Posts tagged with "MIT"

Garment worker: MIT is developing a robot that can help elderly people get dressed

July 14, 2021

A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a robotic arm that can slide one arm of a vest onto a person. And that’s more impressive than it may initially seem, Fast Company reports.

It represents an early, but important, step in creating a robot that is completely dress an aging or disabled person—safely and gently handling painful, stiff, and bent joints, and other problems that affect the elderly .

Robots have actually been able to dress themselves for a decade now. Such an achievement is possible only because a robot knows the dimensions of its own body and exactly what it intends to do next. For a robot to dress someone else is an entirely different challenge—because the task requires it to intuit someone else’s next move, lest the robot make an error that might twist a wrist or dislocate an elbow.

“In this work, we focus on a planning technique,” explains Shen Li, a PhD candidate in the Interactive Robotics Group at MIT and the author of the new paper published by Science and Systems. “Robots predict human motion; then, design a plan that’s safe based upon the prediction. If I dress a kid or adult, they might have different reactions. So you have to predict what they’ll do.”

This prediction, in the human brain, is an invisible process. We don’t fully understand how a person approaches a situation like sliding a shirtsleeve onto another human.

Li and his collaborators took a stock robot arm and fit it with a 3D tracker, which can see the movement of the person waiting to be dressed. Their breakthrough is in the software, which not only recognizes someone’s position in the moment, but considers how they might move next—in order to successfully get them dressed, and not injure them in the process.

To anticipate one of, say, 100 different possible movements, the system “learns to” predict the 100 possible movements first; and create a path that ensures a person’s safety, no matter how they actually move.

“We’re not only predicting the most likely human movement, but the entire uncertain human set of the future,” Li told Fast Company—noting that this is an especially conservative approach that can mean you are getting dressed at a snail’s pace.

However, over time, the software learns from the person getting dressed. It can slowly disregard movements a person never makes—editing down the possible list to something more probable and practical.

For the next steps of research, Li would like to add a full sleeve to the vest, and develop the software to accommodate for the extra friction of pulling a garment onto an appendage. After that step is figured out, pulling on a second sleeve, or a pair of pants, will be easier.

The other big shortcoming in this research is that the current robot starts with a human fist already pulled through a sleeve hole, so the team would like to solve that issue, too—dressing a human from the earliest steps in the process. Li notes that nurses will often take a person’s hand and stick it through a sleeve, hinting that ultimately, a second robot arm could make this task a lot easier.

These may sound like baby steps of development, in a world where machine learning models seem to solve massive problems like computer vision and object recognition overnight. “How do you develop an algorithm to learn [human behavior] efficiently?” Li asks. “You can’t just have a human there doing the task [a million times].’”

Research contact: @FastCompany

‘Wigs are the next big thing’: Boston beauty startup simplifies purchase process for Black women

June 24, 2021

Mary Imevbore bought her first wig online in 2017 when she was attending Williams College in Massachusetts.

Like many Black women, she had decided to “go natural” years ago—forgoing damaging hair straightening treatments. But she had trouble finding a Black hair stylist in the rural Berkshires, and as a double major in political science and computer science, didn’t have much time to style her hair in a dorm room.

“I wanted something quick and easy, so I discovered wigs—but the shopping experience was terrible,” Imevbore recently told The Boston Globe.

It struck Imevbore that a better buying option didn’t exist “because the consumer is a Black woman.” So she teamed up with two Williams classmates, Tiiso McGinty and Susana Hawken, to create the kind of brand they would want to patronize.

After three years of work, the cofounders have officially launched beauty startup Waeve —pronounced “wave”— dropping a product line of six trendy, beginner-friendly wigs on a website designed with bold colors and a Gen Z aesthetic.

“We believe wigs are the next big thing in beauty and fashion,” Imevbore said. “We are building the ultimate destination.”

The 24-year old, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Connecticut, said wigs are popular among Black women because wigs allow them to reclaim the time they would have spent styling their natural hair. She called them an “extension of the natural hair movement,” since Black women who ditched chemical relaxers were looking for other ways to express themselves through their hair without ruining it.

“The perception is that a wig is a utility, like you have one umbrella,” she explained to the Globe, “but that is not how people are wearing wigs … people are building wig collections.”

In college, she and her friends would spend hours vetting companies, comparing contradicting product reviews on YouTube, and grappling with varying delivery times and changing prices. That was in 2017, when companies such as eyewear retailer Warby Parker and beauty products seller Glossier were disrupting markets by reaching customers online instead of through stores.

Imevbore figured the same thing could happen with wigs, and although she never considered herself an entrepreneur, she began thinking like one.

“Wigs are an expensive product that is growing in demand; people are spending hundreds of dollars on them multiple times a year,” she said.

The market for wigs and hair extensions in North America is expected to reach $2 billion by 2026, according to French research firm Reportlinker, with Black consumers accounting for a big chunk of that spending.

The trio started with $30,000 after winning two business competitions in 2018—one at Williams and the other at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—to launch a direct-to-consumer wig business.

That same year Imevbore, McGinty, and Hawken were finishing up their senior year of college, and they all happened to be headed to Boston and moved in together. Imevbore worked as a software engineer at online pharmacy startup PillPack in Somerville — which was acquired by Amazon that year — while McGinty pursued a program at Boston University, and Hawken started on a PhD at MIT.

The momentum started building in 2020 when the company raised $2 million in a funding round led by Boston venture capital firm Pillar VC, with participation from Maveron, an investor in consumer companies such as Allbirds, eBay, and Everlane. Waeve also garnered high-profile support from three current and former executives of Glossier. And TJ Parker and Elliot Cohen, cofounders of Pill Pack, also participated in the round. (Imevbore worked at Pillpack through the Amazon acquisition until last year, when she decided to pursue Waeve full time).

Waeve exists in a world that hasn’t always welcomed, understood, or catered to Black hair. While that allowed the startup to fill a gap, it also led to challenges behind the scenes. Imevbore said there was a learning curve with potential investors, who didn’t immediately understand why consumers would buy more than one wig.

The numbers were not in Waeve’s favor, either: Crunchbase found that in 2020, less than 1% of all venture capital funding went to Black founders, and a similarly small slice of money went to startups founded by women.

“As a team, I remember us griping,” Imevbore said. “If we were selling lipstick or shoes, we wouldn’t have to explain why someone wants those things. People are buying [wigs] like handbags and sneakers, but [that] is something I had to convey to investors.”

The Waeve team began interviewing Black women about their hair experiences, gathering testimonials and videos to show investors they were tapping a segment that had long been overlooked. It worked and also became the foundation for Waeve World, a grassroots effort to build a community around the brand through shared experiences and hair advice.

According to the Globe, Waeve’s first collection, “Days of the Week,” is inspired by the idea that wigs are an accessory that can constantly change. The company worked with a manufacturer in China to design six initial styles—which range from a curly, middle-part wig to a platinum blonde, straight cut—and it will drop a new line every quarter. Ranging in price from $72 to $398, the wigs are delivered to the company’s distribution center and office in Boston, where employees package them into “starter kits” filled with additional supplies.

Imevbore said she wants to build the type of cult-like brand loyalty for Waeve that other online brands enjoy, and it’s starting with Boston. Waeve has nine full-time employees and more than 5,000 followers on Instagram, and is already hosting community events, such as a recent picnic in the Public Garden.

Research contact: @BostonGlobe

Bloomberg: California and Massachusetts are the most innovative U.S. states

June 25, 2020

For the second consecutive year, California and Massachusetts have taken the first and second spots, respectively, in Bloomberg’s annual State Innovation Index.

According to a report by The Boston Globe, the ranking is based on six equally weighted metrics: research and development intensity, productivity, clusters of companies in technology, STEM jobs, residents with degrees in science and engineering, and patent activity.

California and Massachusetts’ success dates back more than 150 years ago with the creation of land-grant universities under the Morrill Act, according to New York University Stern School of Business economist Paul Romer.

The Morrill Land Grand Act of 1862 helped boost higher education in America by granting states public land. That land could be sold and the proceeds earned could be used to establish colleges. Massachusetts Institute of Technology was among the earliest recipients of the act, which served as the basis for many other institutions, including the University of California and Washington State University.

These schools “and their counterparts in every state created a new type of university—distinguished by a practical focus on problem solving that the world had never seen,” Romer, co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, said in a telephone interview with The Boston Globe.. “The success of California and Massachusetts is a sign of the high level of investment that those states have made in their university and research systems.”

California ranked number-one in the Bloomberg index for patent activity and second for both technology-company density and concentration of science- and engineering-degree holders. Its state university system and pre-eminence in research—along with private Stanford University—have been influential in building Silicon Valley headquarters for established tech companies and budding startups.

Last year, entrepreneurs there received more than $67 billion in venture-capital funding, according to data from PitchBook. That’s more than three times New York, the second-highest state for deal flow.

According to a joint report from PwC and CB Insights, the top five highest-valued private U.S. tech companies are all California-based: JUUL Labs, Stripe, Airbnb, SpaceX and Palantir Technologies.

In addition, among U.S. companies that went public last year, the five reaping the highest year-to-date returns also are in California: Zoom Video Communications, IT-service provider Fastly and life-science specialty businesses Vir Biotechnology, Livongo Health and IDEAYA Biosciences.

Second place Massachusetts took the crown for tech-company density. General Electric, Raytheon, Thermo Fisher Scientific and Biogen are headquartered in the Northeastern state. Prior to the pandemic, Boston-based Toast—a restaurant-management platform— was a venture-capital favorite. The startup raised $400 million at a $4.9 billion valuation in February.

Rounding out the top five are number three, Washington State; number four, Connecticut; and Oregon, which jumped two spots to number five.

Research contact: @BostonGlobe

Corporate America races to respond to a crisis that routs the usual 9-5 routine

March 11, 2020

Employers are implementing contingency plans—from dividing teams across locations, to limiting visitors, to allowing employees to telecommute—as the spread of the novel coronavirus is starting to topple basic expectations about the safety and sustainability of office-based work, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The moves, designed to minimize disruption to businesses while protecting workers, range from advising colleagues to stand at least six feet apart, to requiring that people register their personal travel plans with their employers. While some companies have done emergency planning, the virus’s breadth and speed are posing challenges still hard to anticipate, executives said.

On Monday, the Journal notes, Bank of America began splitting up some employees on its Equities and Fixed-Income teams between New York and Connecticut—creating redundancies, so that if an employee gets sick and a whole team has to self-quarantine, a backup team can keep functioning in its place. More than 100 employees will work from Connecticut, while the majority will remain in New York.

Microsoft has instructed thousands of its workers in Seattle and the Bay Area area to work from home if they are able, and recommended that employees still needed in open office spaces stay six feet away from others. The company also asked its staff to try to limit prolonged interaction with other people.

Apple CEO Tim Cook sent a company email, encouraging staff in California and areas around the world with a high concentration of infections to work from home if possible over the coming week. The note represented an escalation in the company’s caution to staff. It last week had encouraged its 25,000 workers across Silicon Valley to work from home.

Meanwhile, the news outlet reports, Harvard informed students this week that they should not return from Spring Break; all classes will be held online. In addition, several colleges, including Texas A&M and MIT, have started asking employees and students to register their personal travel plans, so that administrators can keep track as coronavirus spreads—and MIT says, “Classes with more than 150 students will begin meeting virtually [this week]…; numerous MIT events have been postponed or modified.”

Stripe a San Francisco-area financial-technology company, has switched to videoconferencing for job interviews in place of on-site meetings. Becton Dickinson ,a medical-supplies company based in New Jersey, told employees to limit client meetings off-site.

Facebook, which on Thursday recommended that thousands of its employees in the San Francisco-area start working from home, is further encouraging people to stay away from the campus by canceling shuttle-bus operations for the coming week.

San Francisco-based cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase last week asked several types of workers—including people with compromised immune systems, those who are “at risk because of age,” or people for whom getting sick would be especially problematic—to start working from home, according to Philip Martin, the company’s chief information security officer. He estimates that 200 out of 1,000 employees globally fell into groups that Coinbase asked to work remotely, including single parents and pregnant employees. The company on Friday suggested all employees begin working from home if they can starting this week.

However, The Wall Street Journal notes, working from home doesn’t work for swaths of the employee universe, from food-service and hotel staffers to nurses. Nearly four in 10 workers in the United States (or 37%) say it isn’t possible at all for them to do their job by working from home for a period of several weeks, according to a new Wall Street Journal/SurveyMonkey poll.

Companies say they are looking to federal and local authorities for guidance, but they are also closely watching how their peers respond, often not wanting to be first to implement a drastic protocol, said Lars Schmidt, the founder of Amplify, an HR consulting and executive-search firm.

“There’s a bit of a cascading impact,” he said. “Companies are holding out to see what others are doing.”

Research contact: @WSJ

Researchers say there is evidence that aliens ‘stink’

January 7, 2020

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found that the presence of a molecule that is considered to be among the most noxious-smelling and poisonous on Earth may indicate that alien life is in residence.

Phosphine is among the most putrid and toxic gases on Earth, and is found in some of the foulest of places—among them, penguin dung heaps, the depths of swamps and bogs, and even in the bowels of some badgers and fish. Most aerobic, oxygen-breathing life forms on the planet avoid phosphine—often referred to as “swamp gas”—like the plague.

Now, MIT researchers have found that phosphine is produced by another, less abundant life form: anaerobic organisms, such as bacteria and microbes, which don’t require oxygen to thrive. The team found that phosphine cannot be produced in any other way except by these extreme, oxygen-averse organisms, making the gas what is known as “a pure biosignature”— a sign of life (at least of a certain kind).

In a paper recently published in the journal, Astrobiology, the MIT team reports that—if phosphine were produced in quantities similar to methane on Earth—the gas would generate a signature pattern of light in a planet’s atmosphere. This pattern would be clear enough to detect from as far as 16 light years away by a telescope such as NASA’s planned James Webb Space Telescope.

The clincher: If phosphine were detected from a rocky planet, it would be an unmistakable sign of extraterrestrial life.

“Here on Earth, oxygen is a really impressive sign of life,” says lead author Clara Sousa-Silva, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “But other things besides life make oxygen too. It’s important to consider stranger molecules that might not be made as often, but if you do find them on another planet, there’s only one explanation.”

Sousa-Silva and her colleagues are assembling a database of fingerprints for molecules that could be potential biosignatures. The team has amassed more than 16,000 candidates, including phosphine.

She says that, aside from establishing phosphine as a viable biosignature in the search for extraterrestrial life, the group’s results provide a pipeline, or process for researchers to follow, in characterizing any other of the other 16,000 biosignature candidates.

“I think the community needs to invest in filtering these candidates down into some kind of priority,” she says. “Even if some of these molecules are really dim beacons, if we can determine that only life can send out that signal, then I feel like that is a goldmine.

Research contact: @MIT