Monthly Archives: March 2017

Hacking discrimination

The 11 pitches presented during the two-day hackathon covered a wide range of issues affecting communities of color, including making routine traffic stops less harmful for motorists and police officers, preventing bias in the hiring process by creating a professional profile using a secure blockchain system, flagging unconscious biases using haptic (touch-based) feedback and augmented reality, and providing advice for those who experience discrimination.

The Innovation prize was awarded to Taste Voyager, a platform that enables individuals or families to host guests and foster cultural understanding over a home-cooked meal. The Impact prize went to Rahi, a smartphone app that makes shopping easier for recipients of the federally funded Women, Infant, and Children food-assistance program. The Storytelling prize was awarded to Just-Us and Health, which uses surveys to track the effects of discrimination in neighborhoods. With a human-centered design process as the guideline, Punjwani encouraged participants to speak with people affected by the problem and carefully define their target audience. For some, including the Taste Voyager team, which began the hackathon as Immigrant Integration, this resulted in an overhaul of the project. Examining their target audience led the team to switch their focus from helping immigrants integrate to creating a way for people of different backgrounds to connect and help each other in a safe space.

The Rahi team, which was led by Hildreth England, assistant director of the Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative, also focused on the user as it attempted to improve the national Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program by acknowledging the racial and ethnic inequalities embedded in the food system. For example, according to Feeding America, one in five African-American and Latino households is food insecure — lacking consistent and adequate access to affordable and nutritious food — compared to one in 10 Caucasian households. During the first day of the event, speeches by Kirk Kolenbrander, vice president at MIT; J. Phillip Thompson, associate professor of urban studies and planning; and Shannon Al-Wakeel, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, reminded participants of the past and current social justice issues needing solutions. The following morning, in a keynote address, Pinkett stressed the strengths and weaknesses that come with cultural differences. “Our greatest strength is our diversity; our greatest liability is in our cultural ignorance,” he said.

A Hacking Discrimination Fund, which was announced at the event, has been created to support undergraduate and graduate students addressing racism and discrimination through events such as the hackathon, development of sustainable community dialogue, contest development, and other activities that specifically address racism in the U.S. The fund’s emphasis will be placed on solutions that aim to overcome challenges to safety or economic and professional success for populations that have historically been victims of racism. Alumnae organizers Egbuonu-Davis and Harris worked closely with a number of collaborators to launch the inaugural event. Contributors included Punjwani; Leo Anthony G. Celi SM ’09, a principal research scientist at the MIT Institute of Medical Engineering and Science; Trishan Panch, an MIT lecturer, primary care physician, and co-founder and Chief Medical Officer at Wellframe; and Marzyeh Ghassemi and Tristan Naumann, both MIT CSAIL PhD candidates.

Online Conversations

Conversation is interactive, communication between two or more people. The development of conversational skills and etiquette is an important part of socialization. The development of conversational skills in a new language is a frequent focus of language teaching and learning. Conversation analysis is a branch of sociology which studies the structure and organization of human interaction, with a more specific focus on conversational interaction.

Online chat may refer to any kind of communication over the Internet that offers a real-time transmission of text messages from sender to receiver. Chat messages are generally short in order to enable other participants to respond quickly. Thereby, a feeling similar to a spoken conversation is created, which distinguishes chatting from other text-based online communication forms such as Internet forums and email. Online chat may address point-to-point communications as well as multicastcommunications from one sender to many receivers and voice and video chat, or may be a feature of a web conferencingservice.

Online chat in a less stringent definition may be primarily any direct text-based or video-based (webcams), one-on-one chat or one-to-many group chat (formally also known as synchronous conferencing), using tools such as instant messengers, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), talkers and possibly MUDs. The expression online chat comes from the word chat which means “informal conversation”. Online chat includes web-based applications that allow communication – often directly addressed, but anonymous between users in a multi-user environment. Web conferencing is a more specific online service, that is often sold as a service, hosted on a web server controlled by the vendor.

No generally accepted definition of conversation exists, beyond the fact that a conversation involves at least two people talking together. Consequently, the term is often defined by what it is not. A ritualized exchange such as a mutual greeting is not a conversation, and an interaction that includes a marked status differential (such as a boss giving orders) is also not a conversation. An interaction with a tightly focused topic or purpose is also generally not considered a conversation. Summarizing these properties, one authority writes that “Conversation is the kind of speech that happens informally, symmetrically, and for the purposes of establishing and maintaining social ties.”

From a less technical perspective, a writer on etiquette in the early 20th century defined conversation as the polite give and take of subjects thought of by people talking with each other for company.

Conversations follow rules of etiquette because conversations are social interactions, and therefore depend on social convention. Specific rules for conversation arise from the cooperative principle. Failure to adhere to these rules causes the conversation to deteriorate or eventually to end. Contributions to a conversation are responses to what has previously been said.

Conversations may be the optimal form of communication, depending on the participants’ intended ends. Conversations may be ideal when, for example, each party desires a relatively equal exchange of information, or when the parties desire to build social ties. On the other hand, if permanency or the ability to review such information is important, written communication may be ideal. Or if time-efficient communication is most important, a speech may be preferable.

Conversation involves a lot more nuanced and implied context that lies beneath just the words.

How to Start a Conversation Online

  1. Stop thinking so much about it. If you’re trying to get to know someone (and, perhaps, to woo them), the goal of these first few online conversations is to help them understand who you are as a person. You want to be yourself, and a script will only get you so far.
  • Striking up a conversation online is hard for almost everyone. You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last.
  • Worst case, it’ll be a learning experience. Best case, you’ll connect with somebody in a deep way. Neither case applies until you try.

2. Pick a convenient time. Try to message the person when they’re online. It may be easier to get a conversation going in real-time than to count on someone to respond later on.

  • Pick a time when you don’t have anywhere to be. You don’t want to be stressed-out, and you want to give the conversation a chance to grow.

3. Start small. Send the person a short message and ask them how they’re doing. A “Hey. How’s it going?” will do. You may find that you feel much looser once you get the conversation going–there’s no turning back now!

  • They will likely respond with how they’re doing, then ask you how you’re doing. Be prepared to say how you’re doing.
  • Avoid dead-end answers like “I’m good.” Anyone can be “good”. Respond with something that tells your conversation partner about who you are, such as “I’m good! My friend and I explored this abandoned house up in the hills today. It was really cool but super spooky” or “My dance team just made it to nationals. I’m so excited!”
  • Mention things that make you seem interesting, but avoid bragging.

4. Ask about a common interest. This is a classic, tried-and-true conversation opener. If you’re in a class together, ask what the homework assignment is. If you’re in a club together, ask about an upcoming club event. This can break the ice in a very natural way, opening the gates to a deeper talk.

  • Try something like this: “Hey- I completely blanked and forgot to write down the homework for English today. Did you happen to get it?”
  • Or this: “Hey, do you know when our next track meet is? I must have tuned out when coach announced it during practice today…”

5. Compliment the person. If a person does something worthy of praise, it’s natural to compliment them. This can be another great way to break the ice and make the person feel appreciated. Don’t overdo it–be sparing with your compliments, or they may come across as flattery.

  • If you’re in a class together: “You did a great job on your presentation today! I never thought I’d learn so much about Ulysses S. Grant!”
  • If you’re on a team together: “Nice work in the 100-yard sprint at the meet today. You really put the team on your back”

6. Ask a question. If you’ve met someone on a dating site like OKCupid or a dating app like Tinder, then you probably don’t have any real-life connections to talk about. Ask the person an open-ended question about themselves. Take your inspiration from their profile.

  • For example: “I see you’re into hip hop. Been to any good shows lately?”
  • Or: “I dig your beard. How long have you been growing that sucker?”

7. Be careful with stock pickup lines. Pickup lines can backfire: they work on some people, but they turn off others. These lines can come across as cheesy or manipulative, especially if they aren’t something that you thought of yourself. Try to come across as genuine, and if that includes a pickup line–then you do you!

New 3D chip

As embedded intelligence is finding its way into ever more areas of our lives, fields ranging from autonomous driving to personalized medicine are generating huge amounts of data. But just as the flood of data is reaching massive proportions, the ability of computer chips to process it into useful information is stalling.

Now, researchers at Stanford University and MIT have built a new chip to overcome this hurdle. The results are published today in the journal Nature, by lead author Max Shulaker, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. Shulaker began the work as a PhD student alongside H.-S. Philip Wong and his advisor Subhasish Mitra, professors of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford. The team also included professors Roger Howe and Krishna Saraswat, also from Stanford. The new prototype chip is a radical change from today’s chips. It uses multiple nanotechnologies, together with a new computer architecture, to reverse both of these trends.

Instead of relying on silicon-based devices, the chip uses carbon nanotubes, which are sheets of 2D graphene formed into nanocylinders, and resistive random-access memory (RRAM) cells, a type of nonvolatile memory that operates by changing the resistance of a solid dielectric material. The researchers integrated over 1 million RRAM cells and 2 million carbon nanotube field-effect transistors, making the most complex nanoelectronic system ever made with emerging nanotechnologies. The RRAM and carbon nanotubes are built vertically over one another, making a new, dense 3D computer architecture with interleaving layers of logic and memory. By inserting ultradense wires between these layers, this 3D architecture promises to address the communication bottleneck.

To demonstrate the potential of the technology, the researchers took advantage of the ability of carbon nanotubes to also act as sensors. On the top layer of the chip they placed over 1 million carbon nanotube-based sensors, which they used to detect and classify ambient gases. Due to the layering of sensing, data storage, and computing, the chip was able to measure each of the sensors in parallel, and then write directly into its memory, generating huge bandwidth, Shulaker says. Three-dimensional integration is the most promising approach to continue the technology scaling path set forth by Moore’s laws, allowing an increasing number of devices to be integrated per unit volume, according to Jan Rabaey, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, who was not involved in the research.

The team is working to improve the underlying nanotechnologies, while exploring the new 3D computer architecture. For Shulaker, the next step is working with Massachusetts-based semiconductor company Analog Devices to develop new versions of the system that take advantage of its ability to carry out sensing and data processing on the same chip. So, for example, the devices could be used to detect signs of disease by sensing particular compounds in a patient’s breath, says Shulaker. This work was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, Semiconductor Research Corporation, STARnet SONIC, and member companies of the Stanford SystemX Alliance.

Optical Quantum Computing

An efficient way to make photons interact could open new prospects for both classical optics and quantum computing, an experimental technology that promises large speedups on some types of calculations. In recent years, physicists have enabled photon-photon interactions using atoms of rare elements cooled to very low temperatures. But in the latest issue of Physical Review Letters, MIT researchers describe a new technique for enabling photon-photon interactions at room temperature, using a silicon crystal with distinctive patterns etched into it. In physics jargon, the crystal introduces “nonlinearities” into the transmission of an optical signal.

Photonic independence

Quantum computers harness a strange physical property called “superposition,” in which a quantum particle can be said to inhabit two contradictory states at the same time. The spin, or magnetic orientation, of an electron, for instance, could be both up and down at the same time; the polarization of a photon could be both vertical and horizontal. If a string of quantum bits — or qubits, the quantum analog of the bits in a classical computer — is in superposition, it can, in some sense, canvass multiple solutions to the same problem simultaneously, which is why quantum computers promise speedups.

Most experimental qubits use ions trapped in oscillating magnetic fields, superconducting circuits, or — like Englund’s own research — defects in the crystal structure of diamonds. With all these technologies, however, superpositions are difficult to maintain. The quantum state of one of the photons can thus be thought of as controlling the quantum state of the other. And quantum information theory has established that simple quantum “gates” of this type are all that is necessary to build a universal quantum computer.

Unsympathetic resonance

The researchers’ device consists of a long, narrow, rectangular silicon crystal with regularly spaced holes etched into it. The holes are widest at the ends of the rectangle, and they narrow toward its center. Connecting the two middle holes is an even narrower channel, and at its center, on opposite sides, are two sharp concentric tips. The pattern of holes temporarily traps light in the device, and the concentric tips concentrate the electric field of the trapped light.

Ordinarily, that shift is mild enough to be negligible. But because the sharp tips in the researchers’ device concentrate the electric fields of entering photons, they also exaggerate the shift. A single photon could still get through the device. But if two photons attempted to enter it, the shift would be so dramatic that they’d be repulsed.

Practical potential

The device can be configured so that the dramatic shift in resonance frequency occurs only if the photons attempting to enter it have particular quantum properties — specific combinations of polarization or phase, for instance. The quantum state of one photon could thus determine the way in which the other photon is handled, the basic requirement for a quantum gate.

Englund emphasizes that the new research will not yield a working quantum computer in the immediate future. Too often, light entering the prototype is still either scattered or absorbed, and the quantum states of the photons can become slightly distorted. But other applications may be more feasible in the near term. For instance, a version of the device could provide a reliable source of single photons, which would greatly abet a range of research in quantum information science and communications.

A scheme for efficient quantum computation with linear optics

Quantum computers promise to increase greatly the efficiency of solving problems such as factoring large integers, combinatorial optimization and quantum physics simulation. One of the greatest challenges now is to implement the basic quantum-computational elements in a physical system and to demonstrate that they can be reliably and scalably controlled. One of the earliest proposals for quantum computation is based on implementing a quantum bit with two optical modes containing one photon. The proposal is appealing because of the ease with which photon interference can be observed. Until now, it suffered from the requirement for non-linear couplings between optical modes containing few photons. Here we show that efficient quantum computation is possible using only beam splitters, phase shifters, single photon sources and photo-detectors. Our methods exploit feedback from photo-detectors and are robust against errors from photon loss and detector inefficiency. The basic elements are accessible to experimental investigation with current technology.