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Don Rosenfield

Donald Rosenfield, a longtime leader of MIT LGO, dies at 70

With deep sadness, the LGO community mourns its founding program director, Don Rosenfield. He leaves a legacy of over 1,200 LGO alumni and countless colleagues, students, and friends who were touched and inspired by him.
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Department of Mechanical Engineering announces new leadership team

Pierre Lermusiaux, LGO thesis advisor and professor of mechanical engineering and ocean science and engineering will join on the MechE department’s leadership team. Prof Lermusiaux will serve as associate department head for operations.

Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Professor, who began her role as head of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) on July 1, has announced that Pierre Lermusiaux, professor of mechanical engineering and ocean science and engineering, and Rohit Karnik, associate professor of mechanical engineering, will join her on the department’s leadership team. Lermusiaux will serve as associate department head for operations and Karnik will be the associate department head for education.

“I am delighted to welcome Pierre and Rohit to the department’s leadership team,” says Wang. “They have both made substantial contributions to the department and are well-suited to ensure that it continues to thrive.”

Pierre Lermusiaux, associate department head for operations

Pierre Lermusiaux has been instrumental in developing MechE’s strategic plan over the past several years. In 2015, with Evelyn Wang, he was co-chair of the mechanical engineering strategic planning committee. They were responsible for interviewing individuals across the MechE community, determining priority “grand challenge” research areas, investigating new educational models, and developing mechanisms to enhance community and departmental operations. The resulting strategic plan will inform the future of MechE for years to come.

“Pierre is an asset to our department,” adds Wang. “I look forward to working with him to lead our department toward new research frontiers and cutting-edge discoveries.”

Lermusiaux joined MIT as associate professor in 2007 after serving as a research associate at Harvard University, where he also received his PhD. He is an internationally recognized thought leader at the intersection of ocean modeling and observing. He has developed new uncertainty quantification and data assimilation methods. His research has improved real-time data-driven ocean modeling and has had important implications for marine industries, fisheries, energy, security, and our understanding of human impact on the ocean’s health.

Lermusiaux’s talent as an educator has been recognized with the Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Teaching Excellence. He has been the chair of the graduate admissions committee since 2014. He has served on many MechE and institute committees and is also active in MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program committees.

“Working for the department, from our graduate admission to the strategic planning with Evelyn, has been a pleasure,” says Lermusiaux. “I am thrilled to be continuing such contributions as associate department head for research and operations. I look forward to developing and implementing strategies and initiatives that help our department grow and thrive.”

Lermusiaux succeeds Evelyn Wang, who previously served as associate department head for operations under the former department head Gang Chen.

Rohit Karnik, associate department head for education

Over the past two years, Rohit Karnik has taken an active role in shaping the educational experience at MechE. As the undergraduate officer, he has overseen the operations of the department’s undergraduate office and chaired the undergraduate programs committee. This position has afforded Karnik the opportunity to evaluate and refine the department’s course offerings each year and work closely with undergraduate students to provide the best education.

“Rohit is a model citizen and has provided dedicated service to our department,” says Wang. “I look forward to working with him to create new education initiatives and continue to provide a world-class education for our students.”

Prior to joining MIT as a postdoc in 2006, Karnik received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. In 2006, he joined the faculty as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. He is recognized as a leader in the field of micro-and-nanofluidics and has made a number of seminal contributions in the fundamental understanding of nanoscale fluid transport. He has been recognized by an National Science Foundation CAREER Award and a Department of Energy Early Career Award.

Karnik’s dedication to his students have been recognized by the Keenan Award for Innovation in Education and the Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Teaching Excellence. He has also served on the graduate admissions committee and various faculty search committees.

“It is a tremendous honor and responsibility to take this position in the top mechanical engineering department in the world,” says Karnik. “I will strive to ensure that we maintain excellence in mechanical engineering education and adapt to the changing times to offer strong and comprehensive degree programs and the best possible experience for our students.”

Karnik succeeds Professor John Brisson who previously served as associate department head for education.

August 3, 2018 | More

Boeing will be Kendall Square Initiative’s first major tenant

Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, and LGO Partner Company has announced they will be part MIT’s Kendall Square Initiative. The company has agreed to lease approximately 100,000 square feet at MIT’s building to be developed at 314 Main St., in the heart of Kendall Square in Cambridge.

MIT’s Kendall Square Initiative, includes six sites slated for housing, retail, research and development, office, academic, and open space uses. The building at 314 Main St. (“Site 5” on the map above) is located between the MBTA Red Line station and the Kendall Hotel. Boeing is expected to occupy its new space by the end of 2020.

“Our focus on advancing the Kendall Square innovation ecosystem includes a deep and historic understanding of what we call the ‘power of proximity’ to address pressing global challenges,” MIT Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz says. “MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, has made clear his objective of reducing the time it takes to move ideas from the classroom and lab out to the market. The power of proximity is a dynamic that propels this concept forward: Just as pharmaceutical, biotech, and tech sector scientists in Kendall Square work closely with their nearby MIT colleagues, Boeing and MIT researchers will be able to strengthen their collaborative ties to further chart the course of the aerospace industry.”

Boeing was founded in 1916 — the same year that MIT moved to Cambridge — and marked its recent centennial in a spirit similar to the Institute’s 100-year celebration in 2016, with special events, community activities, and commemorations. That period also represents a century-long research relationship between Boeing and MIT that has helped to advance the global aerospace industry.

Some of Boeing’s founding leaders, as well as engineers, executives, Boeing Technical Fellows, and student interns, are MIT alumni.

Earlier this year, Boeing announced that it will serve as the lead donor for MIT’s $18 million project to replace its 80-year-old Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel. This pledge will help to create, at MIT, the world’s most advanced academic wind tunnel.

In 2017, Boeing acquired MIT spinout Aurora Flight Sciences, which develops advanced aerospace platforms and autonomous systems. Its primary research and development center is located at 90 Broadway in Kendall Square. In the new facility at 314 Main St., Boeing will establish the Aerospace and Autonomy Center, which will focus on advancing enabling technologies for autonomous aircraft.

“Boeing is leading the development of new autonomous vehicles and future transportation systems that will bring flight closer to home,” says Greg Hyslop, Boeing chief technology officer. “By investing in this new research facility, we are creating a hub where our engineers can collaborate with other Boeing engineers and research partners around the world and leverage the Cambridge innovation ecosystem.”

“It’s fitting that Boeing will join the Kendall/MIT innovation family,” MIT Provost Martin Schmidt says. “Our research interests have been intertwined for over 100 years, and we’ve worked together to advance world-changing aerospace technologies and systems. MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics is the oldest program of its kind in the United States, and excels at its mission of developing new air transportation concepts, autonomous systems, and small satellites through an intensive focus on cutting-edge education and research. Boeing’s presence will create an unprecedented opportunity for new synergies in this industry.”

The current appearance of the 314 Main St. site belies its future active presence in Kendall Square. The building’s foundation and basement level — which will house loading infrastructure, storage and mechanical space, and bicycle parking — is currently in construction. Adjacent to those functions is an underground parking garage, a network of newly placed utilities, and water and sewer infrastructure. Vertical construction of the building should begin in September.

August 3, 2018 | More

Reliable energy for all

Prosper Nyovanie (LGO ’19) discusses his passion for using engineering and technology to solve global problems.


During high school, Prosper Nyovanie had to alter his daily and nightly schedules to accommodate the frequent power outages that swept cities across Zimbabwe.

“[Power] would go almost every day — it was almost predictable,” Nyovanie recalls. “I’d come back from school at 5 p.m., have dinner, then just go to sleep because the electricity wouldn’t be there. And then I’d wake up at 2 a.m. and start studying … because by then you’d usually have electricity.”

At the time, Nyovanie knew he wanted to study engineering, and upon coming to MIT as an undergraduate, he majored in mechanical engineering. He discovered a new area of interest, however, when he took 15.031J (Energy Decisions, Markets, and Policies), which introduced him to questions of how energy is produced, distributed, and consumed. He went on to minor in energy studies.

Now as a graduate student and fellow in MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program, Nyovanie is on a mission to learn the management skills and engineering knowledge he needs to power off-grid communities around the world through his startup, Voya Sol. The company develops solar electric systems that can be scaled to users’ needs.

Determination and quick thinking

Nyovanie was originally drawn to MIT for its learning-by-doing engineering focus. “I thought engineering was a great way to take all these cool scientific discoveries and technologies and apply them to global problems,” he says. “One of the things that excited me a lot about MIT was the hands-on approach to solving problems. I was super excited about UROP [the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program]. That program made MIT stick out from all the other universities.”

As a mechanical engineering major, Nyovanie took part in a UROP for 2.5 years in the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity with Professor Martin Culpepper. But his experience in 15.031J made him realize his interests were broader than just research, and included the intersection of technology and business.

“One big thing that I liked about the class was that it introduced this other complexity that I hadn’t paid that much attention to before, because when you’re in the engineering side, you’re really focused on making technology, using science to come up with awesome inventions,” Nyovanie says. “But there are considerations that you need to think about when you’re implementing [such inventions]. You need to think about markets, how policies are structured.”

The class inspired Nyovanie to become a fellow in the LGO program, where he will earn an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a master’s in mechanical engineering. He is also a fellow of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT.

When Nyovanie prepared for his fellowship interview while at home in Zimbabwe, he faced another electricity interruption: A transformer blew and would take time to repair, leaving him without power before his interview.

“I had to act quickly,” Nyovanie says. “I went and bought a petrol generator just for the interview. … The generator provided power for my laptop and for the Wi-Fi.” He recalls being surrounded by multiple solar lanterns that provided enough light for the video interview.

While Nyovanie’s determination in high school and quick thinking before graduate school enabled him to work around power supply issues, he realizes that luxury doesn’t extend to all those facing similar situations.

“I had enough money to actually go buy a petrol generator. Some of these communities in off-grid areas don’t have the resources they need to be able to get power,” Nyovanie says.

Scaling perspectives

Before co-founding Voya Sol with Stanford University graduate student Caroline Jo, Nyovanie worked at SunEdison, a renewable energy company, for three years. During most of that time, Nyovanie worked as a process engineer and analyst through the Renewable Energy Leadership Development Rotational Program. As part of the program, Nyovanie rotated between different roles at the company around the world.

During his last rotation, Nyovanie worked as a project engineer and oversaw the development of rural minigrids in Tanzania. “That’s where I got firsthand exposure to working with people who don’t have access to electricity and working to develop a solution for them,” Nyovanie says. When SunEdison went bankrupt, Nyovanie wanted to stay involved in developing electricity solutions for off-grid communities. So, he stayed in talks with rural electricity providers in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Nigeria before eventually founding Voya Sol with Jo.

Voya Sol develops scalable solar home systems which are different than existing solar home system technologies. “A lot of them are fixed,” Nyovanie says. “So if you buy one, and need an additional light, then you have to go buy another whole new system. … The scalable system would take away some of that risk and allow the customer to build their own system so that they buy a system that fits their budget.” By giving users the opportunity to scale up or scale down their wattage to meet their energy needs, Nyovanie hopes that the solar electric systems will help power off-grid communities across the world.

Nyovanie and his co-founder are currently both full-time graduate students in dual degree programs. But to them, graduate school didn’t necessarily mean an interruption to their company’s operations; it meant new opportunities for learning, mentorship, and team building. Over this past spring break, Nyovanie and Jo traveled to Zimbabwe to perform prototype testing for their solar electric system, and they plan to conduct a second trip soon.

“We’re looking into ways we can aggregate people’s energy demands,” Nyovanie says. “Interconnected systems can bring in additional savings for customers.” In the future, Nyovanie hopes to expand the distribution of scalable solar electric systems through Voya Sol to off-grid communities worldwide. Voya Sol’s ultimate vision is to enable off-grid communities to build their own electricity grids, by allowing individual customers to not only scale their own systems, but also interconnect their systems with their neighbors’. “In other words, Voya Sol’s goal is to enable a completely build-your-own, bottom-up electricity grid,” Nyovanie says.

Supportive communities

During his time as a graduate student at MIT, Nyovanie has found friendship and support among his fellow students.

“The best thing about being at MIT is that people are working on all these cool, different things that they’re passionate about,” Nyovanie says. “I think there’s a lot of clarity that you can get just by going outside of your circle and talking to people.”

Back home in Zimbabwe, Nyovanie’s family cheers him on.

“Even though [my parents] never went to college, they were very supportive and encouraged me to push myself, to do better, and to do well in school, and to apply to the best programs that I could find,” Nyovanie says.

June 12, 2018 | More

LGO Best Thesis 2018 for Predictive Modeling Project at Massachusetts General Hospital

After the official MIT commencement ceremonies, Thomas Roemer, LGO’s executive director, announced the best thesis winner at LGO’s annual post-graduation celebration. This year’s winner was Jonathan Zanger, who developed a predictive model using machine learning at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The thesis describes breakthrough work at MGH that leverages machine learning and deep clinical knowledge to develop a decision support tool to predict discharges from the hospital in the next 24-48 hours and enable a fundamentally new and more effective discharge process,” said MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Retsef Levi, one of Zanger’s thesis advisors and the LGO management faculty co-director.

Applying MIT knowledge in the real world

Best Thesis 2018
Jonathan Zanger won the 2018 LGO best thesis award for his work using machine learning to develop a predictive model for better patient care at MGH

Zanger, who received his MBA and an SM in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, conducted his six-month LGO internship project at MGH that sought to enable a more proactive process of managing the hospital’s bed capacity by identifying which surgical inpatients are likely to be discharged from the hospital in the next 24 to 48 hours. To do this, Zanger grouped patients by their surgery type, and worked to define and formalize milestones on the pathway to a post-operative recovery by defining barriers that may postpone patients’ discharge. Finally, he used a deep learning algorithm which uses over 900 features and is trained on 3000 types of surgeries and 20,000 surgical discharges. LGO thesis advisor Retsef Levi stated that “in my view, this thesis work represents a league of its own in terms of technical depth, creativity and potential impact.” Zanger was able to have true prediction for 97% of patients discharged within 48 hours. This helps to limit overcrowding and operational disruptions and anticipate capacity crises.

A group of faculty, alumni and staff review the theses each year to determine the winner. Thomas Sanderson (LGO ’14), LGO alumni and thesis reviewer stated that Zanger’s thesis showed  “tremendous extensibility and smart solution architecture decisions to make future work easy. Obvious and strong overlap of engineering, business, and industry.  This is potentially revolutionary work; this research advances the current state of the art well beyond anything currently available for large hospital bed management with obvious and immediate impact on healthcare costs and patient outcomes. The theory alone is hugely noteworthy but the fact that the work was also piloted during the thesis period is even more impressive. LGO has done a lot of great work at MGH but this is potentially the widest reaching and most important.”

Zanger, who earned his undergraduate degree Physics, Computer Science and Mathematics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, will return to Israel after graduation and resume service as an Israeli Defense Forces officer.

June 11, 2018 | More

A graphene roll-out

LGO thesis advisor and MIT Mechanical Engineering Professor John Hart, lead a team to develop a continuous manufacturing process that produces long strips of high-quality graphene.

The team’s results are the first demonstration of an industrial, scalable method for manufacturing high-quality graphene that is tailored for use in membranes that filter a variety of molecules, including salts, larger ions, proteins, or nanoparticles. Such membranes should be useful for desalination, biological separation, and other applications.

“For several years, researchers have thought of graphene as a potential route to ultrathin membranes,” says John Hart, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity at MIT. “We believe this is the first study that has tailored the manufacturing of graphene toward membrane applications, which require the graphene to be seamless, cover the substrate fully, and be of high quality.”

Hart is the senior author on the paper, which appears online in the journal Applied Materials and Interfaces. The study includes first author Piran Kidambi, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University; MIT graduate students Dhanushkodi Mariappan and Nicholas Dee; Sui Zhang of the National University of Singapore; Andrey Vyatskikh, a former student at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology who is now at Caltech; and Rohit Karnik, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.

Growing graphene

For many researchers, graphene is ideal for use in filtration membranes. A single sheet of graphene resembles atomically thin chicken wire and is composed of carbon atoms joined in a pattern that makes the material extremely tough and impervious to even the smallest atom, helium.

Researchers, including Karnik’s group, have developed techniques to fabricate graphene membranes and precisely riddle them with tiny holes, or nanopores, the size of which can be tailored to filter out specific molecules. For the most part, scientists synthesize graphene through a process called chemical vapor deposition, in which they first heat a sample of copper foil and then deposit onto it a combination of carbon and other gases.

Graphene-based membranes have mostly been made in small batches in the laboratory, where researchers can carefully control the material’s growth conditions. However, Hart and his colleagues believe that if graphene membranes are ever to be used commercially they will have to be produced in large quantities, at high rates, and with reliable performance.

“We know that for industrialization, it would need to be a continuous process,” Hart says. “You would never be able to make enough by making just pieces. And membranes that are used commercially need to be fairly big ­— some so big that you would have to send a poster-wide sheet of foil into a furnace to make a membrane.”

A factory roll-out

The researchers set out to build an end-to-end, start-to-finish manufacturing process to make membrane-quality graphene.

The team’s setup combines a roll-to-roll approach — a common industrial approach for continuous processing of thin foils — with the common graphene-fabrication technique of chemical vapor deposition, to manufacture high-quality graphene in large quantities and at a high rate. The system consists of two spools, connected by a conveyor belt that runs through a small furnace. The first spool unfurls a long strip of copper foil, less than 1 centimeter wide. When it enters the furnace, the foil is fed through first one tube and then another, in a “split-zone” design.

While the foil rolls through the first tube, it heats up to a certain ideal temperature, at which point it is ready to roll through the second tube, where the scientists pump in a specified ratio of methane and hydrogen gas, which are deposited onto the heated foil to produce graphene.

Graphene starts forming in little islands, and then those islands grow together to form a continuous sheet,” Hart says. “By the time it’s out of the oven, the graphene should be fully covering the foil in one layer, kind of like a continuous bed of pizza.”

As the graphene exits the furnace, it’s rolled onto the second spool. The researchers found that they were able to feed the foil continuously through the system, producing high-quality graphene at a rate of 5 centimers per minute. Their longest run lasted almost four hours, during which they produced about 10 meters of continuous graphene.

“If this were in a factory, it would be running 24-7,” Hart says. “You would have big spools of foil feeding through, like a printing press.”

Flexible design

Once the researchers produced graphene using their roll-to-roll method, they unwound the foil from the second spool and cut small samples out. They cast the samples with a polymer mesh, or support, using a method developed by scientists at Harvard University, and subsequently etched away the underlying copper.

“If you don’t support graphene adequately, it will just curl up on itself,” Kidambi says. “So you etch copper out from underneath and have graphene directly supported by a porous polymer — which is basically a membrane.”

The polymer covering contains holes that are larger than graphene’s pores, which Hart says act as microscopic “drumheads,” keeping the graphene sturdy and its tiny pores open.

The researchers performed diffusion tests with the graphene membranes, flowing a solution of water, salts, and other molecules across each membrane. They found that overall, the membranes were able to withstand the flow while filtering out molecules. Their performance was comparable to graphene membranes made using conventional, small-batch approaches.

The team also ran the process at different speeds, with different ratios of methane and hydrogen gas, and characterized the quality of the resulting graphene after each run. They drew up plots to show the relationship between graphene’s quality and the speed and gas ratios of the manufacturing process. Kidambi says that if other designers can build similar setups, they can use the team’s plots to identify the settings they would need to produce a certain quality of graphene.

“The system gives you a great degree of flexibility in terms of what you’d like to tune graphene for, all the way from electronic to membrane applications,” Kidambi says.

Looking forward, Hart says he would like to find ways to include polymer casting and other steps that currently are performed by hand, in the roll-to-roll system.

“In the end-to-end process, we would need to integrate more operations into the manufacturing line,” Hart says. “For now, we’ve demonstrated that this process can be scaled up, and we hope this increases confidence and interest in graphene-based membrane technologies, and provides a pathway to commercialization.”

May 18, 2018 | More

This MIT program will purchase carbon offsets for student travel

Lead by Yakov Berenshteyn, (LGO ’19) a new Jetset Offset program will reduce the environmental impact of student travel by purchasing carbon offsets.

In one week about 100 MIT Sloan students will fly around the world to study regional economies, immerse themselves in different cultures, and produce more than 300 metric tons [PDF] of carbon dioxide.

Thanks to the necessary air travel for study tours, those students are producing the same emissions in two weeks as 1,600 average American car commuters would in that same timeframe, said Yakov Berenshteyn, LGO ’19.

While Berenshteyn doesn’t want to do away with student travel at MIT Sloan, he is hoping to lessen the impact on the environment, with the help of his Jetset Offset program.

The pilot involves purchasing carbon offsets for the three MBA and one Master of Finance study tours for spring break 2018.

Carbon offsets are vetted projects that help capture or avoid carbon emissions. These projects can include reforestation and building renewable energy sources. The reductions might not have an immediate impact on emissions, Berenshteyn said, but they are “still the primary best practice for us to use.”

“This is raising awareness of, and starting to account for, our environmental impacts from student travel,” Berenshteyn said. “You don’t get much choice in the efficiency of the airplane that you board.”

The idea for the offset came in October, when Berenshteyn was helping to plan the January Leaders for Global Operations Domestic Plant Trek. Berenshteyn at the time realized for the two weeks of the trip, the roughly 50 students and staff would be logging a total of 400,000 air miles.

Berenshteyn spent months researching an answer for counterbalancing the burned jet fuel. He also got input from MIT Sloan professor John Sterman. Berenshteyn said he looked at other options, like funding more local projects such as solar panel installation, but the calculations were too small scale to make much of a difference.

Universities around the world are applying carbon offsets and carbon-neutral practices in some form to their operations. Berenshteyn said Duke University has something similar to the air travel and carbon offsets that he proposes for MIT Sloan.

The Leaders for Global Operations program purchased 67 metric tons of offsets through Gold Standard for the January student trek, and those offsets are going to reforestation efforts in Panama.

In the case of the four upcoming study trips, MIT Sloan’s student life office is picking up the tab.

“My colleague Paul Buckley (associate director of student life) had an idea for something like this close to a decade ago, when he first arrived in student life, and noted the extent to which our students travel during their time at Sloan,” said Katie Ferrari, associate director of student life. “So this was an especially meaningful partnership for us. Yakov’s idea is exactly the kind of student initiative we love to support. He is practicing principled, innovative leadership with an eye toward improving the world.”

Ferrari said the support for the pilot this semester is a stake in the ground for incorporating carbon offset purchases into future student-organized travel — which is what Berenshteyn said was his hope for launching the pilot.

“It should be at Sloan, if a student is planning a trip, they have their checklist of insurance, emergency numbers, and carbon offsets,” he said.

March 21, 2018 | More

A machine-learning approach to inventory-constrained dynamic pricing

LGO thesis advisor and MIT Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor David Simchi-Levi lead a team on a new study showing how a model-based algorithm known as Thompson sampling can be used for revenue management.

In 1933, William R. Thompson published an article on a Bayesian model-based algorithm that would ultimately become known as Thompson sampling. This heuristic was largely ignored by the academic community until recently, when it became the subject of intense study, thanks in part to internet companies that successfully implemented it for online ad display.

Thompson sampling chooses actions for addressing the exploration-exploitation in the multiarmed bandit problem to maximize performance and continually learn, acquiring new information to improve future performance.

In a new study, “Online Network Revenue Management Using Thompson Sampling,” MIT Professor David Simchi-Levi and his team have now demonstrated that Thompson sampling can be used for a revenue management problem, where demand function is unknown.

Incorporating inventory constraints

A main challenge to adopting Thompson sampling for revenue management is that the original method does not incorporate inventory constraints. However, the authors show that Thompson sampling can be naturally combined with a classical linear program formulation to include inventory constraints.

The result is a dynamic pricing algorithm that incorporates domain knowledge and has strong theoretical performance guarantees as well as promising numerical performance results.

Interestingly, the authors demonstrate that Thompson sampling achieves poor performance when it does not take into account domain knowledge.

Simchi-Levi says, “It is exciting to demonstrate that Thomson sampling can be adapted to combine a classical linear program formulation, to include inventory constraints, and to see that this method can be applied to general revenue management problems in the business-to-consumer and business-to-business environments.”

Industry application improves revenue

The proposed dynamic pricing algorithm is highly flexible and is applicable in a range of industries, from airlines and internet advertising all the way to online retailing.

The new study, which has just been accepted by the journal Operations Research, is part of a larger research project by Simchi-Levi that combines machine learning and stochastic optimization to improve revenue, margins, and market share.

Algorithms developed in this research stream have been implemented at companies such as Groupon, a daily market maker, Rue La La, a U.S. online flash sales retailer, B2W Digital, a large online retailer in Latin America, and at a large brewing company, where Simchi-Levi and his team optimized the company’s promotion and pricing in various retail channels.

March 19, 2018 | More

A revolutionary model to optimize promotion pricing

William F. Pounds Professor of Management and LGO thesis advisor Georgia Perakis recently authored a Huffington Post article about using a scientific, data-driven approach to determine optimal promotion pricing.
Grocery stores run price promotions all the time. You see them when a particular brand of spaghetti sauce is $1 off or your favorite coffee is buy one get one free. Promotions are used for a variety of reasons from increasing traffic in stores to boosting sales of a particular brand. They are responsible for a lot of revenue, as a 2009 A.C. Nielsen study found that 42.8% of grocery store sales in the U.S. are made during promotions. This raises an important question: How much money does a retailer leave on the table by using current pricing practices as opposed to a more scientific, data-driven approach in order to determine optimal promotional prices?

The promotion planning tools currently available in the industry are mostly manual and based on “what-if” scenarios. In other words, supermarkets tend to use intuition and habit to decide when, how deep, and how often to promote products. Yet promotion pricing is very complicated. Product managers have to solve problems like whether or not to promote an item in a particular week, whether or not to promote two items together, and how to order upcoming discounts ― not to mention incorporating seasonality issues in their decision-making process.

There are plenty of people in the industry with years of experience who are good at this, but their brains are not computers. They can’t process the massive amounts of data available to determine optimal pricing. As a result, lots of money is left on the table.

To revolutionize the field of promotion pricing, my team of PhD students from the Operations Research Center at MIT, our collaborators from Oracle, and I sought to build a model based on several goals. It had to be simple and realistic. It had to be easy to estimate directly from the data, but also computationally easy and scalable. In addition, it had to lead to interesting and valuable results for retailers in practice.

Read the full post at The Huffington Post.

Georgia Perakis is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management and a Professor of Operations Research and Operations Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

March 16, 2018 | More

JDA Software collaborates with MIT to advance research in intelligent supply chains

David Simchi-Levi, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and LGO thesis advisor is leading a multiyear collaboration with JDA Software.

MIT will work with JDA, leveraging their business domain expertise and client base, to advance research in intelligent supply chains.

The collaboration aims to improve supply chain performance and customer experiences by leveraging data, computational power, and machine learning.

Professor of civil and environmental engineering David Simchi-Levi says, “I am very pleased JDA has entered into a multiyear research collaboration with MIT, and I look forward to working with the JDA Lab and teams. The collaboration will support our students and advance research in machine learning, optimization and consumer behavior modeling. “

This collaboration with JDA brings real world challenges, opportunities, and data, and will help to further the advancement of MIT’s world-class research in supply chain and retail analytics.

The MIT and JDA research teams will create real-world use cases to expand predictive demand, intelligent execution, and smart supply chain and retail planning that will yield a unique business strategy. These use cases will explore new data science algorithms that combine natural language processing, predictive behavior, and prescriptive optimization by taking into account past behaviors, and predicting and changing future behaviors.

“It is more critical than ever to infuse innovation into every aspect of the supply chain, as edge technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) are essential to digitally transforming supply chains. This collaboration allows us to tap into the extraordinary mindshare at MIT to accelerate the research into more intelligent and cognitive capabilities moving forward,” says Desikan Madhavanur, executive vice president and chief development officer at JDA.

“We are excited to be working on the future of supply chain with MIT to double down on researching enhanced, innovative, and value-driven supply chain solutions,” Madhavanur says.

The multiyear collaboration will support students on the research teams and the development of knowledge and education.

Simchi-Levi will speak at JDA’s annual customer conference, JDA FOCUS 2018, in Orlando, May 6-9, 2018.

March 16, 2018 | More

Making appliances and energy grids more efficient

Professor of electrical engineering and frequent LGO thesis advisor James Kirtley Jr., is working on a new design for fans that offers high efficiency at an affordable cost, which could have a huge impact for developing countries.

The ceiling fan is one of the most widely used mechanical appliances in the world. It is also, in many cases, one of the least efficient.

In India, ceiling fans have been used for centuries to get relief from the hot, humid climate. Hand-operated fans called punkahs can be traced as far back as 500 BC and were fixtures of life under the British Raj in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today’s ceiling fans run on electricity and are more ubiquitous than ever. The Indian Fan Manufacturers’ Association reported producing 40 million units in 2014 alone, and the number of fans in use nationwide is estimated in the hundreds of millions, perhaps as many as half a billion.

James Kirtley Jr., a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, has been investigating the efficiency of small motors like those found in ceiling fans for more than 30 years.

“A typical ceiling fan in India draws about 80 watts of electricity, and it does less than 10 watts of work on the air,” he says. “That gives you an efficiency of just 12.5 percent.”

Low-efficiency fans pose a variety of energy problems. Consumers don’t get good value for the electricity they buy from the grid, and energy utilities have to deal with the power losses and grid instability that result from low-quality appliances.

But there’s a reason these low-efficiency fans, driven by single-phase induction motors, are so popular: They’re inexpensive. “The best fans on the market in India — those that move a reasonable amount of air and have a low input power — are actually quite costly,” Kirtley says. The high price puts them out of reach for most of India’s population.

Now Kirtley, with support from the Tata Center for Technology and Design, is working on a single-phase motor design that offers high efficiency at an affordable cost. He says the potential impact is huge.

“If every fan in India saved just 2 watts of electricity, that would be the equivalent of a nuclear power plant’s generation capacity,” he says. “If we could make these fans substantially more efficient than they are, operating off of DC electricity, you could imagine extending the use of ceiling fans into rural areas where they could provide a benefit to the quality of life.”

Mohammad Qasim, a graduate student in Kirtley’s research group and a fellow in the Tata Center, says the benefits could reach multiple stakeholders. “Having more efficient appliances means a lower electricity bill for the consumer and fewer power losses on the utility’s side,” he says.

Choosing the right motor

“The idea is to try and hit that high-efficiency mark at a cost that is only a little more than that of existing low-efficiency fans,” Kirtley says. “We imagine a fan that might have an input power of 15 watts and an efficiency of 75 percent.”

To accomplish that, Kirtley and Qasim are exploring two approaches: creating an improved version of the conventional induction motor, or switching to a brushless DC motor, which may be more expensive but can deliver superior efficiency.

In either case, they plan to use power electronics — devices that control and optimize the flow of electricity through the motor — to improve the power quality and grid compatibility of the fan. Power electronics can also be used to convert AC electricity from the grid into DC, opening up the possibility of using DC motors in ceiling fans.

Brushless DC motors, which are the younger technology, use permanent magnets to establish a magnetic field that creates torque between the motor’s two main components, the rotor and stator. “You can think of it almost like a dog chasing his tail,” Kirtley says. “If I establish the magnetic field in some direction, the magnet turns to align itself in that direction. As I rotate the magnetic field, the magnet moves to align, and that keeps the rotor spinning.”

Induction motors, on the other hand, use no magnets but instead create a rotating magnetic field by flowing current through the stator coils. Because they use AC electricity, they are directly grid compatible, but their efficiency and stability can be improved by using power electronics to optimize the speed of the motor.

International collaboration

In determining which path to take, induction or brushless DC motor, Kirtley and Qasim are leaning on the expertise of Vivek Agarwal, a professor of electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IITB). Agarwal is a specialist in power electronics.

“The collaboration with Professor Agarwal’s group is so important,” Kirtley says. “They can give us a good idea of what the two different power electronics packages will cost. You would typically think of the brushless motor package as the more expensive option, but it may or may not be.”

Outside of the lab, on-the-ground detective work is key. When Qasim visited India in January 2017, he hit the streets of Mumbai with one of the graduate students from Agarwal’s lab. Together, they visited people across the ceiling fan industry, from manufacturers to repairmen in street-side shops.

“This visit was a big motivation for us,” says Qasim, noting that they were able to glean insights that will help them design a more robust and durable motor. “We want to understand the major maintenance issues that cause these motors to break down so that we can avoid common sources of failure. It was important to make the effort to talk to local people who had real experience repairing these motors.”

Usha International, an appliance manufacturer based in New Delhi, has been a key advisor in the early stages of the project and helped identify ceiling fans as a critical focus area. Engineers at Usha agree with Kirtley’s assessment that there is an unmet need for high-efficiency motors at relatively low cost, and Qasim says the Usha team shared what they had learned from designing their own high-efficiency fans.

Now, Kirtley and Qasim are engaged in the daunting task of envisioning how an ideal motor might look.

“This is a very challenging problem, to design a motor that is both efficient and inexpensive,” Kirtley says. “There’s still a question of which type of motor is going to be the best one to pursue. If we can get a good understanding of what exactly the machine ought to do, we can proceed to do a good machine design.”

Qasim has built a test facility in Kirtley’s laboratory at MIT, which he is using to characterize a variety of existing fans. His experimental data, combined with his fieldwork in India, should provide a set of design requirements for the improved motor. From there, he and Kirtley will work with the IITB researchers to pair the machine with an appropriate power electronics package.

In reducing the power demands of the standard ceiling fan by as much as 65 watts, they hope to have a far-reaching, positive effect on India’s energy system. But that’s only the start. Ultimately, they believe efficient, affordable motors can be applied to a number of common appliances, potentially saving gigawatts of electricity in a country that is working hard to expand reliable energy access for what will soon be the world’s largest population.

This article appeared in the Autumn 2017 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.

March 2, 2018 | More


This tool is pushing people to take action on climate change

This tool is pushing people to take action on climate change

The global temperature is rising and an international agreement is needed to avoid irreversible damage to the planet.

You’ve got two hours to find a solution.

That’s the mission in the role-play simulation World Climate, and according to new research from MIT Sloan professor John Sterman, it might also be the key to understanding and encouraging environmental change.

In World Climate, participants take on the role of delegates to the UN climate change summits, and negotiate face-to-face with other participants to reach a climate change agreement. Sterman said the negotiators seek to limit global warming to no more than the 2 degrees Celsius — 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — limit affirmed at the Paris climate summit, while also taking their economic and political situations into account. Participants get immediate feedback on their proposed agreements by using the Climate Rapid Overview and Decision Support (C-ROADS) simulator.

October 16, 2018 | More

10 MIT alumnae named to Inc.’s Female Founders 100

10 MIT alumnae named to Inc.’s Female Founders 100

Shape-shifting furniture. Rocket launchers. A blind audition hiring app.

The ideas from the minds of female founders run the gamut of purpose and scope, which is why the entrepreneurs behind those concepts made the recent Inc. 100 female founders list. The publication wrote that it chose the businesswomen because of their work in the last year, and because their “smarts are rattling industries far and wide.”

October 16, 2018 | More

credit card offers

What an MIT professor learned analyzing 1 million credit card offers

Shopping for a new credit card? Speaking on MIT Sloan’s “Data Made to Matter” podcast, MIT Sloan finance professor Antoinette Schoar has some advice: Read the fine print, or at least the Schumer box. And double-check that your financial adviser is looking out for your well-being.

Why investing in analytic infrastructure is important to your work
“Intellectually and from a science perspective, I’ve always been really interested in understanding how people’s psychology and behavior influence all the decisions and choices they make, and it’s very exciting in economics and finance nowadays that we’re trying to model the human decisions much more realistically and much more holistically than ever before. And the big data that we have now that gives us so many dimensions of what people do also allows us to do that.

“Right now there’s a huge rat race going on that all financial service companies, and companies in general, are now really trying to catch up in building internal teams, in building this analytic capability, to mine the data and to compete on all these dimensions.

“I think on the one hand it actually means that products will be more and more tailored to our needs, which is a good thing, right?”

Data that matters
“What we seemed to find in our study is that the [credit card] offers that are offered to less educated people rely in their pricing much more on these additional fees. Late fees, over limit fees, maybe default APRs that switch on once you’ve had a default. While people that are more educated, their cards seem to rely much more on the quite straightforward features, like they are paying an annual fee, and they’re paying an interest rate, but they are relying much less on these late fees and over limit fees.

“We did differentiate or compare financial advisers who are what is called fiduciary standard advisers, so they are abiding by a fiduciary standards rule that means they have to put their client’s interest first. And we compared those to advisers who are actually just brokers. And brokers in the U.S. only have to abide by a rule that forces them to not defraud the customer, but that’s a very low bar if you think about it, right? And so we actually found that the fiduciary standard advisers were giving better advice than the brokers.”

What should you focus on in the future?
“The more companies can model our behavioral biases, the more they can use them in extracting rents from us or catching us in moments when we’re inattentive or when we are not necessarily focused enough on choosing the right credit card, the right mortgage, or any of these products.”

August 24, 2018 | More

lunch can unite your company

This is how lunch can unite your company

Christine Marcus, SF ’12, spent her career in government. The former deputy chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Energy was accustomed to food as fuel. At MIT, she realized that food was actually big business. Alchemista, where Marcus is co-founder and CEO, manages daily meal perks for companies such as Draft Kings and Cengage. It’s a win-win: Colleagues connect over unique lunches from indie restaurants, and mom-and-pop spots such as Cornish Pasty in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood and Oasis Brazilian Steakhouse in Medford, a Boston suburb, enjoy new catering revenue.

“We specialize in things you might not typically see at an office lunch,” she said.

What’s the business case for better lunches? 
Most offices have some kind of “culture experience’” title, but that person always has many responsibilities. It might not be their focus, especially as a company grows. We serve clients buffet-style. It’s not a boxed lunch. People break bread together versus have a meal delivered. It’s a huge difference. Sales guys can talk with engineers; marketing people can talk with customer success people. It’s a pain point, senior folks say, as companies grow. It’s more difficult to maintain a startup vibe and have everyone feel like a family when it’s 150 people. People don’t know names any more. It starts to feel like a different company. They hire us to help them maintain that startup vibe. 

Why did you start Alchemista while at MIT Sloan?
At Sloan, we were in class all day, from 8 to 5, and had catered meals. The food was generic, uninspiring. I think I put on 10 pounds in the first months, gaining weight on food that wasn’t that good. One of my classmates, Sal Lupoli, was in the restaurant industry [Sal’s Pizza, and formerly of Salvatore’s] and had noticed the same thing. We started talking about the need to connect mom-and-pop restaurants that made great meals to the corporate, institutional side. It’s hard to access that market if you’re not a big catering company, if you’re not Aramark. That was the inspiration: to get better food to people who order frequently.

How did MIT support your idea?
In 2011, we started reaching out to students to beta test. We made $50,000 by accident in school and realized that there’s a big market. Through research and class projects, I realized that this is a massive industry, and there’s a desire by restaurants to get lucrative catering [jobs]. We formally launched in 2012. We bootstrapped at the beginning. Then I raised under $1 million in venture capital and was able to hire a few employees. Sal is now on the board, and we do about 30,000 meals a month.

August 24, 2018 | More

HOME | NEWSROOM | ARTICLES This pad-free wireless charger can power multiple devices at once

This pad-free wireless charger can power multiple devices at once

magine charging your phone, tablet, and wearable device, at the same time, in any direction from the same power source.

Pi is working to make that a reality.

“Pi is unique in the power space because we are working on multi-device, orientation agnostic, wireless power,” said CEO and co-founder John MacDonald, MBA ’15. “We can charge multiple devices from the same power source — up to four at a time — without requiring precise positioning on a pad, but still being compatible with existing, safe standards.”

Pi’s charging technology can sense a device’s low battery and adjust its magnetic field based on where the device is positioned, rather than requiring the user to place the device on a specific pad or station.

“Our first product applies this to phones and small consumer devices in the United States, but we’re going to bring it to a variety of applications around the world over the next five years,” he added.

Pi’s roots extend back to early 2014, when MacDonald and his future Pi co-founder and chief technology officer, Lixin Shi, PhD ’15, enrolled in MIT Sloan’s New Enterprises course.

The two men were part of a team that pitched a wireless power project during a class competition. While they didn’t win the faculty judges’ favor, they did earn an audience choice award — giving the students the confidence to explore building a commercial wireless charger.

In the summer of 2015, the team decided to try for a first round of funding. By the fall of that year, Pi had officially launched.

August 3, 2018 | More

New ideas are getting harder to find — and more expensive

New ideas are getting harder to find — and more expensive

It’s an age of astonishing technological progress — but are we starting to have a harder time coming up with new ideas?

Yes, argues a group of MIT Sloan and Stanford University researchers, who found in a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in March that the productivity of scientific research is falling sharply across the board.

That, they argue, is because researchers are putting in more and more effort to sustain the same — or even a slightly lower — pace of idea generation as we experienced half a century ago.

“Just to sustain the constant growth in GDP per person, the U.S. must double the amount of research effort put into searching for a new idea every 13 years to offset the increased difficulty in finding new ideas,” write MIT Sloan professor of applied economics John Van Reenen, Stanford University professors Nicholas Bloom and Charles I. Jones, and Stanford doctoral candidate Michael Webb.

Moore’s Law — the observed doubling of the number of transistors packed onto new computer central processing units every two years — stands as a prime example. The doubling effect represents a growth rate of 35 percent each year, and that growth is driven only by ever-more-extensive research, the authors write.

“Many commentators note that Moore’s Law is not a law of nature, but instead results from intense research effort: Doubling the transistor density is often viewed as a goal or target for research programs,” they write.

They continue: “The constant exponential growth implied by Moore’s Law has been achieved only by a massive increase in the amount of resources devoted to pushing the frontier forward.”

In fact, research efforts toward semiconductor improvement have risen by a factor of 18 since the early 1970s, the study found, while productivity has fallen by the same factor. Taken together, that means it’s about 18 times harder today to push Moore’s Law forward than it was half a century ago, the authors write.

August 3, 2018 | More

How do online bots shift opinions?

How do online bots shift opinions?

How do you win an election? You can spend money. You can canvass neighborhoods. You can take meals at small-town diners, crisscross the country by bus, parade your charismatic family before the cameras.

But don’t forget the Twitter bots.

“If you’re smart about putting bots in a network in particular places, you can pretty easily manipulate people’s opinions,” said Tauhid Zaman, associate professor of operations management at MIT Sloan. “And whether an election or something else, this can help you achieve the outcomes that you want.” In a new working paper coauthored with MIT Operations Research Center graduate student David Scott Hunter, Zaman outlines how to optimize shifts in ideology using bots in a social network.

They begin with the assumption that, though people update their opinions as they receive new information, this process dampens over time; opinions harden. “You’ll listen to me less and less if you already have a lot of information, and something new won’t likely change your opinion,” Zaman said.

Working from this foundation, Zaman and Hunter built a model of opinion dynamics in social networks and dropped in a handful of bots whose opinions were preset and immutable (so-called “stubborn agents”). They developed an algorithm to identify targets for the bots to influence. These were generally people who didn’t already have firm opinions on a particular issue and who could reach many other people. Once these targets were identified, the bots could go to work, pushing their message on the targets.

One way to measure the effectiveness of this process would be to observe how the average opinion in the network changed as a result of the bots. Overall, were people more inclined to align themselves with the bots after a set period? But for Zaman and Hunter, a more interesting consideration was the specific number of individuals whose opinions shifted over a set threshold. “This is an important measure because once you get over this threshold, maybe then you go and do something like buy a product, watch a movie, or join a protest,” Zaman said. “Or maybe you go vote.”

It turns out the structure of the underlying network has a big impact on how effective bots can be. Zaman found that on polarized networks, a few bots are able to shift a disproportionate number of people over a threshold. This is important because many modern social networks have such a polarized structure, with most people only maintaining friends with people of similar ideologies. This is even more relevant given the ongoing discussion of foreign meddling in U.S. elections, and the upcoming 2018 mid-term elections. Because of how polarized the U.S. has become in recent years, the democratic process is highly vulnerable to this type of cyberattack, Zaman said. “When it comes to bots in a polarized network, a little bit goes a long way.”

This is the third in a three-part series examining new work about Twitter, influence, and bots by MIT Sloan associate professor Tauhid Zaman. Read ‘Solving Twitter’s follow-back problem‘ and ‘A new method for rooting out social media bots.’

August 3, 2018 | More

Here’s how ‘question bursts’ make better brainstorms

Here’s how ‘question bursts’ make better brainstorms

It’s among the largest of projects that Ling Xiang, a director of product management at Oracle, has encountered: helping to lead an organizational change that is part of the company’s transformation from a software developer into a cloud-based service provider.

The transition will require bucking old ways of thinking to adopt new ones. But Xiang expects such a drastic shift won’t come without some measure of resistance, and figuring out how to overcome it will require that she, too, explore new leadership methods and avenues of thought to ensure everyone comes on board.

June 15, 2018 | More

Sheryl Sandberg on Facebook's missteps and what comes next

Sheryl Sandberg on Facebook’s missteps and what comes next

The more they ask “Could we?” the more creative people become. But the more they ask “Should we?” the more ethical they become.

That was the message from Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg at MIT’s 2018 commencement ceremony, held June 8 on campus.

Facebook in the past year has faced a series of privacy scandals and ethical questions, most notably when it was reported that consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had mined the personal data of millions of Facebook users and used it to influence voter opinion. Facebook has also been criticized for failing to contain the spread of fake news.

June 15, 2018 | More

Innovating around the box

Innovating around the box

Managers today are told that improving their business incrementally each year is no longer good enough. Rather, to succeed they must disrupt themselves — revolutionize their company and their industry — before a competitor beats them to it.

In a May 16 webinar for MIT Sloan Alumni Online, senior lecturer David Robertson discussed a third way that businesses can grow, taken from his 2017 book, “The Power of Little Ideas: A Low-Risk, High-Reward Approach to Innovation.” Rather than disrupt a business, companies can grow by finding ways to innovate around existing products.

“When you have an existing product, and have an existing market, you shouldn’t be quick to jump away from it and explore disruptive, new innovations,” Robertson said. “That’s prone to failure and is often very expensive and risky. Look to see if you can innovate around it.”

In the webinar, Robertson explains:

· What is the third way?

· How is this different than other approaches to innovation?

· Which approaches are the most important for managers to know?

What is the third way?
Robertson said too often he hears stories about mature companies feeling forced to choose between incremental change and disruption when a third way exists: Innovate around existing products and services. Lego chose this path after facing near disaster.

In the late 1990s, Lego got caught up in the disruptive innovation frenzy that gripped corporate thought. After 15 straight years of 14 percent average annual growth, sales plateaued. Lego became convinced that the brick, whose patents had expired in the 1980s, was becoming a commodity. The company’s executives convinced themselves they had to overhaul their business, move away from their iconic brick, and reinvent the future of play before a competitor did. The result was four years of expensive failures. The company almost went bankrupt.

But Lego learned a lesson: when it went away from the brick, customers had no reason to purchase Lego toys. While it wasn’t sufficient to offer only a box of bricks, it was necessary. When Lego went back to the brick and innovated around it, customers returned to the brand and sales rebounded. (Robertson was the Lego Professor of Innovation and Technology Management at the International Institute for Management Development and wrote “Brick by Brick,” a book about Lego’s success in innovation.)

To pursue this third way, a company must start by defining the product or service it wants to innovate around, then decide its business promise to its customers, then design and deliver those complementary innovations to market.

Lego checked all of those boxes when it introduced Lego Batman in 2006. A major movie followed in 2017. Along with Lego Batman, there were a series of complementary products designed to increase kids’ involvement with the story. There was a comic book, Happy Meal toys, a video game, and an iPhone tie-in. (Open Siri, say “Hey computer,” and see what happens.)

How is this different than other approaches to innovation?
An incremental improvement to current products is a necessary activity for any company, but usually only keeps you abreast of the competition. Disruptive innovations like Uber can change an entire industry. But in between the two is the third way, which any company can pursue. The secret: Build a deep relationship with your customer. Date your customer, and don’t fight your competitor, Robertson said.

Between 2010 to 2015, GoPro practiced this third-way approach and achieved five years of 90 percent average annual sales growth. The company developed not only a rugged, waterproof action camera, but also a smartphone app, a variety of camera mounts, desktop software to turn raw footage into polished movies, and a social media site for customers to share their adventures. By “dating their customer” GoPro was able to understand what they wanted to achieve with their cameras, and provide the complementary products and services to help them.

Sony thought it could knock GoPro off its perch, and developed a better and less expensive rival camera. Yet, it barely dented GoPro’s market share. Why? Sony fought the competition while GoPro was dating the customer. Sony had a better and cheaper camera, but GoPro had a portfolio of complementary products and services that together helped customers capture their adventures.

Which innovation approaches are the most important for managers to know?
There are several types of innovation, Robertson said: incremental improvements, lean-startup, blue-ocean, disruptive, and Robertson’s third-way. Successful companies cycle through these different types of innovation over the years. They may start as blue-ocean innovators, like GoPro, but end up innovating around a product to hold onto their core markets. “Managers need to know all these different types of innovations and practice them,” Robertson said.

But knowing how to innovate around a product or service is especially important, Robertson said, because it can lead to new opportunities. Consider the company behind the Spin Pop electric lollipops. The Spin Pop has a tiny motor that spins a lollipop, adding a new feature to an existing product. The company then developed the SpinBrush, which had a similar motor-and-battery combination to power an inexpensive electric toothbrush (a “blue ocean” innovation). The SpinBrush was acquired by Procter & Gamble for $475 million. Procter & Gamble then used the SpinBrush to innovate around its Crest brand and expand it from a toothpaste brand to an oral care brand. Crest now has an electric toothbrush, floss, white strips, mouthwash, and other products. By innovating around the core toothpaste product, Crest was able to revive sales for the toothpaste, as well as gain revenues from the complementary products.

“Too often we jump away from our existing customers and existing products,” Robertson said. “Innovating around those can be incredibly valuable and open up new opportunities for growth.”

Watch the full webinar below.

June 8, 2018 | More


MIT reshapes itself to shape the future

MIT reshapes itself to shape the future

MIT today announced a new $1 billion commitment to address the global opportunities and challenges presented by the prevalence of computing and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). The initiative marks the single largest investment in computing and AI by an American academic institution, and will help position the United States to lead the world in preparing for the rapid evolution of computing and AI.

At the heart of this endeavor will be the new MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, made possible by a $350 million foundational gift from Mr. Schwarzman, the chairman, CEO and co-founder of Blackstone, a leading global asset manager.

Headquartered in a signature new building on MIT’s campus, the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will be an interdisciplinary hub for work in computer science, AI, data science, and related fields. The College will:

  • reorient MIT to bring the power of computing and AI to all fields of study at MIT, allowing the future of computing and AI to be shaped by insights from all other disciplines;
  • create 50 new faculty positions that will be located both within the College and jointly with other departments across MIT — nearly doubling MIT’s academic capability in computing and AI;
  • give MIT’s five schools a shared structure for collaborative education, research, and innovation in computing and AI;
  • educate students in every discipline to responsibly use and develop AI and computing technologies to help make a better world; and
  • transform education and research in public policy and ethical considerations relevant to computing and AI.

With the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing’s founding, MIT seeks to strengthen its position as a key international player in the responsible and ethical evolution of technologies that are poised to fundamentally transform society. Amid a rapidly evolving geopolitical environment that is constantly being reshaped by technology, the College will have significant impact on our nation’s competitiveness and security.

“As computing reshapes our world, MIT intends to help make sure it does so for the good of all,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “In keeping with the scope of this challenge, we are reshaping MIT. The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will constitute both a global center for computing research and education, and an intellectual foundry for powerful new AI tools. Just as important, the College will equip students and researchers in any discipline to use computing and AI to advance their disciplines and vice-versa, as well as to think critically about the human impact of their work. With uncommon insight and generosity, Mr. Schwarzman is enabling a bold agenda that will lead to a better world. I am deeply grateful for his commitment to our shared vision.”

Stephen A. Schwarzman is chairman, CEO and co-founder of Blackstone, one of the world’s leading investment firms, with approximately $440 billion in assets under management. Mr. Schwarzman is an active philanthropist with a history of supporting education, culture, and the arts, among other things. Whether in business or philanthropy, he has dedicated himself to tackling global-scale problems, with transformative and paradigm-shifting solutions.

This year, he gave $5 million to Harvard Business School to support the development of case studies and other programming that explore the implications of AI on industries and business. In 2015, Mr. Schwarzman donated $150 million to Yale University to establish the Schwarzman Center, a first-of-its-kind campus center in Yale’s historic Commons building. In 2013, he founded a highly selective international scholarship program, Schwarzman Scholars, at Tsinghua University in Beijing to educate future global leaders about China. At $578 million raised to date, the program is modeled on the Rhodes Scholarship and is the single largest philanthropic effort in China’s history coming largely from international donors.

“There is no more important opportunity or challenge facing our nation than to responsibly harness the power of artificial intelligence so that we remain competitive globally and achieve breakthroughs that will improve our entire society,” Mr. Schwarzman says. “We face fundamental questions about how to ensure that technological advancements benefit all — especially those most vulnerable to the radical changes AI will inevitably bring to the nature of the workforce. MIT’s initiative will help America solve these challenges and continue to lead on computing and AI throughout the 21st century and beyond.”

“As one of the world leaders in technological innovation, MIT has the right expertise and the right values to serve as the ‘true north’ of AI in pursuit of the answers we urgently need,” Mr. Schwarzman adds. “With the ability to bring together the best minds in AI research, development, and ethics, higher education is uniquely situated to be the incubator for solving these challenges in ways the private and public sectors cannot. Our hope is that this ambitious initiative serves as a clarion call to our government that massive financial investment in AI is necessary to ensure that America has a leading voice in shaping the future of these powerful and transformative technologies.”

New college, structure, building, and faculty

The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing represents the most significant structural change to MIT since the early 1950s, which saw the establishment of schools for management and for the humanities and social sciences:

  • The College is slated to open in Sept. 2019, with construction of a new building for the College scheduled to be completed in 2022.
  • Fifty new faculty positions will be created: 25 to be appointed to advance computing in the College, and 25 to be appointed jointly in the College and departments across MIT.
  • A new deanship will be established for the College.

Today’s news follows a period of consultation of the MIT faculty led by President Reif, Provost Martin Schmidt, and Dean of the School of Engineering Anantha Chandrakasan. The chair of the faculty, Professor Susan Silbey, also participated in these consultations. Reif and Schmidt have also received letters of support for the College from academic leadership across MIT.

“Because the journey we embark on today will be Institute-wide, we needed input from across MIT in order to establish the right vision,” Schmidt says. “Our planning benefited greatly from the imagination of many members of our community — and we will seek a great deal more input over the next year. By design, the College will not be a silo: It will be connective tissue for the whole Institute.”

“I see exciting possibilities in this new structure,” says Melissa Nobles, dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. “Faculty in a range of departments have a great deal to gain from new kinds of algorithmic tools — and a great deal of insight to offer their makers. Faculty in every school at MIT will be able to shape the work of the College.”

At its meeting on Oct. 5, the MIT Corporation — MIT’s board of trustees — endorsed the establishment of the College.

Corporation Chair Robert Millard says, “The new College positions MIT to lead in this important area, for the benefit of the United States and the world at large. In making this historic gift, Mr. Schwarzman has not only joined a select group of MIT’s most generous supporters, he has also helped give shape to a vision that will propel MIT into the future. We are all deeply grateful.”

Empowering the pursuit of MIT’s mission

The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will aspire to excellence in MIT’s three main areas of work: education, research, and innovation:

  • The College will teach students the foundations of computing broadly and provide integrated curricula designed to satisfy the high level of interest in majors that cross computer science with other disciplines, and in learning how machine learning and data science can be applied to a variety of fields.
  • It will seek to enable advances along the full spectrum of research — from fundamental, curiosity-driven inquiry to research on market-ready applications, in a wide range of MIT departments, labs, centers, and initiatives.

“As MIT’s partner in shaping the future of AI, IBM is excited by this new initiative,” says Ginni Rometty IBM chairman, president, and CEO. “The establishment of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing is an unprecedented investment in the promise of this technology. It will build powerfully on the pioneering research taking place through the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. Together, we will continue to unlock the massive potential of AI and explore its ethical and economic impacts on society.”

Sparking thought around policy and ethics

The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will seek to be not only a center of advances in computing, but also a place for teaching and research on relevant policy and ethics to better ensure that the groundbreaking technologies of the future are responsibly implemented in support of the greater good. To advance these priorities, the College will:

  • develop new curricula that will connect computer science and AI with other disciplines;
  • host forums to engage national leaders from business, government, academia, and journalism to examine the anticipated outcomes of advances in AI and machine learning, and to shape policies around the ethics of AI;
  • encourage scientists, engineers, and social scientists to collaborate on analysis of emerging technology, and on research that will serve industry, policymakers, and the broader research community; and
  • offer selective undergraduate research opportunities, graduate fellowships in ethics and AI, a seed-grant program for faculty, and a fellowship program to attract distinguished individuals from other universities, government, industry, and journalism.

“Computing is no longer the domain of the experts alone. It’s everywhere, and it needs to be understood and mastered by almost everyone. In that context, for a host of reasons, society is uneasy about technology — and at MIT, that’s a signal we must take very seriously,” President Reif says. “Technological advancements must go hand in hand with the development of ethical guidelines that anticipate the risks of such enormously powerful innovations. This is why we must make sure that the leaders we graduate offer the world not only technological wizardry but also human wisdom — the cultural, ethical, and historical consciousness to use technology for the common good.”

“The College’s attention to ethics matters enormously to me, because we will never realize the full potential of these advancements unless they are guided by a shared understanding of their moral implications for society,” Mr. Schwarzman says. “Advances in computing — and in AI in particular — have increasing power to alter the fabric of society. But left unchecked, these technologies could ultimately hurt more people than they help. We need to do everything we can to ensure all Americans can share in AI’s development. Universities are best positioned for fostering an environment in which everyone can embrace — not fear — the transformations ahead.”

In its pursuit of ethical questions, the College will bring together researchers in a wide range of MIT departments, labs, centers, and initiatives, such as the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab; the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society; the Operations Research Center; the Quest for Intelligence, and beyond.

“There is no doubt that artificial intelligence and automation will impact every facet of society. As we look to the future, we must utilize these important technologies to shape our world for the better and harness their power as a force for social good,” says Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. “I believe that MIT’s groundbreaking initiative, particularly its commitment to address policy and ethics alongside technological advancements, will play a crucial role in ensuring that AI is developed responsibly and used to make our world more just.”

Building on history and breadth

The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will build on MIT’s legacy of excellence in computation and the study of intelligence. In the 1950s, MIT Professor Marvin Minsky and others created the very idea of artificial intelligence:

  • Today, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) is by far the largest academic department at MIT. Forty percent of MIT’s most recent graduating class chose it, or a combination of it and another discipline, as their major. Its faculty boasts 10 of the 67 winners of the Turing Award, computing’s highest honor.
  • The largest laboratory at MIT is the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which was established in 2003 but has its roots in two pioneering MIT labs: the Artificial Intelligence Lab, established in 1959 to conduct pioneering research across a range of applications, and the Laboratory for Computer Science, established in 1963 to pursue a Department of Defense project for the development of a computer system accessible to a large number of people.
  • The College’s network function will rely on academic excellence across MIT. Outside of computer science and AI, the Institute hosts a high number of top-ranked departments, ready to be empowered by advances in these digital fields. U.S. News and World Report cites MIT as No. 1 in six graduate engineering specialties — and No. 1 in 17 disciplines and specialties outside of engineering, too, from biological sciences to economics.

“A bold move to reshape the frontiers of computing is what you would expect from MIT,” says Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Alphabet and a visiting innovation fellow at MIT. “I’m especially excited about the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, however, because it has such an obviously human agenda.” Schmidt also serves on the advisory boards of the MIT Quest for Intelligence and the MIT Work of the Future Task Force.

“We count many MIT graduates among our team at Apple, and have long admired how the school and its alumni approach technology with humanity in mind. MIT’s decision to focus on computing and AI across the entire institution shows tremendous foresight that will drive students and the world toward a better future,” says Apple CEO Tim Cook.

The path forward

On top of Mr. Schwarzman’s gift, MIT has raised an additional $300 million in support, totaling $650 million of the $1 billion required for the College. Further fundraising is being actively pursued by MIT’s senior administration.

Provost Schmidt has formed a committee to search for the College’s inaugural dean. He will also host forums in the coming days that will allow members of the MIT community to ask questions and offer suggestions about the College. The provost will work closely with the chair of the faculty and the dean of the School of Engineering to define the process for standing up the College.

“I am truly excited by the work ahead,” Schmidt says. “The MIT community will give shape and energy to the College we launch today.”

October 15, 2018 | More

Fabrics are the future

Fabrics are the future

Yoel Fink stands under an unassuming LED ceiling lamp wearing what appears to be just an ordinary baseball cap. “Do you hear it?” he asks. Semiconductor technology within the fibers of the hat is converting the audio encoded in light pulses to electrical pulses, he explains, and those pulses are then converted to sound. “This is one of the first examples of an advanced fabric. It looks like an ordinary hat but it’s really a sophisticated optical communication system.”

Fink and his team are shaping a new destiny for fabrics. Clothing as a communications system: A hat that picks up light transmissions and converts them to sound can hold life-saving potential. “Think about pedestrian safety and self-driving cars. Tremendous investments are going into cars. How about the pedestrians? Do we as pedestrians or bikers get to know if the car has detected us?” Fink asks. “With fabric optical communications your baseball cap can not only alert a car to your presence but importantly let you know if the car detected you. Fabrics for the self-driving future.”

This is just one example, Fink says, of how the next generation of fabrics could change how we think about all of them. An MIT professor of materials science and electrical engineering and CEO of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), a $300 million institute on the edge of campus, Fink is eager to share his enthusiasm for fabrics with the MIT community. “While all of this originated in basic science and engineering, we are focusing our efforts on transition to manufacturing and product,” he says. “We would not be here today if not for MIT’s focus on the importance of transitioning technology to the marketplace.”

Fink is a high-energy ideas person. He walks quickly and talks even faster during a tour of the AFFOA facility. He and his staff lean toward the same casual clothing – t-shirts and jeans (his are typically black, “the fastest way to lose two pounds” he quips), and there is a pronounced clarity of purpose as he darts through the building, highlighting the rapid prototyping space and describing AFFOA’s national advanced fabric prototyping network and the dozens of fabric ventures it’s helping to get started.

The overarching plan is to increase the value of fabrics to society, transforming them from something you buy-use-throw away to a platform for experiences and services such as communications and design-on-demand. Transforming fabrics requires new types of fiber technologies that encompass communications, energy storage, color change, physiological monitoring, and more. “We are proposing a ‘Moore’s Law’ analog for fibers,” Fink says. Just as the capabilities of microchips have grown exponentially over the last several decades, the capabilities of fibers are about to take off.

To enable a transformation of this magnitude one needs partners, AFFOA has assembled 130 organizations into a national advanced fabric prototyping network. Many from industry are involved in dozens of projects aimed at getting “Moore’s law fibers” into their products and processes. To rapidly engage industry and academia AFFOA has launched an innovative MicroAward program that is 12 weeks in duration and involves rapid iterations between AFFOA and a member seeking to address challenges in getting advanced fibers into fabrics and product. “At AFFOA our year is 90 days long. We call it shot-clock innovation,” says Fink.

These new “advanced fabrics” incorporate high-speed semiconductor devices, including light-emitting diodes and diode photodetectors, into soft fabric materials. “A lot of groups in the world today talk about ‘smart fabrics’ but in fact end up just inserting conductive materials into fabrics,” Fink says. “Metals on their own cannot do very complex operations. You can’t compute with a piece of metal,” Fink says. “To get sophisticated functionality into anything, you better involve the basic ingredient of modern technology – a semiconductor, which is what we are focusing on. We like to think about fabrics as the new software, capturing the opportunities to create new experiences and services through fabrics much in the same way that software has done over the past decade. For that we need not only technology but importantly entrepreneurs and investors to achieve that transformation and industry to make the product and help inform consumer preferences.”

Fink traces the root of his success to MIT’s meritocratic culture, it’s entrepreneurial spirit, the presence of mentors, and embrace of game-changing ideas. As an MIT student, Fink developed the confidence to ask a group of professors a question that led him to the basis for the discovery of a new type of mirror that has since been commercialized and used to treat hundreds and thousands of patients as part of a life-saving medical device. It also laid the groundwork for the creation of AFFOA. “I think there is a lot of respect for students built into the system at MIT. People realize that ideas come from different directions and from all levels, that student sitting in front of you may eventually discover a cure for a disease, discover a fundamental law or form a great company so you are always listening. I found my calling at MIT and that led to where I am today,” he says.

October 12, 2018 | More

MIT-Germany and the University of Stuttgart extend cooperation

MIT-Germany and the University of Stuttgart extend cooperation

Representatives from the MIT-Germany Program and the University of Stuttgart (USTUTT) recently came together to formally extend a strategic partnership first created in 2015. The agreement aims to forge a closer relationship between the two universities in both research and teaching.

Professor Markus Buehler, MIT-Germany faculty director and head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, received a PhD in Chemistry and Materials Science from USTUTT and knows both universities well. “I am thrilled about the renewal of the partnership agreement between MIT and the University of Stuttgart, and look forward to seeing the many new collaborations that it will enable,” he says. “This partnership is very important for us, as the joint work of faculty and students from both universities offers many new avenues for high-impact discoveries in science and engineering.” MIT-Germany Program Manager Justin Leahey agrees. “The German Research Foundation’s recent awarding of not one but two multi-million euro Excellence Clusters to the University of Stuttgart [“Data-integrated simulation sciences” and “Integrative Computational Design and Construction for Architecture”] shows how it is on forefront of research in Germany that we want to connect to MIT.”

Wolfgang Holtkamp, senior advisor of international affairs at USTUTT, drew special attention to the innovative concepts in research and teaching that USTUTT implements, and the complimentary goals behind the partnership with MIT. “We want to provide knowledge and strategies for a meaningful and sustainable development. Our basic research is both knowledge-oriented and application-related,” says Holtkamp. “[This partnership] brings together excellent researchers, outstanding teachers and highly motivated students from both sides of the Atlantic to design, test, and experience tomorrow’s world today.”

MIT Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), a part of the Center for International Studies within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, connects students and faculty members with research and industry partners abroad. Within MISTI, the MIT-Germany Program’s partnership with USTUTT centers around a faculty Seed Fund, internship opportunities and a Global Teaching Labs program.

Through the MIT-Germany – University of Stuttgart Seed Fund, a part of the MISTI Global Seed Funds (GSF), researchers at the two universities have the opportunity to apply for joint funding for collaborative early stage research projects and create new, international synergies. Open to any discipline, GSF applicants are encouraged to include undergraduate and graduate students in the projects. To date, there have been five funded projects between MIT and USTUTT researchers:

  • “Quantum Processors in Diamond”: Paola Cappellaro, MIT associate professor of nuclear science and engineering, and Jörg Wrachtrup, USTUTT professor of physics
  • “System-Theoretic Analysis of Dependable Systems in the Automotive Domain”: Nancy Leveson, MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and Stefan Wagner, USTUTT professor of informatics
  • “Gate-Stack Engineering for High-Quality MOS Transistor Control Gates for Ge-based Tunneling Field-Effect Transistors”: Jesus del Alamo, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of Microsystems Technology Laboratories, and Jörg Schulze, USTUTT professor of electrical engineering
  • “Electro-Chromic Stimuli-Responsive Photonic Fibers”: Mathias Kolle, MIT assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Sabine Ludwigs, USTUTT professor of chemistry
  • “Optimal and secure control of large-scale networked cyber-physical systems”: Munther Dahleh, the William A. Coolidge Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, and Frank Allgöwer, USTUTT professor of mechanical engineering, director of the Institute for Systems Theory and Automatic Control, and director of the Stuttgart Research Centre for Systems Biology

As MIT’s Mathias Kolle and USTUTT’s Sabine Ludwigs noted in their joint report, the funding was critical in starting their collaborative project. The report reads, “The seed fund has allowed us to get to the point where we have gauged the potential of our idea and can work in a targeted fashion to realize it.” The team members, who expect to publish their experimental results in a paper, included that they hope their work highlights opportunities at the intersection of conductive polymers and photonic structures. Their research involved several student visits to their partner labs: from MIT, PhD students Joseph Sandt, Sara Nagelberg, and Ben Miller contributed, as well as USTUTT PhD student Carsten Dingler. The exchange allowed the students to become immersed in their counterpart’s research environment firsthand. “They gained subtle insights into the variations in culture in different research labs, and learned something about the wider scope of projects,” the report noted.

In addition to contributing to international faculty research, students from both universities are also able to intern and teach through the collaboration. Bahrudin Trbalic, junior in physics and electrical engineering, took part in the Stuttgart University Program for Experiencing Research (SUPER) this past summer, where he conducted research on hydrogen-like atoms in strong confinements, which has applications in developing new types of semiconductors. “Since this project didn’t have much precedence, I had to find novel algorithms to tackle it,” Trbalic says. Through SUPER, which he says creates fertile ground for mutual exchange of scientific information, Trbalic was strongly supported as a guest student. “I had the time, space and resources to explore my interests in physics but also to explore Germany,” he says.

Students from both institutes also collaborate through MISTI’s Global Teaching Labs Program, which allows MIT students to teach STEM subjects abroad in January over MIT’s Independent Activities Period. The partnership with USTUTT involves a deeper level of student collaboration, partnering MIT students with USTUTT graduate students to plan modules and topics together in advance. The USTUTT team follows up with a visit to MIT in the spring to reconnect with their MIT teaching partners, to experience both campus and hands-on MIT teaching firsthand and to explore possible future research opportunities at MIT.

Riley Davis, a senior in mechanical engineering, worked with USTUTT students to teach STEM disciplines in Stuttgart. “The knowledge of the education system and local culture that the USTUTT students provided was extremely helpful as I prepared my lessons and sought to pour into the local academic community while introducing the hands on learning styles of MIT,” Davis says.

Andrea Schön, a master’s student in electrical engineering and information technology at USTUTT, also values the intercultural aspect of the program after spending a week in April at MIT along with three other USTUTT students. “We met many inspiring people and learnt a lot about MIT and the cooperation with our university. This extraordinary intercultural experience was very rewarding for all of us and will be remembered fondly for years to come.”

October 12, 2018 | More

Study: Emissions from most diesel cars in Europe greatly exceed laboratory testing levels

Study: Emissions from most diesel cars in Europe greatly exceed laboratory testing levels

In September 2015, the German automaker Volkswagen was found to have illegally cheated federal emissions tests in the United States, by intentionally programming emissions control devices to turn on only during laboratory testing. The devices enabled more than 11 million passenger vehicles to meet U.S. emissions standards in the laboratory despite producing emissions up to 40 times higher than the legal limit in real-world driving conditions.

Now a new MIT study reports that Volkswagen is not the only auto manufacturer to make diesel cars that produce vastly more emissions on the road than in laboratory tests. The study, published this month in Atmospheric Environment, finds that in Europe, 10 major auto manufacturers produced diesel cars, sold between 2000 and 2015, that generate up to 16 times more emissions on the road than in regulatory tests — a level that exceeds European limits but does not violate any EU laws.

What’s more, the researchers predict these excess emissions will have a significant health impact, causing approximately 2,700 premature deaths per year across Europe. These health effects, they found, are “transboundary,” meaning that diesel emissions produced in one country can adversely affect populations in other countries, thousands of kilometers away.

“You might imagine that where the excess emissions occur is where people might die early,” says study author Steven Barrett, the Raymond L. Bisplinghoff Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. “But instead we find that 70 percent of the total [health] impacts are transboundary. It suggests coordination is needed not at the country, but at the continental scale, to try to solve this problem of excess emissions.”

The 10 manufacturers’ excess emissions may not be a result of unlawful violations, as was the case with Volkswagen. Instead, the team writes that “permissive testing procedures at the EU level and defective emissions control strategies” may be to blame.

The researchers report a silver lining: If all 10 auto manufacturers were to improve their emissions control technologies to perform at the same level as the best manufacturer in the group, this would prevent up to 1,900 premature deaths per year.

“That’s pretty significant in terms of the number of premature mortalities that would be avoided,” Barrett says.

Barrett’s co-authors at MIT are Guillaume Chossière, Robert Malina (now at Hasselt University), Florian Allroggen, Sebastian Eastham, and Raymond Speth.

Tuning the knobs

The study focuses on emissions of nitrogen oxides, or NOx, a type of gas that is produced in diesel exhaust. When the gas gets oxidized and reacts with ammonia in the atmosphere, it forms fine particles and can travel for long distances before settling. When these particles are inhaled, they can lodge deep in the lungs, causing respiratory disease, asthma, and other pulmonary and cardiac conditions. Additionally NOx emissions cause the formation of ozone, a pollutant long associated with adverse health outcomes.

“There are many times the number of diesel cars in Europe compared to the U.S., partly because the EU started pushing diesel for environmental reasons, as it produces less carbon dioxide emissions compared with [gasoline],” Barrett says. “It’s a case where diesel has probably been beneficial in terms of climate impacts, but it’s come at the cost of human health.”

Recently, the EU started tightening its standards for diesel exhaust to reduce NOx emissions and their associated health effects. However, independent investigations have found that most diesel cars on the road do not meet the new emissions standards in real driving conditions.

“Initially manufacturers were able to genuinely meet regulations, but more recently it seems they’ve almost tweaked knobs to meet the regulations on paper, even if in reality that’s not reproduced on the road,” Barrett says. “And that’s not been illegal in Europe.”

Life exposure

In this study, Barrett and his colleagues quantified the health impacts in Europe of excess NOx emissions — emissions that were not accounted for in standard vehicle testing but are produced in actual driving conditions. They also estimated specific manufacturers’ contributions to the total health impacts related to the excess emissions.

The researchers considered 10 major auto manufacturers of diesel cars sold in Europe, for which lab and on-road emissions data were available: Volkswagen, Renault, Peugeot-Citroën, Fiat, Ford, General Motors, BMW, Daimler, Toyota, and Hyundai. Together, these groups represent more than 90 percent of the total number of diesel cars sold between 2000 and 2015, in 28 member states of the EU, along with Norway and Switzerland.

For each manufacturer, the team calculated the total amount of excess emissions produced by that manufacturer’s diesel car models, based on available emissions data from laboratory testing and independent on-road tests. They found that overall, diesel cars produce up to 16 times more NOx emissions on the road than in lab tests.

They then calculated the excess emissions associated with each manufacturer’s diesel car, by accounting for the number of those cars that were sold between 2000 and 2015, for each country in which those cars were sold.

The team used GEOS-Chem, a chemistry transport model that simulates the circulation of chemicals and particles through the atmosphere, to track where each manufacturer’s excess NOx emissions traveled over time. They then overlaid a population map of the EU onto the atmospheric model to identify specific populations that were most at risk of exposure to the excess NOx emissions.

Finally, the team consulted epidemiological work to relate various populations’ NOx exposure to their estimated health risk. The researchers considered four main populations in these calculations: adults with ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer.

Overall, they estimated that, each year, 2,700 people within these populations will lose at least a decade of their life due to exposure to excess NOx emissions from passenger cars. They broke this number down by manufacturer and found a wide spread of health impact contributions: Volkswagen, Renault, and General Motors produced diesel cars associated with the most yearly premature deaths, each numbering in the hundreds, while Toyota, Hyundai, and BMW were associated with fewer early deaths.

“The variation across manufacturers was more than a factor of five, which was much bigger than we expected,” Barrett says.

“There’s no safe level”

For each country, the team also compared the excess emissions that it produced itself, versus the number of premature deaths that its population incurred, and found virtually no relationship. That is, some countries, such as Poland and Switzerland, produced very little NOx emissions and yet experienced a disproportionate number of premature deaths from excess emissions originating in other countries.

Barrett says this transboundary effect may be due to the nature of NOx emissions. Unlike particulate matter spewed from smokestacks, such as soot, which mostly settles out in the local area, NOx is first emitted as a gas, which can be carried easily by the wind across thousands of kilometers, before reacting with ammonia to form particulates, a form of the chemical that can ultimately cause respiratory and cardiac problems.

“There’s almost no correlation between who drives [diesel cars] and who incurs the health disbenefits, because the impacts are so diffuse through all of Europe,” Barrett says.

The study ends with a final result: If all 10 manufacturers were to meet the on-road emissions performance of the best manufacturer in the group, this would avoid 1,900 premature deaths due to NOx exposure. But Barrett says ultimately, regulators and manufacturers will have to go even further to prevent emissions-associated mortalities.

“The solution is to eliminate NOx altogether,” Barrett says. “We know there are human health impacts right down to pre-industrial levels, so there’s no safe level. At this point in time, it’s not that we have to go back to [gasoline]. It’s more that electricification is the answer, and ultimately we do have to have zero emissions in cities.”

September 21, 2018 | More

Plug-and-play technology automates chemical synthesis

Plug-and-play technology automates chemical synthesis

Designing a new chemical synthesis can be a laborious process with a fair amount of drudgery involved — mixing chemicals, measuring temperatures, analyzing the results, then starting over again if it doesn’t work out.

MIT researchers have now developed an automated chemical synthesis system that can take over many of the more tedious aspects of chemical experimentation, freeing up chemists to spend more time on the more analytical and creative aspects of their research.

“Our goal was to create an easy-to-use system that would allow scientists to come up with the best conditions for making their molecules of interest — a general chemical synthesis platform with as much flexibility as possible,” says Timothy F. Jamison, head of MIT’s Department of Chemistry and one of the leaders of the research team.

This system could cut the amount of time required to optimize a new reaction, from weeks or months down to a single day, the researchers say. They have patented the technology and hope that it will be widely used in both academic and industrial chemistry labs.

“When we set out to do this, we wanted it to be something that was generally usable in the lab and not too expensive,” says Klavs F. Jensen, the Warren K. Lewis Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, who co-led the research team. “We wanted to develop technology that would make it much easier for chemists to develop new reactions.”

Former MIT postdoc Anne-Catherine Bédard and former MIT research associate Andrea Adamo are the lead authors of the paper, which appears in the Sept. 20 online edition of Science.

Going with the flow

The new system makes use of a type of chemical synthesis known as continuous flow. With this approach, the chemical reagents flow through a series of tubes, and new chemicals can be added at different points. Other processes such as separation can also occur as the chemicals flow through the system.

In contrast, traditional “batch chemistry” requires performing each step separately, and human intervention is required to move the reagents along to the next step.

A few years ago, Jensen and Jamison developed a continuous flow system that can rapidly produce pharmaceuticals on demand. They then turned their attention to smaller-scale systems that could be used in research labs, in hopes of eliminating much of the repetitive manual experimentation needed to develop a new process to synthesize a particular molecule.

To achieve that, the team designed a plug-and-play system with several different modules that can be combined to perform different types of synthesis. Each module is about the size of a large cell phone and can be plugged into a port, just as computer components can be connected via USB ports. Some of modules perform specific reactions, such as those catalyzed by light or by a solid catalyst, while others separate out the desired products. In the current system, five of these components can be connected at once.

The person using the machine comes up with a plan for how to synthesize a desired molecule and then plugs in the necessary modules. The user then tells the machine what reaction conditions (temperature, concentration of reagents, flow rate, etc.) to start with. For the next day or so, the machine uses a general optimization program to explore different conditions and ultimately to determine which conditions generate the highest yield of the desired product.

Meanwhile, instead of manually mixing chemicals together and then isolating and testing the products, the researcher can go off to do something else.

“While the optimizations are being performed, the users could be talking to their colleagues about other ideas, they could be working on manuscripts, or they could be analyzing data from previous runs. In other words, doing the more human aspects of research,” Jamison says.

Rapid testing

In the new study, the researchers created about 50 different organic compounds, and they believe the technology could help scientists more rapidly design and produce compounds that could be tested as potential drugs or other useful products. This system should also make it easier for chemists to reproduce reactions that others have developed, without having to reoptimize every step of the synthesis.

“If you have a machine where you just plug in the components, and someone tries to do the same synthesis with a similar machine, they ought to be able to get the same results,” Jensen says.

The researchers are now working on a new version of the technology that could take over even more of the design work, including coming up with the order and type of modules to be used.

The research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

September 20, 2018 | More

A game changer takes on cricket’s statistical problem

A game changer takes on cricket’s statistical problem

Jehangir Amjad has done something few people can: He found a way to combine his favorite sport with his work. A longtime cricket enthusiast and player, he’s currently tackling an important statistical problem in the game — how to declare a winner when a match must end prematurely, due to weather or other circumstances. Given cricket’s global popularity, and the fact that matches can last for several hours, it’s a problem of great interest to fans and players alike.

For Amjad, it’s also a project that incorporates his passion for operations research. And the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) was the perfect place for him to explore it.

Amjad took a circuitous path to MIT. Born and raised in Pakistan, he received a scholarship to complete his last two years of high school at the Red Cross Nordic United World College in Norway. Along with the school’s 200 other students, who came from over 100 countries, he studied, made personal and professional connections, and learned how to live with people of many different cultures during his time there. He then returned home to teach for a year (following in the footsteps of his parents, who are both professors), before attending Princeton University for a bachelor’s in electrical engineering.

He graduated in 2010, and assuming he was finished with school, went to Microsoft to be a product manager. After several years there, though, he felt restless. Realizing that he’d found himself increasingly drawn to data science and machine learning since starting at Microsoft, he says figured he could either stay in the tech industry and learn more about these fields on the job, or “go back to school to master the mathematical nuances of this field.” He chose academics and came to MIT in 2013 as a graduate student in the Operations Research Center. There, he collaborated frequently with LIDS students and researchers, under the supervision of MIT Professor Devavrat Shah.

Because Shah is also a cricket fan, he and Amjad had been discussing the cricket problem for years, although Amjad didn’t land on his research project immediately. In fact, the theory that he is now applying to the cricket problem — robust synthetic control — is mostly used in economics, health policy, and political science. But because all of his work is interdisciplinary, he was able to see how to connect them. “A lot of what we train on [at LIDS] is the methods, but the applications are and should be very diverse,” Amjad says.

The current standard for international cricket games is to use the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern (DLS) method, created by British statisticians in the mid-1990s, to determine the winner when a game has to be called early. Amjad is viewing this as a forecasting problem.

“We aren’t just interested in predicting what the final score would be; we actually project out the entire trajectory for every ball, we project out what might happen on average,” he says.

In collaboration with Shah and Vishal Misra, a professor of computer science at Columbia University, Jehangir has used the robust synthetic control method to propose a solution to the forecasting problem, which has also led to a target revision algorithm like the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern method. Having back-tested their cricket results on many games, they are confident in the approach. They are currently comparing it to DLS, he says, and planning “what statistical argument we can make so that we can hopefully convince people that we have a viable alternative.”

Broadly, synthetic control is a statistical method for evaluating the effects of an intervention. In many cases, the intervention is the introduction of a new law or regulation.

“Let’s say that 10 years ago, Massachusetts introduced a new labor law, and you wanted to study the impact of that law,” Amjad explains. “This theory says you can use a data-driven approach to come up with a synthetic Massachusetts, one that that mimics Massachusetts as well as possible before the law was in place, so that you can then project what would have happened in Massachusetts had this law not been introduced.”

This creates a useful comparison point to the real Massachusetts, where the law has been in place. Placing the two side-by-side — the synthetic Massachusetts data and the real Massachusetts data — gives a sense of the law’s impact.

Amjad and his collaborators have developed a robust generalization of the classical method known as Robust Synthetic Control. In examining a problem this way, it turns out that limited and missing data do not become insurmountable obstacles. Instead, these sorts of difficulties can be accommodated, which is especially useful in the social sciences where there may not be many common data points available.

Continuing his example, he says, “the method is about using data about other states … to construct a synthetic unit. So, specifically, coming up with a synthetic Massachusetts that ends up being 20 percent like New York, 10 percent Wyoming, 5 percent something else — coming up with a weighted average of those. And those weights are essentially what is known as the synthetic control because now you’ve fixed those weights and you’re going to project that out into the future to say, ‘This is what would have happened had the law not been introduced.’”

Eventually, as research continues and more data become available to add to the synthetic unit, the accuracy of the results should improve, he says.

Amjad has used robust synthetic control in this more traditional way, as well. One of his other projects has been a collaboration with a team at the University of Washington on a study of alcohol and marijuana use to assess whether various laws have, over time, affected their sale and use. Another example he mentions as being a particularly good fit is any situation where a randomized control trial isn’t possible, such as studying the effect of distributing international aid in a crisis. Here, the moral and ethical implications of denying certain people aid make it impossible to use a randomized trial. Instead, observational studies are in order.

“You [the researcher] can’t control who gets the treatment and who doesn’t,” he says, but the results of it can be watched, recorded, and studied. As his work evolves, he’s also looking towards the future, thinking about time series forecasting and imputation.

“My work has converged on imputation and forecasting methods, whether it’s synthetic control or just pure time-series analysis,” he says.

This intersection is an emerging field of study. Econometricians historically used small data sets and classical statistics for problem solving, but with modern machine learning, options now exist that use lots of data to do approximate inference instead. Combining these approaches means you can explore the why of the problem and the prediction.

“You care both about the explanatory power and the predictive power, using these algorithms,” Amjad says. “These are designed for a larger scale, where you can still be prescriptive as well as predictive.” Elections forecasting is just one important example of the areas in which this work could be put to use.

Having defended his thesis earlier this year, Amjad is now a lecturer of machine learning at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He says he is grateful for his time at LIDS — and all of the inspirational individuals he’s met and the groundbreaking ideas he’s come across here.

“The biggest lesson of my PhD is that it’s a journey,” he says. “LIDS is very accepting of you breaking the norm. They let people wander. And what that really helps you with is to understand that you can deal with ambiguity. If there is a problem that I don’t know about, I may never be able to completely solve it, but that won’t prevent me from thinking about it in a systematic way to hope to solve some parts of it.”

September 20, 2018 | More

Biological engineers discover new antibiotic candidates

Biological engineers discover new antibiotic candidates

The human body produces many antimicrobial peptides that help the immune system fend off infection. Scientists hoping to harness these peptides as potential antibiotics have now discovered that other peptides in the human body can also have potent antimicrobial effects, expanding the pool of new antibiotic candidates.

In the new study, researchers from MIT and the University of Naples Federico II found that fragments of the protein pepsinogen, an enzyme used to digest food in the stomach, can kill bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli.

The researchers believe that by modifying these peptides to enhance their antimicrobial activity, they may be able to develop synthetic peptides that could be used as antibiotics against drug-resistant bacteria.

“These peptides really constitute a great template for engineering. The idea now is to use synthetic biology to modify them further and make them more potent,” says Cesar de la Fuente-Nunez, an MIT postdoc and Areces Foundation Fellow, and one of the senior authors of the paper.

Other MIT authors of the paper, which appears in the Aug. 20 issue of the journal ACS Synthetic Biology, are Timothy Lu, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of biological engineering, and Marcelo Der Torossian Torres, a former visiting student.

Discovering new functions

Antimicrobial peptides, which are found in nearly all living organisms, can kill many microbes, but they are typically not powerful enough to act as antibiotic drugs on their own. Many scientists, including de la Fuente-Nunez and Lu, have been exploring ways to create more potent versions of these peptides, in hopes of finding new weapons to combat the growing problem posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

In this study, the researchers wanted to explore whether other proteins found in the human body, outside of the previously known antimicrobial peptides, might also be able to kill bacteria. To that end, they developed a search algorithm that analyzes databases of human protein sequences in search of similarities to known antimicrobial peptides.

“It’s a data-mining approach to very easily find peptides that were previously unexplored,” de la Fuente-Nunez says. “We have patterns that we know are associated with classical antimicrobial peptides, and the search engine goes through the database and finds patterns that look similar to what we know makes up a peptide that kills bacteria.”

In a screen of nearly 2,000 human proteins, the algorithm identified about 800 with possible antimicrobial activity. In the ACS Synthetic Biology paper, the research team focused on the peptide pepsinogen, whose role is to break down proteins in food. After pepsinogen is secreted by cells that line the stomach, hydrochloric acid in the stomach mixes with pepsinogen, converting it into pepsin A, which digests proteins, and into several other small fragments.

Those fragments, which previously had no known functions, showed up as candidates in the antimicrobial screen.

Once the researchers identified those candidates, they tested them against bacteria grown in lab dishes and found that they could kill a variety of microbes, including foodborne pathogens, such as Salmonella and E. coli, as well as others, including Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which often infects the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. This effect was seen at both acidic pH, similar to that of the stomach, and neutral pH.

“The human stomach is attacked by many pathogenic bacteria, so it makes sense that we would have a host defense mechanism to defend ourselves from such attacks,” de la Fuente-Nunez says.

More potent drugs

The researchers also tested the three pepsinogen fragments against a Pseudomonas aeruginosa skin infection in mice, and found that the peptides significantly reduced the infections. The exact mechanism by which the peptides kill bacteria is unknown, but the researchers’ hypothesis is that their positive charges allow the peptides to bind to the negatively charged bacterial membranes and poke holes in them, a mechanism similar to that of other antimicrobial peptides.

As bacteria become increasingly resistant to conventional antibiotics, there is an urgent need for innovation in drug development, says Dianne Newman, a professor of biology and geobiology at Caltech who was not involved in the research. “Disappointingly, major pharmaceutical companies have recently left this space, thus the creative approach taken in this study is timely and may hold promise on an applied level,” she says.

The researchers now hope to modify these peptides to make them more effective, so that they could be potentially used as antibiotics. They are also seeking new peptides from organisms other than humans, and they plan to further investigate some of the other human peptides identified by the algorithm.

“We have an atlas of all these molecules, and the next step is to demonstrate whether each of them actually has antimicrobial properties and whether each of them could be developed as a new antimicrobial,” de la Fuente-Nunez says.

August 20, 2018 | More

Thomas Magnanti honored with Singapore’s National Day Award

Thomas Magnanti honored with Singapore’s National Day Award

Institute Professor Thomas Magnanti has been honored as one of Singapore’s National Day Award recipients, for his long-term work developing higher education in Singapore.

The government of Singapore announced that Magnanti received the Public Administration Medal (gold) on Aug. 9, the National Day of Singapore, for his role as founding president of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). He will receive the medal at a ceremony in Singapore later this year.

“I am quite pleased,” Magnanti says about the award. “It’s quite an honor to receive it.”

SUTD is a recently developed university in Singapore focused on innovation-based technology, and design across several fields. Its curriculum is organized in interdisciplinary clusters to promote research and education across multiple areas of study.

The new honor came as a surprise to Magnanti, who started working to help develop SUTD in 2008 and became its president in October 2009. In January 2010, MIT and SUTD signed a memorandum outlining their partnership for both research and education. After a groundbreaking in 2011, SUTD enrolled its first undergraduate students in 2012 and moved to its permanent campus site in 2015.

MIT and SUTD maintained their education partnership from 2010 to 2017 and continue to work as partners in research through the International Design Center, which has facilities both at MIT and on the SUTD campus.

Magnanti, who is an MIT Institute Professor, is a professor of operations research at the MIT Sloan School of Management, as well as a faculty member in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He is also a former dean of the School of Engineering. Magnanti is an expert on optimization whose work has spanned business and engineering, as well as the theoretical and applied sides of his field.

As an MIT faculty member, he first started working with Singaporean leaders in the late 1990s, helping to develop the Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA), as well as the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), a research enterprise established in 2007 between MIT and the National Research Foundation of Singapore (NRF).

Magnanti says his time working on joint educational projects involving MIT and Singapore has been “a wonderful experience.”

Singapore, Magnanti adds, has consistently maintained “a deep commitment to education and to research, and has a very strong relationship with MIT, which has sustained itself now for over 20 years.”

Magnanti says he is pleased by the solid footing now established by the projects he has worked on in Singapore.

“There have been many highlights,” Magnanti says, including the development of an innovative university and degree structure, and novel pedagogy and research. He notes that students from SUTD “have done very well in their placements, in Singapore. Remarkably well.”

Overall, Magnanti adds, simply “developing the university has been one of the highlights. Hiring faculty, bringing in outstanding students and staff. … I am, and I think MIT is, very proud of what’s happened with the university.”

August 17, 2018 | More

China could face deadly heat waves due to climate change

China could face deadly heat waves due to climate change

A region that holds one of the biggest concentrations of people on Earth could be pushing against the boundaries of habitability by the latter part of this century, a new study shows.

Research has shown that beyond a certain threshold of temperature and humidity, a person cannot survive unprotected in the open for extended periods — as, for example, farmers must do. Now, a new MIT study shows that unless drastic measures are taken to limit climate-changing emissions, China’s most populous and agriculturally important region could face such deadly conditions repeatedly, suffering the most damaging heat effects, at least as far as human life is concerned, of any place on the planet.

The study shows that the risk of deadly heat waves is significantly increased because of intensive irrigation in this relatively dry but highly fertile region, known as the North China Plain — a region whose role in that country is comparable to that of the Midwest in the U.S. That increased vulnerability to heat arises because the irrigation exposes more water to evaporation, leading to higher humidity in the air than would otherwise be present and exacerbating the physiological stresses of the temperature.

The new findings, by Elfatih Eltahir at MIT and Suchul Kang at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, are reported in the journal Nature Communications. The study is the third in a set; the previous two projected increases of deadly heat waves in the Persian Gulf area and in South Asia. While the earlier studies found serious looming risks, the new findings show that the North China Plain, or NCP, faces the greatest risks to human life from rising temperatures, of any location on Earth.

“The response is significantly larger than the corresponsing response in the other two regions,” says Eltahir, who is the the Breene M. Kerr Professor of Hydrology and Climate and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The three regions the researchers studied were picked because past records indicate that combined temperature and humidity levels reached greater extremes there than on any other land masses. Although some risk factors are clear — low-lying valleys and proximity to warm seas or oceans — “we don’t have a general quantitative theory through which we could have predicted” the location of these global hotspots, he explains. When looking empirically at past climate data, “Asia is what stands out,” he says.

Although the Persian Gulf study found some even greater temperature extremes, those were confined to the area over the water of the Gulf itself, not over the land. In the case of the North China Plain, “This is where people live,” Eltahir says.

The key index for determining survivability in hot weather, Eltahir explains, involves the combination of heat and humidity, as determined by a measurement called the wet-bulb temperature. It is measured by literally wrapping wet cloth around the bulb (or sensor) of a thermometer, so that evaporation of the water can cool the bulb. At 100 percent humidity, with no evaporation possible, the wet-bulb temperature equals the actual temperature.

This measurement reflects the effect of temperature extremes on a person in the open, which depends on the body’s ability to shed heat through the evaporation of sweat from the skin. At a wet-bulb temperature of 35 degrees Celsius (95 F), a healthy person may not be able to survive outdoors for more than six hours, research has shown. The new study shows that under business-as-usual scenarios for greenhouse gas emissions, that threshold will be reached several times in the NCP region between 2070 and 2100.

“This spot is just going to be the hottest spot for deadly heat waves in the future, especially under climate change,” Eltahir says. And signs of that future have already begun: There has been a substantial increase in extreme heat waves in the NCP already in the last 50 years, the study shows. Warming in this region over that period has been nearly double the global average — 0.24 degrees Celsius per decade versus 0.13. In 2013, extreme heat waves in the region persisted for up to 50 days, and maximum temperatures topped 38 C in places. Major heat waves occurred in 2006 and 2013, breaking records. Shanghai, East China’s largest city, broke a 141-year temperature record in 2013, and dozens died.

To arrive at their projections, Eltahir and Kang ran detailed climate model simulations of the NCP area — which covers about 4,000 square kilometers — for the past 30 years. They then selected only the models that did the best job of matching the actual observed conditions of the past period, and used those models to project the future climate over 30 years at the end of this century. They used two different future scenarios: business as usual, with no new efforts to reduce emissions; and moderate reductions in emissions, using standard scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Each version was run two different ways: one including the effects of irrigation, and one with no irrigation.

One of the surprising findings was the significant contribution by irrigation to the problem — on average, adding about a half-degree Celsius to the overall warming in the region that would occur otherwise. That’s because, even though extra moisture in the air produces some local cooling effect at ground level, this is more than offset by the added physiological stress imposed by the higher humidity, and by the fact that extra water vapor — itself a powerful greenhouse gas — contributes to an overall warming of the air mass.

“Irrigation exacerbates the impact of climate change,” Eltahir says. In fact, the researchers report, the combined effect, as projected by the models, is a bit greater the sum of the individual impacts of irrigation or climate change alone, for reasons that will require further research.

The bottom line, as the researchers write in the paper, is the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to reduce the likelihood of such extreme conditions. They conclude, “China is currently the largest contributor to the emissions of greenhouse gases, with potentially serious implications to its own population: Continuation of the current pattern of global emissions may limit habitability of the most populous region of the most populous country on Earth.”

“This is a solid piece of research, extending and refining some of the previous studies on man-made climate change and its role on heat waves,” says Christoph Schauer, a professor of atmospheric and climate science at ETH Zurich, who was involved in the work. “This is a very useful study. It highlights some of the potentially serious challenges that will emerge with unabated climate change. … These are important and timely results, as they may lead to adequate adaptation measures before potentially serious climate conditions will emerge.”

Schauer adds that “While there is overwhelming evidence that climate change has started to affect the frequency and intensity of heat waves, century-scale climate projections imply considerable uncertainties” that will require further study. However, he says, “Regarding the health impact of high wet-bulb temperatures, the applied health threshold (wet-bulb temperatures near the human body temperature) is very solid and it actually derives from fundamental physical principles.”

July 31, 2018 | More

Helping computers perceive human emotions

Helping computers perceive human emotions

MIT Media Lab researchers have developed a machine-learning model that takes computers a step closer to interpreting our emotions as naturally as humans do.

In the growing field of “affective computing,” robots and computers are being developed to analyze facial expressions, interpret our emotions, and respond accordingly. Applications include, for instance, monitoring an individual’s health and well-being, gauging student interest in classrooms, helping diagnose signs of certain diseases, and developing helpful robot companions.

A challenge, however, is people express emotions quite differently, depending on many factors. General differences can be seen among cultures, genders, and age groups. But other differences are even more fine-grained: The time of day, how much you slept, or even your level of familiarity with a conversation partner leads to subtle variations in the way you express, say, happiness or sadness in a given moment.

Human brains instinctively catch these deviations, but machines struggle. Deep-learning techniques were developed in recent years to help catch the subtleties, but they’re still not as accurate or as adaptable across different populations as they could be.

The Media Lab researchers have developed a machine-learning model that outperforms traditional systems in capturing these small facial expression variations, to better gauge mood while training on thousands of images of faces. Moreover, by using a little extra training data, the model can be adapted to an entirely new group of people, with the same efficacy. The aim is to improve existing affective-computing technologies.

“This is an unobtrusive way to monitor our moods,” says Oggi Rudovic, a Media Lab researcher and co-author on a paper describing the model, which was presented last week at the Conference on Machine Learning and Data Mining. “If you want robots with social intelligence, you have to make them intelligently and naturally respond to our moods and emotions, more like humans.”

Co-authors on the paper are: first author Michael Feffer, an undergraduate student in electrical engineering and computer science; and Rosalind Picard, a professor of media arts and sciences and founding director of the Affective Computing research group.

Personalized experts

Traditional affective-computing models use a “one-size-fits-all” concept. They train on one set of images depicting various facial expressions, optimizing features — such as how a lip curls when smiling — and mapping those general feature optimizations across an entire set of new images.

The researchers, instead, combined a technique, called “mixture of experts” (MoE), with model personalization techniques, which helped mine more fine-grained facial-expression data from individuals. This is the first time these two techniques have been combined for affective computing, Rudovic says.

In MoEs, a number of neural network models, called “experts,” are each trained to specialize in a separate processing task and produce one output. The researchers also incorporated a “gating network,” which calculates probabilities of which expert will best detect moods of unseen subjects. “Basically the network can discern between individuals and say, ‘This is the right expert for the given image,’” Feffer says.

For their model, the researchers personalized the MoEs by matching each expert to one of 18 individual video recordings in the RECOLA database, a public database of people conversing on a video-chat platform designed for affective-computing applications. They trained the model using nine subjects and evaluated them on the other nine, with all videos broken down into individual frames.

Each expert, and the gating network, tracked facial expressions of each individual, with the help of a residual network (“ResNet”), a neural network used for object classification. In doing so, the model scored each frame based on level of valence (pleasant or unpleasant) and arousal (excitement) — commonly used metrics to encode different emotional states. Separately, six human experts labeled each frame for valence and arousal, based on a scale of -1 (low levels) to 1 (high levels), which the model also used to train.

The researchers then performed further model personalization, where they fed the trained model data from some frames of the remaining videos of subjects, and then tested the model on all unseen frames from those videos. Results showed that, with just 5 to 10 percent of data from the new population, the model outperformed traditional models by a large margin — meaning it scored valence and arousal on unseen images much closer to the interpretations of human experts.

This shows the potential of the models to adapt from population to population, or individual to individual, with very few data, Rudovic says. “That’s key,” he says. “When you have a new population, you have to have a way to account for shifting of data distribution [subtle facial variations]. Imagine a model set to analyze facial expressions in one culture that needs to be adapted for a different culture. Without accounting for this data shift, those models will underperform. But if you just sample a bit from a new culture to adapt our model, these models can do much better, especially on the individual level. This is where the importance of the model personalization can best be seen.”

Currently available data for such affective-computing research isn’t very diverse in skin colors, so the researchers’ training data were limited. But when such data become available, the model can be trained for use on more diverse populations. The next step, Feffer says, is to train the model on “a much bigger dataset with more diverse cultures.”

Better machine-human interactions

Another goal is to train the model to help computers and robots automatically learn from small amounts of changing data to more naturally detect how we feel and better serve human needs, the researchers say.

It could, for example, run in the background of a computer or mobile device to track a user’s video-based conversations and learn subtle facial expression changes under different contexts. “You can have things like smartphone apps or websites be able to tell how people are feeling and recommend ways to cope with stress or pain, and other things that are impacting their lives negatively,” Feffer says.

This could also be helpful in monitoring, say, depression or dementia, as people’s facial expressions tend to subtly change due to those conditions. “Being able to passively monitor our facial expressions,” Rudovic says, “we could over time be able to personalize these models to users and monitor how much deviations they have on daily basis — deviating from the average level of facial expressiveness — and use it for indicators of well-being and health.”

A promising application, Rudovic says, is human-robotic interactions, such as for personal robotics or robots used for educational purposes, where the robots need to adapt to assess the emotional states of many different people. One version, for instance, has been used in helping robots better interpret the moods of children with autism.

Roddy Cowie, professor emeritus of psychology at the Queen’s University Belfast and an affective computing scholar, says the MIT work “illustrates where we really are” in the field. “We are edging toward systems that can roughly place, from pictures of people’s faces, where they lie on scales from very positive to very negative, and very active to very passive,” he says. “It seems intuitive that the emotional signs one person gives are not the same as the signs another gives, and so it makes a lot of sense that emotion recognition works better when it is personalized. The method of personalizing reflects another intriguing point, that it is more effective to train multiple ‘experts,’ and aggregate their judgments, than to train a single super-expert. The two together make a satisfying package.”

July 24, 2018 | More