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    MIT in the media: 2021 in review

    From Institute-wide efforts to address the climate crisis to responding to Covid-19, members of the MIT community made headlines this year for their innovative work in a variety of areas. Faculty, students, and staff were on the front lines of addressing many pressing issues this year, raising their voices and sharing their findings. Below are highlights of news stories that spotlight the many efforts underway at MIT to help make a better world.

    Fireside chat: Tackling global challenges with a culture of innovationPresident L. Rafael Reif and Linda Henry, CEO of Boston Globe Media Partners, took part in a wide-ranging fireside chat during the inaugural Globe Summit, touching upon everything from the urgent need to address the climate crisis to MIT’s response to Covid-19, the Institute’s approach to artificial intelligence education and the greater Boston innovation ecosystem.Full discussion via Globe Summit

    A real-world revolution in economicsProfessor Joshua Angrist, one of the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in economic sciences, spoke with The Economist’s Money Talks podcast about the evolution of his research and how his work has helped bring the field of economics closer to real life. “I like to tell graduate students that a good scholar is like a good hitter in baseball,” says Angrist of his advice for economics students. “You get on base about a third of the time you’re doing pretty well, which means you strike out most of the time.”Full story via The Economist

    Paula Hammond guest edits C&EN’s 2021 Trailblazers issueC&EN’s 2021 Trailblazers issue, curated by guest editor Paula Hammond, celebrated Black chemists and chemical engineers. “As we learn from several of the personal stories highlighted in this issue,” writes Hammond, “that first connection to science and research is critical to engage and inspire the next generation.” Helping propel the issue’s message about the importance of mentorship was a one-on-one with Professor Kristala Prather about her career path and a wide-ranging interview with Hammond herself on building a home at MIT.Full issue via C&EN

    Can fusion put the brakes on climate change? MIT’s new Climate Action Plan for the Decade calls for going as far as we can, as fast as we can, with the tools and methods we have now — but also asserts that ultimate success depends on breakthroughs. Commercial fusion energy is potentially one such game-changer, and a unique collaboration between MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) is pursuing it. As Joy Dunn ’08, head of manufacturing at CFS, explains to the New Yorker’s Rivka Galchen: “When people ask me, ‘Why fusion? Why not other renewables,’ my thinking is: This is a solution at the scale of the problem.”Full story via New Yorker

    The genius next door: Taylor Perron discusses landscape evolutionProfessor and geomorphologist Taylor Perron, a recipient this year’s MacArthur Fellowships, joined Callie Crossley of GBH’s Under the Radar to discuss his work studying the mechanisms that shape landscapes on Earth and other planets. “We try to figure out how we can look at landscapes and read them, and try to figure out what happened in the past and also anticipate what might happen in the future,” says Perron.Full story via GBH

    How the pandemic “re-imagined how we can exhibit” Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning and curator of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, spoke with Cajsa Carlson of Dezeen about how the field of architecture is transforming due to climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and efforts to increase diversity and representation. “Talent and imagination are not restricted to advanced development economically,” says Sarkis. “I hope this message comes across in this biennale.”Full story via Dezeen

    10 years at the top of the QS World University RankingsProvost Martin Schmidt spoke with TopUniversities.com reporter Chloe Lane about how MIT has maintained its position as the top university in the world on the QS World University Rankings for 10 consecutive years. “The Institute is full of a diverse community of people from all corners of the globe dedicated to solving the world’s most difficult problems,” says Schmidt. “Their efforts have a demonstrable impact through ambitious high-impact activities.”  Full story via TopUniversities.com

    Tackling Covid-19 and the Impact of a Global PandemicIn 2021, MIT researchers turned their attention to addressing the widespread effects of a global pandemic, exploring everything from supply chain issues to K-12 education.Massachusetts Miracle: “There are a lot of potential Modernas”Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung spotlighted how the development of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine demonstrates the success of the Massachusetts life sciences sector. “For more than half a century, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been the epicenter of that curiosity, with a focus on molecular biology — initially to find a cure for cancer,” writes Leung.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Weak links in the supply chainProfessor Yossi Sheffi spoke with David Pogue of CBS Sunday Morning about what’s causing supply chain breakdowns. “The underlying cause of all of this is actually a huge increase in demand,” says Sheffi. “People did not spend during the pandemic. And then, all the government help came; trillions of dollars went to households. So, they order stuff. They order more and more stuff. And the global markets were not ready for this.”Full story via CBS News

    Recruiting students and teachers to rethink schoolsA report co-authored by Associate Professor Justin Reich proposed a new path forward for rethinking K-12 schools after Covid-19, reported Paul Darvasi for KQED. “The report recommends that educators build on the positive aspects of their pandemic learning experience in the years ahead,” notes Darvasi, “and supports increased student independence to cultivate a safe and healthy environment that is more conducive to learning.”Full story via KQED

    This staff member has been quietly curating a flower box at the Collier MemorialResearch Specialist Kathy Cormier’s dedication to tending a flower planter at the Collier Memorial throughout the pandemic captured the hearts of many in the MIT community. “Here’s something that’s empty that I can fill, and make myself feel better and make other people — hopefully — feel better,” she says.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Amazing Alumni MIT alumni made headlines for their efforts to change the world, both here on Earth and in outer space. NASA selects three new astronaut candidates with MIT rootsMarcos Berríos ’06, Christina Birch PhD ’15 and Christopher Williams PhD ’12 were selected among NASA’s 10-member 2021 astronaut candidate class, reported WBUR’s Bill Chappell. “Alone, each candidate has ‘the right stuff,’ but together they represent the creed of our country: E pluribus unum — out of many, one,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.Full story via WBUR

    Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala named WTO director-generalNgozi Okonjo-Iweala MCP ’78, PhD ’81, a former Nigerian finance minister, was named director-general of the World Trade Organization, reported William Wallace for the Financial Times. “Okonjo-Iweala sees an opportunity for the organization to rediscover some of its original purpose of raising living standards across the board and to bring its outdated rule book up to date at a time of accelerating change,” notes Wallace.Full story via Financial Times

    She doesn’t think skateboarding’s a sport, but she competed for a medalAlexis Sablone MArch ’16 spoke with Washington Post reporter Les Carpenter about street skateboarding, competing at this year’s Olympic Games, and why she is uncomfortable with being defined. “To me, I’m just always like trying to be myself and do things that I love to do and not try to fit into these categories in ways that I don’t feel comfortable with,” says Sablone.Full story via The Washington Post

    Applauding the culture of aerospace engineeringTiera Fletcher ’17, a structural design engineer working on building NASA’s Space Launch System, and her husband Myron Fletcher spoke with the hosts of The Real about what inspired them to pursue careers in aerospace engineering and their organization Rocket with the Fletchers, which is aimed at introducing youth to the field of aerodynamics.Full story via The Real

    Addressing the Climate CrisisThe urgent need to take action on climate change became more apparent in 2021. MIT researchers across campus answered the call and are unleashing innovative ideas to help address the biggest threat of our time.

    Why closing California’s last nuclear power plant would be a mistake The Washington Post Editorial Board highlighted a report co-authored by MIT researchers that found keeping the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California open would help the state reach its climate goals.Full story via The Washington Post

    What will the U.S. do to reach emission reduction targets?Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, spoke with Brian Cheung of Yahoo Finance about climate change, the path to net-zero emissions, and COP26. Paltsev was a lead author of the Fifth Assessment Report Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC. Full story via Yahoo News

    Lithium battery costs have fallen by 98% in three decadesA study by Professor Jessika Trancik and postdoc Micah Ziegler examining the plunge in lithium-ion battery costs finds “every time output doubles, as it did five times between 2006 and 2016, battery prices fall by about a quarter,” reports The Economist, which highlighted the work in its popular “Daily chart” feature. (Trancik’s research detailing carbon impacts of different cars was also cited by The Washington Post as a climate-change innovation helping respond to calls for action.)Full story via The Economist

    MIT students display a “climate clock” outside the Green BuildingBoston Globe reporter Matt Berg spotlights how a team from the MIT D-Lab created a climate clock, which was projected on the exterior of the Green Building at MIT in an effort to showcase key data about climate change. “The display highlights goals of the fight against climate change, such as limiting the annual temperature increases to no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit,” writes Berg.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Social Impact

    MIT community members increasingly sought to address social issues around the world, from the spread of misinformation to ensuring marginalized communities could share their experiences. At MIT, arts, humanities and STEM fields forge an essential partnershipWriting for Times Higher Ed, Agustín Rayo, interim dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, and Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, underscore the importance of the arts, humanities, and design fields as “an essential part of an MIT education, critical to the Institute’s capacity for innovation and vital to its mission to make a better world.” They add that “the MIT mission is to serve humankind, and the arts and humanities are essential resources for knowledge and understanding of the human condition.”Full story via Times Higher Ed

    Helping Bostonians feel heard with MIT’s “Real Talk” portalAn MIT initiative called “Real Talk for Change” launched a new online portal of more than 200 audio stories collected from Boston residents as part of an effort to “help prompt future community dialogues about the lived experiences of everyday Bostonians, particularly those in marginalized communities,” reported Meghan E. Irons for The Boston Globe.Full story via Boston Globe

    Why nations fail, America editionProfessor Daron Acemoglu spoke with Greg Rosalsky of NPR’s Planet Money about his book, “Why Nations Fail,” and whether the attack on the U.S. Capitol signals difficulties for U.S. institutions, and how politicians can create more shared prosperity through a “good jobs” agenda. “We are still at a point where we can reverse things,” Acemoglu says. “But I think if we paper over these issues, we will most likely see a huge deterioration in institutions. And it can happen very rapidly.”Full story via Planet Money

    Why confronting disinformation spreaders online only makes it worseA study by MIT researchers found that correcting people who were spreading misinformation on Twitter led to people retweeting and sharing even more misinformation, reported Matthew Gault for Motherboard. Professor David Rand explains that the research is aimed at identifying “what kinds of interventions increase versus decrease the quality of news people share. There is no question that social media has changed the way people interact. But understanding how exactly it’s changed things is really difficult.” Full story via Motherboard

    Out of This WorldFrom designing a new instrument that can extract oxygen out of Martian air to investigating gravitational waves, MIT community members continued their longstanding tradition of deepening our understanding of the cosmos. MOXIE pulled breathable oxygen out of thin Martian airMichael Hecht of MIT’s Haystack Observatory spoke with GBH’s Edgar Herwick about how the MIT-designed MOXIE instrument successfully extracted oxygen out of Martian air. “I’ve been using the expression ‘a small breath for man, a giant leap for humankind,’” says Hecht, who is the principal investigator for MOXIE.Full story via GBH

    The down-to-Earth applications of spaceAssistant Professor Danielle Wood joined Bloomberg TV to discuss her work focused on using space technologies as a way to advance the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. She emphasizes how space “is a platform for serving the broad public. We use satellites to observe the environment and the climate, we use satellites to connect people across different parts of the Earth, and they give us information about our positions and our weather. All of these are broad public goods that really can serve people across the world all at once.”Full story via Bloomberg TV

    How Perseverance is hunting for life on MarsIn a conversation with New Scientist reporter Jonathan O’Callaghan, Professor Tanja Bosak discussed her work with the NASA Perseverance rover’s rock reconnaissance mission. “In the middle of a pandemic, I think we needed something good to happen, and that’s why so many people wanted all the science and engineering that goes into landing a rover on Mars to succeed,” says Bosak.Full story via New Scientist

    What scientists have learned from hidden ripples in spacetimeNergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science, spoke with Becky Ferreira of Motherboard’s “Space Show” about LIGO’s 2015 discovery of gravitational waves and what researchers in the field have learned since then. “Every one of these observations tells us a little bit more about how nature has assembled our universe,” says Mavalvala. “Really, in the end, the question we’re asking is: ‘How did this universe that we observe come about?’” Full story via MotherboardJoining the Conversation

    MIT authors contributed nearly 100 op-eds and essays to top news outlets this year, along with research-focused deep dives in The Conversation.

    Building on Vannevar Bush’s “wild garden” to cultivate solutions to human needsPresident L. Rafael Reif examined Vannevar Bush’s groundbreaking 1945 “Science, the Endless Frontier” report and considered how our needs today have changed. “To meet this moment, we need to ensure that our federally sponsored research addresses questions that will enhance our competitiveness now and in the future,” writes Reif. “Our current system has many strengths … but we must not allow these historical advantages to blind us to gaps that could become fatal weaknesses.”Full story via Issues in Science and Technology

    Good news: There’s a labor shortageWriting for The New York Times, Professor David Autor explored how the current labor shortage provides an opportunity to improve the quality of jobs in the U.S. “The period of labor scarcity, then, is an opportunity to catalyze better working conditions for those who need them most,” writes Autor.Full story via New York Times

    Opening the path to biotechIn an editorial for Science, Professor Sangeeta Bhatia, Professor Emerita Nancy Hopkins, and President Emerita Susan Hockfield underscored the importance of addressing the underrepresentation of women and individuals of color in tech transfer. “The discoveries women and minority researchers are making today have great potential as a force for good in the world,” they write, “but reaching that potential is only possible if paths to real-world applications are open to everybody.”Full story via Science

    To protect from lab leaks, we need “banal” safety rules, not anti-terrorism measuresMIT Professor Susan Silbey and Professor Ruthanne Huising of Emlyon Business School made the case that to prevent lab leaks, there should be a greater emphasis placed on biosafety. “The global research community does not need more rules, more layers of oversight, and more intermediary actors,” they write. “What it needs is more attention and respect to already known biosafety measures and techniques.”Full story via Stat

    Boston: The Silicon Valley of longevity?Writing for The Boston Globe, AgeLab Director Joseph Coughlin and Research Associate Luke Yoquinto explored how Greater Boston could serve as an innovation hub for aging populations. “By making groundbreaking creativity and inventiveness for older adults both seen and felt, Greater Boston and New England will be able to offer the world a new vision of old age,” they write.Full story via The Boston Globe

    More of the latest MIT In the Media summaries, with links to the original reporting, are available at news.mit.edu/in-the-media. More

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    MIT community in 2021: A year in review

    During 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic continued to color much of the year, as MIT saw both the promise of vaccines as well as the rise of troubling new variants. The Institute also made new commitments to climate action, saw the opening of new and renovated spaces, continued in its efforts to support its diverse voices, and celebrated new Nobel laureates and astronaut candidates. Here are some of the top stories in the MIT community this year.

    Continuing to work through CovidVaccines became widely available to the MIT community early in the year — thanks, in significant part, to the ingenuity of MIT scientists and engineers. In response, the Institute developed a policy requiring vaccination for most members of the community and planned a return to fully in-person teaching and working at MIT for the fall 2021 semester.

    With copious protections in place, the fall semester in many ways embodied MIT’s resilience: In-person teaching expanded, staff returned with new flexible arrangements, and community spirit lifted as face-to-face meetings became possible in many cases once again. Some annual traditions, such as Commencement, stayed remote, while others, like the outdoor Great Glass Pumpkin Patch, and 2.009 grand finale, returned, adding smiles and a sense of gratitude among community members.Melissa Nobles appointed chancellor

    In August, Melissa Nobles, the former Kenin Sahin Dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, became the Institute’s new chancellor. A political scientist, Nobles succeeded Cynthia Barnhart, who returned to research and teaching after seven years as chancellor.

    In other news related to MIT’s top administration, Martin Schmidt announced in November that after 40 years at MIT, he plans to step down as provost to become the next president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, his alma mater.

    New climate action plan

    MIT unveiled a new action plan to tackle the climate crisis, committing to net-zero emissions by 2026 and charting a course marshaling all of MIT’s capabilities toward decarbonization. The plan includes a broad array of new initiatives and significant expansions of existing programs to address the needs for new technologies, new policies, and new kinds of outreach to bring the Institute’s expertise to bear on this critical global issue.

    In November, a delegation from MIT also traveled to Scotland for COP26, the 2021 United Nations climate change conference, where international negotiators sought to keep global climate goals on track. Approximately 20 MIT faculty, staff, and students were on hand to observe the negotiations, share and conduct research, and launch new initiatives.

    MIT and Harvard transfer edX

    MIT and Harvard University announced in June that assets of edX, the nonprofit they launched in 2012 to provide an open online platform for university courses, would be acquired by the publicly-traded education technology company 2U, and reorganized as a public benefit company under the 2U umbrella. In exchange, 2U was set to transfer net proceeds from the $800 million transaction to a nonprofit organization, also led by MIT and Harvard, to explore the next generation of online education.

    Supporting our diverse communityAs an important step forward in MIT’s ongoing efforts to create a more welcoming and inclusive community, the Institute hired six new assistant deans, one in each school and in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, to serve as diversity, equity, and inclusion professionals. In addition, this week Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier provided an update on the Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the first draft of which was released in March.

    A community discussion also examined the complexities of Asian American and Pacific Islander identity and acceptance at MIT, while underscoring the need for collaborative work among groups to combat prejudice and create equity. The forum was held amid a string of violent assaults on Asian Americans in the U.S., which raised public awareness about anti-Asian discrimination. Meanwhile, Professor Emma Teng provided historic context for the crisis.

    Three with MIT ties win Nobel PrizesProfessor Joshua Angrist, whose influential work has enhanced rigorous empirical research in economics, shared half of the 2021 Nobel Prize in economic sciences with Guido Imbens of the Stanford Graduate School of Business; the other half went to David Card of the University of California at Berkeley.

    In addition, David Julius ’77, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Ardem Patapoutian, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute, for their discoveries in how the body senses touch and temperature. And Maria Ressa, a journalist in the Philippines and digital fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, shared the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize with journalist Dmitry Muratov of Russia.

    National STEM leadersBefore taking office in January, President Joe Biden selected two MIT faculty leaders for top science and technology posts in his administration. Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute and professor of biology, was named presidential science advisor and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Maria Zuber, vice president for research and professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, was named co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), along with Caltech chemical engineer Frances Arnold — the first women ever to co-chair PCAST.

    Paula Hammond, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was also chosen to serve as a member of PCAST. Earlier in the year, Hammond, along with chemical engineer Arup Chakraborty, was named an Institute Professor, the highest honor bestowed upon MIT faculty.

    Task Force 2021 final report

    MIT’s Task Force 2021 and Beyond, charged with reimagining the future of MIT, released its final report, 18 months after it began work in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. The report offers 17 recommendations to strengthen and streamline MIT, and make the Institute more successful across its teaching, research, and innovation endeavors. In addition to a providing a substantive list of recommendations, the report suggests routes to implementation, and assigns one or more senior leaders or faculty governance committees with oversight, for every idea presented.

    Newly opened or reopened

    A number of facilities, new or newly redesigned, opened in 2021. These included a new MIT Welcome Center in Kendall Square; the new InnovationHQ, a hub for MIT entrepreneurship; the newly renovated and reimagined Hayden Library and courtyard; and the new MIT Press Bookstore. Two new student residences also opened, and the community welcomed programming from the Institute’s new outdoor open space.

    Students win an impressive number of distinguished fellowshipsAs always, MIT students continued to shine. This year, exceptional undergraduates were awarded Fulbright, Marshall, Mitchell, Rhodes, and Schwarzman scholarships.

    Remembering those we’ve lostAmong community members who died this year were William Dalzell, Sergio Dominguez, Gene Dresselhaus, Sow Hsin-Chen, Ronald Kurtz, Paul Lagacé, Shirley McBay, ChoKyun Rha, George Shultz, Isadore Singer, James Swan, and Jing Wang. A longer list of 2021 obituaries is available on MIT News.

    In Case You Missed It… 

    Additional top community stories of 2021 included NASA’s selection of three new alumni astronaut candidates; the announcement of the 2021 MIT Solve Global Challenges; the successful conclusion of the MIT Campaign for a Better World; a win for MIT in the American Solar Challenge; a look at chess at the Institute; a roundup of new books from MIT authors; and the introduction of STEM-focused young-adult graphic fiction from the MIT Press. More

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    The power of economics to explain and shape the world

    Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo sympathizes with students who have no interest in her field. She was such a student herself — until an undergraduate research post gave her the chance to learn first-hand that economists address many of the major issues facing human and planetary well-being.“Most people have a wrong view of what economics is. They just see economists on television discussing what’s going to happen to the stock market,” says Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics. “But what people do in the field is very broad. Economists grapple with the real world and with the complexity that goes with it.”

    That’s why this year Duflo has teamed up with Professor Abhijit Banerjee to offer 14.009 (Economics and Society’s Greatest Problems), a first-year discovery subject — a class type designed to give undergraduates a low-pressure, high-impact way to explore a field. In this case, they are exploring the range of issues that economists engage with every day: the economic dimensions of climate change, international trade, racism, justice, education, poverty, health care, social preferences, and economic growth are just a few of the topics the class covers.“We think it’s pretty important that the first exposure to economics is via issues,” Duflo says. “If you first get exposed to economics via models, these models necessarily have to be very simplified, and then students get the idea that economics is a simplistic view of the world that can’t explain much.”Arguably, Duflo and Banerjee have been disproving that view throughout their careers. In 2003, the pair founded MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, a leading antipoverty research network that provides scientific evidence on what methods actually work to alleviate poverty — which enables governments and nongovernmental organizations to implement truly effective programs and social policies. And, in 2019 they won the Nobel Prize in economics (together with Michael Kremer of the University of Chicago) for their innovative work applying laboratory-style randomized, controlled trials to research a wide range of topics implicated in global poverty.“Super cool”

    First-year Jean Billa, one of the students in 14.009, says, “Economics isn’t just about how money flows, but about how people react to certain events. That was an interesting discovery for me.”

    It’s also precisely the lesson Banerjee and Duflo hoped students would take away from 14.009, a class that centers on weekly in-person discussions of the professors’ recorded lectures — many of which align with chapters in Banerjee and Duflo’s book “Good Economics for Hard Times” (Public Affairs, 2019).Classes typically start with a poll in which the roughly 100 enrolled students can register their views on that week’s topic. Then, students get to discuss the issue, says senior Dina Atia, teaching assistant for the class. Noting that she finds it “super cool” that Nobelists are teaching MIT’s first-year students, Atia points out that both Duflo and Banerjee have also made themselves available to chat with students after class. “They’re definitely extending themselves,” she says.“We want the students to get excited about economics so they want to know more,” says Banerjee, the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, “because this is a field that can help us address some of the biggest problems society faces.” Using natural experiments to test theories

    Early in the term, for example, the topic was migration. In the lecture, Duflo points out that migration policies are often impacted by the fear that unskilled migrants will overwhelm a region, taking jobs from residents and demanding social services. Yet, migrant flows in normal years represent just 3 percent of the world population. “There is no flood. There is no vast movement of migrants,” she says.Duflo then explains that economists were able to learn a lot about migration thanks to a “natural experiment,” the Mariel boat lift. This 1980 event brought roughly 125,000 unskilled Cubans to Florida over a matter a months, enabling economists to study the impacts of a sudden wave of migration. Duflo says a look at real wages before and after the migration showed no significant impacts.“It was interesting to see that most theories about immigrants were not justified,” Billa says. “That was a real-life situation, and the results showed that even a massive wave of immigration didn’t change work in the city [Miami].”

    Question assumptions, find the facts in dataSince this is a broad survey course, there is always more to unpack. The goal, faculty say, is simply to help students understand the power of economics to explain and shape the world. “We are going so fast from topic to topic, I don’t expect them to retain all the information,” Duflo says. Instead, students are expected to gain an appreciation for a way of thinking. “Economics is about questioning everything — questioning assumptions you don’t even know are assumptions and being sophisticated about looking at data to uncover the facts.”To add impact, Duflo says she and Banerjee tie lessons to current events and dive more deeply into a few economic studies. One class, for example, focused on the unequal burden the Covid-19 pandemic has placed on different demographic groups and referenced research by Harvard University professor Marcella Alsan, who won a MacArthur Fellowship this fall for her work studying the impact of racism on health disparities.

    Duflo also revealed that at the beginning of the pandemic, she suspected that mistrust of the health-care system could prevent Black Americans from taking certain measures to protect themselves from the virus. What she discovered when she researched the topic, however, was that political considerations outweighed racial influences as a predictor of behavior. “The lesson for you is, it’s good to question your assumptions,” she told the class.“Students should ideally understand, by the end of class, why it’s important to ask questions and what they can teach us about the effectiveness of policy and economic theory,” Banerjee says. “We want people to discover the range of economics and to understand how economists look at problems.”

    Story by MIT SHASS CommunicationsEditorial and design director: Emily HiestandSenior writer: Kathryn O’Neill More

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    Q&A: Can the world change course on climate?

    In this ongoing series on climate issues, MIT faculty, students, and alumni in the humanistic fields share perspectives that are significant for solving climate change and mitigating its myriad social and ecological impacts. Nazli Choucri is a professor of political science and an expert on climate issues, who also focuses on international relations and cyberpolitics. She is the architect and director of the Global System for Sustainable Development, an evolving knowledge networking system centered on sustainability problems and solution strategies. The author and/or editor of 12 books, she is also the founding editor of the MIT Press book series “Global Environmental Accord: Strategies for Sustainability and Institutional Innovation.” Q: The impacts of climate change — including storms, floods, wildfires, and droughts — have the potential to destabilize nations, yet they are not constrained by borders. What international developments most concern you in terms of addressing climate change and its myriad ecological and social impacts?

    A: Climate change is a global issue. By definition, and a long history of practice, countries focus on their own priorities and challenges. Over time, we have seen the gradual development of norms reflecting shared interests, and the institutional arrangements to support and pursue the global good. What concerns me most is that general responses to the climate crisis are being framed in broad terms; the overall pace of change remains perilously slow; and uncertainty remains about operational action and implementation of stated intent. We have just seen the completion of the 26th meeting of states devoted to climate change, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). In some ways this is positive. Yet, past commitments remain unfulfilled, creating added stress in an already stressful political situation. Industrial countries are uneven in their recognition of, and responses to, climate change. This may signal uncertainty about whether climate matters are sufficiently compelling to call for immediate action. Alternatively, the push for changing course may seem too costly at a time when other imperatives — such as employment, economic growth, or protecting borders — inevitably dominate discourse and decisions. Whatever the cause, the result has been an unwillingness to take strong action. Unfortunately, climate change remains within the domain of “low politics,” although there are signs the issue is making a slow but steady shift to “high politics” — those issues deemed vital to the existence of the state. This means that short-term priorities, such as those noted above, continue to shape national politics and international positions and, by extension, to obscure the existential threat revealed by scientific evidence. As for developing countries, these are overwhelmed by internal challenges, and managing the difficulties of daily life always takes priority over other challenges, however compelling. Long-term thinking is a luxury, but daily bread is a necessity. Non-state actors — including registered nongovernmental organizations, climate organizations, sustainability support groups, activists of various sorts, and in some cases much of civil society — have been left with a large share of the responsibility for educating and convincing diverse constituencies of the consequences of inaction on climate change. But many of these institutions carry their own burdens and struggle to manage current pressures. The international community, through its formal and informal institutions, continues to articulate the perils of climate change and to search for a powerful consensus that can prove effective both in form and in function. The general contours are agreed upon — more or less. But leadership of, for, and by the global collective is elusive and difficult to shape. Most concerning of all is the clear reluctance to address head-on the challenge of planning for changes that we know will occur. The reality that we are all being affected — in different ways and to different degrees — has yet to be sufficiently appreciated by everyone, everywhere. Yet, in many parts of the world, major shifts in climate will create pressures on human settlements, spur forced migrations, or generate social dislocations. Some small island states, for example, may not survive a sea-level surge. Everywhere there is a need to cut emissions, and this means adaptation and/or major changes in economic activity and in lifestyle.The discourse and debate at COP26 reflect all of such persistent features in the international system. So far, the largest achievements center on the common consensus that more must be done to prevent the rise in temperature from creating a global catastrophe. This is not enough, however. Differences remain, and countries have yet to specify what cuts in emissions they are willing to make.Echoes of who is responsible for what remains strong. The thorny matter of the unfulfilled pledge of $100 billion once promised by rich countries to help countries to reduce their emissions remained unresolved. At the same time, however, some important agreements were reached. The United States and China announced they would make greater efforts to cut methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. More than 100 countries agreed to end deforestation. India joined the countries committed to attain zero emissions by 2070. And on matters of finance, countries agreed to a two-year plan to determine how to meet the needs of the most-vulnerable countries. Q: In what ways do you think the tools and insights from political science can advance efforts to address climate change and its impacts?A: I prefer to take a multidisciplinary view of the issues at hand, rather than focus on the tools of political science alone. Disciplinary perspectives can create siloed views and positions that undermine any overall drive toward consensus. The scientific evidence is pointing to, even anticipating, pervasive changes that transcend known and established parameters of social order all across the globe.That said, political science provides important insight, even guidance, for addressing the impacts of climate change in some notable ways. One is understanding the extent to which our formal institutions enable discussion, debate, and decisions about the directions we can take collectively to adapt, adjust, or even depart from the established practices of managing social order.If we consider politics as the allocation of values in terms of who gets what, when, and how, then it becomes clear that the current allocation requires a change in course. Coordination and cooperation across the jurisdictions of sovereign states is foundational for any response to climate change impacts.We have already recognized, and to some extent, developed targets for reducing carbon emissions — a central impact from traditional forms of energy use — and are making notable efforts to shift toward alternatives. This move is an easy one compared to all the work that needs to be done to address climate change. But, in taking this step we have learned quite a bit that might help in creating a necessary consensus for cross-jurisdiction coordination and response.Respecting individuals and protecting life is increasingly recognized as a global value — at least in principle. As we work to change course, new norms will be developed, and political science provides important perspectives on how to establish such norms. We will be faced with demands for institutional design, and these will need to embody our guiding values. For example, having learned to recognize the burdens of inequity, we can establish the value of equity as foundational for our social order both now and as we recognize and address the impacts of climate change.

    Q: You teach a class on “Sustainability Development: Theory and Practice.” Broadly speaking, what are goals of this class? What lessons do you hope students will carry with them into the future?A: The goal of 17.181, my class on sustainability, is to frame as clearly as possible the concept of sustainable development (sustainability) with attention to conceptual, empirical, institutional, and policy issues.The course centers on human activities. Individuals are embedded in complex interactive systems: the social system, the natural environment, and the constructed cyber domain — each with distinct temporal, special, and dynamic features. Sustainability issues intersect with, but cannot be folded into, the impacts of climate change. Sustainability places human beings in social systems at the core of what must be done to respect the imperatives of a highly complex natural environment.We consider sustainability an evolving knowledge domain with attendant policy implications. It is driven by events on the ground, not by revolution in academic or theoretical concerns per se. Overall, sustainable development refers to the process of meeting the needs of current and future generations, without undermining the resilience of the life-supporting properties, the integrity of social systems, or the supports of the human-constructed cyberspace.More specifically, we differentiate among four fundamental dimensions and their necessary conditions:

    (a) ecological systems — exhibiting balance and resilience;(b) economic production and consumption — with equity and efficiency;(c) governance and politics — with participation and responsiveness; and(d) institutional performance — demonstrating adaptation and incorporating feedback.The core proposition is this: If all conditions hold, then the system is (or can be) sustainable. Then, we must examine the critical drivers — people, resources, technology, and their interactions — followed by a review and assessment of evolving policy responses. Then we ask: What are new opportunities?I would like students to carry forward these ideas and issues: what has been deemed “normal” in modern Western societies and in developing societies seeking to emulate the Western model is damaging humans in many ways — all well-known. Yet only recently have alternatives begun to be considered to the traditional economic growth model based on industrialization and high levels of energy use. To make changes, we must first understand the underlying incentives, realities, and choices that shape a whole set of dysfunctional behaviors and outcomes. We then need to delve deep into the driving sources and consequences, and to consider the many ways in which our known “normal” can be adjusted — in theory and in practice. Q: In confronting an issue as formidable as global climate change, what gives you hope?  A: I see a few hopeful signs; among them:The scientific evidence is clear and compelling. We are no longer discussing whether there is climate change, or if we will face major challenges of unprecedented proportions, or even how to bring about an international consensus on the salience of such threats.Climate change has been recognized as a global phenomenon. Imperatives for cooperation are necessary. No one can go it alone. Major efforts have and are being made in world politics to forge action agendas with specific targets.The issue appears to be on the verge of becoming one of “high politics” in the United States.Younger generations are more sensitive to the reality that we are altering the life-supporting properties of our planet. They are generally more educated, skilled, and open to addressing such challenges than their elders.However disappointing the results of COP26 might seem, the global community is moving in the right direction.None of the above points, individually or jointly, translates into an effective response to the known impacts of climate change — let alone the unknown. But, this is what gives me hope.

    Interview prepared by MIT SHASS CommunicationsEditorial, design, and series director: Emily HiestandSenior writer: Kathryn O’Neill More

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    Q&A: More-sustainable concrete with machine learning

    As a building material, concrete withstands the test of time. Its use dates back to early civilizations, and today it is the most popular composite choice in the world. However, it’s not without its faults. Production of its key ingredient, cement, contributes 8-9 percent of the global anthropogenic CO2 emissions and 2-3 percent of energy consumption, which is only projected to increase in the coming years. With aging United States infrastructure, the federal government recently passed a milestone bill to revitalize and upgrade it, along with a push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions where possible, putting concrete in the crosshairs for modernization, too.

    Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Jie Chen, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab research scientist and manager, think artificial intelligence can help meet this need by designing and formulating new, more sustainable concrete mixtures, with lower costs and carbon dioxide emissions, while improving material performance and reusing manufacturing byproducts in the material itself. Olivetti’s research improves environmental and economic sustainability of materials, and Chen develops and optimizes machine learning and computational techniques, which he can apply to materials reformulation. Olivetti and Chen, along with their collaborators, have recently teamed up for an MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab project to make concrete more sustainable for the benefit of society, the climate, and the economy.

    Q: What applications does concrete have, and what properties make it a preferred building material?

    Olivetti: Concrete is the dominant building material globally with an annual consumption of 30 billion metric tons. That is over 20 times the next most produced material, steel, and the scale of its use leads to considerable environmental impact, approximately 5-8 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It can be made locally, has a broad range of structural applications, and is cost-effective. Concrete is a mixture of fine and coarse aggregate, water, cement binder (the glue), and other additives.

    Q: Why isn’t it sustainable, and what research problems are you trying to tackle with this project?

    Olivetti: The community is working on several ways to reduce the impact of this material, including alternative fuels use for heating the cement mixture, increasing energy and materials efficiency and carbon sequestration at production facilities, but one important opportunity is to develop an alternative to the cement binder.

    While cement is 10 percent of the concrete mass, it accounts for 80 percent of the GHG footprint. This impact is derived from the fuel burned to heat and run the chemical reaction required in manufacturing, but also the chemical reaction itself releases CO2 from the calcination of limestone. Therefore, partially replacing the input ingredients to cement (traditionally ordinary Portland cement or OPC) with alternative materials from waste and byproducts can reduce the GHG footprint. But use of these alternatives is not inherently more sustainable because wastes might have to travel long distances, which adds to fuel emissions and cost, or might require pretreatment processes. The optimal way to make use of these alternate materials will be situation-dependent. But because of the vast scale, we also need solutions that account for the huge volumes of concrete needed. This project is trying to develop novel concrete mixtures that will decrease the GHG impact of the cement and concrete, moving away from the trial-and-error processes towards those that are more predictive.

    Chen: If we want to fight climate change and make our environment better, are there alternative ingredients or a reformulation we could use so that less greenhouse gas is emitted? We hope that through this project using machine learning we’ll be able to find a good answer.

    Q: Why is this problem important to address now, at this point in history?

    Olivetti: There is urgent need to address greenhouse gas emissions as aggressively as possible, and the road to doing so isn’t necessarily straightforward for all areas of industry. For transportation and electricity generation, there are paths that have been identified to decarbonize those sectors. We need to move much more aggressively to achieve those in the time needed; further, the technological approaches to achieve that are more clear. However, for tough-to-decarbonize sectors, such as industrial materials production, the pathways to decarbonization are not as mapped out.

    Q: How are you planning to address this problem to produce better concrete?

    Olivetti: The goal is to predict mixtures that will both meet performance criteria, such as strength and durability, with those that also balance economic and environmental impact. A key to this is to use industrial wastes in blended cements and concretes. To do this, we need to understand the glass and mineral reactivity of constituent materials. This reactivity not only determines the limit of the possible use in cement systems but also controls concrete processing, and the development of strength and pore structure, which ultimately control concrete durability and life-cycle CO2 emissions.

    Chen: We investigate using waste materials to replace part of the cement component. This is something that we’ve hypothesized would be more sustainable and economic — actually waste materials are common, and they cost less. Because of the reduction in the use of cement, the final concrete product would be responsible for much less carbon dioxide production. Figuring out the right concrete mixture proportion that makes endurable concretes while achieving other goals is a very challenging problem. Machine learning is giving us an opportunity to explore the advancement of predictive modeling, uncertainty quantification, and optimization to solve the issue. What we are doing is exploring options using deep learning as well as multi-objective optimization techniques to find an answer. These efforts are now more feasible to carry out, and they will produce results with reliability estimates that we need to understand what makes a good concrete.

    Q: What kinds of AI and computational techniques are you employing for this?

    Olivetti: We use AI techniques to collect data on individual concrete ingredients, mix proportions, and concrete performance from the literature through natural language processing. We also add data obtained from industry and/or high throughput atomistic modeling and experiments to optimize the design of concrete mixtures. Then we use this information to develop insight into the reactivity of possible waste and byproduct materials as alternatives to cement materials for low-CO2 concrete. By incorporating generic information on concrete ingredients, the resulting concrete performance predictors are expected to be more reliable and transformative than existing AI models.

    Chen: The final objective is to figure out what constituents, and how much of each, to put into the recipe for producing the concrete that optimizes the various factors: strength, cost, environmental impact, performance, etc. For each of the objectives, we need certain models: We need a model to predict the performance of the concrete (like, how long does it last and how much weight does it sustain?), a model to estimate the cost, and a model to estimate how much carbon dioxide is generated. We will need to build these models by using data from literature, from industry, and from lab experiments.

    We are exploring Gaussian process models to predict the concrete strength, going forward into days and weeks. This model can give us an uncertainty estimate of the prediction as well. Such a model needs specification of parameters, for which we will use another model to calculate. At the same time, we also explore neural network models because we can inject domain knowledge from human experience into them. Some models are as simple as multi-layer perceptions, while some are more complex, like graph neural networks. The goal here is that we want to have a model that is not only accurate but also robust — the input data is noisy, and the model must embrace the noise, so that its prediction is still accurate and reliable for the multi-objective optimization.

    Once we have built models that we are confident with, we will inject their predictions and uncertainty estimates into the optimization of multiple objectives, under constraints and under uncertainties.

    Q: How do you balance cost-benefit trade-offs?

    Chen: The multiple objectives we consider are not necessarily consistent, and sometimes they are at odds with each other. The goal is to identify scenarios where the values for our objectives cannot be further pushed simultaneously without compromising one or a few. For example, if you want to further reduce the cost, you probably have to suffer the performance or suffer the environmental impact. Eventually, we will give the results to policymakers and they will look into the results and weigh the options. For example, they may be able to tolerate a slightly higher cost under a significant reduction in greenhouse gas. Alternatively, if the cost varies little but the concrete performance changes drastically, say, doubles or triples, then this is definitely a favorable outcome.

    Q: What kinds of challenges do you face in this work?

    Chen: The data we get either from industry or from literature are very noisy; the concrete measurements can vary a lot, depending on where and when they are taken. There are also substantial missing data when we integrate them from different sources, so, we need to spend a lot of effort to organize and make the data usable for building and training machine learning models. We also explore imputation techniques that substitute missing features, as well as models that tolerate missing features, in our predictive modeling and uncertainty estimate.

    Q: What do you hope to achieve through this work?

    Chen: In the end, we are suggesting either one or a few concrete recipes, or a continuum of recipes, to manufacturers and policymakers. We hope that this will provide invaluable information for both the construction industry and for the effort of protecting our beloved Earth.

    Olivetti: We’d like to develop a robust way to design cements that make use of waste materials to lower their CO2 footprint. Nobody is trying to make waste, so we can’t rely on one stream as a feedstock if we want this to be massively scalable. We have to be flexible and robust to shift with feedstocks changes, and for that we need improved understanding. Our approach to develop local, dynamic, and flexible alternatives is to learn what makes these wastes reactive, so we know how to optimize their use and do so as broadly as possible. We do that through predictive model development through software we have developed in my group to automatically extract data from literature on over 5 million texts and patents on various topics. We link this to the creative capabilities of our IBM collaborators to design methods that predict the final impact of new cements. If we are successful, we can lower the emissions of this ubiquitous material and play our part in achieving carbon emissions mitigation goals.

    Other researchers involved with this project include Stefanie Jegelka, the X-Window Consortium Career Development Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Richard Goodwin, IBM principal researcher; Soumya Ghosh, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab research staff member; and Kristen Severson, former research staff member. Collaborators included Nghia Hoang, former research staff member with MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab and IBM Research; and Jeremy Gregory, research scientist in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and executive director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub.

    This research is supported by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. More

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    3 Questions: Tolga Durak on building a safety culture at MIT

    Environment, Health, and Safety Managing Director Tolga Durak heads a team working to build a strong safety culture at the Institute and to implement systems that lead to successful lab and makerspace operations. EHS is also pursuing new opportunities in the areas of safe and sustainable labs and applied makerspace research. 

    Durak holds a BS in mechanical engineering, a MS in industrial and systems engineering, and a PhD in building construction/environmental design and planning. He has over 20 years of experience in engineering and EHS in higher education, having served in such roles as authority having jurisdiction, responsible official, fire marshal, risk manager, radiation safety officer, laser safety officer, safety engineer, project manager, and emergency manager for government agencies, as well as universities with extensive health-care and research facilities.

    Q: What “words of wisdom” regarding lab/shop health and safety would you like to share with the research community? 

    A: EHS staff always strive to help maintain the safety and well-being of the MIT community. When it comes to lab/shop safety or any areas with hazards, first and foremost, we encourage wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) when handling potentially hazardous materials. While PPE needs depend on the hazards and the space, common PPE includes safety glasses, lab coats, gloves, clothes that cover your skin, and closed-toe shoes. Shorts and open-toe shoes have no place in the lab/shop setting when hazardous materials are stored or used. Accidents will and do happen. The severity of injuries due to accidental exposures can be minimized when researchers are wearing PPE. Remember, there is only one you!   

    Overall, be aware of your surroundings, be knowledgeable about the hazards of the materials and equipment you are using, and be prepared for the unexpected. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen during this experiment or procedure?” Prepare by doing a thorough risk assessment, ask others who may be knowledgeable for their ideas and help, and standardize procedures where possible. Be prepared to respond appropriately when an emergency arises. 

    Safety in our classrooms, labs, and makerspaces is paramount and requires a collaborative effort. 

    Q: What are the established programs within EHS that students and researchers should be aware of, and what opportunities and challenges do you face trying to advance a healthy safety culture at MIT? 

    A: The EHS program staff in Biosafety, Industrial Hygiene, Environmental Management, Occupational and Construction Safety, and Radiation Protection are ready to assist with risk assessments, chemical safety, physical hazards, hazard-specific training, materials management, and hazardous waste disposal and reuse/recycling. Locally, each department, laboratory, and center has an EHS coordinator, as well as an assigned EHS team, to assist in the implementation of required EHS programs. Each lab/shop also has a designated EHS representative — someone who has local knowledge of your lab/shop and can help you with safety requirements specific to your work area.  

    One of the biggest challenges we face is that due to the decentralized nature of the Institute, no one size fits all when it comes to implementing successful safety practices. We also view this as an opportunity to enhance our safety culture. A strong safety culture is reflected at MIT when all lab and makerspace members are willing to look out for each other, challenge the status quo when necessary, and do the right thing even when no one is looking. In labs/shops with a strong safety culture, faculty and researchers discuss safety topics at group meetings, group members remind each other to wear the appropriate PPE (lab coats, safety glasses, etc.), more experienced team members mentor the newcomers, and riskier operations are reviewed and assessed to make them as safe as possible.  

    Q: Can you describe the new Safe and Sustainable Laboratories (S2L) efforts and the makerspace operational research programs envisioned for the future? 

    A: The MIT EHS Office has a plan for renewing its dedication to sustainability and climate action. We are dedicated to doing our part to promote a research environment that assures the highest level of health and safety but also strives to reduce energy, water, and waste through educating and supporting faculty, students, and researchers. With the goal of integrating sustainability across the lab sector of campus and bridging that with the Institute’s climate action goals, EHS has partnered with the MIT Office of Sustainability, Department of Facilities, vice president for finance, and vice president for campus services and stewardship to relaunch the “green” labs sustainability efforts under a new Safe and Sustainable Labs program.

    Part of that plan is to implement a Sustainable Labs Certification program. The process is designed to be as easy as possible for the lab groups. We are starting with simple actions like promoting the use of equipment timers in certain locations to conserve energy, fume hood/ventilation management, preventative maintenance for ultra-low-temperature freezers, increasing recycling, and helping labs update their central chemical inventory system, which can help forecast MIT’s potential waste streams. 

    EHS has also partnered with Project Manus to build a test-bed lab to study potential health and environmental exposures present in makerspaces as a result of specialized equipment and processes with our new Applied Makerspace Research Initiative.   More

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    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

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    MIT makes strides on climate action plan

    Two recent online events related to MIT’s ambitious new climate action plan highlighted several areas of progress, including uses of the campus as a real-life testbed for climate impact research, the creation of new planning bodies with opportunities for input from all parts of the MIT community, and a variety of moves toward reducing the Institute’s own carbon footprint in ways that may also provide a useful model for others.

    On Monday, MIT’s Office of Sustainability held its seventh annual “Sustainability Connect” event, bringing together students, faculty, staff, and alumni to learn about and share ideas for addressing climate change. This year’s virtual event emphasized the work toward carrying out the climate plan, titled “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which was announced in May. An earlier event, the “MIT Climate Tune-in” on Nov. 3, provided an overview of the many areas of MIT’s work to tackle climate change and featured a video message from Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, who was attending the COP26 international climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, as part of an 18-member team from MIT.

    Zuber pointed out some significant progress that was made at the conference, including a broad agreement by over 100 nations to end deforestation by the end of the decade; she also noted that the U.S. and E.U. are leading a global coalition of countries committed to curbing methane emissions by 30 percent from 2020 levels by decade’s end. “It’s easy to be pessimistic,” she said, “but being here in Glasgow, I’m actually cautiously optimistic, seeing the thousands and thousands of people here who are working toward meaningful climate action. And I know that same spirit exists on our own campus also.”

    As for MIT’s own climate plan, Zuber emphasized three points: “We’re committed to action; second of all, we’re committed to moving fast; and third, we’ve organized ourselves better for success.” That organization includes the creation of the MIT Climate Steering Committee, to oversee and coordinate MIT’s strategies on climate change; the Climate Nucleus, to oversee the management and implementation of the new plan; and three working groups that are forming now, to involve all parts of the MIT community.

    The “Fast Forward” plan calls for reducing the campus’s net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2026 and eliminating all such emissions, including indirect ones, by 2050. At Monday’s event, Director of Sustainability Julie Newman pointed out that the climate plan includes no less than 14 specific commitments related to the campus itself. These can be grouped into five broad areas, she said: mitigation, resiliency, electric vehicle infrastructure, investment portfolio sustainability, and climate leadership. “Each of these commitments has due dates, and they range from the tactical to the strategic,” she said. “We’re in the midst of activating our internal teams” to address these commitments, she added, noting that there are 30 teams that involve 75 faculty and researcher members, plus up to eight student positions.

    One specific project that is well underway involves preparing a detailed map of the flood risks to the campus as sea levels rise and storm surges increase. While previous attempts to map out the campus flooding risks had treated buildings essentially as uniform blocks, the new project has already mapped out in detail the location, elevation, and condition of every access point — doors, windows, and drains — in every building in the main campus, and now plans to extend the work to the residence buildings and outlying parts of campus. The project’s methods for identifying and quantifying the risks to specific parts of the campus, Newman said, represents “part of our mission for leveraging the campus as a test bed” by creating a map that is “true to the nature of the topography and the infrastructure,” in order to be prepared for the effects of climate change.

    Also speaking at the Sustainability Connect event, Vice President for Campus Services and Stewardship Joe Higgins outlined a variety of measures that are underway to cut the carbon footprint of the campus as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Part of that, he explained, involves using the campus as a testbed for the development of the equivalent of a “smart thermostat” system for campus buildings. While such products exist commercially for homeowners, there is no such system yet for large institutional or commercial buildings.

    There is a team actively developing such a pilot program in some MIT buildings, he said, focusing on some large lab buildings that have especially high energy usage. They are examining the use of artificial intelligence to reduce energy consumption, he noted. By adding systems to monitor energy use, temperatures, occupancy, and so on, and to control heating, lighting and air conditioning systems, Higgins said at least a 3 to 5 percent reduction in energy use can be realized. “It may be well beyond that,” he added. “There’s a huge opportunity here.”

    Higgins also outlined the ongoing plan to convert the existing steam distribution system for campus heating into a hot water system. Though the massive undertaking may take decades to complete, he said that project alone may reduce campus carbon emissions by 10 percent. Other efforts include the installation of an additional 400 kilowatts of rooftop solar installations.

    Jeremy Gregory, executive director of MIT’s climate and sustainability consortium, described efforts to deal with the most far-reaching areas of greenhouse gas emission, the so-called Scope 3 emissions. He explained that Scope 1 is the direct emissions from the campus itself, from buildings and vehicles; Scope 2 includes indirect emissions from the generation of electricity; and Scope 3 is “everything else.” That includes employee travel, buildings that MIT leases from others and to others, and all goods and services, he added, “so it includes a lot of different categories of emissions.” Gregory said his team, including several student fellows, is actively investigating and quantifying these Scope 3 emissions at MIT, along with potential methods of reducing them.

    Professor Noelle Selin, who was recently named as co-chair of the new Climate Nucleus along with Professor Anne White, outlined their plans for the coming year, including the setting up of the three working groups.

    Selin said the nucleus consists of representatives of departments, labs, centers, and institutes that have significant responsibilities under the climate plan. That body will make recommendations to the steering committee, which includes the deans of all five of MIT’s schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, “about how to amplify MIT’s impact in the climate sphere. We have an implementation role, but we also have an accelerator pedal that can really make MIT’s climate impact more ambitious, and really push the buttons and make sure that the Institute’s commitments are actually borne out in reality.”

    The MIT Climate Tune-In also featured Selin and White, as well as a presentation on MIT’s expanded educational offerings on climate and sustainability, from Sarah Meyers, ESI’s education program manager; students Derek Allmond and Natalie Northrup; and postdoc Peter Godart. Professor Dennis Whyte also spoke about MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ recent historical advance toward commercial fusion energy. Organizers said that the Climate Tune-In event is the first of what they hope will be many opportunities to hear updates on the wide range of work happening across campus to implement the Fast Forward plan, and to spark conversations within the MIT community. More