I recently attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ICT Conference as part of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Programme (ILP). The programme aims to make industrial connections between MIT and corporations worldwide. Welsh Government holds an ILP membership to enable companies in Wales, which may be unable to afford the membership fees, to access the benefits offered through the programme.
Our first day began with a tour and brief history of MIT, led by our ILP Officer Marie-Teresa Vander Sande. The tour allowed us to wander the campus absorbing the atmosphere, motivating us and gearing the delegation up for each of our personal meetings. Before the trip we were asked to book meetings with academics working within the university. I decided on three academics, one was related to a new potential project and the others were to continue my interest in Science, Technology and Society. My first meeting was with Dr. Catherine Havasi, the CEO and Co-founder of Luminoso. Luminoso is an analytics company specialising in customer responses and feedback. Catherine provided a clear insight to the way Luminoso works and how natural language processing could be of significant use to our work in Miller Research. The afternoon’s meetings were enlightening for other reasons. Seth Mnookin outlined his motivations behind his recent book and Dr. Robin Scheffler discussed his journey throughout his PhD to his professorship. Both academics reminded me of my passion for science writing and reading.
The ICT conference began on the second day and had busy agenda covering artificial intelligence, cyber security and the future of work. I found a couple of talks particularly interesting; Dr Sarah Williams discussed the rise of big data and how it can change the way we think about the world. Based in the Civic Design Data Lab, Sarah believes that big data can change the world and provide infrastructure, but only if we collate the data and synthesize it for public benefit.
One project in particular supports this ideal. Nairobi suffers from severe congestion problems and the only source of public transport, Matatus, are hard to navigate. The project used the ubiquitous nature of cell phone use to capture data about the informal transport system. In doing so they could open the data for public use and encourage further development. In engaging with many stakeholders, including the local tech community, the government, academia, the Matatu Association, Matatu drivers and NGOs, the map was trusted and accredited. The public have accepted the map as the official Matatu route map and local tech companies have used it to develop apps including SONAR and MA3 Route, two of the most widely used apps. In this case big data has encouraged public engagement, built strong links with the public and allowed the public free use of the data after completion of the project. Dr Sarah Williams has also undertaken similar projects in Mexico City and on the use of the fabric district in New York.
A further presentation I enjoyed was delivered by Dr Nan Zhao from the Responsive Environments Group in the MIT Media Lab, on cultivating ambient intelligence. The group had created adaptive lighting for a number of environments, including open plan office areas and personal offices. The lighting was designed to create the most appropriate lighting for different tasks and for the area in which the work is being carried out. The light could be changed using a contextual controller, allowing the user to set suitable lighting using an app. Google Glass was used as a reactive mechanism, altering the light when the user’s tasks or work pattern altered. The type of light was altered over 2 axes, focus and casual, changing from white to warm and dim to bright as appropriate. A further project underway currently is to develop a mediated atmosphere. Building on previous work, not just the room lighting will alter but the visuals within the room as well. The atmosphere will be reacting to tasks and social settings as before and also include management of stress levels.
Following the conference, all of the delegates attended the MIT STEX event. STEX are the Start Up Exchange, which aims to connect business startups to innovative companies and markets. The agenda was full of pioneering new companies delivering their products in ‘lightning fast’ pitches, as a brand new startup ‘coming out of stealth mode’. This event concluded with a panel discussion that covered the opportunities for industry, university, government and startup collaboration, the challenges of collaboration and new technology adoption and fintech in the future.
My trip to MIT concluded with a surprise visit to the Mass Challenge headquarters. Mass Challenge, set up by John Harthorne, an MIT Sloan School graduate and winner of the $100K Business Plan Competition, is a no equity, not-for-profit startup friendly accelerator. Each year the company runs the Mass Challenge, a competition in the Boston locale for which winners receive a share of several million dollars and a place on the four month accelerator programme. The accelerator programme provides startups with mentorship, office space, education, network and community, and other resources. Within the office there is a really buzz of entrepreneurship and innovation. The large open plan space is dotted with motivational figures showing the total revenue created, number of companies helped and number of jobs created. The sponsorship wall also shows how larger companies contribute to the competition and accelerator programme.
In recent years Mass Challenge has expanded its reach and created programmes such as ‘Bridge to Mass Challenge’. Currently startup competitions are run from headquarters in Israel, the UK (London), Mexico and Switzerland.
My trip to MIT was enjoyable and educational. Throughout the conference I made connections with academics and companies I would not have had the opportunity to meet during the normal working week. The trip has been inspiring and motivated me to develop new skills and ways of working within Miller Research.