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January 23, 2020


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MIT Sloan Management Review
December 16, 2019

It's time to tackle your team's undiscussables

Subjects that are consciously or unwittingly deemed out of bounds come in four varieties and make it almost impossible for teams to function.
In 2008, Theranos engineer Aaron Moore created a mock ad for a prototype of the company’s blood testing device. Intended as a prank to amuse his colleagues, his ad described the device as “mostly functional” and included “leeches” among its “blood collection accessories.”

Now, with hindsight, we can interpret his spoof not just as a joke but as a desperate bid to raise a taboo subject: The company’s device didn’t work and the leadership team was hiding that fact. Moore’s actions spoke volumes about the undiscussables at Theranos.

Undiscussables exist because they help people avoid short-term conflicts, threats, and embarrassment. But they also short-circuit the inquiries and challenges essential to both improving performance and promoting team learning. Our consulting work with dozens of senior management teams has taught us that a team’s ability to discuss what is holding it back is what drives its effectiveness. We have observed this dynamic in a wide variety of settings and have drawn on this experience to propose a framework, a set of diagnostic questions, and some targeted solutions to help teams address their own undiscussables. This approach enables team leaders to identify the dominant undiscussables in their businesses and kick-start the necessary conversations to bring them to light. Read Full Article
MIT Research News
December 16, 2019

The uncertain role of natural gas in the transition to clean energy

MIT study finds that challenges in measuring and mitigating leakage of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, prove pivotal.
A new MIT study examines the opposing roles of natural gas in the battle against climate change — as a bridge toward a lower-emissions future, but also a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural gas, which is mostly methane, is viewed as a significant “bridge fuel” to help the world move away from the greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuels, since burning natural gas for electricity produces about half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal. But methane is itself a potent greenhouse gas, and it currently leaks from production wells, storage tanks, pipelines, and urban distribution pipes for natural gas. Increasing its usage, as a strategy for decarbonizing the electricity supply, will also increase the potential for such “fugitive” methane emissions, although there is great uncertainty about how much to expect. Recent studies have documented the difficulty in even measuring today’s emissions levels.

This uncertainty adds to the difficulty of assessing natural gas’ role as a bridge to a net-zero-carbon energy system, and in knowing when to transition away from it. But strategic choices must be made now about whether to invest in natural gas infrastructure. This inspired MIT researchers to quantify timelines for cleaning up natural gas infrastructure in the United States or accelerating a shift away from it, while recognizing the uncertainty about fugitive methane emissions. Read Full Article at MIT News Office
MIT Sloan Management Review
December 9, 2019

Improving the rhythm of your collaboration

Alternating between always-on connectivity and heads-down focus is essential for problem-solving.
Count-offs at the beginning of musical performances, whether verbal (“One, two…”) or symbolic (with a baton or a snap), are a fixture of live collaboration for musicians. Conductors use them to establish tempo and feel, and to provide guidance on how to interpret the written rhythms — the patterns of sound and silence — that the ensemble is about to play.

Similarly, in the workplace, leaders help set the beat for their organizations’ and teams’ collaborative efforts. For at least a century, they have done this largely by planning working-group meetings, huddles, one-on-ones, milestone reports, steering committee readouts, end-of-shift handoffs, and so on. Through 30-, 60-, and 90-minute calendar meetings scheduled weeks in advance to prevent conflicts and at odd times to accommodate global team members, they have established the patterns of active interaction (“sound”) and individual work (“silence”) that form the rhythms of their employees’ collaboration. Read Full Article
MIT Research News
December 6, 2019

Planning for death as a way to improve life

Startup co-founded by alumna Suelin Chen helps people share their end-of-life wishes with loved ones.
Losing a loved one is always hard, but honoring their final wishes can provide a sense of fulfillment in the midst of grief. However, many people avoid thinking about their own death, even if they believe it’s a long way off, and thus don’t share their posthumous preferences with friends and family.

End-of-life planning startup Cake is trying to change that. The company is borne out of the idea that planning for death now can make things a lot easier for loved ones down the line.

Cake breaks down what can be an overwhelming process into a series of simple questions to help people make decisions around health care treatments, funeral arrangements, estate planning, and how they want to be remembered after they’re gone. Read Full Article at MIT News Office
MIT Research News
December 5, 2019

Understanding the impact of deep-sea mining

Mining materials from the sea floor could help secure a low-carbon future, but researchers are racing to understand the environmental effects.
Resting atop Thomas Peacock’s desk is an ordinary-looking brown rock. Roughly the size of a potato, it has been at the center of decades of debate. Known as a polymetallic nodule, it spent 10 million years sitting on the deep seabed, 15,000 feet below sea level. The nodule contains nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese — four minerals that are essential in energy storage.

“As society moves toward driving more electric vehicles and utilizing renewable energy, there will be an increased demand for these minerals, to manufacture the batteries necessary to decarbonize the economy,” says Peacock, a professor of mechanical engineering and the director of MIT’s Environmental Dynamics Lab (END Lab). He is part of an international team of researchers that has been trying to gain a better understanding the environmental impact of collecting polymetallic nodules, a process known as deep-sea mining. Read Full Article at MIT News Office
ILP Insider
December 5, 2019

Better living across your lifespan

Based within Center for Transportation & Logistics, the MIT AgeLab and its corporate partners come up with novel approaches to meet real needs and desires for older adults—and everyone else.
Brainstorming ways to make life easier and more enjoyable as we get older, MIT AgeLab researchers sometimes draw inspiration from an unconventional source: the on-demand services popular among millennials and younger groups.

After retirement, most people want to stay in their homes as long as possible, explains Joseph Coughlin, the AgeLab’s founding director. On-demand app services and smart technologies for chores as basic as laundry, first promoted to a younger crowd, can help to make this “virtual assisted living” a reality.

“We did a thought experiment here in Boston that found it was cheaper to have those services brought to the home of an older adult than it was to live in assisted living,” Coughlin says. “And it got even cheaper as the demands went up.”

This example highlights a key AgeLab concept called “transcendent design” that aims to generate products and services that help older adults “seemingly by stealth,” he says. “You think they're cool when you're young, they’re convenient when you're in middle age and they ultimately provide care in older age.”

Joe Coughlin
Director, MIT AgeLab

Of course, AgeLab researchers also continue to dive directly into the specific constraints of aging. One powerful research tool is the famous AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System) body suit, designed to make its wearer feel common constraints of aging such as limited eyesight and ability to reach in places such as a kitchen or a bus. “AGNES provides a new empathy tool to understand the older consumer,” Coughlin says. “The student, the engineer, the marketer, the planner—even the executive—who wears the suit can feel the friction that an older consumer often will not report.”

As the AgeLab itself turns 20, it hosts almost 40 researchers with specialties ranging from cognitive psychology to data science to anthropology and social work, exploring all the aspects of empowering improved living across a full lifespan. Its goal is to turn insights into novel products and services that can target enormous markets around the globe.

“By 2047, there will be more people on the planet over the age of 60 than there will be children under the age of 15,” Coughlin says. “We’re working with dozens of companies, in automobiles, insurance, financial services retailers, pharmaceuticals and beyond. Inventing life tomorrow will require multiple services, experiences and products that have either yet to be invented or need to be adapted to these new consumers.”

One third of your adult life
In developed countries, odds are that if you live to 65, you probably live to at least 85, which means that you still have a third of your adult life ahead of you. “What will you do with all that time?” he asks. “This is an amazing opportunity to create a whole new life stage.”

The opportunity raises a broad set of considerations that go far beyond traditional concerns about finance and healthcare. “We’ve had a number of financial services companies take our ideas about what life tomorrow could be, to help financial advisers create new questions to engage people who think about retirement,” he says. “Some are little things like, ‘How are you going to change a light bulb?’ That may seem like a simple silly question. But as we age many things that we did without hesitation in youth may become a challenge later on.”

After retirement, most people want to stay in their existing housing. The AgeLab collaborates with on-demand service companies, logistic firms and information technology companies in its home logistics program, “which is about taking the convergence of that desire with intelligent sensors and technologies and communications and on-demand services to make that home a place to live for life,” Coughlin says.

“Imagine a home that is not just smart, but provides a platform of services for living at any age, eventually including care for older adults,” he says. “Your food is on demand, your laundry is done, people come to fix the home. The home proactively also cares for you, can tell whether your gait has changed and therefore predicts the possibility of a fall, and allows family members to check in to make sure you're OK without intruding on your dignity.”

That isn’t to say that automated technologies are always the answer, however. “We want to look at the complete person—mind, body and soul,” he says. “Where does new technology that provides care for you also start to put your dignity and security and privacy in jeopardy? What is the happy balance?”

One crucial need is maintaining social connections with people outside the home. “We’re working with companies like Silver Sneakers, the largest exercise group in the world for the 50-plus, to understand how exercising for your health in a social setting can actually be good for you physically, emotionally and mentally,” he says.

Driving driverless cars
Transportation is a big piece of the aging puzzle, and in the United States, that mostly means the automobile. “Among people over 50 years old, 70% live in suburban and rural areas where walkability and transit either is not practical or does not exist,” Coughlin points out. Given these constraints, advanced driver assistance technologies and (eventually) fully autonomous vehicles offer a great dream of empowerment for those who can no longer safely drive.

Studying how these fast-evolving technologies will function in the real world has long been an AgeLab specialty. “We have a fleet of five cars instrumented out to understand your physiology, your behavior and how the vehicle works, to start paving that road to the future of the autonomous car,” he says. “We want to understand how new designs and new technologies can help to ensure that driving itself is not a problem at any age.”

Among the results, automobile makers have taken cues from the AgeLab to create new standard font designs that help drivers read the dashboard. Again, this is an example of applying transcendent design to products, “so they remain cool for the young buyer but profoundly useful and usable for the older buyer,” Coughlin says.

As autonomous vehicles improve, human factors remain paramount, he adds. “When will people learn to not just trust but to adopt, to take their hands off the wheel and let a robot drive?”

Moreover, the vehicle is not the only component of the system to consider. “How does an 80-something-year-old woman with cognitive impairment or physical disability get into that driverless car?” he asks. “How does she get out of the driverless car? And at what point do you trust her to be in there by herself?”

Generation ungapping
Around the world, hundreds of millions of aging people bring enormous market opportunities, with the chance to bring new kinds of offerings.

“There have never been older people with this much education, income and expectation,” Coughlin says. “Baby boomers have seen improvements in schools, stores, products, technologies and even public policies paving the way for their entire lifespan. It is unlikely that they will simply sit back and wait for the bus for the disabled to pick them up one week late, or to hope the grandchildren come visit, or to think that their home can't support them.”

“The future is female,” he adds. “Typically from millennials all the way through to older adulthood, women are making the buying decisions in real estate, health care, and consumer products. Working with the AgeLab is about understanding that consumer’s behavior, wants, needs and expectations.”

Corporations can partner on a single project, as an AgeLab member, or as a participant in a consortium. “For instance, our home logistic consortia includes companies that are in appliances, door-to-door delivery, retail healthcare, insurance, smart sensors, pharmaceuticals—with all these different companies pooling resources to get a bigger bang for their buck,” Coughlin says.

All this work feeds into the AgeLab goal of helping people to enjoy a full lifespan, he emphasizes. “It dawned on us that we could make perhaps a safer car or a better house, but many other people were doing those things in a vacuum,” Coughlin says. “Our ‘Aha’ moment was, ‘How do we integrate all these activities together to create a life that's not just longer, but worth living?’”
MIT Research News
December 2, 2019

Helping machines perceive some laws of physics

Model registers “surprise” when objects in a scene do something unexpected, which could be used to build smarter AI.
Humans have an early understanding of the laws of physical reality. Infants, for instance, hold expectations for how objects should move and interact with each other, and will show surprise when they do something unexpected, such as disappearing in a sleight-of-hand magic trick.

Now MIT researchers have designed a model that demonstrates an understanding of some basic “intuitive physics” about how objects should behave. The model could be used to help build smarter artificial intelligence and, in turn, provide information to help scientists understand infant cognition.

The model, called ADEPT, observes objects moving around a scene and makes predictions about how the objects should behave, based on their underlying physics. While tracking the objects, the model outputs a signal at each video frame that correlates to a level of “surprise” — the bigger the signal, the greater the surprise. If an object ever dramatically mismatches the model’s predictions — by, say, vanishing or teleporting across a scene — its surprise levels will spike. Read Full Article at MIT News Office
MIT Sloan Management Review
December 2, 2019

Creating digital offerings customers will buy

Find the sweet spot between what technologies can deliver and what your customers need.
Digital technologies are forcing companies to reimagine their customer value propositions. That’s because new social and mobile applications, analytics, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, biometrics, blockchain, cloud and edge computing, and many other advances allow them to deliver value in ways that simply were not possible in the past.

But given all that potential, how does any company figure out which offerings are viable? Digital technologies are game-changing — they provide ubiquitous data, unlimited connectivity, and massive processing power. Savvy companies are converting all this capacity into digital offerings: information-enriched solutions wrapped in seamless, personalized customer experiences. Think of Lyft: By using mobile and cloud computing to connect people seeking a ride with drivers who will get them to their destination, it is addressing pain points customers experience when they take cabs, like not knowing where the cab is and when it will arrive, how much the ride is going to cost, or what payment options they will have.

Successful digital offerings are created at the intersection of what technologies can deliver and what customers want and will pay for. That point of intersection, however, has proved to be elusive. To find it, companies must experiment repeatedly, cocreate with customers, and assemble cross-functional development teams — and the insights gleaned along the way must be shared internally. Read Full Article
MIT Research News
November 26, 2019

Better guides for medical-image analysis

Model quickly generates brain scan templates that represent a given patient population.
MIT researchers have devised a method that accelerates the process for creating and customizing templates used in medical-image analysis, to guide disease diagnosis.

One use of medical image analysis is to crunch datasets of patients’ medical images and capture structural relationships that may indicate the progression of diseases. In many cases, analysis requires use of a common image template, called an “atlas,” that’s an average representation of a given patient population. Atlases serve as a reference for comparison, for example to identify clinically significant changes in brain structures over time.

Building a template is a time-consuming, laborious process, often taking days or weeks to generate, especially when using 3D brain scans. To save time, researchers often download publicly available atlases previously generated by research groups. But those don’t fully capture the diversity of individual datasets or specific subpopulations, such as those with new diseases or from young children. Ultimately, the atlas can’t be smoothly mapped onto outlier images, producing poor results. Read Full Article at MIT News Office
MIT Sloan Management Review
November 25, 2019

How algorithms can diversify startup pools

Data-driven approaches can help venture capital firms limit gender bias and make better, fairer investment decisions.
When pitching startups, men and women tend to have very different experiences in being evaluated for funding. Consider these questions that a venture capital investor might pose to aspiring business owners:

To a male entrepreneur: “Tell us about your vision for this venture.”
To a female entrepreneur: “Tell us about your track record for this type of venture.”

Research shows that men are more likely to receive promotion-focused (risk-loving) questions from investors; for women, prevention-focused (risk-averse) inquiries are the norm. Investors also tend to disfavor stereotypically female behaviors, such as being soft-spoken and nurturing (versus bold and assertive), whether those behaviors are exhibited by men or women. But even when ventures are pitched in the same way, investors significantly prefer pitches made by men over those made by women. Read Full Article
MIT Research News
November 25, 2019

Coated seeds may enable agriculture on marginal lands

A specialized silk covering could protect seeds from salinity while also providing fertilizer-generating microbes.
Providing seeds with a protective coating that also supplies essential nutrients to the germinating plant could make it possible to grow crops in otherwise unproductive soils, according to new research at MIT.

A team of engineers has coated seeds with silk that has been treated with a kind of bacteria that naturally produce a nitrogen fertilizer, to help the germinating plants develop. Tests have shown that these seeds can grow successfully in soils that are too salty to allow untreated seeds to develop normally. The researchers hope this process, which can be applied inexpensively and without the need for specialized equipment, could open up areas of land to farming that are now considered unsuitable for agriculture.

The findings are being published this week in the journal PNAS, in a paper by graduate students Augustine Zvinavashe ’16 and Hui Sun, postdoc Eugen Lim, and professor of civil and environmental engineering Benedetto Marelli. Read Full Article at MIT News Office
MIT Research News
November 22, 2019

How to design and control robots with stretchy, flexible bodies

Optimizing soft robots to perform specific tasks is a huge computational problem, but a new model can help.
MIT researchers have invented a way to efficiently optimize the control and design of soft robots for target tasks, which has traditionally been a monumental undertaking in computation.

Soft robots have springy, flexible, stretchy bodies that can essentially move an infinite number of ways at any given moment. Computationally, this represents a highly complex “state representation,” which describes how each part of the robot is moving. State representations for soft robots can have potentially millions of dimensions, making it difficult to calculate the optimal way to make a robot complete complex tasks.

At the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems next month, the MIT researchers will present a model that learns a compact, or “low-dimensional,” yet detailed state representation, based on the underlying physics of the robot and its environment, among other factors. This helps the model iteratively co-optimize movement control and material design parameters catered to specific tasks. Read Full Article at MIT News Office