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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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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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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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Smart phones are outwitting poverty

Alexander Graham Bell would be astonished at the power of today’s smart phones. Yes, the app that makes it possible to find a Starbucks along an unfamiliar highway can feel like a miracle, but the true revolutionary power of the telephone is felt most in developing countries. In Kenya, for example, the mobile phone has, to some extent, stabilized the economy for many citizens and transformed quality of life.

Nearly all Kenyan households own at least one mobile phone—not state-of-the-art smart phones, but phones “smart” enough to accommodate at least one M-Pesa account. Available to any customer of Safaricom, Kenya’s mobile network leader, M-Pesa is a money transfer service that allows a daughter at one corner of the country to send money safely and securely to her mother in a village seven hours away. Previously, she would have entrusted an envelope of cash to a bus driver heading to her mother’s village (at considerable risk) or relied on a money transfer that took days—and a daunting amount of red tape—to process.

Of course, to withdraw funds through an M-Pesa account you must have access to an agent who can disperse the cash. Happily, in response to the popularity of M-Pesa, the network across Kenya has mushroomed to 150,000 agents. Working with Innovations for Poverty Action, Associate Professor of Applied Economics Tavneet Suri, a native Kenyan, and her colleague William Jack have been tracking incomes in regions where new agents have opened for business. They compared the financial health of those regions with that of regions where agents are not as accessible.

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The future of manufacturing is here, and it’s in 3D

Alan Mulally, SF ’82, the legendary turnaround-artist who resuscitated Ford Motor Company, has always stayed focused on what’s next. An early proponent of 3D printing, he said in an earlier SF Leadership Blog post, “Metal is in the near future. With the level of accuracy that is possible through this process, we are seeing a sudden and dramatic improvement in the quality and manufacturability of parts. It’s both economical and efficient because spare parts don’t have to be warehoused. Almost any part can be produced on demand—and its file can live in the cloud. Three-dimensional printing will revolutionize the manufacturing world.”

The company that arguably is creating the noisiest buzz in the 3D space is Burlington, Massachusetts-based Desktop Metal—one of BostInno’s “17 Boston tech companies to watch in 2017.”  CEO Ric Fulop, SF ’06, launched the startup in October of 2015 to bring metal 3D printing to design and manufacturing companies across the globe. Fulop and his team have raised $97 million in equity funding, including a $45 million round of funding led by Google, BMW, and Lowe’s. Previous investors include NEA, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Lux Capital, GE Ventures, Saudi Aramco, and 3D printing leader Stratasys. Desktop Metal is preparing for a product launch in late 2017.

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A robot can drive you to work, but can it advise you on your finances?

The founding father of artificial intelligence Marvin Minsky once said that his ultimate goal was not so much to build a computer he could be proud of as to build one that would be proud of him. MIT Sloan Professor Andrew Lo mentioned this anecdote in a recent piece about financial advisers in The Wall Street Journal. In essence, he poses the question: Can a robot do the job?

Andrew LoLo says that while tech-savvy millennials would be just as happy interacting with an app as with a human adviser, robo advisers can’t take into account the emotion of investors. “When the stock market roils, investors freak out,” Lo explains. “They need comfort and encouragement.” During the recent stock-market rout, he notes that Vanguard Group was so besieged with calls from jittery investors it had to pull staff from across the company to handle the call volume. “Investing is an emotional process,” Lo says, and “robo advisers don’t do emotion.” At least not right now.

Integrating human feeling into the digital advising process is probably the greatest challenge of financial technology. Lo likens the present state of digital financial advising to a rotary phone in an iPhone world. He points out that investing is much more complex and nuanced than tasks like driving, “which is why driverless cars are already more successful than even the best robo advisers.”

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What bumps in the road lie ahead for autonomous vehicles?

Rubber bumpers, airbags, shatterproof windshields—such were the hallmarks of vehicular safety before the advent of the driverless vehicle. For the passenger in a driverless car, however, it’s the software, first and foremost, that must be crash-proof. In a recent editorial in Xconomy, Lou Shipley, a lecturer at the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan, cautions that in the production of autonomous vehicles, the management of software supply chains must be as reliable as the rigorously tested supply chains for mechanical parts.

Lou Shipley“Beyond being efficient, software providers for driverless cars will surely face requirements to certify that the code they deliver is free of security vulnerabilities that, if exploited, could enable a hacker to seize control of the vehicle,” Shipley says. “A faulty spark plug is one thing. Suddenly having your steering, acceleration, and braking hijacked is quite another.” He points out that many software fixes will take place remotely, the way that an Apple technician in Cupertino can now patch an iPhone in Sri Lanka—via cyberspace.

Bottom line, Shipley says, the success of autonomous vehicles will depend on whether drivers feel comfortable giving up the wheel. “Motorists’ willingness to hand over that control to software will depend largely on carmakers’ ability to gain their trust.” He notes that consumers have already shown some comfort with automated transportation. “Airline passengers today don’t seem to worry about automatic pilots guiding airplanes through the sky and even landing them when visibility is poor.”

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Annual EmTech Conference—a window on the digital frontier

Every fall, technology, business, and culture converge at MIT for the EmTech Conference, organized by MIT Technology Review. The 16th annual EmTech, which takes place October 18-20, 2016, at the MIT Media Lab, will offer participants a look at what’s just over the horizon in the digital world. Those present will also get the opportunity to meet and network with the entrepreneurs who are poised to bring those innovations to the world stage, including MIT Technology Review’s35 Innovators Under 35”—the guiding lights of the digital frontier.

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The MIT Media Lab, venue for the 2016 EmTech Conference

 

EmTech 2016 will examine the year’s most significant news on emerging technologies in sessions such as:

The Robots Among Us

Breakthroughs in robotics are giving machines the skills they need to work side by side with humans. Find out how humans and machines can learn from one another.

The Future of Energy

Climate change, driven in part by the demand for energy, is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Find out how emerging technologies can help create and store sustainable power.

AI’s Next Leap Forward

Artificial intelligence has had an impact on every industry. Find out how collaboration— with one another and with intelligent systems—can advance work, life, and commerce.

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MIT’s Hong Kong “Innovation Node” gives students and faculty an Asian perspective on entrepreneurship

HongKongIs Hong Kong the next new enterprise frontier? In June, MIT unveiled its Hong Kong Innovation Node, a collaborative space designed to connect the Institute community with partners and resources in what has become a key global business hub and a gateway to Asia. The “node,” which will be run by the MIT Innovation Initiative, convenes MIT students, faculty, and researchers to work on entrepreneurial and research projects with Hong Kong-based students, faculty, MIT alumni, entrepreneurs, and business leaders.

The goal of the new environment is to help students learn how to move ideas more rapidly from lab to market. It also will increase opportunities for MIT students to conduct research in collaboration with Hong Kong universities. An innovative makerspace and startup programs for student entrepreneurs will add to the dynamism of the environment.

“By bringing MIT to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to MIT,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif, “the Innovation Node will deepen MIT’s activities in Hong Kong and, through Hong Kong, in the entire Pearl River Delta region. In creating this node in Hong Kong, MIT is committing to advancing our engagement with the region in a mutually beneficial way.”

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