Monthly Archives: April 2017

The world who wants to learn something

Raul Boquin, now an MIT senior, remembers the assignment from his freshman year as if it were yesterday. During a leadership workshop, he was asked to write a headline for a newspaper in his imagined future. The words that came to mind resonated so strongly that they now hang on the walls of his dorm room: “Equal opportunities in education for all.”

“I realized that I didn’t come to MIT because it was the best engineering school, but because it was the best place to discover what I was truly passionate about,” he says. “MIT pushed me to my limits and made me able to say ‘I don’t have to be the number one math person, or the number one computer science person, to make a difference’ with the passion I ended up having, which is education.”

Boquin, who is majoring in mathematics with computer science, predicts his life’s work will be to “find a way to adapt education to every person of the world who wants to learn something.”

More to education than teaching

Boquin’s first forays into education followed a relatively traditional path. As part of the undergraduate coursework he needed for his education concentration, he spent time observing teachers in local middle and high schools.

“But at the end of sophomore year, I realized that there was a lot more to education than just teaching.

The summer before his junior year, Boquin worked as a counselor and teaching assistant at Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM). “It originally started as just a math camp for students in the summer, teaching them things like topology and number theory,” Boquin says. “These were seventh grade Hispanic and black children, and they loved it. And they were amazing at it.”

On a campus in upstate New York, Boquin taught classes by day and talked to students about his own work in mathematics by night. He also designed parts of the BEAM curriculum and came up with fun ways of teaching the lessons. “It was inspiring because it was like I wasn’t only a teacher, but I was a mentor and a friend,” he says.

Diagnose health issues like cognitive decline and cardiac disease

We’ve long known that blood pressure, breathing, body temperature and pulse provide an important window into the complexities of human health. But a growing body of research suggests that another vital sign – how fast you walk – could be a better predictor of health issues like cognitive decline, falls, and even certain cardiac or pulmonary diseases.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to accurately monitor walking speed in a way that’s both continuous and unobtrusive. Professor Dina Katabi’s group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has been working on the problem, and believes that the answer is to go wireless.

In a new paper, the team presents “WiGait,” a device that can measure the walking speed of multiple people with 95 to 99 percent accuracy using wireless signals.

The size of a small painting, the device can be placed on the wall of a person’s house and its signals emit roughly one-hundredth the amount of radiation of a standard cellphone. It builds on Katabi’s previous work on WiTrack, which analyzes wireless signals reflected off people’s bodies to measure a range of behaviors from breathing and falling to specific emotions.

“By using in-home sensors, we can see trends in how walking speed changes over longer periods of time,” says lead author and PhD student Chen-Yu Hsu. “This can provide insight into whether someone should adjust their health regimen, whether that’s doing physical therapy or altering their medications.”

WiGait is also 85 to 99 percent accurate at measuring a person’s stride length, which could allow researchers to better understand conditions like Parkinson’s disease that are characterized by reduced step size.

Hsu and Katabi developed WiGait with CSAIL PhD student Zachary Kabelac and master’s student Rumen Hristov, alongside undergraduate Yuchen Liu from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Assistant Professor Christine Liu from the Boston University School of Medicine. The team will present their paper in May at ACM’s CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Colorado.

How it works

Today, walking speed is measured by physical therapists or clinicians using a stopwatch. Wearables like FitBit can only roughly estimate speed based on step count, and GPS-enabled smartphones are similarly inaccurate and can’t work indoors. Cameras are intrusive and can only monitor one room. VICON motion tracking is the only method that’s comparably accurate to WiGate, but it is not widely available enough to be practical for monitoring day-to-day health changes.

Meanwhile, WiGait measures walking speed with a high level of granularity, without requiring that the person wear or carry a sensor. It does so by analyzing the surrounding wireless signals and their reflections off a person’s body. The CSAIL team’s algorithms can also distinguish walking from other movements, such as cleaning the kitchen or brushing one’s teeth.

Communication support in disaster zones

In the event of a natural disaster that disrupts phone and Internet systems over a wide area, autonomous aircraft could potentially hover over affected regions, carrying communications payloads that provide temporary telecommunications coverage to those in need.

However, such unpiloted aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are often expensive to operate, and can only remain in the air for a day or two, as is the case with most autonomous surveillance aircraft operated by the U.S. Air Force. Providing adequate and persistent coverage would require a relay of multiple aircraft, landing and refueling around the clock, with operational costs of thousands of dollars per hour, per vehicle.

Now a team of MIT engineers has come up with a much less expensive UAV design that can hover for longer durations to provide wide-ranging communications support. The researchers designed, built, and tested a UAV resembling a thin glider with a 24-foot wingspan. The vehicle can carry 10 to 20 pounds of communications equipment while flying at an altitude of 15,000 feet. Weighing in at just under 150 pounds, the vehicle is powered by a 5-horsepower gasoline engine and can keep itself aloft for more than five days — longer than any gasoline-powered autonomous aircraft has remained in flight, the researchers say.

The team is presenting its results this week at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Conference in Denver, Colorado. The team was led by R. John Hansman, the T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics; and Warren Hoburg, the Boeing Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Hansman and Hoburg are co-instructors for MIT’s Beaver Works project, a student research collaboration between MIT and the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

A solar no-go

Hansman and Hoburg worked with MIT students to design a long-duration UAV as part of a Beaver Works capstone project — typically a two- or three-semester course that allows MIT students to design a vehicle that meets certain mission specifications, and to build and test their design.

In the spring of 2016, the U.S. Air Force approached the Beaver Works collaboration with an idea for designing a long-duration UAV powered by solar energy. The thought at the time was that an aircraft, fueled by the sun, could potentially remain in flight indefinitely. Others, including Google, have experimented with this concept,  designing solar-powered, high-altitude aircraft to deliver continuous internet access to rural and remote parts of Africa.

But when the team looked into the idea and analyzed the problem from multiple engineering angles, they found that solar power — at least for long-duration emergency response — was not the way to go.

Artificial intelligence and the future of technology

When Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt started programming in 1969 at the age of 14, there was no explicit title for what he was doing. “I was just a nerd,” he says.

But now computer science has fundamentally transformed fields like transportation, health care and education, and also provoked many new questions. What will artificial intelligence (AI) be like in 10 years? How will it impact tomorrow’s jobs? What’s next for autonomous cars?

These topics were all on the table on May 3, when the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) hosted Schmidt for a conversation with CSAIL Director Daniela Rus at the Kirsch Auditorium in the Stata Center.

Schmidt discussed his early days as a computer science PhD at the University of California at Berkeley, where he looked up to MIT researchers like Michael Dertouzos. At Bell Labs he coded UNIX’s lexical-analysis program Lex before moving on to executive roles at Sun Microsystems, Novell, and finally Google, where he served as CEO from 2001 to 2011. In his current role as executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Schmidt focuses on Alphabet’s external matters, advising Google CEO Sundar Pichai and other senior leadership on business and policy.

Speaking with Rus on the topic of health care, Schmidt said that doing a better job of leveraging data will enable doctors to improve how they make decisions.

“Hospitals have enormous amounts of data, which is inaccessible to anyone except for themselves,” he said. “These [machine learning] techniques allow you to take all of that information, sum it all together, and actually produce outcomes.”

Schmidt also cited Google’s ongoing work in self-driving vehicles, including last week’s launch of 500 cars in Arizona, and addressed the issue of how technology will impact jobs in different fields.

“The economic folks would say that you can see the job that’s lost, but you very seldom can see the job that’s created,” said Schmidt. “While there will be a tremendous dislocation of jobs — and I’m not denying that — I think that, in aggregate, there will be more jobs.”

Rus also asked Schmidt about his opposition to the Trump administration’s efforts to limit the number of H1B visas that U.S. tech companies can offer to high-skilled foreign workers.

“At Google we want the best people in the world, regardless of sex, race, country, or what-have-you,” said Schmidt. “Stupid government policies that restrict us from giving us a fair chance of getting those people are antithetical to our mission [and] the things we serve.”

Schmidt ended the conversation by imploring students to take the skills they’ve learned and use them to work on the world’s toughest problems.