What does the future hold for generative AI?

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Speaking at the “Generative AI: Shaping the Future” symposium on Nov. 28, the kickoff event of MIT’s Generative AI Week, keynote speaker and iRobot co-founder Rodney Brooks warned attendees against uncritically overestimating the capabilities of this emerging technology, which underpins increasingly powerful tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard.

“Hype leads to hubris, and hubris leads to conceit, and conceit leads to failure,” cautioned Brooks, who is also a professor emeritus at MIT, a former director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and founder of Robust.AI.

“No one technology has ever surpassed everything else,” he added.

The symposium, which drew hundreds of attendees from academia and industry to the Institute’s Kresge Auditorium, was laced with messages of hope about the opportunities generative AI offers for making the world a better place, including through art and creativity, interspersed with cautionary tales about what could go wrong if these AI tools are not developed responsibly.

Generative AI is a term to describe machine-learning models that learn to generate new material that looks like the data they were trained on. These models have exhibited some incredible capabilities, such as the ability to produce human-like creative writing, translate languages, generate functional computer code, or craft realistic images from text prompts.

In her opening remarks to launch the symposium, MIT President Sally Kornbluth highlighted several projects faculty and students have undertaken to use generative AI to make a positive impact in the world. For example, the work of the Axim Collaborative, an online education initiative launched by MIT and Harvard, includes exploring the educational aspects of generative AI to help underserved students.

The Institute also recently announced seed grants for 27 interdisciplinary faculty research projects centered on how AI will transform people’s lives across society.

In hosting Generative AI Week, MIT hopes to not only showcase this type of innovation, but also generate “collaborative collisions” among attendees, Kornbluth said.

Collaboration involving academics, policymakers, and industry will be critical if we are to safely integrate a rapidly evolving technology like generative AI in ways that are humane and help humans solve problems, she told the audience.

“I honestly cannot think of a challenge more closely aligned with MIT’s mission. It is a profound responsibility, but I have every confidence that we can face it, if we face it head on and if we face it as a community,” she said.

While generative AI holds the potential to help solve some of the planet’s most pressing problems, the emergence of these powerful machine learning models has blurred the distinction between science fiction and reality, said CSAIL Director Daniela Rus in her opening remarks. It is no longer a question of whether we can make machines that produce new content, she said, but how we can use these tools to enhance businesses and ensure sustainability. 

“Today, we will discuss the possibility of a future where generative AI does not just exist as a technological marvel, but stands as a source of hope and a force for good,” said Rus, who is also the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

But before the discussion dove deeply into the capabilities of generative AI, attendees were first asked to ponder their humanity, as MIT Professor Joshua Bennett read an original poem.

Bennett, a professor in the MIT Literature Section and Distinguished Chair of the Humanities, was asked to write a poem about what it means to be human, and drew inspiration from his daughter, who was born three weeks ago.

The poem told of his experiences as a boy watching Star Trek with his father and touched on the importance of passing traditions down to the next generation.

In his keynote remarks, Brooks set out to unpack some of the deep, scientific questions surrounding generative AI, as well as explore what the technology can tell us about ourselves.

To begin, he sought to dispel some of the mystery swirling around generative AI tools like ChatGPT by explaining the basics of how this large language model works. ChatGPT, for instance, generates text one word at a time by determining what the next word should be in the context of what it has already written. While a human might write a story by thinking about entire phrases, ChatGPT only focuses on the next word, Brooks explained.

ChatGPT 3.5 is built on a machine-learning model that has 175 billion parameters and has been exposed to billions of pages of text on the web during training. (The newest iteration, ChatGPT 4, is even larger.) It learns correlations between words in this massive corpus of text and uses this knowledge to propose what word might come next when given a prompt.

The model has demonstrated some incredible capabilities, such as the ability to write a sonnet about robots in the style of Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18. During his talk, Brooks showcased the sonnet he asked ChatGPT to write side-by-side with his own sonnet.

But while researchers still don’t fully understand exactly how these models work, Brooks assured the audience that generative AI’s seemingly incredible capabilities are not magic, and it doesn’t mean these models can do anything.

His biggest fears about generative AI don’t revolve around models that could someday surpass human intelligence. Rather, he is most worried about researchers who may throw away decades of excellent work that was nearing a breakthrough, just to jump on shiny new advancements in generative AI; venture capital firms that blindly swarm toward technologies that can yield the highest margins; or the possibility that a whole generation of engineers will forget about other forms of software and AI.

At the end of the day, those who believe generative AI can solve the world’s problems and those who believe it will only generate new problems have at least one thing in common: Both groups tend to overestimate the technology, he said.

“What is the conceit with generative AI? The conceit is that it is somehow going to lead to artificial general intelligence. By itself, it is not,” Brooks said.

Following Brooks’ presentation, a group of MIT faculty spoke about their work using generative AI and participated in a panel discussion about future advances, important but underexplored research topics, and the challenges of AI regulation and policy.

The panel consisted of Jacob Andreas, an associate professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and a member of CSAIL; Antonio Torralba, the Delta Electronics Professor of EECS and a member of CSAIL; Ev Fedorenko, an associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences and an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT; and Armando Solar-Lezama, a Distinguished Professor of Computing and associate director of CSAIL. It was moderated by William T. Freeman, the Thomas and Gerd Perkins Professor of EECS and a member of CSAIL.

The panelists discussed several potential future research directions around generative AI, including the possibility of integrating perceptual systems, drawing on human senses like touch and smell, rather than focusing primarily on language and images. The researchers also spoke about the importance of engaging with policymakers and the public to ensure generative AI tools are produced and deployed responsibly.

“One of the big risks with generative AI today is the risk of digital snake oil. There is a big risk of a lot of products going out that claim to do miraculous things but in the long run could be very harmful,” Solar-Lezama said.

The morning session concluded with an excerpt from the 1925 science fiction novel “Metropolis,” read by senior Joy Ma, a physics and theater arts major, followed by a roundtable discussion on the future of generative AI. The discussion included Joshua Tenenbaum, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a member of CSAIL; Dina Katabi, the Thuan and Nicole Pham Professor in EECS and a principal investigator in CSAIL and the MIT Jameel Clinic; and Max Tegmark, professor of physics; and was moderated by Daniela Rus.

One focus of the discussion was the possibility of developing generative AI models that can go beyond what we can do as humans, such as tools that can sense someone’s emotions by using electromagnetic signals to understand how a person’s breathing and heart rate are changing.

But one key to integrating AI like this into the real world safely is to ensure that we can trust it, Tegmark said. If we know an AI tool will meet the specifications we insist on, then “we no longer have to be afraid of building really powerful systems that go out and do things for us in the world,” he said.

Source: What does the future hold for generative AI?

Celebrating five years of MIT.nano

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There is vast opportunity for nanoscale innovation to transform the world in positive ways — expressed MIT.nano Director Vladimir Bulović as he posed two questions to attendees at the start of the inaugural Nano Summit: “Where are we heading? And what is the next big thing we can develop?”

“The answer to that puts into perspective our main purpose — and that is to change the world,” Bulović, the Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technologies, told an audience of more than 325 in-person and 150 virtual participants gathered for an exploration of nano-related research at MIT and a celebration of MIT.nano’s fifth anniversary.

Over a decade ago, MIT embarked on a massive project for the ultra-small — building an advanced facility to support research at the nanoscale. Construction of MIT.nano in the heart of MIT’s campus, a process compared to assembling a ship in a bottle, began in 2015, and the facility launched in October 2018.

Fast forward five years: MIT.nano now contains nearly 170 tools and instruments serving more than 1,200 trained researchers. These individuals come from over 300 principal investigator labs, representing more than 50 MIT departments, labs, and centers. The facility also serves external users from industry, other academic institutions, and over 130 startup and multinational companies.

A cross section of these faculty and researchers joined industry partners and MIT community members to kick off the first Nano Summit, which is expected to become an annual flagship event for MIT.nano and its industry consortium. Held on Oct. 24, the inaugural conference was co-hosted by the MIT Industrial Liaison Program.

Six topical sessions highlighted recent developments in quantum science and engineering, materials, advanced electronics, energy, biology, and immersive data technology. The Nano Summit also featured startup ventures and an art exhibition.

Watch the videos here.

Seeing and manipulating at the nanoscale — and beyond

“We need to develop new ways of building the next generation of materials,” said Frances Ross, the TDK Professor in Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). “We need to use electron microscopy to help us understand not only what the structure is after it’s built, but how it came to be. I think the next few years in this piece of the nano realm are going to be really amazing.”

Speakers in the session “The Next Materials Revolution,” chaired by MIT.nano co-director for Characterization.nano and associate professor in DMSE James LeBeau, highlighted areas in which cutting-edge microscopy provides insights into the behavior of functional materials at the nanoscale, from anti-ferroelectrics to thin-film photovoltaics and 2D materials. They shared images and videos collected using the instruments in MIT.nano’s characterization suites, which were specifically designed and constructed to minimize mechanical-vibrational and electro-magnetic interference.

Later, in the “Biology and Human Health” session chaired by Boris Magasanik Professor of Biology Thomas Schwartz, biologists echoed the materials scientists, stressing the importance of the ultra-quiet, low-vibration environment in Characterization.nano to obtain high-resolution images of biological structures.

“Why is MIT.nano important for us?” asked Schwartz. “An important element of biology is to understand the structure of biology macromolecules. We want to get to an atomic resolution of these structures. CryoEM (cryo-electron microscopy) is an excellent method for this. In order to enable the resolution revolution, we had to get these instruments to MIT. For that, MIT.nano was fantastic.”

Seychelle Vos, the Robert A. Swanson (1969) Career Development Professor of Life Sciences, shared CryoEM images from her lab’s work, followed by biology Associate Professor Joey Davis who spoke about image processing. When asked about the next stage for CryoEM, Davis said he’s most excited about in-situ tomography, noting that there are new instruments being designed that will improve the current labor-intensive process.

To chart the future of energy, chemistry associate professor Yogi Surendranath is also using MIT.nano to see what is happening at the nanoscale in his research to use renewable electricity to change carbon dioxide into fuel.

“MIT.nano has played an immense role, not only in facilitating our ability to make nanostructures, but also to understand nanostructures through advanced imaging capabilities,” said Surendranath. “I see a lot of the future of MIT.nano around the question of how nanostructures evolve and change under the conditions that are relevant to their function. The tools at MIT.nano can help us sort that out.”

Tech transfer and quantum computing

The “Advanced Electronics” session chaired by Jesús del Alamo, the Donner Professor of Science in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), brought together industry partners and MIT faculty for a panel discussion on the future of semiconductors and microelectronics. “Excellence in innovation is not enough, we also need to be excellent in transferring these to the marketplace,” said del Alamo. On this point, panelists spoke about strengthening the industry-university connection, as well as the importance of collaborative research environments and of access to advanced facilities, such as MIT.nano, for these environments to thrive.

The session came on the heels of a startup exhibit in which eleven START.nano companies presented their technologies in health, energy, climate, and virtual reality, among other topics. START.nano, MIT.nano’s hard-tech accelerator, provides participants use of MIT.nano’s facilities at a discounted rate and access to MIT’s startup ecosystem. The program aims to ease hard-tech startups’ transition from the lab to the marketplace, surviving common “valleys of death” as they move from idea to prototype to scaling up.

When asked about the state of quantum computing in the “Quantum Science and Engineering” session, physics professor Aram Harrow related his response to these startup challenges. “There are quite a few valleys to cross — there are the technical valleys, and then also the commercial valleys.” He spoke about scaling superconducting qubits and qubits made of suspended trapped ions, and the need for more scalable architectures, which we have the ingredients for, he said, but putting everything together is quite challenging.

Throughout the session, William Oliver, professor of physics and the Henry Ellis Warren (1894) Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, asked the panelists how MIT.nano can address challenges in assembly and scalability in quantum science.

“To harness the power of students to innovate, you really need to allow them to get their hands dirty, try new things, try all their crazy ideas, before this goes into a foundry-level process,” responded Kevin O’Brien, associate professor in EECS. “That’s what my group has been working on at MIT.nano, building these superconducting quantum processors using the state-of-the art fabrication techniques in MIT.nano.”

Connecting the digital to the physical

In his reflections on the semiconductor industry, Douglas Carlson, senior vice president for technology at MACOM, stressed connecting the digital world to real-world application. Later, in the “Immersive Data Technology” session, MIT.nano associate director Brian Anthony explained how, at the MIT.nano Immersion Lab, researchers are doing just that.

“We think about and facilitate work that has the human immersed between hardware, data, and experience,” said Anthony, principal research scientist in mechanical engineering. He spoke about using the capabilities of the Immersion Lab to apply immersive technologies to different areas — health, sports, performance, manufacturing, and education, among others. Speakers in this session gave specific examples in hardware, pediatric health, and opera.

Anthony connected this third pillar of MIT.nano to the fab and characterization facilities, highlighting how the Immersion Lab supports work conducted in other parts of the building. The Immersion Lab’s strength, he said, is taking novel work being developed inside MIT.nano and bringing it up to the human scale to think about applications and uses.

Artworks that are scientifically inspired

The Nano Summit closed with a reception at MIT.nano where guests could explore the facility and gaze through the cleanroom windows, where users were actively conducting research. Attendees were encouraged to visit an exhibition on MIT.nano’s first- and second-floor galleries featuring work by students from the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) who were invited to utilize MIT.nano’s tool sets and environments as inspiration for art.

In his closing remarks, Bulović reflected on the community of people who keep MIT.nano running and who are using the tools to advance their research. “Today we are celebrating the facility and all the work that has been done over the last five years to bring it to where it is today. It is there to function not just as a space, but as an essential part of MIT’s mission in research, innovation, and education. I hope that all of us here today take away a deep appreciation and admiration for those who are leading the journey into the nano age.”

Source: Celebrating five years of MIT.nano

A green hydrogen innovation for clean energy

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Renewable energy today — mainly derived from the sun or wind — depends on batteries for storage. While costs have dropped in recent years, the pursuit of more efficient means of storing renewable power continues.

“All of these technologies, unfortunately, have a long way to go,” said Sossina Haile SB ’86, PhD ’92, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, at recent talk at MIT. She was the speaker of the fall 2023 Wulff Lecture, an event hosted by the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) to ignite enthusiasm for the discipline.

To add to the renewable energy mix — and help quicken the pace to a sustainable future — Haile is working on an approach based on hydrogen in fuel cells, particularly for eco-friendly fuel in cars. Fuel cells, like batteries, produce electricity from chemical reactions but don’t lose their charge so long as fuel is supplied.

To generate power, the hydrogen must be pure — not attached to another molecule. Most methods of producing hydrogen today require burning fossil fuel, which generates planet-heating carbon emissions. Haile proposes a “green” process using renewable electricity to extract the hydrogen from steam.

When hydrogen is used in a fuel cell, “you have water as the product, and that’s the beautiful zero emissions,” Haile said, referring to the renewable energy production cycle that is set in motion.

Ammonia fuels hydrogen’s potential

Hydrogen is not yet widely used as a fuel because it’s difficult to transport. For one, it has low energy density, meaning a large volume of hydrogen gas is needed to store a usable amount of energy. And storing it is challenging because hydrogen’s tiny molecules can infiltrate metal tanks or pipes, causing cracks and gas leakage.

Haile’s solution for transporting hydrogen is using ammonia to “carry” it. Ammonia is three parts hydrogen and one part nitrogen, so the hydrogen needs to be separated from the nitrogen before it can be used in the kind of fuel cells that can power cars.

Ammonia has some advantages, including using existing pipelines and a high transmission capacity, Haile said — so more power can be transmitted at any given time.

To extract the hydrogen from ammonia, Haile has built devices that look a lot like fuel cells, with cesium dihydrogen phosphate as an electrolyte. The “superprotonic” material displays high proton conductivity — it allows protons, or positively charged particles, to move through it. This is important for hydrogen, which has just a proton and an electron. By letting only protons through the electrolyte, the device strips hydrogen from the ammonia, leaving behind the nitrogen.

The material has other benefits, too, Haile said: “It’s inexpensive, nontoxic, earth-abundant — all these good things that you want to have when you think about a sustainable energy technology.”

Sparking interest — and hope

Haile’s talk piqued interest in the audience, which nearly filled the 6-120 auditorium at MIT, which seats about 150 people.

Materials science and engineering major Nikhita Law heard hope in Haile’s talk for a more sustainable future.

“A major problem in making our energy system sustainable is finding ways to store energy from renewables,” Law says. Even if hydrogen-powered cars are not as wide-scale as lithium-battery-powered electric cars, “a permanent energy storage station where we convert electricity into hydrogen and convert it back seems like it makes more sense than mining more lithium.”

Another DMSE student, senior Daniel Tong, learned about the challenges involved in transporting hydrogen at another seminar and was curious to learn more. “This was something I hadn't thought of: Can you carry hydrogen more effectively in a different form? That’s really cool.”

He adds that talks like the Wulff Lecture are helpful in keeping people up to date in a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary field such as materials science and engineering, which spans chemistry, physics, engineering, and other disciplines. “This is a really good way to get exposed to different parts of materials science. There are so many more facets than you know of.”

In her talk, Haile encouraged audience members to get involved in sustainability research.

“There’s lots of room for further insight and materials discovery,” she said.

Haile concluded by underscoring the challenges faced by developing countries in dealing with climate change impacts, particularly those near the equator where there isn’t adequate infrastructure to deal with big swings in precipitation and temperature. For the people who aren’t driven to solve problems that affect people on the other side of the world, Haile offered some extra motivation.

“I’m sure many of you enjoy coffee. This is going to put the coffee crops in jeopardy as well,” she said.

Source: A green hydrogen innovation for clean energy

Judgment, reason, and the university

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At a time when universities are subject to intense political pressure, it is tempting to think they can follow a template for establishing to all concerned that educational institutions are neutral entities. But circumstances will almost always complicate such efforts, MIT Professor Malick Ghachem suggested in a recent public lecture.

The talk focused on the Kalven Report, a widely cited 1967 University of Chicago document heralding neutrality as a goal for institutions of higher education. While that may often be desirable as a pragmatic goal, Ghachem observed, there is no absolute, immutable condition of neutrality that can be achieved by complex institutions. Instead, sound institutional positioning requires reasonable judgment, applied again and again.

For higher education leaders in today’s world, Ghachem noted, who are often implored to comment on civic and global matters, “There is no way to avoid saying something. The issue is, what do you say, how, and how often.”

Ghachem’s lecture, titled “Neutrality, Diversity, and the University,” was part of an MIT event series, “Dialogues Across Difference: Building Community at MIT.” In it, Ghachem, the head of MIT’s History Section, detailed the history of the Kalven Report, which was rooted in Vietnam War-era protests at the University of Chicago. The talk outlined the differing views that existed among its creators and offered further thoughts about the dynamics of seeking neutrality.

“Neutrality is an unstable value,” Ghachem said, noting that professing a goal of neutrality can be deployed as a tactic by people with their own aims and agendas. Indeed, Ghachem added, the idea of neutrality can start “veering off into a nonneutral direction.”

And even in seemingly routine, everyday matters, institutions are often faced with choices about funding and support that may never be viewed as value-free.

“When values and the expenditure of money collide, a decision has to be made,” said Ghachem. “And at that moment, neutrality, or honor, or whatever it is, are not going to tell what the answer is. No report will.”

The community dialogue was held in MIT’s Samberg Conference Center on Oct. 26 and also shown via webcast. The event was co-sponsored by the offices of the President, Provost, and Chancellor at MIT. Interim Deputy Institute Community and Equity Officer Tracie Jones-Barrett served as a moderator for a question-and-answer session following the talk.

Ghachem was introduced by MIT Provost Cynthia Barnhart, who called the talk part of the “essential work of cultivating civil discourse, critical thinking, and empathy among members of the MIT community.” She also noted that the event series was “one of many activities our staff, faculty, and students are working on to foster the respectful exchange of viewpoints.”

Ghachem is both a trained historian and lawyer; he has a BA in history and a JD from Harvard University, and earned his MA and PhD in history from Stanford University. A leading scholar of slavery and abolition in the Atlantic world, as well as legal and constitutional history, he is the author of “The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution” (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

The historical background for the Kalven Report is the Vietnam War, especially the period of student protest following the U.S. government decision to roll back the S-2 student draft deferment rule. That embroiled the University of Chicago and many other institutions in significant contention on campus. 

The Kalven Report, Ghachem said, “embodies a dream of the American university as a space where minds can be free because no one is told what they can or must think.” In the report’s view, the university houses social critics — faculty and students — without itself functioning as a critic; heavy-handed institutional positions would threaten the diversity of viewpoints, in the report’s estimation. The report suggests overturning the stance of neutrality for only a couple of reasons: threats to the university’s mission as a site of free inquiry, and times when the university is acting in its corporate capacity (such as legal matters).

And yet, Ghachem noted, the committee members that worked on the Kalven Report — it is named after its chair, Harry Kalven, a first amendment legal scholar — had varying views about the matter. The eminent historian John Hope Franklin, Ghachem observed, believed we “cannot be indifferent to the disorders and defects in our society that are themselves opposed to its [the university’s] existence as a free intellectual community.” Jacob Getzels, an education professor, warned that the idea of “neutrality” had aided the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany. Gilbert White, a professor of geography and former president of Haverford College, contended it was important for universities to actively “model ethical action,” Ghachem explained.

From still another perspective, the prominent economist George Stigler contended that the sum total of individual actions and views would create a kind of civic equivalent of the “general equilibrium” modeled in market economics, thus providing sufficient balance and rendering institutional views less necessary.

To Ghachem, this disagreement within the Kalven Report committee, and the possible range of ethical stances it encompassed, was glossed over in the final report and is largely and wrongly overlooked today.

“The Kalven Report is an obscuring of real differences that existed among the committee [members] who made up that report,” Ghachem said. “That is why we are struggling with this ideal today. Because we don’t fully acknowledge the extent of the disagreement.”

Ghachem suggested there were a few other shortcomings of the Kalven Report, or at least the way we think about it today. For one thing, referencing the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, Ghachem noted that, in effect, nothing really exists outside of history; the idea of neutrality will always be set with reference to the politics of its era.

It also may be unclear who at a university is thought to speak for that institution, as Ghachem outlined. Beyond that, he noted, many different kinds of universities may exist, some oriented explicitly around certain priorities that make political neutrality on all issues less of an institutional North Star.

For all of this, Ghachem added, when assessing the Kalven Report, we can still “treat it as a model even if it’s philosophically very problematic.” An institution can move toward balance and fairness at all times, without expecting to achieve a perpetual, self-sustaining state of neutrality.

In a question-and-answer session following his remarks, Ghachem said he strongly agreed that it is important for university members to speak up against political interference — such as state government leaders trying to control curriculum and content decisions at public universities, schools, and libraries. Such a view is also aligned with the Kalven Report.

“Our very mission as a university is bound up with the fate of other universities in the United States,” Ghachem said, adding that he thinks “it’s appropriate for universities to stand up for shared university values.” For instance, he observed, “If we don’t say something about curriculum, then there’s really nothing left for us to stick up for.”

In answering audience questions, Ghachem again underlined the practical value of aiming for something like neutrality in “prudential” everyday terms, rather than thinking of it as a philosophical condition one might enter into. For instance, aiming for balance can often serve scholars and students well in the classroom.

“I try to model a version of the Kalven Report as an instructor,” Ghachem said. “I don’t cite it. But the ethos that it tries to evoke, as a prudential matter, that’s what I try to do, because I think that’s the best way for students to have discussions. And as scholar I try to do the same thing, in the sense that if there are people I disagree with in the field, I feel like I want to read what they say, and understand and learn from it, and respond to it.”

Source: Judgment, reason, and the university

A civil discourse on climate change

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A new MIT initiative designed to encourage open dialogue on campus kicked off with a conversation focused on how to address challenges related to climate change.

“Climate Change: Existential Threat or Bump in the Road” featured Steve Koonin, theoretical physicist and former U.S. undersecretary for science during the Obama administration, and Kerry Emanuel, professor emeritus of atmospheric science at MIT. A crowd of roughly 130 students, staff, and faculty gathered in an MIT lecture hall for the discussion on Tuesday, Oct. 24. 

“The bump is strongly favored,” Koonin said when the talk began, referring to his contention that climate change was a “bump in the road” rather than an existential threat. After proposing a future in which we could potentially expect continued growth in America’s gross domestic product despite transportation and infrastructure challenges related to climate change, he concluded that investments in nuclear energy and capacity increases related to storing wind- and solar-generated energy could help mitigate climate-related phenomena. 

Emanuel, while mostly agreeing with Koonin’s assessment of climate challenges and potential solutions, cautioned against underselling the threat of human-aided climate change.

“Humanity’s adaptation to climate stability hasn’t prepared us to effectively manage massive increases in temperature and associated effects,” he argued. “We’re poorly adapted to less-frequent events like those we’re observing now.”

Decarbonization, Emanuel noted, can help mitigate global conflicts related to fossil fuel usage. “Carbonization kills between 8 and 9 million people annually,” he said.

The conversation on climate change is one of several planned on campus this academic year. The speaker series is one part of “Civil Discourse in the Classroom and Beyond,” an initiative being led by MIT philosophers Alex Byrne and Brad Skow. The two-year project is meant to encourage the open exchange of ideas inside and outside college and university classrooms. 

The speaker series pairs external thought leaders with MIT faculty to encourage the interrogation and debate of all kinds of ideas.

Finding common ground

At the talk on climate change, both Koonin and Emanuel recommended a slow and steady approach to mitigation efforts, reminding attendees that, for example, developing nations can’t afford to take a developed world approach to climate change. 

“These people have immediate needs to meet,” Koonin reminded the audience, “which can include fossil fuel use.”

Both Koonin and Emanuel recommended a series of steps to assist with both climate change mitigation and effective messaging:

  1. Sustain and improve climate science — continue to investigate and report findings.
  2. Improve climate communications for non-experts — tell an easy-to-understand and cohesive story.
  3. Focus on reliability and affordability before mitigation — don’t undertake massive efforts that may disrupt existing energy transmission infrastructure.
  4. Adopt a “graceful” approach to decarbonization — consider impacts as broadly as possible.
  5. Don’t constrain energy supply in the developing world.
  6. Increase focus on developing and delivering alternative responses  — consider the potential ability to scale power generation, and delivery methods like nuclear energy.

Mitigating climate risk requires political will, careful consideration, and an improved technical approach to energy policy, both concluded.

“We have to learn to deal rationally with climate risk in a polarized society,” Koonin offered.

The audience asked both speakers questions about impacts on nonhuman species (“We don’t know but we should,” both shared); nuclear fusion (“There isn’t enough tritium to effectively scale the widespread development of fusion-based energy; perhaps in 30 to 40 years,” Koonin suggested); and the planetary boundaries framework (“There’s good science underway in this space and I’m curious to see where it’s headed,” said Emanuel.) 

“The event was a great success,” said Byrne, afterward. “The audience was engaged, and there was a good mix of faculty and students.”

“One surprising thing,” Skow added, “was both Koonin and Emanuel were down on wind and solar power, [especially since] the idea that we need to transition to both is certainly in the air.”

More conversations

A second speaker series event, held earlier this month, was “Has Feminism Made Progress?” with Mary Harrington, author of “Feminism Against Progress,” and Anne McCants, MIT professor of history. An additional discussion planned for spring 2024 will cover the public health response to Covid-19.

Discussions from the speaker series will appear as special episodes on “The Good Fight,” a podcast hosted by Johns Hopkins University political scientist Yascha Mounk.

The Civil Discourse project is made possible due, in part, to funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and a collaboration between the MIT History Section and Concourse, a program featuring an integrated, cross-disciplinary approach to investigating some of humanity’s most interesting questions.

The Civil Discourse initiative includes two components: the speaker series open to the MIT community, and seminars where students can discuss freedom of expression and develop skills for successfully engaging in civil discourse.

Source: A civil discourse on climate change

Celebrating diversity and cultural connections

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The aroma of global delicacies filled MIT’s Bush Room, as students made cultural connections and answered trivia questions at the third “Heritage Meets Heritage” event.

The event is organized by MIT Global Languages, and has become a tradition. It was first held in spring 2022, and again that fall. The third event, held Oct. 19, continued in the same theme: celebrating the diversity and culture of the MIT community.

The event is co-sponsored by the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) and Hermanas Unidas.

Annabel Tiong, a first-year student studying biological engineering, is taking Chinese this semester, and came to meet other students taking Chinese. “But I also wanted to see some of the other languages that are available. I knew a lot of other students from other language classes would be here. So it was a good chance to meet them,” she said.

Tiong is Chinese herself and grew up speaking the language, but she never knew how to read or write Chinese. She’s taking the Chinese streamlined class, and hopes it will help her with communicating in Chinese with her parents over text and email.

While enjoying an empanada, Tiong said the event helped her learn about other cultures. 

“Some of the people at my table are from Korea and they were telling me about Korean traditions. I didn’t realize how similar they were to Chinese traditions. It was great to make those kinds of connections,” she said.

Min-Min Liang, a lecturer in Chinese, says she had no idea how the event would go when she helped launch it in 2022. She saw it as a way to highlight the beauty of diversity among the MIT community.

“My intention back then, as it is now, was to bring everyone together,” she says.

She says that with the tremendous support from the Global Languages department and all instructors from each language group, the third event was a success. “I witnessed our community — teachers and students alike — coming together to celebrate our differences while also recognizing our similarities.”

Students sat in groups at desks throughout the room, and between rounds of trivia questions, they took time to discuss various topics that presented opportunities to share something unique about their respective heritage.

Some of the discussion topics included: 

  • “How is love and appreciation celebrated in your culture?” 
  • “Do you consider yourself biracial? If so, how is this expressed?” 
  • “On what holidays do people give gifts to each other in your culture?” 

At the end of the event, everyone in attendance enjoyed samplings of the food, from pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese rolls) to baklava.

First-year student Nielsen Euvrard says he enjoyed making connections with the other language departments at MIT and with MISTI. And he found the conversations with other students insightful. “The discussion activities were really great for my friends and I to reflect on ourselves and how our cultural backgrounds shape our decisions. And the variety of food was great,” he says.

Brian Carrick, a second-year PhD student in chemical engineering, is taking Portuguese this semester. He isn’t a heritage speaker, but attended the event to learn more about the global experiences of those within the MIT community. “It was so fun to learn about just a few of the cultural celebrations and experiences that other students grew up with. It really puts a bigger picture into perspective,” he says.

Emily Goodling, a German language lecturer, helps to organize the event. She says “Heritage Meets Heritage” reveals a sort of deeper purpose behind the learning and teaching of languages that happens in the Global Studies and Languages Section: that of bringing people together, of creating community across national borders and linguistic barriers. 

“It was incredible to see students from so many different backgrounds in a single room, having meaningful conversations about what it means to participate in multiple cultures,” says Goodling. “I think this mirrors what happens when we learn languages: we grow our ability to communicate empathetically and authentically with people who are different than us. And that is vitally important right now.”

Maria Khotimsky, a senior lecturer in Russian, also helps to organize the event.

“'Heritage Meets Heritage' is a unique event that brings MIT students for meaningful conversations about languages and cultures, and a feast of treats from around the world,” says Khotimsky. “It is also a testament to the camaraderie and the incredible teamwork of Global Languages lecturers and staff who work together to make this event possible."

Khotimsky says Global Languages plans to host the event annually each fall semester.

Source: Celebrating diversity and cultural connections

Foreign policy scholars examine the China-Russia relationship

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What is the nature of the relationship between China and Russia today, and how extensively will the two countries keep cooperating in the future? It is a leading question of international relations.

On Thursday, a public panel discussion at MIT offered some answers, with foreign-policy scholars offering that China and Russia do not really have an “alliance” in a traditional sense, although they maintain a durable alignment based on not merely convenience but also some deeper common interests and perspectives.

“The partnership with Russia is big priority for China despite the fallout for certain foreign policy goals from the war in Ukraine, and that’s because there’s a certain amount of interdependence between China and Russia, shared goals, despite differences in many areas,” said Elizabeth Wishnick, an expert in Chinese foreign policy. “The limits to the partnership have always been apparent, but sometimes I think we underestimate its staying power.”

Those shared goals are apparent for both parties, including from the Russian point of view, as the panelists emphasized.

“Ultimately this certainly is not just a transactional relationship; it’s a relationship that’s been evolving for quite some time,” said Natasha Kuhrt, a scholar specializing in Russian foreign policy and security.

The question of how world powers engage and align themselves is certainly topical, with U.S. President Joe Biden meeting China’s president, Xi Jinping, on Thursday in California, a development that might offer a slight thawing of U.S.-China relations. Among other things, China has remained neutral about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while in the U.S., the Biden administration has adamantly opposed the invasion.

The event, titled, “A permanent partnership? How Xi and Putin are shaping a turbulent world,” was held online as part of MIT’s Starr Forum series, an ongoing series of public discussions about pressing international matters. The Starr Forum is organized by MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS), and Thursday’s event was co-sponsored by MIT’s Security Studies Program and the MISTI MIT-Eurasia program.

Wishnick is currently a senior research scientist in China and Indo-Pacific security affairs at the Center for Naval Analyses, while on leave as a professor of political science at Montclair State University. Her research interests include Chinese foreign policy and China-Russian relations, as well as Arctic geopolitics.

Kuhrt is a senior lecturer of international peace and security in the Department of War Studies at King's College London. She focuses on Russian and Eurasian security matters and foreign policy, especially pertaining to Asia.

The event was moderated by Carol Saivetz, a senior fellow in the MIT Security Studies Program and an expert on Soviet and Russian foreign policy.

The speakers noted that China and Russia are certainly linked by, among other things, economic interests. As Wishnick pointed out, China gets 19 percent of its oil and 25 percent of its coal from Russia; with coal accounting for about half of China’s energy consumption, those import levels are very significant. Indeed, while Russia is only China’s 10th-largest trade partner — behind Malaysia — its role as an energy supplier gives it a crucial role in the Chinese economy.

What Russia gets out of the partnership is not just an export destination for fossil fuels, however. A better relationship with China means Russia needs to commit fewer troops to its 2,300-mile border between the countries. In turn, that has freed up more Russian troops for the war in Ukraine.

“We’ve seen also the way in which Moscow deployed a large number of troops from the Russian Far East to the Ukrainian battlefield, and that hardly would have been possible 20-odd years ago,” Kuhrt said. “So, just that fact itself is of great significance.”

Whatever China’s own high-level assessment of Russia’s invasion, China has kept to its neutral public position with regard to the war.

“Clearly China is concerned about what’s happening in Ukraine but happy to project this kind of neutral stance,” Kuhrt said. “They do come together, Russia and China, in their view of the war essentially as being a proxy war, and being a war against western hegemonism. So, while China does profess to be neutral, I think it seems to be clear that they have a very similar view of the kind of underlying causes of this war, despite Chinese concerns about sovereignty.”

She added: “I don’t think it’s an alliance, otherwise China might have come to Russia’s assistance, and I don’t think it will ever be an alliance. The military level of cooperation is not at such a level that we can really call it an alliance relationship.”

And yet, as both scholars noted, the seemingly elusive sense of definition behind the relationship may help both partners in it.

“There is a strategic ambiguity about the partnership that increases its deterrent value even without a full-scale alliance,” Wishnick said. “For China, I would say that Russia is a consequential partner, though a problematic one.”

During a question-and-answer session following the presentations, Saivetz asked the panelists which issues could damage the China-Russia relationship. Wishnick suggested that nuclear security issues were “the main red line” in the partnership, along with China’s territorial integrity; both agreed that Arctic geopolitics could also be a source of tension, among other things.

The scholars were also asked if Xi’s visit to Biden in the U.S. had any bearing on China-Russia relations. They largely concurred that it represented a straightforward matter of China trying to findways to re-engage with the world in order to emerge from its economic doldrums.

“I don’t think that this visit was meant to signal anything to Russia,” Wishnick said. “I think it was, for Xi Jinping it was an opportunity to help revive old economic ties, not just with the U.S. but globally, at a time when the Chinese economy is struggling.”

Still, Xi’s visit might reflect one thing about the China-Russia relationship: the altered size of the countries’ economies. For decades after World War II the U.S. and Russia were the superpowers in the Cold War world, but China’s economic growth has altered that. Now, the U.S. and China have the biggest economies, in that order.

“This is maybe becoming a G2 world, even if they’re not really actually articulating it in that way,” Kuhrt said.

Source: Foreign policy scholars examine the China-Russia relationship

Panel examines Israel-Hamas conflict

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As the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas unfolds, observers and news reports depict the prospect of a near-term halt in warfare as being unlikely. A panel of experts at an MIT public event on Nov. 1 evaluated the dynamics of the conflict, and discussed the elements that could be necessary for longer-term stability — while noting that any ideas about a lasting resolution are necessarily speculative.

The purpose of the discussion was “to better understand some of the historic antecedents and strategic pressures facing various parties, including for Israel, Hamas, other actors in the region, and the United States,” said event moderator Evan Lieberman, director of MIT’s Center for International Studies, in his opening remarks. “We’re here to understand how such extraordinary levels of violence could occur, and what this might mean for the future.”

The current fighting is a reaction to the Oct. 7 terror attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians in Israel. In response, Israel has launched military action in Palestinian-populated Gaza, where Hamas is centered. The conflict appears to be one that other countries, for all their concern about limiting escalation in the region, have little ability to influence.

Among other things, “The United States at this point doesn’t have a whole lot of control over events,” observed Steven Simon, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), and a former Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS).

The public discussion, “The Israel-Hamas conflict: Expert perspectives on the ongoing crisis,” was held online, with an audience of almost 500 people. The Starr Forum is a public event series held by CIS, focusing on leading issues of global interest.

In moderating Wednesday’s event, Lieberman, who is also the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa, called the ongoing events “a calamity of epic proportions, with regional and global implications.”

The speakers at the MIT event on Wednesday were Peter Krause PhD ’11, an associate professor of political science at Boston College who studies international security, Middle East politics, and terrorism and political violence, among other subjects; David Kirkpatrick, a staff writer at The New Yorker, who previously served as a reporter on international politics for The New York Times; Marsin Alshamary PhD ’20, an assistant professor at Boston College who focuses on religion, civil society, and social movements in the Shi’a Middle East; and Simon, who served as the NSC senior director for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama administration and as NSC senior director for counterterrorism in the Clinton administration.

Krause, who spoke first, noted his research shows that violence tends to increase when there are divisons within a movement, and suggested the attacks by Hamas may have occurred, in part, “to improve its position of power” among Palestinians.

And while Israel has clearly stated what its military goals are, Krause observed, when it comes to the postmilitary status of Gaza, “There is no clear consensus among Israeli political and military leadership about what should come next.” Still, he said, it is important to “have a plan for the day after.”

Krause then evaluated the likelihood of several potential postmilitary outcomes, including Israel annexing Gaza, a mass expulsion of Gaza residents, or an Israeli resettlement of Gaza, all of which he regards as highly unlikely. Krause also suggested it is at least possible that Israel might develop a new buffer zone at the edge of Gaza, or even try West Bank-style mixed control of the area. It is still a bit more plausible, he offered, that Israel might continue a policy of ongoing strikes against Hamas in the area, even after its main military operations finish. Finally Krause noted, it is at least “in the realm of possibility” that Hamas could maintain power in Gaza, despite Israel’s stated aims.

Ultimately, Krause suggested, some kind of modus vivendi is necessary, since “the Israelis and Palestinians are destined to live side by side in one form or another. Peace, security, and prosperity for one is significantly dependent on peace, security, and prosperity for the other. Strategies for the current conflict in Gaza and the broader Israeli-Palestinian relationship that reflect this realization at least have a chance of improving the situation over time.”

Why did Hamas choose to deliver this attack at this time, especially given the reprisals it has generated? In his remarks, Kirkpatrick discussed that issue based on recent reporting he has published in The New Yorker, particularly an interview with Mousa Abu Marzuk, a leader on the political side of Hamas’ operations.

Kirkpatrick emphasized that this reporting is simply to examine the stated thinking of those involved with Hamas, and does not imply any alignment with those views.

“Let’s be clear, there is no justification for the wanton killing of civilians, and I am in no way intending to at all justify the attack on October 7,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick cited four factors Abu Marzuk mentioned while discussing the attacks: A sense that the situation of Palestinians has been overlooked globally, the dispute over the West Bank, control over the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and a belief that largely Arab-populated countries have been less vocal in recent years in support of Palestinians.

Hamas may have been further trying to establish itself as the sole leadership group of the Palestinian people, he noted.

“It’s reasonable to think that an element of this was Palestinian politics, that what [Hamas was] hoping to do on that day was … to finish the erasure of the Palestinian Authority and to establish themselves as the strongest, the main, the last voice of the Palestinian people,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick also recounted asking Abu Marzuk whether Hamas, in launching its attacks, regarded itself as acting from a position of strength or weakness. Abu Marzuk, Kirkpatrick stated, “tried to have it both ways,” emphasizing that Hamas was weaker than Israel overall, but had shown its capacities by fighting on Israel’s soil. However, Kirkpatrick said on Wednesday, discussing his own view about Abu Marzuk’s answer, “Obviously, I’m not convinced by that. This kind of violence seems to be much more evidence of weakness than strength. When you’re strong, you don’t need to kill civilians like that.”

Kirkpatrick added that he thought renewed discussions of a two-state plan for Israelis and Palestinians were currently unrealistic.

“All in all, it is a very dark picture,” Kirkpatrick said.

Alshamary, in her comments, focused on the regional reaction to the war, connecting popular opinion to government responses. While most countries in the Middle East are not democracies, she noted, “they are still in a sense vulnerable to public pressure, and that has been mounting in recent weeks,” as pro-Palestinian protests have swelled.

Different countries also have varying relationships with Israel, which — along with the extent of authoritarian control in a given country — helps explain their responses. Egypt and Jordan have formal diplomatic ties to Israel; as a result, Alshamary stated, Egypt has been positioning itself as a “mediator” to an extent. Jordan’s links to the U.S. mean some leadership statements decrying Israel’s military response have been a matter of “salvaging public opinion,” she added, while Turkey, which has a longer history of diplomatic relations with Israel, has been “riding a fine line” and seeking a balance in its public pronouncements.

Other countries in the Middle East have been calling for de-escalation of the war, Alshamary noted, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan — which, along with Saudi Arabia, have recently been considering normalization of relations with Israel.

And yet, Alshamary said, she did not expect that to yield new steps toward a longer-term resolution of the situation. For instance, she suggested, Saudi Arabia “really hasn’t signaled dedication to using normalization as a tool to achieve any gains for the Palestinians.” Instead, she added, Saudi Arabia may well see normalization as something that will yield more gains for itself, from the U.S.

And while some Middle East autocracies are relatively immune from public pressure, those with a greater need for support are bound to be sensitive to it, she observed.

“In the future, any steps that Arab leaders take toward Israel without a concurrent commitment to achieving gains for the Palestinians will be costly and likely publicly scrutinized,” Alshamary said. “This doesn’t mean an end to the peace process by any means, especially the one that has been envisioned, but I think we need to have a more frank discussion … about the likelihood of achieving [accords] in any meaningful and true and genuine way.”

Simon spoke to a greater extent about U.S. aims and actions, while acknowledging that there are clear limitations to the country’s influence.

“The administration’s strategy is essentially crisis management,” Simon noted, while observing that the U.S. government “has little control, I think, at this point,” despite Israel and the U.S. being longtime allies.

Still, Simon noted, the U.S. foreign policy apparatus is also evaluating what might occur after this phase of Israel’s military operations conclude — and allowing for many possibilities, he said.

“The U.S. government now is just beginning to wrap its heads around the day after, and they’re thinking about this pretty carefully, without having drawn any conclusions,” Simon stated.

Simon also noted that no one is actively pursuing the two-state peace process, which had its greatest momentum in the 1990s. Still, Simon outlined, there are hypothetical scenarios in which Israel could hand off control of Gaza to some kind of multilateral entity. But that scenario, or a handoff to the Palestinian Authority, he suggested, depends on the political orientation of the Israeli government that emerges from the crisis. In turn, he noted, the longer-term effects of the current crisis on Israeli public opinion are uncertain.  

And without support inside and outside government, Simon concluded, a more enduring resolution “will not be possible.” In lieu of that, he added, in his view, “the future for Palestinians in Gaza, as well for Israelis, I believe, will be really rather dark.”

The Starr Forum event was part of MIT’s pursuit of open engagement and dialogue on difficult issues. After Oct. 7, MIT President Sally Kornbluth released a statement condemning the terror attacks. MIT’s Muslim and Jewish chaplains have also issued a joint statement calling for mutual respect among all on campus.

Source: Panel examines Israel-Hamas conflict

Books under attack, then and now

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Richard Ovenden was dressed appropriately for the start of Banned Books Week. He proudly displayed the American Library Association’s “Free people read freely” T-shirt as he approached the podium at Hayden Library on Oct. 2. Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian at the University of Oxford, spoke about the willful destruction of recorded knowledge for an event titled “Book Wars,” the inaugural event in a new series called Conversations on Academic Freedom and Expression (CAFE), a collaboration between the MIT Libraries and History at MIT. 

“The idea for CAFE is to introduce the MIT community to the broader landscape of what’s going on in the world of academic freedom and free expression, beyond some of our local exchanges,” says Malick Ghachem, history professor and department head and a member of MIT’s Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression. 

“The libraries were a natural partner for the CAFE series,” says Chris Bourg, director of MIT Libraries. “The value of free and open access to information underpins everything we do.” 

Ovenden, who writes extensively on libraries, archives, and information management, is the author of “Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge,” which was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize in 2021. In his MIT talk he provided a historical overview of attacks on libraries — from the library of Ashurbanipal in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh (now northern Iraq), destroyed by fire in 612 BC, to book burning under the Nazi regime to current efforts across the United States to remove or restrict access to books.

In spite of this history of loss, Ovenden finds hope in “the human impulse to preserve, to pass on, to bear witness, to allow for diverse ideas to thrive.” He detailed the extraordinary actions people have taken to save knowledge, citing the “Paper Brigade,” a forced labor unit of poets and intellectuals in Nazi-occupied Vilnius who smuggled and hid rare books and manuscripts, and the tragic death of Aida Buturovic, a 32-year-old librarian who was killed as she tried to rescue books during the 1992 assault on the National and University Library in Sarajevo.

Ovenden concluded by making the case that libraries and archives are the infrastructure for democracy — institutions dedicated not only to education, but to safeguarding the rights of citizens, providing reference points for facts and truth, preserving identity, and enabling a diversity of views. Despite millennia of attacks, libraries continue to fight back, most recently with public libraries expanding digital access to combat book bans nationwide. 

Following Ovenden’s talk, Ghachem led a discussion and audience Q&A that touched on the connections between book bans and so-called “cancel culture,” how censorship itself is used as a means of expressing political views, and growing distrust of expertise.  

The CAFE series is one of several opportunities to engage the Institute community that emerged from the Report of the MIT Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression. Ghachem also started a new first-year advising seminar, “Free Expression, Pluralism, and the University,” and the Institute Community and Equity Office launched Dialogues Across Difference: Building Community at MIT. A second CAFE event is being planned for the spring term. 

“At this moment in our history, we should try to encourage discussion, and not debate,” said Ovenden. “We must try to move away from this idea that it’s a contest, that it’s a battle, and encourage and foster the idea of listening and discussion. And that's all part of the deliberation that I think is necessary for a healthy society.”

“Book Wars: CAFE with Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, Oxford” was co-sponsored by MIT Libraries, MIT History, and MIT Open Learning.

Source: Books under attack, then and now

Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks about nuclear power’s role at a critical moment in history

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On Sept. 22, Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), delivered the 2023 David J. Rose Lecture in Nuclear Technology at MIT. This lecture series was started nearly 40 years ago in honor of the late Professor David Rose — a nuclear engineering professor and fusion technology pioneer. In addition to his scientific contributions, Rose was invested in the ethical issues associated with new technologies. His widow, Renate Rose, who spoke briefly before Grossi’s lecture, said that her husband adamantly called for the abolishment of nuclear weapons, insisting that all science should serve the common good and that every scientist should follow his or her conscience.

In his prefatory remarks, MIT Vice Provost Richard Lester, a former PhD student of David Rose, said that even today, he still feels the influence of his thesis advisor, many decades after they’d worked together. Lester called it a “great honor” to introduce Grossi, noting that the director general was guiding the agency through an especially demanding time. “His presence with us is a reminder that the biggest challenges we face today are truly global challenges, and that international organizations like the IAEA have a central role to play in resolving them.”

The title of Grossi’s talk was “The IAEA at the Crossroads of History,” and he made a strong case for this being a critical juncture, or “inflection point,” for nuclear power. He started his speech, however, with somewhat of an historical footnote, discussing a letter that Rose sent in 1977 to Sigvard Eklund, IAEA’s then-director general. Rose urged the IAEA to establish a coordinated worldwide program in controlled fusion research. It took a while for the idea to gain traction, but international collaboration in fusion formally began in 1985, eight years after Rose’s proposal. “I thought I would begin with this story, because it shows that cooperation between MIT and the IAEA goes back a long way,” Grossi said.

Overall, he painted a mostly encouraging picture for the future of nuclear power, largely based on its potential to generate electricity or thermal energy without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. In the face of rapidly-unfolding climate change, Grossi said, “low-carbon nuclear power is now seen as part of [the] solution by an increasing number of people. It’s getting harder to be an environmentalist in good faith who is against nuclear.”

Public acceptance is growing throughout the world, he added. In Sweden, where people had long protested against radioactive waste transport, a poll now shows that more than 85 percent of the people approve of the nation’s high-level waste handling and disposal facilities. Even Finland’s Green Party has embraced nuclear power, Grossi said. “I don’t think we could imagine a pro-nuclear Green Party five years ago, let alone in 1970 or ’80.”

Fifty-seven nuclear reactors are being constructed right now in 17 countries. One of the world’s newest facilities, the Barakah nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates, “was built on ground rich in oil and natural gas,” he said. In China, the world’s first pebble-bed high-temperature reactor has been operating for two years, offering potential advantages in safety, efficiency, and modularity. For countries that don’t have any nuclear plants, small modular reactors of this kind “offer the chance of a more gradual and affordable way to scale up nuclear power,” Grossi noted. The IAEA is working with countries like Ghana, Kenya, and Senegal to help them develop the safety and regulatory infrastructures that would be needed to build and responsibly operate modular nuclear reactors like this.

Grossi also discussed a number of lesser-known projects the IAEA is engaged in that have little to do with power generation. Seventy percent of the people in Africa, for example, have no access to radiotherapy to fight cancer. To this end, the IAEA is now helping to provide radiotherapy services in Tanzania and other African countries. At the IAEA’s Marine Environmental Laboratories in Monaco, researchers are using isotopic tracing techniques to study the impact of microplastic pollution on the oceans. The Covid-19 pandemic illustrated the potentially devastating effects of zoonotic diseases that can infect humans with animal-borne viruses. To counteract this threat, the IAEA has sent hundreds of reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) machines — capable of detecting specific genetic materials in pathogens — to more than 130 countries.

Meanwhile, new risks have emerged from the war in Ukraine, where fighting has raged for a year-and-a-half near the six nuclear reactors in Zaporizhzhia — Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Early in the conflict, the IAEA sent a team of experts to monitor the plant and to do everything possible to prevent a nuclear accident that would bring “even more misery to people who are already suffering so much,” Grossi said. A major accident, he added, would likely stall investments in nuclear power at a time when its future prospects were starting to brighten.

At the end of his talk, Grossi returned to the subject of fusion, which he expects to become an important energy source, perhaps in the not-too-distant future. He was encouraged by the visit he’d just had to the MIT spinoff company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems. With regard to fusion, he said, “for the first time, all the pieces of the puzzle are there: the physics, the policy drivers, and the investment.” In fact, an agreement was signed on the day of his lecture, which made MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center an IAEA collaboration center — the second such center in the United States.

“When I think of all the new forms of collaboration happening today, I imagine Professor Rose would be delighted,” Grossi said. “It really is something to hold [his] letter and know how much progress has been made since 1977 in fusion. I look forward to our collaboration going forward.”

Source: Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks about nuclear power’s role at a critical moment in history

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