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How the brain performs flexible computations

Wed, 06/06/2018 - 11:00am

Humans can perform a vast array of mental operations and adjust their behavioral responses based on external instructions and internal beliefs. For example, to tap your feet to a musical beat, your brain has to process the incoming sound and also use your internal knowledge of how the song goes.

MIT neuroscientists have now identified a strategy that the brain uses to rapidly select and flexibly perform different mental operations. To make this discovery, they applied a mathematical framework known as dynamical systems analysis to understand the logic that governs the evolution of neural activity across large populations of neurons.

“The brain can combine internal and external cues to perform novel computations on the fly,” says Mehrdad Jazayeri, the Robert A. Swanson Career Development Professor of Life Sciences, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study. “What makes this remarkable is that we can make adjustments to our behavior at a much faster time scale than the brain’s hardware can change. As it turns out, the same hardware can assume many different states, and the brain uses instructions and beliefs to select between those states.”

Previous work from Jazayeri’s group has found that the brain can control when it will initiate a movement by altering the speed at which patterns of neural activity evolve over time. Here, they found that the brain controls this speed flexibly based on two factors: external sensory inputs and adjustment of internal states, which correspond to knowledge about the rules of the task being performed.

Evan Remington, a McGovern Institute postdoc, is the lead author of the paper, which appears in the June 6 edition of Neuron. Other authors are former postdoc Devika Narain and MIT graduate student Eghbal Hosseini.

Ready, set, go

Neuroscientists believe that “cognitive flexibility,” or the ability to rapidly adapt to new information, resides in the brain’s higher cortical areas, but little is known about how the brain achieves this kind of flexibility.

To understand the new findings, it is useful to think of how switches and dials can be used to change the output of an electrical circuit. For example, in an amplifier, a switch may select the sound source by controlling the input to the circuit, and a dial may adjust the volume by controlling internal parameters such as a variable resistance. The MIT team theorized that the brain similarly transforms instructions and beliefs to inputs and internal states that control the behavior of neural circuits.

To test this, the researchers recorded neural activity in the frontal cortex of animals trained to perform a flexible timing task called “ready, set, go.” In this task, the animal sees two visual flashes — “ready” and “set” — that are separated by an interval anywhere between 0.5 and 1 second, and initiates a movement — “go” — some time after “set.” The animal has to initiate the movement such that the “set-go” interval is either the same as or 1.5 times the “ready-set” interval. The instruction for whether to use a multiplier of 1 or 1.5 is provided in each trial.

Neural signals recorded during the “set-go” interval clearly carried information about both the multiplier and the measured length of the “ready-set” interval, but the nature of these representations seemed bewilderingly complex. To decode the logic behind these representations, the researchers used the dynamical systems analysis framework. This analysis is used in the study of a wide range of physical systems, from simple electrical circuits to space shuttles.

The application of this approach to neural data in the “ready, set, go” task enabled Jazayeri and his colleagues to discover how the brain adjusts the inputs to and initial conditions of frontal cortex to control movement times flexibly. A switch-like operation sets the input associated with the correct multiplier, and a dial-like operation adjusts the state of neurons based on the “ready-set” interval. These two complementary control strategies allow the same hardware to produce different behaviors.

David Sussillo, a research scientist at Google Brain and an adjunct professor at Stanford University, says a key to the study was the research team’s development of new mathematical tools to analyze huge amounts of data from neuron recordings, allowing the researchers to uncover how a large population of neurons can work together to perform mental operations related to timing and rhythm.

“They have very rigorously brought the dynamical systems approach to the problem of timing,” says Sussillo, who was not involved in the research.

“A bridge between behavior and neurobiology”

Many unanswered questions remain about how the brain achieves this flexibility, the researchers say. They are now trying to find out what part of the brain sends information about the multiplier to the frontal cortex, and they also hope to study what happens in these neurons as they first learn tasks that require them to respond flexibly.

“We haven’t connected all the dots from behavioral flexibility to neurobiological details. But what we have done is to establish an algorithmic understanding based on the mathematics of dynamical systems that serves as a bridge between behavior and neurobiology,” Jazayeri says.

The researchers also hope to explore whether this type of model could help to explain behavior of other parts of the brain that have to perform computations flexibly.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Sloan Foundation, the Klingenstein Foundation, the Simons Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, and the McGovern Institute.

An unexpected ambition borne from MIT experience

Wed, 06/06/2018 - 12:00am

Senior Annamarie Bair was determined to become a medical doctor when she arrived at MIT from the Midwest nearly four years ago. She was fascinated by neuroscience but had yet to channel that passion toward what became her true focus: artificial intelligence and health care.

“I remember joking to my friends in Michigan to watch out, I might return from MIT a computer science nerd. And guess what, it’s happening,” she says. Bair will graduate this Friday with a degree in computer science and engineering and then go on to a summer internship at Microsoft.

Today she shrugs off past certainties with a laugh. “One thing I’ve learned at MIT is that you have to be willing to change course,” she says, describing an intellectual journey influenced by pivotal classes, influential professors, graduate student mentors, friendships, internships, and the overall atmosphere produced by a “community of passionate people.”

“Everyone at MIT has something they’re really passionate about, and it’s not even necessarily engineering,” she says. “It’s cool to see what makes people tick. You can touch on a lot of subjects and people can be interested, but when you hit on something they really care about, their eyes light up, and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is it. They’re going to do great things in this area.’ Without fail, everyone at MIT has this passion, even if they are still finding it in themselves.”

Following a passion

Several weeks into her second semester at MIT, Bair realized, via an introductory computer science course, an unexpected passion for ideas in the field. “It felt like a different way of thinking than I'd seen before — but also mirrored ways I thought,” she says. “I wanted to learn more about it. And I just kind of couldn't stop.”

She switched from a premed orientation to a major in computer science and incorporated neuroscience as a minor, a combination that led to an interest in artificial intelligence. “In my neuroscience courses, I’m always thinking: What’s the parallel in computer science?” says Bair. “And in my computer science classes, I’m asking: Does the brain do anything like this?”

Her classes inspired reading about AI and consciousness. She loved exploring theoretical problems in both computer science and neuroscience. As a senior, Bair dove into an Advanced Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program research project, or SuperUROP, in the lab of Peter Szolovits, an MIT professor of computer science and engineering and head of the Clinical Decision-Making Group within the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). The group focuses on applying machine learning methods to health care and medicine.  

“We’re looking at gene-expression data,” she says with excitement. “We’re using machine-learning methods to track impacts on gene expression. We’re ultimately providing a tool for biological researchers to more easily identify which genes to focus on and where they should target research in the future.”

Expanding horizons

When Bair envisions a future career, her thinking is more flexible than it once was. She plans to return to MIT in the fall to do graduate work in the lab of Szolovits. After that, she will see.

“I think it might be nice to go into industry research. I know of research projects at Microsoft, Facebook, and Google that look cool,” she says. “I’d like to get a PhD and go toward that. All I know is that I want to work on machine learning and health care research, and have the resources to do that and make a difference.”

There is a sense of abundance in Bair’s summary of her personal experience of MIT. “I learned that while a single-minded focus was good to get me into MIT, I needed to expand once I got here.” She joined the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and played a leadership role in it. She thrived during two summer internships: the first in mobile web development at The New York Times, the second at a tech startup in San Francisco that connects cancer patients with access to clinical trials.

“MIT pushed me in ways that I never imagined, and that has made me the person I am today,” she says. “MIT made me realize that real learning is about more than technical problems. The impact of this place comes with the conversations and experiences and knowing so many people who are doing interesting things.”

She smiles at the contrast between who she believed herself to be when she arrived at MIT in the fall of 2014, and who she has become. “You get this feeling of cutting-edge stuff going on here. It changes you. I could never imagine myself as anything but a doctor when I was in Michigan. Now look at me. I’ve become a real computer science nerd. And I’m cool with it.”

Quantum physics student leaving MIT on a high note

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 4:45pm

On the Friday before finals, the crowd in Kresge Auditorium awaited the last MIT Logarhythms’ performance of the year. Along the side of the stage, the 16 male singers yell “Logs on three … one, two, three … Logs on three!” and then run, jump and leap into view. Although they can’t see the audience beyond the lights, they feed off the crowd’s energy as they harmonize a capella.

At the end of the night, the group sang “Climax” by Usher, featuring senior Shaun Datta, who has been singing with the group since his freshman year. Datta chose “Climax,” not just because it’s a song about saying goodbye, but because it stretched his range — something that his time with the Logarhythms helped him to do in his life outside the group.

“I wanted to sing something where I was floating some parts because it’s pretty high,” Datta says. “It's in an uncomfortable place in the male register. Even after singing it for a few months now, it’s still a little uncomfortable to sing, which is what I wanted: a song that was unfamiliar territory.”

Growing up STEM

Before the Logarhythms, Datta only made a little time for singing. He had been focused on his education in science his entire life. As the son of a psychologist and a chemical engineer, he was taught “algebra and geometry at the dinner table before my legs were long enough to reach the floor.”

At Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, he was in the mathematics, science, and computer science core, with electives that included quantum physics, organic chemistry, and complex variables. He also published a paper in Physical Review via the University of Maryland. 

When Datta was considering which college to attend, MIT stood out as an excellent place to pursue his interests, which at the time he described as “the interface of natural sciences and computation, particularly quantum computation and computational biology.” But the deciding factor was how MIT students pursued their interests.

“When I went to visit the schools, there was a marked difference between MIT and everywhere else,” he says. “Many clever students go through the motions of the college application process and end up with a carefully manicured résumé but no clear sense of passion. What set MIT apart for me was that everyone is passionate about something. You can see it in the ways students spend their time outside of academics: tinkering, hacking, making music, all from their untampered passion. I wanted to be a part of that culture.”

Making time for music

Once at MIT, Datta would double-major in physics and mathematics with computer science, with a concentration in negotiation and leadership. Although schoolwork was consuming, he would find time for involvement in many activities at the Institute and beyond. He was a policy advisor and voting member with the MIT Committee on Undergraduate Program; an associate academic advisor for the Mathematical Problem-Solving Seminar; an MIT student ambassador; the designer of a new Negotiation and Leadership program alongside Professor Bruno Verdini; and an organizer of the 2016 MIT-Harvard Undergraduate Physics Conference as MIT Society of Physic Students' Secretary and Outreach Coordinator. During breaks he attended University of Waterloo’s two-week summer program that focused on the theoretical and experimental study of quantum information, and a teacher in the SPLASH program and in Barcelona. In the fall, he collaborated with Belgian lecturer Felicitas Rohden for her German art installation that visually explained quantum information.

When he first came across the Logarhythms’ information table as a freshman, he saw it as a good way to make friends. But it also turned out to be time-consuming: In addition to six hours of rehearsal a week with group and more time on his own, there were performances, competitions, and even an album recording.

But ultimately, Datta’s commitment to the Logarhythms helped him structure his time better and, more importantly, formed a counterpoint to the stress of academic pursuits. As soon as he entered the Logs’ practice space or climbed onstage, he easily switched gears from busy student to singer.

“Usually I’m quite focused on the music, and generally engaged with the feel of the music,” Datta said. “We try to leave the rest of our thoughts and distractions at the door, so we can be very focused, and to give us a reprieve from the other things we’re working on.”

Logging out

After graduation, Datta wants to build a career in quantum physics. He has received a $138,000 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and will choose between a DAAD scholarship at the Technische Universität München or attending one of the programs at Cambridge University. He is also considering working for a while at first and to start writing a book about the history of string theory. As he decides, he’ll spend this summer in an exchange program with a grant from the Department of Energy and National Institute for Nuclear Physics in Italy to search for dark matter candidates via machine learning at Frascati National Laboratory. 

As for singing, he eventually hopes to return to the stage, whether it be via a coffeehouse solo or another a capella group. He also will join the Logarhythms’ extensive alumni network, the most active of whom attend performances and help with song arrangements.

As Datta nears graduation, he’s having trouble believing that his time with the Logarhythms is over.

“The Logs has been the utmost formative experience of my college education,” he says.

MIT faculty approves new urban science major

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 4:10pm

Urban settlements and technology around the world are co-evolving as flows of population, finance, and politics are reshaping the very identity of cities and nations. Rapid and profound changes are driven by pervasive sensing, the growth and availability of continuous data streams, advanced analytics, interactive communications and social networks, and distributed intelligence. At MIT, urban planners and computer scientists are embracing these exciting new developments.

The rise of autonomous vehicles, sensor-enabled self-management of natural resources, cybersecurity for critical infrastructure, biometric identity, the sharing or gig economy, and continuous public engagement opportunities through social networks and data and visualization are a few of the elements that are converging to shape our places of living.

In recognition of this convergence and the rise of a new discipline bringing together the Institute’s existing programs in urban planning and computer science, the MIT faculty approved a new undergraduate degree, the bachelor of science in urban science and planning with computer science (Course 11-6), at its May 16 meeting.

The new major will jointly reside in and be administered by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

Combining urban planning and public policy, design and visualization, data analysis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, pervasive sensor technology, robotics, and other aspects of both computer science and city planning, the program will reflect how urban scientists are making sense of cities and urban data in ways never before imagined — and using what they learn to reshape the world in real-time.

“The new joint major will provide important and unique opportunities for MIT students to engage deeply in developing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be more effective scientists, planners, and policy makers,” says Eran Ben-Joseph, head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “It will incorporate STEM education and research with a humanistic attitude, societal impact, social innovation, and policy change — a novel model for decision making to enable systemic positive change and create a better world. This is really unexplored, fertile new ground for research, education, and practice.”

The goal of the program is to train undergraduates in the theory and practice of computer science and urban planning and policy-making including ethics and justice, statistics, data science, geospatial analysis, visualization, robotics, and machine learning.

“The new program offers students an opportunity to investigate some of the most pressing problems and challenges facing urban areas today,” says Asu Ozdaglar, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Its interdisciplinary approach will help them combine technical tools with fundamental skills in urban policy to create innovative strategies and solutions addressing real-world problems with great societal impact.”

Although this field draws on existing disciplines, the combination will shape a unique area of knowledge. Practitioners are neither computer scientists nor urban planners in a conventional sense, but represent new kinds of actors with new sets of tools and methodologies. Already, in areas as diverse as transportation, public health, and cybersecurity, researchers and practitioners at MIT are pioneering work along these lines, demonstrating the potential for collaborative efforts.

“Every now and then, the world puts in front of us new problems that require new tools and forms of knowledge to address them,” says Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. “The growing challenges that cities are facing today has prompted us to develop this new major in urban science. We are combining the tools of AI and big data with those of urban planning, the social sciences, and policy. We are also mobilizing SA+P’s design capacities to unleash the creative potentials of quantitative intelligence through urban science and other collaborations with Engineering and the other schools at MIT.”

The urban science major proposes a comprehensive pedagogy, adding new material and integrated coursework. A centerpiece of this integration will be the degree’s “urban science synthesis lab” requirement, where high-tech tools will be brought together to solve real-world problems.

“This degree program will broaden our students’ perspectives and deepen their exposure in new and exciting directions,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering. “Just like the 6-14 program that EECS and Economics launched last year, this new course of study will empower and challenge students and researchers to think in new ways and form new connections. The value and relevance of computational thinking just keeps growing.”

The new major will be available to all undergraduates starting in fall 2018.

MIT finishes second in 2018 Learfield Cup Final Standings

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 2:25pm

MIT has finished second overall in the final 2018 Learfield Directors’ Cup standings. This marks the highest finish in history for the Engineers, as MIT finished with a total of 1001.5 points.

“I am extremely proud of our student-athletes, staff, and coaches for this remarkable achievement during what has been a historic season for our teams,” said Julie Soriero, Director of Athletics. “This has been such an exciting year for our athletic programs at the conference, regional, and national level and finishing second in the nation is a testament to all of the hard work they have put in.”

MIT recently received the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) Men’s and Women’s Presidents Cups after capturing a league-record 14 conference championships in 2017-18. This is the fourth time since 2012-13 that MIT has swept both NEWMAC Presidents Cups and the fifth time that the men and women have individually won the award.

The Engineers captured NEWMAC championships in women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, field hockey, men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s tennis and softball. Overall, 17 teams made NCAA appearances including a fourth-place finish from women’s cross country, three Sweet 16 berths, two Elite Eights and a seventh-place finish by the softball team in the College World Series. Men’s swimming and diving was fifth at the NCAA Championship, while the women’s swimming and diving team placed sixth.

Overall in 2017-18, MIT has a school-record 104 All-Americans, 204 All-Conference honorees and 239 Academic All-Conference selections. The Institue also boasts 25 Athletes of the Year, six Coaches of the Year, five national runners-up, five regional Coaches of the Year, and one National Coach of the Year (Carol Matsuzaki of women's tennis).

The Learfield Directors' Cup was developed as a joint effort between the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) and USA Today. Points are awarded based on each institution's finish in NCAA Championships.

Tackling the ultimate problem set: The first year at MIT

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 2:00pm

Senior Andrea Meister began her team’s final presentation for the Designing the First Year at MIT class (FYE) on May 14 with an intriguing hook: “I want to start with a question to all of you. What percentage of MIT seniors do you think would declare a different major if they could go back to their freshman year?”

“Twenty percent,” called out one audience member. “Forty percent,” offered another.

“You’re actually right on the nose,” Meister responded. “Forty-one percent of MIT seniors we surveyed would choose a different major if they could go back to their freshman year. Wow! Let’s think about that.”

Over the course of the semester, Meister’s team thought long and hard about the issue of selecting a major, diving through data, surveys, and literature. In fact, the 2018 senior survey corroborates their findings; about one-third of respondents said that, if they could start over again, they would have considered a different major.

The team identified two barriers students face when deciding on a major. Specifically, many first-year students load up on General Institute Requirements (GIRs), giving them less time to explore other academic offerings. They may also rule out majors because they are misinformed about them, and about potential career paths they lead to.

To address these issues, Meister’s group proposed a half-semester, 3-unit seminar for each major, in which students can explore the field and career options. Taught by faculty and supplemented by alumni speakers, the seminars would cover high-impact content, ensure that students get accurate information, and minimize the time commitment for all involved.

The team’s rapid-fire, six-minute talk was one of 11 final presentations, all aimed at solving the ultimate problem set: preserving the magic of an MIT education, but making it better.

In addition to the issue of exploring and choosing a major, teams focused on pain points they identified in academics, student activities, and advising. They arrived at their proposals using design principles they learned throughout the semester. Findings were informed by assessments of community stakeholders’ needs, benchmarking, fleshing out concepts, gauging feedback, and iterating. Instruction in curriculum design and pedagogy, courtesy of experts in the Teaching and Learning Lab (T+LL), helped students take a holistic view of the first year as a complex system with many interconnected parts.

Rethinking the GIRs was the focus of several groups. “We evaluated many stakeholders’ needs and we found at the core of it a key tension between MIT’s well-known rigor and a commitment to a robust scientific core with student desires to have flexibility,” explains junior Hailey Nichols. Her team recommended changing the grading system of all science GIRs to pass/no record, to give first years more flexibility and opportunities to pursue their academic interests. Using a restaurant metaphor, the team also proposed creating exploratory classes with alternative formats, such as sampler classes (3-6 units, focused on majors), fusion classes (18-24 units, a blend of STEM and humanities classes), and takeout classes (12-unit, online versions of science GIRs).

Another group tackled ways to tune up the communications requirement and found communications intensive humanities (CI-H) classes, in particular, ripe for innovation. Similar to the fusion class notion, the team proposed “big ideas” classes with a writing component, focused on real-world topics and co-taught by one instructor from the humanities and one from science or engineering. Combinations might include globalization and blockchain, or poverty and artificial intelligence.

“Redesign doesn’t need to be radical to be incredibly impactful,” says Vice Chancellor Ian A. Waitz. The idea for the FYE class surfaced a year ago in conversations between him and the Undergraduate Association. “From the outset students, alumni, and faculty were eager to be ambitious when it came to improving the first year, but also insistent that the magic of MIT, what is working well, not be changed.”

Two teams proposed improvements in how first year students find extracurricular activities that resonate with them. “Picking activities and classes at MIT is one of the least emphasized but most important things that happen in the first year,” notes senior Erick Friis. His group developed a prototype app called MIT Explorer that functions much like Amazon does — except the currency is time, not dollars. Classes, clubs, sports, and other activities are calibrated with an estimated time commitment per week. By adding them to their “cart,” students can get a snapshot of what their semester schedule would look like, which could help them avoid overextending themselves.

Another team outlined practical changes that would make Activities Midway less daunting. Held during MIT Orientation, the two-hour fair is an opportunity for first years to meet representatives from over 250 clubs. Moving the event to a larger space, grouping the clubs and activities more logically, and holding the event on Registration Day would make a significant difference, they said.

“Students [reported] feeling this huge pressure to find the community where they could belong” almost immediately when they set foot on campus, says junior Kelsey Becker. “However, there are four years at MIT. We thought, ‘Why not create a new club exploration period for the whole month of September to relieve some of this stress and to allow student groups to better advertise what they have to offer?’”

To address weaknesses in first year advising, senior Alexis Oriole’s team recommended creating more incentives for faculty, implementing an advisor training program, and prototyping an advisor/advisee survey to replace the hand-matching system currently in place. They also proposed a universal website for advisors and advisees with centralized information and useful tools for frequent check-ins, scheduling, and to access grades, the course catalog, and other academic resources. The site would “connect advisors and advisees and really facilitate those meaningful interactions that students and advisees are both looking for,” says Oriole.

Engaging the cohort of more than 50 students to find innovative ways to improve the first year has paid off — both as a learning experience and as a way to surface new ideas for the faculty and the administration to consider.

“Implementing recommendations from the class and continuing our community conversation about how to make sure we offer an exceptional first-year experience is among our biggest priorities for the fall,” says Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, who served as a mentor to the students in the class and, along with Waitz, has made education innovation a key focus for the Office of the Chancellor. “I am very grateful to the students, faculty, and staff who gave their all to pull this class off and, through their hard work, have created significant momentum for positive change.”

“The future is bright. This is really inspiring,” concludes Bryan Moser, one of the FYE lead instructors who is also senior lecturer and academic director of the MIT System Design and Management program.

Some of the students’ ideas are already moving forward: teams have shared their findings at the most recent Faculty Meeting and with the Academic Council, and they will present to the MIT Corporation in June. Several concepts are also being considered for implementation, such as potential changes to the communications requirement and Activities Midway, and creating an MIT Explorer website.

Materials scientists Frances Ross and James LeBeau to join MIT faculty

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 11:25am

Frances M. Ross and James M. LeBeau have recently accepted offers to join the MIT faculty in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) in 2018-19.

Ross, who will join DMSE as a professor, is currently a research scientist at the Nanoscale Materials Analysis Department within IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, where she performs research on nanostructures using transmission electron microscopes (TEMs) to observe how nanostructures form and how the growth process is affected by changes in temperature, environment, and other variables. Understanding materials at such a basic level has remarkable implications for many applications including semiconductor devices, energy storage, and more.

Ross earned a BA with honors and a PhD at Cambridge University in the U.K. and was a postdoc at AT&T Bell Labs. She has been recognized with many awards and honors, including fellowships in the American Physical Society, the Materials Research Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Microscopy Society of America, the American Vacuum Society, and the Royal Microscopical Society.

LeBeau is currently associate professor of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University, where his research focus is on developing new TEM and scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM) techniques to determine the atomic structures of materials, thereby understanding ceramics, metals, and electronic materials in a way that we never have before.

LeBeau holds a BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic University and a PhD from the University of California at Santa Barbara, both in materials science and engineering. LeBeau’s reputation as a rising star in this field has been recognized with the Microanalysis Society’s Kurt F. J. Heinrich Award for a leading microscopist under 40, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a North Carolina State University Faculty Scholarship, and acceptance into the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Program.


As MIT faculty, Ross and LeBeau will join the research community that will make use of the new MIT.nano building at MIT. Construction of MIT.nano began in 2014 and is now very near completion; the state-of-the-art facility will house cleanroom, imaging, and prototyping facilities in 200,000 square feet at the center of campus. Over 2,000 researchers from departments, labs, and centers across the Institute will collaborate, share ideas, and develop new technologies in this critically enabling space. As part of this community, Ross and LeBeau will bring unique skills and experience in developing new TEM and STEM techniques and instrumentation, which will enrich materials research at MIT immediately and for decades to come. They both plan to incorporate their research into the DMSE curriculum, using TEM case study examples to illustrate structure-property relationships.

“MIT.nano is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a community of innovative thinkers in a state-of-the-art facility filled with world-class characterization equipment; Drs. Ross and LeBeau bring not only expertise in characterization science, but also tremendous creativity in developing new techniques that will advance the field of characterization,” says Professor Christopher Schuh, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Unity makes strength: MIT expands ties with Belgium

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 9:40am

A new partnership between MIT and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) in Flanders, Belgium, seeks to build bridges between researchers at both institutions, and between the Dutch and French-speaking regions of Belgium. 

The five-year partnership will create additional internship and research opportunities for MIT students within KU Leuven’s 34 departments and six interdisciplinary institutes, as well as establish a new Global Seed Fund grant program to support early-stage collaborations between MIT and KU Leuven researchers. Operated through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), the new Global Seed Fund grant will provide up to $30,000 in financial support to fund travel costs incurred during international research initiatives. Calls for proposals are now open, and the application deadline is Sept. 17.

The new partnership creates “a lever to more institution-to-institution type of collaboration,” says Luc Sels, rector of KU Leuven. “That’s what I find so important. It no longer depends on the individual ties between people who already know each other, but it creates a platform in which promising researchers and ambitious students can participate.”

An historic agreement

The new partnership also has broader diplomatic implications, says Vincent Blondel, rector of the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Louvain-la-Neuve. UCL, which is a valued partner of MIT-Belgium, has sponsored its own seed grants since 2011 UCL is the largest French-speaking university in Belgium, while KU Leuven is the largest Dutch-speaking university. 

For centuries, both institutions were part of the country’s first university — the Universitas Lovaniensis. UCL and KU Leuven established independent institutions in 1968. The MIT-Belgium partnership marks the first joint international project involving both institutions since the split. The signing, which took place at MIT on March 9, was attended by Sels, Blondel, and MIT associate provost Richard K. Lester. It marked the first time since the 1960s that rectors from both Belgian institutions have cooperated on an official joint visit overseas.  

“This is something that we do together after half a century of separation,” Blondel says. “It has a very strong symbolic energy.”

Molly Schneider, managing director of MISTI’s France and Belgium programs, says that the MIT-KU Leuven partnership was made possible through innovative leadership spearheaded by key stakeholders within both institutions. KU Leuven’s robust research facilities, interdisciplinary centers, and its position as one of the world’s premier institutions in science, engineering, technology, and biomedical studies make the school an intuitive partner for MIT. She considers the new partnership as “a natural and strategic step” towards supporting existing relationships between collaborators in Cambridge and Flanders, and broadening those opportunities.

“This agreement will allow us to support intellectual collaboration between MIT researchers and partners at KU Leuven, and to increase student mobility,” Schneider says. “This is a mutually beneficial partnership at every level, and would not have been possible without critical support and visionary leadership from our partners at KU Leuven.”

Belgium and beyond

Luc Sels says that the partnership strengthens individual international ties already established by researchers within both institutions, and provides a centralized channel for connecting potential new collaborators with similar areas of interest. KU Leuven’s strategic research centers that focus on biotechnology, energy, and nanotechnology, along with its relationships with science and tech industry leaders like Samsung, Intel, and Sony, also bolster collaboration potential for researchers in the United States and Europe. 

“We are very happy that the agreement is now signed and now we can really start working and implementing things,” Sels says. “We are really thrilled.”

He adds that Belgium’s geographic position close to intellectual capitals like Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Strasbourg, also offer unique opportunities for students and MIT faculty to work with pioneers from a broad range of scientific and cultural backgrounds. 

Belgium’s position as an epicenter of innovation is one of many reasons why Cathy Culot has spent the past 15 years creating opportunities for MIT students within the country. Culot is a lecturer in the MIT Global Studies and Languages department and co-director of MIT-Belgium, a program that has placed students in summer internship and research positions since 2009. Culot has been instrumental in building much of the MIT-Belgium Program from the ground up, and says that the new landmark partnership will provide new opportunities for MIT students and is a conscious step towards making Belgium’s motto, Unity makes strength, a living reality. 

“This partnership definitely embodies this principle,” Culot says.

Lester, who oversees MIT’s international activities, views the partnership as “a terrific example” of how MISTI is expanding the Institute’s global engagement to benefit both students and faculty, and helping to keep international education opportunities at the core of MIT’s institutional strategy. As the new Global Seed Fund grant gets further underway and with calls for joint project proposals opening this past week, Lester expects to see global engagement flourish even more. 

“My expectation and hope is that expansion will continue,” he says. “There’s such a long history of MIT engagement in Belgium with MIT researchers and academics. This agreement will help to reinforce what has been a very productive and important relationship for us.”

MISTI, a part of the Center for International Studies, is a program at the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

Keeping data fresh for wireless networks

Mon, 06/04/2018 - 11:59pm

For wireless networks that share time-sensitive information on the fly, it’s not enough to transmit data quickly. That data also need to be fresh. Consider the many sensors in your car. While it may take less than a second for most sensors to transmit a data packet to a central processor, the age of that data may vary, depending on how frequently a sensor is relaying readings.

In an ideal network, these sensors should be able to transmit updates constantly, providing the freshest, most current status for every measurable feature, from tire pressure to the proximity of obstacles. But there’s only so much data that a wireless channel can transmit without completely overwhelming the network.

How, then, can a constantly updating network — of sensors, drones, or data-sharing vehicles — minimize the age of the information that it receives at any moment, while at the same time avoiding data congestion?

Engineers in MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems are tackling this question and have come up with a way to provide the freshest possible data for a simple wireless network.

The researchers say their method may be applied to simple networks, such as multiple drones that transmit position coordinates to a single control station, or sensors in an industrial plant that relay status updates to a central monitor. Eventually, the team hopes to tackle even more complex systems, such as networks of vehicles that wirelessly share traffic data.

“If you are exchanging congestion information, you would want that information to be as fresh as possible,” says Eytan Modiano, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and a member of MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems. “If it’s dated, you might make the wrong decision. That’s why the age of information is important.”

Modiano and his colleagues presented their method in a paper at IEEE’s International Conference on Computation Communications (Infocom), where it won a Best Paper Award. The paper will appear online in the future. The paper’s lead author is graduate student Igor Kadota; former graduate student Abhishek Sinha is also a co-author.

Keeping it fresh

Traditional networks are designed to maximize the amount of data that they can transmit across channels, and minimize the time it takes for that data to reach its destination. Only recently have researchers considered the age of the information — how fresh or stale information is from the perspective of its recipient.

“I first got excited about this problem, thinking in the context of UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles that are moving around in an environment, and they need to exchange position information to avoid collisions with one another,” Modiano says. “If they don’t exchange this information often enough, they might collide. So we stepped back and started looking at the fundamental problem of how to minimize age of information in wireless networks.”

In this new paper, Modiano’s team looked for ways to provide the freshest possible data to a simple wireless network. They modeled a basic network, consisting of a single data receiver, such as a central control station, and multiple nodes, such as several data-transmitting drones.

The researchers assumed that only one node can transmit data over a wireless channel at any given time. The question they set out to answer: Which node should transmit data at which time, to ensure that the network receives the freshest possible data, on average, from all nodes?

“We are limited in bandwidth, so we need to be selective about what and when nodes are transmitting,” Modiano says. “We say, how do we minimize age in this simplest of settings? Can we solve this? And we did.”

An optimal age

The team’s solution lies in a simple algorithm that essentially calculates an “index” for each node at any given moment. A node’s index is based on several factors: the age, or freshness of the data that it’s transmitting; the reliability of the channel over which it is communicating; and the overall priority of that node.

“For example, you may have a more expensive drone, or faster drone, and you’d like to have better or more accurate information about that drone. So, you can set that one with a high priority,” Kadota explains.

Nodes with a higher priority, a more reliable channel, and older data, are assigned a higher index, versus nodes that are relatively low in priority, communicating over spottier channels, with fresher data, which are labeled with a lower index.

A node’s index can change from moment to moment. At any given moment, the algorithm directs the node with the highest index to transmit its data to the receiver. In this prioritizing way, the team found that the network is guaranteed to receive the freshest possible data on average, from all nodes, without overloading its wireless channels.

The team calculated a lower bound, meaning an average age of information for the network that is fresher than any algorithm could ever achieve. They found that the team’s algorithm performs very close to this bound, and that it is close to the best that any algorithm could do in terms of providing the freshest possible data for a simple wireless network.

“We came up with a fundamental bound that says, you cannot possibly have a lower age of information than this value ­— no algorithm could be better than this bound — and then we showed that our algorithm came close to that bound,” Modiano says. “So it’s close to optimal.”

The team is planning to test its index scheme on a simple network of radios, in which one radio may serve as a base station, receiving time-sensitive data from several other radios. Modiano’s group is also developing algorithms to optimize the age of information in more complex networks.

“Our future papers will look beyond just one base station, to a network with multiple base stations, and how that interacts,” Modiano says. “And that will hopefully solve a much bigger problem.”

This research was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Army Research Office (ARO).

The moral calculus of climate change

Mon, 06/04/2018 - 11:59pm

Ask students for a standout moment from 24.07 (The Ethics of Climate Change), and they invariably recall the game theory exercise, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, played for sweet stakes provided by Caspar Hare, professor of philosophy.

“During the game, one girl was trying to play cooperatively, but lost to a person who did the selfish thing — and then won,” recalls sophomore Claire McGinnity. “He ended up taking all the chocolate, and Caspar showed no mercy!”

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, a strategy scenario that pits cooperation against self-interest, is a perfect way to puzzle over the difficult dilemmas emerging in a rapidly warming world, suggests Hare.

“With climate change, it may be that some of us are individually better off, short term, driving SUVs, but if we all emit carbon like crazy, we’re all worse off than if none of us do,” says Hare. “Eventually, we might arrive at a point where everybody sees it’s in their best interest to cooperate and reduce emissions."

Applying the moral philosopher's toolkit to climate issues

The “Ethics of Climate Change” brings a moral philosopher’s toolkit to a set of monumental problems: What is the nature of the threat posed by climate change, and given the uncertainties, what should be done about it? Should individuals take action, or governments? Is the current generation responsible for acting on behalf of future citizens?

Kieran Setiya, professor of philosophy, sparked the creation of this course. “I had been interested in and disturbed by climate change for as long as I can remember,” he says. Then, after arriving at MIT in 2014, and engaging with the Fossil Free MIT group, Setiya decided to teach a class. “I thought this would be a useful way to generate sustained attention on the topic,” he says.

With department colleague Caspar Hare, Setiya set out to structure a class that would offer a rigorous foundation for deliberating on climate change questions. “Climate change is a paradigmatically moral issue, because what we’re doing potentially harms others we don’t know,” says Hare. “But the causal path to harm is complicated, and much of the public debate around climate change and potential remedies is coarse grained.”

“We want students to go from feeling distressed by climate change to a clearer understanding of the risks, probable outcomes, and different ways our decisions will affect them,” says Setiya.

The “mathy” moral case

The course includes readings from contemporary scholars as well as lectures and exercises designed to promote precise claims and arguments. For some students, the syllabus proved surprising.

“The class wasn’t in line with my initial expectations, but I’m happier the way it ended up,” says sophomore Serena Grown-Haeberli, who is majoring in mechanical engineering. “The emphasis is on the moral frameworks for decision making, applied to climate change, which gives you a way of looking at this big problem from different angles.”

“It was my first philosophy class, and I had an image of old Greek philosophers sitting around talking,” says McGinnity, who works as an operator for MIT’s Nuclear Research Laboratory and is contemplating a major in aeronautics and astronautics. “I didn’t know the field used logic and such mathy language, and it’s a lot more scientific than I imagined.”

For senior Saleem Aldajani, majoring in physics and biological and chemical engineering, the class and its demanding approach has changed how he views the world. “It’s almost like a pure ethics class, with an applied aspect, and it’s really given me a systematic way of asking the right questions — kind of like a moral guide toward my obligations and actions,” says Aldajani, who is from Saudi Arabia and hopes eventually to work on alternative energy technologies.

The class includes a series of challenging topics that, unlike problem sets, do not have quantifiable answers. “In some areas of philosophy, you can rapidly get into a space where there’s no consensus about how the territory should look,” says Hare. “For instance, no one has provided a perfect answer to how we should think about catastrophic risk.”

To be or not to be

Then there is the mind-bending nonidentity problem, which ponders whether actions committed in the present can harm individuals in the future who might not, as a result of these actions, ever exist. Can such actions be judged in a moral context? Discuss.

“If we have massive change in climate policies now, that might mean different people live in the future, and not those who would live if we continued with the same energy policies,” says McGinnity.

“Using that argument as a framework, the reason to prevent climate change can’t be because it might harm future individuals,” suggests Grown-Haeberli, “because they won’t be worse off for us not fixing the problem.”

“This may be about improving the kind of moral reasoning we use to do things that affect future generations,” says Aldajani, “When it comes to climate change, our response may be not about avoiding harm or making the world a better place, but about fulfilling a duty of justice by reducing emissions.”

It’s one of the class’s “trippy problems,” in the words of Grown-Haeberli, which sticks with students beyond the classroom. “This course makes you think consciously about complicated things that don’t have intuitive answers, and shows how to approach questions in a consistent, logical way, giving you good justifications for your actions,” says Grown-Haeberli.

“If you’re really interested in understanding why we should be doing things about climate change,” says Aldajani, “this class prepares you to talk about the issue coherently at conferences, or with specialists, and make an insightful conclusion.”

This, of course, is music to the ears of an instructor.

“Teaching MIT students is an investment in a bunch of brilliant young people who will make impacts in all kinds of ways,” says Setiya. “I hope that our students may have a broader impact on climate change, by thinking and coming to understand the issue, and then engaging others in rigorous conversation about it.”

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer: Leda Zimmerman

MIT linQ welcomes IDEA² Global teams for 2018

Mon, 06/04/2018 - 1:10pm

The 13 teams admitted to MIT linQ's IDEA² Global for 2018 have begun their seven-month program, which provides intensive innovation method training, collaborative project development, team-specific mentoring, and expertise to help projects move from novel idea to real-world application. 

MIT linQ is an international biomedical technology innovation consortium, based in the Institute for Medical Engineering and Sciences (IMES). The new teams convened from May 31 to June 2 for their first Impact Proposition Workshop, where they made their baseline project pitches and engaged with program faculty to begin refining their research and development strategy.  

“These very competitive teams address an exciting range of unmet medical needs with their new technologies,” says Mercedes Balcells-Camps, the program chair of IDEA² Global and a principal research scientist. “And we’re thrilled that this year to welcome our first teams from Ireland and Tunisia.”

Proposals to IDEA² Global were invited from anywhere in the world and are sponsored by several organizations dedicated to biomedical technology innovation. Project sponsors include Fundación para la Innovación y la Prospectiva en Salud en España, a Spain-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing new healthcare technologies; the Institute for Medical Engineering and ScienceMassBIOCantabria Labs, a Spain-based pharmaceutical R&D company; the Medicine Innovation Program at Massachusetts General Hospital; and MIT Hacking Medicine

The projects selected for 2018 included are: 

  • “A new strategy to fight against viral retrotranscription,” a project proposing to interrupt the development cycle of pathogenic viruses such as HIV or Herpes;
  • “Open Retinoscope,” a smartphone-enabled device for eye exams that can screen for diabetic retinopathy and other high-prevalent pathologies;
  • “Circulating tumor cells nanoplasmonic biosensor (CTCnanoSen),” a device to detect early metastasis of cancer in patients’ blood;
  • “COVERGEL Project,” a family of medical devices for gastrointestinal endoscopy to perform bioactive treatments and prevent adverse events after endoscopy;
  • “PEPSTOB (Peptide to stop obesity),” a medication to reduce lipid accumulation in tissues and organs to treat conditions like obesity and heptatic steatosis, with an additional cosmetic application;
  • “Paciena Prothesis,” a prosthesis to be used as an intraneovaginal mold after neovagina surgery;
  • “Creating a Patient-Centered Smartphone or Computer Application for Cirrhosis Management,” a system to manage outpatient care and reduce the need for hospital readmission after treatment;
  • “Translational Neuroscience Center,” a  hospital-based program to improve the efficiency of translation of novel ideas into practical tools for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of brain disorders;
  • “Integrating the tools of genomics and neuroscience to reveal causes of neuropsychiatric disorders,” a research initiative to transform psychiatric drug discovery, addressing the growing need to treat mental illnesses;
  • “Tex Phototherapy,” a wearable technology to treat neonatal jaundice;
  • “Galenband,” a portable, non-invasive heart rhythm monitor to detect intermittent heart arrhythmia systems;
  • “Bloomer Tech,” a process for transforming everyday fabrics into tools for personalized health care detection, monitoring, and treatment of chronic diseases; and
  • “AugGi,” a mobile app that helps patients with digestive disorders take objective measures of their stool characteristics.

The teams were selected competitively based on their potential for impact and their readiness for additional support. Through group innovation training and individualized mentorship and advising, the teams will refine their research and development strategy to maximize their opportunity to create healthcare impact. 

After sharpening the focus on the medical need they intend to address in their initial workshop, the teams will now be matched with project mentors and subject and technology experts to help them develop their project over the summer. In October, the teams will meet again in another workshop to refine their project definition. They will gather once more to make their final pitches in December to a panel of judges, who will name the best projects. 

Team members say they are looking forward to the training and guidance they will get to advance their projects. 

“We believe that our idea could mean a significant improvement in the medical care provided to ophthalmological patients,” says Florencio Gonzalez Marquez, member of Open Retinoscope. “We hope IDEA² will show us the strengths and weaknesses of our project, advise us on how to improve it, and give us tools to [promote it to] companies in the sector that might be interested in the commercializing the device.”

Meet the School of Science’s tenured professors for 2018

Mon, 06/04/2018 - 1:00pm

The School of Science has announced that six members of its faculty have been granted tenure by MIT.

This year’s newly tenured associate professors are:

Daniel Cziczo studies the interrelationship of atmospheric aerosol particles and cloud formation and its impact on the Earth’s climate system. Airborne particles can impact climate directly by absorbing or scattering solar and terrestrial radiation and indirectly by acting as the seeds on which cloud droplets and ice crystals form. Cziczo’s experiments include using small cloud chambers in the laboratory to mimic atmospheric conditions that lead to cloud formation and observing clouds in situ from remote mountaintop sites or through the use of research aircraft.

Cziczo earned a BS in aerospace engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1992, and afterwards spent two years at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory performing spacecraft navigation. Cziczo earned a PhD in geophysical sciences in 1999 from the University of Chicago under the direction of John Abbatt. Following research appointments at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and then the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where he directed the Atmospheric Measurement Laboratory, Cziczo joined the MIT faculty in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences in 2011.

Matthew Evans focuses on gravitational wave detector instrument science, aiming to improve the sensitivity of existing detectors and designing future detectors. In addition to his work on the Advanced the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, Evans explores the physical processes that set fundamental limits on the sensitivity of future gravitational wave detectors. Of particular interest are the quantum and thermal limitations which have the strongest impact on ground-based detectors like LIGO and also play a role in the related fields of ultra-stable frequency references and macroscopic quantum measurement.

Evans received a BS in physics from Harvey Mudd College in 1996 and a PhD from Caltech in 2002. After postdoctoral work on LIGO at Caltech, Evans moved to the European Gravitational Observatory to work on the Virgo project. In 2007, he took a research scientist position at MIT working on the Advanced LIGO project, where he helped design and build its interferometer. He joined the MIT faculty in the Department of Physics in 2013.

Anna Frebel studies the chemical and physical conditions of the early universe, and how the oldest, still-surviving stars can be used to obtain constraints on the nature of the very first stars and early supernova explosions, and associated stellar element nucleosynthesis. She is best known for her discoveries and subsequent spectroscopic analyses of 13 billion-year-old stars in the Milky Way and ancient faint stars in the least luminous dwarf galaxies, to uncover unique information about the physical and chemical conditions of the early Universe. With this work, she has been able to obtain a more comprehensive view of the formation of our Milky Way Galaxy with its extended stellar halo because the formation history of each galaxy is imprinted in the chemical signatures of its stars. To extract this information, Frebel is also involved in a large supercomputing project that simulates the formation and evolution of large galaxies like the Milky Way. 

Frebel received her PhD from the Australian National University in 2007. After a W. J. McDonald Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin, she completed a Clay Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 2009. Frebel joined the MIT faculty in the Department of Physics in 2012.

Aram Harrow works to understand the capabilities of the quantum computers and quantum communication devices and in the process creates connections to other areas of theoretical physics, mathematics, and computer science. As a graduate student, Harrow developed the idea of "coherent classical communication," which along with his work on the resource inequality method, has greatly simplified the understanding of quantum information theory. Harrow has also produced foundational work on the role of representation theory in quantum algorithms and quantum information theory. In 2008, Harrow, Hassidim, and Lloyd developed a quantum algorithm for solving linear systems of equations that provides a rare example of an exponential quantum speedup for a practical problem. Recently Harrow has been investigating properties of entanglement, such as approximate "superselection" and "monogamy" principles with the goal of better understanding not only entanglement and its uses, but also the related areas of quantum communication, many-body physics, and convex optimization.

Harrow received his undergraduate degree in 2001 and his PhD in 2005 from MIT. After his PhD, he spent five years as a lecturer at the University of Bristol and then two years as a research assistant professor at the University of Washington. Harrow returned to MIT to join the faculty in the Department of Physics in 2013. 

Adam Martin studies how cells and tissues change shape during embryonic development, giving rise to organs with distinct shapes and structure. He has developed a system to visualize and quantify the movement of molecules, cells, and tissues during tissue folding in the fruit fly early embryo, where cells and motor proteins within these cells can be readily imaged by confocal microscopy on the time scale of seconds. Tissue folding in the fruit fly involves conserved genes that also function to form the mammalian neural tube, which gives rise to the mammalian brain and spinal cord. Martin combines live imaging with genetic, cell biological, computational, and biophysical approaches to dissect the molecular and cellular mechanisms that sculpt tissues. In addition, the lab examines how tissues grow and are remodeled during development, investigating processes such as cell division and the epithelial-mesenchymal transition.

After Martin received a BS in biology from Cornell University in 2000, he completed his PhD in molecular and cell biology under the direction of David Drubin and Matthew Welch at the University of California at Berkeley in 2006. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University in the laboratory of Eric Weischaus, Martin joined the MIT faculty in the Department of Biology in 2011.

Kay Tye dissects the synaptic and cellular mechanisms in emotion and reward processing with the goal of understanding how they underpin addiction-related behaviors and frequently co-morbid disease states such as attention-deficit disorder, anxiety, and depression. Using an integrative approach including optogenetics, pharmacology, and both in vivo and ex vivo electrophysiology, she explores such problems as how neural circuits differently encode positive and negative cues from the environment; if and how perturbations in neural circuits mediating reward processing, fear, motivation, memory, and inhibitory control underlie the co-morbidity of substance abuse, attention-deficit disorder, anxiety, and depression; and how emotional states such as increased anxiety might increase the propensity for substance abuse by facilitating long-term changes associated with reward-related learning.

Tye received her BS in brain and cognitive sciences from MIT in 2003 and earned her PhD in 2008 at the University of California at San Francisco under the direction of Patricia Janak. After she completed her postdoctoral training with Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University in 2011, she returned to the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences as a faculty member in 2012.

Researchers devise new way to make light interact with matter

Mon, 06/04/2018 - 11:00am

A new way of enhancing the interactions between light and matter, developed by researchers at MIT and Israel’s Technion, could someday lead to more efficient solar cells that collect a wider range of light wavelengths, and new kinds of lasers and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that could have fully tunable color emissions.

The fundamental principle behind the new approach is a way to get the momentum of light particles, called photons, to more closely match that of electrons, which is normally many orders of magnitude greater. Because of the huge disparity in momentum, these particles usually interact very weakly; bringing their momenta closer together enables much greater control over their interactions, which could enable new kinds of basic research on these processes as well as a host of new applications, the researchers say.

The new findings, based on a theoretical study, are being published today in the journal Nature Photonics in a paper by Yaniv Kurman of Technion (the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa); MIT graduate student Nicholas Rivera; MIT postdoc Thomas Christensen; John Joannopoulos, the Francis Wright Davis Professor of Physics at MIT; Marin Soljačić, professor of physics at MIT; Ido Kaminer, a professor of physics at Technion and former MIT postdoc; and Shai Tsesses and Meir Orenstein at Technion.

While silicon is a hugely important substance as the basis for most present-day electronics, it is not well-suited for applications that involve light, such as LEDs and solar cells — even though it is currently the principal material used for solar cells despite its low efficiency, Kaminer says. Improving the interactions of light with an important electronics material such as silicon could be an important milestone toward integrating photonics — devices based on manipulation of light waves — with electronic semiconductor chips.

Most people looking into this problem have focused on the silicon itself, Kaminer says, but “this approach is very different — we’re trying to change the light instead of changing the silicon.” Kurman adds that “people design the matter in light-matter interactions, but they don’t think about designing the light side.”

One way to do that is by slowing down, or shrinking, the light enough to drastically lower the momentum of its individual photons, to get them closer to that of the electrons. In their theoretical study, the researchers showed that light could be slowed by a factor of a thousand by passing it through a kind of multilayered thin-film material overlaid with a layer of graphene. The layered material, made of gallium arsenide and indium gallium arsenide layers, alters the behavior of photons passing through it in a highly controllable way. This enables the researchers to control the frequency of emissions from the material by as much as 20 to 30 percent, says Kurman, who is the paper’s lead author.

The interaction of a photon with a pair of oppositely charged particles — such as an electron and its corresponding “hole” — produces a quasiparticle called a plasmon, or a plasmon-polariton, which is a kind of oscillation that takes place in an exotic material such as the two-dimensional layered devices used in this research. Such materials “support electromagnetic oscillations on its surface, really tightly confined” within the material, Rivera says. This process effectively shrinks the wavelengths of light by orders of magnitude, he says, bringing it down “almost to the atomic scale.”

Because of that shrinkage, the light can then be absorbed by the semiconductor, or emitted by it, he says. In the graphene-based material, these properties can actually be controlled directly by simply varying a voltage applied to the graphene layer. In that way, “we can totally control the properties of the light, not just measure it,” Kurman says.

Although the work is still at an early and theoretical stage, the researchers say that in principle this approach could lead to new kinds of solar cells capable of absorbing a wider range of light wavelengths, which would make the devices more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. It could also lead to light-producing devices, such as lasers and LEDs, that could be tuned electronically to produce a wide range of colors. “This has a measure of tunability that’s beyond what is currently available,” Kaminer says.

“The work is very general,” Kurman says, so the results should apply to many more cases than the specific ones used in this study. “We could use several other semiconductor materials, and some other light-matter polaritons.” While this work was not done with silicon, it should be possible to apply the same principles to silicon-based devices, the team says. “By closing the momentum gap, we could introduce silicon into this world” of plasmon-based devices, Kurman says.

Because the findings are so new, Rivera says, it “should enable a lot of functionality we don’t even know about yet.”

Frank Koppens, a professor of physics at the the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona, who was not involved in this research, says “the quality of this work is very high, and quite an ‘out-of-the-box’ result.” He adds that this work is “highly significant, as it is a clear break with the conventional view on emitter-light interactions.” Since the work so far is theoretical, he says, “the main question will be if this effect is visible in experiments. I’m convinced it will be shown soon, though.”

Koppens says that “one can envision many applications, such as more efficient light emitters, solar cells, photodetectors etc. All integrated on a chip! It’s also a new way to control the color of a light emitter, and I’m sure there will be applications that we didn’t even think of.”

The work was supported by MIT’s MISTI Israel program.

An academic journey through solidarity and separatism

Mon, 06/04/2018 - 9:00am

Political science doctoral candidate Elissa Berwick started her academic journey aiming for the stars.

During her undergraduate years at Yale University, she majored in physics, spending summers working the telescope at observatories like Chile's Cerro Tololo. But while she appreciated "the challenge and the beauty of physics," she says, "ultimately the research didn't click." In senior year, after taking courses in history and political science which she found to be "a pure joy," she added a political science major.

Today Berwick is fully focused on earthbound concerns, with a dissertation subject so topical that it is unfolding in real-time. She is investigating European pro-independence movements, and specifically the formation of subnational identities — the ways people within states coalesce around a common language, culture, and shared beliefs. 

"I'm trying to understand why people in places like Scotland and the Catalan, Galician, and Basque regions of Spain sometimes feel stronger connections to each other than to fellow citizens in the larger state," Berwick says. "I want to determine the costs and consequences of having a stronger subnational identity, and then to compare the different regional narratives of independence to each other," she says.

It is a hefty research agenda that entails mining historical records, performing surveys and field interviews, and employing state-of-the-art quantitative methods. Berwick would like eventually to expand her focus to northern Italy, and Flanders — regions in which identity politics is currently roiling the civic scene.

As part of her dissertation research, Berwick analyzed responses to a 2,300-person survey conducted throughout Spain. The questionnaire queried citizens on their mother tongue, religion, political party, and political leanings, such as support for the budgetary austerity imposed by Spain after the financial crisis of 2008, whether the central government should do a better job of redistributing wealth, and if the country should permit autonomous regions greater independence.

Using a software program she helped write with MIT Associate Professor Teppei Yamamoto, director of MIT's Political Methodology Lab, Berwick revealed a cluster of provocative findings. "Identity boundaries matter when it comes to people's beliefs in income redistribution," she says. "Catalans and to some extent Basques like the idea of more redistribution within their regions, applied just to their own people, but are very opposed to policies that would share resources, including those of their own region, more equitably throughout Spain.

Berwick's surveys and interviews suggest the reason for this paradoxical perspective on achieving economic equity: "After the financial crisis, there was a collapse of confidence in political and economic institutions in Spain," she says. "There was a shift in discourse, a corresponding crash in trust, which was felt most sharply among Catalans and to a smaller extent among Basques."

The sense that a central government was failing them fueled activists in regions seeking independence. "For nationalists building coalitions, the cultural dimension of shared language and history was not enough," says Berwick. "They needed to build an economic message."

The financial crisis helped to market the subnationalist movements, suggests Berwick.

"When speaking with prominent activists, I realized that for them identity and even independence were secondary to the central goal, which is taking care of their own people — an ethos of obligation to fellow Catalans or Basques," Berwick says. "I had not expected that."

This surprise, which challenged Berwick's thinking, is "typical of the pleasures and frustrations of my research," she says. "People don't fit into the narrative and you have to think on your feet and come up with a new one."

It is the kind of improvisation she has come to expect throughout her academic journey. After Yale and a year working in the U.S. House of Representatives, she pursued a master's degree at Oxford University. Berwick did not have to seek far for a research topic: At Yale, she had been engaged by the violent conflict in Sudan around Darfur's drive for independence.

"I was already thinking about why and where nationalist discourses come from and how they change over time," she says. With Oxford's wealth of archival resources at hand, Berwick began exploring episodes of early 20th century nationalism: Ireland, India, and Egypt, all revolting against British control. "I sorted through historical material and managed to find hidden connections among these disparate cases," she says.

She came to MIT in search of a doctoral education where she could continue this kind of research while receiving rigorous training in quantitative methods. "Taking the quant sequence here, I remembered I really liked math," she says. Berwick enjoyed these classes so much that she served in one she had just completed as a teaching assistant. "Teaching is a great antidote to my research routine," she notes, "along with yoga classes and reading science fiction."

With the help of advisors Fotini Christia and Kathleen Thelen, Berwick shaped her final dissertation project. "Their mentorship has been so important to me, and without them I would never have been able to frame my research agenda," she says.

Before earning her degree in June 2019, Berwick must return to Europe several more times for interviews, archival research and surveying. It has not become easier for her. "No one tells you how lonely field work is, if you're doing it on your own for a year," she says. But solitude can lead to unexpected rewards.

"I didn't know anyone in Barcelona, so I googled a synagogue for high holy days," Berwick recalls. The service was presented in five languages at once — Catalan, Hebrew, Castilian Spanish, English, and French. "I introduced myself to the woman next to me, and I discovered she had started a chapter of Jews for Catalan Independence," Berwick says. "It was a weird but funny intersection of my seeking community and finding something really useful for my research."

Wireless system can power devices inside the body

Mon, 06/04/2018 - 12:00am

MIT researchers, working with scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, have developed a new way to power and communicate with devices implanted deep within the human body. Such devices could be used to deliver drugs, monitor conditions inside the body, or treat disease by stimulating the brain with electricity or light.

The implants are powered by radio frequency waves, which can safely pass through human tissues. In tests in animals, the researchers showed that the waves can power devices located 10 centimeters deep in tissue, from a distance of 1 meter.

“Even though these tiny implantable devices have no batteries, we can now communicate with them from a distance outside the body. This opens up entirely new types of medical applications,” says Fadel Adib, an assistant professor in MIT’s Media Lab and a senior author of the paper, which will be presented at the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Data Communication (SIGCOMM) conference in August.

MIT researchers have developed technology that could be used to remotely trigger “smart pills” to deliver drugs.

Because they do not require a battery, the devices can be tiny. In this study, the researchers tested a prototype about the size of a grain of rice, but they anticipate that it could be made even smaller.

“Having the capacity to communicate with these systems without the need for a battery would be a significant advance. These devices could be compatible with sensing conditions as well as aiding in the delivery of a drug,” says Giovanni Traverso, an assistant professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), Harvard Medical School, a research affiliate at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and an author of the paper.

Other authors of the paper are Media Lab postdoc Yunfei Ma, Media Lab graduate student Zhihong Luo, and Koch Institute and BWH affiliate postdoc Christoph Steiger.

Wireless communication

Medical devices that can be ingested or implanted in the body could offer doctors new ways to diagnose, monitor, and treat many diseases. Traverso’s lab is now working on a variety of ingestible systems that can be used to deliver drugs, monitor vital signs, and detect movement of the GI tract.

In the brain, implantable electrodes that deliver an electrical current are used for a technique known as deep brain stimulation, which is often used to treat Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy. These electrodes are now controlled by a pacemaker-like device implanted under the skin, which could be eliminated if wireless power is used. Wireless brain implants could also help deliver light to stimulate or inhibit neuron activity through optogenetics, which so far has not been adapted for use in humans but could be useful for treating many neurological disorders. 

Currently, implantable medical devices, such as pacemakers, carry their own batteries, which occupy most of the space on the device and offer a limited lifespan. Adib, who envisions much smaller, battery-free devices, has been exploring the possibility of wirelessly powering implantable devices with radio waves emitted by antennas outside the body.

Until now, this has been difficult to achieve because radio waves tend to dissipate as they pass through the body, so they end up being too weak to supply enough power. To overcome that, the researchers devised a system that they call “In Vivo Networking” (IVN). This system relies on an array of antennas that emit radio waves of slightly different frequencies. As the radio waves travel, they overlap and combine in different ways. At certain points, where the high points of the waves overlap, they can provide enough energy to power an implanted sensor.

“We chose frequencies that are slightly different from each other, and in doing so, we know that at some point in time these are going to reach their highs at the same time. When they reach their highs at the same time, they are able to overcome the energy threshold needed to power the device,” Adib says.

With the new system, the researchers don’t need to know the exact location of the sensors in the body, as the power is transmitted over a large area. This also means that they can power multiple devices at once. At the same time that the sensors receive a burst of power, they also receive a signal telling them to relay information back to the antenna. This signal could also be used to stimulate release of a drug, a burst of electricity, or a pulse of light, the researchers say.

Long-distance power

In tests in pigs, the researchers showed they could send power from up to a meter outside the body, to a sensor that was 10 centimeters deep in the body. If the sensors are located very close to the skin’s surface, they can be powered from up to 38 meters away.

“There’s currently a tradeoff between how deep you can go and how far you can go outside the body,” Adib says.

The researchers are now working on making the power delivery more efficient and transferring it over greater distances. This technology also has the potential to improve RFID applications in other areas such as inventory control, retail analytics, and “smart” environments, allowing for longer-distance object tracking and communication, the researchers say.

The research was funded by the Media Lab Consortium and the National Institutes of Health.

Featured video: How tiny houses solve a huge problem

Mon, 06/04/2018 - 12:00am

“I believe very strongly that housing is a human right,” says Sharon Lee MArch '81, MCP '81 who is addressing the housing crisis in Seattle, Washington, the city with the third largest homeless population in the country following New York City and Los Angeles.  

As founder and executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), Lee has adjusted her strategy in the last few years as homelessness has become rampant. The solution: tiny houses. Tiny houses are a growing trend in the real estate market for those with a minimalist goal, but they’re not just cute, they’re also practical. These tiny houses are eight feet by 12 feet and they include lights, heat, a window, and a door with a lock.

LIHI’s tiny houses are built, often by local volunteers and students, in areas with open land or unused parking lots and are set up to be their own small community. Each tiny house village — there are seven throughout the city — has some sort of communal kitchen and bathroom facility. Most importantly, since the tiny houses are under 120 square-feet, they aren’t considered a dwelling unit so they can be built and operational quickly. 

“If you want to build a building, it takes a year to get financing, a year to get permits, and a year to year-and-a-half to build. In the meantime, people are literally dying on the streets,” says Lee.

According to Lee, there are approximately 11,000 homeless people in Seattle on any given night, which, due to space constraints of shelters, leaves nearly 5,000 completely unsheltered. Over the past two years, nearly 2,000 people have taken advantage of the tiny house communities, built by LIHI with the help of the City of Seattle—they fund the utilities to power the houses and provide social workers and case managers. The houses—meant to be a temporary solution—have proved to be more than a temporary shelter, but also a vehicle for turning their lives around.

“It is very emotional,” says Lee. “When we offer people a tiny house, they may have been on the street for four years and they finally move into a place that's heated and where they can stay and they're just overwhelmed. Then they find that they can get their life together once they're in a tiny house. They can address their health care, their mental health, and their employment situation because they can be stable.”

Over the past two years, more than 300 residents of the tiny house villages moved on to permanent housing and more than 250 gained employment. Throughout her career, Lee has developed more than 4,500 units of affordable housing — providing not just the bricks and mortar, but also a stable environment for families and underserved people.

Submitted by: Julie Barr/MIT Alumni Association | Video by: Brielle Domings/MIT Alumni Association | 2 min, 30 sec

Revolutionizing everyday products with artificial intelligence

Fri, 06/01/2018 - 4:25pm

“Who is Bram Stoker?” Those three words demonstrated the amazing potential of artificial intelligence. It was the answer to a final question in a particularly memorable 2011 episode of Jeopardy!. The three competitors were former champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, and Watson, a super computer developed by IBM. By answering the final question correctly, Watson became the first computer to beat a human on the famous quiz show.

“In a way, Watson winning Jeopardy! seemed unfair to people,” says Jeehwan Kim, the Class ‘47 Career Development Professor and a faculty member of the MIT departments of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering. “At the time, Watson was connected to a super computer the size of a room while the human brain is just a few pounds. But the ability to replicate a human brain’s ability to learn is incredibly difficult.”

Kim specializes in machine learning, which relies on algorithms to teach computers how to learn like a human brain. “Machine learning is cognitive computing,” he explains. “Your computer recognizes things without you telling the computer what it’s looking at.”

Machine learning is one example of artificial intelligence in practice. While the phrase “machine learning” often conjures up science fiction typified in shows like "Westworld" or "Battlestar Galactica," smart systems and devices are already pervasive in the fabric of our daily lives. Computers and phones use face recognition to unlock. Systems sense and adjust the temperature in our homes. Devices answer questions or play our favorite music on demand. Nearly every major car company has entered the race to develop a safe self-driving car.

For any of these products to work, the software and hardware both have to work in perfect synchrony. Cameras, tactile sensors, radar, and light detection all need to function properly to feed information back to computers. Algorithms need to be designed so these machines can process these sensory data and make decisions based on the highest probability of success.

Kim and the much of the faculty at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering are creating new software that connects with hardware to create intelligent devices. Rather than building the sentient robots romanticized in popular culture, these researchers are working on projects that improve everyday life and make humans safer, more efficient, and better informed. 

Making portable devices smarter

Jeehwan Kim holds up sheet of paper. If he and his team are successful, one day the power of a super computer like IBM’s Watson will be shrunk down to the size of one sheet of paper. “We are trying to build an actual physical neural network on a letter paper size,” explains Kim.

To date, most neural networks have been software-based and made using the conventional method known as the Von Neumann computing method. Kim however has been using neuromorphic computing methods.

“Neuromorphic computer means portable AI,” says Kim. “So, you build artificial neurons and synapses on a small-scale wafer.” The result is a so-called ‘brain-on-a-chip.’

Rather than compute information from binary signaling, Kim’s neural network processes information like an analog device. Signals act like artificial neurons and move across thousands of arrays to particular cross points, which function like synapses. With thousands of arrays connected, vast amounts of information could be processed at once. For the first time, a portable piece of equipment could mimic the processing power of the brain.

“The key with this method is you really need to control the artificial synapses well. When you’re talking about thousands of cross points, this poses challenges,” says Kim.

According to Kim, the design and materials that have been used to make these artificial synapses thus far have been less than ideal. The amorphous materials used in neuromorphic chips make it incredibly difficult to control the ions once voltage is applied.

In a Nature Materials study published earlier this year, Kim found that when his team made a chip out of silicon germanium they were able to control the current flowing out of the synapse and reduce variability to 1 percent. With control over how the synapses react to stimuli, it was time to put their chip to the test.

“We envision that if we build up the actual neural network with material we can actually do handwriting recognition,” says Kim. In a computer simulation of their new artificial neural network design, they provided thousands of handwriting samples. Their neural network was able to accurately recognize 95 percent of the samples.

“If you have a camera and an algorithm for the handwriting data set connected to our neural network, you can achieve handwriting recognition,” explains Kim.

While building the physical neural network for handwriting recognition is the next step for Kim’s team, the potential of this new technology goes beyond handwriting recognition. “Shrinking the power of a super computer down to a portable size could revolutionize the products we use,” says Kim. “The potential is limitless – we can integrate this technology in our phones, computers, and robots to make them substantially smarter.”

Making homes smarter

While Kim is working on making our portable products more intelligent, Professor Sanjay Sarma and Research Scientist Josh Siegel hope to integrate smart devices within the biggest product we own: our homes. 

One evening, Sarma was in his home when one of his circuit breakers kept going off. This circuit breaker — known as an arc-fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) — was designed to shut off power when an electric arc is detected to prevent fires. While AFCIs are great at preventing fires, in Sarma’s case there didn’t seem to be an issue. “There was no discernible reason for it to keep going off,” recalls Sarma. “It was incredibly distracting.”

AFCIs are notorious for such ‘nuisance trips,’ which disconnect safe objects unnecessarily. Sarma, who also serves as MIT's vice president for open learning, turned his frustration into opportunity. If he could embed the AFCI with smart technologies and connect it to the ‘internet of things,’ he could teach the circuit breaker to learn when a product is safe or when a product actually poses a fire risk.

“Think of it like a virus scanner,” explains Siegel. “Virus scanners are connected to a system that updates them with new virus definitions over time.” If Sarma and Siegel could embed similar technology into AFCIs, the circuit breakers could detect exactly what product is being plugged in and learn new object definitions over time.

If, for example, a new vacuum cleaner is plugged into the circuit breaker and the power shuts off without reason, the smart AFCI can learn that it’s safe and add it to a list of known safe objects. The AFCI learns these definitions with the aid of a neural network. But, unlike Jeewhan Kim’s physical neural network, this network is software-based.

The neural network is built by gathering thousands of data points during simulations of arcing. Algorithms are then written to help the network assess its environment, recognize patterns, and make decisions based on the probability of achieving the desired outcome. With the help of a $35 microcomputer and a sound card, the team can cheaply integrate this technology into circuit breakers.

As the smart AFCI learns about the devices it encounters, it can simultaneously distribute its knowledge and definitions to every other home using the internet of things.

“Internet of things could just as well be called 'intelligence of things,” says Sarma. “Smart, local technologies with the aid of the cloud can make our environments adaptive and the user experience seamless.”

Circuit breakers are just one of many ways neural networks can be used to make homes smarter. This kind of technology can control the temperature of your house, detect when there’s an anomaly such as an intrusion or burst pipe, and run diagnostics to see when things are in need of repair.

“We’re developing software for monitoring mechanical systems that’s self-learned,” explains Siegel. “You don’t teach these devices all the rules, you teach them how to learn the rules.”

Making manufacturing and design smarter

Artificial intelligence can not only help improve how users interact with products, devices, and environments. It can also improve the efficiency with which objects are made by optimizing the manufacturing and design process.

“Growth in automation along with complementary technologies including 3-D printing, AI, and machine learning compels us to, in the long run, rethink how we design factories and supply chains,” says Associate Professor A. John Hart.

Hart, who has done extensive research in 3-D printing, sees AI as a way to improve quality assurance in manufacturing. 3-D printers incorporating high-performance sensors, that are capable of analyzing data on the fly, will help accelerate the adoption of 3-D printing for mass production.

“Having 3-D printers that learn how to create parts with fewer defects and inspect parts as they make them will be a really big deal — especially when the products you’re making have critical properties such as medical devices or parts for aircraft engines,” Hart explains.  

The very process of designing the structure of these parts can also benefit from intelligent software. Associate Professor Maria Yang has been looking at how designers can use automation tools to design more efficiently. “We call it hybrid intelligence for design,” says Yang. “The goal is to enable effective collaboration between intelligent tools and human designers.”

In a recent study, Yang and graduate student Edward Burnell tested a design tool with varying levels of automation. Participants used the software to pick nodes for a 2-D truss of either a stop sign or a bridge. The tool would then automatically come up with optimized solutions based on intelligent algorithms for where to connect nodes and the width of each part.

“We’re trying to design smart algorithms that fit with the ways designers already think,” says Burnell.

Making robots smarter

If there is anything on MIT’s campus that most closely resembles the futuristic robots of science fiction, it would be Professor Sangbae Kim’s robotic cheetah. The four-legged creature senses its surrounding environment using LIDAR technologies and moves in response to this information. Much like its namesake, it can run and leap over obstacles. 

Kim’s primary focus is on navigation. “We are building a very unique system specially designed for dynamic movement of the robot,” explains Kim. “I believe it is going to reshape the interactive robots in the world. You can think of all kinds of applications — medical, health care, factories.”

Kim sees opportunity to eventually connect his research with the physical neural network his colleague Jeewhan Kim is working on. “If you want the cheetah to recognize people, voice, or gestures, you need a lot of learning and processing,” he says. “Jeewhan’s neural network hardware could possibly enable that someday.”

Combining the power of a portable neural network with a robot capable of skillfully navigating its surroundings could open up a new world of possibilities for human and AI interaction. This is just one example of how researchers in mechanical engineering can one-day collaborate to bring AI research to next level.

While we may be decades away from interacting with intelligent robots, artificial intelligence and machine learning has already found its way into our routines. Whether it’s using face and handwriting recognition to protect our information, tapping into the internet of things to keep our homes safe, or helping engineers build and design more efficiently, the benefits of AI technologies are pervasive.

The science fiction fantasy of a world overtaken by robots is far from the truth. “There’s this romantic notion that everything is going to be automatic,” adds Maria Yang. “But I think the reality is you’re going to have tools that will work with people and help make their daily life a bit easier.”

Tom Fredian: Streamlining fusion data

Fri, 06/01/2018 - 2:40pm

Systems programmer and analyst Tom Fredian, who has worked at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) since 1982, credits a fork in his career road for leading to his deep interest in computers and software development.

That change in direction led to creating the go-to data software system for fusion research, MDSplus. Fredian is being recognized for this accomplishment by the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEEE) Nuclear and Plasma Science Society with the Computer Applications in Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Award. The prestigious award, which is given out every other year, honors those who have made major contributions in the field of real-time computing in nuclear and plasma physics.

With a degree from Carnegie Mellon University, Fredian first worked as a chemical engineer at Dupont. Encouraged by management to explore stints at a variety of jobs, Fredian spent two years experimenting with ultraviolet absorbers and Polaroid film before transferring to a position at a Texas chemical plant. There, writing programs to measure and monitor energy consumption, he was introduced to Fortran, the scientific community’s first high-level programming language.

“I had only taken one computer course in college, but now I really started enjoying programming,” he says.

Fredian strengthened his skills during his next assignment, developing a process monitoring system for measuring temperatures and pressures of chemical processes. There he learned the value of providing general tools for the plant operators to collect and examine trend data. The tool set he created was eventually used at several different chemical plants within the company.

While Fredian valued his career at DuPont, after 10 years he welcomed a new opportunity at PSFC, providing computer assistance for the scientists and engineers at the Alcator-C fusion experiment. He quickly noticed that the scientists’ methods of acquiring and sharing data were cumbersome: They stored and retrieved data from magnetic drums, creating files whose signals were referenced by number, not name; they took Polaroid photographs of oscilloscopes and manually digitized the data; and they wrote their own programs to read data, storing them in files whose content could not be easily understood by others.

“If someone wanted data from someone else’s diagnostic, they would ask for it, and the researcher would print out a bunch of numbers and hand it over. I decided I could probably provide them with some better tools, so they could store their data in a central location and share it among the scientists.”

As he began designing some of these tools, Fredian met Josh Stillerman, who had been hired at the center in a similar capacity for a machine called TARA, a tandem mirror approach to magnetic fusion that has since been abandoned. Both tasked with finding solutions to data management, the colleagues decided to collaborate. 

“Much to the dismay of some of the scientists,” Fredian notes. “Some researchers did not believe you could have the same system work for two different experiments.”

They began putting together a system for storing data acquired during the short pulse experiments of fusion devices, which would eventually become known as MDS.

The fusion world was quick to take notice of this new data acquisition and analysis system, and several labs from around the world began to use it.

The system took another leap forward when MIT began planning its next fusion project, the Alcator C-Mod. At the same time, the Fusion Research Group in Padua, Italy, was building a Reversed-Field Experiment and Los Alamos National Laboratory was exploring a machine called ZTH — both similar machines that would be able to use identical data systems. Together the three institutions worked on MDSplus, an enhanced system that would address the specific needs of these new devices. Although ZTH was cancelled before it could be built, the data system it helped expand is currently installed in over 30 sites spread over five continents.

Martin Greenwald, PSFC deputy director, notes that on the strength of its capabilities, MDSplus has become the de facto standard for data acquisition and data management in the fusion community. “The software incorporated a number of features that presaged later advancements in computer science,” he says. “For example, in MDSplus, data can be retrieved by simply referring to it by a globally unique name — similar to the principle that allows us to refer to information on the web via a URL. Tom’s contributions were exceptionally creative and far-reaching.”

The award recognizes Fredian’s “outstanding leading role in the development and evolution of data systems in nuclear fusion.” He will receive the award in June at the 21st IEEE Real Time Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Fredian continues to consider how MDSplus might need to change and improve to serve future fusion devices.

“I’m hoping to get new, young people from different sites to join the team, “ he says. “New particpants have been joining from W7-X, the new stellarator in Germany, and from Italy. That new blood has a lot of enthusiasm — and great new ideas.”

MIT Video Productions nominated for a third Emmy

Fri, 06/01/2018 - 2:25pm

For the third time in five years, the MIT Video Productions (MVP) team has been nominated for a New England Emmy. This year’s effort, a documentary film featuring the 2016 residency of visiting artist Jacob Collier, was produced in collaboration with MIT Music and Theater Arts (MTA).  

Since 2011, MIT Video Productions, a unit of MIT Open Learning, has been collaborating with MTA,  producing both performance documentaries and concert webcasts. “MIT has a well-known reputation for excellence in engineering, research, and science,” says Lawrence Gallagher, MVP director. “What is now becoming as well-known, is the excellence of our humanities, arts, and social sciences and most certainly, the performing arts. We have been thrilled to shine a light on that excellence.”

In 2013, MVP received their first Emmy nomination (and win) for a performance documentary piece, "Awakening: Evoking the Arab Spring through Music," crafted with the MIT Wind Ensemble and featuring an original composition by  Jamshied Sharifi '83. “It was a terrific synergistic collaboration between the performing arts and media arts at MIT,” says Gallagher, adding that the project set the stage for an ongoing musical video collaboration between the two MIT communities.

Four to five times each semester, MVP records and shares concert performances from the Kresge Auditorium to a global audience via webcast. They have collaborated on approximately 30 performances to date, including concerts for the Concert Choir, the Symphony Orchestra, the Jazz Ensemble, the Wind Ensemble, and other MIT musical communities.

Frederick Harris, Jr, director of the MIT Wind and Jazz Ensembles, invited the Grammy Award-winning Collier to MIT and invited a wider group of musicians from the Boston area to perform in the concert. Led by producer/editor Jean Dunoyer ’87, MVP taped lectures, rehearsals, interviews with the artists, and the final live performance to craft a 28-minute performance documentary film. Dunoyer, whose professional credentials include years as a television documentary editor and freelance filmmaker, has worked closely with Harris, who often approaches the MVP team with creative ideas ripe for film production.

“In this piece, we worked together to uncover the intricacies of the creative process, and we witnessed this celebrated artist’s gifts as a music educator," says Dunoyer. “We recognize that art plays an enormous role in the lives of many MIT students and we are always looking for ways to creatively and artistically express it.”

This film is one of six nominated in the arts and entertainment category; the others are productions from broadcast TV stations. “It’s an honor and noteworthy to have a university video production department be recognized this way,” adds Gallagher. “It was an equal honor to bring our talents to bear in crafting stories about these amazing MIT student musicians and scholars.”

The winner of the Arts and Entertainment Emmy will be announced June 2 at the 41st Annual New England Emmy Awards Ceremony in Boston.

AI-based method could speed development of specialized nanoparticles

Fri, 06/01/2018 - 2:00pm

A new technique developed by MIT physicists could someday provide a way to custom-design multilayered nanoparticles with desired properties, potentially for use in displays, cloaking systems, or biomedical devices. It may also help physicists tackle a variety of thorny research problems, in ways that could in some cases be orders of magnitude faster than existing methods.

The innovation uses computational neural networks, a form of artificial intelligence, to “learn” how a nanoparticle’s structure affects its behavior, in this case the way it scatters different colors of light, based on thousands of training examples. Then, having learned the relationship, the program can essentially be run backward to design a particle with a desired set of light-scattering properties — a process called inverse design.

The findings are being reported in the journal Science Advances, in a paper by MIT senior John Peurifoy, research affiliate Yichen Shen, graduate student Li Jing, professor of physics Marin Soljačić, and five others.

While the approach could ultimately lead to practical applications, Soljačić says, the work is primarily of scientific interest as a way of predicting the physical properties of a variety of nanoengineered materials without requiring the computationally intensive simulation processes that are typically used to tackle such problems.

Soljačić says that the goal was to look at neural networks, a field that has seen a lot of progress and generated excitement in recent years, to see “whether we can use some of those techniques in order to help us in our physics research. So basically, are computers ‘intelligent’ enough so that they can do some more intelligent tasks in helping us understand and work with some physical systems?”

To test the idea, they used a relatively simple physical system, Shen explains. “In order to understand which techniques are suitable and to understand the limits and how to best use them, we [used the neural network] on one particular system for nanophotonics, a system of spherically concentric nanoparticles.” The nanoparticles are layered like an onion, but each layer is made of a different material and has a different thickness.

The nanoparticles have sizes comparable to the wavelengths of visible light or smaller, and the way light of different colors scatters off of these particles depends on the details of these layers and on the wavelength of the incoming beam. Calculating all these effects for nanoparticles with many layers can be an intensive computational task for many-layered nanoparticles, and the complexity gets worse as the number of layers grows.

The researchers wanted to see if the neural network would be able to predict the way a new particle would scatter colors of light — not just by interpolating between known examples, but by actually figuring out some underlying pattern that allows the neural network to extrapolate.

“The simulations are very exact, so when you compare these with experiments they all reproduce each other point by point,” says Peurifoy, who will be an MIT doctoral student next year. “But they are numerically quite intensive, so it takes quite some time. What we want to see here is, if we show a bunch of examples of these particles, many many different particles, to a neural network, whether the neural network can develop ‘intuition’ for it.”

Sure enough, the neural network was able to predict reasonably well the exact pattern of a graph of light scattering versus wavelength — not perfectly, but very close, and in much less time. The neural network simulations “now are much faster than the exact simulations,” Jing says. “So now you could use a neural network instead of a real simulation, and it would give you a fairly accurate prediction. But it came with a price, and the price was that we had to first train the neural network, and in order to do that we had to produce a large number of examples.”

Once the network is trained, though, any future simulations would get the full benefit of the speedup, so it could be a useful tool for situations requiring repeated simulations. But the real goal of the project was to learn about the methodology, not just this particular application. “One of the main reasons why we were interested in this particular system was for us to understand these techniques, rather than just to simulate nanoparticles,” Soljačić says.

The next step was to essentially run the program in reverse, to use a set of desired scattering properties as the starting point and see if the neural network could then work out the exact combination of nanoparticle layers needed to achieve that output.

“In engineering, many different techniques have been developed for inverse design, and it is a huge field of research,” Soljačić says. “But very often in order to set up a given inverse design problem, it takes quite some time, so in many cases you have to be an expert in the field and then spend sometimes even months setting it up in order to solve it.”

But with the team’s trained neural network, “we didn't do any special preparation for this. We said, ‘ok, let’s try to run it backward.’ And amazingly enough, when we compare it with some other more standard inverse design methods, this is one of the best ones,” he says. “It will actually do it much quicker than a traditional inverse design.”

Co-author Shen says “the initial motivation we had to do this was to set up a general toolbox that any generally well-educated person who isn’t an expert in photonics can use. … That was our original motivation, and it clearly works pretty well for this particular case.”

The speedup in certain kinds of inverse design simulations can be quite significant. Peurifoy says “It's difficult to have apples-to-apples exact comparisons, but you can effectively say that you have gains on the order of hundreds of times. So the gain is very very substantial — in some cases it goes from days down to minutes.”

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Semiconductor Research Corporation, and the U.S. Army Research Office through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. Other people involved in the work are: Yi Yang, Fidel Cano-Renteria, John D. Joannopoulos, and Max Tegmark, all from MIT; and Brendan G. Delacy from U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.

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