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8 of the coolest things that happened at CSAIL this year

It’s been a busy year for CSAIL. Researchers celebrated the lab’s 50th anniversary, created groundbreaking algorithms to magnify video and predict Bitcoin prices, and developed exciting new robots that can walk, talk, fly and swim. As 2014 comes to a close, we thought we’d look back on a few highlights from the year. Reminisce with us as we reflect on some of the exciting research and campus happenings from the past 12 months.Read more at MIT News: bit.ly/1HbFfGh

Arvind elected as India National Academy of Sciences Foreign Fellow

CSAIL researcher Arvind has been elected as Foreign Fellow to the India National Academy of Sciences. The Charles W. and Jennifer C. Johnson Professor in Computer Science, Arvind has contributed to the development of dynamic dataflow architectures, the implicitly-parallel programming languages Id and pH, and the compilation of these types of languages on parallel machines. R. S. Nikhil and Arvind published the book, "Implicit Parallel Programming in pH" in 2001.

Could birdsong help us solve stuttering?

Think that sparrow whistling outside your bedroom window is nothing more than pleasant background noise? A new paper from a CSAIL researcher suggests that we can apply what we know about songbirds to our understanding of human speech production — and, therefore, come closer to identifying and potentially even reducing the prevalence of disorders like stuttering and Huntington’s Disease. In a paper published in Science this month, CSAIL postdoc Andreas Pfenning and collaborators at Duke University compared genetic maps of brain tissue from three groups: humans, vocal-learning birds, and non-vocal-learning birds and primates.

CSAIL PhDs' discuss gender in STEMs on Wired & Reddit

As part of CSAIL's "Hour of Code" efforts this past week, on three CSAIL PhD students (Elena Glassman, Neha Narula and Jean Yang) participated in an "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) session on Reddit, where they answered questions about CSAIL, programming, academia and what it's like to be women in computer science. The AMA swiftly went to the front page of Reddit and received almost 5,000 comments and questions from readers. Some highlights are below. As a result of the AMA, the researchers were inspired to write an oped in Wired magazine about "why gender still matters" in the STEM fields.

MIT's new "Solve" event focused on future of technology to be curated by Agarwal & Brooks

MIT will convene technologists, philanthropists, business leaders, policymakers, and social-change agents Oct. 5-8, 2015, for the launch of “Solve,” an effort to galvanize these leaders to drive progress on complex, important global challenges that MIT has singled out as urgent and ripe for progress. Solve will organize challenges into four content pillars, identified by MIT as strategic targets for interdisciplinary research, problem solving, and collaboration:

More-flexible digital communication

Communication protocols for digital devices are very efficient but also very brittle: They require information to be specified in a precise order with a precise number of bits. If sender and receiver — say, a computer and a printer — are off by even a single bit relative to each other, communication between them breaks down entirely.Humans are much more flexible. Two strangers may come to a conversation with wildly differing vocabularies and frames of reference, but they will quickly assess the extent of their mutual understanding and tailor their speech accordingly.

Can Facebook spot terrorist behavior online? Daniel Weitzner discusses in the Guardian

The UK parliament’s intelligence and security committee recently suggested that Facebook and other internet platforms “take responsibility” for detecting terrorist activity online, in much the way that search engines can find child abuse images.But in the Guardian, CSAIL researcher Daniel Weitzner - the former White House deputy chief technology officer for internet policy - argues that having web platforms become "partners in state surveillance" doesn't just threaten free expression and privacy, but may not even make technical sense.

Computers that teach by example

Computers are good at identifying patterns in huge data sets. Humans, by contrast, are good at inferring patterns from just a few examples.In a paper appearing at the Neural Information Processing Society’s conference next week, CSAIL researchers present a new system that bridges these two ways of processing information, so that humans and computers can collaborate to make better decisions.

Reinventing the Internet to make it safer

CSAIL cybersecurity expert Howard Shrobe was prominently featured in the New York Times' special "Security" section this week.From "Reinventing the Internet to Make it Safer":With the advent of cloud computing and shiny new phones, tablets and watches, it can be easy to forget that in many ways our computer systems are still very old.

Shafi Goldwasser joins Lab for Nuclear Security and Policy

CSAIL researcher Shafi Goldwasser recently joined the team at The Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering's Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy (LNSP), which just received $3.2 million from the National Nuclear Security Administration to support research that could revolutionize the verification of international arms-control treaties.The system is a physics manifestation of interactive zero-knowldge proofs, a mathematical concept invented by Goldwasser (and for which she received the 2012 Turing Award).Asked about the project, Goldwasser said, “This is very exciting for me! I have been waiting 30 years to see the ideas behind interactive and zero-knowledge proofs applied to problems outside the realm of mathematics and digital information.”

TOC researcher earns 2014 Infosys Prize for Mathematical Sciences

It was recently announced that Madhu Sudan, an MIT adjunct professor and member of CSAIL's Theory of Computation, has been selected to receive the 2014 Infosys Prize for Mathematical Sciences.Presented by the Infosys Science Foundation in India, the award is given annually to honor outstanding achievements of contemporary researchers and scientists across six categories. Each award carries a prize of a gold medal, a citation and a purse of approximately $90,000.The award was given to Sudan for his contributions to probabilistically checkable proofs and error-correcting codes.

Could tomorrow's clothes morph in response to weather?

This week Wired profiled Skylar Tibbits at MIT's Self-Assembly Lab, which is aimed at developing unique new materials that can self-assemble into useful objects like furniture or clothing.Tibbits' work with CSAIL principal investigator Erik Demaine include clothing that would be able to morph in response to weather, as well as 3-D printed wood "robots" that respond to external cues and change shape. Read more at Wired or BostInno.

What are the building blocks of human imagination?

From MIT Technology Review:Here’s a curious experiment. Take some white noise and use it to produce a set of images that are essentially random arrangements of different coloured blocks. Show these images to a number of people and ask whether any of the images remind them of, say, a car.Most of the time, these random images will appear to people as, well, random. But every now and again somebody will say that an image does remind them of a car. Set this image aside. And repeat.

Historic quantum software is run for the first time

This week marks the first instance of software demonstrating the potential of quantum computing being run on a real machine - 20 years after the piece of software was first created.South African researchers used a one-way quantum computer to run an algorithm developed in 1994 by University of Montreal's Daniel Simon. That algorithm was the first that showed a quantum computer could solve a problem exponentially faster than an ordinary computer.Experts say that implementing the algorithm could result in more practical computers powered by the strange properties of quantum mechanics.

Researchers predict price of Bitcoin via deep learning

Scientists have crunched data to predict crime, hospital visits, and government uprisings — so why not the price of Bitcoin? A researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory recently developed a machine-learning algorithm that can predict the price of the infamously volatile cryptocurrency Bitcoin, allowing his team to nearly double its investment over a period of 50 days. Earlier this year, principal investigator Devavrat Shah and recent graduate Kang Zhang - who are both also affiliated with the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems - collected price data from all major Bitcoin exchanges, every second for five months, accumulating more than 200 million data points.

Shafi Goldwasser gives keynote at 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

Professor Shafi Goldwasser gave the keynote address at this week's 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which drew 8,000 attendees from around the world.She spoke about her work in cryptography and theory of computation, and how her gender has informed her career. Watch her keynote here. (Her introduction begins at 47:35 and her talk starts at 48:50.)

Articles

Getting metabolism right - analysis of metabolic processes finds flaws in nearly half, suggests corrections

Metabolic networks are mathematical models of every possible sequence of chemical reactions available to an organ or organism, and they’re used to design microbes for manufacturing processes or to study disease. Based on both genetic analysis and empirical study, they can take years to assemble.Unfortunately, a new analytic tool developed at MIT suggests that many of those models may be wrong. Fortunately, the same tool may make it fairly straightforward to repair them.

Can you out-race a computer? New algorithm can weigh up a neighborhood better than humans.

Human beings have a remarkable ability to make inferences based on their surroundings. Is this area safe? Where might I find a parking spot? Am I more likely to get to a gas station by taking a left or a right at this stoplight? Such decisions require us to look beyond our “visual scene” and weigh an exceedingly complex set of understandings and real-time judgments. This begs the question: Can we teach computers to “see” in the same way? And once we teach them, can they do it better than we can?

Printable robot database earns Best Paper honors at IROS

A CSAIL team's printable robots design-database won the Best Paper award at last week's 2014 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2014).The system - which was developed by Ankur Mehta, Joseph DelPreto, Benjamin Shaya and Daniela Rus - allows non-experts to easily create printable foldable robots from high-level structural specifications.

Fingertip sensor gives robot unprecedented dexterity

Researchers at CSAIL and Northeastern University have equipped a robot with a novel tactile sensor that lets it grasp a USB cable draped freely over a hook and insert it into a USB port. The sensor is an adaptation of a technology called GelSight, which was developed by the lab of Professor (and CSAIL principal investigator) Edward Adelson, and first described in 2009. The new sensor isn’t as sensitive as the original GelSight sensor, which could resolve details on the micrometer scale. But it’s smaller — small enough to fit on a robot’s gripper — and its processing algorithm is faster, so it can give the robot feedback in real time.

Soft robotic tentacle slithers through pipe like a snake

Over the last few years, CSAIL researchers have developed biologically inspired robots designed to fly like falcons, perch like pigeons, and swim like swordfish. The natural next step? Slithering like snakes.At this week’s IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, CSAIL researchers will present their work to develop a soft robotic arm, inspired by the design of octopus tentacles, that can snake through a pipelike environment without a human operator.

Wireless system that reduces traffic congestion wins best paper award

At the Intelligent Transportation Systems World Congress last week, CSAIL researchers received one of the best-paper awards for a new system, dubbed RoadRunner, that uses GPS-style turn-by-turn directions to route drivers around congested roadways. In a comparison with a system developed by Singapore’s Land Transit Authority, RoadRunner yielded an 8 percent increase in average car speed during periods of peak congestion.“With our system, you can draw a polygon on the map and say, ‘I want this entire region to be controlled,’” says Jason Gao, a CSAIL graduate student who developed the new system with his advisor, Professor Li-Shiuan Peh. “You could do one thing for a month and test it out and then change it without having to dig up roads or rebuild gantries.”

CSAIL’s Nick Roy helms Google’s delivery-drone project

Friends and colleagues were aware, at some level, that CSAIL researcher Nick Roy had been using his sabbatical to take on some sort of robotics-related role at Google. But few people knew the full scope of his work until this past week, when Google X — the infamous idea incubator known for Google Glass, self-driving cars, and wireless hot-air balloons — unveiled a video introducing Project Wing, an ambitious delivery-drone initiative that Roy has overseen for the past two years. At Google X’s secret Mountain View headquarters, Roy, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, led a team of several dozen autonomy experts to determine the technical feasibility of self-flying delivery vehicles.

Continuing the legacy of assistive technology at MIT

In the fall of 2011 CSAIL researcher Seth Teller created 6.811, "Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology" (PPAT), a course that has since become extremely popular with students. Following Teller’s untimely death in July, a group of former PPAT and AT students have formed a team to continue to teach PPAT, as well as an outgrowth known as "AT Hack," a one-day workshop launched in spring 2014.The course will be led by William Li SM '12, Grace Teo PhD '14 and fellow CSAIL principal investigator Rob Miller.

MIT ranked #1 in computer engineering by U.S. News

MIT's computer-science program has once again been ranked #1 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report in its annual rankings of the United States’ best colleges and universities, which were released today.For the 25th straight year, the Institute also maintained its standing as the nation’s top undergraduate engineering program at a doctoral institution.Among individual factors contributing to overall institutional standings, U.S. News ranked MIT first in selectivity, a criterion encompassing undergraduate acceptance rate, number of incoming students in the top decile of their high school class, and standardized test scores; the Institute tied at No. 1 with Caltech on these metrics.

Where to grab space debris - algorithm tested on International Space Station analyzes object rotation in space

Objects in space tend to spin — and spin in a way that’s totally different from the way they spin on earth.Understanding how objects are spinning, where their centers of mass are, and how their mass is distributed is crucial to any number of actual or potential space missions, from cleaning up debris in the geosynchronous orbit favored by communications satellites to landing a demolition crew on a comet.

Charles Leiserson receives ACM award for high-performance computing

This week CSAIL researcher Charles E. Leiserson was announced as the recipient of the 2014 ACM/IEEE Computer Society Ken Kennedy Award, in recognition of his important impact on parallel computing systems. The Ken Kennedy Award honors individuals with outstanding achievements in programmability or productivity in high-performance computing together with significant community service or mentoring contributions.

Google's delivery-drone project helmed by CSAIL's Nick Roy

Google X has just unveiled what was previously one of its most top-secret 'Moonshot' projects to date: creating a fleet of self-flying delivery planes.

At the helm of Project Wing is CSAIL researcher Nicholas Roy, who has been on a two-year sabbatical to work on the initiative.

The 'delivery drones' could be used for everything from delivering emergency supplies to giving people the ability to rent items briefly before getting them picked up to be sent to the next user.

Watch the planes in action below (and stick around for some words from Roy at 1:00):



Visualization tool automatically IDs outliers, recomputes without them

In the age of big data, visualization tools are vital. With a single glance at a graphic display, a human being can recognize patterns that a computer might fail to find even after hours of analysis.

But what if there are aberrations in the patterns? Or what if there's just a suggestion of a visual pattern that's not distinct enough to justify any strong inferences? Or what if the pattern is clear, but not what was to be expected?

Help bring CSAIL to SXSW! Vote for our panel on data privacy

This past year, CSAIL researchers presented a special panel on the future of computing at the 2014 edition of SXSW, the annual technology conference in Austin, Texas. With your help, CSAIL may be headed back to Austin for SXSW 2015. Starting today, the public can vote on the more than 3,000 proposals that have been submitted - including CSAIL's, which you can read below. (Voting is open until September 6 and requires free registration through the SXSW site.) http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/36963

Origami robot folds itself up, walks away

For years, a team of researchers at MIT and Harvard University has been working on origami robots — reconfigurable robots that would be able to fold themselves into arbitrary shapes. In today’s issue of Science, a team featuring CSAIL researchers report that they've developed an origami robot, made almost entirely from parts produced by a laser cutter, that folds itself up and crawls away as soon as batteries are attached to it.

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