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Dora Aldama: Drawn to multidimensional problems

Dora Aldama: Drawn to multidimensional problems

Dora Aldama (LGO ’18) discusses her passion for multidimensional problems and her internship to improve Boeing’s production line.
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Two MIT documentaries win New England Emmy Awards

Amos Winter, associate professor of mechanical engineering and LGO faculty was the subject of the Emmy Award winning film “Water is Life,” in which he travels to India gathering research on how to design a low-cost desalination system for use in developing areas.

On June 24, Boston-area journalists, videographers, and producers filled the halls of the Marriott Boston Copley Place for the 40th annual New England Emmy Awards. Staff from MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) and MIT Video Productions (MVP) occupied two full tables at the black-tie affair. By the end of the night, two golden statues joined them as both groups were awarded Emmys.

MechE’s multimedia specialist John Freidah was honored with a New England Emmy in the Health/Science Program/Special category for the film “Water is Life,” which chronicles PhD student Natasha Wright and Professor Amos Winter as they travel to India gathering research on how to design a low-cost desalination system for use in developing areas. The film was also recently honored with a 2017 National Edward R. Murrow Award — one of the most prestigious awards in journalism — as well as a 2017 Circle of Excellence Award from the The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

Meanwhile, MVP’s Lawrence Gallagher, Joseph McMaster, and Jean Dunoyer received a New England Emmy in the Education/Schools category for their film “A Bold Move,” which recounts MIT’s relocation from Boston’s Back Bay to a swath of undeveloped land on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The film is the first in a four-part series that commemorate MIT’s 100th year in Cambridge.

“Water Is Life”

As the camera pans over an aerial shot of a lake in India, a flock of white birds majestically flies by. Capturing this moment in the opening shot of “Water is Life” required a lot of patience and a little help from a new friend. Unable to bring a drone into India, the film’s producer, editor, and cinematographer, John Freidah, had to come up with another plan. During a conversation on a flight from Delhi to Hyderabad, Freidah befriended a passenger in his row. He mentioned his search for a drone operator to get the perfect birds-eye-view shot of India’s landscape. As luck would have it, the day before departing India, Freidah received an email from his new friend saying he new someone with a drone that he could use to film sweeping aerial shots.

Planning for “Water is Life” began months before Freidah flew to India, however. Interested in highlighting the important work done in Professor Amos Winter’s Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab, Freidah and his colleagues in the media team at MechE honed in on the research PhD student and Tata Fellow Natasha Wright was conducting on designing an affordable desalination system for use in rural India. With the generous support of Robert Stoner, deputy director of the MIT Energy Initiative and director of the Tata Center for Technology and Design, plans were arranged to film Winter and Wright in India.

“India is a beautiful and amazing country, which is rich in imagery. I felt lucky to film there,” Freidah says. “We were fortunate to have the aid of stakeholders — Jain Engineering and Tata Projects — who facilitated our visits to the local villages where they were struggling with clean drinking water.”

Visiting these villages and talking to end-users who would benefit from and potentially use a desalination system was a crucial component of Winter and Wright’s research. Capturing the daily challenges these villagers face on film brought another level of exposure to the work being done by GEAR and the Tata Center.

“Having John travel to India enabled us to tell the story of our research in much greater depth than we could on campus,” says Winter. By capturing the many angles of Winter and Wright’s story, “Water Is Life” aims to show people first-hand what a problem access to clean water is on a global scale, and how essential it is to support new research and technologies that hope to solve it.

“I really wanted to give the viewer a first-person experience — through the visuals,” Freidah explains. “I wanted it to be a visual journey, as if they were there — with sound and imagery — from honking horns on the street and rickshaws going by.”

“A Bold Move”

It’s hard to imagine a time when the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge weren’t adorned with MIT’s Great Dome, inter-connected buildings, and stately columns. MIT President Richard Cockburn Maclaurin’s aspiration to move the Institute from its overcrowded classrooms in Boston’s Back Bay to a plot of vacant land across the river in 1916 did more than shape the landscape around Kendall Square; it redefined MIT’s presence as a global pioneer in science and technology research. To celebrate the 1916 move to Cambridge, the program A Century in Cambridge was launched last year.

Well before the centennial fireworks exploded over Killian Court, Larry Gallagher, director of MVP, was approached by the Century in Cambridge Steering Committee. MVP was asked to produce a series of documentaries that explored MIT’s move to Cambridge in 1916 and other key aspects of the MIT experience that have helped shape MIT into what it is today. The first of this series, “A Bold Move,” chronicles the design and construction of MIT’s new campus, the whimsical celebrations commemorating the move, and the tragic and untimely passing of the man who orchestrated the entire process — President Maclaurin.

Capturing this period in MIT’s history required extensive research and the participation of faculty, staff, and historians well versed in the move to Cambridge. “We are deeply indebted to the faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the Cambridge community who so generously gave their time end expertise,” says producer and director Joe McMaster. “Without their insights, the film wouldn’t have successfully portrayed this moment in MIT’s history.”

In addition to interviewing those with extensive knowledge of the 2016 move, the MVP team had to dig deep into MIT’s robust archives. Thousands of photos from The MIT Museum, The Institute Archives, the Cambridge Historical Commission, and other sources were analyzed by McMaster and a team of research assistants. “I was amazed to see how thoroughly documented MIT’s history is in photographs — particularly everything to do with the move to Cambridge,” McMaster adds. “The whole affair seemed to be carried out with such a wonderful mixture of seriousness and whimsy, and I hoped the film would capture that feeling.”

Editor and co-producer Jean Dunoyer was tasked with weaving together the footage and photographs in a way that reflected this mixture of the silly and sacred. The imagery and footage was set to period music, to give viewers a feel for that particular era in history. In one of the concluding scenes, this period music is brought to life once more by MIT a capella group The Chorallaries. The group performs a haunting rendition of “Mother Tech,” a piece originally performed at the conclusion of the celebrations in 1916.

The entire Century in Cambridge documentary series was produced over the course of 18 months, with assistance from the Century in Cambridge Steering Committee and the generous support of Jane and Neil Papparlardo ’64. The scope of “A Bold Move” required a massive collaboration across all of MVP. “This is indeed a huge collaborative effort for MVP,” says Gallagher. “Projects of this scope benefit from the contributions of the entire team, and for their work and talents to be recognized by their peers in the video production community with an Emmy is a great source of pride.”

July 5, 2017 | More

School of Engineering awards for 2017

Amos Winter, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and LGO faculty won the Junior Bose Award for being an outstanding contributor to education among the junior faculty of the School of Engineering.

The School of Engineering recently honored outstanding faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students, with the following awards:

  • Lorna Gibson, the Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and a professor of mechanical engineering, won the Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching, given to a faculty member whose contributions have been characterized by dedication, care, and creativity.
  • Amos Winter, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, won the Junior Bose Award for being an outstanding contributor to education among the junior faculty of the School of Engineering.

The Ruth and Joel Spira Awards for Excellence in Teaching are awarded to one faculty member in each of three departments: Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), Mechanical Engineering (MechE), and Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE). The awards acknowledge “the tradition of high-quality engineering education at MIT.” A fourth award rotates among the School of Engineering’s five other academic departments.

This year’s winners are:

  • John Hart, an associate professor of mechanical engineering;
  • Patrick Jaillet, the Dugald C. Jackson Professor in Electrical Engineering;
  • R. Scott Kemp, the Norman C. Rasmussen Career Development Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering; and
  • Nir Shavit, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Mary Elizabeth Wagner, a graduate student in materials science and engineering, won the School of Engineering Graduate Student Award for Extraordinary Teaching and Mentoring, established in 2006 to recognize an engineering graduate student who has demonstrated extraordinary teaching and mentoring as a teaching or research assistant.

Alexander H. Slocum, the Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering, won the Capers and Marion McDonald Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Advising, given to a faculty member who has demonstrated a lasting commitment to personal and professional development.

Hannah Diehl of the Department of Physics and Bryce Hwang of EECS were awarded the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, given to students who exhibit an outstanding potential and intend to pursue careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering disciplines that contribute significantly to technological advances in the United States.

Arinze C. Okeke, a biological engineering major, won the Henry Ford II Award, presented to a senior engineering student who has maintained a cumulative GPA average of 5.0 at the end of their seventh term and who has exceptional potential for leadership in the profession of engineering and in society.

John Ochsendorf, the Class of 1942 Professor of Architecture and a professor of civil and environmental engineering, won the Samuel M. Seegal Prize, awarded for excellence in teaching to a faculty member (or members) in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and/or the MIT Sloan School of Management who inspires students in pursuing and achieving excellence.

June 22, 2017 | More

Space junk: The cluttered frontier

A team under professor of aeronautics and astronautics and LGO thesis advisor Kerri Cahoy have developed a laser sensing technique that can decipher not only where but what kind of space objects may be passing overhead.

Hundreds of millions of pieces of space junk orbit the Earth daily, from chips of old rocket paint, to shards of solar panels, and entire dead satellites. This cloud of high-tech detritus whirls around the planet at about 17,500 miles per hour. At these speeds, even trash as small as a pebble can torpedo a passing spacecraft.

NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense are using ground-based telescopes and laser radars (ladars) to track more than 17,000 orbital debris objects to help prevent collisions with operating missions. Such ladars shine high-powered lasers at target objects, measuring the time it takes for the laser pulse to return to Earth, to pinpoint debris in the sky.

Now aerospace engineers from MIT have developed a laser sensing technique that can decipher not only where but what kind of space junk may be passing overhead. For example, the technique, called laser polarimetry, may be used to discern whether a piece of debris is bare metal or covered with paint. The difference, the engineers say, could help determine an object’s mass, momentum, and potential for destruction.

“In space, things just tend to break up over time, and there have been two major collisions over the last 10 years that have caused pretty significant spikes in debris,” says Michael Pasqual, a former graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “If you can figure out what a piece of debris is made of, you can know how heavy it is and how quickly it could deorbit over time or hit something else.”

Kerri Cahoy, the Rockwell International Career Development Associate Professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, says the technique can easily be implemented on existing groundbased systems that currently monitor orbital debris.

“[Government agencies] want to know where these chunks of debris are, so they can call the International Space Station and say, ‘Big chunk of debris coming your way, fire your thrusters and move yourself up so you’re clear,’” Cahoy says. “Mike came up with a way where, with a few modifications to the optics, they could use the same tools to get more information about what these materials are made of.”

Pasqual and Cahoy have published their results in the journal IEEE Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems.

Seeing a signature

The team’s technique uses a laser to measure a material’s effect on the polarization state of light, which refers to the orientation of light’s oscillating electric field that reflects off the material. For instance, when the sun’s rays reflect off a rubber ball, the incoming light’s electric field may oscillate vertically. But certain properties of the ball’s surface, such as its roughness, may cause it to reflect with a horizontal oscillation instead, or in a completely different orientation. The same material can have multiple polarization effects, depending on the angle at which light hits it.

Pasqual reasoned that a material such as paint could have a different polarization “signature,” reflecting laser light in patterns that are distinct from the patterns of, say, bare aluminum. Polarization signatures therefore could be a reliable way for scientists to identify the composition of orbital debris in space.

To test this theory, he set up a benchtop polarimeter — an apparatus that measures, at many different angles, the polarization of laser light as it reflects off a material. The team used a high-powered laser beam with a wavelength of 1,064 nanometers, similar to the lasers used in existing ground-based ladars to track orbital debris. The laser was horizontally polarized, meaning that its light oscillated along a horizontal plane. Pasqual then used polarization filtering optics and silicon detectors to measure the polarization states of the reflected light.

Sifting through space trash

In choosing materials to analyze, Pasqual picked six that are commonly used in satellites: white and black paint, aluminum, titanium, and Kapton and Teflon — two filmlike materials used to shield satellites.

“We thought they were very representative of what you might find in space debris,” Pasqual says.

He placed each sample in the experimental apparatus, which was motorized so measurements could be made at different angles and geometries, and measured its polarization effects. In addition to reflecting light with same polarization as the incident light, materials can also display other, stranger polarization behaviors, such as rotating the light’s oscillation slightly — a phenomenon called retardance. Pasqual identified 16 main polarization states, then took note of which efffects a given material exhibited as it reflected laser light.

“Teflon had a very unique property where when you shine laser light with a vertical oscillation, it spits back some in-between angle of light,” Pasqual says. “And some of the paints had depolarization, where the material will spit out equal combinations of vertical and horizontal states.”

Each material had a suffiiciently unique polarization signature to distinguish it from the other five samples. Pasqual believes other aerospace materials, such as various shielding films, or composite materials for antennas, solar cells, and circuit boards, may also exhibit unique polarization effects. His hope is that scientists can use laser polarimetry to establish a library of materials with unique polarization signatures. By adding certain filters to lasers on existing groundbased ladars, scientists can measure the polarization states of passing debris and match them to a library of signatures to determine the object’s composition.

“There are already a lot of facilities on the ground for tracking debris as it is,” Pasqual says. “The point of this technique is, while you’re doing that, you might as well put some filters on your detectors that detect polarization changes, and it’s those polarization features that can help you infer what the material is made of. And you can get more information, basically for free.”

This research was supported, in part, by the MIT Lincoln Scholars Program.

June 22, 2017 | More

LGO Best Thesis 2017 for Integrated Manufacturing Analytics Project

After graduation ceremonies at MIT, Jeremy Rautenbach won the Leaders for Global Operations Program’s Best Thesis award for his project at a Danaher Corporation subsidiary company. “Jeremy’s capstone thesis shows how all of the operations concepts we develop at LGO work together. He applied skills in advanced data analytics, manufacturing optimization, and leading all levels of an organization. In the end, he created sustainable solutions for his host company,” Thomas Roemer, the executive director of the LGO program, said when announcing the award winner.

Applying MIT knowledge in the real world

MIT LGO best thesis 2017 - rautenbauch
Jeremy Rautenbach won the 2017 LGO best thesis award for his work applying statistical analysis onto a manufacturing line.

Jeremy prepared for his thesis project during one of his courses: Control of Manufacturing Processes. Current and former LGO Faculty Co-Directors Duane Boning (EECS) and David Hardt (ME) teach the course, which is jointly listed as a mechanical and electrical engineering graduate class. Students study statistical decision making, yield modeling and identifying root causes, multivariate SPC chart methods, and nested variance. Both professors noticed Jeremy’s passion for the topic and agreed to supervise his internship and thesis. Professor of Statistics and Engineering Systems Roy Welsch served as Jeremy’s final supervising professor. All LGO students work with least one management professor and one engineering professor when completing their dual-degree internship and thesis.

During his internship, Jeremy worked at a biotech firm and analyzed the company’s manufacturing processes. “Jeremy took to heart ‘classical’ statistical ideas: sampling, experimental design, and variance analysis to improve the company’s processes. He learned to carefully observe both the human and technical factors at the plant and considered that in his recommendations too,” Welsch said. “He left behind a true spirit of continuous improvement.”

Jeremy found and fixed multiple problems in the company’s manufacturing process. He identified a number of small and very different yield loss sources using a highly methodological approach. He also worked with the team on site, Boning stated, “so that they ‘owned’ the improvements. More importantly, they now own the methodology for continually improving the line.”

Every spring, the LGO office asks for nominations from MIT professors throughout the Institute who worked with LGO theses. LGO alumni read and comment on the thesis to select a winner. Jeremy will return to the Danaher Corporation at a facility in the United Kingdom in a full-time role after graduation. Before enrolling in the program, he completed undergraduate studies at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and worked in the South African mining industry for four years.

LGO Class of 2017

Forty-five students graduated in the MIT LGO Class of 2017 on Friday, June 9. As of graduation, 98% had received a job offer. In addition to Danaher, recruiting companies include Amazon, Amgen, Boeing, Blue Origin, Cruise Automation (a General Motors subsidiary), Boston Scientific, Dell, Flex, and Nike.

June 9, 2017 | More

Engineers design drones that can stay aloft for five days

Warren Hoburg, Boeing Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and LGO thesis advisor, co-led a team of MIT engineers who developed a unique autonomous aircraft.

In the event of a natural disaster that disrupts phone and Internet systems over a wide area, autonomous aircraft could potentially hover over affected regions, carrying communications payloads that provide temporary telecommunications coverage to those in need.

However, such unpiloted aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are often expensive to operate, and can only remain in the air for a day or two, as is the case with most autonomous surveillance aircraft operated by the U.S. Air Force. Providing adequate and persistent coverage would require a relay of multiple aircraft, landing and refueling around the clock, with operational costs of thousands of dollars per hour, per vehicle.

Now a team of MIT engineers has come up with a much less expensive UAV design that can hover for longer durations to provide wide-ranging communications support. The researchers designed, built, and tested a UAV resembling a thin glider with a 24-foot wingspan. The vehicle can carry 10 to 20 pounds of communications equipment while flying at an altitude of 15,000 feet. Weighing in at just under 150 pounds, the vehicle is powered by a 5-horsepower gasoline engine and can keep itself aloft for more than five days — longer than any gasoline-powered autonomous aircraft has remained in flight, the researchers say.

The team is presenting its results this week at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Conference in Denver, Colorado. The team was led by R. John Hansman, the T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics; and Warren Hoburg, the Boeing Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Hansman and Hoburg are co-instructors for MIT’s Beaver Works project, a student research collaboration between MIT and the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

A solar no-go

Hansman and Hoburg worked with MIT students to design a long-duration UAV as part of a Beaver Works capstone project — typically a two- or three-semester course that allows MIT students to design a vehicle that meets certain mission specifications, and to build and test their design.

In the spring of 2016, the U.S. Air Force approached the Beaver Works collaboration with an idea for designing a long-duration UAV powered by solar energy. The thought at the time was that an aircraft, fueled by the sun, could potentially remain in flight indefinitely. Others, including Google, have experimented with this concept,  designing solar-powered, high-altitude aircraft to deliver continuous internet access to rural and remote parts of Africa.

But when the team looked into the idea and analyzed the problem from multiple engineering angles, they found that solar power — at least for long-duration emergency response — was not the way to go.

“[A solar vehicle] would work fine in the summer season, but in winter, particularly if you’re far from the equator, nights are longer, and there’s not as much sunlight  during the day. So you have to carry more batteries, which adds weight and makes the plane bigger,” Hansman says. “For the mission of disaster relief, this could only respond to disasters that occur in summer, at low latitude. That just doesn’t work.”

The researchers came to their conclusions after modeling the problem using GPkit, a software tool developed by Hoburg that allows engineers to determine the optimal design decisions or dimensions for a vehicle, given certain constraints or mission requirements.

This method is not unique among initial aircraft design tools, but unlike these tools, which take into account only several main constraints, Hoburg’s method allowed the team to consider around 200 constraints and physical models simultaneously, and to fit them all together to create an optimal aircraft design.

“This gives you all the information you need to draw up the airplane,” Hansman says. “It also says that for every one of these hundreds of parameters, if you changed one of them, how much would that influence the plane’s performance? If you change the engine a bit, it will make a big difference. And if you change wingspan, will it show an effect?”

Framing for takeoff

After determining, through their software estimations, that a solar-powered UAV would not be feasible, at least for long-duration use in any part of the world, the team performed the same modeling for a gasoline-powered aircraft. They came up with a design that was predicted to stay in flight for more than five days, at altitudes of 15,000 feet, in up to 94th-percentile winds, at any latitude.

In the fall of 2016, the team built a prototype UAV, following the dimensions determined by students using Hoburg’s software tool. To keep the vehicle lightweight, they used materials such as carbon fiber for its wings and fuselage, and Kevlar for the tail and nosecone, which houses the payload. The researchers designed the UAV to be easily taken apart and stored in a FedEx box, to be shipped to any disaster region and quickly reassembled.

This spring, the students refined the prototype and developed a launch system, fashioning a simple metal frame to fit on a typical car roof rack. The UAV sits atop the frame as a driver accelerates the launch vehicle (a car or truck) up to rotation speed — the UAV’s optimal takeoff speed. At that point, the remote pilot would angle the UAV toward the sky, automatically releasing a fastener and allowing the UAV to lift off.

In early May, the team put the UAV to the test, conducting flight tests at Plum Island Airport in Newburyport, Massachusetts. For initial flight testing, the students modified the vehicle to comply with FAA regulations for small unpiloted aircraft, which allow drones flying at low altitude and weighing less than 55 pounds. To reduce the UAV’s weight from 150 to under 55 pounds, the researchers simply loaded it with a smaller ballast payload and less gasoline.

In their initial tests, the UAV successfully took off, flew around, and landed safely. Hoburg says there are special considerations that have to be made to test the vehicle over multiple days, such as having enough people to monitor the aircraft over a long period of time.

“There are a few aspects to flying for five straight days,” Hoburg says. “But we’re pretty confident that we have the right fuel burn rate and right engine that we could fly it for five days.”

“These vehicles could be used not only for disaster relief but also other missions, such as environmental monitoring. You might want to keep watch on wildfires or the outflow of a river,” Hansman adds. “I think it’s pretty clear that someone within a few years will manufacture a vehicle that will be a knockoff of this.”

This research was supported, in part, by MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

June 9, 2017 | More

Using statistics can can improve clinical trials and outcomes

Dimitris Bertsimas, LGO faculty and Thesis advisor, Professor of Operations Research, and the CoDirector of the Operations Research Center at MIT explains how using more data would mean better treatments and fewer tears in clinical trials.

Sometimes science can be personal. When my father, who was living in Greece at the time, was diagnosed with stage IV gastric cancer in 2007, I set out to find the best possible care for him. As is the case with many patients with advanced disease, drug therapy was his best course. So, after unsuccessful surgery in Greece, he came to the US for treatment.

I contacted the most prestigious cancer hospitals in the country and found that they all used different drugs in different treatment regimens to treat advanced gastric cancer. As both a son and a scientist, I was surprised to discover that there was no standard treatment – something I would later realise was true of many different kinds of late-stage cancers.

My family and I were therefore left without a good way to make treatment decisions. As a result, I was forced to do a kind of back-of-the-envelope calculation. Based on the small number of published findings I could locate, I plotted different drug combinations on a curve, seeking to discover the sweet spot between the estimated survival period given by the chemotherapy treatment and the expected toxicity of the treatment.

Read the full post at Times Higher Education 

Dimitris Bertsimas is the Boeing Leaders for Global Operations Professor of Management, a Professor of Operations Research, and the CoDirector of the Operations Research Center at MIT.

May 23, 2017 | More

Illuminating uncertainty

Associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and LGO thesis advisor Youssef Marzouk has been working to quantify and reduce the uncertainty in complex computational models which can be applied to tracking underground contaminants and improving the accuracy in weather forecasts.

How does today’s weather compare with what was forecast a week or even a day ago? Is that torrential Nor’easter that was predicted in fact just a light drizzle? Has the sun, projected to emerge from the clouds at 11 a.m., instead appeared at noon?

It may come as no surprise that weather predictions come with a fair amount of uncertainty, as do any predictions of large, complex, and interacting systems. And yet, many of us depend on such simulations for information, from everyday traffic and weather reports, to long-term projections for climate.

“You’re sort of using a simulation as an oracle,” says Youssef Marzouk, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “But if we’re really going to use computations as a way of predicting what’s happening in the world, how can we get a handle on this very fuzzy problem of how believable the computations are?”

Quantifying and reducing the uncertainty in complex computational models is the major theme in Marzouk’s work, which he is applying to a wide range of problems, including tracking underground contaminants, characterizing combustion in jet engines, estimating the concentrations of trace gases in the atmosphere, and improving the accuracy in weather forecasts.

“I’m driven by developing methodology that will be broadly useful,” says Marzouk, who earned tenure in 2016.

An abstract pull

In the 1970s, Marzouk’s parents emigrated from Egypt to the U.S., ultimately settling in St. Louis, Missouri, where his father took up a faculty position at Washington University’s School of Dental Medicine. Before their move, Marzouk’s mother worked as a translator, performing simultaneous translations in French and Arabic for diplomats in the Middle East.

Marzouk and his sister were born and raised in suburban St. Louis, and he remembers feeling a pull toward science and math from an early age.

“When I was in grade school, kids would be playing in the playground, and I stayed in the classroom because I wanted to add the biggest numbers I possibly could,” Marzouk recalls. “I was a relatively nerdy kid.”

As his academic pursuits grew, so did his passion for music. Marzouk, following in his sister’s footsteps, took up piano lessons when he was 6 years old. In high school, he regularly participated in science fairs, and he entered and sometimes won piano competitions. In retrospect, he says that his interests in music and math may have shared some overlap.

“There’s a level of abstract thinking and conceptual thought involved in understanding the structure of a piece of music that, in some indirect way, can carry over to math and quantitative thinking,” Marzouk says.

Solving puzzles

In the summer before his junior year of high school, Marzouk took part in a program that placed students in local university labs as summer interns. He worked in a combustion lab at Washington University, studying the physical and chemical interactions involved in producing flames.

“It was my first exposure to mechanical engineering,” Marzouk says. “There were high temperatures, flames, blowing things up — what more could you want?”

He liked the work so much that he continued participating in the lab for the next two and a half years. After graduating high school, he decided to study mechanical engineering at MIT, where he found an immediate connection during Campus Preview Weekend.

“People were down to earth; they were excited about what they were doing. It was very relatable and full of techie people I could talk to,” Marzouk says. “People wanted to work with and help each other to solve puzzles. I think this is still true of the students I see today.”

As an undergraduate, he pursued a degree in mechanical engineering with a concentration in physics and a minor in music. He also took part in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), working in the lab of mechanical engineering professor Doug Hart, where he first learned to develop algorithms to track the direction of vortices in a fluid flow.

That experience helped steer Marzouk toward more computational research. He continued his master’s and PhD work at MIT under the guidance of mechanical engineering professor Ahmed Ghoniem, concentrating again in the field of fluid dynamics but this time from a modeling perspective. For his thesis, he developed a computational model of how a jet of fluid mixes with a cross-flow, yielding new insights useful for improving the design of jet engines.

Uncertain knowledge

After receiving his PhD, Marzouk spent four years working as a postdoc and staff member at Sandia National Laboratories, developing computational models to simulate processes in the physical world. Specifically, he looked for ways to model subsurface flows of radioactive waste and other contaminants that seep through soil and rocks — information that is crucial for determining where and how to clean up contamination and prevent its leakage into aquifers. He soon found that modeling such physical systems was a daunting task with countless unknowns.

“I started getting interested in what aspects of your computational prediction should you actually believe, and what parts are not so reliable or trustworthy?” Marzouk says.

For instance, he says a model’s mathematical formulas that should characterize a certain relationship, such as a porous medium’s response to a given pressure, may not be “perfectly predictive.” Data from actual subsurface measurements can help refine the model, but the number of measurements that can be practically made are limited. Uncertainty, therefore, is intrinsic to both building models and drawing conclusions from data.

Marzouk surmised that if researchers could quantify the uncertainty in a model and a dataset, they could begin to reduce that uncertainty, to produce a more accurate prediction of the state of a physical system. To do this, he dove into Bayesian statistics, a philosophy of statistics which represents the state of the world in terms of probability, or degrees of uncertainty.

Uncertainy can still encode knowledge,” says Marzouk, who continued this line of work, known as uncertainty quantification, when he accepted a faculty position in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2009.

Modeling a data stream

At MIT, Marzouk has been developing methods to quantify and reduce uncertainty in computational models. He’s also finding ways to identify the best quantities to measure in order to improve a model’s prediction.

“You might have thousands of uncertain parameters, and you could boil them down to maybe 20 that matter and that are informed by data, which makes the problem much more tractable,” Marzouk says.

He’s applied his methods to a number of wide-ranging, high-dimensional problems, from subsurface flow and combustion in jet engines, to estimating the concentration of gases throughout Earth’s atmosphere.

“I’m particularly interested in geophysical phenemona which are complex and where data may be very expensive to acquire,” Marzouk says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, and characterizing that uncertainty is important.”

In the coming years, he plans to nail down and reduce the sources of uncertainty in  continuously changing models, such as weather forecasting tools, which are constantly updated with a glut of streaming data from ground, air, and space sensors.

“We know mathematically how to formulate rigorous predictions of uncertainty,” Marzouk says. “But doing that for a system the size of the weather is hopelessly out of reach. Our algorithms are giving rise to a new class of approximations that might make uncertainty quantification for these kind of problems more tractable.”

May 12, 2017 | More

Teaching robots to teach other robots

A team under professor of aeronautics and astronautics and LGO thesis advisor Julie Shah, developed a system that enables users to teach robots skills that can be automatically transferred to other robots.

Most robots are programmed using one of two methods: learning from demonstration, in which they watch a task being done and then replicate it, or via motion-planning techniques such as optimization or sampling, which require a programmer to explicitly specify a task’s goals and constraints.

Both methods have drawbacks. Robots that learn from demonstration can’t easily transfer one skill they’ve learned to another situation and remain accurate. On the other hand, motion planning systems that use sampling or optimization can adapt to these changes but are time-consuming, since they usually have to be hand-coded by expert programmers.

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have recently developed a system that aims to bridge the two techniques: C-LEARN, which allows noncoders to teach robots a range of tasks simply by providing some information about how objects are typically manipulated and then showing the robot a single demo of the task.

Importantly, this enables users to teach robots skills that can be automatically transferred to other robots that have different ways of moving — a key time- and cost-saving measure for companies that want a range of robots to perform similar actions.

“By combining the intuitiveness of learning from demonstration with the precision of motion-planning algorithms, this approach can help robots do new types of tasks that they haven’t been able to learn before, like multistep assembly using both of their arms,” says Claudia Pérez-D’Arpino, a PhD student who wrote a paper on C-LEARN with MIT Professor Julie Shah.

The team tested the system on Optimus, a new two-armed robot designed for bomb disposal that they programmed to perform tasks such as opening doors, transporting objects, and extracting objects from containers. In simulations they showed that Optimus’ learned skills could be seamlessly transferred to Atlas, CSAIL’s 6-foot-tall, 400-pound humanoid robot.

A paper describing C-LEARN was recently accepted to the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), which takes place May 29 to June 3 in Singapore.

How it works

With C-LEARN the user first gives the robot a knowledge base of information on how to reach and grasp various objects that have different constraints. (The C in C-LEARN stands for “constraints.”) For example, a tire and a steering wheel have similar shapes, but to attach them to a car, the robot has to configure its arms differently to move them. The knowledge base contains the information needed for the robot to do that.

The operator then uses a 3-D interface to show the robot a single demonstration of the specific task, which is represented by a sequence of relevant moments known as “keyframes.” By matching these keyframes to the different situations in the knowledge base, the robot can automatically suggest motion plans for the operator to approve or edit as needed.

“This approach is actually very similar to how humans learn in terms of seeing how something’s done and connecting it to what we already know about the world,” says Pérez-D’Arpino. “We can’t magically learn from a single demonstration, so we take new information and match it to previous knowledge about our environment.”

One challenge was that existing constraints that could be learned from demonstrations weren’t accurate enough to enable robots to precisely manipulate objects. To overcome that, the researchers developed constraints inspired by computer-aided design (CAD) programs that can tell the robot if its hands should be parallel or perpendicular to the objects it is interacting with.

The team also showed that the robot performed even better when it collaborated with humans. While the robot successfully executed tasks 87.5 percent of the time on its own, it did so 100 percent of the time when it had an operator that could correct minor errors related to the robot’s occasional inaccurate sensor measurements.

“Having a knowledge base is fairly common, but what’s not common is integrating it with learning from demonstration,” says Dmitry Berenson, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the research. “That’s very helpful, because if you are dealing with the same objects over and over again, you don’t want to then have to start from scratch to teach the robot every new task.”


The system is part of a larger wave of research focused on making learning-from-demonstration approaches more adaptive. If you’re a robot that has learned to take an object out of a tube from a demonstration, you might not be able to do it if there’s an obstacle in the way that requires you to move your arm differently. However, a robot trained with C-LEARN can do this, because it does not learn one specific way to perform the action.

“It’s good for the field that we’re moving away from directly imitating motion, toward actually trying to infer the principles behind the motion,” Berenson says. “By using these learned constraints in a motion planner, we can make systems that are far more flexible than those which just try to mimic what’s being demonstrated”

Shah says that advanced LfD methods could prove important in time-sensitive scenarios such as bomb disposal and disaster response, where robots are currently tele-operated at the level of individual joint movements.

“Something as simple as picking up a box could take 20-30 minutes, which is significant for an emergency situation,” says Pérez-D’Arpino.

C-LEARN can’t yet handle certain advanced tasks, such as avoiding collisions or planning for different step sequences for a given task. But the team is hopeful that incorporating more insights from human learning will give robots an even wider range of physical capabilities.

“Traditional programming of robots in real-world scenarios is difficult, tedious, and requires a lot of domain knowledge,” says Shah. “It would be much more effective if we could train them more like how we train people: by giving them some basic knowledge and a single demonstration. This is an exciting step toward teaching robots to perform complex multiarm and multistep tasks necessary for assembly manufacturing and ship or aircraft maintenance.”

May 11, 2017 | More

Economic Tectonics Episode 5: Technology

Andrew McAfee (LGO ’90) – a tech optimist – explores how he thinks technology could change our economic futures for the better.

April 19, 2017 | More

A toolset for getting stuck conversations back on track

Jason Jay is an LGO thesis advisor, Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan.  Jason Jay explains how to rethink and reboot the conversations holding you back.

“Understand what the other person is for — not what they’re against,” suggests MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Jason Jay.

As anyone who’s argued with a colleague — or simply tried to persuade their spouse to unload the dishwasher —  knows, our worlds are rife with disagreements that go nowhere. MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Jason Jay calls these ruts “gridlock.”

Jay co-authored the upcoming book “Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World” to transform these disagreements into progress.

His book is based on conversation workshops focusing on social change, refined over the course of several years and run alongside co-author Gabriel Grant, a founder of the social-change-focused Byron Fellowship. Together, they’ve coached Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and students on the power of authentic, effective dialogue.

Here, Jay, the director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, explains how you can get yourself unstuck. “Breaking Through Gridlock” is out May 22.

Why do you use the term “gridlock” in the title, something that’s typically associated with traffic, not conversations?

Breaking through “gridlock” applies to when conversations get stuck. We offer a toolset for helping conversations get back into gear and back on track. The metaphor is really designed to capture what it feels like when we have an agenda that we’re trying to advance, whether it’s in our organization, community, family, or on the wider political stage, and we’re not getting where we want to go.

What types of “gridlock” exist in conversations?

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of getting stuck: One is that you’re avoiding a conversation, even though you want to advance an agenda, because it seems like your perspectives are too different, with too much potential conflict. The second kind is when it turns into a debate over who’s right, whose facts are right, and everyone is walking away entrenched in their own points of view. Therefore, you haven’t gotten where you want to go.

What’s usually at the root of conversational conflict?

Our book is organized around six steps. The first step is reflecting on your own internal monologue. What’s the baggage that you bring into a conversation? You could have the best talking points prepared, but if what’s going through your mind is, “I’m right, and they’re wrong,” it will bleed though. Often people think they’re being passionate and clear, but come off as arrogant and preachy.

The next step is to locate the bait. We fall into traps because there’s bait — there’s some benefit to being stuck. Why would you want to be stuck? Even when conversations get stuck, when we walk away, we get to feel right, righteous, and certain in our own perspective. We stay safe in our own unchallenged worldview. We retreat to a safe group of people who agree with us, and we can go back to preaching to the choir.

How can people break out of gridlock?

Dare to share. Get over “winning” and think about what you want out of the relationship. Focus on asking questions and understanding. If there’s a choice you don’t agree with, ask, “What inspires you to make that choice?” Understand it and acknowledge the differences. For example, my [conservative] cousin and I spend a good amount of conversation talking about where we get our news. Not in a tone of, “Your facts are wrong,” but recognizing we live in a culture where people live in bubbles, and we interact with people who only agree with us. So talk about values instead of facts; talk about personal values and perspectives, as opposed to just iterating talking points. All of that stuff creates space for difference.

Understand what the other person is for — not what they’re against. Say I’m an advocate for a renewable energy strategy, and I want my company to go carbon neutral.

If my CFO is pushing back because it’s too expensive, my tendency is to say, “He’s against it; I’m for it.” But what does he stand for? It’s wise allocation of company resources and economic sustainability of the company.

How do you reboot a conversation gone awry?

Two ways. An “apology” is where you say, “You know what? I’m responsible for your background conversation. I’ve come into your office five times now with ideas I was really passionate about but didn’t think through. I want to explore something new, a financially exciting approach to doing renewable energy. Here’s what it would look like, and I tried my best to run the numbers.”

Or use “contrast.” Say, “I’m passionate about what we do, and you might expect me to do such-and-such, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that’s not what I’m doing today. I’m bringing you something that will save you money while moving you toward renewable energy, and I’d love to learn from your perspective, too.”

Which companies do a good job of communicating this way?

We really like Patagonia. They’re a leader in sustainability, but they don’t show up saying, “We’re the best.” It’s the opposite: They start a conversation about their footprint by saying, “Look how bad we are. These are all the ways we say we care, but we still have these challenges in our supply chains.” It’s this simultaneous ambition to make a difference with humility about where they are, and this has been very effective. They show up not as self-righteous and hot, but as, “We’re on this adventure together.”

What’s the goal of your work?

There’s a goal for the reader and a goal for our wider society. The goal for the reader is that we want to create stronger relationships and creative solutions to problems you care about, with people you didn’t think you could work with. If a lot of people do that, and if organizations do this, social and political movements — which are often characterized by people preaching to the choir or burning out due to conflict or lack of progress — will be transformed.

What was your most surprising takeaway from the book?

How dramatically people can turn around relationships. We share a story in the preface about a young woman who had tried to change her mother’s eating habits to address her obesity. The two hadn’t shared a meal in over a year because it had gotten so contentious. When she took a new approach that was more compassionate and helpful — where she ended up shopping and cooking with her mom — they had shared meals every night for two weeks when she reported back.

We also found that turning around a conversation gives people confidence to dive into bigger and higher-stakes contexts. One participant had to repair a friendship that had gotten frayed because of intense debate about climate change. After she had this experience, which included bringing her friend around on the issue, it gave her confidence to raise environmental issues with the Republican governor of her state — who now happens to be our vice president.

April 14, 2017 | More


Fighting “stickiness,” some fintech firms shift away from disruption

Fighting “stickiness,” some fintech firms shift away from disruption

Big banks, it turns out, are very, very hard to unseat.

By Brian Eastwood  |  June 28, 2017

Financial technology upstarts like Venmo, Sigfig, Moven, Lending Club, and OnDeck are finding themselves challenged by and entering partnerships with established industry leaders.

In the early part of the 2010s, financial technology firms sought to disrupt the banking, lending, and wealth management industries with mobile apps, automated services, and offerings for millennials and consumers underserved by established institutions.

Fintech has connected with customers, but instead of total disruption, these startups have increasingly found success working with the incumbents. Among other challenges, it was “stickiness” — established firms’ strong intricate connections with customers — that got in the way.

“It’s clear that incumbents and fintech companies have different things to offer, and that’s generally acceptable now, as a way to go forward,” said Melkizedeck S. Okudo, a recent graduate of the MIT Sloan Fellows program, whose thesis work examines the role that digitization has played in disrupting the financial services industry.

“What you want as a JPMorgan is to be the first point of call any time that your client has a question about a financial product or service,” Okudo said. “You may be able to deliver a good number of these things, but not all of them.”

Growth, to a point
When fintech innovation first started to take off three or four years ago, a lot of the commentary focused on disrupting large banks, wealth management firms, and other incumbents. The list of potential disruptors included Lending Club (personal loans), OnDeck (small business loans), Moven (personal money management), and SigFig (wealth management).

These firms targeted markets that incumbents had neglected. These weren’t low-value markets, Okudo said, but simply overlooked markets: Customers with good but not great credit, millennials just getting started with wealth management, or recent graduates looking to consolidate student loan debt. “There was latent demand that was not very well served by banks at the time,” he said.

The fintech market is still in the early stages of development, but a few firms have demonstrated an ability to operate at scale and build a brand — online lender and wealth manager SoFi aired an ad during this year’s Super Bowl — but it isn’t really competing with incumbent firms yet, Okudo said. And while fintech firms may not yet represent an existential competitive threat to banks as a whole, they do compete in certain products in certain markets. For instance, unsecured consumer loans compete against credit card products and SoFi student loans compete against bank student loan products.

Multinational banks still compete with other multinational banks, and the largest fintech firms have market capitalizations that pale in comparison to long-established firms. Plus, fintech compines found it difficult to break through the incumbent’s “stickiness,” Okudo said; simply put, it’s neither easy nor inexpensive to switch banks, lenders, or wealth managers. And in some cases the incumbents joined forces to fight back. Mobile payment service Zelle, for example, was developed through a partnership of established banks in response to the popularity of the upstart Venmo service, which is today owned by PayPal.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em
As a result, many fintech firms have shifted strategy from disruption to partnership. Lending Club has formed relationships with more than 200 community banks. Moven is the exclusive mobile app for TD Bank in Canada and the United States. SigFig’s automation technology is available to UBS financial advisers as well as customers. JP Morgan Chase uses OnDeck to offer loans to small business customers.

For incumbents, these partnerships have become a key part of the innovation management strategy. “There’s a gap between [a major firm’s] core capabilities and the universe of needs that a customer has,” Okudo said. “It’s expensive to maintain innovation across all these products. Partnership is delivering best-in-class products while having that relationship with the customer and making sure it’s not disrupted.”

The key is finding a fintech offering that meets a specific need, rather than looking at the fintech market as a whole and mapping to “imagined needs,” Okudo said. In the case of OnDeck and JPMorgan Chase, he said, “The challenge is that the process of serving small businesses at scale is an expensive business, and technology made that possible.”

Some incumbents have taken this partnership model further and opened startup incubation and innovation hubs. Barclays, for example, has created a community called Rise, which has locations in seven fintech hubs around the world. In effect, this strategy allows incumbents to use fintech firms as research and development partners as they look to test or acquire different capabilities, Okudo said.

“A lot of work and thinking”
The benefits of partnership for fintech firms are a little more nuanced. Working with incumbents makes it easier to acquire “sticky” customers, Okudo noted, but fintech firms at the same time want to continue building their own brands.

When working with a multinational firm with hundreds of product and service offerings, that means making sure fintech isn’t several clicks away in a customer’s app or buried at the bottom of a financial adviser’s dashboard. Simply put, Okudo said, there’s “a lot of work and thinking” that goes into a successful partnership.

“What does partnership mean?” Okudo asked. “It’s understanding the different capabilities being brought to the table, who will invest what over time, and what are the incentives in place in order to make those commitments to invest credible over time.”

June 30, 2017 | More

Martin Trust Center

Female Entrepreneurs: Gaining Ground

Women now make up nearly 40 percent of new entrepreneurs in the United States — the highest percentage since 1996, according to the 2017 Kauffman Index of Startup Activity. And research reported in shows that The Gender Gap in Startup Success Disappears When Women Fund Women; encouraging news indeed.

With MIT’s delta v student venture accelerator, the Martin Trust Center MIT Entrepreneurship  welcomes a new group of students each summer and puts them through “entrepreneurial boot camp.” I want to give you a glimpse at some of the inspiring female entrepreneurs I’ve worked with, and how they are succeeding at what they do, shattering glass ceilings at every level:

• Take Natalya Brinker, CEO of Accion Systems, an MIT PhD graduate and a member of the 2014 accelerator cohort. Accion is developing revolutionary propulsion for satellites that will make space more accessible and affordable across industries. The company itself is seeing quite a bit of propulsion receiving funding from the Department of Defense and a Series A round and winning numerous awards.

• Or Katie Taylor, the CEO and co-founder of Khethworks, who earned her Master’s degree from MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2015 and was part of the accelerator program that summer. Khethworks is a company that supports farmers in eastern India, where more than 30 million farmers tend to an acre or less of land. The company has developed a solar-powered irrigation system that lets these farmers affordably cultivate year-round.

• And Steph Speirs, a member of the 2016 delta v group who is co-founder and CEO of The Solstice Initiative, a nonprofit with a goal of providing solar power to underserved Americans by partnering with communities to share solar power. Speirs graduated from MIT with an MBA this June, and was honored as an Echoing Green Fellow and Soros Fellow during her time here as a student.

MIT has invested in female entrepreneurs, and I believe that we have something special here. Our delta v student venture accelerator is a very competitive program and I’m pleased to report that 45% of the students in the 2017 cohort are women. The average team has three members and 75% of the teams have at least one female co-founder.

MIT “walks the walk” with leadership as well. Three of our five Entrepreneurs-in-Residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship are women.  We also boast Katie Rae as head of The Engine, a new space at MIT where entrepreneurial ideas can begin to take shape, and Jinane Abounadi as the head of the MIT Sandbox, which provides meaningful seed funding for student-initiated ideas.  Beyond delta v, females are starting ventures across the Institute such as, a startup project called Tactile, started by six women – all who just graduated from MIT – is supported by both The Engine and Sandbox. These women have invented a text-to-braille scanner that they believe they can bring to the market for under $100. Tactile has been selected to be part of Microsoft’s Patent Program for their efforts.

Yet, the statistics are still bleak. Last year we hosted a screening of the award-winning documentary “She Started It” which follows five women in their journeys to launch businesses in the technology industry. The director and co-producer of the film, Nora Poggi, joined in our discussion afterwards, and she cited statistics about being a female entrepreneur in the tech industry that were even lower than the stats across other industries. For example:

• Women create only 3% of tech startups
• In Silicon Valley, women earn only 49 cents to a man’s dollar
• Women receive less than 10% of venture capital funding
• Only 12% of undergrad computer science degrees are earned by women
• 96% of venture capitalists are men

So, yes, there are differences between male and female entrepreneurs, and we acknowledge that. Some good insights come from the research done by MIT’s Associate Dean for Innovation, Fiona Murray. She sees differences in women entrepreneurs patenting and commercializing their innovations. She believes that these differences could be explained, in part, by the fact that women are less connected to industry and have narrower commercial networks. These are the types of real changes we must make when supporting women as entrepreneurs – providing access to industry groups and networks, as well as access to funding.

At MIT, we believe we are part of the solution with programs and initiatives to support entrepreneurship for both men and women. MIT is committed to mentoring, creating opportunity, and profiling women so that female entrepreneurs become the norm, not the exception.

We’ll continue to watch our entrepreneurs who are forging new paths. I know many of these women will be guiding lights and mentors for those who follow in their footsteps.

Trish Cotter is Program Manager and Lecturer at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and Director of MIT’s delta v student venture accelerator.

June 29, 2017 | More

Propel marketing rebrands as ThriveHive to stand out in noisy field

Propel marketing rebrands as ThriveHive to stand out in noisy field

The idea the two MIT Sloan alums [Max Faingezicht and Adam Blake] had [for ThriveHive] was to use data science and analytics software to help small business owners manage a bewildering array of online marketing options—e-mail, social media, search ads, digital promotions, and so forth.

June 29, 2017 | More

Research shows when groups are diverse, individuals are less likely to go along with the crowd

Research shows when groups are diverse, individuals are less likely to go along with the crowd

Evan Apfelbaum is an associate professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan and Sarah Gaither is an assistant professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience. They compared rates of conformity in all-white groups to racially diverse groups.

June 29, 2017 | More

Decoding CEO pay*

Decoding CEO pay*

MIT Sloan Profs. Robert Pozen and S.P. Kothari write: “Each year most public companies issue reports on the pay packages of their top executives, describing how their compensation committees arrived at the numbers. These reports are part of the proxy statements sent to all shareholders, who vote on the packages…”

June 27, 2017 | More

Machine over Mind

Machine over mind in a new economy

With robots moving deeper into the American workplace—how much decision-making will we turn over to machines? MIT Sloan’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee share insights from their new book, MACHINE, PLATFORM, CROWD: HARNESSING OUR DIGITAL FUTURE.

June 26, 2017 | More

Four areas where 3-D printing could flourish

Four areas where 3-D printing could flourish

New analysis identifies applications and markets where the technology can scale.

For all its hype, 3-D printing hasn’t become a household technology. But new work shows which markets it could still transform or disrupt.

More than most modern technologies, the 3-D printer resembles something seen in Star Trek: out from an empty box come insoles for shoes, hearing aids, precisely tooled jet engine parts, a filet mignon, and even, one day, human organs for transplant. Such possibility has prompted a swell of optimism: Business Insider in 2014 explained How 3-D Printing Will Revolutionize Our World, and a Forbes headline the following year asserted 3-D Printing Is About To Change The World Forever.

But as with any buzzed-about technology, distinguishing genuine potential from the hype is complicated. New research by Supesh Jain and Tafadzwa Magaya, both recent graduates of the MIT Sloan Fellows program, outlines conditions that make markets most receptive to the widespread adoption of 3-D printing. Understanding these conditions, Jain and Magaya hope, can help investors and businesses evaluate whether a potential application is worthwhile.

“I’m very bullish about the future of 3-D printing as it pertains to manufacturing,” said Magaya. “I think it’s big-time.” But some of the expectations, he noted, have far outpaced reality. “Most people perceived 3-D printing as everyone owning a unit at home and printing socks, and that’s never going to happen,” he said. “That’s where industry got lost: waiting for the mass-market application.”

So what should companies and investors interested in 3-D printing look for?

Customers who want customization
Traditional manufacturing facilities require large outlays of capital and are generally designed with a fixed set of products in mind; their profitability comes from economies of scale. Retooling a manufacturing line is thus expensive. Ford, for instance, spent $359 million and shut down its Dearborn, Michigan plant for 13 weeks to accommodate a new frame for its F-150 pickup truck. This relative inflexibility in traditional manufacturing makes 3-D printing ideal for the production of custom products.

Designing prosthetics, for example, demands customization for every customer. Founded in 2013, Cyborg Beast paired digital modeling software with 3-D printing to create a prosthetic hand for as little as $50, while conventional prosthetic hands generally cost between $30,000 and $40,000. Any market similar to this one, where customization rules, is ripe for disruption by 3-D printers.

Long-tail manufacturing
The New York City Transit Authority, one of the world’s largest and most heavily trafficked subway systems, was largely built in the 1930s. Old vendors no longer exist; replacement parts are impossible to find. The MTA refurbishes and machines components on its own.

Markets like this that express high variability and infrequent, low demand — vintage car collection is another example — cannot be effectively served by traditional manufacturing. It would simply be too expensive for the MTA to contract services out. 3-D printing readily solves the challenge of manufacturing rare replacement parts, while also overcoming the obstacle of distribution: a plant exists wherever a printer does.

“3-D printing allows you to design and make parts in a way that is simply unavailable with traditional manufacturing methods,” Magaya said.

End-to-end control
In a number of industries, like jet engine manufacturing, companies are fully integrated across the supply chain, from procurement to assembly. Because this control allows a comprehensive view all manufacturing processes, it also provides insight into where small design tweaks, affordable through 3-D printing, might produce efficiencies.

General Electric’s Leap engine is one of the highest profile cases of this: the new jet engine, which incorporates 3-D-printed parts and is far more efficient, is expected to save $1.6 million in fuel costs per airline per year. Given the promise of this first serious foray into 3-D printing, GE has created GE Additive, a new business division with an investment of more than $1 billion dedicated to 3-D printing.

Incidentally, printing for the Leap engine was also able to extend the product’s competitive lifetime in the marketplace. “The 3-D printed parts were able to help achieve fuel efficiencies that would have otherwise required an improvement in the core technology,” Magaya said.

While Magaya and Jain note that companies needn’t necessarily have end-to-end market participation to adopt 3-D printing, they do believe that these fully integrated companies will lead the widespread adoption of 3-D printing in particular cases, like when products are unusually complex, or made of materials other than those in traditional manufacturing.

Making the unmakeable
Finally, there are certain applications for which 3-D printing enables manufacturing of parts that would otherwise be too expensive, or even impossible, to manufacture. Take bio-printing of human organs: a handful of companies now print human tissue that can be used for toxicity and pharmaceutical testing. Other companies are using 3-D printers to make meat in attempts to replace the factory farming system.

This unorthodox application of 3-D printers could produce an interesting side benefit of substantial value. “Growing political will and pressure to develop manufacturing jobs nationally, coupled with 3-D printing’s ability to redefine conventional blue collar jobs into a creative, high-tech endeavor, may attract the millennial workforce back into the manufacturing industry,” write Magaya and Jain.

June 23, 2017 | More

At MBA convocation, a call to do the tough work

At MBA convocation, a call to do the tough work

“I need you to say ‘It’s me’ to the hard jobs, to the ones that scare us the most.”

Graduates wait to enter the MBA convocation ceremony June 8 at the Wang Theatre in Boston.

The more than 400 members of the MIT Sloan MBA Class of 2017 celebrated June 8 at a convocation ceremony where speakers discussed the responsibility graduates have of saying “It’s me” to the hard work in life.

“I need you, your friends and colleagues need you, and our companies and communities need you to say ‘It is me’ to the hard jobs, to the ones that scare us the most,” student speaker Leslie Tillquist Martin told her classmates. “We need to say ‘It’s me’ to daunting systemic challenges faced in energy, waste, health care, education, agriculture, politics, and more. We need to say ‘It’s me’ to the daily slow chug of improving on the status quo in how we treat each other, the workplaces we create, the companies we fund.”

The ceremony, held at the Wang Theatre in Boston, also featured remarks from Gustavo Pierini, SM ’87, the president and founder of Gradus Management Consultants. Pierini, the distinguished alumni speaker, was given the Dean’s Award for Excellence and Leadership. See the full text and video of his speech.

“Sometimes in the daily challenges that life gives us, we miss what is really important,” Pierini told graduates. “We may fail to say hello, please, or thank you, congratulate someone on something wonderful that has happened to them, give a compliment, or just do something nice for no reason.”

Dean David Schmittlein urged graduates to recognize that MIT alumni have a unique privilege and responsibility.

“I am confident that you will achieve professional success,” Schmittlein said. “But the world will need more than that from you. Many of you have heard me talk about our MIT Sloan alumni as people who can, and do, have the courage of well-founded convictions. The world needs those people.”

June 22, 2017 | More

What the all-time greatest sports teams can teach us about leadership

What the all-time greatest sports teams can teach us about leadership

The author of a new book explains why the 49ers of the 1980s made his list, but today’s Patriots didn’t.

What do the most elite sports teams have in common?

In his new book, “The Captain Class,” Wall Street Journal deputy editor for enterprise Sam Walker claims to have determined the 16 best sports teams of all time. Some of the entries seem obvious — who could argue with the 1956-69 Boston Celtics? — but we wouldn’t have called the Collingwood Magpies of the 1930s. Not over the New England Patriots, anyway.

But look past the arguments and there’s a lot to learn about leadership, humility, presentation, and drive. Every team has a leader, and these teams and captains offer a chance to examine the traits that drive success.

Walker recently explained how sports can determine what makes a great leader, why charisma isn’t important, and why Tom Brady didn’t make the list.

You set out to identify the best teams in sports history. Yet, the New England Patriots don’t make the cut. And Tom Brady isn’t listed as one of your “Tier One” captains. What gives?
You’ll be happy to hear that since “The Captain Class” was published, I’ve gotten an earful about the Patriots [not making the list], especially after this year’s Super Bowl.

But I’m sticking to my guns.

To be clear: The 2001–17 Patriots are a shining example of the kind of team dynamics I’m talking about. Tom Brady absolutely embodies the seven traits of the world’s elite sports captains. If this team wins another Super Bowl, they’ll absolutely make the list.

But to identify the “freak” teams in sports history — the true outliers — I decided to use eight tests. And the Patriots just came up short on one of them — their achievements were not unique to their sport. The 1981-95 San Francisco 49ers also won five Super Bowls over a long stretch of consistent dominance.

You write that the seven traits of elite sports captains include “extreme doggedness,” “aggressive play that tests the limits,” an ability to “motivate others with nonverbal displays,” and a “low-key democratic communication style.”Are these the traits that carry over into the business world and define strong leaders? 

2017-walkerAuthor Sam Walker
Photo: Elena Seibert

I think the dynamics I’ve observed in elite sports teams are absolutely relevant in other fields. Teams that perform together under pressure, in areas where the results are clear and decisive such as an airplane cockpit crew or an emergency-room surgical unit are the best fit. But these kinds of behaviors are universally valuable. At the end of the day, teams are teams.

In your words, baseball pro Yogi Berra had some “shaky beginnings,” but went on to win 14 league titles with the New York Yankees, in part because of his “extreme doggedness.” Who are some business leaders who demonstrate this trait?
Any business leader who takes something from a kernel of an idea and turns it into a giant culture-altering business would have to have that kind of drive. It certainly seems true of Walt Disney, who struggled a bit before Mickey Mouse came along, or Billy Durant, the father of General Motors who was pushed out only to claw his way back, or even Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

You write that Steve Jobs was seen by many as a “cruel taskmaster,” yet he transformed Apple. Do companies today really need someone cruel at the top to be successful?
Scientists who’ve studied athletes have observed something they call the “game frame.” They’ve found that on the field, athletes believe the rules of sport should govern their behavior. Off the field, though, they believe the rules of polite society prevail. So during competition, they might do aggressive, ugly things they would never do off the field.

Steve Jobs could be cruel. He sometimes pushed the rules of civility in business to the breaking point. But his goal was to make better products. He didn’t do these things to injure people, although feelings were sometimes hurt along the way.

In the book, you cite top-tier athletes like Tim Duncan, former captain of the San Antonio Spurs, and Carla Overbeck, former captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, who don’t appear to have charisma. How can leadership ability not include charisma?
I had a hard time believing this was true. But Duncan and Overbeck, in particular, left no doubt in my mind that it is. Both seemed allergic to the spotlight. In public, their teammates were the bright lights and that was fine with them. In competition, they did the spadework. Duncan switched positions and sacrificed scoring chances to help the team. Overbeck passed the ball to teammates as fast as she could and on road trips, used to carry everyone’s bags from the bus to their hotel rooms.


In other words, leadership wasn’t a matter of grand gestures. It wasn’t correlated to the force of someone’s personality, either. It was a matter of doing whatever needed to be done for the team in every minute of every day, no matter how unglamorous.

What are the top three traits hiring managers should look for when hiring at a high level?
Truly great leaders will not “wow” you in an interview. They are not going to charm their way into a big promotion. If anything, they’re liable to deflect credit and downplay their skills. First, watch them working with a team. If you can’t do that … lean on their references.

Second, the best leaders have emotional maturity. That’s tough to see, but if a person has had some setbacks in life and has powered through them, that’s a very good sign. Be wary of bon vivants. Third, I’d suggest asking [job candidates] to walk you through all the steps of some instance where they took a team from point A to point B. Listen closely. Look for signs of dissent and relentlessness and whether they rolled up their sleeves and did the grunt work.

There’s a perception that captains aren’t needed anymore, and some sports teams have eliminated them. Is a flat organization ever good for business?
It’s tempting to think we’ve evolved beyond the point where we need hierarchies. But I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think flat structures are scalable. People need structure and hierarchy, especially in tough times. The captains on my sports teams repeatedly pulled their units through in the darkest hours. That’s when you really need leadership.

June 22, 2017 | More

Blockchain’s next steps

Blockchain’s next steps 

Blockchain, a secure, distributed database, is gaining momentum as a technology that could allow greater financial inclusion worldwide (read our explainer of the technology). MIT Sloan professor Simon Johnson has stepped up MIT Sloan’s blockchain offerings with a new independent study course and a re-tooled existing course that examines blockchain’s implications for economic and financial development.

Johnson last month won the Jamieson Prize for Excellence in Teaching for his efforts in designing these and other courses. He collaborated with Professor Christian Catalini, Senior Lecturer Brian Forde, and MIT Media Lab Senior Adviser Michael Casey on the courses.

Here, he explains what’s to come for the buzzed-about technology.

Why hasn’t blockchain taken off yet?
It’s a network effect. Just like Facebook is valuable, because other people you know are on Facebook. Everyone has to agree that it’s worth coordinating moving to blockchain or some new system has to evolve around that. It’s not something that happens instantly. The same thing happened with the internet. The internet was around for a long time before it got any traction … 20 years later, it’s still unfolding. I think it’s fairly common that … technology takes time to diffuse and become more user-friendly.

2017-Johnson-FintechSimon Johnson

What about the potential dark side to blockchain? Because users would receive a private digital key to access information, and because blockchain isn’t controlled by a single entity, what would happen if that key was stolen? 
There’s a dark side to everything. Everything can be misused. Sometimes people will say, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if we had this mutual agreement about who held what?’ So there would be no government land registry, no department of motor vehicles … because those things, they are single points of failure; they are bureaucratic, and they are a pain. But, then you have to recognize, that if we make it decentralized … we are just managing this as individuals. I knew someone — a bitcoin enthusiast — whose computer was hacked in a sophisticated way. Someone got in and was able to steal everything he had stored there. He lost a lot of money. So, I think there are additional steps needed before this becomes suitable for consumers.

How can blockchain help citizens in the developing world?
The developing world is generally characterized by having problems with government, corruption, land titles, and movable property. The main idea is that you could use blockchain to track who owns what and therefore perhaps borrow more easily. Or sell things more easily … the bitcoin blockchain idea is certainly both a libertarian dream because there’s no government, but it’s also a left-wing dream because there’s no powerful oligarchs or banks or anything else … preventing people from being involved in the financial system. Most people are excluded from the banking system because the banks don’t want them as their customers, because they have too little money. And the banks think that [these customers] are too expensive, and they set their fees accordingly. In a purely decentralized system, it should be really easy to include people and give them a means of payment that’s digital.

When you think about blockchain’s future potential, what excites you the most?
Well, the MIT Digital Currency Initiative is working on a currency concept, which would not be a full permissionless blockchain, but it would use some of that approach to have a digital form of cash issued by central banks and that would be a potentially powerful tool for financial inclusion. I think it could be stabilizing with regard how the financial system works. It’s all to be determined, but it could be very interesting.

June 21, 2017 | More


Pushing the limits of athletic performance

Pushing the limits of athletic performance

The panic in the pit of your stomach as you fly over your handle bars is all too familiar to any mountain biker. Most cyclists dust themselves off and carry on riding, perhaps with more caution. But Anette (Peko) Hosoi, professor and associate department head for operations in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is not like most bikers. She straightens her helmet, stands her bike up, and immediately begins examining its mechanics.

Hosoi is at New Hampshire’s Highland Mountain Bike Park. Accessible only by ski lift, the park presents bikers with white-knuckle turns and stomach-curling bumps. “I kept thinking ‘this would be the most fun thing ever — if I could just stop flying off my bike,’” she later recalls. After assessing her cross-country bike, she determines the geometry is all wrong. If she is going to return to Highland Mountain, she will need a proper mountain bike.

As instructor of 2.001 (Mechanics and Materials I), Hosoi has access to dozens of eager engineering students. She adds a new assignment to the syllabus: Determine which bike on the market has the “truss, deformation, and yield” that make it optimal for mountain biking.

“I realized this was a fantastic way to teach mechanics,” she says. With that insight, Hosoi founded the Sports Technology Group, now known as MIT 3-Sigma Sports (formerly STE@M).

MIT 3-Sigma Sports aims to solve the biggest engineering problems across sports. The program connecting students and faculty with alumni and industry partners who work together to improve athletic performance by using engineering to enhance endurance, speed, accuracy, and agility in sports. Some of the research projects stem from the needs of industry partners, while others are inspired by students’ and faculty’s personal passions and experience with sports.

Graduate students and former varsity athletes Sarah Fay and Jacob Rothman have both found ways to bridge their personal passions with their academic pursuits. Fay, who played squash and field hockey as an undergraduate at MIT, is working to identify the optimal weight for squash rackets by modeling the swing of a racket based on a person’s height and weight. Rothman, who played on MIT’s baseball team as an undergraduate, is co-founder of Perch, a company that uses 3-D cameras to assess the velocity of a weightlifter’s movements and provide instant feedback on how to improve form and minimize the risk of injury.

Fay and Rothman are not alone applying the work done in the lab to athletics. Many MechE faculty are conducting cutting-edge research at the forefront of sports technology. Here are just a few sports that MechE faculty are helping to improve:

Running: Harnessing the power of the stride

Smartphones have revolutionized long distance running — providing everything from route planning, to heart-rate monitoring, to audio entertainment. But the batteries in these devices don’t always last as long as the run, sometimes leaving runners in a difficult position.

Professor Sang-Gook Kim and his students have designed an energy-harvesting shoe to convert each stride into power. Air bladders embedded in the sole of the shoe convert the foot’s impact into airflow along the runner’s gait. Both the outflow and inflow from the airbladders are directed at a dual-microturbine enclosure, which generates electricity that can be used to power the runner’s device of choice.

The results produce 90 milliwatts of power for walking at 3 mph and a staggering 900 milliwatts when jumping. This means that six hours of walking can generate enough power to charge an iPhone battery by 50 percent. “You can do a lot with that power,” Kim says. “Joggers won’t get lost and can get help quickly in emergencies.”

The next step for Kim will be working with a top manufacturer on designing a shoe that can incorporate this energy-harvesting technology. One immediate application could be to design running shoes with varying levels of elasticity. “The idea is to control the stiffness of the shoe like a sleep-number bed,” Kim adds. This technology can do more than just improve the lives of runners and joggers, he notes. Military boots could be outfitted with this device to provide power to troops on the ground.

Cricket: Using a robotic arm to test the umpire’s decisions

In cricket, if a ball makes slight contact with a bat and is caught in the field before it touches the ground, the batsman is out. Contact between the bat and the ball can be extremely difficult to detect, especially when the ball grazes the bat at 90 mph, so umpires rely on Decision Review System (DRS) technology. DRS, which depends on sophisticated edge-detection and ball-tracking technologies, is used to confirm whether a batsman is out. When the International Cricket Council (ICC) sought to test the accuracy of DRS, they turned to Sanjay Sarma, the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor in Mechanical Engineering.

A lifelong sports fan, Sarma was tasked with assessing the edge-detection and ball-tracking technologies used in DRS. “Our goal was to create a gold standard to calibrate the technology against,” says Sarma, who also serves as MIT’S vice president for open learning. To test edge-detecting, Sarma, along with Jaco Pretorius SM ’04 and PhD student Stephen Ho, built a mechanical arm with a ball secured at the end. As the arm spun at high knots, a bat outfitted with sensors was moved into position to repeatedly replicate fine contact with the ball. Meanwhile, to test ball-tracking, they built a frame with a laser field that could detect a ball’s exact coordinates. The data generated from both the sensors on the bat and the laser field were then used to calibrate the technologies currently used in DRS.

The project brought the MIT team to the U.K., where they visited Lord’s Cricket Ground, home of cricket’s most revered trophy, the Ashes urn. “I have met many Nobel Laureates, but a childhood dream I was able to fulfill was to have dinner at Lord’s Cricket Ground,” Sarma says with a smile.

The ICC is using the data collected by Sarma and his team to calibrate DRS technologies and enhance officiating.

Golf: How an Emmy inspired a new coaching tool

Engineering and Emmy Awards rarely go hand-in-hand — unless you’re Principal Research Scientist Brian Anthony, who won an Emmy for his work on Swing Vision for CBS prior to coming back to MIT. Swing Vision uses two cameras, one recording 2,000 frames per second and the other recording 12,500 frames per second. The slower video is used by on-air commentators to analyze a golfer’s swing, while the fast video is used to gather stats about the velocity, launch angle, and backspin of the club and ball for each of their shots.

Anthony is now using his background in video instrumentation to develop event detection and similarity algorithms that can be used for manufacturing process control, medical diagnostics, and sports. Videos of a gold-standard athletic move — the perfect plié or right hook, for example — are compared to a new video of the move. “By comparing the two videos, you can make decisions based on the time-space path that one video follows after another,” he explains.

The algorithm then provides guided instructions for how the subject can best emulate the gold standard. Anthony hopes this technology could one day become a new coaching tool. “The idea is to one day make a product in which you could compare a Little Leaguer’s swing to a standard appropriate for that individual — maybe Cal Ripken — and tell him how to mimic Cal’s moves,” explains Anthony.

So what is the next frontier in sports technology?

Hosoi and the students in course 2.98 (Sports Technology: Engineering and Innovation) are working on an array of projects that will help inform the future of sports. These projects range from data analysis to biomechanics and materials.

In May, students and faculty across several departments presented their research at the 2017 Sports Technology Summit. In the rapt audience were various industry partners with a vested interest in supporting advances in sports technology, such as Adidas, the Milwaukee Brewers, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and the San Antonio Spurs. The research presented at the summit may just hold the key to securing their next championship or designing a game-changing product.

“The summit provides companies with a snapshot of the breadth of work going on across departments,” explains Christina Chase, co-director of MIT 3-Sigma Sports and co-instructor of course 2.98. “It also showcases our students’ work, which helps facilitate collaborations and in some cases recruitment.”

The sports technology research being conducted at MechE is crucial for the advancement of human endurance and performance in sports. When there is a problem plaguing a particular sport, the students and faculty in the MechE community are ready to roll up their sleeves, lace up their running shoes or pick up a bat, and solve it.

July 17, 2017 | More

Miniaturizing the brain of a drone

Miniaturizing the brain of a drone

In recent years, engineers have worked to shrink drone technology, building flying prototypes that are the size of a bumblebee and loaded with even tinier sensors and cameras. Thus far, they have managed to miniaturize almost every part of a drone, except for the brains of the entire operation — the computer chip.

Standard computer chips for quadcoptors and other similarly sized drones process an enormous amount of streaming data from cameras and sensors, and interpret that data on the fly to autonomously direct a drone’s pitch, speed, and trajectory. To do so, these computers use between 10 and 30 watts of power, supplied by batteries that would weigh down a much smaller, bee-sized drone.

Now, engineers at MIT have taken a first step in designing a computer chip that uses a fraction of the power of larger drone computers and is tailored for a drone as small as a bottlecap. They will present a new methodology and design, which they call “Navion,” at the Robotics: Science and Systems conference, held this week at MIT.

The team, led by Sertac Karaman, the Class of 1948 Career Development Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, and Vivienne Sze, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, developed a low-power algorithm, in tandem with pared-down hardware, to create a specialized computer chip.

The key contribution of their work is a new approach for designing the chip hardware and the algorithms that run on the chip. “Traditionally, an algorithm is designed, and you throw it over to a hardware person to figure out how to map the algorithm to hardware,” Sze says. “But we found by designing the hardware and algorithms together, we can achieve more substantial power savings.”

“We are finding that this new approach to programming robots, which involves thinking about hardware and algorithms jointly, is key to scaling them down,” Karaman says.

The new chip processes streaming images at 20 frames per second and automatically carries out commands to adjust a drone’s orientation in space. The streamlined chip performs all these computations while using just below 2 watts of power — making it an order of magnitude more efficient than current drone-embedded chips.

Karaman, says the team’s design is the first step toward engineering “the smallest intelligent drone that can fly on its own.” He ultimately envisions disaster-response and search-and-rescue missions in which insect-sized drones flit in and out of tight spaces to examine a collapsed structure or look for trapped individuals. Karaman also foresees novel uses in consumer electronics.

“Imagine buying a bottlecap-sized drone that can integrate with your phone, and you can take it out and fit it in your palm,” he says. “If you lift your hand up a little, it would sense that, and start to fly around and film you. Then you open your hand again and it would land on your palm, and you could upload that video to your phone and share it with others.”

Karaman and Sze’s co-authors are graduate students Zhengdong Zhang and Amr Suleiman, and research scientist Luca Carlone.

From the ground up

Current minidrone prototypes are small enough to fit on a person’s fingertip and are extremely light, requiring only 1 watt of power to lift off from the ground. Their accompanying cameras and sensors use up an additional half a watt to operate.

“The missing piece is the computers — we can’t fit them in terms of size and power,” Karaman says. “We need to miniaturize the computers and make them low power.”

The group quickly realized that conventional chip design techniques would likely not produce a chip that was small enough and provided the required processing power to intelligently fly a small autonomous drone.

“As transistors have gotten smaller, there have been improvements in efficiency and speed, but that’s slowing down, and now we have to come up with specialized hardware to get improvements in efficiency,” Sze says.

The researchers decided to build a specialized chip from the ground up, developing algorithms to process data, and hardware to carry out that data-processing, in tandem.

Tweaking a formula

Specifically, the researchers made slight changes to an existing algorithm commonly used to determine a drone’s “ego-motion,” or awareness of its position in space. They then implemented various versions of the algorithm on a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), a very simple programmable chip. To formalize this process, they developed a method called iterative splitting co-design that could strike the right balance of achieving accuracy while reducing the power consumption and the number of gates.

A typical FPGA consists of hundreds of thousands of disconnected gates, which researchers can connect in desired patterns to create specialized computing elements. Reducing the number gates with co-design allowed the team to chose an FPGA chip with fewer gates, leading to substantial power savings.

“If we don’t need a certain logic or memory process, we don’t use them, and that saves a lot of power,” Karaman explains.

Each time the researchers tweaked the ego-motion algorithm, they mapped the version onto the FPGA’s gates and connected the chip to a circuit board. They then fed the chip data from a standard drone dataset — an accumulation of streaming images and accelerometer measurements from previous drone-flying experiments that had been carried out by others and made available to the robotics community.

“These experiments are also done in a motion-capture room, so you know exactly where the drone is, and we use all this information after the fact,” Karaman says.

Memory savings

For each version of the algorithm that was implemented on the FPGA chip, the researchers observed the amount of power that the chip consumed as it processed the incoming data and estimated its resulting position in space.

The team’s most efficient design processed images at 20 frames per second and accurately estimated the drone’s orientation in space, while consuming less than 2 watts of power.

The power savings came partly from modifications to the amount of memory stored in the chip. Sze and her colleagues found that they were able to shrink the amount of data that the algorithm needed to process, while still achieving the same outcome. As a result, the chip itself was able to store less data and consume less power.

“Memory is really expensive in terms of power,” Sze says. “Since we do on-the-fly computing, as soon as we receive any data on the chip, we try to do as much processing as possible so we can throw it out right away, which enables us to keep a very small amount of memory on the chip without accessing off-chip memory, which is much more expensive.”

In this way, the team was able to reduce the chip’s memory storage to 2 megabytes without using off-chip memory, compared to a typical embedded computer chip for drones, which uses off-chip memory on the order of a few gigabytes.

“Any which way you can reduce the power so you can reduce battery size or extend battery life, the better,” Sze says.

This summer, the team will mount the FPGA chip onto a drone to test its performance in flight. Ultimately, the team plans to implement the optimized algorithm on an application-specific integrated circuit, or ASIC, a more specialized hardware platform that allows engineers to design specific types of gates, directly onto the chip.

“We think we can get this down to just a few hundred milliwatts,” Karaman says. “With this platform, we can do all kinds of optimizations, which allows tremendous power savings.”

This research was supported, in part, by Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation.

July 12, 2017 | More

Using sensors and social networks to make slopes safer

The peace and quiet that envelope a lone hiker on a leaf-riddled trail or a rock climber perched on the top of a cliff seem a world away from the noise of a social media feed. But Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) alumnus Jim Christian SM ’14 had an idea to tap into the superabundance of social-media data to benefit athletes and outdoor adventurers. He, along with MIT Sloan School of Management alumnus Brint Markle MBA ’14, created a device that could help determine avalanche risk. Their device has led to a network in which people can upload and share critical real-time information about the conditions — including avalanche risk — on a particular slope or mountain.

“We want to crowdsource trip data and safety information for the outdoors,” Christian explains. Their motivation inspired a free app, Mountain Hub, on which outdoor adventurers can share information to benefit others.

Mountain Hub’s inception began far from muddy trails and snow-capped mountains. Safely within the halls of MIT, Christian was charged with designing a product that solves a real-life problem for course 2.739 (Product Design and Development). Inspired by Markle’s brush with a dangerous avalanche in Switzerland, Christian and his fellow students designed a probe with sensors to measure the structure of snow. The device could be used to quickly identify weak-layers in the snowpack — critical features in assessing avalanche risk.

Traditionally, the industry method for avalanche risk assessment starts with digging a hole, analyzing the snow pack in that hole, and determining if there are any weak layers. Digging and assessing a snowpit can take close to an hour and provides just one data point. The scope Christian and his classmates constructed could gather a lot more data about the snowpack in just a few seconds, and it could assess an entire mountain slope in the time it takes to dig just one hole.

“Jim and his team identified an important opportunity for a new product,” says Warren Seering, the Weber-Shaughness Professor in MechE who co-taught 2.739. “They all put a great deal of energy into the development process.”

Christian and Markle walked out of the class with a proof-of-concept prototype for measuring snowpack, and along with MechE student Sam Whittemore, they co-founded Avatech, a company focused primarily on avalanche risk assessment. Avatech’s first product was the SP1 — a 5-foot long probe with pressure sensors that could collect 5,000 measurements per second. The SP1 instantly generates a graph showing snow layer hardness, which snow safety teams can use to identify weak layers. This information is vital for avalanche prevention.

It quickly became clear, however, that the data generated from this device couldn’t exist in a vacuum. The information needed to be shared with those who would most benefit from it. Christian, Markle, and their team set out to build a network that would enable skiers or climbers to upload, share, and read real-time information about the slope or mountain they were on. The scope of the network became far greater than just snowpack assessment; customers wanted to share information about bike paths, hiking trails, and an assortment of outdoor activities.

“Most mountain athletes do multiple activities all year round,” says Christian. There is an opportunity for information sharing across these various activities. “What a rock climber has to say about hazards on a trail is relevant to hikers and mountain bikers in the same area.”

With this transition from scientific measurement tools to a social networking app, Christian and Markle rebranded their company as Mountain Hub. With technologies like a live map, terrain visualizations, and trip reporting, the app aims to diminish the danger associated with solitary or remote sports like hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, and skiing.

Christian hopes Mountain Hub will become a platform for people to share their experiences, access real-time conditions, and plan new adventures. “We are spearheading a culture of contribution and sharing in the outdoors,” Christian explains. “We want to build a real-time network that has daily engaging content so that the first thing someone does before they hit the trail is open up our app.”

July 10, 2017 | More

New 3-D chip combines computing and data storage

New 3-D chip combines computing and data storage

As embedded intelligence is finding its way into ever more areas of our lives, fields ranging from autonomous driving to personalized medicine are generating huge amounts of data. But just as the flood of data is reaching massive proportions, the ability of computer chips to process it into useful information is stalling.

Now, researchers at Stanford University and MIT have built a new chip to overcome this hurdle. The results are published today in the journal Nature, by lead author Max Shulaker, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. Shulaker began the work as a PhD student alongside H.-S. Philip Wong and his advisor Subhasish Mitra, professors of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford. The team also included professors Roger Howe and Krishna Saraswat, also from Stanford.

Computers today comprise different chips cobbled together. There is a chip for computing and a separate chip for data storage, and the connections between the two are limited. As applications analyze increasingly massive volumes of data, the limited rate at which data can be moved between different chips is creating a critical communication “bottleneck.” And with limited real estate on the chip, there is not enough room to place them side-by-side, even as they have been miniaturized (a phenomenon known as Moore’s Law).

To make matters worse, the underlying devices, transistors made from silicon, are no longer improving at the historic rate that they have for decades.

The new prototype chip is a radical change from today’s chips. It uses multiple nanotechnologies, together with a new computer architecture, to reverse both of these trends.

Instead of relying on silicon-based devices, the chip uses carbon nanotubes, which are sheets of 2-D graphene formed into nanocylinders, and resistive random-access memory (RRAM) cells, a type of nonvolatile memory that operates by changing the resistance of a solid dielectric material. The researchers integrated over 1 million RRAM cells and 2 million carbon nanotube field-effect transistors, making the most complex nanoelectronic system ever made with emerging nanotechnologies.

The RRAM and carbon nanotubes are built vertically over one another, making a new, dense 3-D computer architecture with interleaving layers of logic and memory. By inserting ultradense wires between these layers, this 3-D architecture promises to address the communication bottleneck.

However, such an architecture is not possible with existing silicon-based technology, according to the paper’s lead author, Max Shulaker, who is a core member of MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories. “Circuits today are 2-D, since building conventional silicon transistors involves extremely high temperatures of over 1,000 degrees Celsius,” says Shulaker. “If you then build a second layer of silicon circuits on top, that high temperature will damage the bottom layer of circuits.”

The key in this work is that carbon nanotube circuits and RRAM memory can be fabricated at much lower temperatures, below 200 C. “This means they can be built up in layers without harming the circuits beneath,” Shulaker says.

This provides several simultaneous benefits for future computing systems. “The devices are better: Logic made from carbon nanotubes can be an order of magnitude more energy-efficient compared to today’s logic made from silicon, and similarly, RRAM can be denser, faster, and more energy-efficient compared to DRAM,” Wong says, referring to a conventional memory known as dynamic random-access memory.

“In addition to improved devices, 3-D integration can address another key consideration in systems: the interconnects within and between chips,” Saraswat adds.

“The new 3-D computer architecture provides dense and fine-grained integration of computating and data storage, drastically overcoming the bottleneck from moving data between chips,” Mitra says. “As a result, the chip is able to store massive amounts of data and perform on-chip processing to transform a data deluge into useful information.”

To demonstrate the potential of the technology, the researchers took advantage of the ability of carbon nanotubes to also act as sensors. On the top layer of the chip they placed over 1 million carbon nanotube-based sensors, which they used to detect and classify ambient gases.

Due to the layering of sensing, data storage, and computing, the chip was able to measure each of the sensors in parallel, and then write directly into its memory, generating huge bandwidth, Shulaker says.

Three-dimensional integration is the most promising approach to continue the technology scaling path set forth by Moore’s laws, allowing an increasing number of devices to be integrated per unit volume, according to Jan Rabaey, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, who was not involved in the research.

“It leads to a fundamentally different perspective on computing architectures, enabling an intimate interweaving of memory and logic,” Rabaey says. “These structures may be particularly suited for alternative learning-based computational paradigms such as brain-inspired systems and deep neural nets, and the approach presented by the authors is definitely a great first step in that direction.”

“One big advantage of our demonstration is that it is compatible with today’s silicon infrastructure, both in terms of fabrication and design,” says Howe.

“The fact that this strategy is both CMOS [complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor] compatible and viable for a variety of applications suggests that it is a significant step in the continued advancement of Moore’s Law,” says Ken Hansen, president and CEO of the Semiconductor Research Corporation, which supported the research. “To sustain the promise of Moore’s Law economics, innovative heterogeneous approaches are required as dimensional scaling is no longer sufficient. This pioneering work embodies that philosophy.”

The team is working to improve the underlying nanotechnologies, while exploring the new 3-D computer architecture. For Shulaker, the next step is working with Massachusetts-based semiconductor company Analog Devices to develop new versions of the system that take advantage of its ability to carry out sensing and data processing on the same chip.

So, for example, the devices could be used to detect signs of disease by sensing particular compounds in a patient’s breath, says Shulaker.

“The technology could not only improve traditional computing, but it also opens up a whole new range of applications that we can target,” he says. “My students are now investigating how we can produce chips that do more than just computing.”

“This demonstration of the 3-D integration of sensors, memory, and logic is an exceptionally innovative development that leverages current CMOS technology with the new capabilities of carbon nanotube field–effect transistors,” says Sam Fuller, CTO emeritus of Analog Devices, who was not involved in the research. “This has the potential to be the platform for many revolutionary applications in the future.”

This work was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, Semiconductor Research Corporation, STARnet SONIC, and member companies of the Stanford SystemX Alliance.

July 5, 2017 | More

Modeling innovation

Modeling innovation

Suppose you help run the R&D unit of a major technology company. To encourage innovation, you might have the unit run a kind of internal race, letting a wide variety of projects unfold on their own. That seems like an enlightened approach, given the difficulty of knowing exactly which ones will pan out — and yet you might actually be discouraging the unit’s overall productivity, according to MIT Associate Professor Alessandro Bonatti.

Bonatti is an economist at the MIT Sloan School of Management whose work models the behavior of firms, employees, and market prices. Across this wide range of topics, Bonatti deploys game theory, the formal study of competition and cooperation, to draw some surprising conclusions.

Consider the R&D scenario. Individual researchers want to press ahead on their own projects, knowing they will benefit by making advances more quickly than their co-workers. But a useful final product for a firm — in computing, biotech, and many other fields — may well be a compromise among several individuals’ initiatives. How should a firm structure its R&D process so that researchers both compete and collaborate?

As Bonatti and co-author Heikki Rantakari PhD ’07, an assistant professor at the University of Rochester, suggest in a recent paper called “The Politics of Compromise,” firms can use rules to orchestrate R&D in these situations, making clear that only projects with certain degrees of compromise will be adopted. A balanced set of rules benefit firms, by helping them develop better products; the same rules give researchers incentives to both push ahead and compromise — since contributing to a successful product is better than having one’s own work be ignored.

“We try to understand how the rules should be written in a way that provides members incentives to do research and work hard, and doesn’t yield disproportionate power to an individual,” Bonatti explains.

So while popular culture fixates on lone innovators, the reality, Bonatti suggests, is usually different. “The goal of a compromise that builds on all core competencies is probably going to produce a better product.”

And while Bonatti’s work is largely theoretical — albeit with many references to real-world cases — he believes that streamlined analysis of a large organization is valuable.

“It’s like taking an X-ray of an organization,” Bonatti says. “You are trying to get at the core mechanism, and the core mechanism can’t be understood if it has 55 moving parts.”

For his work, including a wide-ranging portfolio of published research, Bonatti was granted tenure last year from MIT — a significant milestone for a scholar who did not gravitate toward his professional field until he reached college.

New direction in Naples

Bonatti, a native Italian, grew up near Naples and studied the classics extensively in school. But as an undergraduate at the University of Naples Federico II, his interest in studying economics took hold — partly because it helped him “understand more of the world,” and partly, Bonatti jokes, “because I didn’t want to be a lawyer, which is what everybody seemed to want to be.”

Yale University accepted Bonatti to its PhD program in economics, and he thrived as a graduate student there, completing in 2009 a thesis on dynamic pricing as deployed by the likes of Netflix. Bonatti’s graduate research led to what he calls a “wave” of published papers early in his career — four completed in 2011 alone, two years after he joined the MIT faculty.

At MIT, Bonatti has added to his portfolio by studying what he calls “the dynamics of incentives” for workers in firms; he still works on pricing as well. This has produced another wave of Bonatti papers, with several more being published in the last three years.

Bonatti’s careful modeling has established rigorous ways of thinking about numerous issues firms encounter. For instance, strict mechanisms that kill off questionable R&D projects, he has found, are important, in order to maintain high standards and save firms money in the long run. Additionally, voting procedures in firms that use a “supermajority” to approve projects can produce better collaboration, by satisfying more interests. Bonatti has also found that, in the R&D context, project deadlines are often more efficient than close supervision.

“I’m interested in different topics, but my method of analysis is always the same,” Bonatti says. “Look at the world, distill it into a framework that can be written out in tractable mathematical form, run the model, do a sanity check with reality — Do I think I’ve captured what matters? — and then, crucially, learn from the model.”

Smart people, faulty systems

One advantage of this approach, Bonatti suggests, is that it can keep firms from incorrectly blaming their problems on particular individuals, and instead may help direct their focus to systemic issues that can help or hinder productivity.

“People’s motives are pretty clear in the R&D world, for instance in pharma,” Bonatti says. “They’re smart. They’re motivated. Their hearts are in the right place, considering they’re trying to cure diseases. It’s unlikely that any failure or productivity problem is a very person-specific issue.”

So systems matter. Still, every topic Bonatti studies is different, meaning that in his work, there is a huge premium on modeling firms and workers carefully, and considering as many aspects of a problem as possible.

In the last few years, Bonatti has also begun engaging with executives and R&D leaders more extensively, something that helps him develop what he calls “a proper conversation between the laboratory and the model.”

After all, the flexibility Bonatti finds useful in a firm’s researchers and managers, as they search for compromises and new solutions, applies to his work as well.

“There isn’t always just one solution to any one problem,” he says.

July 5, 2017 | More

Scientists produce dialysis membrane made from graphene

Scientists produce dialysis membrane made from graphene

Dialysis, in the most general sense, is the process by which molecules filter out of one solution, by diffusing through a membrane, into a more dilute solution. Outside of hemodialysis, which removes waste from blood, scientists use dialysis to purify drugs, remove residue from chemical solutions, and isolate molecules for medical diagnosis, typically by allowing the materials to pass through a porous membrane.

Today’s commercial dialysis membranes separate molecules slowly, in part due to their makeup: They are relatively thick, and the pores that tunnel through such dense membranes do so in winding paths, making it difficult for target molecules to quickly pass through.

Now MIT engineers have fabricated a functional dialysis membrane from a sheet of graphene — a single layer of carbon atoms, linked end to end in hexagonal configuration like that of chicken wire. The graphene membrane, about the size of a fingernail, is less than 1 nanometer thick. (The thinnest existing memranes are about 20 nanometers thick.) The team’s membrane is able to filter out nanometer-sized molecules from aqueous solutions up to 10 times faster than state-of-the-art membranes, with the graphene itself being up to 100 times faster.

While graphene has largely been explored for applications in electronics, Piran Kidambi, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, says the team’s findings demonstrate that graphene may improve membrane technology, particularly for lab-scale separation processes and potentially for hemodialysis.

“Because graphene is so thin, diffusion across it will be extremely fast,” Kidambi says. “A molecule doesn’t have to do this tedious job of going through all these tortuous pores in a thick membrane before exiting the other side. Moving graphene into this regime of biological separation is very exciting.”

Kidambi is a lead author of a study reporting the technology, published today in Advanced Materials. Six co-authors are from MIT, including Rohit Karnik, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Jing Kong, associate professor of electrical engineering.

Plugging graphene

To make the graphene membrane, the researchers first used a common technique called chemical vapor deposition to grow graphene on copper foil. They then carefully etched away the copper and transferred the graphene to a supporting sheet of polycarbonate, studded throughout with pores large enough to let through any molecules that have passed through the graphene. The polycarbonate acts as a scaffold, keeping the ultrathin graphene from curling up on itself.

The researchers looked to turn graphene into a molecularly selective sieve, letting through only molecules of a certain size. To do so, they created tiny pores in the material by exposing the structure to oxygen plasma, a process by which oxygen, pumped into a plasma chamber, can etch away at materials.

“By tuning the oxygen plasma conditions, we can control the density and size of pores we make, in the areas where the graphene is pristine,” Kidambi says. “What happens is, an oxygen radical comes to a carbon atom [in graphene] and rapidly reacts, and they both fly out as carbon dioxide.”

What is left is a tiny hole in the graphene, where a carbon atom once sat. Kidambi and his colleagues found that the longer graphene is exposed to oxygen plasma, the larger and more dense the pores will be. Relatively short exposure times, of about 45 to 60 seconds, generate very small pores.

Desirable defects

The researchers tested multiple graphene membranes with pores of varying sizes and distributions, placing each membrane in the middle of a diffusion chamber. They filled the chamber’s feed side with a solution containing various mixtures of molecules of different sizes, ranging from potassium chloride (0.66 nanometers wide) to vitamin B12 (1 to 1.5 nanometers) and lysozyme (4 nanometers), a protein found in egg white. The other side of the chamber was filled with a dilute solution.

The team then measured the flow of molecules as they diffused through each graphene membrane.

Membranes with very small pores let through potassium chloride but not larger molecules such as L-tryptophan, which measures only 0.2 nanometers wider. Membranes with larger pores let through correspondingly larger molecules.

The team carried out similar experiments with commercial dialysis membranes and found that, in comparison, the graphene membranes performed with higher “permeance,” filtering out the desired molecules up to 10 times faster.

Kidambi points out that the polycarbonate support is etched with pores that only take up 10 percent of its surface area, which limits the amount of desired molecules that ultimately pass through both layers.

“Only 10 percent of the membrane’s area is accessible, but even with that 10 percent, we’re able to do better than state-of-the-art,” Kidambi says.

To make the graphene membrane even better, the team plans to improve the polycarbonate support by etching more pores into the material to increase the membrane’s overall permeance. They are also working to further scale up the dimensions of the membrane, which currently measures 1 square centimeter. Further tuning the oxygen plasma process to create tailored pores will also improve a membrane’s performance — something that Kidambi points out would have vastly different consequences for graphene in electronics applications.

“What’s exciting is, what’s not great for the electronics field is actually perfect in this [membrane dialysis] field,” Kidambi says. “In electronics, you want to minimize defects. Here you want to make defects of the right size. It goes to show the end use of the technology dictates what you want in the technology. That’s the key.”

This research was supported, in part, by the U.S. Department of Energy and a Lindemann Trust Fellowship.

June 28, 2017 | More

MIT space hotel wins NASA graduate design competition

MIT space hotel wins NASA graduate design competition

An interdisciplinary team of MIT graduate students representing five departments across the Institute was recently honored at NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkage Design Competition Forum. The challenge involved designing a commercially enabled habitable module for use in low Earth orbit that would be extensible for future use as a Mars transit vehicle. The team’s design won first place in the competition’s graduate division.

The MIT project — the Managed, Reconfigurable, In-space Nodal Assembly (MARINA) — was designed as a commercially owned and operated space station, featuring a luxury hotel as the primary anchor tenant and NASA as a temporary co-anchor tenant for 10 years. NASA’s estimated recurring costs, $360 million per year, represent an order of magnitude reduction from the current costs of maintaining and operating the International Space Station. Potential savings are approximately 16 percent of NASA’s overall budget — or around $3 billion per year.

MARINA team lead Matthew Moraguez, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a member of Professor Olivier L. de Weck’s Strategic Engineering Research Group (SERG), explained that MARINA’s key engineering innovations include extensions to the International Docking System Standard (IDSS) interface; modular architecture of the backbone of MARINA’s node modules; and a distribution of subsystem functions throughout the node modules.

“Modularized service racks connect any point on MARINA to any other point via the extended IDSS interface. This enables companies of all sizes to provide products and services in space to other companies, based on terms determined by the open market,” Moraguez said. “Together these decisions provide scalability, reliability, and efficient technology development benefits to MARINA and NASA.”

MARINA’s design also enables modules to be reused to create an interplanetary Mars transit vehicle that can enter Mars’ orbit, refuel from locally produced methane fuel, and return to Earth.

MARINA and SERG team member George Lordos MBA ’00 is currently a graduate fellow in the MIT System Design and Management (SDM) Program, which is offered jointly by the MIT School of Engineering and the MIT Sloan School of Management. Lordos pointed out that MARINA’s engineering design innovations are critical enablers of its commercial viability, which rests on MARINA’s ability to give rise to a value-adding, competitive marketplace in low Earth orbit.

“Just like a yacht marina, MARINA can provide all essential services, including safe harbor, reliable power, clean water and air, and efficient logistics and maintenance,” said Lordos, who will enter the MIT aeronautics and astronautics doctoral program this fall. “This will facilitate design simplicity and savings in construction and operating costs of customer-owned modules. It will also incent customers to lease space inside and outside MARINA’s node modules and make MARINA a self-funded entity that is attractive to investors.”

Valentina Sumini, a postdoc at MIT, contributed to the architectural concept being used for MARINA and its space hotel, along with MARINA faculty advisor Assistant Professor Caitlin Mueller of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“MARINA’s flagship anchor tenant, a luxury Earth-facing eight-room space hotel complete with bar, restaurant, and gym, will make orbital space holidays a reality,” said Sumini.

Other revenue-generating features include rental of serviced berths on external International Docking Adapter ports for customer-owned modules and rental of interior modularized rack space to smaller companies that provide contracted services to station occupants. These secondary activities may involve satellite repair, in-space fabrication, food production, and funded research.

Additional members of the MARINA team include: MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics graduate students and SERG members Alejandro Trujillo, Samuel Wald, and Johannes Norheim; MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering undergraduate Zoe Lallas; MIT School of Architecture and Planning graduate students Alpha Arsano and Anran Li; and MIT Integrated Design and Management Program graduate students Meghan Maupin and John Stillman.

June 28, 2017 | More


How J-PAL thinks globally and acts locally

It is a huge question in development economics: If a program yields good results in one country, will it work in another? Does a vaccination policy in India translate to Africa? Does a teen-pregnancy prevention program in Kenya work in Rwanda?

And: Why or why not?

Leaders of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), one of world’s foremost centers for antipoverty research, have developed their own formal framework for thinking about this vexing question, over the last several years. Now, in a new article, two J-PAL directors have unveiled the lab’s approach.

“At J-PAL, we spend a lot of time talking with policymakers and giving advice, but we’d never really written [this] down in a systematic way,” says Rachel Glennerster, the executive director of J-PAL and a co-author of the new article. “This is a framework that can be used by other people who want to do this kind of work.”

Co-author Mary Ann Bates, the deputy executive director of J-PAL North America, says the new paper is a response to years of queries: “One of the most frequent questions that we get at J-PAL is a version of, ‘So a program worked in one place. Is it likely to work in my context?’”

The J-PAL method of operation, it turns out, is less about replicating bottom-line results of programs down to the last decimal point than it is about understanding the mechanisms that make programs successful.

“If you completely replicated a program, you wouldn’t expect to have identical results in a different place,” Glennerster says.

But if the general conditions that make a program work in one place hold elsewhere, then a J-PAL-style antipoverty program can get traction more widely.

The paper, “The Generalizability Puzzle,” appears in the summer 2017 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and sets out four basic steps that the lab’s researchers use when thinking about replicating or scaling up an antipoverty program in a new setting.

Four easy pieces

Founded in 2003 by MIT economists Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, and Sendhil Mullainathan (who is now at Harvard University), J-PAL has become the most high-profile academic enterprise of its kind. The lab incorporates a broad network of scholars dedicated to field experiments — randomized controlled trials, or RCTs — evaluating the effectiveness of antipoverty programs.

J-PAL works extensively with governments, NGOs, and international development groups to implement and evaulate programs. In the past, J-PAL experiments have demonstrated new methods of improving anything from vaccination rates, to school attendance, to safe water use. Glennerster helped establish Deworm the World, based on J-PAL research, a nonprofit that provides deworming pills to 150 million children a year.

And as Glennerster notes, “There is huge interest in the policy world in trying to better use the results of research.” Here, then, are the four steps J-PAL recommends when considering if an antipoverty program would translate to a new setting:

Step one: What are the components of the theory behind the program?

In India, a local J-PAL program providing a small incentive to parents — a couple of pounds of lentils — led to a massive increase in child immunizations, from 6 percent to 39 percent. The theory behind the program rests on a few assumptions: that parents are not inherently opposed to immunizing their children; that people respond to modest incentives; that people will procrastinate on important tasks; and that in some parts of India, lentils are a good incentive mechanism.

To think about how well a program would translate to another location, break down the larger action into these kinds of smaller components, and see if the program would still be viable, even in parallel form, the authors advise.

“If you use lentils to incentive people to get immunized, you wouldn’t get much of an effect in Boston,” Glennerster observes. “They are a very desirable thing in this bit of India where we were working, though.”

Step two: Does that theory apply to local conditions?

In Kenya, one J-PAL experiment produced a successful program to prevent teenage pregnancies by informing adolescent girls about the risks of contracting HIV from older men — 28 percent of whom had HIV in the district where the original intervention took place. This turned out to be a considerable deterrent for the girls who participated in education programs about their own risks.

J-PAL researchers subsequently considered trying out the program in Rwanda, too. But then they conducted surveys and discovered something quite different about the local conditions. Female students estimated that over 20 percent of Rwandan men in their 20s were HIV-positive, whereas only 1.7 percent actually are. As a result, the J-PAL researchers recommended against replicating the program in Rwanda. Because the students were dramatically over-estimating local HIV rates, highlighting the actual rates in an information campaign might have led to an increase in risky behavior.

“That’s not just a matter of sitting and scratching our heads, wondering,” Bates says. “That was targeted information that could be gathered that got right at the heart of the question of whether this intervention would be likely to work in a new context.”

And as Bates emphasizes, it was not necessary to replicate the entire experiment to make an assessment about the program’s adaptability.

Step three: How strong is the evidence that the desired behavioral change will occur?

Consider again programs trying to get people to invest time and money in preventive medicine, whether through vaccinations, additional visits to medical clinics, or other means. Researchers have gathered evidence that people in many countries ignore preventative health care,  making this a good issue to tackle globally.

“People’s unwillingness to pay much for preventative health is something you find all around the world,” Glennerster says. “People are surprisingly unwilling to invest in preventative health, and small barriers can prevent them from taking up otherwise good options.”

Moreover, Glennerster emphasizes, the evidence for this does not have to be derived from RCTs performed by groups such as J-PAL. The weightier the evidence of a generalized problem, the more likely it is that some variation of a program will apply in new settings.

Step four: What is the evidence that the implementation process can be carried out well?

This last point requires very solid on-the-gound knowledge about the locale where an antipoverty program may be carried out: Are there functional institutions that can do the nuts-and-bolts program work?

“Even if a program may be based on a well-validated view of human behavior, you’ve got to know about the local context, about people’s ability to deliver it,” Glennerster says. “And that’s going to be very specific. Is the government or NGO good at implementing things?”

Don’t just replicate

Through all these points, at least one larger theme emerges: People are people, wherever they may live, and human nature is fairly consistent around the globe. Thus, as Bates and Glennerster write in the paper, “underlying human behaviors are more likely to generalize than specific programs.”

That means researchers and antipoverty leaders should think carefully about the core behavioral mechanisms within programs, and about how to adapt existing programs to novel settings. People need water and want good education, from continent to continent; the best way to deliver clean water and quality education may differ.

Bates and Glennerster say they have received a generally positive reception when presenting the J-PAL framework — Glennerster has presented it at the World Bank, among other places — and they hope the new article will gain traction in the community of antipoverty leaders.

“It’s not that nobody’s thought of this before,” Glennerster says. “I think what people have found useful is us providing a clear step-by-step process. It just gives people a clearer framework.”

June 28, 2017 | More

STEX event

STEX event showcases innovations in fitness technology and science

Many MIT-affiliated startups are innovating in the burgeoning fitness technology and science space, aiming to promote healthier lifestyles and help optimize athletic performance.

Novel products from these startups include a smart chair that fights back pain and diabetes, a sleeve that monitors muscle-movement data that users can share in the cloud, a wristband that tracks blood oxygen levels for greater performance, and even a so-called anti-aging pill.

A workshop hosted June 22 by the Industrial Liaison Program’s STEX (Startup Exchange) program brought together some of these MIT entrepreneurs and industry experts to showcase their innovations and foster connections that could lead to new business opportunities.

Held throughout the year, the three-hour STEX workshops include lightning presentations from MIT-affiliated startups; brief talks from academic innovators, industry experts, government representatives, and venture capitalists; startup presentation and demonstration sessions; and an interactive panel discussion.

At last week’s event, eight entrepreneurs pitched their fitness-tech products — several rooted in MIT research — to a crowd of around 80 entrepreneurs, researchers, and industry experts in the ILP’s headquarters on Main Street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The academic keynote speaker was MIT Novartis Professor of Biology Leonard Guarente, who took the opportunity to demystify the science behind his startup Elysium Health’s “anti-aging pill,” which is made of compounds that aim to thwart age-related cell damage, which can lead to inflammatory and heart diseases, osteoporosis, and diabetes.

STEX events aim to stimulate discussion and build partnerships between MIT-affiliated startups and ILP-connected companies, which now number around 230. The series covers a broad range of topics: a recent workshop focused on energy storage, while upcoming events will focus on synthetic biology, robotics and drones, cancer therapies, renewable energy, world water issues, and 3-D printing.

“These are very exciting areas, and MIT has young and old startups in all of these spaces. We certainly have industry coming to campus interested in all of these technologies and products coming from them,” Trond Undheim, a senior industrial liaison officer and co-organizer of the event, said in his opening remarks.

Presenter Simon Hong, a researcher in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and CEO of smart-chair startup Robilis, said last week’s STEX workshop provided “an opportunity to interact with potential stakeholders.”

Based on neuroscience research, Robilis developed StandX, a chair with two automated moving halves, side by side. The halves alternate — one dropping down and the other staying straight — making the user sit down on one half while standing on the opposite leg. The frequent alternation prevents stress on the spine caused by sitting in one position for extended periods, and the chair’s design encourages proper posture. The movement also interrupts prolonged sitting, which is associated with diabetes.

During a startup demonstration session midway through the event, Hong’s station was crowded with attendees looking to try out the chair. In the end, he walked away with a few contacts interested in helping with production and in introducing him to potential investors. “I was quite satisfied with the event,” Hong told MIT News. “It is in a way a networking event, and good things tend to happen quite unexpectedly during many, many interactions with people.”

Apart from providing a venue to spread the word about his wearables, the event enabled Alessandro Babini MBA ’15, co-founder of Humon, to connect with larger organizations in the space. Humon, a wearable targeted at endurance athletes, attaches to a muscle, where it monitors blood oxygen levels by shining a light into the skin and analyzing changes in the light that indicate less or more oxygen.

“It was interesting to get an understanding about what big brands seek in partners, what they’re looking to invest in, and what they’re working on now,” Babini told MIT News. “Big corporations have a lot of customers and a big influence on where the market is going.”

Another interesting MIT spinout, figure8, presented a wearable that captures 3-D body movement that can be analyzed by the user or shared with an online community — like a “YouTube” of movement data.

The wearable is a small sleeve made from novel sensor-woven fabric that fits over the arm or leg to track joint and muscle movement. It lets users map the movement of muscle, bone, and ligaments. Put on a knee, for instance, the wearable can map individual ligaments, which is valuable for, say, monitoring the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). One application is in physical therapy, so athletes can track injuries as they heal.

Users can also map their movement to others. Dancers, for instance, can use the sensor to match their movements to those of others during training. The startup is also developing a platform that lets users upload and share that data in the cloud.

“Before YouTube, no one thought about video as something you can share, upload, and download as a commodity,” said co-founder and CEO Nan-Wei Gong, an MIT Media Lab researcher, during her presentation. “We’re trying to create a system for everyone to collect this motion [data] they can upload and download.”

Other startups that presented included: Kitchology, Fitnescity, Digital Nutrition, Food for Sleep, and SplitSage.

In his keynote, Guarente explained the science and history behind Elysium’s “anti-aging” pill, called Basis, which he himself has been taking for three years. He noted the pill doesn’t necessarily make people feel more youthful or healthier, especially if they’re already healthy. “You should just fall apart more slowly,” Guarente said to laughter from the audience.

Years ago, Guarente and other MIT researchers identified a group of genes called sirtuins that have been demonstrated to slow the aging process in microbes, fruit flies, and mice. For instance, calorie-restricted diets, long known to extend lifespans and prevent many diseases in mammals, is key in activating sirtuins. “It turns out there are compounds that can do the same thing,” Guarente said.

At MIT, the researchers discovered one of those compounds, which is abundant in blueberries. Later, they discovered that an enzyme called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) was also essential in carrying out the activity of sirtuins. But the enzyme deteriorated with age. “If there’s not enough NAD, you don’t activate sirtuins. Metabolism and DNA-repair goes awry, and a lot of things go wrong,” he said.

However, they soon found that in the NAD synthesis pathway, NAD’s immediate precursor, called nicotinamide riboside (NR), could be injected into an organism, where it would move efficiently into cells and be converted into NAD.

Basis is a combination of NR and the sirtuin-activating compound from blueberries.

Last year, Elysium conducted a 120-person trial. The results indicated that the pills were safe and led to an increase and sustainability of NAD levels. More trials are on the way, and the startup is growing its pipeline of products. It has not yet been shown whether Basis can extend life-span in humans.

“We could really make a difference in people’s health,” Guarente said at the conclusion of his talk. “And it would add to all the … medical devices and DNA analysis and motion sensors, so that people can begin to do what they want to do, which is to take charge of their health.”

The investor speaker was David T. Thibodeau, managing director of Wellvest Capital, an investment banking company specializing in healthy living and wellness. The industry speaker was Matthew Decker, global technical leader in the Comfort and Biophysics Group of W.L. Gore and Associates, the manufacturing company best known for Gore-Tex fabrics.

Panelists were Guarente, Decker, Thibodeau, and Josh Sarmir, co-founder and CEO of SplitSage, an MIT spinout that is developing an analytics platform that can detect “sweet spots” and “blind spots” in people’s fields of vision to aid in sports performance, online advertising, and work safety, among other applications.

STEX has a growing database of roughly 1,200 MIT-affiliated startups. Last year, ILP created STEX25, an accelerator for 25 startups at any time that focuses on high-level, high-quality introductions. The first cohort of 14 startups have gone through the accelerator, gaining industry partnerships that have led to several pilot programs.

June 26, 2017 | More

Anantha Chandrakasan

Anantha Chandrakasan named dean of School of Engineering

Anantha P. Chandrakasan, the Vannevar Bush Professor and head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), has been named dean of MIT’s School of Engineering, effective July 1. He will succeed Ian A. Waitz, the Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, who will become MIT’s vice chancellor.

During his six-year tenure as head of MIT’s largest academic department, Chandrakasan spearheaded a number of initiatives that opened opportunities for students, postdocs, and faculty to conduct research, explore entrepreneurial projects, and engage with EECS.

“Anantha balances his intellectual creativity and infectious energy with a remarkable ability to deeply listen to, learn from, and integrate other people’s views into a compelling vision,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif says. “In a time of significant challenges, from new pressures on federal funding to the rising global competition for top engineering talent, I am confident that Anantha will guide the School of Engineering to maintain and enhance its position of leadership. And I believe that in the process he will help make all of MIT stronger, too.”

Since joining the MIT faculty in 1994, Chandrakasan has produced a significant body of research focused largely on making electronic circuits more energy efficient. His early work on low-power chips for portable computers helped make possible the development of today’s smartphones and other mobile devices. More recently, his research has addressed the challenge of powering even more energy-constrained technologies, such as the “internet of things” that would allow many everyday devices to send and receive data via networked servers while being powered from a tiny energy source.

In an email today announcing the news to the MIT community, Provost Martin Schmidt described Chandrakasan as “a people-centered and innovative leader.” Schmidt continued, “Having observed Anantha’s collaborative approach to building a shared vision within EECS, I am excited for the opportunities that lie ahead for the School of Engineering.”

Creating opportunities and connections

While at the helm of EECS, Chandrakasan launched a number of initiatives on behalf of the department’s students. “That’s what excites me about an administrative job,” he says. “It’s how I can enhance the student and postdoc experience. I want to create exciting opportunities for them, whether that’s in entrepreneurship, research, or maker activities. One of the key things I plan to do as dean is to connect directly with students.”

Many of these initiatives were themselves designed with student input, including the Advanced Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, more commonly known as “SuperUROP.” This year-long independent research program, launched in EECS in 2012 and expanded to the whole School of Engineering in 2015, was shaped in response to feedback about why some EECS students were opting out of MIT’s traditional UROP program.

Chandrakasan also initiated the Rising Stars program in EECS, an annual event that convenes graduate and postdoc women for the purpose of sharing advice about the early stages of an academic career. Another program for EECS postdocs created under his direction, Postdoc6, aims to foster a sense of community for postdocs and help them develop skills that will serve their careers. Chandrakasan also helped create StartMIT, an independent activities period (IAP) class that provides students and postdocs the opportunity to learn from and interact with industrial innovation leaders.

“I tend to be a people person,” Chandrakasan says. “Of course data is always important, but it’s not where I start. I’m like the quarterback who throws it up in the end zone. I try things, and some of them don’t work, which I’m totally fine with; other things we try and then refine. But I do a lot of homework, talking to students and faculty, getting feedback, and incorporating them to improve our efforts.”

“I’m also very passionate about helping our faculty explore new research areas,” says Chandrakasan, who as department head has sought unrestricted grants and other funding to provide faculty with this flexibility. These efforts have enabled several Faculty Research Innovation Fellowships, for midcareer faculty who seek to branch out in new directions.

Chandrakasan also has a long-standing interest in creating opportunities for innovation outside the lab. He is a board member and chair of the advisory committee dealing with MIT policies for The Engine, a new accelerator launched by MIT last fall to support startup companies working on scientific and technological innovation with the potential for transformative societal impact. In the latter role, he has overseen five working groups consisting of faculty, students, postdocs, and staff with specialized expertise, and created suggestions for how the MIT community can work with The Engine.

“In building out the concept for The Engine, it was vitally important to make sure it would meet the needs of faculty, student, and alumni entrepreneurs,” says MIT Executive Vice-President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz, who helped spearhead The Engine’s development. “As the faculty lead, Anantha played an indispensable role in gathering feedback from a wide range of voices and transforming it into actionable ideas for how The Engine should work.”

Online learning is another area of interest for Chandrakasan: “I’m very excited about the whole online arena and how we can use MITx for residential education,” he says. Last fall, EECS and the Office of Digital Learning piloted a full-credit online course for a small cohort of students on campus, who gave the experience strong marks for providing flexibility and reducing stress. “I’m looking forward to working with the other department heads to see how we can get a license to experiment with these new modes of education,” he says.

At home in academia

Born in Chennai, India, Chandrakasan moved to the United States while in high school. His mother was a biochemist and Fulbright scholar, and he enjoyed spending time in her lab where she conducted research on collagen.

“I always knew I wanted to be an engineer and a professor,” he says. “My mother really inspired me into an academic career. When I entered graduate school, I knew on day one that I wanted to be academic professor.”

Chandrakasan earned his bachelor’s (1989), master’s (1990), and doctoral (1994) degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California at Berkeley — the latter two after being rejected from MIT’s graduate program, he notes with a laugh. After joining the MIT faculty, he was the director of the Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL) from 2006 until he became the head of EECS in 2011.

He lives in Belmont, Massachusetts, with his wife and three children, the oldest of whom graduated from MIT this year.

Even when taking on administrative roles with MTL and EECS, Chandrakasan continued his productive research career. He leads the MIT Energy-Efficient Circuits and Systems Group, whose research projects have addressed security hardware, energy harvesting, and wireless charging for the internet of things; energy-efficient circuits and systems for multimedia processing; and platforms for ultra-low-power biomedical electronics.

Chandrakasan is a recipient of awards including the 2009 Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) University Researcher Award, the 2013 IEEE Donald O. Pederson Award in Solid-State Circuits, and an honorary doctorate from KU Leuven in 2016. He was also recognized as the author with the highest number of publications in the 60-year history of the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC), the foremost global forum for presentation of advances in solid-state circuits and systems-on-a-chip. Since 2010, he served as the ISSCC Conference Chair. A fellow of IEEE, in 2015 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

June 23, 2017 | More