MIT Press to develop a sustainable framework for open access monographs

The MIT Press has received a three-year $850,000 grant from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, to perform a broad-based monograph publishing cost analysis and to develop and openly disseminate a durable financial framework and business plan for open-access (OA) monographs. The press, a leader in OA publishing for almost 25 years, will also undertake a pilot program to implement the resulting framework for scholarly front- and backlist titles.

Amy Brand, director of the MIT Press and principal investigator for the grant, sees it as an opportunity to explore alternatives to the traditional market-based business model for professional and scholarly monographs. “Until the mid-1990s, most U.S. university presses could count on sales of 1,300–1,700 units, but today monograph sales are typically in the range of 300–500 units,” says Brand. “Many presses make up this difference with internal subsidies or subventions from institutional or philanthropic sources, but this is not sustainable and often unpredictable. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, this generous award from Arcadia will allow us to develop and test a flexible OA sustainability model that can then be adapted to the needs of our peers.”

There is growing consensus within the university press community that publishing academic monographs through a durable OA model may be the best way to advance scholarship and fulfill their mission. The U.S.-based Association of University Presses comprises 148 member presses that collectively publish approximately 15,000 monographs per year. Crafting and promoting a viable OA model for this community — and leading the way, as the MIT Press intends to do — would represent a major breakthrough.

Work on the grant is scheduled to start in 2019 and the first grant-funded OA monographs will be available in 2020. At the conclusion of the grant in June 2022, MIT Press will openly share a robust, blended OA model that the university press community can adopt, and adapt, paving the way for the many scholarly monographs published each year by university presses and other mission-based scholarly publishers to be more readily discovered, accessed, and shared.

“We know the content we produce is highly valued by scholars and librarians. Broad and comprehensive availability of OA scholarly works published by university presses will increase the impact of research and contribute significantly to the knowledge-sharing mission of the academy,” concludes Brand.

An interdisciplinary approach to accelerating human-machine collaboration

David Mindell has spent his career defying traditional distinctions between disciplines. His work has explored the ways humans interact with machines, drive innovation, and maintain societal well-being as technology transforms our economy.

And, Mindell says, he couldn’t have done it anywhere but MIT. He joined MIT’s faculty 23 years ago after completing his PhD in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and he currently holds a dual appointment in engineering and humanities as the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and professor of aeronautics and astronautics.

Mindell’s experience combining fields of study has shaped his ideas about the relationship between humans and machines. Those ideas are what led him to found Humatics — a startup named from the merger of “human” and “robotics.”

Humatics is trying to change the way humans work alongside machines, by enabling location tracking and navigation indoors, underground, and in other areas where technologies like GPS are limited. It accomplishes this by using radio frequencies to track things at the millimeter scale — unlocking what Mindell calls microlocation technology.

The company’s solution is already being used in places like shipping ports and factories, where humans work alongside cranes, industrial tools, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), and other machines. These businesses often lack consistent location data for their machines and are forced to adopt inflexible routes for their mobile robots.

“One of the holy grails is to have humans and robots share the same space and collaborate, and we’re enabling mobile robots to work in human environments safely and on a large scale,” Mindell says. “Safety is a critical first form of collaboration, but beyond that, we’re just beginning to learn how to work [in settings] where robots and people are exquisitely aware of where they are.”

A company decades in the making

MIT has a long history of transcending research fields to improve our understanding of the world. Take, for example, Norbert Wiener, who served on MIT’s faculty in the Department of Mathematics between 1919 and his death in 1964.

Wiener is credited with formalizing the field of cybernetics, which is an approach to understanding feedback systems he defined as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” Cybernetics can be applied to mechanical, biological, cognitive, and social systems, among others, and it sparked a frenzy of interdisciplinary study and scientific collaboration.

In 2002, Mindell wrote a book exploring the history of cybernetics before Wiener and its emergence at the intersection of a range of disciplines during World War II. It is one of several books Mindell has written that deal with interdisciplinary responses to complex problems, particularly in extreme environments like lunar landings and the deep sea.

The interdisciplinary perspective Mindell forged at MIT has helped him identify the limitations of technology that prevent machines and humans from working together seamlessly.

One particular shortcoming that Mindell has thought about for years is the lack of precise location data in places like warehouses, subway systems, and shipping ports.

“In five years, we’ll look back at 2019 and say, ‘I can’t believe we didn’t know where anything was,’” Mindell says. “We’ve got so much data floating around, but the link between the actual physical world we all inhabit and move around in and the digital world that’s exploding is really still very poor.”

In 2014, Mindell partnered with Humatics co-founder Gary Cohen, who has worked as an intellectual property strategist for biotech companies in the Kendall Square area, to solve the problem.

In the beginning of 2015, Mindell collaborated with Lincoln Laboratory alumnus and radar expert Greg Charvat; the two built a prototype navigation system and started the company two weeks later. Charvat became Humatics’ CTO and first employee.

“It was clear there was about to be this huge flowering of robotics and autonomous systems and AI, and I thought the things we learned in extreme environments, notably under sea and in aviation, had an enormous amount of application to industrial environments,” Mindell says. “The company is about bringing insights from years of experience with remote and autonomous systems in extreme environments into transit, logistics, e-commerce, and manufacturing.”

Bringing microlocation to industry

Factories, ports, and other locations where GPS data is unworkable or insufficient adopt a variety of solutions to meet their tracking and navigation needs. But each workaround has its drawbacks.

RFID and Bluetooth technologies, for instance, can track assets but have short ranges and are expensive to deploy across large areas.

Cameras and sensing methods like LIDAR can be used to help machines see their environment, but they struggle with things like rain and different lighting conditions. Floor tape embedded with wires or magnets is also often used to guide machines through fixed routes, but it isn’t well-suited for today’s increasingly dynamic warehouses and production lines.

Humatics has focused on making the capabilities of its microlocation location system as easy to leverage as possible. The location and tracking data it collects can be integrated into whatever warehouse management system or “internet of things” (IoT) platforms customers are already using.

Its radio frequency beacons have a range of up to 500 meters and, when installed as part of a constellation, can pinpoint three dimensional locations to within 2 centimeters, creating a virtual grid of the surrounding environment.

The beacons can be combined with an onboard navigation hub that helps mobile robots move around dynamic environments. Humatics’ system also gathers location data from multiple points at once, monitoring the speed of a forklift, helping a crane operator place a shipping crate, and guiding a robot around obstacles simultaneously.

The data Humatics collects don’t just help customers improve their processes; they can also transform the way workers and machines share space and work together. Indeed, with a new chip just emerging from its labs, Mindell says Humatics is moving industries such as manufacturing and logistics into “the world of ubiquitous, millimeter-accurate positioning.”

It’s all possible because of the company’s holistic approach to the age-old problem of human-machine interaction.

“Humatics is an example of what can happen when we think about technology in a unique, broader context,” Mindell says. “It’s an example of what MIT can accomplish when it pays serious attention to these two ways [from humanities and engineering] of looking at the world.”

MIT.nano awards inaugural NCSOFT seed grants for gaming technologies

MIT.nano has announced the first recipients of NCSOFT seed grants to foster hardware and software innovations in gaming technology. The grants are part of the new MIT.nano Immersion Lab Gaming program, with inaugural funding provided by video game developer NCSOFT, a founding member of the MIT.nano Consortium.

The newly awarded projects address topics such as 3-D/4-D data interaction and analysis, behavioral learning, fabrication of sensors, light field manipulation, and micro-display optics. 

“New technologies and new paradigms of gaming will change the way researchers conduct their work by enabling immersive visualization and multi-dimensional interaction,” says MIT.nano Associate Director Brian W. Anthony. “This year’s funded projects highlight the wide range of topics that will be enhanced and influenced by augmented and virtual reality.”

In addition to the sponsored research funds, each awardee will be given funds specifically to foster a community of collaborative users of MIT.nano’s Immersion Lab.

The MIT.nano Immersion Lab is a new, two-story immersive space dedicated to visualization, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), and the depiction and analysis of spatially related data. Currently being outfitted with equipment and software tools, the facility will be available starting this semester for use by researchers and educators interested in using and creating new experiences, including the seed grant projects. 

The five projects to receive NCSOFT seed grants are:

Stefanie Mueller: connecting the virtual and physical world

Virtual game play is often accompanied by a prop — a steering wheel, a tennis racket, or some other object the gamer uses in the physical world to create a reaction in the virtual game. Build-it-yourself cardboard kits have expanded access to these props by lowering costs; however, these kits are pre-cut, and thus limited in form and function. What if users could build their own dynamic props that evolve as they progress through the game?

Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) Professor Stefanie Mueller aims to enhance the user’s experience by developing a new type of gameplay with tighter virtual-physical connection. In Mueller’s game, the player unlocks a physical template after completing a virtual challenge, builds a prop from this template, and then, as the game progresses, can unlock new functionalities to that same item. The prop can be expanded upon and take on new meaning, and the user learns new technical skills by building physical prototypes.

Luca Daniel and Micha Feigin-Almon: replicating human movements in virtual characters

Athletes, martial artists, and ballerinas share the ability to move their body in an elegant manner that efficiently converts energy and minimizes injury risk. Professor Luca Daniel, EECS and Research Laboratory of Electronics, and Micha Feigin-Almon, research scientist in mechanical engineering, seek to compare the movements of trained and untrained individuals to learn the limits of the human body with the goal of generating elegant, realistic movement trajectories for virtual reality characters.

In addition to use in gaming software, their research on different movement patterns will predict stresses on joints, which could lead to nervous system models for use by artists and athletes.

Wojciech Matusik: using phase-only holograms

Holographic displays are optimal for use in augmented and virtual reality. However, critical issues show a need for improvement. Out-of-focus objects look unnatural, and complex holograms have to be converted to phase-only or amplitude-only in order to be physically realized. To combat these issues, EECS Professor Wojciech Matusik proposes to adopt machine learning techniques for synthesis of phase-only holograms in an end-to-end fashion. Using a learning-based approach, the holograms could display visually appealing three-dimensional objects.

“While this system is specifically designed for varifocal, multifocal, and light field displays, we firmly believe that extending it to work with holographic displays has the greatest potential to revolutionize the future of near-eye displays and provide the best experiences for gaming,” says Matusik.

Fox Harrell: teaching socially impactful behavior

Project VISIBLE — Virtuality for Immersive Socially Impactful Behavioral Learning Enhancement — utilizes virtual reality in an educational setting to teach users how to recognize, cope with, and avoid committing microaggressions. In a virtual environment designed by Comparative Media Studies Professor Fox Harrell, users will encounter micro-insults, followed by major micro-aggression themes. The user’s physical response drives the narrative of the scenario, so one person can play the game multiple times and reach different conclusions, thus learning the various implications of social behavior.

Juejun Hu: displaying a wider field of view in high resolution

Professor Juejun Hu from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering seeks to develop high-performance, ultra-thin immersive micro-displays for AR/VR applications. These displays, based on metasurface optics, will allow for a large, continuous field of view, on-demand control of optical wavefronts, high-resolution projection, and a compact, flat, lightweight engine. While current commercial waveguide AR/VR systems offer less than 45 degrees of visibility, Hu and his team aim to design a high-quality display with a field of view close to 180 degrees.

Using math to blend musical notes seamlessly

In music, “portamento” is a term that’s been used for hundreds of years, referring to the effect of gliding a note at one pitch into a note of a lower or higher pitch. But only instruments that can continuously vary in pitch — such as the human voice, string instruments, and trombones — can pull off the effect.

Now an MIT student has invented a novel algorithm that produces a portamento effect between any two audio signals in real-time. In experiments, the algorithm seamlessly merged various audio clips, such as a piano note gliding into a human voice, and one song blending into another. His paper describing the algorithm won the “best student paper” award at the recent International Conference on Digital Audio Effects.

The algorithm relies on “optimal transport,” a geometry-based framework that determines the most efficient ways to move objects — or data points — between multiple origin and destination configurations. Formulated in the 1700s, the framework has been applied to supply chains, fluid dynamics, image alignment, 3-D modeling, computer graphics, and more.

In work that originated in a class project, Trevor Henderson, now a graduate student in computer science, applied optimal transport to interpolating audio signals — or blending one signal into another. The algorithm first breaks the audio signals into brief segments. Then, it finds the optimal way to move the pitches in  each segment to pitches in the other signal, to produce the smooth glide of the portamento effect. The algorithm also includes specialized techniques to maintain the fidelity of the audio signal as it transitions.

“Optimal transport is used here to determine how to map pitches in one sound to the pitches in the other,” says Henderson, a classically trained organist who performs electronic music and has been a DJ on WMBR 88.1, MIT’s radio station. “If it’s transforming one chord into a chord with a different harmony, or with more notes, for instance, the notes will split from the first chord and find a position to seamlessly glide to in the other chord.”

According to Henderson, this is one of the first techniques to apply optimal transport to transforming audio signals. He has already used the algorithm to build equipment that seamlessly transitions between songs on his radio show. DJs could also use the equipment to transition between tracks during live performances. Other musicians might use it to blend instruments and voice on stage or in the studio.

Henderson’s co-author on the paper is Justin Solomon, an X-Consortium Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Solomon — who also plays cello and piano — leads the Geometric Data Processing Group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and is a member of the Center for Computational Engineering.

Henderson took Solomon’s class, 6.838 (Shape Analysis), which tasks students with applying geometric tools like optimal transport to real-world applications. Student projects usually focus on 3-D shapes from virtual reality or computer graphics. So Henderson’s project came as a surprise to Solomon. “Trevor saw an abstract connection between geometry and moving frequencies around in audio signals to create a portamento effect,” Solomon says. “He was in and out of my office all semester with DJ equipment. It wasn’t what I expected to see, but it was pretty entertaining.”

For Henderson, it wasn’t too much of a stretch. “When I see a new idea, I ask, ‘Is this applicable to music?’” he says. “So, when we talked about optimal transport, I wondered what would happen if I connected it to audio spectra.”

A good way to think of optimal transport, Henderson says, is finding “a lazy way to build a sand castle.” In that analogy, the framework is used to calculate the way to move each grain of sand from its position in a shapeless pile into a corresponding position in a sand castle, using as little work as possible. In computer graphics, for instance, optimal transport can be used to transform or morph shapes by finding the optimal movement from each point on one shape into the other.

Applying this theory to audio clips involves some additional ideas from signal processing. Musical instruments produce sound through vibrations of components, depending on the instrument. Violins use strings, brass instruments use air inside hollow bodies, and humans use vocal cords. These vibrations can be captured as audio signals, where the frequency and amplitude (peak height) represent different pitches. 

Conventionally, the transition between two audio signals is done with a fade, where one signal is reduced in volume while the other rises. Henderson’s algorithm, on the other hand, smoothly slides frequency segments from one clip into another, with no fading of volume.

To do so, the algorithm splits any two audio clips into windows of about 50 milliseconds. Then, it runs a Fourier transform, which turns each window into its frequency components. The frequency components within a window are lumped together into individual synthesized “notes.” Optimal transport then maps how the notes in one signal’s window will move to the notes in the other.

Then, an “interpolation parameter” takes over. That’s basically a value that determines where each note will be on the path from its starting pitch in one signal to its ending pitch in the other. Manually changing the parameter value will sweep the pitches between the two positions, producing the portamento effect. That single parameter can also be programmed into and controlled by, say, a crossfader, a slider component on a DJ’s mixing board that smoothly fades between songs. As the crossfader slides, the interpolation parameter changes to produce the effect.

Behind the scenes are two innovations that ensure a distortion-free signal. First, Henderson used a novel application of a signal-processing technique, called “frequency reassignment,” that lumps the frequency bins together to form single notes that can easily transition between signals. Second, he invented a way to synthesize new phases for each audio signal while stitching together the 50-millisecond windows, so neighboring windows don’t interfere with each other.

Next, Henderson wants to experiment with feeding the output of the effect back into its input. This, he thinks, could automatically create another classic music effect, “legato,” which is a smooth transition between distinct notes. Unlike a portamento — which plays all notes between a start and end note — a legato seamlessly transitions between two distinct notes, without capturing any notes in between.

Learning from MIT, learning from the field

As project manager for an organization charged with improving conditions in austere and hostile environments in developing countries, Robert Rains MS ’19 has seen his share of high stakes, risky projects — responding to the Ebola outbreak in Africa, monitoring a ceasefire in South Sudan, and launching counter-poaching efforts in Tanzania and Democratic Republic of the Congo. He’s also a former member of the U.S. military, having served time in Iraq. 

His work in the field, as a member of the military and as a civilian, has prepared him well for the difficult conditions he faces every day in international development. “In the military, we made our living by being tough and durable,” he said. 

It was his work on the Ebola response that really impressed employers and helped him to land his first project manager role. 

At that point in his career, he joined a room full of project managers with long resumes — many of them with degrees and credentials in supply chain management. 

Motivated to add these qualifications to his resume as well, Rains sought further training through the MITx MicroMasters program in supply chain management. He felt that this would give him a competitive edge in securing projects, as well as prepare him for the more challenging ones in the future. 

Importantly, the program also allowed Rains the flexibility of time and geography to continue working across Africa.

“The online program was very helpful in making sure that I could complete the bulk of that course work on my own schedule, which was very hectic,” Rains says. “Not only was I based in Africa at the time, but I moved countries almost every week. I had to study around different time zones and shifting work schedules.”

The world’s first-ever MicroMaster’s program, the supply chain management credential is a rigorously assessed online educational pathway consisting of a series of courses that culminate in a digitally-delivered credential. The credential is recognized by employers and institutions as commensurate with one semester of graduate-level coursework at MIT. Successful credential earners must complete a demanding sequence of MITx massive open online courses (MOOCs) that demonstrates their mastery of the concepts and skills necessary for a strong foundation in the supply chain management profession.

For Rains, the courses mirrored much of what he sees at work every day. When a community needed help getting proper nutrition, Rains applied the analytical and forecasting tools he learned in the courses to develop a nutrition program. 

“There’s always a supply chain component to the projects and programs we support, as much of the supplies that we bring in are not procured locally” he says. “We need to think carefully about what goes into sustaining something that we’re putting on the ground. We need to be sure that the life cycle extends beyond our putting things on the ground.”

In late 2017, Rains successfully earned his credential — and decided that he wasn’t ready to stop there. With support from his employer, he took a six-month leave of absence from work to spend time on the MIT campus as a graduate student, earning his full master’s degree in supply chain management last May. 

The in-person experience, he says, was invaluable. 

“MIT really makes the most of the time on campus,” Rains says. “I appreciated the time we had to work together in teams, which was an important complement to the independent work we did online.”

Now back at work in Africa, Rains is taking his experience in online and on-campus classrooms back to the field. 

“Pursuing this program put me in a position to advocate for solutions better,” he says. He explained that, using the systems-thinking strategies and project management tools he studied, “Now, I’m not just a field guy. I can advocate for things with a mix of my experience in the field and from a rigorous academic program.”

Helping lower-income households reap the benefits of solar energy

Rooftop solar panels are a great way for people to invest in renewable energy while saving money on electricity. Unfortunately, the rooftop solar industry only serves a fraction of society.

Many Americans are unable to invest in rooftop solar; they may be renters or lack the upfront money required for installations or live in locations that don’t get enough sun. Some states have tried to address these limitations with community solar programs, which allow residents to invest in portions of large, remote solar projects and enjoy savings on their electricity bills each month.

But as community solar projects have exploded in popularity in the last few years, higher-income households have been the main beneficiaries. That’s because most developers of community solar arrays require residents to have high credit scores and sign long-term contracts.

Now the community solar startup Solstice is changing the system. The company recruits and manages customers for community solar projects while pushing developers for simpler, more inclusive contract terms. Solstice has also developed the EnergyScore, a proprietary customer qualification metric that approves a wider pool of residents for participation in community solar projects, compared to the credit scores typically used by developers.

We’re always pushing our developer partners to be more inclusive and customer-friendly,” says Solstice co-founder Sandhya Murali MBA ’15, who co-founded the company with Stephanie Speirs MBA ’17. “We want them to design contracts that will be appealing to the customer and kind of a no-brainer.”

To date, Solstice has helped about 6,400 households sign up for community solar projects. The founders say involving a more diverse pool of residents will be essential to continue the industry’s breakneck growth.

“We think it’s imperative that we figure out how to make this model of residential solar, which can save people money and has the power to impact millions of people across the country, scale quickly,” Murali says.

A more inclusive system

In 2014, Speirs had been working on improving access to solar energy in Pakistan and India as part of a fellowship with the global investment firm Acumen. But she realized developing countries weren’t the only areas that dealt with energy inequalities.

“There are problems with solar in America,” Speirs says. “Eighty percent of people are locked out of the solar market because they can’t put solar on their rooftop. People who need solar savings the most in this country, low- to moderate-income Americans, are the least likely to get it.”

Speirs was planning to come to MIT’s Sloan School of Management to pursue her MBA the following year, so she used a Sloan email list to see if anyone was interested in joining the early-stage venture. Murali agreed to volunteer, and although she graduated in 2015 as Speirs entered Sloan, Murali spent a lot of time on campus helping Speirs get the company off the ground.

Steph’s time at Sloan was focused on Solstice, so we kind of became an MIT startup,” Murali says. “I would say MIT sort of adopted Solstice, and we’ve grown since then with support from the school.”

Community solar is an effective way to include residents in solar projects who might not have the resources to invest in traditional rooftop solar panels. Speirs says there are no upfront costs associated with community solar projects, and residents can participate by investing in a portion of the planned solar array whether they own a home or not.

When a developer has enough resident commitments for a project, they build a solar array in another location and the electricity it generates is sent to the grid. Residents receive a credit on their monthly electric bills for the solar power produced by their portion of the project.

Still, there are aspects of the community solar industry that discourage many lower-income residents from participating. Solar array developers have traditionally required qualified customers to sign long contracts, sometimes lasting 30 years, and to agree to cancellation fees if they leave the contract prematurely.

Solstice, which began as a nonprofit to improve access to solar energy for low-income Americans, advocates for customers, working with developers to reduce contract lengths, lower credit requirements, and eliminate cancellation fees.

As they engaged with developers, Solstice’s founders realized the challenges associated with recruiting and managing customers for community solar projects were holding the industry back, so they decided to start a for-profit arm of the company to work with customers of all backgrounds and income levels.

“Solstice’s obsession is how do we make it so easy and affordable to sign up for community solar such that everyone does it,” Speirs says. 

In 2016, Solstice was accepted into The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship’s delta v accelerator, where the founders began helping developers find customers for large solar projects. The founders also began developing a web-based customer portal to make participation in projects as seamless as possible.

But they realized those solutions didn’t directly address the biggest factor preventing lower-income Americans from investing in solar power.

“To get solar in this country, you either have to be able to afford to put solar on your rooftop, which costs $10,000 to $30,000, or you have to have the right FICO score for community solar,” Speirs says, referring to a credit score used by community solar developers to qualify customers. “Your FICO score is your destiny in this country, yet FICO doesn’t measure whether you pay your utility bills on time, or your cell phone bills, or rental bills.”

With this in mind, the founders teamed up with data scientists from MIT and Stanford University, including Christopher Knittle, the George P. Shultz Professor at MIT Sloan, to create a new qualification metric, the EnergyScore. The EnergyScore uses a machine learning system trained on data from nearly 875,000 consumer records, including things like utility payments, to predict payment behavior in community solar contracts. Solstice says it predicts future payment behavior more accurately than FICO credit scores, and it qualifies a larger portion of low-to-moderate income customers for projects.

Driving change

Last year, Solstice began handling the entire customer experience, from the initial education and sales to ongoing support during the life of contracts. To date, the company has helped find customers for solar projects that have a combined output of 100 megawatts of electricity in New York and Massachusetts.

And later this year, Solstice will begin qualifying customers with its EnergyScore, enabling a whole new class of Americans to participate in community solar projects. One of the projects using the EnergyScore will put solar arrays on the rooftops of public housing buildings in New York City in partnership with the NYC Housing Authority.

Ultimately, the founders believe including a broader swath of American households in community solar projects isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also an essential part of the fight against climate change.

“[Community solar] is a huge, untapped market, and we’re unnecessarily restricting ourselves by creating some of these contract barriers that make community solar remain in the hands of the wealthy,” Murali says. “We’re never going to scale community solar and make the impact on climate change we need to make if we don’t figure out how to make this form of solar work for everyone.”

Game changer: How Christopher Weaver transformed video games and game studies at MIT

In the mid-1980s, an electrical engineer and avid sports fan named Ed Fletcher approached his boss with a simple question: The communications consultancy firm Fletcher worked for had just acquired a Commodore Amiga computer. Could he use it to build a football-themed video game? Christopher Weaver SM ’85, the company’s founder and president, had a background in physics, mechanical engineering, and computer science but had spent most of his professional life in broadcast television. He had never played a sports video game before, but he agreed, and months later saw Fletcher’s work.

“It was really very boring. He put in the same inputs and got the same outputs,” Weaver explains. “I said, look, let’s build a physics engine bounded by the rules of football and see what it looks like. It will be a hell of a lot more dynamic.”

The result was Gridiron!, the first sports game to incorporate real physics into gameplay. While the game’s graphics were primitive, Gridiron!’s pixelated players were modeled off of statistics from real-life football stars, giving players different masses and accelerations. Players with larger masses could block and break tackles, but speedier players could beeline to the end zone, adding a never-before-seen layer of reality-based strategy to sports simulators. Weaver formed Bethesda Softworks, released Gridiron! as the company’s first title in 1986, and watched as the game captured attention from football and video game fans as well as Electronic Arts, then a goliath game company that hired Weaver’s team and used Gridiron!’s engine as the basis for the original Madden game series. Suddenly, Weaver was a game pioneer entirely by accident.

“Sometimes not having a lot of knowledge about an area can be a good very useful thing,” he says. “It forces you to look at it with untutored or naive eyes.”

After more than 30 years in the game industry, Weaver still tries to approach the field from new angles, and he encourages his MIT students to do the same. A longtime research scientist and lecturer in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program (now Comparative Media Studies/Writing), Weaver spent nearly two decades at Bethesda, overseeing seminal titles including the massively popular Elder Scrolls role-playing game series, before co-founding the multimedia development company ZeniMax Media. Weaver returned to his alma mater in 1998 to teach courses in game theory and development, as well as media systems.

Weaver’s work, both as an instructor and in helping to create MIT’s game studies curriculum, has rippled through the industry. Started informally in the late 1990s and early 2000s by Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio, the flexible curriculum originally centered largely on game design and research. Weaver brought a much-needed industry perspective, and as game engines like Unity and Flash enabled small teams to make interesting projects, he began serving as an advisor on the GAMBIT Game Lab in addition to teaching an always-popular game development course. Since its inception, the MIT games curriculum has transformed to include both game theory and design courses as well as coursework in virtual reality, data storytelling, and games for social change.

Doris C. Rusch, a game designer and founder of the Play for Change lab at DePaul University, connected with Weaver after taking his class in 2006.

In that class, “I learned that all my lofty, artsy ambitions, they have to measure up to reality,” Rusch said in a CMS/W interview. “If the game is not entertaining, then nobody’s going to care about all of the positive stuff you’re trying to put into it. It’s about keeping that engagement and the game play front and center.”

Troy Ko, who graduated from the MIT Sloan School of Management in 2011, recalls Weaver challenging existing paradigms.

“When you meet him, just be prepared to think critically,” Ko says. “Be prepared to come in with an open mind, because he’s going to just introduce all of these ideas and try to push you and nudge you in different directions to really question the norm and how things are done.”

Today, Weaver splits his time between teaching in Comparative Media Studies/Writing — he has long taught CMS.610 Media Industries and Systems: The Art, Science and Business of Games — and the MIT Microphotonics Center. He also teaches STEM development at Wesleyan University and co-directs the Videogame Pioneers Initiative in the Lemelson Center for the Study of Innovation and Invention at the National Museum of American History. His goal is to broaden the reach of games and help students understand how to apply the power of game tools to break ground in areas ranging from education to medicine to senior care.

“There’s a lot of research now that is demonstrating that if you want to teach, simulate, or train, if you’re capable of using some of these tools, you’ll have a much higher success ratio than standard methodology that’s been developed during the Industrial Revolution,” Weaver says. “We have a whole 21st century to bring students into.”

How cities can leverage citizen data while protecting privacy

India is on a path with dual — and potentially conflicting — goals related to the use of citizen data.

To improve the efficiency their municipal services, many Indian cities have started enabling government-service requests, which involves collecting and sharing citizen data with government officials and, potentially, the public. But there’s also a national push to protect citizen privacy, potentially restricting data usage. Cities are now beginning to question how much citizen data, if any, they can use to track government operations.

In a new study, MIT researchers find that there is, in fact, a way for Indian cities to preserve citizen privacy while using their data to improve efficiency.

The researchers obtained and analyzed data from more than 380,000 government service requests by citizens across 112 cities in one Indian state for an entire year. They used the dataset to measure each city government’s efficiency based on how quickly they completed each service request. Based on field research in three of these cities, they also identified the citizen data that’s necessary, useful (but not critical), or unnecessary for improving efficiency when delivering the requested service.

In doing so, they identified “model” cities that performed very well in both categories, meaning they maximized privacy and efficiency. Cities worldwide could use similar methodologies to evaluate their own government services, the researchers say. The study was presented at this past weekend’s Technology Policy Research Conference.

“How do municipal governments collect citizen data to try to be transparent and efficient, and, at the same time, protect privacy? How do you find a balance?” says co-author Karen Sollins, a researcher in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), a principal investigator for the Internet Policy Research Initiative (IPRI), and a member of the Privacy, Innovation and e-Governance using Quantitative Systems (PIEQS) group. “We show there are opportunities to improve privacy and efficiency simultaneously, instead of saying you get one or the other, but not both.”

Joining Sollins on the paper are: first author Nikita Kodali, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; and Chintan Vaishnav, a senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management, a principal investigator for IPRI, and a member PIEQS.

Intersections of privacy and efficiency

In recent years, India’s eGovernment Foundation has aimed to significantly improve the transparency, accountability, and efficiency of operations in its many municipal governments. The foundation aims to move all of these governments from paper-based systems to fully digitized systems with citizen interfaces to request and interact with government service departments.

In 2017, however, India’s Supreme Court ruled that its citizens have a constitutional right to data privacy and have a say in whether or not their personal data could be used by governments and the private sector. That could potentially limit the information that towns and cities could use to track the performance of their services.

Around that time, the researchers had started studying privacy and efficiency issues surrounding the eGovernment Foundation’s digitization efforts. That led to a report that determined which types of citizen data could be used to track government service operations.

Building on that work, the researchers were provided 383,959 anonymized citizen-government transactions from digitized modules from 112 local governments in an Indian state for all of 2018. The modules focused on three areas: new water tap tax assessment; new property tax assessment; and public grievances about sanitation, stray animals, infrastructure, schools, and other issues.

Citizens send requests to those modules via mobile or web apps by entering various types of personal and property information, and then monitor the progress of the requests. The request and related data pass through various officials that each complete an individual subtask, known as a service level agreement, within a designated time limit. Then, the request passes on to another official, and so on. But much of that citizen information is also visible to the public.

The software captured each step of each request, moving from initiation to completion, with time stamps, for each municipal government. The researchers then could rank each task within a town or city, or in aggregation across each town or city on two metrics: a government efficiency index and an information privacy index.

The government efficiency index primarily measures a service’s timeliness, compared to the predetermined service level agreement. If a service is completed before its timeframe, it’s more efficient; if it’s completed after, it’s less efficient. The information privacy index measures how responsible is a government in collecting, using, and disclosing citizen data that may be privacy sensitive, such as personally identifiable information. The more the city collects and shares inessential data, the lower its privacy rating.

Phone numbers and home addresses, for instance, aren’t needed for many of the services or grievances, yet are collected — and publicly disclosed — by many of the modules. In fact, the researchers found that some modules historically collected detailed personal and property information across dozens of data fields, yet the governments only needed about half of those fields to get the job done.

Model behavior

By analyzing the two indices, they found eight “model” municipal governments that performed in the top 25 percent for all services in both the efficiency and privacy indices. In short, they used only the essential data — and passed that essential data through fewer officials — to complete a service in a timely manner.

The researchers now plan to study how the model cities are able to get services done so quickly. They also hope to study why some cities performed so poorly, in the bottom 25 percent, for any given service. “First, we’re showing India that this is what your best cities look like and what other cities should become,” Vaishnav says. “Then we want to look at why a city becomes a model city.”

Similar studies can be conducted in places where similar citizen and government data are available and which have equivalents to India’s service level agreements — which serve as a baseline for measuring efficiency. That information isn’t common worldwide yet, but could be in the near future, especially in cities like Boston and Cambridge, Vaishnav says. “We gather a large amount of data and there’s an urge to do something with the data to improve governments and engage citizens better,” he says. “That may soon be a requirement in democracies around the globe.”

Next, the researchers want to create an innovation-based matrix, which will determine which citizen data can and cannot be made public to private parties to help develop new technologies. They’re also working on a model that provides information on a city’s government efficiency and information privacy scores in real time, as citizen requests are being processed.

Computing and artificial intelligence: Humanistic perspectives from MIT

The MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing (SCC) will reorient the Institute to bring the power of computing and artificial intelligence to all fields at MIT, and to allow the future of computing and AI to be shaped by all MIT disciplines.

To support ongoing planning for the new college, Dean Melissa Nobles invited faculty from all 14 of MIT’s humanistic disciplines in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences to respond to two questions:  

1) What domain knowledge, perspectives, and methods from your field should be integrated into the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, and why?

2) What are some of the meaningful opportunities that advanced computing makes possible in your field? 

As Nobles says in her foreword to the series, “Together, the following responses to these two questions offer something of a guidebook to the myriad, productive ways that technical, humanistic, and scientific fields can join forces at MIT, and elsewhere, to further human and planetary well-being.”

The following excerpts highlight faculty responses, with links to full commentaries. The excerpts are sequenced by fields in the following order: the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

Foreword by Melissa Nobles, professor of political science and the Kenan Sahin Dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

“The advent of artificial intelligence presents our species with an historic opportunity — disguised as an existential challenge: Can we stay human in the age of AI?  In fact, can we grow in humanity, can we shape a more humane, more just, and sustainable world? With a sense of promise and urgency, we are embarked at MIT on an accelerated effort to more fully integrate the technical and humanistic forms of discovery in our curriculum and research, and in our habits of mind and action.” Read more >>

Comparative Media Studies: William Uricchio, professor of comparative media studies

“Given our research and practice focus, the CMS perspective can be key for understanding the implications of computation for knowledge and representation, as well as computation’s relationship to the critical process of how knowledge works in culture — the way it is formed, shared, and validated.”

Recommended action: “Bring media and computer scholars together to explore issues that require both areas of expertise: text-generating algorithms (that force us to ask what it means to be human); the nature of computational gatekeepers (that compels us to reflect on implicit cultural priorities); and personalized filters and texts (that require us to consider the shape of our own biases).” Read more >>

Global Languages: Emma J. Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations

“Language and culture learning are gateways to international experiences and an important means to develop cross-cultural understanding and sensitivity. Such understanding is essential to addressing the social and ethical implications of the expanding array of technology affecting everyday life across the globe.”

Recommended action: “We aim to create a 21st-century language center to provide a convening space for cross-cultural communication, collaboration, action research, and global classrooms. We also plan to keep the intimate size and human experience of MIT’s language classes, which only increase in value as technology saturates the world.” Read more >>

History: Jeffrey Ravel, professor of history and head of MIT History

“Emerging innovations in computational methods will continue to improve our access to the past and the tools through which we interpret evidence. But the field of history will continue to be served by older methods of scholarship as well; critical thinking by human beings is fundamental to our endeavors in the humanities.”

Recommended action: “Call on the nuanced debates in which historians engage about causality to provide a useful frame of reference for considering the issues that will inevitably emerge from new computing technologies. This methodology of the history field is a powerful way to help imagine our way out of today’s existential threats.” Read more >>

Linguistics: Faculty of MIT Linguistics

“Perhaps the most obvious opportunities for computational and linguistics research concern the interrelation between specific hypotheses about the formal properties of language and their computational implementation in the form of systems that learn, parse, and produce human language.”

Recommended action: “Critically, transformative new tools have come from researchers at institutions where linguists work side-by-side with computational researchers who are able to translate back and forth between computational properties of linguistic grammars and of other systems.” Read more >>

Literature: Shankar Raman, with Mary C. Fuller, professors of literature

“In the age of AI, we could invent new tools for reading. Making the expert reading skills we teach MIT students even partially available to readers outside the academy would widen access to our materials in profound ways.”

Recommended action: At least three priorities of current literary engagement with the digital should be integrated into the SCC’s research and curriculum: democratization of knowledge; new modes of and possibilities for knowledge production; and critical analysis of the social conditions governing what can be known and who can know it.” Read more >>

Philosophy: Alex Byrne, professor of philosophy and head of MIT Philosophy; and Tamar Schapiro, associate professor of philosophy

“Computing and AI pose many ethical problems related to: privacy (e.g., data systems design), discrimination (e.g., bias in machine learning), policing (e.g., surveillance), democracy (e.g., the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal), remote warfare, intellectual property, political regulation, and corporate responsibility.”

Recommended action: “The SCC presents an opportunity for MIT to be an intellectual leader in the ethics of technology. The ethics lab we propose could turn this opportunity into reality.” Read more >>

Science, Technology, and Society: Eden Medina and Dwaipayan Banerjee, associate professors of science, technology, and society

“A more global view of computing would demonstrate a broader range of possibilities than one centered on the American experience, while also illuminating how computer systems can reflect and respond to different needs and systems. Such experiences can prove generative for thinking about the future of computing writ large.”

Recommended action: “Adopt a global approach to the research and teaching in the SCC, an approach that views the U.S. experience as one among many.” Read more >>

Women’s and Gender Studies: Ruth Perry, the Ann Friedlaender Professor of Literature; with Sally Haslanger, the Ford Professor of Philosophy, and Elizabeth Wood, professor of history

“The SCC presents MIT with a unique opportunity to take a leadership role in addressing some of most pressing challenges that have emerged from the role computing technologies play in our society — including how these technologies are reinforcing social inequalities.”

Recommended action: “Ensure that women’s voices are heard and that coursework and research is designed with a keen awareness of the difference that gender makes. This is the single-most powerful way that MIT can address the inequities in the computing fields.” Read more >>

Writing: Tom Levenson, professor of science writing

“Computation and its applications in fields that directly affect society cannot be an unexamined good. Professional science and technology writers are a crucial resource for the mission of new college of computing, and they need to be embedded within its research apparatus.”

Recommended action: “Intertwine writing and the ideas in coursework to provide conceptual depth that purely technical mastery cannot offer.” Read more >>

Music: Eran Egozy, professor of the practice in music technology

“Creating tomorrow’s music systems responsibly will require a truly multidisciplinary education, one that covers everything from scientific models and engineering challenges to artistic practice and societal implications. The new music technology will be accompanied by difficult questions. Who owns the output of generative music algorithms that are trained on human compositions? How do we ensure that music, an art form intrinsic to all humans, does not become controlled by only a few?”

Recommended action: Through the SCC, our responsibility will be not only to develop the new technologies of music creation, distribution, and interaction, but also to study their cultural implications and define the parameters of a harmonious outcome for all.” Read more >>

Theater Arts: Sara Brown, assistant professor of theater arts and MIT Theater Arts director of design

“As a subject, AI problematizes what is means to be human. There are an unending series of questions posed by the presence of an intelligent machine. The theater, as a synthetic art form that values and exploits liveness, is an ideal place to explore the complex and layered problems posed by AI and advanced computing.”

Recommended action: “There are myriad opportunities for advanced computing to be integrated into theater, both as a tool and as a subject of exploration. As a tool, advanced computing can be used to develop performance systems that respond directly to a live performer in real time, or to integrate virtual reality as a previsualization tool for designers.” Read more >>

Anthropology: Heather Paxson, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology

“The methods used in anthropology — a field that systematically studies human cultural beliefs and practices — are uniquely suited to studying the effects of automation and digital technologies in human cultures. For anthropologists, ‘Can artificial intelligence be ethical?’ is an empirical, not a hypothetical, question. Ethical for what? To whom? Under what circumstances?”

Recommended action: “Incorporate anthropological thinking into the new college to prepare students to live and work effectively and responsibly in a world of technological, demographic, and cultural exchanges. We envision an ethnography lab that will provide digital and computing tools tailored to anthropological research and projects.” Read more >>

Economics: Nancy L. Rose, the Charles P. Kindleberger Professor of Applied Economics and head of the Department of Economics; and David Autor, the Ford Professor of Economics and co-director of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future

“The intellectual affinity between economics and computer science traces back almost a century, to the founding of game theory in 1928. Today, the practical synergies between economics and computer science are flourishing. We outline some of the many opportunities for the two disciplines to engage more deeply through the new SCC.”

Recommended action: “Research that engages the tools and expertise of economics on matters of fairness, expertise, and cognitive biases in machine-supported and machine-delegated decision-making; and on market design, industrial organization, and the future of work. Scholarship at the intersection of data science, econometrics, and causal inference. Cultivate depth in network science, algorithmic game theory and mechanism design, and online learning. Develop tools for rapid, cost-effective, and ongoing education and retraining for workers.” Read more >>

Political Science: Faculty of the Department of Political Science

“The advance of computation gives rise to a number of conceptual and normative questions that are political, rather than ethical in character. Political science and theory have a significant role in addressing such questions as: How do major players in the technology sector seek to legitimate their authority to make decisions that affect us all? And where should that authority actually reside in a democratic polity?”

Recommended action: “Incorporate the research and perspectives of political science in SCC research and education to help ensure that computational research is socially aware, especially with issues involving governing institutions, the relations between nations, and human rights.” Read more >>

Series prepared by SHASS Communications
Series Editor and Designer: Emily Hiestand
Series Co-Editor: Kathryn O’Neill

Meet Carolyn Stein: Researching the economics of science

Carolyn Stein says she’s not a morning person. And yet …

“All of a sudden I’m going on bike rides with people that leave at 5:30 a.m.,” she says, shaking her head in surprise.

Such is the appeal of MIT Cycling Club for Stein, a doctoral student in MIT’s Department of Economics, located within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. After inheriting an old road bike last year she has been shifting gears, literally and figuratively.

“It’s a wonderful thing to have happened and it’s how I’ve met people across the institute,” Stein says.

After graduating from Harvard University with degrees in applied mathematics and economics, Stein worked for a Boston hedge fund for two years. Upon arriving at MIT, she planned to study labor economics and explore why some people reach their potential in the labor force while others do not. But before long, Stein had decided to shift her area of research to the economics of science.

The economics of science

“The focus on science was influenced by one of my advisers, Professor Heidi Williams,” she says, “and also just by being at MIT surrounded by people who do science all the time. I’ve been learning what an interesting and difficult career path science is. On its surface, academic science is different from other jobs that economists typically study. For one, scientists are often motivated by factors other than wages.

“But many insights from labor economics can still help us understand how the field of science functions. Incentive and career concerns still matter. And risk is a big concern in science. You could have a very good idea, but get scooped. That can derail a scientist, and a whole year’s worth of work could be lost. That’s where this research idea began.”

Stein and her research partner, Ryan Hill, also a doctoral student in the MIT economics department, are working on two projects simultaneously, both of which focus on the careers of scientists and the incentives they face. Their first paper explores what happens when a scientist is “scooped” or, in other words, what happens to scientists when a competing research team publishes their results first. It’s a concern that resonates with researchers across many disciplines.

The impact of being scooped

“Economists often worry that while we’re working on something we’re going to flip open a journal and see that someone else has already written the same paper,” Stein says. “This is an even bigger deal in science. In our project, we’re studying a particular field of structural biology where we can actually look at data at the level of proteins and find cases where two scientists are simultaneously trying to solve the structure of the same protein.

“But one person gets there first and publishes. We’re trying to learn what happens to the other scientist, who has been scooped. Are they still able to publish? Do they get published in a lower-ranked journal, or receive fewer citations? Anecdotally, scientists say they’re very stressed about being scooped, so we’re trying to measure how much they’re penalized, if they are.”

The tension between quality and competition

Stein’s and Hill’s second paper examines the tradeoff between competition and quality in science. If competition is fierce and scientists are working overtime to get their work done sooner, the science may progress faster, Stein reasons. But if the fear of being scooped is high, scientists may decide to publish early. As a result, the work may not be as thorough.

“In that case, we miss out on the highest quality work these scientists could produce,” Stein says. “You’re looking at a trade-off. Competition means that science progresses faster, but corners may have been cut. How we as a society should feel about this probably depends on the balance of that trade-off. That’s the tension that we’re trying to explore.”

Work that resonates

After several years working and studying at MIT, Stein is now excited to see how things have coalesced: Her research topic has received positive feedback from the MIT community; she’s “super happy” with her advisers — professors Heidi Williams and Amy Finkelstein in the Department of Economics, and Pierre Azoulay, a professor of management in the MIT Sloan School of Management — and collaborating with Hill has “made the whole experience much more fun and companionable. (Williams, who continues to serve as Stein’s adviser, is now on the faculty of Stanford University.)

“I want to do things that resonate with people inside and outside the economics field,” Stein reflects. “A really rewarding part of this project has been talking to people who do science and asking them if our work resonates with them. Having scientists completely understand what we’re talking about is a huge part of the fun for me.”

Another activity Stein is enthusiastic about is her teaching experience with professors Williams and David Autor, which has affirmed her interest in an academic career. “I find teaching incredibly gratifying,” Stein says. “And I’ve had the privilege of being a teaching assistant here for professors who care a great deal about teaching.”

Women in economics

Stein would also like to encourage more women to explore a career in economics. She notes that if you were to poll students in their first year, they would likely say that economics is about what they read in The Wall Street Journal: finance, international trade, and money.

“But it’s much more than that,” Stein says. “Economics is more like a set of tools that you can apply to an astonishingly wide variety of things. I think that if more people knew this, and knew it sooner in their college career, a much more diverse group of people would want to study the field.”

Career options in the private sector are also increasing for economists, she says. “A lot of tech companies now realize they love economics PhDs. These companies collect so much data. It’s an opportunity to actually do a job that uses your degree.”

A sport with data

As the 2019 fall academic term gets underway, Stein is focused on writing her thesis and preparing for the academic job market. To explore her native New England as well as to escape the rigors of thesis-writing, she’s also looking forward to rides with the MIT Cycling Club.

“A few weekends ago,” she says, “we drove up to Vermont to do this completely insane ride over six mountain passes. The club is such a wonderful group of people. And cycling can be a very nerdy sport with tons of data to analyze.”

So, maybe not a total escape.
 

Story by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial Team: Emily Hiestand and Maria Iacobo

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