More stories

  • in

    Advancing technology for aquaculture

    According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, aquaculture in the United States represents a $1.5 billion industry annually. Like land-based farming, shellfish aquaculture requires healthy seed production in order to maintain a sustainable industry. Aquaculture hatchery production of shellfish larvae — seeds — requires close monitoring to track mortality rates and assess health from the earliest stages of life. 

    Careful observation is necessary to inform production scheduling, determine effects of naturally occurring harmful bacteria, and ensure sustainable seed production. This is an essential step for shellfish hatcheries but is currently a time-consuming manual process prone to human error. 

    With funding from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), MIT Sea Grant is working with Associate Professor Otto Cordero of the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Professor Taskin Padir and Research Scientist Mark Zolotas at the Northeastern University Institute for Experiential Robotics, and others at the Aquaculture Research Corporation (ARC), and the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, to advance technology for the aquaculture industry. Located on Cape Cod, ARC is a leading shellfish hatchery, farm, and wholesaler that plays a vital role in providing high-quality shellfish seed to local and regional growers.

    Two MIT students have joined the effort this semester, working with Robert Vincent, MIT Sea Grant’s assistant director of advisory services, through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). 

    First-year student Unyime Usua and sophomore Santiago Borrego are using microscopy images of shellfish seed from ARC to train machine learning algorithms that will help automate the identification and counting process. The resulting user-friendly image recognition tool aims to aid aquaculturists in differentiating and counting healthy, unhealthy, and dead shellfish larvae, improving accuracy and reducing time and effort.

    Vincent explains that AI is a powerful tool for environmental science that enables researchers, industry, and resource managers to address challenges that have long been pinch points for accurate data collection, analysis, predictions, and streamlining processes. “Funding support from programs like J-WAFS enable us to tackle these problems head-on,” he says. 

    ARC faces challenges with manually quantifying larvae classes, an important step in their seed production process. “When larvae are in their growing stages they are constantly being sized and counted,” explains Cheryl James, ARC larval/juvenile production manager. “This process is critical to encourage optimal growth and strengthen the population.” 

    Developing an automated identification and counting system will help to improve this step in the production process with time and cost benefits. “This is not an easy task,” says Vincent, “but with the guidance of Dr. Zolotas at the Northeastern University Institute for Experiential Robotics and the work of the UROP students, we have made solid progress.” 

    The UROP program benefits both researchers and students. Involving MIT UROP students in developing these types of systems provides insights into AI applications that they might not have considered, providing opportunities to explore, learn, and apply themselves while contributing to solving real challenges.

    Borrego saw this project as an opportunity to apply what he’d learned in class 6.390 (Introduction to Machine Learning) to a real-world issue. “I was starting to form an idea of how computers can see images and extract information from them,” he says. “I wanted to keep exploring that.”

    Usua decided to pursue the project because of the direct industry impacts it could have. “I’m pretty interested in seeing how we can utilize machine learning to make people’s lives easier. We are using AI to help biologists make this counting and identification process easier.” While Usua wasn’t familiar with aquaculture before starting this project, she explains, “Just hearing about the hatcheries that Dr. Vincent was telling us about, it was unfortunate that not a lot of people know what’s going on and the problems that they’re facing.”

    On Cape Cod alone, aquaculture is an $18 million per year industry. But the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries estimates that hatcheries are only able to meet 70–80 percent of seed demand annually, which impacts local growers and economies. Through this project, the partners aim to develop technology that will increase seed production, advance industry capabilities, and help understand and improve the hatchery microbiome.

    Borrego explains the initial challenge of having limited data to work with. “Starting out, we had to go through and label all of the data, but going through that process helped me learn a lot.” In true MIT fashion, he shares his takeaway from the project: “Try to get the best out of what you’re given with the data you have to work with. You’re going to have to adapt and change your strategies depending on what you have.”

    Usua describes her experience going through the research process, communicating in a team, and deciding what approaches to take. “Research is a difficult and long process, but there is a lot to gain from it because it teaches you to look for things on your own and find your own solutions to problems.”

    In addition to increasing seed production and reducing the human labor required in the hatchery process, the collaborators expect this project to contribute to cost savings and technology integration to support one of the most underserved industries in the United States. 

    Borrego and Usua both plan to continue their work for a second semester with MIT Sea Grant. Borrego is interested in learning more about how technology can be used to protect the environment and wildlife. Usua says she hopes to explore more projects related to aquaculture. “It seems like there’s an infinite amount of ways to tackle these issues.” More

  • in

    MIT researchers remotely map crops, field by field

    Crop maps help scientists and policymakers track global food supplies and estimate how they might shift with climate change and growing populations. But getting accurate maps of the types of crops that are grown from farm to farm often requires on-the-ground surveys that only a handful of countries have the resources to maintain.

    Now, MIT engineers have developed a method to quickly and accurately label and map crop types without requiring in-person assessments of every single farm. The team’s method uses a combination of Google Street View images, machine learning, and satellite data to automatically determine the crops grown throughout a region, from one fraction of an acre to the next. 

    The researchers used the technique to automatically generate the first nationwide crop map of Thailand — a smallholder country where small, independent farms make up the predominant form of agriculture. The team created a border-to-border map of Thailand’s four major crops — rice, cassava, sugarcane, and maize — and determined which of the four types was grown, at every 10 meters, and without gaps, across the entire country. The resulting map achieved an accuracy of 93 percent, which the researchers say is comparable to on-the-ground mapping efforts in high-income, big-farm countries.

    The team is applying their mapping technique to other countries such as India, where small farms sustain most of the population but the type of crops grown from farm to farm has historically been poorly recorded.

    “It’s a longstanding gap in knowledge about what is grown around the world,” says Sherrie Wang, the d’Arbeloff Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). “The final goal is to understand agricultural outcomes like yield, and how to farm more sustainably. One of the key preliminary steps is to map what is even being grown — the more granularly you can map, the more questions you can answer.”

    Wang, along with MIT graduate student Jordi Laguarta Soler and Thomas Friedel of the agtech company PEAT GmbH, will present a paper detailing their mapping method later this month at the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence.

    Ground truth

    Smallholder farms are often run by a single family or farmer, who subsist on the crops and livestock that they raise. It’s estimated that smallholder farms support two-thirds of the world’s rural population and produce 80 percent of the world’s food. Keeping tabs on what is grown and where is essential to tracking and forecasting food supplies around the world. But the majority of these small farms are in low to middle-income countries, where few resources are devoted to keeping track of individual farms’ crop types and yields.

    Crop mapping efforts are mainly carried out in high-income regions such as the United States and Europe, where government agricultural agencies oversee crop surveys and send assessors to farms to label crops from field to field. These “ground truth” labels are then fed into machine-learning models that make connections between the ground labels of actual crops and satellite signals of the same fields. They then label and map wider swaths of farmland that assessors don’t cover but that satellites automatically do.

    “What’s lacking in low- and middle-income countries is this ground label that we can associate with satellite signals,” Laguarta Soler says. “Getting these ground truths to train a model in the first place has been limited in most of the world.”

    The team realized that, while many developing countries do not have the resources to maintain crop surveys, they could potentially use another source of ground data: roadside imagery, captured by services such as Google Street View and Mapillary, which send cars throughout a region to take continuous 360-degree images with dashcams and rooftop cameras.

    In recent years, such services have been able to access low- and middle-income countries. While the goal of these services is not specifically to capture images of crops, the MIT team saw that they could search the roadside images to identify crops.

    Cropped image

    In their new study, the researchers worked with Google Street View (GSV) images taken throughout Thailand — a country that the service has recently imaged fairly thoroughly, and which consists predominantly of smallholder farms.

    Starting with over 200,000 GSV images randomly sampled across Thailand, the team filtered out images that depicted buildings, trees, and general vegetation. About 81,000 images were crop-related. They set aside 2,000 of these, which they sent to an agronomist, who determined and labeled each crop type by eye. They then trained a convolutional neural network to automatically generate crop labels for the other 79,000 images, using various training methods, including iNaturalist — a web-based crowdsourced  biodiversity database, and GPT-4V, a “multimodal large language model” that enables a user to input an image and ask the model to identify what the image is depicting. For each of the 81,000 images, the model generated a label of one of four crops that the image was likely depicting — rice, maize, sugarcane, or cassava.

    The researchers then paired each labeled image with the corresponding satellite data taken of the same location throughout a single growing season. These satellite data include measurements across multiple wavelengths, such as a location’s greenness and its reflectivity (which can be a sign of water). 

    “Each type of crop has a certain signature across these different bands, which changes throughout a growing season,” Laguarta Soler notes.

    The team trained a second model to make associations between a location’s satellite data and its corresponding crop label. They then used this model to process satellite data taken of the rest of the country, where crop labels were not generated or available. From the associations that the model learned, it then assigned crop labels across Thailand, generating a country-wide map of crop types, at a resolution of 10 square meters.

    This first-of-its-kind crop map included locations corresponding to the 2,000 GSV images that the researchers originally set aside, that were labeled by arborists. These human-labeled images were used to validate the map’s labels, and when the team looked to see whether the map’s labels matched the expert, “gold standard” labels, it did so 93 percent of the time.

    “In the U.S., we’re also looking at over 90 percent accuracy, whereas with previous work in India, we’ve only seen 75 percent because ground labels are limited,” Wang says. “Now we can create these labels in a cheap and automated way.”

    The researchers are moving to map crops across India, where roadside images via Google Street View and other services have recently become available.

    “There are over 150 million smallholder farmers in India,” Wang says. “India is covered in agriculture, almost wall-to-wall farms, but very small farms, and historically it’s been very difficult to create maps of India because there are very sparse ground labels.”

    The team is working to generate crop maps in India, which could be used to inform policies having to do with assessing and bolstering yields, as global temperatures and populations rise.

    “What would be interesting would be to create these maps over time,” Wang says. “Then you could start to see trends, and we can try to relate those things to anything like changes in climate and policies.” More

  • in

    New tools are available to help reduce the energy that AI models devour

    When searching for flights on Google, you may have noticed that each flight’s carbon-emission estimate is now presented next to its cost. It’s a way to inform customers about their environmental impact, and to let them factor this information into their decision-making.

    A similar kind of transparency doesn’t yet exist for the computing industry, despite its carbon emissions exceeding those of the entire airline industry. Escalating this energy demand are artificial intelligence models. Huge, popular models like ChatGPT signal a trend of large-scale artificial intelligence, boosting forecasts that predict data centers will draw up to 21 percent of the world’s electricity supply by 2030.

    The MIT Lincoln Laboratory Supercomputing Center (LLSC) is developing techniques to help data centers reel in energy use. Their techniques range from simple but effective changes, like power-capping hardware, to adopting novel tools that can stop AI training early on. Crucially, they have found that these techniques have a minimal impact on model performance.

    In the wider picture, their work is mobilizing green-computing research and promoting a culture of transparency. “Energy-aware computing is not really a research area, because everyone’s been holding on to their data,” says Vijay Gadepally, senior staff in the LLSC who leads energy-aware research efforts. “Somebody has to start, and we’re hoping others will follow.”

    Curbing power and cooling down

    Like many data centers, the LLSC has seen a significant uptick in the number of AI jobs running on its hardware. Noticing an increase in energy usage, computer scientists at the LLSC were curious about ways to run jobs more efficiently. Green computing is a principle of the center, which is powered entirely by carbon-free energy.

    Training an AI model — the process by which it learns patterns from huge datasets — requires using graphics processing units (GPUs), which are power-hungry hardware. As one example, the GPUs that trained GPT-3 (the precursor to ChatGPT) are estimated to have consumed 1,300 megawatt-hours of electricity, roughly equal to that used by 1,450 average U.S. households per month.

    While most people seek out GPUs because of their computational power, manufacturers offer ways to limit the amount of power a GPU is allowed to draw. “We studied the effects of capping power and found that we could reduce energy consumption by about 12 percent to 15 percent, depending on the model,” Siddharth Samsi, a researcher within the LLSC, says.

    The trade-off for capping power is increasing task time — GPUs will take about 3 percent longer to complete a task, an increase Gadepally says is “barely noticeable” considering that models are often trained over days or even months. In one of their experiments in which they trained the popular BERT language model, limiting GPU power to 150 watts saw a two-hour increase in training time (from 80 to 82 hours) but saved the equivalent of a U.S. household’s week of energy.

    The team then built software that plugs this power-capping capability into the widely used scheduler system, Slurm. The software lets data center owners set limits across their system or on a job-by-job basis.

    “We can deploy this intervention today, and we’ve done so across all our systems,” Gadepally says.

    Side benefits have arisen, too. Since putting power constraints in place, the GPUs on LLSC supercomputers have been running about 30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler and at a more consistent temperature, reducing stress on the cooling system. Running the hardware cooler can potentially also increase reliability and service lifetime. They can now consider delaying the purchase of new hardware — reducing the center’s “embodied carbon,” or the emissions created through the manufacturing of equipment — until the efficiencies gained by using new hardware offset this aspect of the carbon footprint. They’re also finding ways to cut down on cooling needs by strategically scheduling jobs to run at night and during the winter months.

    “Data centers can use these easy-to-implement approaches today to increase efficiencies, without requiring modifications to code or infrastructure,” Gadepally says.

    Taking this holistic look at a data center’s operations to find opportunities to cut down can be time-intensive. To make this process easier for others, the team — in collaboration with Professor Devesh Tiwari and Baolin Li at Northeastern University — recently developed and published a comprehensive framework for analyzing the carbon footprint of high-performance computing systems. System practitioners can use this analysis framework to gain a better understanding of how sustainable their current system is and consider changes for next-generation systems.  

    Adjusting how models are trained and used

    On top of making adjustments to data center operations, the team is devising ways to make AI-model development more efficient.

    When training models, AI developers often focus on improving accuracy, and they build upon previous models as a starting point. To achieve the desired output, they have to figure out what parameters to use, and getting it right can take testing thousands of configurations. This process, called hyperparameter optimization, is one area LLSC researchers have found ripe for cutting down energy waste. 

    “We’ve developed a model that basically looks at the rate at which a given configuration is learning,” Gadepally says. Given that rate, their model predicts the likely performance. Underperforming models are stopped early. “We can give you a very accurate estimate early on that the best model will be in this top 10 of 100 models running,” he says.

    In their studies, this early stopping led to dramatic savings: an 80 percent reduction in the energy used for model training. They’ve applied this technique to models developed for computer vision, natural language processing, and material design applications.

    “In my opinion, this technique has the biggest potential for advancing the way AI models are trained,” Gadepally says.

    Training is just one part of an AI model’s emissions. The largest contributor to emissions over time is model inference, or the process of running the model live, like when a user chats with ChatGPT. To respond quickly, these models use redundant hardware, running all the time, waiting for a user to ask a question.

    One way to improve inference efficiency is to use the most appropriate hardware. Also with Northeastern University, the team created an optimizer that matches a model with the most carbon-efficient mix of hardware, such as high-power GPUs for the computationally intense parts of inference and low-power central processing units (CPUs) for the less-demanding aspects. This work recently won the best paper award at the International ACM Symposium on High-Performance Parallel and Distributed Computing.

    Using this optimizer can decrease energy use by 10-20 percent while still meeting the same “quality-of-service target” (how quickly the model can respond).

    This tool is especially helpful for cloud customers, who lease systems from data centers and must select hardware from among thousands of options. “Most customers overestimate what they need; they choose over-capable hardware just because they don’t know any better,” Gadepally says.

    Growing green-computing awareness

    The energy saved by implementing these interventions also reduces the associated costs of developing AI, often by a one-to-one ratio. In fact, cost is usually used as a proxy for energy consumption. Given these savings, why aren’t more data centers investing in green techniques?

    “I think it’s a bit of an incentive-misalignment problem,” Samsi says. “There’s been such a race to build bigger and better models that almost every secondary consideration has been put aside.”

    They point out that while some data centers buy renewable-energy credits, these renewables aren’t enough to cover the growing energy demands. The majority of electricity powering data centers comes from fossil fuels, and water used for cooling is contributing to stressed watersheds. 

    Hesitancy may also exist because systematic studies on energy-saving techniques haven’t been conducted. That’s why the team has been pushing their research in peer-reviewed venues in addition to open-source repositories. Some big industry players, like Google DeepMind, have applied machine learning to increase data center efficiency but have not made their work available for others to deploy or replicate. 

    Top AI conferences are now pushing for ethics statements that consider how AI could be misused. The team sees the climate aspect as an AI ethics topic that has not yet been given much attention, but this also appears to be slowly changing. Some researchers are now disclosing the carbon footprint of training the latest models, and industry is showing a shift in energy transparency too, as in this recent report from Meta AI.

    They also acknowledge that transparency is difficult without tools that can show AI developers their consumption. Reporting is on the LLSC roadmap for this year. They want to be able to show every LLSC user, for every job, how much energy they consume and how this amount compares to others, similar to home energy reports.

    Part of this effort requires working more closely with hardware manufacturers to make getting these data off hardware easier and more accurate. If manufacturers can standardize the way the data are read out, then energy-saving and reporting tools can be applied across different hardware platforms. A collaboration is underway between the LLSC researchers and Intel to work on this very problem.

    Even for AI developers who are aware of the intense energy needs of AI, they can’t do much on their own to curb this energy use. The LLSC team wants to help other data centers apply these interventions and provide users with energy-aware options. Their first partnership is with the U.S. Air Force, a sponsor of this research, which operates thousands of data centers. Applying these techniques can make a significant dent in their energy consumption and cost.

    “We’re putting control into the hands of AI developers who want to lessen their footprint,” Gadepally says. “Do I really need to gratuitously train unpromising models? Am I willing to run my GPUs slower to save energy? To our knowledge, no other supercomputing center is letting you consider these options. Using our tools, today, you get to decide.”

    Visit this webpage to see the group’s publications related to energy-aware computing and findings described in this article. More

  • in

    A new dataset of Arctic images will spur artificial intelligence research

    As the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) icebreaker Healy takes part in a voyage across the North Pole this summer, it is capturing images of the Arctic to further the study of this rapidly changing region. Lincoln Laboratory researchers installed a camera system aboard the Healy while at port in Seattle before it embarked on a three-month science mission on July 11. The resulting dataset, which will be one of the first of its kind, will be used to develop artificial intelligence tools that can analyze Arctic imagery.

    “This dataset not only can help mariners navigate more safely and operate more efficiently, but also help protect our nation by providing critical maritime domain awareness and an improved understanding of how AI analysis can be brought to bear in this challenging and unique environment,” says Jo Kurucar, a researcher in Lincoln Laboratory’s AI Software Architectures and Algorithms Group, which led this project.

    As the planet warms and sea ice melts, Arctic passages are opening up to more traffic, both to military vessels and ships conducting illegal fishing. These movements may pose national security challenges to the United States. The opening Arctic also leaves questions about how its climate, wildlife, and geography are changing.

    Today, very few imagery datasets of the Arctic exist to study these changes. Overhead images from satellites or aircraft can only provide limited information about the environment. An outward-looking camera attached to a ship can capture more details of the setting and different angles of objects, such as other ships, in the scene. These types of images can then be used to train AI computer-vision tools, which can help the USCG plan naval missions and automate analysis. According to Kurucar, USCG assets in the Arctic are spread thin and can benefit greatly from AI tools, which can act as a force multiplier.

    The Healy is the USCG’s largest and most technologically advanced icebreaker. Given its current mission, it was a fitting candidate to be equipped with a new sensor to gather this dataset. The laboratory research team collaborated with the USCG Research and Development Center to determine the sensor requirements. Together, they developed the Cold Region Imaging and Surveillance Platform (CRISP).

    “Lincoln Laboratory has an excellent relationship with the Coast Guard, especially with the Research and Development Center. Over a decade, we’ve established ties that enabled the deployment of the CRISP system,” says Amna Greaves, the CRISP project lead and an assistant leader in the AI Software Architectures and Algorithms Group. “We have strong ties not only because of the USCG veterans working at the laboratory and in our group, but also because our technology missions are complementary. Today it was deploying infrared sensing in the Arctic; tomorrow it could be operating quadruped robot dogs on a fast-response cutter.”

    The CRISP system comprises a long-wave infrared camera, manufactured by Teledyne FLIR (for forward-looking infrared), that is designed for harsh maritime environments. The camera can stabilize itself during rough seas and image in complete darkness, fog, and glare. It is paired with a GPS-enabled time-synchronized clock and a network video recorder to record both video and still imagery along with GPS-positional data.  

    The camera is mounted at the front of the ship’s fly bridge, and the electronics are housed in a ruggedized rack on the bridge. The system can be operated manually from the bridge or be placed into an autonomous surveillance mode, in which it slowly pans back and forth, recording 15 minutes of video every three hours and a still image once every 15 seconds.

    “The installation of the equipment was a unique and fun experience. As with any good project, our expectations going into the install did not meet reality,” says Michael Emily, the project’s IT systems administrator who traveled to Seattle for the install. Working with the ship’s crew, the laboratory team had to quickly adjust their route for running cables from the camera to the observation station after they discovered that the expected access points weren’t in fact accessible. “We had 100-foot cables made for this project just in case of this type of scenario, which was a good thing because we only had a few inches to spare,” Emily says.

    The CRISP project team plans to publicly release the dataset, anticipated to be about 4 terabytes in size, once the USCG science mission concludes in the fall.

    The goal in releasing the dataset is to enable the wider research community to develop better tools for those operating in the Arctic, especially as this region becomes more navigable. “Collecting and publishing the data allows for faster and greater progress than what we could accomplish on our own,” Kurucar adds. “It also enables the laboratory to engage in more advanced AI applications while others make more incremental advances using the dataset.”

    On top of providing the dataset, the laboratory team plans to provide a baseline object-detection model, from which others can make progress on their own models. More advanced AI applications planned for development are classifiers for specific objects in the scene and the ability to identify and track objects across images.

    Beyond assisting with USCG missions, this project could create an influential dataset for researchers looking to apply AI to data from the Arctic to help combat climate change, says Paul Metzger, who leads the AI Software Architectures and Algorithms Group.

    Metzger adds that the group was honored to be a part of this project and is excited to see the advances that come from applying AI to novel challenges facing the United States: “I’m extremely proud of how our group applies AI to the highest-priority challenges in our nation, from predicting outbreaks of Covid-19 and assisting the U.S. European Command in their support of Ukraine to now employing AI in the Arctic for maritime awareness.”

    Once the dataset is available, it will be free to download on the Lincoln Laboratory dataset website. More

  • in

    Preparing Colombia’s cities for life amid changing forests

    It was an uncharacteristically sunny morning as Marcela Angel MCP ’18, flanked by a drone pilot from the Boston engineering firm AirWorks and a data collection team from the Colombian regional environmental agency Corpoamazonia, climbed a hill in the Andes Mountains of southwest Colombia. The area’s usual mountain cloud cover — one of the major challenges to working with satellite imagery or flying UAVs (unpiloted aerial vehicles, or drones) in the Pacific highlands of the Amazon — would roll through in the hours to come. But for now, her team had chosen a good day to hike out for their first flight. Angel is used to long travel for her research. Raised in Bogotá, she maintained strong ties to Colombia throughout her master’s program in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). Her graduate thesis, examining Bogotá’s management of its public green space, took her regularly back to her hometown, exploring how the city could offer residents more equal access to the clean air, flood protection and day-to-day health and social benefits provided by parks and trees. But the hill she was hiking this morning, outside the remote city of Mocoa, had taken an especially long time to climb: five years building relationships with the community of Mocoa and the Colombian government, recruiting project partners, and navigating the bureaucracy of bringing UAVs into the country. Now, her team finally unwrapped their first, knee-high drone from its tarp and set it carefully in the grass. Under the gathering gray clouds, the buzz of its rotors joined the hum of insects in the trees, and the machine at last took to the skies.

    From Colombia to Cambridge

    “I actually grew up on the last street before the eastern mountains reserve,” Angel says of her childhood in Bogotá. “I’ve always been at that border between city and nature.” This idea, that urban areas are married to the ecosystems around them, would inform Angel’s whole education and career. Before coming to MIT, she studied architecture at Bogotá’s Los Andes University; for her graduation project she proposed a plan to resettle an informal neighborhood on Bogotá’s outskirts to minimize environmental risks to its residents. Among her projects at MIT was an initiative to spatially analyze Bogotá’s tree canopy, providing data for the city to plan a tree-planting program as a strategy to give vulnerable populations in the city more access to nature. And she was naturally intrigued when Colombia’s former minister of environment and sustainable development came to MIT in 2017 to give a guest presentation to the DUSP master’s program. The minister, Luis Gilberto Murillo (now the Colombian ambassador to the United States), introduced the students to the challenges triggered by a recent disaster in the city of Mocoa, on the border between the lowland Amazon and the Andes Mountains. Unprecedented rainstorms had destabilized the surrounding forests, and that April a devastating flood and landslide had killed hundreds of people and destroyed entire neighborhoods. And as climate change contributed to growing rainfall in the region, the risks of more landslide events were rising. Murillo provided useful insights into how city planning decisions had contributed to the crisis. But he also asked for MIT’s support addressing future landslide risks in the area. Angel and Juan Camilo Osorio, a PhD candidate at DUSP, decided to take up the challenge, and in January 2018 and 2019, a research delegation from MIT traveled to Colombia for a newly-created graduate course. Returning once again to Bogotá, Angel interviewed government agencies and nonprofits to understand the state of landslide monitoring and public policy. In Mocoa, further interviews and a series of workshops helped clarify what locals needed most and what MIT could provide: better information on where and when landslides might strike, and a process to increase risk awareness and involve traditionally marginalized groups in decision-making processes around that risk. Over the coming year, a core team formed to put the insights from this trip into action, including Angel, Osorio, postdoc Norhan Bayomi of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and MIT Professor John Fernández, director of the ESI and one of Angel’s mentors at DUSP. After a second visit to Mocoa that brought into the fold Indigenous groups, environmental agencies, and the national army, a plan was formed: MIT would partner with Corpoamazonia and build a network of community researchers to deploy and test drone technology and machine learning models to monitor the mountain forests for both landslide risks and signs of forest health, while implementing a participatory planning process with residents. “What our projects aim to do is give the communities new tools to continue protecting and restoring the forest,” says Angel, “and support new and inclusive development models, even in the face of new challenges.”

    Lifelines for the climate

    The goal of tropical forest conservation is an urgent one. As forests are cut down, their trees and soils release carbon they have stored over millennia, adding huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Deforestation, mainly in the tropics, is now estimated to contribute more to climate change than any country besides the United States and China — and once lost, tropical forests are exceptionally hard to restore. “Tropical forests should be a natural way to slow and reverse climate change,” says Angel. “And they can be. But today, we are reaching critical tipping points where it is just the opposite.” This became the motivating force for Angel’s career after her graduation. In 2019, Fernández invited her to join the ESI and lead a new Natural Climate Solutions Program, with the Mocoa project as its first centerpiece. She quickly mobilized the partners to raise funding for the project from the Global Environmental Facility and the CAF Development Bank of Latin America and the Caribbean, and recruited additional partners including MIT Lincoln Laboratories, AirWorks, and the Pratt Institute, where Osorio had become an assistant professor. She hired machine learning specialists from MIT to begin design on UAVs’ data processing, and helped assemble a local research network in Mocoa to increase risk awareness, promote community participation, and better understand what information city officials and community groups needed for city planning and conservation. “This is the amazing thing about MIT,” she says. “When you study a problem here, you’re not just playing in a sandbox. Everyone I’ve worked with is motivated by the complexity of the technical challenge and the opportunity for meaningful engagement in Mocoa, and hopefully in many more places besides.” At the same time, Angel created opportunities for the next generation of MIT graduate students to follow in her footsteps. With Fernández and Bayomi, she created a new course, 4.S23 (Biodiversity and Cities), in which students traveled to Colombia to develop urban planning strategies for the cities of Quidbó and Leticia, located in carbon-rich and biodiverse areas. The course has been taught twice, with Professor Gabriella Carolini joining the teaching team for spring 2023, and has already led to a student report to city officials in Quidbó recommending ways to enhance biodiversity and adapt to climate change as the city grows, a multi-stakeholder partnership to train local youth and implement a citizen-led biodiversity survey, and a seed grant from the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium to begin providing both cities detailed data on their tree cover derived from satellite images. “These regions face serious threats, especially on a warming planet, but many of the solutions for climate change, biodiversity conservation, and environmental equity in the region go hand-in-hand,” Angel says. “When you design a city to use fewer resources, to contribute less to climate change, it also causes less pressure on the environment around it. When you design a city for equity and quality of life, you’re giving attention to its green spaces and what they can provide for people and as habitat for other species. When you protect and restore forests, you’re protecting local bioeconomies.”

    Bringing the data home

    Meanwhile, in Mocoa, Angel’s original vision is taking flight. With the team’s test flights behind them, they can now begin creating digital models of the surrounding area. Regular drone flights and soil samples will fill in changing information about trees, water, and local geology, allowing the project’s machine learning specialists to identify warning signs for future landslides and extreme weather events. More importantly, there is now an established network of local community researchers and leaders ready to make use of this information. With feedback from their Mocoan partners, Angel’s team has built a prototype of the online platform they will use to share their UAV data; they’re now letting Mocoa residents take it for a test drive and suggest how it can be made more user-friendly. Her visit this January also paved the way for new projects that will tie the Environmental Solutions Initiative more tightly to Mocoa. With her project partners, Angel is exploring developing a course to teach local students how to use UAVs like the ones her team is flying. She is also considering expanded efforts to collect the kind of informal knowledge of Mocoa, on the local ecology and culture, that people everywhere use in making their city planning and emergency response decisions, but that is rarely codified and included in scientific risk analyses. It’s a great deal of work to offer this one community the tools to adapt successfully to climate change. But even with all the robotics and machine learning models in the world, this close, slow-unfolding engagement, grounded in trust and community inclusion, is what it takes to truly prepare people to confront profound changes in their city and environment. “Protecting natural carbon sinks is a global socio-environmental challenge, and one where it is not enough for MIT to just contribute to the knowledge base or develop a new technology,” says Angel. “But we can help mobilize decision-makers and nontraditional actors, and design more inclusive and technology-enhanced processes, to make this easier for the people who have lifelong stakes in these ecosystems. That is the vision.” More

  • in

    Computing for the health of the planet

    The health of the planet is one of the most important challenges facing humankind today. From climate change to unsafe levels of air and water pollution to coastal and agricultural land erosion, a number of serious challenges threaten human and ecosystem health.

    Ensuring the health and safety of our planet necessitates approaches that connect scientific, engineering, social, economic, and political aspects. New computational methods can play a critical role by providing data-driven models and solutions for cleaner air, usable water, resilient food, efficient transportation systems, better-preserved biodiversity, and sustainable sources of energy.

    The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing is committed to hiring multiple new faculty in computing for climate and the environment, as part of MIT’s plan to recruit 20 climate-focused faculty under its climate action plan. This year the college undertook searches with several departments in the schools of Engineering and Science for shared faculty in computing for health of the planet, one of the six strategic areas of inquiry identified in an MIT-wide planning process to help focus shared hiring efforts. The college also undertook searches for core computing faculty in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

    The searches are part of an ongoing effort by the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing to hire 50 new faculty — 25 shared with other academic departments and 25 in computer science and artificial intelligence and decision-making. The goal is to build capacity at MIT to help more deeply infuse computing and other disciplines in departments.

    Four interdisciplinary scholars were hired in these searches. They will join the MIT faculty in the coming year to engage in research and teaching that will advance physical understanding of low-carbon energy solutions, Earth-climate modeling, biodiversity monitoring and conservation, and agricultural management through high-performance computing, transformational numerical methods, and machine-learning techniques.

    “By coordinating hiring efforts with multiple departments and schools, we were able to attract a cohort of exceptional scholars in this area to MIT. Each of them is developing and using advanced computational methods and tools to help find solutions for a range of climate and environmental issues,” says Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the Henry Warren Ellis Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “They will also help strengthen cross-departmental ties in computing across an important, critical area for MIT and the world.”

    “These strategic hires in the area of computing for climate and the environment are an incredible opportunity for the college to deepen its academic offerings and create new opportunity for collaboration across MIT,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “The college plays a pivotal role in MIT’s overarching effort to hire climate-focused faculty — introducing the critical role of computing to address the health of the planet through innovative research and curriculum.”

    The four new faculty members are:

    Sara Beery will join MIT as an assistant professor in the Faculty of Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making in EECS in September 2023. Beery received her PhD in computing and mathematical sciences at Caltech in 2022, where she was advised by Pietro Perona. Her research focuses on building computer vision methods that enable global-scale environmental and biodiversity monitoring across data modalities, tackling real-world challenges including strong spatiotemporal correlations, imperfect data quality, fine-grained categories, and long-tailed distributions. She partners with nongovernmental organizations and government agencies to deploy her methods in the wild worldwide and works toward increasing the diversity and accessibility of academic research in artificial intelligence through interdisciplinary capacity building and education.

    Priya Donti will join MIT as an assistant professor in the faculties of Electrical Engineering and Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making in EECS in academic year 2023-24. Donti recently finished her PhD in the Computer Science Department and the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, co-advised by Zico Kolter and Inês Azevedo. Her work focuses on machine learning for forecasting, optimization, and control in high-renewables power grids. Specifically, her research explores methods to incorporate the physics and hard constraints associated with electric power systems into deep learning models. Donti is also co-founder and chair of Climate Change AI, a nonprofit initiative to catalyze impactful work at the intersection of climate change and machine learning that is currently running through the Cornell Tech Runway Startup Postdoc Program.

    Ericmoore Jossou will join MIT as an assistant professor in a shared position between the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the faculty of electrical engineering in EECS in July 2023. He is currently an assistant scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy-affiliated lab that conducts research in nuclear and high energy physics, energy science and technology, environmental and bioscience, nanoscience, and national security. His research at MIT will focus on understanding the processing-structure-properties correlation of materials for nuclear energy applications through advanced experiments, multiscale simulations, and data science. Jossou obtained his PhD in mechanical engineering in 2019 from the University of Saskatchewan.

    Sherrie Wang will join MIT as an assistant professor in a shared position between the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society in academic year 2023-24. Wang is currently a Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, hosted by Solomon Hsiang and the Global Policy Lab. She develops machine learning for Earth observation data. Her primary application areas are improving agricultural management and forecasting climate phenomena. She obtained her PhD in computational and mathematical engineering from Stanford University in 2021, where she was advised by David Lobell. More

  • in

    New maps show airplane contrails over the U.S. dropped steeply in 2020

    As Covid-19’s initial wave crested around the world, travel restrictions and a drop in passengers led to a record number of grounded flights in 2020. The air travel reduction cleared the skies of not just jets but also the fluffy white contrails they produce high in the atmosphere.

    MIT engineers have mapped the contrails that were generated over the United States in 2020, and compared the results to prepandemic years. They found that on any given day in 2018, and again in 2019, contrails covered a total area equal to Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. In 2020, this contrail coverage shrank by about 20 percent, mirroring a similar drop in U.S. flights.  

    While 2020’s contrail dip may not be surprising, the findings are proof that the team’s mapping technique works. Their study marks the first time researchers have captured the fine and ephemeral details of contrails over a large continental scale.

    Now, the researchers are applying the technique to predict where in the atmosphere contrails are likely to form. The cloud-like formations are known to play a significant role in aviation-related global warming. The team is working with major airlines to forecast regions in the atmosphere where contrails may form, and to reroute planes around these regions to minimize contrail production.

    “This kind of technology can help divert planes to prevent contrails, in real time,” says Steven Barrett, professor and associate head of MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “There’s an unusual opportunity to halve aviation’s climate impact by eliminating most of the contrails produced today.”

    Barrett and his colleagues have published their results today in the journal Environmental Research Letters. His co-authors at MIT include graduate student Vincent Meijer, former graduate student Luke Kulik, research scientists Sebastian Eastham, Florian Allroggen, and Raymond Speth, and LIDS Director and professor Sertac Karaman.

    Trail training

    About half of the aviation industry’s contribution to global warming comes directly from planes’ carbon dioxide emissions. The other half is thought to be a consequence of their contrails. The signature white tails are produced when a plane’s hot, humid exhaust mixes with cool humid air high in the atmosphere. Emitted in thin lines, contrails quickly spread out and can act as blankets that trap the Earth’s outgoing heat.

    While a single contrail may not have much of a warming effect, taken together contrails have a significant impact. But the estimates of this effect are uncertain and based on computer modeling as well as limited satellite data. What’s more, traditional computer vision algorithms that analyze contrail data have a hard time discerning the wispy tails from natural clouds.

    To precisely pick out and track contrails over a large scale, the MIT team looked to images taken by NASA’s GOES-16, a geostationary satellite that hovers over the same swath of the Earth, including the United States, taking continuous, high-resolution images.

    The team first obtained about 100 images taken by the satellite, and trained a set of people to interpret remote sensing data and label each image’s pixel as either part of a contrail or not. They used this labeled dataset to train a computer-vision algorithm to discern a contrail from a cloud or other image feature.

    The researchers then ran the algorithm on about 100,000 satellite images, amounting to nearly 6 trillion pixels, each pixel representing an area of about 2 square kilometers. The images covered the contiguous U.S., along with parts of Canada and Mexico, and were taken about every 15 minutes, between Jan. 1, 2018, and Dec. 31, 2020.

    The algorithm automatically classified each pixel as either a contrail or not a contrail, and generated daily maps of contrails over the United States. These maps mirrored the major flight paths of most U.S. airlines, with some notable differences. For instance, contrail “holes” appeared around major airports, which reflects the fact that planes landing and taking off around airports are generally not high enough in the atmosphere for contrails to form.

    “The algorithm knows nothing about where planes fly, and yet when processing the satellite imagery, it resulted in recognizable flight routes,” Barrett says. “That’s one piece of evidence that says this method really does capture contrails over a large scale.”

    Cloudy patterns

    Based on the algorithm’s maps, the researchers calculated the total area covered each day by contrails in the US. On an average day in 2018 and in 2019, U.S. contrails took up about 43,000 square kilometers. This coverage dropped by 20 percent in March of 2020 as the pandemic set in. From then on, contrails slowly reappeared as air travel resumed through the year.

    The team also observed daily and seasonal patterns. In general, contrails appeared to peak in the morning and decline in the afternoon. This may be a training artifact: As natural cirrus clouds are more likely to form in the afternoon, the algorithm may have trouble discerning contrails amid the clouds later in the day. But it might also be an important indication about when contrails form most. Contrails also peaked in late winter and early spring, when more of the air is naturally colder and more conducive for contrail formation.

    The team has now adapted the technique to predict where contrails are likely to form in real time. Avoiding these regions, Barrett says, could take a significant, almost immediate chunk out of aviation’s global warming contribution.  

    “Most measures to make aviation sustainable take a long time,” Barrett says. “(Contrail avoidance) could be accomplished in a few years, because it requires small changes to how aircraft are flown, with existing airplanes and observational technology. It’s a near-term way of reducing aviation’s warming by about half.”

    The team is now working towards this objective of large-scale contrail avoidance using realtime satellite observations.

    This research was supported in part by NASA and the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative. More

  • in

    Design’s new frontier

    In the 1960s, the advent of computer-aided design (CAD) sparked a revolution in design. For his PhD thesis in 1963, MIT Professor Ivan Sutherland developed Sketchpad, a game-changing software program that enabled users to draw, move, and resize shapes on a computer. Over the course of the next few decades, CAD software reshaped how everything from consumer products to buildings and airplanes were designed.

    “CAD was part of the first wave in computing in design. The ability of researchers and practitioners to represent and model designs using computers was a major breakthrough and still is one of the biggest outcomes of design research, in my opinion,” says Maria Yang, Gail E. Kendall Professor and director of MIT’s Ideation Lab.

    Innovations in 3D printing during the 1980s and 1990s expanded CAD’s capabilities beyond traditional injection molding and casting methods, providing designers even more flexibility. Designers could sketch, ideate, and develop prototypes or models faster and more efficiently. Meanwhile, with the push of a button, software like that developed by Professor Emeritus David Gossard of MIT’s CAD Lab could solve equations simultaneously to produce a new geometry on the fly.

    In recent years, mechanical engineers have expanded the computing tools they use to ideate, design, and prototype. More sophisticated algorithms and the explosion of machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies have sparked a second revolution in design engineering.

    Researchers and faculty at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering are utilizing these technologies to re-imagine how the products, systems, and infrastructures we use are designed. These researchers are at the forefront of the new frontier in design.

    Computational design

    Faez Ahmed wants to reinvent the wheel, or at least the bicycle wheel. He and his team at MIT’s Design Computation & Digital Engineering Lab (DeCoDE) use an artificial intelligence-driven design method that can generate entirely novel and improved designs for a range of products — including the traditional bicycle. They create advanced computational methods to blend human-driven design with simulation-based design.

    “The focus of our DeCoDE lab is computational design. We are looking at how we can create machine learning and AI algorithms to help us discover new designs that are optimized based on specific performance parameters,” says Ahmed, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.

    For their work using AI-driven design for bicycles, Ahmed and his collaborator Professor Daniel Frey wanted to make it easier to design customizable bicycles, and by extension, encourage more people to use bicycles over transportation methods that emit greenhouse gases.

    To start, the group gathered a dataset of 4,500 bicycle designs. Using this massive dataset, they tested the limits of what machine learning could do. First, they developed algorithms to group bicycles that looked similar together and explore the design space. They then created machine learning models that could successfully predict what components are key in identifying a bicycle style, such as a road bike versus a mountain bike.

    Once the algorithms were good enough at identifying bicycle designs and parts, the team proposed novel machine learning tools that could use this data to create a unique and creative design for a bicycle based on certain performance parameters and rider dimensions.

    Ahmed used a generative adversarial network — or GAN — as the basis of this model. GAN models utilize neural networks that can create new designs based on vast amounts of data. However, using GAN models alone would result in homogeneous designs that lack novelty and can’t be assessed in terms of performance. To address these issues in design problems, Ahmed has developed a new method which he calls “PaDGAN,” performance augmented diverse GAN.

    “When we apply this type of model, what we see is that we can get large improvements in the diversity, quality, as well as novelty of the designs,” Ahmed explains.

    Using this approach, Ahmed’s team developed an open-source computational design tool for bicycles freely available on their lab website. They hope to further develop a set of generalizable tools that can be used across industries and products.

    Longer term, Ahmed has his sights set on loftier goals. He hopes the computational design tools he develops could lead to “design democratization,” putting more power in the hands of the end user.

    “With these algorithms, you can have more individualization where the algorithm assists a customer in understanding their needs and helps them create a product that satisfies their exact requirements,” he adds.

    Using algorithms to democratize the design process is a goal shared by Stefanie Mueller, an associate professor in electrical engineering and computer science and mechanical engineering.

    Personal fabrication

    Platforms like Instagram give users the freedom to instantly edit their photographs or videos using filters. In one click, users can alter the palette, tone, and brightness of their content by applying filters that range from bold colors to sepia-toned or black-and-white. Mueller, X-Window Consortium Career Development Professor, wants to bring this concept of the Instagram filter to the physical world.

    “We want to explore how digital capabilities can be applied to tangible objects. Our goal is to bring reprogrammable appearance to the physical world,” explains Mueller, director of the HCI Engineering Group based out of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

    Mueller’s team utilizes a combination of smart materials, optics, and computation to advance personal fabrication technologies that would allow end users to alter the design and appearance of the products they own. They tested this concept in a project they dubbed “Photo-Chromeleon.”

    First, a mix of photochromic cyan, magenta, and yellow dies are airbrushed onto an object — in this instance, a 3D sculpture of a chameleon. Using software they developed, the team sketches the exact color pattern they want to achieve on the object itself. An ultraviolet light shines on the object to activate the dyes.

    To actually create the physical pattern on the object, Mueller has developed an optimization algorithm to use alongside a normal office projector outfitted with red, green, and blue LED lights. These lights shine on specific pixels on the object for a given period of time to physically change the makeup of the photochromic pigments.

    “This fancy algorithm tells us exactly how long we have to shine the red, green, and blue light on every single pixel of an object to get the exact pattern we’ve programmed in our software,” says Mueller.

    Giving this freedom to the end user enables limitless possibilities. Mueller’s team has applied this technology to iPhone cases, shoes, and even cars. In the case of shoes, Mueller envisions a shoebox embedded with UV and LED light projectors. Users could put their shoes in the box overnight and the next day have a pair of shoes in a completely new pattern.

    Mueller wants to expand her personal fabrication methods to the clothes we wear. Rather than utilize the light projection technique developed in the PhotoChromeleon project, her team is exploring the possibility of weaving LEDs directly into clothing fibers, allowing people to change their shirt’s appearance as they wear it. These personal fabrication technologies could completely alter consumer habits.

    “It’s very interesting for me to think about how these computational techniques will change product design on a high level,” adds Mueller. “In the future, a consumer could buy a blank iPhone case and update the design on a weekly or daily basis.”

    Computational fluid dynamics and participatory design

    Another team of mechanical engineers, including Sili Deng, the Brit (1961) & Alex (1949) d’Arbeloff Career Development Professor, are developing a different kind of design tool that could have a large impact on individuals in low- and middle-income countries across the world.

    As Deng walked down the hallway of Building 1 on MIT’s campus, a monitor playing a video caught her eye. The video featured work done by mechanical engineers and MIT D-Lab on developing cleaner burning briquettes for cookstoves in Uganda. Deng immediately knew she wanted to get involved.

    “As a combustion scientist, I’ve always wanted to work on such a tangible real-world problem, but the field of combustion tends to focus more heavily on the academic side of things,” explains Deng.

    After reaching out to colleagues in MIT D-Lab, Deng joined a collaborative effort to develop a new cookstove design tool for the 3 billion people across the world who burn solid fuels to cook and heat their homes. These stoves often emit soot and carbon monoxide, leading not only to millions of deaths each year, but also worsening the world’s greenhouse gas emission problem.

    The team is taking a three-pronged approach to developing this solution, using a combination of participatory design, physical modeling, and experimental validation to create a tool that will lead to the production of high-performing, low-cost energy products.

    Deng and her team in the Deng Energy and Nanotechnology Group use physics-based modeling for the combustion and emission process in cookstoves.

    “My team is focused on computational fluid dynamics. We use computational and numerical studies to understand the flow field where the fuel is burned and releases heat,” says Deng.

    These flow mechanics are crucial to understanding how to minimize heat loss and make cookstoves more efficient, as well as learning how dangerous pollutants are formed and released in the process.

    Using computational methods, Deng’s team performs three-dimensional simulations of the complex chemistry and transport coupling at play in the combustion and emission processes. They then use these simulations to build a combustion model for how fuel is burned and a pollution model that predicts carbon monoxide emissions.

    Deng’s models are used by a group led by Daniel Sweeney in MIT D-Lab to test the experimental validation in prototypes of stoves. Finally, Professor Maria Yang uses participatory design methods to integrate user feedback, ensuring the design tool can actually be used by people across the world.

    The end goal for this collaborative team is to not only provide local manufacturers with a prototype they could produce themselves, but to also provide them with a tool that can tweak the design based on local needs and available materials.

    Deng sees wide-ranging applications for the computational fluid dynamics her team is developing.

    “We see an opportunity to use physics-based modeling, augmented with a machine learning approach, to come up with chemical models for practical fuels that help us better understand combustion. Therefore, we can design new methods to minimize carbon emissions,” she adds.

    While Deng is utilizing simulations and machine learning at the molecular level to improve designs, others are taking a more macro approach.

    Designing intelligent systems

    When it comes to intelligent design, Navid Azizan thinks big. He hopes to help create future intelligent systems that are capable of making decisions autonomously by using the enormous amounts of data emerging from the physical world. From smart robots and autonomous vehicles to smart power grids and smart cities, Azizan focuses on the analysis, design, and control of intelligent systems.

    Achieving such massive feats takes a truly interdisciplinary approach that draws upon various fields such as machine learning, dynamical systems, control, optimization, statistics, and network science, among others.

    “Developing intelligent systems is a multifaceted problem, and it really requires a confluence of disciplines,” says Azizan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering with a dual appointment in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). “To create such systems, we need to go beyond standard approaches to machine learning, such as those commonly used in computer vision, and devise algorithms that can enable safe, efficient, real-time decision-making for physical systems.”

    For robot control to work in the complex dynamic environments that arise in the real world, real-time adaptation is key. If, for example, an autonomous vehicle is going to drive in icy conditions or a drone is operating in windy conditions, they need to be able to adapt to their new environment quickly.

    To address this challenge, Azizan and his collaborators at MIT and Stanford University have developed a new algorithm that combines adaptive control, a powerful methodology from control theory, with meta learning, a new machine learning paradigm.

    “This ‘control-oriented’ learning approach outperforms the existing ‘regression-oriented’ methods, which are mostly focused on just fitting the data, by a wide margin,” says Azizan.

    Another critical aspect of deploying machine learning algorithms in physical systems that Azizan and his team hope to address is safety. Deep neural networks are a crucial part of autonomous systems. They are used for interpreting complex visual inputs and making data-driven predictions of future behavior in real time. However, Azizan urges caution.

    “These deep neural networks are only as good as their training data, and their predictions can often be untrustworthy in scenarios not covered by their training data,” he says. Making decisions based on such untrustworthy predictions could lead to fatal accidents in autonomous vehicles or other safety-critical systems.

    To avoid these potentially catastrophic events, Azizan proposes that it is imperative to equip neural networks with a measure of their uncertainty. When the uncertainty is high, they can then be switched to a “safe policy.”

    In pursuit of this goal, Azizan and his collaborators have developed a new algorithm known as SCOD — Sketching Curvature of Out-of-Distribution Detection. This framework could be embedded within any deep neural network to equip them with a measure of their uncertainty.

    “This algorithm is model-agnostic and can be applied to neural networks used in various kinds of autonomous systems, whether it’s drones, vehicles, or robots,” says Azizan.

    Azizan hopes to continue working on algorithms for even larger-scale systems. He and his team are designing efficient algorithms to better control supply and demand in smart energy grids. According to Azizan, even if we create the most efficient solar panels and batteries, we can never achieve a sustainable grid powered by renewable resources without the right control mechanisms.

    Mechanical engineers like Ahmed, Mueller, Deng, and Azizan serve as the key to realizing the next revolution of computing in design.

    “MechE is in a unique position at the intersection of the computational and physical worlds,” Azizan says. “Mechanical engineers build a bridge between theoretical, algorithmic tools and real, physical world applications.”

    Sophisticated computational tools, coupled with the ground truth mechanical engineers have in the physical world, could unlock limitless possibilities for design engineering, well beyond what could have been imagined in those early days of CAD. More