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EFF Files New Lawsuit Against California Sheriff for Sharing ALPR Data with ICE and CBP

EFF: Updates - 7 hours 4 min ago

The Marin County Sheriff illegally shares the sensitive location information of millions of drivers with out-of-state and federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The Sheriff uses automated license plate readers (ALPRs)—high-speed cameras mounted on street poles or squad cars—to scan license plates and record the date, time, and location of each scan. This data can paint a detailed picture of the private lives of Marin County residents, including where they live and work, visit friends or drop their children off at school, and when they attend religious services or protests.

Last week, EFF filed a new lawsuit on behalf of three immigrant rights activists against Sheriff Bob Doyle and Marin County for violating two California laws that protect immigrants and motorists’ privacy. Our co-counsel are the ACLU Foundations of Northern California, Southern California, and San Diego & Imperial Counties, and attorney Michael Risher. We seek a court order prohibiting the Sheriff from sharing ALPR data with out-of-state and federal agencies.

The Marin Sheriff’s ALPRs scan thousands of license plates each month. That sensitive data, including photos of the vehicle and sometimes its drivers and passengers, is stored in a database. The Sheriff permits over 400 out-of-state and 18 federal agencies, including CBP and ICE, to run queries of full or partial license plates against information the Sheriff has collected.

This data sharing particularly impacts the safety and privacy of immigrants, communities of color, and religious minorities. Like many other surveillance technologies, ALPRs have a history of disproportionately impacting marginalized communities. ICE has used ALPR data to detain and deport immigrant community members. NYPD used ALPRs to scan license plates near mosques.

The Sheriff’s sharing of ALPR data to entities outside of California violates state law. S.B. 34, enacted in 2015, prohibits California law enforcement agencies from sharing ALPR data with entities outside of California. Moreover, the California Values Act (S.B. 54), enacted in 2018, limits the use of local resources to assist federal immigration enforcement, including the sharing of personal information.

To learn more, read the complaint, the press release, our case page, the ACLU of Northern California’s case page, and our clients’ statements.

Related Cases: Lagleva v. Marin County Sheriff

After Years of Delays and Alarmingly Flimsy Evidence, Security Expert Ola Bini’s Trial Set for This Week

EFF: Updates - 7 hours 18 min ago

Update, October 19: Ola Bini's trial has been suspended by request of the Corporación Nacional de Telecomunicaciones (CNT) whose representative was unable to attend the hearing. No new date has yet been set.

For over two years EFF has been following the case of Swedish computer security expert Ola Bini, who was arrested in April, 2019, in Ecuador, following Julian Assange's ejection from that country’s London Embassy. Bini’s pre-trial hearing, which was suspended and rescheduled at least five times during 2020, was concluded on June 29, 2021. Despite the cloud that has hung over the case—political ramifications have seemed to drive the allegations, and Bini has been subjected to numerous due process and human rights violations—we are hopeful that the security expert will be afforded a transparent and fair trial and that due process will prevail. 

Ola Bini is known globally as a computer security expert; he is someone who builds secure tools and contributes to free software projects. Ola’s team at ThoughtWorks contributed to Certbot, the EFF-managed tool that has provided strong encryption for millions of websites around the world, and in 2018, Ola co-founded a non-profit organization devoted to creating user-friendly security tools.

ola_cypher.png Disable Stretch: 

From the very outset of Bini’s arrest at the Quito airport there have been significant concerns about the legitimacy of the allegations against him. In our visit to Ecuador in July, 2019, shortly after his arrest, it became clear that the political consequences of Bini’s arrest overshadowed the prosecution’s actual evidence. In brief, based on the interviews that we conducted, our conclusion was that Bini's prosecution is a political case, not a criminal one. His arrest occurred shortly after Maria Paula Romo, then Ecuador’s Interior Minister, held a press conference to claim (without evidence) that a group of Russians and Wikileaks-connected hackers were in the country, planning a cyber-attack in retaliation for the government's eviction of Assange; a recent investigation by La Posta revealed that the former Minister knew that Ola Bini was not the "Russian hacker" the government was looking for when Bini was detained in Quito's airport. (Romo was dismissed as minister in 2020 for ordering the use of tear gas against anti-government protestors).

A so-called piece of evidence against Bini was leaked to the press and taken to court: a photo of a screenshot, supposedly taken by Bini himself and sent to a colleague, showing the telnet login screen of a router. The image is consistent with someone who connects to an open telnet service, receives a warning not to log on without authorization, and does not proceed—respecting the warning. As for the portion of a message exchange attributed to Bini and a colleague, leaked with the photo, it shows their concern with the router being insecurely open to telnet access on the wider Internet, with no firewall.

Bini’s arrest and detention were fraught with due process violations. Bini faced 70 days of imprisonment until a Habeas Corpus decision considered his detention illegal (a decision that confirmed the weakness of the initial detention). He was released from jail, but the investigation continued, seeking evidence to back the alleged accusations against him. After his release the problems continued, and as the delays dragged on, the Office of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression included its concern with the delay in Bini’s trial in its 2020's annual report. At the time of our visit, Bini's lawyers told us that they counted 65 violations of due process, and journalists told us that no one was able to provide them with concrete descriptions of what he had done. 

In April 2021, Ola Bini’s Habeas Data recourse, filed in October 2020 against the National Police, the Ministry of Government, and the Strategic Intelligence Center (CIES), was partially granted by the Judge. According to Bini's defense, he had been facing continuous monitoring by members of the National Police and unidentified persons. The decision requested CIES to provide information related to whether the agency has conducted surveillance activities against the security expert. The ruling concluded that CIES unduly denied such information to Ola Bini, failing to offer a timely response to his previous information request. 

Though the judge decided in June’s pre-trial hearing to proceed with the criminal prosecution against Bini, observers indicated a lack of a solid motivation in the judge's decision. The judge was later "separated" from the case in a ruling that admitted the wrongdoing of successive pretrial suspensions and the violation of due process. 

It is alarming, but perhaps not surprising, that the case will proceed after all these well-documented irregularities. While Ola Bini’s behavior and contacts in the security world may look strange to authorities, his computer security expertise is not a crime. Since EFF's founding in 1990, we have become all-too familiar with overly politicized "hacker panic" cases, which encourage unjust prosecutions when the political and social atmosphere demands it. EFF was founded in part due to a notorious, and similar, case pursued in the United States by the Secret Service. Our Coder’s Rights Project has worked for decades to protect the security and encryption researchers that help build a safer future for all of us using digital technologies, and who far too often face serious legal challenges that prevent or inhibit their work. This case is, unfortunately, part of a longstanding history of countering the unfair criminal persecution of security experts, who have unfortunately been the subject of the same types of harassment as those they work to protect, such as human rights defenders and activists. 

In June of this year, EFF called upon Ecuadors’ Human Rights Secretariat to give special attention to Ola Bini’s upcoming hearing and prosecution. As we stressed in our letter

Mr. Bini's case has profound implications for, and sits at the center of, the application of human rights and due process, a landmark case in the context of arbitrarily applying overbroad criminal laws to security experts. Mr. Bini's case represents a unique opportunity for the Human Rights Secretariat Cabinet to consider and guard the rights of security experts in the digital age.  Security experts protect the computers upon which we all depend and protect the people who have integrated electronic devices into their daily lives, such as human rights defenders, journalists, activists, dissidents, among many others. To conduct security research, we need to protect the security experts, and ensure they have the tools to do their work.

The circumstances around Ola Bini's detention have sparked international attention and indicate the growing seriousness of security experts' harassment in Latin America. The flimsy allegations against Ola Bini, the series of irregularities and human rights violations in his case, as well as its international resonance, situate it squarely among other cases we have seen of politicized and misguided allegations against technologists and security researchers. 

We hope that justice will prevail during Ola Bini’s trial this week, and that he will finally be given the fair treatment and due process that the proper respect of his fundamental rights requires.

South Korea aims to cut carbon emissions by 40% in 2030

ClimateWire News - 13 hours 1 min ago
South Korea set a new goal yesterday for fighting climate change over the next decade, saying it will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 2018 levels by 2030.

El Salvador explores bitcoin mining powered by volcanoes

ClimateWire News - 13 hours 2 min ago
At a geothermal power plant near El Salvador's Tecapa volcano, 300 computers whir inside a trailer as they make complex mathematical calculations day and night verifying transactions for the cryptocurrency bitcoin.

Smartphone producer Foxconn announces electric car venture

ClimateWire News - 13 hours 2 min ago
The Taiwanese company that manufactures smartphones for Apple Inc. and other global brands announced plans yesterday to produce electric cars for auto brands under a similar contract model.

Exotic world of ESG derivatives triggers warning from regulator

ClimateWire News - 13 hours 3 min ago
As some of the world’s biggest banks start experimenting with complex ESG derivatives, Europe’s markets regulator says it’s time to impose new rules to protect investors from greenwashing.

Seville becomes first city to name and rank heat waves

ClimateWire News - 13 hours 4 min ago
The city of Seville in Spain announced yesterday a new program to combat deadly heat. It plans to start naming and ranking its heat waves, similar to tropical storms and hurricanes.

White House kicks off drought response effort

ClimateWire News - 13 hours 5 min ago
The White House is working on a new effort to better prepare the country for the harm of drought and wildfire conditions.

U.K. takes 'major step' to curb corporate green washing

ClimateWire News - 13 hours 5 min ago
The United Kingdom is on track to become one of the first governments in the world to force major companies and finance firms to lay bare their contributions to global warming — as well as their plans to reverse course.

Rio Tinto invests in mining carbon dioxide from the air

ClimateWire News - 13 hours 8 min ago
A California startup that aims to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere announced $35 million in new investments today from a coalition that includes Rio Tinto PLC, the world's second-most valuable mining company.

Democrats search for Plan B as climate program falters

ClimateWire News - 13 hours 8 min ago
Democrats are preparing for the possibility that the Clean Electricity Performance Program goes down amid hardening opposition from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin.

New rules, laws and markets needed to meet Biden's CO2 goals

ClimateWire News - 13 hours 10 min ago
The United States will miss President Biden's climate goals by a wide margin without new policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including legislation now wobbling before Congress, according to an analysis released today.

Weaker climate bill could undermine Biden regulatory push

ClimateWire News - 13 hours 12 min ago
With climate legislation teetering, Biden could compensate with stronger regulations. But he'll face harder trade-offs.

Ingenuity, design, and human spirit

MIT Latest News - 20 hours 15 min ago

The Azraq refugee camp in Jordan hosts about 35,000 people displaced by the Syrian civil war, who live in rows of small white steel sheds. Several years ago, a camp resident named Majid Al-Kanaan undertook a project to combat the visual and existential monotony of camp life.

Using clay and stones from camp terrain, he built a colonnade of decorative arches in front of his shed, referencing the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria — and added elements alluding to Syria’s Citadel of Aleppo and the Umayyad desert palaces in Jordan.

“I was exploring what could be done with the sand and stone of this area,” Al-Kanaan says in a new book about life in the Azraq camp. The book was edited by an MIT-based team that worked with camp refugees on design projects for years.

As the team found, the Azraq camp is full of designers and builders who create objects despite having little to work with. Camp residents have used yogurt containers to build hanging gardens for plants, carved chess sets out of broom handles, made childrens’ toys from trash, and rigged up fountains from spare parts.

These projects “speak to the ingenuity of the human spirit,” says Azra Akšamija, an associate professor in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning and a co-editor of the new book. “These inventions point to what is missing. People invent things because they are lacking.”

At the same time, she notes, the cultural and artistic aspects of these inventions are also critical: “Those are essential human needs, it’s not just food and a roof above your head.”

The book, “Design to Live: Everyday Inventions from a Refugee Camp,” has just been published by the MIT Press. The book’s co-editors are Akšamija, an artist, architectural historian, director of the MIT Future Heritage Lab, and director of the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology; Raafat Majzoub, an architect, artist, and writer who is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut and director of a Lebanon-based NGO, The Khan: The Arab Association for Prototyping Cultural Practices; and Melina Philippou, an architect and urbanist who is program director of the MIT Future Heritage Lab.

“The book is a case study about the refugee camp, but it goes beyond that,”

Akšamija says. “It’s also about the conditions of scarcity, and this kind of agency of design and art in conditions of displacement, which inevitably face our global society in the future.”

Majzoub adds: “Through the dissemination of this work, we aim to contribute to the valorization and prioritization of social and cultural activities in crisis zones, moving beyond the established paradigm of ‘basic needs.’”

Syrian voices

Roughly 6.6 million Syrians have fled the country since war broke out in 2011, according to the United Nations. The Azraq camp opened in 2014, and the MIT Future Heritage Lab, founded by Akšamija, began helping refugees study and practice art and design in 2017 (facilitated by the humanitarian organization CARE and in collaboration with professors and students from the German-Jordanian University in Amman).

“Design to Live” details inventions Azraq residents developed before working with the MIT team. The book has text in both English and Arabic, abundant illustrations, and sections where Syrian refugees offer their own views. The volume has a tête-bêche structure — facing pages are upside down relative to each other — offering the viewpoints of people living both inside and outside the camp.

“We are not speaking for refugees, but we are highlighting their voices, while incorporating these multiple perspectives,” Akšamija says. “We want to bring out the significance of the cultural and artistic processes in the healing of society.”

She adds: “It was eye-opening to see toy trucks made out of trash and a chessboard made out of broomsticks. That is really about cultural expression and making life worth living, feeling like a human being, addressing issues of memory and hopelessness and idleness.”

Many refugees improvised forms of water storage; the book has blueprints for a fountain made from buckets and a hose. Some Azraq residents, barred from growing things in the soil, have created vertical gardens outside their sheds — with planters made from yogurt containers, where they grow traditional recipe ingredients.

“It’s impressive,” says Akšamija. “It’s about literally bringing spice to life. Plants are a beautiful metaphor for migration of culture and food, and maybe people, too. And [they’re] a way of continuing your tradition through cooking. Good food is a very important dimension of Syrian culture. People have minimal means, but they cook. You get this most incredible food in the middle of nothing. Continuing your traditions is a way of sustaining and surviving.”

As Philippou notes, “The designs of our Syrian collaborators like the vertical garden, the fountain, and the decorative arches carve space for personal and collective expression,” while merging from conditions of “confinement, with limited resources and [often] against the regulative framework of the camp.”

As a section of the book titled “Intimacy” details, camp residents also built alternate, decorated entrance halls for their sheds; these transitional spaces limit direct views into houses from the street, to grant privacy to residents.

“Over time, we observed the impact of these designs on both other residents and NGOs,” Philippou says. “Fellow residents replicated and built upon the work of their neighbors, and NGOs adapted camp regulations to accommodate and support these popular designs. Syrian designers at the camp offer alternatives that feed back into evolving camp services on a systemic level.” 

As Majzoub notes, “These designs are not singular or isolated but are rather parts of a complex process of sharing, co-creation, and world-making, where camp residents defy their realities, challenge the status quo, and create frameworks for cultural continuity in the harsh and sterile conditions of a standardized refugee camp in the middle of the desert.”

Acts of resilience

As Akšamija observes, creating objects is an act of resilience for refugees. Many camp residents are depressed, as they see no way out of their situation, but others find strength and inspiration in art and design. One elderly man making toys out of trash, Aksamija recollects, was “full of spirit, but I don’t know how.” His son is a camp resident who has been unable to find work elsewhere, despite being a professional engineer. Many people feel they “have nothing to do, no work, no future.”

Akšamija experienced war and forced displacement herself while growing up; her family fled Bosnia in the 1990s when war broke out, ultimately landing in Austria.

“In my own country, we had such an amazing life, and suddenly we had to start from scratch in a new place,” Akšamija says. “I think this can happen to anyone, and it’s important to think about it this way.”

Indeed, Akšamija says the ideas in the book are not only relevant to refugee camps; in a world of resource scarcity, where climate crisis and political strife are creating further dislocation, many people endure deep deprivation.

Moreover, most refugees remain in desperate circumstances. “It’s important not to exoticize these inventions,” Akšamija says. “It’s a brutal reality. We tried to show it. And we tried to show the power of art and design in creating a life worth living amid war, destruction, and displacement.”

In that vein, consider the colonnade of earthen arches at Azraq. Well-crafted as it was, the structure got destroyed by the elements within a few years. Only briefly, then, the arches “transformed the desert from a symbol of isolation to a place for the community and a medium for cultural expression,” as Akšamija, Majzoub, and Philippou write in the book.

Like everything, the structure was a transitory creation, vulnerable to collapse. In design, as in all areas of living, the Azraq refugees face a need for rebuilding and reconstruction, despite little support and enormous uncertainty.

“It’s life,” Akšamija says. “But it’s not like we say, ‘Oh, that’s how life is,’ and we accept it. Syrian refugees in Al Azraq camp showed us that we can and must do better to address the cultural and emotional needs of displaced people.”

Artificial networks learn to smell like the brain

MIT Latest News - Mon, 10/18/2021 - 2:50pm

Using machine learning, a computer model can teach itself to smell in just a few minutes. When it does, researchers have found, it builds a neural network that closely mimics the olfactory circuits that animal brains use to process odors.

Animals from fruit flies to humans all use essentially the same strategy to process olfactory information in the brain. But neuroscientists who trained an artificial neural network to take on a simple odor classification task were surprised to see it replicate biology’s strategy so faithfully.

“The algorithm we use has no resemblance to the actual process of evolution,” says Guangyu Robert Yang, an associate investigator at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, who led the work as a postdoc at Columbia University. The similarities between the artificial and biological systems suggest that the brain’s olfactory network is optimally suited to its task.

Yang and his collaborators, who reported their findings Oct. 6 in the journal Neuron, say their artificial network will help researchers learn more about the brain’s olfactory circuits. The work also helps demonstrate artificial neural networks’ relevance to neuroscience. “By showing that we can match the architecture [of the biological system] very precisely, I think that gives more confidence that these neural networks can continue to be useful tools for modeling the brain,” says Yang, who is also an assistant professor in MIT’s departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Mapping natural olfactory circuits

For fruit flies, the organism in which the brain’s olfactory circuitry has been best mapped, smell begins in the antennae. Sensory neurons there, each equipped with odor receptors specialized to detect specific scents, transform the binding of odor molecules into electrical activity. When an odor is detected, these neurons, which make up the first layer of the olfactory network, signal to the second layer: a set of neurons that reside in a part of the brain called the antennal lobe. In the antennal lobe, sensory neurons that share the same receptor converge onto the same second-layer neuron. “They’re very choosy,” Yang says. “They don’t receive any input from neurons expressing other receptors.” Because it has fewer neurons than the first layer, this part of the network is considered a compression layer. These second-layer neurons, in turn, signal to a larger set of neurons in the third layer. Puzzlingly, those connections appear to be random.

For Yang, a computational neuroscientist, and Columbia University graduate student Peter Yiliu Wang, this knowledge of the fly’s olfactory system represented a unique opportunity. Few parts of the brain have been mapped as comprehensively, and that has made it difficult to evaluate how well certain computational models represent the true architecture of neural circuits, they say.

Building an artificial smell network

Neural networks, in which artificial neurons rewire themselves to perform specific tasks, are computational tools inspired by the brain. They can be trained to pick out patterns within complex datasets, making them valuable for speech and image recognition and other forms of artificial intelligence. There are hints that the neural networks that do this best replicate the activity of the nervous system. But, says Wang, who is now a postdoc at Stanford University, differently structured networks could generate similar results, and neuroscientists still need to know whether artificial neural networks reflect the actual structure of biological circuits. With comprehensive anatomical data about fruit fly olfactory circuits, he says, “We’re able to ask this question: Can artificial neural networks truly be used to study the brain?”

Collaborating closely with Columbia neuroscientists Richard Axel and Larry Abbott, Yang and Wang constructed a network of artificial neurons comprising an input layer, a compression layer, and an expansion layer — just like the fruit fly olfactory system. They gave it the same number of neurons as the fruit fly system, but no inherent structure: connections between neurons would be rewired as the model learned to classify odors.

The scientists asked the network to assign data representing different odors to categories, and to correctly categorize not just single odors, but also mixtures of odors. This is something that the brain’s olfactory system is uniquely good at, Yang says. If you combine the scents of two different apples, he explains, the brain still smells apple. In contrast, if two photographs of cats are blended pixel by pixel, the brain no longer sees a cat. This ability is just one feature of the brain’s odor-processing circuits, but captures the essence of the system, Yang says.

It took the artificial network only minutes to organize itself. The structure that emerged was stunningly similar to that found in the fruit fly brain. Each neuron in the compression layer received inputs from a particular type of input neuron and connected, seemingly randomly, to multiple neurons in the expansion layer. What’s more, each neuron in the expansion layer receives connections, on average, from six compression-layer neurons — exactly as occurs in the fruit fly brain.

“It could have been one, it could have been 50. It could have been anywhere in between,” Yang says. “Biology finds six, and our network finds about six as well.” Evolution found this organization through random mutation and natural selection; the artificial network found it through standard machine learning algorithms.

The surprising convergence provides strong support that the brain circuits that interpret olfactory information are optimally organized for their task, he says. Now, researchers can use the model to further explore that structure, exploring how the network evolves under different conditions and manipulating the circuitry in ways that cannot be done experimentally.

EFF Joins Press Freedom Groups In Asking U.S. To Drop Assange Extradition Efforts

EFF: Updates - Mon, 10/18/2021 - 1:59pm

EFF has joined a coalition of press freedom, civil liberties, and human rights groups that sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging the Department of Justice to drop its efforts to extradite and prosecute Julian Assange.

The renewed request comes after a Yahoo News report that the CIA discussed kidnapping or killing Assange in 2017, before charges against Assange were filed. The agency also reportedly planned extensive spying on WikiLeaks associates.

Assange has been charged under the Espionage Act. The charges have been widely condemned by journalists and press freedom organizations, including by outlets that have been critical of Assange. Leaks of information that the government would prefer to keep secret, and the publication of those leaks by journalists, are vital to our democracy. Regardless of what one thinks about other criminal charges against Assange, his indictment on charges that mostly reflect basic journalistic practices will have a chilling effect on critical national security journalism. 

In January, a British judge denied the Trump Administration’s extradition request, on the basis that the conditions of confinement in the U.S. would be overly harsh. The U.S. chose to appeal that decision. A hearing on the case is scheduled to be heard next week. Human rights and press freedom groups, including EFF, first asked in February for the Biden Administration to drop the extradition effort.

In addition to EFF, the letter to DOJ has been signed by the ACLU, Amnesty International, Center for Constitutional Rights, Fight for the Future, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Human Rights Watch, PEN America, Reporters Without Borders, and many other groups. 

Four from MIT named American Physical Society Fellows for 2021

MIT Latest News - Mon, 10/18/2021 - 12:40pm

Four members of the MIT community have been elected fellows of the American Physical Society for 2021. The APS fellowship was created in 1921 for those in the physics community to recognize peers who have contributed to advances in physics through original research, innovative applications, teaching, and leadership.

Lydia Bourouiba is a physical applied mathematician and associate professor the MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, where she founded and directs the Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory. She joined the MIT faculty in 2014. Bourouiba was selected by APS’s Division of Fluid Dynamics for “fundamental work in quantitatively elucidating the mechanisms of droplet impact and fragmentation and for pioneering a new field at the intersection of fluid dynamics and transmission of respiratory and foodborne pathogens with clear and tangible contributions to public health.”

Hong Liu is a professor of physics and is a member of the MIT Center for Theoretical Physics. He came to MIT in 2003. Liu was selected for APS’s Division of Particles and Fields for “new discoveries in string theory and the application of string theoretic methods to understanding quark-gluon plasma and its probes in heavy ion collisions, out-of-equilibrium dynamics and equilibration, non-Fermi liquids, black holes, quantum entanglement, and hydrodynamics.”

Thomas Peacock is a professor in mechanical engineering. He joined the MIT faculty in 2000 and now directs the Environmental Dynamics Laboratory. Peacock was selected by APS’s Division of Fluid Dynamics for “pioneering investigations into the dynamics of internal waves and internal tides in the ocean using imaginative laboratory experiments and field studies, for the identification of Lagrangian coherent structures in turbulent flow, and the application of fluid mechanics to deep-sea mining.”

Lindley Winslow is an associate professor of physics and holds the Jerrold R. Zacharias Career Development Professorship. She first came to MIT in 2008 as a postdoc and is now a member of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and the MIT Statistics and Data Science Center. Winslow was selected by APS’s Division of Particles and Fields for “leadership in the search for axion-like particles that may be dark matter candidates, and for the establishment of the groundbreaking ABRACADABRA detector for this search, and also for valuable detector development for the field of neutrinoless double beta decay.”

How the brain navigates cities

MIT Latest News - Mon, 10/18/2021 - 11:00am

Everyone knows the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. However, when you’re walking along city streets, a straight line may not be possible. How do you decide which way to go?

A new MIT study suggests that our brains are actually not optimized to calculate the so-called “shortest path” when navigating on foot. Based on a dataset of more than 14,000 people going about their daily lives, the MIT team found that instead, pedestrians appear to choose paths that seem to point most directly toward their destination, even if those routes end up being longer. They call this the “pointiest path.”

This strategy, known as vector-based navigation, has also been seen in studies of animals, from insects to primates. The MIT team suggests vector-based navigation, which requires less brainpower than actually calculating the shortest route, may have evolved to let the brain devote more power to other tasks.

“There appears to be a tradeoff that allows computational power in our brain to be used for other things — 30,000 years ago, to avoid a lion, or now, to avoid a perilious SUV,” says Carlo Ratti, a professor of urban technologies in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and director of the Senseable City Laboratory. “Vector-based navigation does not produce the shortest path, but it’s close enough to the shortest path, and it’s very simple to compute it.”

Ratti is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Nature Computational Science. Christian Bongiorno, an associate professor at Université Paris-Saclay and a member of MIT’s Senseable City Laboratory, is the study’s lead author. Joshua Tenenbaum, a professor of computational cognitive science at MIT and a member of the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), is also an author of the paper.

Vector-based navigation

Twenty years ago, while a graduate student at Cambridge University, Ratti walked the route between his residential college and his departmental office nearly every day. One day, he realized that he was actually taking two different routes — one on to the way to the office and a slightly different one on the way back.

“Surely one route was more efficient than the other, but I had drifted into adapting two, one for each direction,” Ratti says. “I was consistently inconsistent, a small but frustrating realization for a student devoting his life to rational thinking.”

At the Senseable City Laboratory, one of Ratti’s research interests is using large datasets from mobile devices to study how people behave in urban environments. Several years ago, the lab acquired a dataset of anonymized GPS signals from cell phones of pedestrians as they walked through Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, over a period of one year. Ratti thought that these data, which included more than 550,000 paths taken by more than 14,000 people, could help to answer the question of how people choose their routes when navigating a city on foot.

The research team’s analysis of the data showed that instead of choosing the shortest routes, pedestrians chose routes that were slightly longer but minimized their angular deviation from the destination. That is, they choose paths that allow them to more directly face their endpoint as they start the route, even if a path that began by heading more to the left or right might actually end up being shorter.

“Instead of calculating minimal distances, we found that the most predictive model was not one that found the shortest path, but instead one that tried to minimize angular displacement — pointing directly toward the destination as much as possible, even if traveling at larger angles would actually be more efficient,” says Paolo Santi, a principal research scientist in the Senseable City Lab and at the Italian National Research Council, and a corresponding author of the paper. “We have proposed to call this the pointiest path.”

This was true for pedestrians in Boston and Cambridge, which have a convoluted network of streets, and in San Francisco, which has a grid-style street layout. In both cities, the researchers also observed that people tended to choose different routes when making a round trip between two destinations, just as Ratti did back in his graduate school days.

“When we make decisions based on angle to destination, the street network will lead you to an asymmetrical path,” Ratti says. “Based on thousands of walkers, it is very clear that I am not the only one: Human beings are not optimal navigators.”

Moving around in the world

Studies of animal behavior and brain activity, particularly in the hippocampus, have also suggested that the brain’s navigation strategies are based on calculating vectors. This type of navigation is very different from the computer algorithms used by your smartphone or GPS device, which can calculate the shortest route between any two points nearly flawlessly, based on the maps stored in their memory.

Without access to those kinds of maps, the animal brain has had to come up with alternative strategies to navigate between locations, Tenenbaum says.

“You can’t have a detailed, distance-based map downloaded into the brain, so how else are you going to do it? The more natural thing might be use information that’s more available to us from our experience,” he says. “Thinking in terms of points of reference, landmarks, and angles is a very natural way to build algorithms for mapping and navigating space based on what you learn from your own experience moving around in the world.”

“As smartphone and portable electronics increasingly couple human and artificial intelligence, it is becoming increasingly important to better understand the computational mechanisms used by our brain and how they relate to those used by machines,” Ratti says.

The research was funded by MIT Senseable City Lab Consortium; MIT’s Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines; the National Science Foundation; the MISTI/MITOR fund; and the Compagnia di San Paolo.

Scene at MIT: MIT welcomes Chancellor Melissa Nobles

MIT Latest News - Mon, 10/18/2021 - 11:00am

Nestled between buildings 12, 13, 24, and 31 is the North Corridor, an area coined as the “Outfinite” by students, where members of the MIT community gathered for an Institute community social hosted by President L. Rafael Reif to welcome MIT’s new chancellor, Melissa Nobles. After about 18 months of virtual Zoom meetings, for many it was their first time seeing and reconnecting with friends and colleagues.

It was a sunny and picturesque fall afternoon of smiles, laughter, and in-person conversations that filled MIT’s once-silent campus spaces. Hundreds of students, staff, and faculty enjoyed autumnal snacks and light refreshments while taking the opportunity to meet the new chancellor. Chancellor Nobles greeted visitors with elbow bumps and spent the afternoon chatting with members of the community.

“It was wonderful to catch up with so many members of our community at the celebration,” Nobles says. “I am honored to be serving MIT in this new role, and I very much look forward to working alongside our amazing students and the wonderful teams throughout the Office of the Chancellor to educate the whole student and to deepen the meaning of an MIT education.”

Nobles is a professor of political science and served as the Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences from 2015 to 2021. She became chancellor on Aug. 18. In her new role, Nobles oversees all aspects of student life and learning at MIT, and also plays a leading role in strategic planning, faculty appointments, resource development, and campus planning activities.

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Q&A: Lucy mission launches to study ancient Trojan asteroids

MIT Latest News - Mon, 10/18/2021 - 9:40am

On Saturday morning, NASA’s Lucy spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, beginning a 12-year, nearly 4-billion-mile mission to explore some of the oldest objects in the solar system. Named after the famous Australopithecus fossil “Lucy,” the spacecraft will make two slingshot trips around Earth before heading toward a cluster of asteroids that share Jupiter’s orbit, called the Trojan asteroids. These are believed to be nearly as old as the solar system itself.

Through imaging and spectral mapping, the spacecraft will give scientists the first close-up view of the topography and chemical composition of the Trojan asteroids, which could offer insights into the chemistry of the early solar system, how the planets formed, and the origin of the organic molecules that enable life.

Cathy Olkin ’88, PhD ’96, who received her bachelor’s degree from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) and her doctorate degree from the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), is second-in-command as the deputy principal investigator on the mission. While she was busy preparing the spacecraft for launch, project scientist Richard Binzel, professor of planetary sciences in EAPS with a joint appointment in AeroAstro, described the goals of the Lucy mission.

Q: What are the roots of the Lucy mission? And how long has it taken to get to this moment?

A: The Lucy mission itself has been about a five-year effort to go from the first proposal to the launch pad. But the story goes back many decades, trying to understand these objects out at the distance of Jupiter that we call the Trojan asteroids. They're asteroids that are stuck in a gravitational tug of war between the sun and Jupiter itself at what we call the Lagrange points, where the gravitational tug of the sun is equal to the gravitational tug of Jupiter. Once something falls into that zone, they’re stable forever. So we think the Trojan asteroids are some of the earliest pieces of the formation of our solar system — we call them fossils of the solar system. And that's why we named the mission Lucy, after the Australopithecus fossil.

We think the Trojan asteroids date back to the very beginning of our solar system 4.56 billion years ago, which is older than any sample we can get from the Earth and any sample we've ever brought back from the moon. By studying the Trojan asteroids, we think we will be looking at some of the earliest pieces of the building blocks of planets.

Q: What are some of the outstanding questions that the Lucy mission expects to help answer?

A: We would like to know what the chemistry of the early solar system, particularly the organics, was like. Where did the organics, basically the carbon of life, come from? What was its earliest form? The Trojan asteroids are special because at Jupiter's distance most of the early chemistry is still literally frozen in time as it would have been at the beginning of our solar system. Their location further from the sun is colder than it is compared to the Earth, so essentially we think we are looking at pieces that have been frozen in time, not only in physical form but also chemically, since the very beginning.

For example, we think the earliest forms of water might be preserved in these objects. Once an object in space comes in close to the sun, about the Earth’s distance, any water present begins to evaporate. But we think the Trojan asteroids have been cold enough that the original water they might contain is still there, frozen, intact, and ready for us to explore and evaluate.

Q: What will the spacecraft's life look like from launch until it completes its mission?

A: Lucy is on an amazing race track across the solar system to visit the Trojan asteroids.  

About a year from now, it will swing by the Earth to pick up a little bit of velocity. And then it does another Earth swing-by in late 2024. And that last swing-by of the Earth will put it on a path out towards the Trojan asteroids. We have to build up speed and momentum to get that far away, so we use Earth’s gravity to assist.

We will be out in the asteroid belt by 2025. First we will go by a small asteroid named “Donald Johanson.” Donald Johanson discovered the Lucy Australopithecus fossil, and when an MIT graduate student discovered this unnamed asteroid on our flight path, we were able to get it named after him.

Then, when we pass by Donald Johansen in the main belt, we will finally reach the Trojan asteroid six years from now, in August 2027. We are in one of the clouds of Trojan asteroids. These are in orbit, 60 degrees in front, and 60 degrees in the back of Jupiter. And we’ll be in the leading group of Trojan asteroids, something we call the L4 Lagrange point, in 2027. We have two encounters in 2027, a third encounter in April 2028, and a fourth encounter in November 2028. And then in 2030, we swing back around the Earth, to go to the other side of Jupiter. We get to the cloud on the other side of Jupiter in 2033.

So, if you look at a map of the trajectory of the Lucy spacecraft, it is on a wild and crazy ride to get to both sides of Jupiter over the next 13 years or so.

Each of these objects is like a time capsule. And we'd like to see just how far back each time capsule is pushing our knowledge and understanding of how the Earth and planets came to be.

Q: How do you feel about this launch after so many years of studying the Trojan asteroids and preparing for this mission?

A: I started studying the Trojan asteroids myself back in the 1980s — in fact, the first paper I published on Trojan asteroids was with an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) student. It's almost surreal to think that we could go from seeing these objects as tiny points of light through a telescope to revealing them as real geological and geophysical worlds. And it takes decades. It takes a whole career to go from telescopic pinpoints to real, tangible objects. So in some ways, it's surreal. But in most ways, I am simply in awe of what this team has accomplished in a very challenging last few years.