For many of our road-related advancements — GPS lets us fire fewer neurons thanks to map apps, cameras alert us to potentially costly scrapes and scratches, and electric autonomous cars have lower fuel costs — our safety measures haven’t quite caught up. We still rely on a steady diet of traffic signals, trust, and the steel surrounding us to safely get from point A to point B. 

    To get ahead of the uncertainty inherent to crashes, scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Qatar Center for Artificial Intelligence developed a deep learning model that predicts very high-resolution crash risk maps. Fed on a combination of historical crash data, road maps, satellite imagery, and GPS traces, the risk maps describe the expected number of crashes over a period of time in the future, to identify high-risk areas and predict future crashes. 

    Typically, these types of risk maps are captured at much lower resolutions that hover around hundreds of meters, which means glossing over crucial details since the roads become blurred together. These maps, though, are 5×5 meter grid cells, and the higher resolution brings newfound clarity: The scientists found that a highway road, for example, has a higher risk than nearby residential roads, and ramps merging and exiting the highway have an even higher risk than other roads. 

    “By capturing the underlying risk distribution that determines the probability of future crashes at all places, and without any historical data, we can find safer routes, enable auto insurance companies to provide customized insurance plans based on driving trajectories of customers, help city planners design safer roads, and even predict future crashes,” says MIT CSAIL PhD student Songtao He, a lead author on a new paper about the research. 

    Even though car crashes are sparse, they cost about 3 percent of the world’s GDP and are the leading cause of death in children and young adults. This sparsity makes inferring maps at such a high resolution a tricky task. Crashes at this level are thinly scattered — the average annual odds of a crash in a 5×5 grid cell is about one-in-1,000 — and they rarely happen at the same location twice. Previous attempts to predict crash risk have been largely “historical,” as an area would only be considered high-risk if there was a previous nearby crash. 

    The team’s approach casts a wider net to capture critical data. It identifies high-risk locations using GPS trajectory patterns, which give information about density, speed, and direction of traffic, and satellite imagery that describes road structures, such as the number of lanes, whether there’s a shoulder, or if there’s a large number of pedestrians. Then, even if a high-risk area has no recorded crashes, it can still be identified as high-risk, based on its traffic patterns and topology alone. 

    To evaluate the model, the scientists used crashes and data from 2017 and 2018, and tested its performance at predicting crashes in 2019 and 2020. Many locations were identified as high-risk, even though they had no recorded crashes, and also experienced crashes during the follow-up years.

    “Our model can generalize from one city to another by combining multiple clues from seemingly unrelated data sources. This is a step toward general AI, because our model can predict crash maps in uncharted territories,” says Amin Sadeghi, a lead scientist at Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) and an author on the paper. “The model can be used to infer a useful crash map even in the absence of historical crash data, which could translate to positive use for city planning and policymaking by comparing imaginary scenarios.” 

    The dataset covered 7,500 square kilometers from Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and Boston. Among the four cities, L.A. was the most unsafe, since it had the highest crash density, followed by New York City, Chicago, and Boston. 

    “If people can use the risk map to identify potentially high-risk road segments, they can take action in advance to reduce the risk of trips they take. Apps like Waze and Apple Maps have incident feature tools, but we’re trying to get ahead of the crashes — before they happen,” says He. 

    He and Sadeghi wrote the paper alongside Sanjay Chawla, research director at QCRI, and MIT professors of electrical engineering and computer science Mohammad Alizadeh, ​​Hari Balakrishnan, and Sam Madden. They will present the paper at the 2021 International Conference on Computer Vision. More