MIT and U.S. Department of Defense team up to launch a new edX learning platform

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MIT has pioneered many online learning solutions, and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has taken note. MIT and the DoD have teamed up to launch a new edX learning platform,

In the past decade, the DoD has launched nine public-private manufacturing institutes to spur U.S. advanced manufacturing industry forward in areas such as additive manufacturing, robotics, photonics, functional fabrics, and bio-fabrication. An important part of the institutes’ mission is workforce development, which includes online learning. To that end, the DoD has tasked MIT’s Initiative for Knowledge and Innovation in Manufacturing (IKIM) to stand up an Open edX platform for the DoD’s nine institutes and the larger advanced technologies community.

IKIM leads the education and workforce effort of the manufacturing institute AIM Photonics, and just launched the first two courses on the new platform, on photonic integrated circuit (PIC) sensors and on integrated photonics passive device testing. Principal Research Scientist Anu Agarwal and Professor Juejun Hu’s courses are what you might expect from MIT; they cover technical cutting-edge material. MIT IKIM will release five more courses this summer on the new platform, all tied to integrated photonics, and all courses that would fit into MIT’s course catalog.

The DoD’s mission for the new learning platform, however, is to reach far beyond hosting MIT-like classes. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in partnership with MIT and others, is building an advanced manufacturing awareness course for high school students exploring potential careers that will go on the platform, tied to at least five of the manufacturing institute technologies. That project is part of a $3.2 million grant announced last October. MIT IKIM also plans to create technician and technologist edX training programs for students seeking careers in advanced technologies, but not necessarily interested in pursuing bachelor’s degrees. Many institutes are planning their online offerings, targeting students at all levels, even starting in elementary school.

Although some people might not associate the DoD with STEM education, it invests heavily in innovative STEM initiatives. MIT IKIM received DoD funding from the Manufacturing Engineering Education Program to build technician programs in robotics and photonics, and to launch a Virtual Manufacturing Lab — a suite of virtual reality simulations in photonics and other advanced manufacturing technologies. The DoD’s investment in the Open edX platform is consistent with its goal of making top-notch education more accessible for students at all levels. 

“The Department of Defense is eager to help build a robust domestic manufacturing industry. To do this, we need cutting-edge advanced manufacturing education and training available to more Americans,” says Michael Britt-Crane, education and workforce lead for the DoD’s Manufacturing Technology Program Office. “This platform is an important way to do this, and to bring these resources to the DoD workforce.”

The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) institute recently received funding to create a virtual manufacturing environment on the Open edX platform, where students can train on virtual equipment. The environment could become a place to demonstrate competency and receive credentials. ARM recognizes the vast potential of virtual and augmented realities to quickly scale its manufacturing workforce in the use of robotics and automation.

Source: MIT and U.S. Department of Defense team up to launch a new edX learning platform

A unique collaboration with US Special Operations Command

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When General Richard D. Clarke, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), visited MIT in fall 2019, he had artificial intelligence on the mind. As the commander of a military organization tasked with advancing U.S. policy objectives as well as predicting and mitigating future security threats, he knew that the acceleration and proliferation of artificial intelligence technologies worldwide would change the landscape on which USSOCOM would have to act.

Clarke met with Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and after touring multiple labs both agreed that MIT — as a hub for AI innovation — would be an ideal institution to help USSOCOM rise to the challenge. Thus, a new collaboration between the MIT School of Engineering, MIT Professional Education, and USSOCOM was born: a six-week AI and machine learning crash course designed for special operations personnel.

“There has been tremendous growth in the fields of computing and artificial intelligence over the past few years,” says Chandrakasan. “It was an honor to craft this course in collaboration with U.S. Special Operations Command and MIT Professional Education, and to convene experts from across the spectrum of engineering and science disciplines, to present the full power of artificial intelligence to course participants.”

In speaking to course participants, Clarke underscored his view that the nature of threats, and how U.S. Special Operations defends against them, will be fundamentally affected by AI. “This includes, perhaps most profoundly, potential game-changing impacts to how we can see the environment, make decisions, execute mission command, and operate in information-space and cyberspace.”

Due to the ubiquitous applications of AI and machine learning, the course was taught by MIT faculty as well as military and industry representatives from across many disciplines, including electrical and mechanical engineering, computer science, brain and cognitive science, aeronautics and astronautics, and economics.

“We assembled a lineup of people who we believe are some of the top leaders in the field,” says faculty co-organizer of the USSOCOM course and associate professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, Sertac Karaman. “All of them are able to come in and contribute a unique perspective. This was just meant to be an introduction … but there was still a lot to cover.”

The potential applications of AI, spanning civilian and military uses, are diverse, and include advances in areas like restorative and regenerative medical care, cyber resiliency, natural language processing, computer vision, and autonomous robotics.

A fireside chat with MIT President L. Rafael Reif and Eric Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Futures and former chair and CEO of Google, who is also an MIT innovation fellow, painted a particularly vivid picture of the way that AI will inform future conflicts.

“It’s quite obvious that the cyber wars of the future will be largely AI-driven,” Schmidt told course participants. “In other words, they’ll be very vicious and they’ll be over in about 1 millisecond.”

However, the capabilities of AI represented only one aspect of the course. The faculty also emphasized the ethical, social, and logistical issues inherent in the implementation of AI.

“People don't know, actually, [that] some existing technology is quite fragile. It can make mistakes,” says Karaman. “And in the Department of Defense domain, that could be extremely damaging to their mission.”

AI is vulnerable to both intentional tampering and attacks as well as mistakes caused by programming and data oversights. For instance, images can be intentionally distorted in ways that are imperceptible to humans, but will mislead AI. In another example, a programmer could “train” AI to navigate traffic under ideal conditions, only to have the program malfunction in an area where traffic signs have been vandalized.

Asu Ozdaglar, the MathWorks Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and deputy dean of academics in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, told course participants that researchers must find ways to incorporate context and semantic information into AI models prior to “training,” so that they “don’t run into these issues which are very counterintuitive from our perspective … as humans.”

In addition to providing an orientation to this concept of “robustness” (how prone a technology is, or is not, to error), the course included some best-practice guidance for wielding AI in ways that are ethical, responsible, and strive to limit and eliminate bias.

Julie Shah, faculty co-organizer of the USSOCOM course, associate dean of social and ethical responsibilities of computing, and associate professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, lectured on this topic and emphasized the importance of considering the future ramifications of AI before and during the development of both the use plan and the technology itself.

“We talk about how difficult [it is to predict] the unintended uses and consequences,” she told course participants. “But much like we put all of this engineering work into understanding the machine learning models and their development, we need to build new habits of mind and action that involve a range of disciplines and stakeholders, to envision those futures in advance.”

In addition to moral and safety issues, the logistics of advancing AI in the military are complex and involve a lot of moving parts; the AI technology itself is only one part of this picture. For instance, the actualization of a fleet of military vehicles operated by a handful of personnel would require novel strategic research, partnerships with manufacturers to build new kinds of vehicles, and additional personnel training. Further, AI technology is often developed in the private or academic sectors, and the military doesn’t automatically have access to those innovations.

Clarke told course participants that USSOCOM had been a “pathfinder within the Department of Defense in the early application of some of this data-driven technology” and that connections with organizations like MIT “are indispensable elements in our preparation to maintain advantage and to ensure that our special operations forces are ready for the future and a new era.”

Schmidt agreed with Clarke, adding that a functional hiring pipeline from academia and the tech industry into the military, as well as the highest and best utilization of available technology and personnel, is essential to maintain U.S global competitiveness.

The USSOCOM course was part of the ongoing expansion of AI research and education at MIT, which has accelerated over the last five years. Computer science courses at MIT are typically oversubscribed and attract students from many different disciplines.

In addition to the USSOCOM course, AI initiatives at MIT span many areas and initiatives, including:

“More than a third of MIT’s faculty are working on AI-related research,” Chandrakasan told course participants.

MIT faculty instructors, USSOCOM instructors, and special guests for the course included:

  • Daron Acemoglu, MIT Institute Professor;
  • Regina Barzilay, School of Engineering Distinguished Professor for AI and Health at MIT and AI faculty lead at Jameel Clinic;
  • Ash Carter, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, and the 25th U.S. secretary of defense;
  • Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science;
  • General Richard Clarke, commander of USSOCOM;
  • Colonel Drew Cukor, chief of Algorithmic Warfare Cross Function Team in the ISR Operations Directorate, Warfighter Support, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence;
  • Stephanie Culberson, chief of international affairs in the Department of Defense Joint Artificial Intelligence Center;
  • Dario Gil, senior vice president and director of IBM Research and chair of the MIT-IBM Watson Lab;
  • Tucker “Cinco” Hamilton, U.S. Air Force colonel, and U.S. Air Force director of the USAF/MIT AI Accelerator;
  • Dan Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the Henry Ellis Warren (1894) Professor;
  • David Joyner, executive director of online education and of the Online Master of Science in Computer Science Program in Georgia Tech's College of Computing;
  • Sertac Karaman, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT;
  • Thom Kenney, USSOCOM chief data officer and the director of SOF Artificial Intelligence;
  • Sangbae Kim, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT;
  • Aleksander Madry, professor of computer science at MIT;
  • Asu Ozdaglar, the MathWorks Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT;
  • L. Rafael Reif, MIT president;
  • Eric Schmidt, visiting MIT Innovation Fellow, former CEO and chair of Google, and co-founder of Schmidt Futures;
  • Julie Shah, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT;
  • David Spirk, U.S. Department of Defense chief data officer;
  • Joshua Tenenbaum, professor of computational cognitive science at MIT;
  • Antonio Torralba, the Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT; and
  • Daniel Weitzner, founding director of the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative and principal research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Originally envisioned as an on-campus program, the USSOCOM course was moved online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This change made it possible to accommodate a significantly higher number of attendees, and roughly 300 USSOCOM members participated in the course. Though it was conducted remotely, the course remained highly interactive with roughly 40 participant questions per week fielded by MIT faculty and other presenters in chat and Q&A sessions. Participants who completed the course also received a certificate of completion.

The success of the course is a promising sign that more offerings of this type could become available at MIT, according to Bhaskar Pant, executive director of MIT Professional Education, which offers continuing education courses to professionals worldwide. “This program has become a blueprint for MIT faculty to brief senior executives on the impact of AI and other technologies that will transform organizations and industries in significant ways,” he says.

Source: A unique collaboration with US Special Operations Command

Portable technology offers boost for nuclear security, arms control

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About five years ago, Areg Danagoulian, associate professor in the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), became intrigued by a technique developed by researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory that uses a neutron beam to identify unknown materials.

“They could look into a black box containing uranium and say what kind and how much,” says Danagoulian, who directs MIT’s Laboratory of Applied Nuclear Physics (LANPh). “I was thinking about the problem of verifying nuclear material in warheads, and it just dawned on me, this amazing technology could be applied to what we’re working on.”

But there was a problem: This method, called neutron resonance transmission analysis (NRTA), requires an enormous, expensive apparatus, limiting its utility for the kind of on-site nuclear material applications Danagoulian and his research colleagues focus on. To leapfrog this obstacle, they determined to make NRTA technology portable.

A paper describing the results of this effort — a first-of-kind, mobile NRTA apparatus with the ability to detect the elemental composition of specific materials — appears in the May 13 edition of Physical Review Applied.

“Our fundamental goal was to enable on-site technology that could be used to identify any type of nuclear material,” says Ethan A. Klein ’15, a third-year NSE doctoral student, and first author of the paper. “We were able to demonstrate that even without the large, experimental setups of the national labs, our low-cost, portable system could accurately identify a range of materials.”

Co-authors of this paper include Danagoulian; Farheen Naqvi, a research scientist at LANPh; Jacob E. Bickus, a military fellow at Lincoln Laboratory; Hin Y. Lee PhD ’20; and Robert J. Goldston, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and former director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. The National Nuclear Security Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy funded their research.

Follow the neutrons

NRTA rests on long-established science: When bombarded with neutrons at specific energy levels, the nuclei of some materials will undergo a resonant interaction with these neutrons, and achieve a transition to an excited state. “The nucleus becomes a filter, essentially absorbing neutrons of a particular energy, and letting most other neutrons pass through,” explains Danagoulian.

Scientists have developed a library of unique neutron resonance “fingerprints” for the isotopes of many elements, including metallic chemical elements found at the higher end of the periodic table such as uranium and plutonium, which figure in nuclear power systems and nuclear weapons, and elements from the middle, like silver and tungsten, which serve in industrial contexts. With knowledge of these unique fingerprints, it is possible to identify an unknown, nuclear-reactive material.

This is a technique the national laboratories have mastered: With high-intensity, pulsed neutron beams and sensitive detectors, researchers can establish the energy levels of neutrons absorbed by a material and those that pass through, and then map these measurements against the library of isotopic fingerprints.

Researchers from a range of fields have begun experimenting with this technology, including archaeologists seeking to determine the composition of ancient objects. But NRTA’s most profound impact may lie in the nuclear domain. “If you want to find out how much fuel is left in your reactors, you could use NRTA to sample the enrichment level of fuel pellets,” says Naqvi, mentioning one potential application. “Or in arms control to find out whether a warhead set for dismantling is a fake or contains real nuclear materials.”

Bringing samples of such materials to the national labs is generally not practical, with stiff safeguards for nuclear fuel and material used in nuclear arms. Danagoulian’s team set out to design and build an apparatus that could rise to the challenges of on-site NRTA.

Design and build

Klein, who is devoting his doctoral research to this project, spent months simulating the envisioned technology: a deuterium-tritium generator beaming neutrons through a tube at the target material, with a detector placed just behind. In contrast to the apparatuses at national labs, which can reach hundreds of meters in length, the team’s entire setup occupied just 3 meters, and could be moved around by one person. There were challenges, though.

“These neutrons are produced at high energy and we had to find a way to slow them down to produce as many neutrons as possible at the energies of interest,” he says. “Shielding was also a major issue,” adds Naqvi. The “cocktail of neutrons at different energies” dancing off walls and equipment, and the gamma rays produced by nuclear reactions, she says, creates a kind of noise that obscures detection of neutrons transmitted through and those absorbed by the target.

The researchers jury-rigged a version of their apparatus using mail-order components and “a neutron source we’ve had at MIT since 1997 that had been collecting dust on a shelf,” says Klein.

They weren’t so lucky with timing. Just as they were ready to begin their experiments, the pandemic shut down laboratory facilities at MIT. Klein had to monitor from afar when the other researchers conducted initial tests at Princeton’s Plasma Physics Laboratory, under the direction of Robert J. Goldston. They used tungsten as the target material because of its strong resonances. “We had a suboptimal setup, but I saw very faint signals, and I said, ‘There is hope,’” says Danagoulian.

After a return to MIT’s secure vault testing location and several months of iterations to reduce background neutron noise, “we had proof of concept,” says Naqvi. “We could actually identify elements like indium, silver, and uranium, and we didn’t need big devices.”

“Our setup went from something that wasn’t very sensitive to strong signals, to something sensitive to very faint signals,” says Danagoulian. He believes the pandemic might have helped in a strange way, with the team doing their homework and preparing for months while itching to begin experiments, and then working very intensively when they secured rare windows of opportunity in the lab. “Counterintuitively, it contributed to rapid progress,” he says.

The team’s method does not yet capture data at the high resolution of the national labs, which have a precision to see even smaller and fainter signals of neutron energies. But in multiple experiments, their apparatus successfully measured neutron absorption and transmission through four different targets, matching isotopic fingerprints to infer the composition of target material.

“This is powerful technology, encumbered and inhibited in the past by enormous cost and inaccessibility,” says Danagoulian. “And now we have taken away that cost and size barrier.” He estimates a price tag of less than $100,000 for portable NRTA, versus hundreds of millions for the national labs’ equivalent.

Glen Warren, leader of the Safeguards and Arms Control Team at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, finds the team’s work “quite innovative.” On the basis of this research, he is collaborating with Danagoulian on a National Nuclear Security Administration/Department of Energy-funded project exploring the application of NRTA in arms control. Warren says MIT’s compact apparatus “may enable in-field measurements … to confirm that an object presented as a warhead contains nuclear material, which improves our confidence that the object is a warhead.”

Danagoulian’s team is currently preparing a paper summarizing experiments that show their technology can also detect the amount of an element in a target material. This could prove vital in nuclear safeguards program, where determining precise quantities of uranium and plutonium, help distinguish between the real thing and a fake. And they continue to refine the apparatus to improve the resolution of measurements.  

Real progress in nuclear arms verification and other areas of nuclear security requires not just technological breakthroughs, but a willingness to embrace these new approaches. To that end, Danagoulian is working with partners in the national labs, scholars, and policy decision-makers. “We are communicating our results to the scientific, technical, and policy communities,” says Danagoulian. “There might be downsides and there might be opportunities. We will identify both, fix the downsides, and pursue the opportunities.”

Source: Portable technology offers boost for nuclear security, arms control