Inside “The Laughing Room”

“The Laughing Room,” an interactive art installation by author, illustrator, and MIT graduate student Jonathan “Jonny” Sun, looks like a typical living room: couches, armchairs, coffee table, soft lighting. This cozy scene, however, sits in a glass-enclosed space, flanked by bright lights and a microphone, with a bank of laptops and a video camera positioned across the room. People wander in, take a seat, begin chatting. After a pause in the conversation, a riot of canned laughter rings out, prompting genuine giggles from the group.

Presented at the Cambridge Public Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Nov. 16-18, “The Laughing Room” was an artificially intelligent room programmed to play an audio laugh track whenever participants said something that its algorithm deemed funny. Sun, who is currently on leave from his PhD program within the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, is an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and creative researcher at the metaLAB at Harvard, created the project to explore the increasingly social and cultural roles of technology in public and private spaces, users’ agency within and dependence on such technology, and the issues of privacy raised by these systems. The installations were presented as part of ARTificial Intelligence, an ongoing program led by MIT associate professor of literature Stephanie Frampton that fosters public dialogue about the emerging ethical and social implications of artificial intelligence (AI) through art and design.

Setting the scene

“Cambridge is the birthplace of artificial intelligence, and this installation gives us an opportunity to think about the new roles that AI is playing in our lives every day,” said Frampton. “It was important to us to set the installations in the Cambridge Public Library and MIT Libraries, where they could spark an open conversation at the intersections of art and science.”

“I wanted the installation to resemble a sitcom set from the 1980s–a private, familial space,” said Sun. “I wanted to explore how AI is changing our conception of private space, with things like the Amazon Echo or Google Home, where you’re aware of this third party listening.”

“The Control Room,” a companion installation located in Hayden Library at MIT, displayed a live stream of the action in “The Laughing Room,while another monitor showed the algorithm evaluating people’s speech in real time. Live streams were also shared online via YouTube and Periscope. “It’s an extension of the sitcom metaphor, the idea that people are watching,” said Sun. The artist was interested to see how people would act, knowing they had an audience. Would they perform for the algorithm? Sun likened it to Twitter users trying to craft the perfect tweet so it will go viral.

Programming funny

“Almost all machine learning starts from a dataset,” said Hannah Davis, an artist, musician, and programmer who collaborated with Sun to create the installation’s algorithm. She described the process at an “Artists Talk Back” event held Saturday, Nov. 17, at Hayden Library. The panel discussion included Davis; Sun; Frampton; collaborator Christopher Sun, research assistant Nikhil Dharmaraj, Reinhard Engels, manager of technology and innovation at Cambridge Public Library, Mark Szarko, librarian at MIT Libraries, and Sarah Newman, creative researcher at the metaLAB. The panel was moderated by metaLAB founder and director Jeffrey Schnapp.

Davis explained how, to train the algorithm, she scraped stand-up comedy routines from YouTube, selecting performances by women and people of color to avoid programming misogyny and racism into how the AI identified humor. “It determines what is the setup to the joke and what shouldn’t be laughed at, and what is the punchline and what should be laughed at,” said Davis. Depending on how likely something is to be a punchline, the laugh track plays at different intensities.

Fake laughs, real connections

Sun acknowledged that the reactions from “The Laughing Room” participants have been mixed: “Half of the people came out saying ‘that was really fun,’” he said. “The other half said ‘that was really creepy.’”

That was the impression shared by Colin Murphy, a student at Tufts University who heard about the project from following Sun on Twitter: “This idea that you are the spectacle of an art piece, that was really weird.”

“It didn’t seem like it was following any kind of structure,” added Henry Scott, who was visiting from Georgia. “I felt like it wasn’t laughing at jokes, but that it was laughing at us. The AI seems mean.”

While many found the experience of “The Laughing Room” uncanny, for others it was intimate, joyous, even magical.

“There’s a laughter that comes naturally after the laugh track that was interesting to me, how it can bring out the humanness,” said Newman at the panel discussion. “The work does that more than I expected it to.”

Frampton noted how the installation’s setup also prompted unexpected connections: “It enabled strangers to have conversations with each other that wouldn’t have happened without someone listening.”

Continuing his sitcom metaphor, Sun described these first installations as a “pilot,” and is looking forward to presenting future versions of “The Laughing Room.” He and his collaborators will keep tweaking the algorithm, using different data sources, and building on what they’ve learned through these installations. “The Laughing Room” will be on display in the MIT Wiesner Student Art Gallery in May 2019, and the team is planning further events at MIT, Harvard, and Cambridge Public Library throughout the coming year.

“This has been an extraordinary collaboration and shown us how much interest there is in this kind of programming and how much energy can come from using the libraries in new ways,” said Frampton.

“The Laughing Room” and “The Control Room” were funded by the metaLAB (at) Harvard, the MIT De Florez Fund for Humor, the Council of the Arts at MIT, and the MIT Center For Art, Science and Technology and presented in partnership with the Cambridge Public Library and the MIT Libraries.

Hacking to fight trafficking

The International Labour Organization estimates that human trafficking is the third-largest and fastest-growing illicit market worldwide, generating upward of $150 billion in illegal profits each year.

Technology has played a role in facilitating the rapid growth of the industry, especially in sex trafficking, which accounts for $99 billion of the global black market. Low startup costs, combined with cheap distribution facilitated by the internet and the lure of huge profits, has made sex trafficking a less risky-venture than selling drugs.

Detailed data on human trafficking is hard to come by because it is not consistently tracked. The data that does exist is often rough due to the inherent hidden nature of the crime. Without accurate data and analytics, it is difficult to evaluate ideas and understand the impact of the interventions taken by law enforcement officials and others to prevent people from being trafficked. A process to measure their efforts is needed, and this is where some believe technology can help.

Yet despite a growing mandate to repurpose technology in fighting these crimes, there is still a limited amount of engineering effort being applied in this problem space. In other words, the potential to disrupt the market with technological solutions is enormous, and the possibilities for effecting change in this domain is endless.

In 2017, two classmates at the MIT Sloan School of Management launched a nonprofit organization to do just that. Founded by Mirar Bristol and Eric Ross, both graduates of MIT Sloan’s Executive MBA program, The Freedom Lab aims to bring a systems-dynamic approach to interrupting the sex trafficking industry within regional markets through innovation. The laboratory’s three-pronged method includes driving research and development, creating and implementing systems-based interventions, and coordinating funds across counter-trafficking entities.

“It really all started with the ‘Leading with Impact’ class at Sloan,” says Bristol. “This is a class where the executive MBAs are tasked to support local nonprofits with business challenges in the final semester.”

Bristol explains that it was during this class that she began engaging with Ross on the topic at hand when he and his team were working with a clinic that treats victims of sex trafficking.

“It was not even my project. I was helping out due to my health care connections,” she says. “Although we both had previous interest in the challenge, we individually came at the challenge from completely different backgrounds.”

“We both became obsessed with analyzing the systemic problems that were driving such a horrific industry. We were talking about it all the time,” Bristol explains. “In classic MIT fashion, we wanted more data in order to understand the problem. As we looked for more data, we were struck with how little was really out there. It was at this point, as we looked at the gaps in the current data and how to fill them, that we started to sketch out the ideas that became The Freedom Lab.”

Bristol likens the role of The Freedom Lab to a fusion cell. By synchronizing counter-trafficking activities in different sectors and acting as a node in this network, her aim is to drive innovation, support information sharing and initiate collaboration. One of the ways in which the organization pursues this goal is by hosting hackathons, a platform Bristol believes can offer teams of impassioned individuals to come together and solve big problems.

In October, The Freedom Lab co-organized Hacking for Freedom: A Hackathon to Stop Sex Trafficking with the MIT Innovation Initiative. The hackathon invited students to join the fight and develop technological solutions to enable continuous tracking, measuring, and mapping of human trafficking activities.

Over the course of the two-day hack, many of the solutions proposed were designed to help law enforcers — who are often working with limited time and resources — organize evidence, optimize workflow, prioritize emails obtained from subpoenas and digest complex data.

Case Builder, a team composed of students from MIT, Boston University, Olin College of Engineering, and the University of Massachusetts at Boston, was awarded the top prize of $2,000 for their idea to automate the process of searching and extracting evidence to reduce the burden on law enforcement when building a case to prosecute perpetrators.

Throughout the weekend, counter-trafficking experts from across a number of nonprofits, law enforcement, and industry groups ran workshops, gave presentations, and served as mentors to the teams.

Giving the opening remarks, Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Applied Economics Roberto Rigobon, who studies properties of international pricing practices to produce alternative measures of inflation, spoke to the participants about the significance of rewarding ideas that produce social value. He congratulated everyone for taking this step and thanked them for their time and effort to advance such an important cause.

“What you are doing today is trying to provide tools to understand something we are completely blind about. Hopefully this is the start of a long career and long passion for you not only in hacking, but in something as important as human trafficking,” Rigobon said. “We can make an incredible amount of difference just by taking tiny steps.”

What game theory tells us about politics and society

Alexander Wolitzky leans back in his office chair, pauses, and starts to describe “Cycles of Conflict: An Economic Model,” a journal article he co-authored.

“There’s a simple idea in that paper,” Wolitzky offers, describing its thesis: While conditions of mistrust can lead to political violence, they may also change as antagonists better understand their opponents, leading to an eventual reduction of hostilities.

Wolitzky’s work is a blend of streamlined concepts like this and complex social phenomena. A professor in MIT’s Department of Economics, he deploys game theory — the formal study of strategic decision-making — to illuminate observed behavior across a range of political and social institutions. Almost no topic is off limits: Wolitzky builds models concerning war and international affairs, labor relations, networks, technology adoption, and more.

“We have the view that economic institutions, the way governments are set up, norms, laws, are all very important for economic development, for growth,” Wolitzky says. “But they can be vague concepts: What do these things mean?” His work digs into the mechanisms underlying those concepts.

Take “Cycles of Conflict,” which appeared in the American Economic Review in 2014, co-authored with colleague Daron Acemoglu. As the paper notes, analysts have observed that misperception and distrust have led to violence and warfare in many geopolitical situations — Uganda, Kenya, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and more. Indeed, as Acemoglu and Wolitzky point out, it was also the explanation Thucydides offered for the origins of the Peloponnesian War.

In any case, fears of inevitable conflict can lead to pre-emptive warfare. But how do such situations de-escalate? In an original contribution, the MIT authors model how a spiral of aggression unwinds — because one side or both will learn that the aggression was unnecessary, a dynamic observers have used to describe events in Colombia, among other once-troubled places.

These types of coherent models can play an important role in the intellectual ecosystem by organizing and illuminating messy sets of  empirical data. And Wolitzky is determined to model large-scale events, not just micro-level individual decisions.

“I think this department really values people who have some breadth and can talk to people across fields a little bit,” Wolitzky says. For his research and teaching, Wolitzky was recently awarded tenure.

New and relevant

Wolitzky grew up in Madison, New Jersey, and attended Harvard University as an undergraduate, writing a senior thesis about voter behavior.

“From relatively early on I was interested in [the] intersection of game theory and modeling institutions broadly,” Wolitzky says. In MIT he spied a place where he could continue that course of study, so he attended the Institute as a graduate student in economics, working with faculty members Glenn Ellison (his principal advisor), Acemoglu, and Muhamet Yildiz, among others.

Wolitzky zipped through the PhD program in four years. Being a graduate student at MIT only enhanced Wolitzky’s sense that he could try to range broadly across topics.  

“One thing I did pick up strongly from Glenn and Daron,” Wolitzky says, “is this sense that — well, a question students sometimes ask is, ‘Should I specialize in the technical aspects of a work, or on doing something conceptually new, or on applied work?’ But these aren’t either/or propositions. Successful research can do something new and also be relevant. That’s a vibe you have here that I think is true, and has definitely had an effect on me, as something I can aspire to.”

After graduating in 2012, Wolitzky joined the faculty at Stanford University as an assistant professor. He stayed in Palo Alto for two years before returning to MIT in 2014 as the Pentti J. K. Kouri Career Development Chair in economics. Wolitzky was promoted to associate professor in 2016 and granted tenure in the spring of 2018.

Cutting-edge tools: Pad and pen

Wolitzky says the “collegial” atmosphere in the MIT Department of Economics is very important for his work. But some of his key insights are due to quiet reflection.

“The moments when I get the main ideas for my papers are me sitting in my office with a pad of paper and a pen,” says Wolitzky. 

Sometimes, Wolitzky develops models that refer to one sphere of life, such as politics, and later realizes that parts of them apply to something else entirely. The “Cycles of Conflict” model fed into a new paper he has authored alone, “Learning from Others’ Outcomes,” forthcoming from the American Economic Review, which is about technology adoption.

“You write down some model to think about conflict, and you realize it’s related to these models used for other purposes, and you have to think about the connection,” Wolitzky says. In this case, the model describes how people will more readily adopt new technologies if they can tangibly observe productive outcomes stemming from them, but are less ready to adopt technologies that merely make the same amount of productivity cheaper.

They’re both models of dynamic social learning where you don’t fully understand why the other person is doing what they’re doing,” Wolitzky says.

Wolitzky also models and teaches network theory at MIT; a 2013 paper of his, “Cooperation with Network Monitoring,” published in the Review of Economic Studies, originiated in his PhD work. In it, Wolitzky examines the extent to which monitoring people in a network engenders cooperation, as well as the ways in which people central to the network have a contagious effect among others.

Wolitzky also teaches a relatively new course, 14.18 (Mathematical Economic Modeling), that gets undergraduates to learn the craft of modeling and to develop their own projects.

“It’s interesting to see the diversity of things students have ended up working on, as you might imagine,” Wolitzky says. “Different students work on models of strategic communication, or the economics of Bitcoin — it’s been all over the place.”

It sounds familiar. Indeed, encouraging students to pursue their own idiosyncratic projects strikes a chord with Wolitzky — after all, it’s what others have done for him at MIT too.

“The norms here get passed down from generation to generation,” he concludes.

Why  Important  sidewalks for your home?

Sidewalks are the facilities available to the pedestrians for moving on the side of the roads. A typical classification of sidewalks is based on the surface materials used for building them. The materials are selected taking into consideration their effect on the maintenance schedules. It is a common practice to make hard-surface sidewalks and concrete is the mostly used material for that. Asphalt is also used to make shared-use paths. Certain communities use bricks and pavers for their pedestrian facilities. Some communities use them mainly for preserving the traditional material & appearance in historic districts. Another type of classification of sidewalks is done on the basis of usage of sidewalks. A few examples of it include residential sidewalks, commercial sidewalks, main street concrete staining sidewalks Okc etc.


The most commonly used pavement material sidewalks in the US is concrete. It is prepared with a mixture of sand, cement, aggregate, and water. Concrete is highly durable and easily last from 40 to 80 years. The material is poured directly and inside 30 minutes a smooth finish is given to the surface. This is followed by broom finish to provide for traction. As the concrete is in semi-fluid state while pouring, it is suitable to use in multiple grades & cross slopes at curb ramps and corners. When there is a requirement of replacement or repair of concrete sidewalks, skilled finishers are employed.


In United States, asphalt is mainly used for making shared use paths. It is less preferred in comparison with concrete Patio Okc. It has a shorter life span. However, it is a much better option in terms of cost. While installing asphalt sidewalks, the initial cost required is very less as opposed to concrete. The elements of asphalt include petroleum base and aggregate. As soon as asphalt is applied, it should be compacted with a heavy equipment to provide evenness on the surface. Asphalt sidewalks are usually used for long sidewalk stretches as it gives an attractive look. It can also used in tighter settings such as corner & curb ramps. Asphalt makes the use of rollers for leveling very easy. Very often, asphalt is used as a material for temporary wedging and patching for the concrete sidewalks.


Bricks are the traditional material used in sidewalks. They offer high durability and easy replacement & reuse. Bricks are made out of kiln-fired formed clay. Just like bricks, pavers are also segmental materials as they are not bonded or tied together like concrete slabs and each unit is separate. As bricks and pavers allow better finish and attractive appearance to the sidewalks, their cost is also higher. Their maintenance requirements are also higher and unique as compared to other materials. Concrete pavers are used to highlight the sidewalks in plazas or commercial areas. With this approach, the overall maintenance cost is greatly reduced. Bricks have rectangular shape and come in different colors. A shortcoming of pavers and bricks is that they are likely to pop out and cause tripping hazard. Recent introductions in paver material are rubberized pavers. They are used as substitutes for making traditional pavements.

Golf Dress Code For Women’s

The game of golf has attracted a lot of female players in the recent years. Women are often seen trying to master the sport and enjoy every aspect of this gentlemen’s game. However, one thing that they tend to miss out on is the correct dresses that must be worn while playing this game. Unlike the male golfers, the female’s clothes are not the business casual outfits. So, it is important for the women to know what attire is best suited on the golf course. They are required to go for more conservative attire than what they wear in office. Some of the most popular brands of golf lines include Schriffen, GGblue, Lizzy Driver, Sport Haley, Jofit, etc. The standard dress codes offered by these brands that clubs all over accept includes the following:


Female golfers often dress in layers. A good option for them in this regard is wearing a sweater or vest over a polo shirt or turtleneck. Collared shirts with buttons, wind shirt, or a light jacket are a preferred by them for extra covering during colder days. Denim jackets are strictly banned.


As jeans, athletic pants, sweats, or sun dresses are not allowed for women while playing golf, they can go for colored capris of khakis. Black exercise pants are also a good option as it is seen as an acceptable substitution all over. During fall or spring, women on the course wear slacks most commonly. But, it is advisable for them to wear shorter slacks in the warmer days. Another popular dress choice for lady golfers is a combination of ruffle hem skirt & short, called Skort. Usually, the short pants are required to be of knee length or slightly longer.


At most of the golf courses, the women are told to wear blouses. They have the option of wearing the one with or without sleeves and collars. Again, the tops also come in different designs, colors, and styles such as V-neck, long and short sleeved, button down, zip-top, etc. Floral and stripe pattern shirts, women’s long sleeve golf shirts are also used very often. Turtlenecks are also widely used as tops by women


Golf shoes are a must for all the golf players, male or female, on a golf course. Additionally, the shoes must be equipped with non-metal spikes. If the women like to wear shorter pants or skorts, then they must use low or no-show socks. These are quite popular nowadays. While playing with longer golf pants, crew socks with matching colors must be worn. These come in various colors and designs.


Just like men, women are also advised to wear a cap or a visor for protecting their skin and keeping the sun’s ray from falling into their eyes. Caps and hats come in various array of colors, fabrics, and styles that the female gold players can choose from. These days, designers’ caps are very popular among them.

Proper golfing attire is a must for all the women as it ensures their safety and helps to maintain dignity of the sport. There are various outlets that offer golf dresses for women at affordable prices. The dresses are also available on online stores and can be purchased with just a finger click.

Jack Turner Entrepreneurship Award established to support electronics research

The MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), in collaboration with the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, has announced the Jack Turner Entrepreneurship Award. The award will complement grants from the Deshpande Center and provide support to entrepreneurial graduate students and postdocs performing research within RLE.

The Jack Turner Entrepreneurship Award has been established with a generous $1 million gift from Professor Jae Lim of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who is also director of the Advanced Telecommunications Research Program within RLE. The gift honors the extraordinary contributions of Jack Turner, currently the senior associate director of the MIT Technology Licensing Office (TLO). 

Turner’s leadership embodies the entrepreneurial spirit for which the MIT community is so well known. In particular, the fund acknowledges his contribution to the HDTV Technology Licensing Program, which has provided invaluable financial support to the RLE community.

Turner joined the TLO in February of 1993, after working for more than 25 years in engineering and senior management positions at three Boston-area, high tech companies. During his tenure at the TLO, Turner has played a role in the licensing of technology to more than 500 companies, including approximately 150 startups. Many of these were based on inventions from RLE.

Notable technologies managed by Turner have included 3-D printing, optical coherence tomography, optics, lasers, advanced optical fibers, network communications, displays, robotics, batteries, semiconductor materials and fabrication, plasmatrons, cyclotrons, magnetics, photovoltaics, autonomous vehicles, and — for more than 20 years — high-definition television (HDTV). 

The Deshpande Center mission is to move MIT technologies from laboratories to the marketplace. The center provides grant funding, mentoring, and support to MIT faculty and students to help them commercialize their technologies.

The TLO’s mission is to move innovations and discoveries from the lab to the marketplace for the benefit of the public and to amplify MIT’s global impact. The TLO cultivates an inclusive environment of scientific and entrepreneurial excellence, and bridge connections from MIT’s research community to industry and startups, by strategically evaluating, protecting, and licensing technology.

Reflecting on the establishment of this award, Turner remarked: “I truly appreciate Jae’s generosity and recognition of what everyone at the TLO did over a period of 22 years to license more than 20 patents to digital television manufacturers … the collaboration between RLE and the TLO played a pivotal role in the successful development of the techniques used for coding digital television programming, enabled by these inventions. I appreciate that this gift will support future generations of MIT entrepreneurs and foster continued innovation.”

In January 2019 the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation will be announcing a call for proposals which will include applications for the Jack Turner Entrepreneurship Award. Funds will provide MIT graduate stipend and tuition support, or salary support awarded competitively to MIT doctoral students or postdocs working under the mentorship of RLE faculty.  

Student group explores the ethical dimensions of artificial intelligence

For years, the tech industry followed a move-fast-and-break-things approach, and few people seemed to mind as a wave of astonishing new tools for communicating and navigating the world appeared on the market.

Now, amid rising concerns about the spread of fake news, the misuse of personal data, and the potential for machine-learning algorithms to discriminate at scale, people are taking stock of what the industry broke. Into this moment of reckoning come three MIT students, Irene ChenLeilani Gilpin, and Harini Suresh, who are the founders of the new MIT AI Ethics Reading Group.

All three are graduate students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) who had done stints in Silicon Valley, where they saw firsthand how technology developed with good intentions could go horribly wrong.

“AI is so cool,” said Chen during a chat in Lobby 7 on a recent morning. “It’s so powerful. But sometimes it scares me.” 

The founders had debated the promise and perils of AI in class and among friends, but their push to reach a wider audience came in September, at a Google-sponsored fairness in machine learning workshop in Cambridge. There, an MIT professor floated the idea of an ethics forum and put the three women in touch. 

Then when MIT announced plans last month to create the Stephen A. Schwartzman College of Computing, they launched the MIT AI Ethics Reading Group. Amid the enthusiasm following the Schwartzman announcement, more than 60 people turned up to their first meeting. 

One was Sacha Ghebali, a master’s student at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He had taken a required ethics course in his finance program at MIT and was eager to learn more.

“We’re building tools that have a lot of leverage,” he says. “If you don’t build them properly, you can do a lot of harm. You need to be constantly thinking about ethics.”

On a recent night, Ghebali was among those returning for a second night of discussion. They gathered around a stack of pizza boxes in an empty classroom as Gilpin kicked off the meeting by recapping the fatal crash last spring in which a self-driving Uber struck a pedestrian. Who should be liable, Gilpin asked, the engineer who programmed the car or the person behind the wheel?

A lively debate followed. The students then broke into small groups as the conversation shifted to how ethics should be taught: either as a stand-alone course, or integrated throughout the curriculum. They considered two models: Harvard, which embeds philosophy and moral reasoning into its computer science classes, and Santa Clara University, in Silicon Valley, which offers a case study-based module on ethics within its introductory data science courses. 

Reactions in the room were mixed.

“It’s hard to teach ethics in a CS class so maybe there should be separate classes,” one student offered. Others thought ethics should be integrated at each level of technical training. 

“When you learn to code, you learn a design process,” said Natalie Lao, an EECS graduate student helping to develop AI courses for K-12 students. “If you include ethics into your design practice you learn to internalize ethical programming as part of your work flow.”

The students also debated whether stakeholders beyond the end-user should be considered. “I was never taught when I’m building something to talk to all the people it will effect,” Suresh told the group. “That could be really useful.”

How MIT should teach ethics in the College of Computing era remains unclear, says Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering who helped start the group and was at both meetings. “This is really just the beginning,” he says. “Five years ago, we weren’t even talking about people shutting down the steering wheel of your car.”

As AI continues to evolve, questions of safety and fairness will remain a foremost concern. In their research at MIT, the founders of the ethics reading group are simultaneously developing tools to address the dilemmas raised in the group. 

Gilpin is creating the methodologies and tools to help self-driving cars and other autonomous machines explain themselves. For these machines to be truly safe and widely trusted, she says, they need to be able to interpret their actions and learn from their mistakes. 

Suresh is developing algorithms that make it easier for people to use data responsibly. In a summer internship with Google, she looked at how algorithms trained on Google News and other text-based datasets pick up on certain features to learn biased associations. Identifying sources of bias in the data pipeline, she says, is key to avoiding more serious problems in downstream applications. 

Chen, formerly a data scientist and chief of staff at DropBox, develops machine learning tools for health care. In a new paper, Why Is My Classifier Discriminatory, she argues that the fairness of AI predictions should be measured and corrected by collecting more data, not just by tweaking the model. She presents her paper next month at the world’s largest machine-learning conference, Neural Information Processing Systems.

“So many of the problems at Dropbox, and now in my research at MIT, are completely new,” she says. “There isn’t a playbook. Part of the fun and challenge of working on AI is that you’re making it up as you go.”

The AI-ethics group holds its last two meeting of the semester on Nov. 28 and Dec. 12.

MIT hosts China Summit, additional gatherings in Beijing

Earlier this month, MIT President L. Rafael Reif traveled to China with MIT faculty, senior leadership, and the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation — the Institute’s board of trustees — in order to host a marquee one-day summit; a gathering of MIT alumni in China; and smaller, satellite events led by MIT faculty. The gatherings attracted some of China’s most influential and innovative business leaders, investors, entrepreneurs, government leaders, and academics to discuss some of the most exciting topics at the frontiers of science and technology and the role of research and education in shaping tomorrow’s world.

The MIT China Summit, which took place in Beijing on Nov. 13, and which was hosted in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, highlighted the longstanding relationship between MIT and China. Since the enrollment of the first MIT student from China 140 years ago, students, faculty, alumni, staff, and MIT’s many friends in China have built a strong foundation of familiarity and collaboration.

The summit centered on subjects of mutual interest to MIT and China. A mix of speakers from MIT and from institutions in China discussed the frontiers of science in both countries; the current state of artificial intelligence; global challenges that can benefit from the multinational collaboration; the effects of financial innovation on society; and new ideas for educational innovation. Additionally, the audience heard from young Chinese scientists and business leaders noted by MIT Technology Review for their cutting-edge work.

“In a way, it is surprising that this is the first MIT China Summit, because the ties between MIT and China have been longstanding,” said President Reif in opening remarks. “These connections between MIT and China have been in place for so long that we could simply have allowed them to continue to flourish, unattended. But,” he continued, “we saw this summit as a powerful way to respond to an emerging reality.” According to Reif, as a global university focused on solving humanity’s great global challenges, MIT is naturally drawn to work with others around the world, including in China, who share those aspirations.

The idea for the summit stemmed from “A Global Strategy for MIT,” a report published last year in order to identify core principles to guide MIT’s future international engagement, said Richard Lester, associate provost for international activities. One of the report’s recommendations was for the Institute to convene periodic summits in different regions of the world to demonstrate MIT’s interest in working in and learning from partners in these regions. The goal of these summits is to present MIT as a leader, innovator, and convener on major global challenges involving science and technology, including economic and social aspects, to increase regional knowledge of how MIT works and what it stands for, and to provide a focus for exploring new strategic opportunities for MIT in the region. This was the first such summit. 

China is advancing rapidly in critical fields of science and technology. In areas such as quantum computing, 5G technology, and facial and spoken-language recognition, China is playing a leading role. The Chinese are also making bold national investments in key areas of research such as biotechnology and space, and directly supporting startups and recruiting talent from around the world. Chinese researchers are increasingly present at the frontiers of science and technology.

“Given our respect for China’s enormous strengths,” Reif said in his remarks, “we come to you eager to imagine how we can best make progress, together, on the serious problems of the world. We see our own strength as rooted in a national culture of openness, opportunity, and entrepreneurship. It is inspired by an atmosphere of intellectual freedom and supported by the rule of law. And, most importantly, we know that we reach new heights of creativity by uniting brilliant talent from every sector of society and every corner of the world.”

Attending MIT faculty included: Gang Chen, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research; Eric Grimson, chancellor for academic advancement; Yasheng Huang, professor of international management; Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab; Dina Katabi, professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Retsef Levi, professor in the Sloan School of Management; Nergis Mavalvala, professor in the Department of Physics; Robert C. Merton, Nobel laureate and distinguished professor of finance; Melissa Nobles, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab; Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; Sanjay Sarma, vice president for open learning; Martin Schmidt, MIT provost; Siqi Zheng, director of the China Future City Lab; and Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research.

In the summit’s closing remarks, Lester said, “A hundred years ago, Chinese students were doing important things on the MIT campus. Today, more MIT faculty and students come from China than from any nation except the U.S. A hundred years from now, we expect MIT’s relationship with China to be even more important. There will be ups and downs along the way. Just as there have been before. And just as there are today. But in the long term, we know that real human progress comes from working together.” 

In conjunction with the summit, the Institute hosted Better World (Beijing), an alumni community event that marked MIT’s largest-ever gathering on record of MIT graduates in Greater China. Held Nov. 12 at the Bulgari Hotel in Beijing’s Chaoyang District, the evening included a reception and program featuring a sit-down conversation with President Reif, who shared his reflections on MIT’s recent milestone moments, including the creation of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing and the opening of the MIT.nano building, and who encouraged the more than 250 alumni and guests to stay engaged with the Institute and with one another. Later, event attendees had the opportunity to connect with several members of the faculty visiting Beijing for the summit and learn firsthand how their work is furthering MIT’s leadership in education, research, and innovation.

“The feeling in the room was electric,” said Alumni Association CEO Whitney Espich. “MIT alumni in China were highly engaged with each other and gave a very warm welcome to those who had traveled to Beijing. It was a memorable night for MIT.”

On the morning of Nov. 12, Reif and the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation met with China’s vice president, Wang Qishan, to discuss relations between China and the United States and the role of scientific collaboration.

Upon returning from China, Reif said, “On behalf of MIT, I wish to thank Vice President Wang for welcoming MIT leadership to China, and for taking the time to meet with us. It was an honor. I am also deeply grateful to Chunli Bai, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who helped us to host a very special summit. MIT departed from Beijing with an improved understanding of China, and with great excitement about the many goals we share in common. To all who helped make us feel so very welcome, I offer the Institute’s profound gratitude.”

The day before the summit featured several activities and events hosted by MIT around Beijing. One, the MIT China New City Forum, was hosted by the MIT China Future City Lab and co-organized by the China Development Planning Institute of Tsinghua University. Scholars, policymakers from China and the U.S., and industry leaders of China’s new city development gathered to discuss urbanization in China and around the globe. The dialogue offered new perspectives on China’s urbanization. The event attracted more than 150 people from academia, government, industry, and media.

The student-led MIT-China Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum hosted a pitch event in Soho 3Q. Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering at MIT and Charles Sodini, the LeBel Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT, discussed the transformative paths that bridge academic discovery and its application in the market. MIT-affiliated startups pitched an audience of venture capitalists and MIT alumni. The teams — ISEE, Vthree.AI, DGene, XtalPi, OppenFuture, Labby and Woobo — provided solutions in artificial intelligence for self-driving cars, energy-saving technology, drug discovery and development, virtual reality, 3-D light fields, nutritional monitoring, and smart education.

MIT Sloan Global Programs (GP) held its inaugural International Faculty Fellows Conference at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management. The conference focused on China’s management education and covered various topics, including the IFFs’ experience at MIT Sloan and its current research in AI, globalization, entrepreneurship, and business and society. The audience included International Faculty Fellows, deans, and staff from GP’s partner schools in the region: Tsinghua, Fudan, Lingnan, and Yunnan. Participants heard from MIT Sloan School of Management Distinguished Professor of Finance and Nobel laureate Robert Merton about financial science and retirement planning. During the deans’ panel, MIT Sloan Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Master’s Programs Jacob Cohen discussed the future of the MBA. The deans spoke about the value of the IFF Program and expressed their goal of ensuring it is part of future partnership agreements. They also agreed to continue to host this conference on a rotating basis.

During MIT Professional Education’s inaugural “Leading Innovation” workshop, Professor Sanjay Sarma argued that technology is an enabler of today’s innovation, but it is not innovation itself. Markets, he said, need to examine the end-user experience and develop technologies to improve it. Teaching alongside Sarma, Senior Lecturer David Nino provided insights on the development of effective teams. This two-hour interactive workshop was attended by more than 50 MIT alumni, corporate members, and academic leaders. Executive Director of MIT Professional Education Bhaskar Pant emphasized the importance of lifelong learning journeys for those in the position to make practical impact in today’s globalized society. 

Explaining the plummeting cost of solar power

The dramatic drop in the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules, which has fallen by 99 percent over the last four decades, is often touted as a major success story for renewable energy technology. But one question has never been fully addressed: What exactly accounts for that stunning drop?

A new analysis by MIT researchers has pinpointed what caused the savings, including the policies and technology changes that mattered most. For example, they found that government policy to help grow markets around the world played a critical role in reducing this technology’s costs. At the device level, the dominant factor was an increase in “conversion efficiency,” or the amount of power generated from a given amount of sunlight.

The insights can help to inform future policies and evaluate whether similar improvements can be achieved in other technologies. The findings are being reported today in the journal Energy Policy, in a paper by MIT Associate Professor Jessika Trancik, postdoc Goksin Kavlak, and research scientist James McNerney.

The team looked at the technology-level (“low-level”) factors that have affected cost by changing the modules and manufacturing process. Solar cell technology has improved greatly; for example, the cells have become much more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. Factors like this, Trancik explains, fall in a category of low-level mechanisms that deal with the physical products themselves.

The team also estimated the cost impacts of “high-level” mechanisms, including learning by doing, research and development, and economies of scale. Examples include the way improved production processes have cut the number of defective cells produced and thus improved yields, and the fact that much larger factories have led to significant economies of scale.

The study, which covered the years 1980 to 2012 (during which module costs fell by 97 percent), found that there were six low-level factors that accounted for more than 10 percent each of the overall drop in costs, and four of those factors accounted for at least 15 percent each. The results point to “the importance of having many different ‘knobs’ to turn, to achieve a steady decline in cost,” Trancik says. The more different opportunities there are to reduce costs, the less likely it is that they will be exhausted quickly.

The relative importance of the factors has changed over time, the study shows. In earlier years, research and development was the dominant cost-reducing high-level mechanism, through improvements to the devices themselves and to manufacturing methods. For about the last decade, however, the largest single high-level factor in the continuing cost decline has been economies of scale, as solar-cell and module manufacturing plants have become ever larger.

“This raises the question of which factors can help continue the cost decline,” Trancik says. “What are the limits to the size of the plants?”

In terms of government policy, Trancik says, policies that stimulated market growth accounted for about 60 percent of the overall cost decline, so “that played an important part in reducing costs.” Policies stimulating market growth globally included measures such as renewable portfolio standards, feed-in tariffs, and a variety of subsidies. Government-funded research and development in various nations accounted for the other 40 percent — although public R&D played a larger part in the earlier years, she says.

This is important information, she adds, because “for a long time there has been a debate about whether these policies work — were they really driving technological improvement? Now, we can not only answer that question, we can say by how much.”

This finding, which is based on modeling device-level mechanisms rather than purely correlational analysis, provides strong evidence of a “virtuous cycle” that can be created between technology innovation and policies to reduce emissions, Trancik says. As emissions policies are implemented, low-carbon technology markets grow, technologies improve, and the costs of future emissions reductions can decline. “This analysis helps us understand why this happens, and how strong the feedbacks can be.”

Trancik and her co-workers plan to apply similar methodology to analyzing other technologies, such as nuclear power, as well as the other parts of solar installations — the so-called balance of systems, including the mounting structures and power controllers needed for the solar modules — which were not included in this study. “The method we developed can be used as a tool to assess costs of different technologies, both retrospectively and prospectively,” Kavlak says.

“This opens up a different way of modeling technological change, from the device level all the way up to policy measures, and everything in between,” Trancik says. “We’re opening up the black box of technological innovation.”

“Going forward, we can improve our intuition about what factors in general make technologies improve quickly. The application of this tool to solar PV is just the beginning of what we can do,” McNerney says.

While the study focused on past performance, the factors it identified suggest that “it does look like there are opportunities for further cost improvements with this technology.” The findings also suggest that researchers should continue working on alternative technologies to crystalline silicon, which is the dominant form of solar photovoltaic technology today, but many other varieties are being actively explored with potentially higher efficiencies or lower materials costs.

The study also highlights the importance of continuing the progress in improving the efficiency of the manufacturing systems, whose role in driving down costs has been important. “There are likely more gains to be had in this direction,” Trancik says.

Gregory Nemet, a professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who was not involved in the study, says, “This work is important in that it identifies that the growth in demand for solar PV in the past 15 years was the most important driver of the astounding cost reductions over that period. Policies in Japan, Germany, Spain, California, and China drove the growth of the market and created opportunities for automation, scale, and learning by doing.”

Nemet adds, “Their model is simple and general, which could make it useful for designing policies for other technologies that will be needed to address climate change and other energy-related problems.”

The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.

I think, therefore I code

To most of us, a 3-D-printed turtle just looks like a turtle; four legs, patterned skin, and a shell. But if you show it to a particular computer in a certain way, that object’s not a turtle — it’s a gun.

Objects or images that can fool artificial intelligence like this are called adversarial examples. Jessy Lin, a senior double-majoring in computer science and electrical engineering and in philosophy, believes that they’re a serious problem, with the potential to trip up AI systems involved in driverless cars, facial recognition, or other applications. She and several other MIT students have formed a research group called LabSix, which creates examples of these AI adversaries in real-world settings — such as the turtle identified as a rifle — to show that they are legitimate concerns.

Lin is also working on a project called Sajal, which is a system that could allow refugees to give their medical records to doctors via a QR code. This “mobile health passport” for refugees was born out of VHacks, a hackathon organized by the Vatican, where Lin worked with a team of people she’d met only a week before. The theme was to build something for social good — a guiding principle for Lin since her days as a hackathon-frequenting high school student.

“It’s kind of a value I’ve always had,” Lin says. “Trying to be thoughtful about, one, the impact that the technology that we put out into the world has, and, two, how to make the best use of our skills as computer scientists and engineers to do something good.”

Clearer thinking through philosophy

AI is one of Lin’s key interests in computer science, and she’s currently working in the Computational Cognitive Science group of Professor Josh Tenenbaum, which develops computational models of how humans and machines learn. The knowledge she’s gained through her other major, philosophy, relates more closely this work than it might seem, she says.

“There are a lot of ideas in [AI and language-learning] that tie into ideas from philosophy,” she says. “How the mind works, how we reason about things in the world, what concepts are. There are all these really interesting abstract ideas that I feel like … studying philosophy surprisingly has helped me think about better.”

Lin says she didn’t know a lot about philosophy coming into college. She liked the first class she took, during her first year, so she took another one, and another — before she knew it, she was hooked. It started out as a minor; this past spring, she declared it as a major.

“It helped me structure my thoughts about the world in general, and think more clearly about all kinds of things,” she says.

Through an interdisciplinary class on ethics and AI ethics, Lin realized the importance of incorporating perspectives from people who don’t work in computer science. Rather than writing those perspectives off, she wants to be someone inside the tech field who considers issues from a humanities perspective and listens to what people in other disciplines have to say.

Teaching computers to talk

Computers don’t learn languages the way that humans do — at least, not yet. Through her work in the Tenenbaum lab, Lin is trying to change that.

According to one hypothesis, when humans hear words, we figure out what they are by first saying them to ourselves in our heads. Some computer models aim to recreate this process, including recapitulating the individual sounds in a word. These “generative” models do capture some aspects of human language learning, but they have other drawbacks that make them impractical for use with real-world speech.

On the other hand, AI systems known as neural networks, which are trained on huge sets of data, have shown great success with speech recognition. Through several projects, Lin has been working on combining the strengths of both types of models, to better understand, for example, how children learn language even at a very young age.

Ultimately, Lin says, this line of research could contribute to the development of machines that can speak in a more flexible, human way.

Hackathons and other pastimes

Lin first discovered her passion for computer science at Great Neck High School in Long Island, New York, where she loved staying up all night to create computer programs during hackathons. (More recently, Lin has played a key role in HackMIT, one of the Institute’s flagship hackathons. Among other activities, she helped organize the event from 2015 to 2017, and in 2016 was the director of corporate relations and sponsorship.) It was also during high school that she began to attend MIT Splash, a program hosted on campus offering a variety of classes for K-12 students.

“I was one of those people that always had this dream to come to MIT,” she says.

Lin says her parents and her two sisters have played a big role in supporting those dreams. However, her knack for artificial intelligence doesn’t seem to be genetic.

“My mom has her own business, and my dad is a lawyer, so … who knows where computer science came out of that?” she says, laughing.

In recent years, Lin has put her computer science skills to use in a variety of ways. While in high school, she interned at both New York University and Columbia University. During Independent Activities Period in 2018, she worked on security for Fidex, a friend’s cryptocurrency exchange startup. The following summer she interned at Google Research NYC on the natural language understanding team, where she worked on developing memory mechanisms that allow a machine to have a longer-term memory. For instance, a system would remember not only the last few phrases it read in a book, but a character from several chapters back. Lin now serves as a campus ambassador for Sequoia Capital, supporting entrepreneurship on campus.

She currently lives in East Campus, where she enjoys the “very vibrant dorm culture.” Students there organize building projects for each first-year orientation — when Lin arrived, they built a roller coaster. She’s helped with the building in the years since, including a geodesic dome that was taller than she is. Outside of class and building projects, she also enjoys photography.

Ultimately, Lin’s goal is to use her computer science skills to benefit the world. About her future after MIT, she says, “I think it could look something like trying to figure out how we can design AI that is increasingly intelligent but interacts with humans better.”

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