All posts by MIT Sloan Fellows

AI pioneers MIT and IBM partner for a smarter future

Two of the world’s leading artificial intelligence pioneers are joining forces in a formal collaboration to advance AI hardware and software. The new MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, which is staffing up now, will be one of the largest university-industry AI partnerships ever forged.

IBM will make a 10-year, $240 million investment to create the partnership, which will integrate the talent of MIT professors and students and more than 100 MIT and IBM scientists. Together, they will pursue joint research at IBM’s Kendall Square research lab, near the MIT campus. The complex is also the headquarters of the IBM Watson Health Lab and IBM Security headquarters.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif and John Kelly III, Senior VP, Cognitive Solutions and Research at IBM

 

Dario Gil, IBM Research VP of AI and IBM Q, and Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of MIT’s School of Engineering, will co-chair the lab. The team is planning to issue a call for proposals to researchers at the two institutions to submit their ideas for joint research that pushes the boundaries in AI science and technology. One objective of the partnership is to encourage MIT faculty and students to launch companies that will focus on commercializing AI inventions developed in the new lab.

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Will a robot be delivering your next pizza?

Robots have their limits. They’re not good, for example, at thinking outside the box. Humans have it all over robots when it comes to discernment and adapting to changing circumstances, but a team of engineers at MIT is working to improve a robot’s soft skills. One of those soft skills is learning to be a good pedestrian.

Yu Fan Chen, the graduate student at LIDS (MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems) who is heading the research, says that socially aware navigation is critical for robots moving around in environments that require frequent interactions with pedestrians. The challenge is that pedestrians are a highly unpredictable force. Robots are programmed to adapt to certainties, as a rule, and are not traditionally equipped to deal with chaotic conditions.

Chen and his team are developing a robot designed to navigate and blend in with the crowd. The squat, waist-high robot sports a LIDAR array on top for high-resolution environment sensing. LIDAR (light detection and ranging) works on the principle of radar, but uses lasers to measure distances. The robot also uses webcams and a depth sensor to understand—literally—its place in the world.

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Need to turn around an organization? Turn up your listening skills.

A leader who isn’t a good listener isn’t a good leader, says Margot Murphy Moore, SF ’07. President and chief strategy officer of Standard Homeopathic Company, Moore says she kicks off every turnaround situation with a listening tour, sitting down with each of the key players one by one and giving them the airtime they need to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the company and the culture.

The aggregate value of these conversations is a big picture that reveals the operational issues, the cultural and political issues, and the strategic issues that are challenging the organization. “In my experience, when you sit down with stakeholders individually, you find they often have greater insight than you expect into complex challenges and innovative solutions. The issue often is not a lack of awareness about the source of a problem but multiple failures to act on that awareness. The goal is to find out what systems, perceptions, or individuals are preventing action.”

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AI: The quiet revolution

Increasingly artificial intelligence drives every tool and every service we encounter in our daily lives. Leaders who don’t fully appreciate how to harness its value are not tapping the full potential of their organizations. But AI also has its limitations. The phrase Moravec’s Paradox was coined in the 1980s by artificial intelligence pioneers Rodney Brooks and Marvin Minsky of MIT and Hans Moravec of Stanford to capture the irony of AI—it’s as clueless, in some ways, as it is brilliant.

Computers can out-think most adults at playing chess, but ask it to join you at the dinner table, and it will be flummoxed. A toddler, on the other hand, would simply pull out a chair and sit down. High-level reasoning requires only basic computation from robots, but low-level sensory motor skills demand extraordinarily complex computational resources that robots have yet to master. So the moral of the story is know what to expect from AI. Its benefits are remarkable when it comes to mining and manipulating data, but it can’t perform simple tasks that require deft movement, intuition, or empathy.

(Image: SMART’s self-driving golf carts)

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Running rings around Saturn: A turnaround tale

MIT Sloan Professor Emeritus Arnoldo Hax knows what makes an organization work, and he knows how to turn it around when it doesn’t. Hax has been a major player in transforming companies—even the government of Chile. Generations of his students, scores of colleagues, and loyal readers of his seminal books on business strategy consider him a sort of enterprise whisperer.

So when MIT Sloan alumnus Richard “Skip” LeFauve took the helm of Saturn as CEO, he asked Hax, his former professor, to consult on strategy. “Skip looked at the corrosive relationship between the unions and management at GM, the financial losses, and the disgruntled workers and said, ‘We can’t run Saturn that way.’”

General Motors, says Hax, “was a huge organization, the largest in the country, but the company was beginning to go off the rails. The catalyst was the entrance into the market by Japanese carmakers. Toyota and Honda were creating cars that were affordable, dependable, attractive, and fuel-efficient. And those vehicles appealed to an enormous segment of the American market.”

GM’s solution was to develop the Saturn, the first compact car to be introduced into the American market. The Saturn operation was a kind of skunkworks for GM, a sub-brand with its own management and its own management style—a completely out-of-the-box and un-GM style.

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Saving lives with smart fabrics

Fabric innovators convened at MIT recently to bring new significance to the term “smart dresser.” Uniforms made with materials that deliver cool or warm airflow. Augmented-reality headgear that can help field medics quickly identify and diagnose injuries. Lightweight body armor that protects the heart and neck. The three-day hackathon at the MIT Media Lab challenged engineers, designers, researchers, and product developers to create functional fabrics that address the inherent needs of emergency responders in volatile environments such as war zones and natural disaster sites.

The hackathon, hosted by the MIT Innovation Initiative, MD5 (the National Security Technology Accelerator), the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and the AFFOA (Advanced Functional Fabrics of America) gave participants the opportunity to work with leading-edge fabric technologies as well as with tech experts and seasoned entrepreneurs who could help them refine their new-product pitches.Continue reading

More than one way to be multinational

Global expansion is a core goal of many major corporations, but some are beginning to rewrite the multinational rules of the road. With 300 locations around the world, General Electric (GE) is one such pathfinder, recently rethinking which functions should be regionalized and which should remain local.

Global Operations Executive Leader, Oleg Bodiul, SF ’13 took on the vast transformation role as part of a GE leadership team tasked with creating a global shared-services organization that would centralize many of the company’s key functions, including accounting, finance, and commercial operations.

Among the top 100 firms in the world, GE is a digital-industrial player providing software-defined machines and solutions for markets ranging from aviation, power generation, and oil and gas to renewables, healthcare, and financial services. “Historically, functions like accounting and order management were performed in hundreds of locations around the globe. The objective was to centralize, where possible, into a few locations to leverage scale and deliver better outcomes for our customers, employees, and shareholders.”

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Impossible turnaround? Keep that flywheel spinning.

“No smart business strategist would start a business in the small diesel engine marketplace,” says Tana Utley, SF ’07. But that’s exactly the project she was charged with turning around at Caterpillar, Inc. recently. Utley is vice president with responsibility for the large power systems division at Caterpillar, one of the world’s leading engine manufacturers.

What’s so bad about small diesel engines? The list is long. Small diesel engines are being made all over the world and the competition is stiff as companies in emerging markets try to gain a toehold by keeping their prices at rock bottom. “It’s almost impossible for us to sell our equipment at prices that low,” Utley says. “On top of that, there’s an overcapacity of small diesel engines in the global marketplace, bringing the market price even lower.” Getting out of the business was not an option, however. Caterpillar needs those small engines; they power a variety of the company’s machines, generator sets, and some external applications.Continue reading

Machine. Platform. Crowd. The three most influential words in the new economy?

Over the last decade, MIT Sloan researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have become adept navigators of our digital future, and their most recent book, Machine Platform Crowd: Harnessing our Digital Future pretty much guarantees their place at the helm. The best selling authors of The Second Machine Age (2014) have taken the lead in making sense of the technological advances that are confounding the rest of the world.

In their new work, McAfee and Brynjolfsson, codirectors of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, help the average citizen understand what the integration of machines, platforms, and crowds will mean to our collective tomorrow. Robots are front and center in that digital future-scape. The authors talk about restaurants in which customers order, pay for, and receive meals without interacting with human employees. Ordering, they point out, is something that a robot—or a computer interface—can accomplish very adeptly if the programming is smart enough.

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Diagnosing a crisis is the first step to solving it

Thad Allen, SF ’89, is known as something of a superhero when it comes to turning around major disasters. Barack Obama chose Allen, the former Commandant of the Coast Guard, to serve as the National Incident Commander for the coordinated response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As successful as he was in mitigating that disaster, Allen, who is now a senior executive at Booz Allen Hamilton, is perhaps best known for turning around another national crisis—Hurricane Katrina.

Days after the storm barreled into New Orleans in the late summer of 2005, Michael Brown, President George Bush’s FEMA head, was finding the situation increasingly unmanageable. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff tapped Allen, then chief of staff of the U.S. Coast Guard, to turn the disintegrating situation around.

“The hurricane made landfall on the 29th of August. I dispatched on the 5th of September,” Allen remembers. “What I found was a complete breakdown of law and order. Chaos in the Superdome. Press reports were showing the same human remains on street corners day after day. We were dealing with the equivalent of a weapon of mass effect—but the terrorist was nature. New Orleans, in effect, lost continuity of government.”

The first step in any turnaround, Allen says, is to correctly identify the problem. “One of the things that crippled the government’s initial response was that the leaders in charge did not get the problem right. We were dealing with the loss of civil institutions and the lack of local government capacity—not a hurricane. You must understand the challenge before you can even begin to turn a situation around.”

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