Africa. In many ways it has a long way to travel to compete as a peer in the contemporary global marketplace. But from another perspective, the population is highly motivated to find solutions to crippling problems and incentivized to reinvent those systems that are barriers to progress. The MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference is an annual touchstone for just how far Africa has come and where it goes next.
Ismail Ahmed, WorldRemit founder & CEO, one of the keynote speakers at the 2018 MIT Africa Innovate Conference.
“Digitization for Inclusive Growth” is the theme of the 2018 conference, which is organized by the MIT Africa Business Club and takes place at the MIT Media Lab on April 7. Workshops and panels will evaluate the lessons of the last decade of technological advancement and explore how to leverage digitization to ensure that Africa’s progress is as inclusive as possible.
The conference will feature a Solveathon led by the MIT Solve Center. Teams of entrepreneurs will develop and pitch solutions related to coastal communities, healthcare, education, and the future of work. In addition, panels will delve into the most intractable challenges that countries on the African continent still face—challenges that require strategic innovation on a grand scale. Those panels will include investigations into:
Power and energy Nearly two-thirds of the region’s population live without electricity. Improving access to reliable and affordable energy is key to elevating many Africans out of poverty and improving their quality of life. This panel will examine the products and business models that are increasing power access across the continent.
Healthcare Quality of life enhancements are a moot point when individuals do not have access to decent and reliable healthcare. This panel will look at how digitization can help to mitigate unreliable, inaccessible healthcare services and increase the availability of necessary data to improve the quality of care.
Investment in Growth As the entrepreneurial community has grown, private equity and debt investment activities in Africa have increased significantly. This panel will examine the role of investors in catalyzing inclusive growth on the continent in terms of strategy, deal selection, and the investment value chain.
Urbanization and infrastructure Recent studies suggest that by 2020, 70% of the continent will be living in and around a city. This panel investigates digital solutions that can help to ensure that the transition is sustainable, enabling shared urban prosperity.
Financial Inclusion So many Africans have no access to financial services, but the digital revolution is changing that with a wide range of services available via mobile phone. This panel will probe how digitizing services like microfinance and insurance can provide wider access to financial resources.
Education and the Future of Work The reality of work is rapidly changing. Digitization is making possible new avenues for work and learning, including online platforms. This panel will discuss the opportunities and the challenges in maximizing the talent pool across Africa.
They’re called gleaners, and they’re an important force for good. These volunteers who harvest farmers’ expiring produce and deliver it to food banks have a worthy goal, but the outcome is not always what they envision—the hungry having fresh food to eat. In an article in the food trade publication The Griffin Report, MIT Sloan Visiting Assistant Professor Deishin Lee says that operational challenges often are thwarting the altruism of gleaners and the generous farmers who are donating the produce.
Lee and her interdisciplinary team of colleagues from Cornell and Boston College have worked closely with three food banks across the country to study how the produce harvested by gleaners is being processed. They discovered that gleaners indeed have an important role to play in feeding those in need. “It’s been estimated that about 6 percent of planted acres go unharvested in the United States,” she says. “These are edible crops fit for human consumption that will be left in the fields to be plowed under unless someone goes back to harvest or glean them.”
Simultaneously, she notes, it’s been estimated that about 14 percent of U.S. households face food insecurity. Food insecurity? Lee defines it as those who are not getting enough healthy, nutrient-rich food—either for lack of access or lack of money. Gleaning, therefore, addresses hunger, food waste, and nutritional deficiencies.
Unfortunately, the success of gleaning relies on a number of complex and unpredictable factors. The first problem is the vagaries of the weather, meaning that the availability of produce can never be precisely scheduled. Food banks rely on volunteer pickers who often are not available to pick or process the produce at the moment it becomes available. In the end, too much of the food ends up rotting before it gets to the tables of hungry children and adults.
Lee and her team found two intertwined solutions—coordinate volunteers well and limit the number of donations to farms that are practical for volunteers to reach. “Achieving this balance is not trivial because we can’t control the timing or the quantity of crop donations or volunteer labor,” she says. “However, by applying modeling and optimization techniques from industrial engineering and operations research to gleaning, we can account for the randomness in the crop donation arrivals and when volunteers will show up—and select the optimal schedule and staffing level that maximize the amount of food gleaned. We’ve also developed an algorithm for finding the optimal dynamic staffing policy.”
Lee and her team have established proof of concept. “We show that dynamic adjustments to staffing levels based on system congestion can recover approximately 14 percent of the produce volume lost using a static policy. The difference between scheduling too few or too many gleaning trips and just the right number of trips can make the difference of 10-15 percent or greater in total volume gleaned.”
Where is the city going? What is the future of “urban?” How can we increase quality of life, solve transportation and energy issues, and provide affordable housing for millions of forthcoming city dwellers? MIT and China are partnering to find answers with the new Future City Innovation Connector (FCIC), which will be headquartered in a new space called the MIT China Future City Lab.
MIT and Tsinghua University in Beijing have established this revolutionary collaboration to support research and startup teams that will develop leading-edge ideas that address the challenges presented by China’s rapidly growing cities. As a result, the partners hope to develop new models for urban living and infrastructure that address issues of urban resilience, health, housing, environmental sustainability, responsive urban management, and the development of smart cities.
The FCIC will draw upon MIT research to identify innovative concepts and technologies that can be implemented in China. The program’s founder and faculty director Siqi Zheng is the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor of Real Estate Development and Entrepreneurship in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Center for Real Estate. She is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University.
Zheng believes that research teams and startups face a distinct set of challenges when they work on urban problems in China. “Partnerships with city governments are most critical to the success of these teams,” she says. “The MIT-Tsinghua Future City Innovation Connector will help the innovative urban research teams and startups at MIT and Tsinghua engage with the Chinese market and government resources to realize their societal impact and economic success.”
The first program of its kind to apply the frontiers of urban research and technology to the extraordinary urbanization occurring in China, the FCIC will work extensively with municipal governments and industry leaders in China in conjunction with the MIT School of Architecture and Planning’s entrepreneurship accelerator DesignX.
“I am thrilled to see the launch of this new collaboration,” MIT Provost Martin A. Schmidt told MIT News. Under the leadership of Professor Zheng, the MIT-Tsinghua Future City Innovation Connector will become the new starting point of a series of engagements between MIT and Tsinghua in entrepreneurship, education, and urban research.”
What is the secret to building a team around a superstar? What is the future of ticket selling at sporting events? What’s the best way to engage the modern sports fan? These are just three of the dozens of topics to be explored by leaders in the realm of sport at the upcoming MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference February 23 and 24 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in Boston.
A limited number of tickets are still available for this annual event, which has grown over the last decade to become the premier confab of sports movers, shakers, and innovators. Founded in 2006 by Daryl Morey ’00 and HBS alumna Jessica Gelman, the conference is chaired by Gelman and organized by MIT Sloan students. Its goal is to provide a forum for industry professionals and students to discuss the increasing role of analytics in the global sports industry. Now more than ten years old, the conference delivers rich opportunities to learn about and innovate the sports business world.
The conference attracts the most influential figures in the field. This year, that roster includes Michelle Roberts, Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association, Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, Gary Bettman, Commissioner of the NHL, Sue Bird, point guard for the Seattle Storm, Nick Caserio, Director of Player Personnel for the Patriots, Tom Dundon, Owner of the Carolina Hurricanes, Laura Froelich, Global Head of Sports Partnerships at Twitter, Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics, Kim Pegula, CEO of Pegula Sports and Entertainment, and Shira Springer, journalist for the Boston Globe, NPR, and WBUR. Read the full list of speakers.
The 2018 conference will spotlight the finalists of the Daily Fantasy Challenge. Organized by DraftKings, the sports-tech media and entertainment platform, the competition is open to graduate students around the globe. Their task: to create and present a new sports concept to DraftKings executives. The finalists will present their ideas during the conference and be awarded with cash prizes and event tickets.
The conference also will bring back its popular Hackathon. Participants select a prompt, analyze data, and propose potential solutions that advance the application of data analysis and visualization in sports analytics. Industry experts from both ESPN and Ticketmaster will provide mentorship. The event culminates with participants presenting their work in a brief presentation to a panel of distinguished judges.
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.
“True breakthroughs are often the result of fresh thinking inspired by new kinds of research teams,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said about the collaboration. “The combined MIT and IBM talent dedicated to this new effort will bring formidable power to a field with staggering potential to advance knowledge and help solve important challenges.”
A legacy of AI research at MIT and IBM
The roots of AI at MIT extend back to the research of Vannevar Bush and his development of the differential analyzer, a mechanical analogue computer designed to solve differential equations in the late 1920s. In the 1930s, work continued at the MIT Radiation Lab, which was devoted to the development of radar and other electronic innovations.
The Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) and Lincoln Laboratory continued AI-related research into the 1950s when Institute researchers were among those who coined the phrase “artificial intelligence.” MIT made significant progress in the subsequent decades led by Marvin Minsky, a founder of the discipline. Along with Seymour Papert, Minsky built the first neural networks and advanced learning algorithms. Today, several departments, lab, and centers at MIT are working on AI, including the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), the largest research laboratory at MIT and one of the world’s most important centers of information technology research.
For its part, IBM has been exploring the application of AI across myriad areas and industries for more than two decades. IBM researchers invented the versatile Watson, a cloud-based AI platform now being used around the globe to fight cancer, enhance classroom learning, minimize pollution, enhance oil and gas exploration, better manage financial investments, and more. Beyond Watson, IBM scientists worldwide are working on fundamental advances that they hope will pave the way for the next generation of AI.
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.
Teaching a robot to respect personal space
The researchers used reinforcement learning, a type of machine learning approach, to train the robot to choose paths that take into consideration the speed and trajectory of other objects in the environment. The team also incorporated social norms into the training phase, encouraging the robot to pass on the right and penalizing it when it passed on the left. In tests, the robot has shown an ability to move along on its own for 20 minutes without incident.
The project is focused on the intertwined goals of creating a robot that can navigate busy pedestrian situations and be accepted by the crowd in which it is moving. Chen and his team feel it is important that people feel comfortable sharing the sidewalk with robotic pedestrians. “We want it to be traveling naturally among people and not be intrusive,” Michael Everett, Chen’s teammate told MIT News. “We want it to be following the same rules as everyone else.”
Chen and Everett believe that with these new capabilities, such robots soon may be delivering pizzas and packages or transporting people through airports and hospitals. The researchers have detailed their robotic design in a paper that they presented at the recent IEEE Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Vancouver.
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.”
Realize that you can’t salvage every troubling personnel issue
Resolving personnel issues, Moore believes, is an essential precursor to driving change. And sometimes that change means termination. If one person is a stumbling block to productivity and is souring the organizational culture, their termination might be key to salvaging the situation. “I can recall one turnaround situation in a remote plant. I was flying there every Monday to resolve an acrimonious situation. By Wednesday, I would pretty much have resolved the issues and, on the flight home, would be feeling relieved and optimistic. But on Thursday, I would get a few disgruntled calls and emails, then on Friday a few more. By the time Monday rolled around, we were back to square one.” Finally, termination was the only answer.
Turnarounds, Moore says, can be thankless work if you’re in it for the glory. “It takes a strong stomach and a level of unrelenting optimism to make a career of rescues. Success is often not viewed as gloriously as it merits, so the satisfaction of facing the challenges and reaching success must be enough. Bottom line: turnarounds are not a sport for the weak-spirited or for souls seeking affirmation.”
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)
Introducing a series of AI posts
Over the next few months, the MIT Sloan Fellows Leadership Blog will focus on the impact of artificial intelligence on the global marketplace—its remarkable promise and its surprising limitations. We’ll find out how MIT Sloan Fellows faculty and alumni around the world are tapping into AI’s sweet spots to revolutionize industries. We’ll also look at pioneering work happening all across MIT. Here are just a few of the labs and centers across the Institute that are shaping the direction of AI:
MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab MIT and IBM have just announced the establishment of a new lab dedicated to propelling scientific breakthroughs by advancing AI hardware, software, and algorithms.
The Laboratory for Social Machines (LSM) LSM develops data science methods to map and analyze social systems and designs tools that enable new forms of human networks that will drive positive change.
The Moral Machine From self-driving cars to self-piloting rockets and self-sailing ships, AI is taking over more and more complex human activities. Researchers here examine the implications.
The Machine Learning Group (MLG) MLG researchers are exploring theoretical foundations, optimization algorithms, and applications involving vision, speech, healthcare, materials science, biology, and more.
Watch these pages for late-breaking research on AI and its impact on organizations and marketplaces around the world.
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.
Moving the skunkworks to the sticks
Location, LeFauve thought, was crucial—far enough away from Detroit that the enterprise could be truly independent from its parent company. He decided to move the entire operation to Spring Hill, Tennessee. “We wanted to invent a wonderful car,” Hax says, “but just as important, a wonderful culture, and we wanted to create a new management style, a new way to run a car company.”
Saturn’s counter-culture labor agreement gave the union workers a greater say in plant decisions. “We started out determined to avoid any us-against-them vibe. Our premise was that we all share the same bottom-line goals, so let’s work together to achieve them.” That human-centered approach extended to all areas of the company—internal and external. LeFauve created an image for Saturn as a customer-focused organization that put service and personal attention before profit. Perhaps most famously, he instituted Saturn’s groundbreaking “one-price, no haggle, no hassle” policy.
As it turned out, the approach was phenomenally successful. LeFauve was promoted out of Saturn, but a few short years later died of a heart attack. Eventually, GM took the renegade brand under its own wing and absorbed it into the larger company culture. “The rest,” Hax says ruefully, “is history.”
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.
Participants also had the opportunity to learn about the revolutionary AFFOA, a consortium of which MIT is a partner, and to learn about new and different ways that fiber can deliver electronics, optics, photonics, and other digital support systems.
The prizewinning products of the hackathon included VITAL, an integrated system that allows for rapid remote triage and transfer of crucial information among soldiers, field medics, MEDEVAC, and hospitals. VITAL’s goal is to incorporate existing technologies into frontier solutions, such as personalized machine-learning algorithms and wearable physiological sensors.
Sharing the top prize was Security Blanket, a multipurpose wrap that will protect refugees and disaster survivors. The outer layer of the double-sided, multifunctional blanket would be made of a durable, water resistant, puncture-proof, and abrasion-resistant material. The inner layer would consist of Tensel microfibers, which are ultra-light, soft, quick drying, highly absorbent, and naturally antimicrobial. The team estimates the cost for the blanket to be about double the cost of a basic fleece blanket (about $10).
Bill Kernick, technology and partnership development executive for MD5 told MIT News that the idea behind the hackathon was “getting the sparks of these ideas moving and creating a relationship with innovators who may have not thought about working with DoD to help solve some really hard problems.” MIT Professor Vladimir Bulović, codirector of the MIT Innovation Initiative, added that the event is a manifestation of one of MIT’s core goals: developing innovations for real-world impact.