J-PAL North America launches research initiative to focus on Covid-19 recovery

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in incalculable losses for millions of Americans, particularly among low-income communities and communities of color. As decision-makers work to address this unparalleled public health crisis, urgent questions remain on how the Covid-19 pandemic will impact the social and economic well-being of people in the United States once the immediate crisis has resolved.

This summer, J-PAL North America launched a new research initiative that aims to inform these pressing policy questions. The COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Initiative will catalyze research on how to recover in the aftermath of the pandemic, with a focus on improving outcomes for those most harmed by this crisis. Academic leadership for the initiative will be provided by J-PAL North America’s scientific directors: Amy Finkelstein (MIT) and Lawrence Katz (Harvard University). 

The pandemic has laid bare fundamental inequities that limit access to opportunity for low-income communities and communities of color, making the need for bold policy action all the more pressing. Policymakers and social sector leaders are seeking solutions to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic both in the immediate and long term. Evidence will be a critical tool to help determine which policies — from universal basic income to extended school years — will work to restart the economy and rebuild lives.

The Covid-19 Recovery and Resilience Initiative will seek to advance the dual goals of helping decision-makers implement evidence-based solutions in the immediate term while generating rigorous evidence on longer-term policy measures. Ultimately, J-PAL North America aims to create a playbook of evidence-based solutions by identifying key policy challenges, rigorously evaluating promising solutions, and sharing findings with decision-makers who can act on rigorous evidence to improve lives. 

Drawing on insights from J-PAL’s network of leading academic scholars, the initiative established a learning agenda to guide work in the priority policy areas of (1) jobs, labor, and the social safety net; (2) education, youth, and opportunity; and (3) health care delivery

These guides for future research outline a selection of prioritized research questions that, if answered, could significantly advance decision-makers’ understanding of how to effectively respond to this crisis. While not intended to be comprehensive, the research guides aim to serve as inspiration for researchers and as a resource to guide investment strategies for donors.

Prioritized questions in the policy areas of jobs, labor, and the social safety net focus on methods to support individuals who are unemployed in the short- and long-term, keep workers connected to benefits, and effectively smooth the job search process. In education, questions largely center on the need to address learning loss, minimize the widening of income- and race-based educational inequities, and support students’ mental health and social-emotional development. Lastly, prioritized focus areas for future inquiry in health care delivery include identifying methods to expand access to quality and affordable health care, increase take-up of positive health behaviors, and minimize the public health risks of additional waves of Covid-19. 

For more information on the Covid-19 Recovery and Resilience Initiative or the initiative research agenda, see the J-PAL North America website or contact Initiative Manager Vincent Quan.

Anti-racism in technology and policy design

When Kate Turner was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, she kept hearing the same message.

“As a Black woman, people kept telling me, ‘we need more Black women in STEM!’” recalls Turner.

The message had some influence on her choice of major — but then, so did a global recession. And while STEM fields might have seemed to offer more stable career prospects, Turner’s chemical engineering path did not at first inspire.

It took seeing the science through the lens of societal challenges and policy to really spark a passion.

“I very serendipitously met a professor who offered me a position working in his lab,” Turner recounts. “He was an Earth scientist who worked on nuclear issues, specifically nuclear waste management.” The issue interested Turner because, as she puts it, “you cannot divorce the policy and the social science from the STEM work.”

“The questions one has to consider when designing nuclear waste management are inherently technical (structures, geologic repositories, etc.), but then you have this policy and sociological piece. Facilities that store nuclear waste are situated near where people live. You’re not making decisions in a vacuum.”

Turner’s passion for sociotechnical issues led her on to a PhD in Earth sciences at Stanford University, and to her current role as a researcher for the Space Enabled group at the MIT Media Lab, where she works with Assistant Professor Danielle Wood, a systems engineer working in aerospace who is an alumna of the MIT Technology and Policy Program and Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Space Enabled strives to apply space technologies to challenges here on Earth — including the challenges of racial inequity.

“So many STEM issues have a greater impact on the lives of people of color, especially Black people,” Turner points out. “So why is there so little diversity in STEM?”

Research to policy engagement

At MIT, Turner is a fellow of the Research to Policy Engagement Initiative, an IDSS effort aimed at bridging knowledge to action on major societal challenges. The initiative connects policymakers, stakeholders, and researchers from diverse disciplines.

“The initiative is a good space for people to talk in an interdisciplinary way about societal issues,” says Turner. “We ask big questions, like ‘How do we design policy with equity?’ or ‘How do we create a better pipeline so that scientific research is incorporated into policy?’”

The importance of bridging research and policy was a key lesson from Turner’s undergrad experience in nuclear waste management. “You can be doing work that can technically solve an issue, but if it doesn’t have social and political acceptance, it doesn’t matter.”

A societal perspective that examines the impact of policy motivates Space Enabled’s new “Invisible Variables” project, which examines how individuals in the Greater Boston area are affected by stay-at-home advisories and social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic. The project looks at impacts on safety, income, and autonomy while taking into account Boston-area specific factors like population density, high rents, and older homes.

“In the U.S., we have a lack of a social safety net as part of the fabric of our society,” says Turner. “This project is aiming to look at how that lack of a safety net in greater Boston has impacted people in ways we’re not often talking about. These are variables of a society’s health, just like how many Covid cases or ICU beds there are.”

Research at the intersection of technology and policy necessitates cross-disciplinary collaboration. The Research to Policy Engagement Initiative fosters these connections. “I’m hoping that the initiative can turn into a hub for people who are either working in the STEM community or the policy community to think about how to meaningfully create science-informed policy.”

Humanizing difference

At the Media Lab, Turner examines how technology — including sociotechnical systems like transportation networks, power grids, and health care — can exacerbate inequities and reproduce social hierarchies. She thinks about how technology design and implementation lead to inequitable outcomes, and how innovation often occurs in spaces where race isn’t considered and people of color have little to no input. Their Inclusive Innovation projects seek not only to make innovation spaces more inclusive, but also to work against assumptions that innovation is driven by a dominant, normative culture.

“In the U.S., what we think of as normative for innovation is not very inclusive. It is a broken record at this point that STEM industries like tech struggle with diversity and inclusion, but it is important to emphasize that these disparities lead to inequitable outcomes. When we have decision-makers that are predominantly coming from one kind of perspective, education, or lived experience, this contributes to the creation of inequity throughout technology’s design and implementation in society. Everything from gentrification to facial recognition software not accurately categorizing faces of color — these issues stem ultimately from inequity in innovation practices. Who is seen as an ‘innovator,’ what kind of education or lived experiences they have, what they look like or speak like, etc. — all these factors contribute to disparate outcomes.”

And when innovation happens outside of these normative spaces, it’s not necessarily recognized as innovation at all. “It’s not seen as ingenuity, engineering, or creation,” Turner says. “Sometimes it’s invisible.”

Turner’s work, which is also influenced by intersectional feminism, incorporates critical race theory and anti-racism directly into both technology and policy design. “When our society was founded, ideas like assimilationism, racism, classism, and sexism were normalized,” she explains. “Even though today — especially in this moment — mainstream society largely rejects these values and tries to prioritize equity, we need to actively work to create anti-racism and intersectionality in our technology, policies, and norms, and in order to create and sustain equity across axes like race, class, and gender. These sort of changes won’t happen on their own.”

Incorporating these lenses helps to identify biases in tech spaces. Race theory and feminism expose how ideas are used to dehumanize and marginalize women and people of color. Ultimately the goal is to imagine anti-racist technology design and implementation.

“Intersectionality and anti-racism humanize difference,” says Turner. Rather than overlooking or rejecting certain technology users, Turner asks: “How do the different experiences of marginalized people shape their needs? How can they inform our design questions, what sorts of products we create, how technology is used? How can we include and celebrate diversity in design, implementation, and policy — rather than erase or criminalize it?”

Though Turner’s research has pivoted some since joining Space Enabled, she and Wood still work closely with nuclear and aerospace systems. An upcoming project looks within these two domains to offer a systems architecture analysis of the technology design process with the goal of producing anti-racist outcomes in society.

“I’m still very much thinking about the STEM questions of nuclear policy and equity,” says Turner. “I’m hoping that adding lenses like anti-racism and intersectional feminism will lead to more equitable outcomes in those areas.”

Helping companies prioritize their cybersecurity investments

One reason that cyberattacks have continued to grow in recent years is that we never actually learn all that much about how they happen. Companies fear that reporting attacks will tarnish their public image, and even those who do report them don’t share many details because they worry that their competitors will gain insight into their security practices. 

“It’s really a nice gift that we’ve given to cyber-criminals,” says Taylor Reynolds, technology policy director at MIT’s Internet Policy Research Initiative (IPRI). “In an ideal world, these attacks wouldn’t happen over and over again, because companies would be able to use data from attacks to develop quantitative measurements of the security risk so that we could prevent such incidents in the future.”

In an economy where most industries are tightening their belts, many organizations don’t know which types of attacks lead to the largest financial losses, and therefore how to best deploy scarce security resources. 

But a new platform from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) aims to change that, quantifying companies’ security risk without requiring them to disclose sensitive data about their systems to the research team, much less their competitors.

Developed by Reynolds alongside economist Andrew Lo and cryptographer Vinod Vaikuntanathan, the platform helps companies do multiple things:

  • quantify how secure they are;
  • understand how their security compares to peers; and
  • evaluate whether they’re spending the right amount of money on security, and if and how they should change their particular security priorities.

The team received internal data from seven large companies that averaged 50,000 employees and annual revenues of $24 billion. By securely aggregating 50 different security incidents that took place at the companies, the researchers were able to analyze which specific steps were not taken that could have prevented them. (Their analysis used a well-established set of nearly 200 security actions referred to as the Center for Internet Security Sub-Controls.) 

“We were able to paint a really thorough picture in terms of which security failures were costing companies the most money,” says Reynolds, who co-authored a related paper with professors Lo and Vaikuntanathan, MIT graduate student Leo de Castro, Principal Research Scientist Daniel J. Weitzner, PhD student Fransisca Susan, and graduate student Nicolas Zhang. “If you’re a chief information security officer at one of these organizations, it can be an overwhelming task to try to defend absolutely everything. They need to know where they should direct their attention.”

The team calls their platform “SCRAM,” for “Secure Cyber Risk Aggregation and Measurement.” Among other findings, they determined that the three following security vulnerabilities had the largest total losses, each in excess of $1 million:

Failures in preventing malware attacks

Malware attacks, like the one last month that reportedly forced the wearables company Garmin to pay a $10 million ransom, are still a tried-and-true method of gaining control of valuable consumer data. Reynolds says that companies continue to struggle to prevent such attacks, relying on regularly backing up their data and reminding their employees not to click on suspicious emails. 

Communication over unauthorized ports 

Curiously, the team found that every firm in their study said they had, in fact, implemented the security measure of blocking access to unauthorized ports — the digital equivalent of companies locking all their doors. Even still, attacks that involved gaining access to these ports accounted for a large number of high-cost losses. 

“Losses can arise even when there are defenses that are well-developed and understood,” says Weitzner, who also serves as director of MIT IPRI. “It’s important to recognize that improving common existing defenses should not be neglected in favor of expanding into new areas of defense.”

Failures in log management for security incidents 

Every day companies amass detailed “logs” denoting activity within their systems. Senior security officers often turn to these logs after an attack to audit the incident and see what happened. Reynolds says that there are many ways that companies could be using machine learning and artificial intelligence more efficiently to help understand what’s happening — including, crucially, during or even before a security attack. 

Two other key areas that warrant further analysis include taking inventory of hardware so that only authorized devices are given access, as well as boundary defenses like firewalls and proxies that aim to control the flow of traffic through network borders. 

The team developed their data aggregation platform in conjunction with MIT cryptography experts, using an existing method called multi-party computation (MPC) that allows them to perform calculations on data without themselves being able to read or unlock it. After computing its anonymized findings, the SCRAM system then asks each contributing company to help it unlock only the answer using their own secret cryptographic key.

“The power of this platform is that it allows firms to contribute locked data that would otherwise be too sensitive or risky to share with a third party,” says Reynolds.

As a next step, the researchers plan to expand the pool of participating companies, with representation from a range of different sectors that include electricity, finance, and biotech. Reynolds says that if the team can gather data from upwards of 70 or 80 companies, they’ll be able to do something unprecedented: put an actual dollar figure on the risk of particular defenses failing.

The project was a cross-campus effort involving affiliates at IPRI, CSAIL’s Theory of Computation group, and the MIT Sloan School of Management. It was funded by the Hewlett Foundation and CSAIL’s Financial Technology industry initiative (“FinTech@CSAIL”). 

Lessons from the Clean Air Car Race 50 years later

The year 1970 was a milestone for efforts to combat air pollution. On April 22, the first Earth Day was celebrated. The 1970 Clean Air Act was the first policy to establish federal regulations on car and industry emissions. In July, President Richard M. Nixon announced his plan to establish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by the end of the year. In the midst of this progress, a team of MIT students and faculty, with assistance from Caltech, organized the Clean Air Car Race — a competition to see which of the many entrants could make the 3,600 miles from MIT to Caltech in a fast, rally-style race, while meeting new stringent emissions standards.

“It was an untidy operation that took a heck of a lot of managing,” recalls John Heywood, professor of mechanical engineering. “It amazed me just how talented and motivated the young people who organized the race were.” Then a junior faculty member, Heywood helped the students who organized the race, and served as a chaperone for the event.

Concerns about air pollution had been mounting for years. Thick clouds of smog hovered over major cities — something students at Caltech in Pasadena, a Los Angeles suburb, felt acutely. In 1968, MIT and Caltech challenged each other to an electric car race with MIT’s car heading west toward Pasadena and Caltech’s car having Cambridge, Massachusetts, as its destination. In Tucson, Arizona, MIT’s car broke down and Caltech was declared the victor.

Shortly after returning from defeat, students began talk of a rematch. That’s when Robert McGregor ’69 SM ’70 entered the picture. As the only graduate student in the room, McGregor became the de facto leader and was named the chair of the organizing committee for what became the Clean Air Car Race.

Unlike the race two years before, the organizing committee decided to open the competition up to any college that wanted to participate. As chair of the committee, McGregor took the lead on reaching out to contacts in government and industry. Quickly, the race gained the attention of the National Air Pollution Control Administration, the EPA’s predecessor.

“The federal government was very interested in supporting these upstart students who wanted to show the auto industry that we could actually build a vehicle with the emission controls that could achieve the future standards that had been proposed by the federal government in the Clean Air Act,” says McGregor.

Emission standards and regulations were still novel to many reluctant automotive companies. “The auto industry was in its early days of learning what it was like to be regulated, and they were under tremendous pressure. Meanwhile, the regulators were still learning how to regulate, and set realistic standards,” says Heywood.

Several car companies also supported the Clean Air Car Race. General Motors provided vehicles to teams who wanted to either modify them as a participating vehicle in the race or use them to transport teams. Ford Motor Company offered the use of their mobile emissions laboratory to test the cars’ emissions in Cambridge and again in Pasadena.

As the pieces began to fall into place, the organizing team established the rules of the race. Participating cars had to have four wheels, be able to carry two people, and meet the proposed 1975-76 federal emissions standards for the amount of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides leaving the car’s exhaust pipe.

Roughly 50 entrants from various universities and a few high schools entered the race with a range of vehicles. These were mainly modified internal combustion engine cars, with some electric cars powered by massive batteries, hybrid vehicles, and one car powered by a gas turbine.

On Aug. 24, 1970, the cars set off due west from Massachusetts Avenue. The race was scheduled to last six days, with stops in Ontario; Michigan; Illinois; Oklahoma; Texas; and Arizona before crossing the finish line on Aug. 30 on Caltech’s campus in Pasadena.

Each leg of the journey was meant to last eight to 10 hours. The battery-powered electric vehicles participating ended up being at a disadvantage. The route was outfitted with charging stations every 60 miles. The charging process would take about an hour, meaning the electric cars took double the amount of time to finish each leg, clocking in 16- to 20-hour days.

As chaperone, Heywood would wake up before the sun each day and knock on dorm room doors to wake up the tired and still-asleep college student teams. During the day, he would crunch numbers in the back of a car to figure out each car’s fuel economy.

“I would sit in the back of a bumpy station wagon, using my slide rule to calculate the fuel economy for each entrant,” says Heywood. “That’s what engineers do — you do what is needed regardless of the environment.”

Almost all the entrants crossed the finish line in Pasadena. When MIT’s gas turbine car, which was driven by one of McGregor’s fraternity brothers, barreled into Caltech’s campus, it melted the finish line banner with its blast of hot burned gases from its chimney exhaust pipe. The judging panel declared Wayne State University’s entrant, a gasoline-engine car with a tightly controlled fuel-injection system, the winner.

In the end, the race was less about who placed first or last and more about demonstrating that the hurdles to having cleaner emissions in cars were not as insurmountable as some in the auto industry then thought.

“In those early days of emission regulations, having a bunch of college kids do something seemingly of their own initiative and trying new creative things really helped show Detroit the way, in a sense,” adds Heywood.

The Clean Air Car Race had an immediate impact on policies and regulations. Participants of the race were called to testify both for state legislators and for Washington, D.C.

“There was this groundswell of young people participating in the debate that would confirm that where the federal government was headed with these proposed standards was not unrealistic,” says McGregor. “We were a contributing factor to the EPA being able to stick with those standards that they had proposed and getting the auto industry to comply.”

Fifty years later, there are still lessons to be learned from the Clean Air Car Race. McGregor extols the virtue of “competitive engineering” as a way to galvanize young students into action. Heywood, meanwhile, sees parallels with current-day issues surrounding greenhouse gas emissions. He suggests that perhaps a friendly competition among talented engineering students could move the needle in the right direction, as it did 50 years ago.

Donald Blackmer, professor emeritus of political science and longtime leader at MIT, dies at 91

Donald L. M. Blackmer, professor emeritus of political science at MIT, died on Aug. 14. He was 91.

A highly regarded scholar in international studies, he was also a longtime leader at MIT, serving variously as executive director of the Center for International Studies, head of the Department of Political Science, associate dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (now the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences), director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and head of MIT Foreign Languages and Literatures (now MIT Global Studies and Languages).

Blackmer received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard College, where he graduated magna cum laude in history and literature. He continued his studies at Harvard University, where he received a master’s in regional studies on the Soviet Union and a PhD in political science.

He began his career at MIT as executive director of, and eventually served as assistant director of, the Center for International Studies (CIS). The CIS was created in 1951 to aid the United States in its Cold War battle against the Soviet Union. Blackmer later chronicled the center’s beginnings in a fascinating book, “The MIT Center for International Studies: The Founding Years 1951 to 1969,” to mark the center’s 50th anniversary.

“Don was a fine scholar,” says Richard Samuels, director of CIS and Ford International Professor of Political Science. “He wrote a widely cited book on the international relations of the Italian Communist Party, and co-authored a book with Max Millikan on U.S. foreign aid. He also published on the French Communist Party and on the Soviet Union. But, on his own account, scholarship was not his primary calling. He was an institution builder. In 1956, he turned down a job offer to work as an assistant to McGeorge Bundy at Harvard, to come down-river to MIT to serve as a deputy to Max Millikan and Walt Rostow — the dynamic and powerful founders of the MIT Center for International Studies. As executive director of the young CIS, he made it possible for them, and those he helped them recruit, to light up the scholarly landscape.”

“A man of uncommon good sense and warmth,” says Eugene Skolnikoff, professor of political science emeritus, of Blackmer. “In some ways, Don was a curious fit to be successful in an MIT setting. He had a strong literature and humanities background, with little exposure to science and technology. His success in his role at CIS, and in subsequent positions he was asked to fill, showed to the MIT leadership how able Don was to lead and build in an environment that was foreign to his original education or experience. It was a record of stable and often imaginative stewardship in an institution focused on subjects I’m sure Don never expected to be a part of.”

Blackmer, a steward of institutions, was also a steward of people.

“Don was a steady mentor, academic advisor, listener … and, ultimately, friend. His humility, kind humor, patience, intellect, and elegant behavior were examples to me of what I could become,” says Astrid S. Tuminez PhD ’96. Tuminez serves as president of Utah Valley University and was a former executive at Microsoft.

Brian Taylor PhD ’97 credits Blackmer for encouraging him to complete his dissertation. “I think it’s fair to say that he played the biggest role of my committee in making the final project stronger and in helping me get done. It was Don who closely read each chapter as I produced it and gave me detailed and actionable recommendations on how to revise the chapter. This feedback gave me the confidence to keep pushing ahead on a project that at times seemed unmanageable and never-ending. Don was there throughout — even after he retired to make sure the dissertation was in ‘good enough’ shape.” Taylor is professor of political science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

Blackmer authored four academic books, including “The Emerging Nations: Their Growth and United States Policy,” with Max F. Millikan (Little, Brown & Co., 1961). The book was cited in Foreign Affairs as a significant source for U.S. policy. He also served as chair of the Council for European Studies and member of the Council on Foreign Relations.  

“Don was not only an immensely productive scholar and administrator, he was also a sweet and generous colleague. He will be dearly missed in the department,” says David Singer, Raphael Dorman-Helen Starbuck Professor of Political Science and head of the Department of Political Science.

Tributes from Blackmer’s colleagues and students are available on the Center for International Studies website.

Six strategic areas identified for shared faculty hiring in computing

Nearly every aspect of the modern world is being transformed by computing. As computing technology continues to revolutionize the way people live, work, learn, and interact, computing research and education are increasingly playing a role in a broad range of academic disciplines, and are in turn being shaped by this expanding breadth.

To connect computing and other disciplines in addressing critical challenges and opportunities facing the world today, the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing is planning to create 25 new faculty positions that will be shared between the college and an MIT department or school. Hiring for these new positions will be focused on six strategic areas of inquiry, to build capacity at MIT in key computing domains that cut across departments and schools. The shared faculty members are expected to engage in research and teaching that contributes to their home department, that is of mutual value to that department and the college, and that helps form and strengthen cross-departmental ties.

“These new shared faculty positions present an unprecedented opportunity to develop crucial areas at MIT which connect computing with other disciplines,” says Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. “By coordinated hiring between the college and departments and schools, we expect to have significant impact with multiple touch points across MIT.”

The six strategic areas and the schools expected to be involved in hiring for each are as follows:

Social, Economic, and Ethical Implications of Computing and Networks. Associated schools: School of Humanities, Arts and the Social Sciences and MIT Sloan School of Management.

There have been tremendous advances in new digital platforms and algorithms, which have already transformed our economic, social, and even political lives. But the future societal implications of these technologies and the consequences of the use and misuse of massive social data are poorly understood. There are exciting opportunities for building on the growing intellectual connections between computer science, data science, and social science and humanities, in order to bring a better conceptual framework to understand the social and economic implications, ethical dimensions, and regulation of these technologies.

Focusing on the interplay between computing systems and our understanding of individuals and societal institutions, this strategic hiring area will include faculty whose work focuses on the broader consequences of the changing digital and information environment, market design, digital commerce and competition, and economic and social networks. Issues of interest include how computing and AI technologies have shaped and are shaping the work of the future; how social media tools have reshaped political campaigns, changed the nature and organization of mass protests, and spurred governments to either reduce or dramatically enhance censorship and social control; increasing challenges in adjudicating what information is reliable, what is slanted, and what is entirely fake; conceptions of privacy, fairness, and transparency of algorithms; and the effects of new technologies on democratic governance.

Computing and Natural Intelligence: Cognition, Perception, and Language. Associated schools: School of Science; School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; and School of Architecture and Planning.

Intelligence — what it is, how the brain produces it, and how it can be engineered — is simultaneously one of the greatest open questions in natural sciences and the most important engineering challenges of our time. Significant advances in computing and machine learning have enabled a better understanding of the brain and the mind. Concurrently, neuroscience and cognitive science have started to give meaningful engineering guidance to AI and related computing efforts. Yet, huge gaps remain in connecting the science and engineering of intelligence.

Integrating science, computing, and social sciences and humanities, this strategic hiring area aims to address the gap between science and engineering of intelligence, in order to make transformative advances in AI and deepen our understanding of natural intelligence. Hiring in this area is expected to advance a holistic approach to understanding human perception and cognition through work such as the study of computational properties of language by bridging linguistic theory, cognitive science, and computer science; improving the art of listening by re-engineering music through music classification and machine learning, music cognition, and new interfaces for musical expression; discovering how artificial systems might help explain natural intelligence and vice versa; and seeking ways in which computing can aid in human expression, communications, health, and meaning.

Computing in Health and Life Sciences. Associated schools: School of Engineering; School of Science; and MIT Sloan School of Management.

Computing is increasingly becoming an indispensable tool in the health and life sciences. A key area is facilitating new approaches to identifying molecular and biomolecular agents with desired functions and for discovering new medications and new means of diagnosis. For instance, machine learning provides a unique opportunity in the pursuit of molecular and biomolecular discovery to parameterize and augment physics-based models, or possibly even replace them, and enable a revolution in molecular science and engineering. Another major area is health-care delivery, where novel algorithms, high performance computing, and machine learning offer new possibilities to transform health monitoring and treatment planning, facilitating better patient care, and enabling more effective ways to help prevent disease. In diagnosis, machine learning methods hold the promise of improved detection of diseases, increasing both specificity and sensitivity of imaging and testing.

This strategic area aims to hire faculty who help create transformative new computational methods in health and life sciences, while complementing the considerable existing work at MIT by forging additional connections. The broad scope ranges from computational approaches to fundamental problems in molecular design and synthesis for human health; to reshaping health-care delivery and personalized medicine; to understanding radiation effects and optimizing dose delivery on target cells; to improving tracing, imaging, and diagnosis techniques.

Computing for Health of the Planet. Associated schools: School of Engineering; School of Science; and School of Architecture and Planning.

The health of the planet is one of the most important challenges facing humankind today. Rapid industrialization has led to a number of serious threats to human and ecosystem health, including climate change, unsafe levels of air and water pollution, coastal and agricultural land erosion, and many others. Ensuring the health and safety of our planet necessitates an interdisciplinary approach that connects scientific understanding, engineering solutions, social, economic, and political aspects, with new computational methods to provide data-driven models and solutions for providing clean air, usable water, resilient food, efficient transportation systems, and identifying sustainable sources of energy.

This strategic hiring area will help facilitate such collaborations by bringing together expertise that will enable us to advance physical understanding of low-carbon energy solutions, earth-climate modelling, and urban planning through high performance computing, transformational numerical methods, and/or machine learning techniques.

Computing and Human Experience. Associated schools: School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and School of Architecture and Planning.

Computing and digital technologies are challenging the very ways in which people understand reality and our role in it. These technologies are embedded in the everyday lives of people around the world, and while frequently highly useful, they can reflect cultural assumptions and technological heritage, even though they are often viewed as being neutral prescriptions for structuring the world. Indeed, as becomes increasingly apparent, these technologies are able to alter individual and societal perceptions and actions, or affect societal institutions, in ways that are not broadly understood or intended. Moreover, although these technologies are conventionally developed for improved efficacy or efficiency, they can also provide opportunities for less utilitarian purposes such as supporting introspection and personal reflection.

This strategic hiring area focuses on growing the set of scholars in the social sciences, humanities, and computing who examine technology designs, systems, policies, and practices that can address the dual challenges of the lack of understanding of these technologies and their implications, including the design of systems that may help ameliorate rather than exacerbate inequalities. It further aims to develop techniques and systems that help people interpret and gain understanding from societal and historical data, including in humanities disciplines such as comparative literature, history, and art and architectural history.

Quantum Computing. Associated schools: School of Engineering and School of Science.

One of the most promising directions for continuing improvements in computing power comes from quantum mechanics. In the coming years, new hardware, algorithms, and discoveries offer the potential to dramatically increase the power of quantum computers far beyond current machines. Achieving these advances poses challenges that span multiple scientific and engineering fields, and from quantum hardware to quantum computing algorithms. Potential quantum computing applications span a broad range of fields, including chemistry, biology, materials science, atmospheric modeling, urban system simulation, nuclear engineering, finance, optimization, and others, requiring a deep understanding of both quantum computing algorithms and the problem space.

This strategic hiring area aims to build on MIT’s rich set of activities in the space to catalyze research and education in quantum computing and quantum information across the Institute, including the study of quantum materials; developing robust controllable quantum devices and networks that can faithfully transmit quantum information; and new algorithms for machine learning, AI, optimization, and data processing to fully leverage the promise of quantum computing.

A coordinated approach

Over the past few months, the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing has undertaken a strategic planning exercise to identify key areas for hiring the new shared faculty. The process has been led by Huttenlocher, together with MIT Provost Martin Schmidt and the deans of the five schools — Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering; Melissa Nobles, Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning; David Schmittlein, John C. Head III Dean of MIT Sloan; and Michael Sipser, dean of the School of Science — beginning with input from departments across the Institute.

This input was in the form of proposals for interdisciplinary computing areas that were solicited from department heads. A total of 29 proposals were received. Over a six-week period, the committee worked with proposing departments to identify strategic hiring themes. The process yielded the six areas that cover several critically important directions. 

“These areas not only bring together computing with numerous departments and schools, but also involve multiple modes of academic inquiry, offering opportunities for new collaborations in research and teaching across a broad range of fields,” says Schmidt. “I’m excited to see us launch this critical part of the college’s mission.”

The college will also coordinate with each of the five schools to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion is at the forefront for all of the hiring areas.

Hiring for the 2020-21 academic year

While the number of searches and involved schools will vary from year to year, the plan for the coming academic year is to have five searches, one with each school. These searches will be in three of the six strategic hiring areas as follows:

Social, Economic, and Ethical Implications of Computing and Networks will focus on two searches, one with the Department of Philosophy in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and one with the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Computing and Natural Intelligence: Cognition, Perception and Language will focus on one search with the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences in the School of Science.

Computing for Health of the Planet will focus on two searches, one with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning in the School of Architecture and Planning, and one with a department to be identified in the School of Engineering.

The promise of using WhatsApp for low-tech distance learning

WhatsApp is one of the most widely-used communication apps in South Africa. Though it’s often portrayed in the news as a way to spread disinformation, it shows surprising potential as a tool for online learning during the era of social distancing.

Grassroot, a civic technology organization based in South Africa, has developed a first-of-its-kind training course entirely on WhatsApp to improve the leadership skills of community organizers and build deep networks. 

The MIT Governance Lab, led by Lily Tsai, the Ford Professor of Political Science, supported the Grassroot pilot course with wraparound research to assess course content and the promise of behavioral change. 

Tsai notes, “Civic tech initiatives often measure impact by the number of people who engage. But Grassroot focused on the quality of engagement, by equipping organizers with skills to get a better response from their government. This is precisely the kind of innovation that’s needed to improve governance outcomes”

The study was conducted in 2019, before the coronavirus outbreak occurred. Yet the results show how WhatsApp can be an effective tool for organizers to move training and people development online when face-to-face interaction isn’t possible.

Improving access to leadership development for social change

To develop course content, Grassroot collaborated with Harvard University Professor Marshall Ganz. His work on public narrative uses storytelling on individual and collective values and experiences to inspire leadership and commitment to social change. Ganz teaches a version of his course online to organizers around the world using the latest distance learning technology, requiring high speed internet to sustain video interactions.

Grassroot chose WhatsApp to reach organizers who don’t normally have access to in-person or online training. Traditional online courses are typically out of reach in low-income areas that lack access to broadband internet and large data downloads. They also depend on a student’s ability to reliably be home with no distractions or background noise at certain times. 

Participants in a WhatsApp-based course, on the other hand, get to use a familiar medium that allows for rich media interchange (via voice notes, infographics, etc.) without the usual concerns about connectivity and location. 

Piloted over five classes, the course reached more than 40 distance learners in South Africa, largely in urban and peri-urban areas near Johannesburg and Durban. 

“This is a timely endeavor” says Koketso Moeti, founding executive director of Amandla.mobi, a community advocacy organization based in Johannesburg. “For many people, coming together to learn is not always easy. This course provides a low-tech, accessible way for organizers to learn with and from each other, which is something key for an organization like Amandla.mobi with a national community.”

Designing rich online content for data-poor environments

Using a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods, the research conducted in collaboration with the MIT Governance Lab found that WhatsApp is a viable medium for online teaching, if combined with a strong teaching team, behavioral incentives, and attention to design details from the start.

As might be expected, developing an engaging course on WhatsApp is challenging both technically, to create rich course content in a data-poor context; and pedagogically, to maintain students’ interest without face-to-face interaction. That’s why the team has also produced a how-to guide with lessons from the pilot that others can use when designing their own WhatsApp courses. 

Expanding from community organizing to health care training

The research has already attracted interest in the health care field. Grassroot and the MIT Governance Lab presented these findings to IT for Health and Education Systems Equity, led by George Washington University professors Seble Frehywot and Yianna Vovides. The initiative uses technology and computing to train and build capacity for medical workers around the globe, especially in low- and middle-income countries.  

Frehywot notes, “Since currently e-learning is neither accessible nor equitable in many countries, understanding the process engineering behind what Grassroot and MIT have done to utilize WhatsApp as an e-learning tool may be one way to mitigate this problem, especially in training of health-care workers on the ground in countries that WhatsApp is being used widely.”

Based on this research, Grassroot is now experimenting with a second course delivered over WhatsApp focusing on organizing tactics and skills. The overall implication, for Grassroot and other organizations, is that WhatsApp’s potential as a pedagogical medium should be further explored to better understand how to build relationships and networks that translate into offline action. 

“Junior republics,” a unique concept in the history of American childhood

Around 1900, the famed Baedeker’s travel guide began listing a new tourist sight in Freeville, New York: the “George Junior Republic,” a miniature United States run by kids.

The invention of philanthropist William R. George, the “junior republic” was mostly occupied by impoverished or immigrant teenagers from New York City, acting as politicians, judges, police officers, journalists, and other workers, in their own separate civic world. George thought this would instill American democratic values in Freeville’s young residents.

“This interesting experiment seems to work well, and a visit to Freeville rivals in sociological interest that to Ellis Island,” the Baedeker’s guide stated.

Indeed, “George’s idea caught on like wildfire,” says MIT Professor Jennifer Light. Soon junior republics were springing up around America, with modified versions introduced into schools, playgrounds, and settlements. In an era when popular entertainment included “living villages” — reconstructions of settings from Cairo to Native American encampments, complete with their inhabitants — Americans were enchanted by the concept of a participatory virtual experience of adult life for kids.

Now the junior republic movement is the subject of a new book by Light, “States of Childhood: From the Junior Republic to the American Republic, 1895-1945,” published this month by the MIT Press. In it, Light — who is the head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society; the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology; and a professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning — illuminates the history of this influential but forgotten movement and reminds us that, long before the invention of computing, Americans were intrigued by the educational possibilities of virtual worlds.

“George lived at a time when many kids were still part of the labor force, but reformers were pressing to send them to school and adult-supervised recreational activities instead,” Light says. “Junior republics offered a middle ground where they could role-play adult jobs inside child-only settings to prepare for their future lives.”

Double life

A reform-minded businessman working in New York City, George founded a “fresh air camp” in Freeville in 1890. Five years later, he gathered 150 young people to start the full junior republic, with limited adult supervision. The participants passed laws, debated women’s suffrage — George was ambivalent about the idea, but thought it was good for girls to anticipate it — and created an elaborate simulacrum of civic life that included a currency system and hotels like “the Waldorf,” named after New York City establishments. George cultivated attention, receiving what Light calls “overwhelmingly positive” reviews from journalists and public officials.

Freeville soon generated imitation villages — and even more related programs in schools. A friend of George’s named Wilson Gill developed “school republics” in New York City classrooms. These patterned student governments after local governments — with mayors, police, and street cleaning departments — and emphasized that what mattered most for kids was the role-playing experience, not their environment. That meant junior republics did not all have to be built anew, and many programs focused on creating a “double life” for kids to enjoy adult-like experiences while being protected from actual adult life.

This focus on role-playing also meshed with the ideas of some prominent thinkers. Psychologist G. Stanley Hall, an admirer of George, emphasized in his work how much children at play are imitative of adults; the famous educational theorist John Dewey, who advised Gill, was an advocate of “learning by doing.” All told, this constellation of views enhanced the popularity of the junior republic concept, in any physical form. If kids loved to pretend they were adults, the thinking went, why not turn their play into an educational experience?

“It was a challenge to get independent republics going,” Light observes, “so after 1900 the main trend was for schools and youth-serving institutions to integrate republics into their programming. They were incredibly popular.”

Over time, the junior republic idea kept evolving. Public officials, seeing kids’ efficacy as police, judges, and health inspectors inside child-only societies, subsequently organized junior police squads, junior juvenile courts, and junior sanitary inspectors — making city streets the settings for elaborate role-playing games in which kids arrested peers, adjudicated cases of juvenile delinquency, and kept their neighborhoods clean. During World War I, children in junior republics and related programs directed attention to the war effort, growing food, making hospital supplies, and sewing clothing for refugees. In the 1920s and 1930s, schools and police departments deployed children for traffic management near schools.

“We conventionally understand the transformation of childhood to be a straightforward story of kids being removed from the labor force and public life,” Light says. “But many of these programs assigned kids to keep order in public streets! And, there was tremendous economic value in role-playing of all kinds, even as people called it educational or recreational.”

Just as women’s work was (and is) often unpaid, Light notes, a similar dynamic unfolded with kids, well into the 20th century. “There are some interesting parallels to the digital economy as well. On platforms like Facebook it’s users who generate economic value, but we call this having fun rather than work, and don’t expect to get paid.”

Echoes today

The junior republic movement outlasted George (who died in 1936), but eventually lost momentum. As Light observes, the rise in material wealth in the U.S., a shift to consumer culture, and the expansion of mass media changed how children played.

“Film, radio, and television became increasingly central in kids’ lives,“ Light says. “Educators turned away from role-playing to adapt these newer technologies to their learning objectives.”

Today, Light says, “Nobody has heard of the junior republics.” Still, she notes, their legacy has endured: “Student newspapers, teen courts, Model United Nations, and Boys and Girls State — all these things had ties to the republic movement.”

And we still encounter discussions about simulation and learning that resemble those from a century ago, Light notes. Today those questions may surround things like online activites and the gamification of learning, but they are not new.

“It’s fascinating to discover a national conversation about the educational possibilities of role-playing and virtual worlds that’s 125 years old,” she says.

New US postage stamp highlights MIT research

Letter writers across the country will soon have a fun and beautiful new Forever stamp to choose from, featuring novel research from the Media Lab’s Biomechatronics research group. 

The stamp is part of a new U.S. Postal Service (USPS) series on innovation, representing computing, biomedicine, genome sequencing, robotics, and solar technology. For the robotics category, the USPS chose the bionic prosthesis designed and built by Matt Carney PhD ’20 and members of the Biomechatronics group, led by Professor Hugh Herr.

The image used in the stamp was taken by photographer Andy Ryan, whose portfolio spans images from around the world, and who for many years has been capturing the MIT experience — from stunning architectural shots to the research work of labs across campus. Ryan suggested the bionic work of the biomechatronics group to USPS to represent the future of robotics. Ryan also created the images that became the computing and solar technology stamps in the series. 

“I was aware that Hugh Herr and his research team were incorporating robotic elements into the prosthetic legs they were developing and testing,” Ryan notes. “This vision of robotics was, in my mind, a true depiction of how robots and robotics would manifest and impact society in the future.” 

With encouragement from Herr, Ryan submitted high-definition, stylized, and close-up images of Matt Carney working on the group’s latest designs. 

Carney, who recently completed his PhD in media arts and sciences at the Media Lab, views bionic limbs as the ultimate humanoid robot, and an ideal innovation to represent and portray robotics in 2020. He was all-in for sharing that work with the world.

“Robotic prostheses integrate biomechanics, mechanical, electrical, and software engineering, and no piece is off-the-shelf,” Carney says. “To attempt to fit within the confines of the human form, and to match the bandwidth and power density of the human body, we must push the bounds of every discipline: computation, strength of materials, magnetic energy densities, sensors, biological interfaces, and so much more.”

In his childhood, Carney himself collected stamps from different corners of the globe, and so the selection of his research for a U.S. postal stamp has been especially meaningful. 

“It’s a freakin’ honor to have my PhD work featured as a USPS stamp,” Carney says, breaking into a big smile. “I hope this feat is an inspiration to young students everywhere to crush their homework, and to build the skills to make a positive impact on the world. And while I worked insane hours to build this thing — and really tried to inspire with its design as much as its engineering — it’s truly the culmination of powered prosthesis work pioneered by Dr. Hugh Herr and our entire team at the Media Lab’s Biomechatronics group, and it expands on work from a global community over more than a decade of development.”

The new MIT stamp joins a venerable list of other stamps associated with the Institute. Formerly issued stamps have featured Apollo 11 astronaut and moonwalker Buzz Aldrin ScD ’63, Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman ’39, and architect Robert Robinson Taylor, who graduated from MIT in 1892 and is considered the nation’s first academically trained African American architect, followed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect I.M. Pei ’40, whose work includes the Louvre Glass Pyramid and the East Building on the National Gallery in Washington, as well as numerous buildings on the MIT campus. 

The new robotics stamp, however, is the first to feature MIT research, as well as members of the MIT community.

“I’m deeply honored that a USPS Forever stamp has been created to celebrate technologically-advanced robotic prostheses, and along with that, the determination to alleviate human impairment,” Herr says. “Through the marriage of human physiology and robotics, persons with leg amputation can now walk with powered prostheses that closely emulate the biological leg. By integrating synthetic sensors, artificial computation, and muscle-like actuation, these technologies are already improving people’s lives in profound ways, and may one day soon bring about the end of disability.”

The Innovation Stamp series will be available for purchase through the U.S. Postal Service later this month.

3 Questions: Jonathan King on the future of nuclear weapons testing

In an open letter published on July 16 in Science, four MIT professors and nearly 70 additional scientific leaders called upon fellow researchers to urge U.S. government officials to halt plans to restart nuclear weapons testing. Corresponding author and professor of biology Jonathan King sat down to discuss the history of nuclear testing, his personal ties to the issue, and his responsibilities as a scientist. He also co-chairs the Nuclear Disarmament Working Group of Massachusetts Peace Action, MIT’s annual Reducing the Threat of Nuclear War conference, and the editorial board of the MIT Faculty Newsletter.

Q: What events have made you passionate about the issue of nuclear weapons testing?

A: I grew up in the shadow of nuclear war, participating in drills at school where you would duck under your desk. During the Cold War, the world’s nations exploded hundreds of dangerous nuclear tests, releasing radioactivity into the atmosphere in order to develop these weapons. I was a college student during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and remember vividly the fear of a nuclear exchange.

Around that time, it became clear to our nation’s leaders that this was not the way to go. In his famous speech at American University, President Kennedy reversed direction. Professor of chemistry at Caltech Linus Pauling led an effort with his wife to back Kennedy and collect 9,000 signatures from scientists endorsing the president’s Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This was before the internet, so getting 9,000 signatures was not easy, and it had a national impact. I was actually a graduate student at Caltech, following up on Pauling’s work on proteins, when the treaty was ratified and he was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his work.

When I arrived at MIT as an assistant professor, Jerome Wiesner was the Institute president. He was also a key player in pushing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and Kennedy had previously named him chair of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). MIT was full of world leaders in nuclear disarmament, including physicists who had worked on the bomb and decided it was a mistake. I’m not a physicist, but I was among the generation at MIT that was very vocal about these issues.

Q: What is the current state of nuclear weapon testing and regulation in the United States, and what concerns do you have about renewed testing?

A: The U.S. hasn’t tested a nuclear weapon since 1992. In that period of time, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was developed by many nations, agreeing not to conduct a nuclear weapons test of any yield. The Senate hasn’t ratified it, but in 2016 the U.S. did adopt UN Security Council Resolution 2310, agreeing to uphold the goal of the CTBT and withhold nuclear testing.

However, the current administration is proposing to modernize nuclear weapons and restart testing, which is both provocative and dangerous. Even if these tests are small, contained, and underground, they will still open the door for other nations to restart testing of their own, and possibly lead to a new nuclear weapons arms race.

When a nuclear weapon — either a conventional bomb or hydrogen bomb — explodes, many radioactive isotopes are produced. Some of them are short-lived and decay quickly, but others like strontium-90 are much longer-lived. These ones can make you sick very slowly, and some can mutate or damage DNA. Even underground tests can leak radioactivity into the atmosphere and environment.

Q: What spurred you and your colleagues to write an open letter to Science, and what was your goal in doing so?

A: Our letter was signed by 70 scientific leaders and Nobel Prize winners, and calls upon the scientific community to warn the nation that this is a dangerous way to go. We also urged the Senate to ratify the CTBT, and pass a new bill introduced by Senator Ed Markey called the Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act which would prevent spending money on the renewal of testing.

I come from a culture that views scientists as public servants. All my research has been funded by taxpayer dollars, and with that comes a responsibility to help address threats to the community. The very history of my department, the MIT Department of Biology, is tied to scientists taking a stand against social and political issues. I was just a young assistant professor when faculty members like David Baltimore and Ethan Signer led demonstrations to oppose the Vietnam War. It was a very open environment and we supported one another.

These days, science is simply a career. You do your work and you keep your eyes to the bench. But the world can be a better place if we take our eyes off the bench occasionally. So this letter is a reminder to our colleagues: Get involved, and consider it our contribution to the general public who support our research.

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