Monthly Archives: September 2016

The automation and mobility to create a smarter world

Daniela Rus loves Singapore. As the MIT professor sits down in her Frank Gehry-designed office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to talk about her research conducted in Singapore, her face starts to relax in a big smile.

Her story with Singapore started in the summer of 2010, when she made her first visit to one of the most futuristic and forward-looking cities in the world. “It was love at first sight,” says the Andrew (1956) and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). That summer, she came to Singapore to join the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) as the first principal investigator in residence for the Future of Urban Mobility Research Program.

“In 2010, nobody was talking about autonomous driving. We were pioneers in developing and deploying the first mobility on demand for people with self-driving golf buggies,” says Rus. “And look where we stand today! Every single car maker is investing millions of dollars to advance autonomous driving. Singapore did not hesitate to provide us, at an early stage, with all the financial, logistical, and transportation resources to facilitate our work.”

Since her first visit, Rus has returned each year to follow up on the research, and has been involved in leading revolutionary projects for the future of urban mobility. “Our team worked tremendously hard on self-driving technologies, and we are now presenting a wide range of different devices that allow autonomous and secure mobility,” she says. “Our objective today is to make taking a driverless car for a spin as easy as programming a smartphone. A simple interaction between the human and machine will provide a transportation butler.”

The first mobility devices her team worked on were self-driving golf buggies. Two years ago, these buggies advanced to a point where the group decided to open them to the public in a trial that lasted one week at the Chinese Gardens, an idea facilitated by Singapore’s Land and Transportation Agency (LTA). Over the course of a week, more than 500 people booked rides from the comfort of their homes, and came to the Chinese Gardens at the designated time and spot to experience mobility-on-demand with robots.

The test was conducted around winding paths trafficked by pedestrians, bicyclists, and the occasional monitor lizard. The experiments also tested an online booking system that enabled visitors to schedule pickups and drop-offs around the garden, automatically routing and redeploying the vehicles to accommodate all the requests. The public’s response was joyful and positive, and this brought the team renewed enthusiasm to take the technology to the next level.

Since the Chinese Gardens public trial, the autonomous car group has introduced a few other self-driving vehicles: a self-driving city car, and two personal mobility robots, a self-driving scooter and a self-driving wheelchair. Each of these vehicles was created in three phases: In the first phase, the vehicle was converted to drive-by-wire control, which allows a computer to control acceleration, braking, and steering of the car. In the second phase, the vehicle drives on each of the pathways in its operation environment and makes a map using features detected by the sensors. In the third phase, the vehicle uses the map to compute a path from the customer’s pick-up point to the customer’s drop-off point and proceeds to drive along the path, localizing continuously and avoiding any other cars, people, and unexpected obstacles. The devices also used traffic data from LTA to model traffic patterns and to study the benefits of ride sharing systems.

Automatically handles database caching in server farms

Today, loading a web page on a big website usually involves a database query — to retrieve the latest contributions to a discussion you’re participating in, a list of news stories related to the one you’re reading, links targeted to your geographic location, or the like.

But database queries are time consuming, so many websites store — or “cache” — the results of common queries on web servers for faster delivery.

If a site user changes a value in the database, however, the cache needs to be updated, too. The complex task of analyzing a website’s code to identify which operations necessitate updates to which cached values generally falls to the web programmer. Missing one such operation can result in an unusable site.

This week, at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Symposium on Principles of Programming Languages, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory presented a new system that automatically handles caching of database queries for web applications written in the web-programming language Ur/Web.

Although a website may be fielding many requests in parallel — sending different users different cached data, or even data cached on different servers — the system guarantees that, to the user, every transaction will look exactly as it would if requests were handled in sequence. So a user won’t, for instance, click on a link showing that tickets to an event are available, only to find that they’ve been snatched up when it comes time to pay.

In experiments involving two websites that had been built using Ur/Web, the new system’s automatic caching offered twofold and 30-fold speedups.

“Most very popular websites backed by databases don’t actually ask the database over and over again for each request,” says Adam Chlipala, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and senior author on the conference paper. “They notice that, ‘Oh, I seem to have asked this question quite recently, and I saved the result, so I’ll just pull that out of memory.’”

Engineer natural and human made networks

Fadel Adib SM ’13, PhD ’16 has been appointed an assistant professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, where he leads the new Signal Kinetics research group. His group’s mission is to explore and develop new technologies that can extend human and computer abilities in communication, sensing, and actuation.

Adib comes to the lab from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), where he received his PhD and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, supervised by MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science Dina Katabi. Adib’s doctoral thesis, “Wireless Systems that Extend Our Senses,” demonstrates that wireless signals can be used as sensing tools to learn about the environment, thus enabling us to see through walls, track human gestures, and monitor human vital signs from a distance. His master’s thesis, “See Through Walls with Wifi,” won the best master’s thesis award in computer science at MIT in 2013. He earned his bachelor’s degree in computer and communications engineering from the American University of Beirut, in Lebanon, the country of his birth, where he graduated with the highest GPA in the university’s digitally-recorded history.

“We can get your locations, we can get your gestures, we can get your breathing,” Adib said at a Media Lab event in October 2016. “And we can even get your heart rate—all without putting any sensor on your body. This is exactly what our research is about.” Signal Kinetics researchers tap into the invisible signals that surround us — from WiFi to brain waves. The aim is to uncover, analyze, and engineer these natural and human-made networks, drawing on tools from computer networks, signal processing, machine learning, and hardware design.

“We are living in a sea of radio waves,” Adib told the Media Lab audience. “As our bodies move, we modulate these radio waves, similar to how you create waves when you move around in a pool of water. While we cannot see these with our naked eye, we can extract them and we can build intelligence in the environment to enable a large number of applications and extend our senses using wireless technology.” The technology is applicable to a broad range of needs: from monitoring an infant’s breathing or an elderly person who has fallen, to determining whether someone has sleep apnea, to detecting survivors in a burning building. The group’s research also has potential applications for gaming and filmmaking.

In 2015, Forbes magazine selected Adib among the 30 Under 30 Who Are Moving the World in Enterprise Technology. In 2014, MIT Technology Review chose him as one of the world’s 35 top innovators under the age of 35. His research has been identified as one of the 50 ways MIT has transformed computer science over the past 50 years.