Monthly Archives: June 2017

Learn computer languages while waiting for WiFi

Hyper-connectivity has changed the way we communicate, wait, and productively use our time. Even in a world of 5G wireless and “instant” messaging, there are countless moments throughout the day when we’re waiting for messages, texts, and Snapchats to refresh. But our frustrations with waiting a few extra seconds for our emails to push through doesn’t mean we have to simply stand by.

To help us make the most of these “micro-moments,” researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a series of apps called “WaitSuite” that test you on vocabulary words during idle moments, like when you’re waiting for an instant message or for your phone to connect to WiFi.

Building on micro-learning apps like Duolingo, WaitSuite aims to leverage moments when a person wouldn’t otherwise be doing anything — a practice that its developers call “wait-learning.”

“With stand-alone apps, it can be inconvenient to have to separately open them up to do a learning task,” says MIT PhD student Carrie Cai, who leads the project. “WaitSuite is embedded directly into your existing tasks, so that you can easily learn without leaving what you were already doing.”

WaitSuite covers five common daily tasks: waiting for WiFi to connect, emails to push through, instant messages to be received, an elevator to come, or content on your phone to load. When using the system’s instant messaging app “WaitChatter,” users learned about four new words per day, or 57 words over just two weeks.

Ironically, Cai found that the system actually enabled users to better focus on their primary tasks, since they were less likely to check social media or otherwise leave their app.

WaitSuite was developed in collaboration with MIT Professor Rob Miller and former MIT student Anji Ren. A paper on the system will be presented at ACM’s CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems next month in Colorado.

Among WaitSuite’s apps include “WiFiLearner,” which gives users a learning prompt when it detects that their computer is seeking a WiFi connection. Meanwhile, “ElevatorLearner” automatically detects when a person is near an elevator by sensing Bluetooth iBeacons, and then sends users a vocabulary word to translate.

Though the team used WaitSuite to teach vocabulary, Cai says that it could also be used for learning things like math, medical terms, or legal jargon.

“The vast majority of people made use of multiple kinds of waiting within WaitSuite,” says Cai. “By enabling wait-learning during diverse waiting scenarios, WaitSuite gave people more opportunities to learn and practice vocabulary words.”

Still, some types of waiting were more effective than others, making the “switch time” a key factor. For example, users liked that with “ElevatorLearner,” wait time was typically 50 seconds and opening the flashcard app took 10 seconds, leaving free leftover time. For others, doing a flashcard while waiting for WiFi didn’t seem worth it if the WiFi connected quickly, but those with slow WiFi felt that doing a flashcard made waiting less frustrating.

In the future, the team hopes to test other formats for micro-learning, like audio for on-the-go users. They even picture having the app remind users to practice mindfulness to avoid reaching for our phones in moments of impatience, boredom, or frustration.

“This work is really interesting because it looks to help people make use of all the small bits of wasted time they have every day” says Jaime Teevan, a principal researcher at Microsoft who was not involved in the paper. “I also like how it takes into account a person’s state of mind by, for example, giving terms to learn that relate to the conversations they are having.”

Software developers are sueorang muslim women

Layla Shaikley SM ’13 began her master’s in architecture at MIT with a hunger to redevelop nations recovering from conflict. When she decided that data and logistics contributed more immediately to development than architecture did, ­Shaikley switched to the Media Lab to work with Professor Sandy ­Pentland, and became a cofounder of Wise Systems, which develops routing software that helps companies deliver goods and services.

“There’s nothing more creative than building a company,” Shaikley says. “We plan the most effective routes and optimize them in real time using driver feedback. Better logistics can dramatically reduce the number of late deliveries, increase efficiency, and save fuel.”

But Shaikley is perhaps better known for a viral video, “Muslim Hipsters: #mipsterz,” that she and friends created to combat the media stereotypes of Muslim women. It reached hundreds of thousands of viewers and received vigorous positive and negative feedback.

The video “is a really refreshing, jovial view of an underrepresented identity: young American Muslim women with alternative interests in the arts and culture,” Shaikley says. “The narrow media image is so far from the real fabric of Muslim-­American life that we all need to add our pieces to the quilt to create a more accurate image.”

Shaikley’s parents moved from Iraq to California in the 1970s, and she and her five siblings enjoyed a “quintessentially all-­American childhood,” she says. “I grew up on a skateboard, and I love to surf and snowboard.” She feels deeply grateful to her parents, who “always put our needs first,” she adds. “When we visited relatives in Iraq, we observed what life is like when people don’t have the privilege of a free society. Those experiences really shaped my understanding of the world and also my sense of responsibility to give back.”

Shaikley says the sum of her diverse life experiences has helped her as a professional with Wise Systems and as a voice for underrepresented Muslim women.

“My work at MIT under [professors] Reinhard Goethert and Sandy ­Pentland was critical to my career and understanding of data as it relates to developing urban areas,” she says. “And every piece of my disparate experiences, which included the coolest internship of my life with NASA working on robotics for Mars, has played a huge role.”

Shaikley lives in Boston with her husband, Hadi Durali, who connected with her on Facebook after reading her 2014 commentary in The Atlantic about the #mipsterz video’s emotional impact. They were married in August 2016.

Ransomware WannaCry has limited impact

The ransomware program WannaCry, launched on May 12, targets the Microsoft Windows operating system. While this malware has infected over 200,000 computers worldwide, the attack affected around 100 computers across the 50,000 devices on the MIT network.

This limited impact is due to the many security services provided to the community by MIT Information Systems and Technology (IS&T).

“MIT values an open network to foster research, innovation and collaborative learning,” says IS&T Associate Vice President Mark Silis. “We continuously strive to balance potential security risks with the benefits of our open network environment by offering a number of security services to our community, including Sophos anti-virus, CrowdStrike anti-malware, andCrashPlan backup.

“IS&T staff are working with faculty, staff, and students to secure their devices and address any remaining issues related to WannaCry. In the weeks ahead, our department will continue to educate and advise the MIT community.”

A post on the CISCO Talos blog provides in-depth technical details about the WannaCry ransomware attack.

Preventive measures

IS&T strongly recommends that community members take this opportunity to make sure their Windows machines are fully patched, especially with the MS17-010 Security Update. Microsoft has even released patches for Windows XP, Windows 8, and Windows Server 2003, which are no longer officially supported.

In addition, IS&T recommends installing Sophos and CrowdStrike. These programs successfully block the execution of WannaCry ransomware on machines where they have been installed. A third program, CrashPlan, is also recommended. This cloud-based offering, which runs continuously in the background, securely encrypts and backs up data on computers. Should files be lost due to ransomware or a computer breakdown, restoring data is straightforward.

IS&T offers these three programs to the MIT community at no cost and can help with installation questions. The department also encourages users to enable operating system firewalls on computers and laptops.

Getting help

Community members who believe their computers have been infected with WannaCry can contact the computing support staff in their department, lab, or center or the IS&T Service Desk.

As always, IS&T asks community members to be on guard against sophisticated phishing email messages designed to fool recipients into clicking on a malicious link or opening an infected attachment.

Quantum computers that can be mass-produced

Quantum computers are experimental devices that offer large speedups on some computational problems. One promising approach to building them involves harnessing nanometer-scale atomic defects in diamond materials.

But practical, diamond-based quantum computing devices will require the ability to position those defects at precise locations in complex diamond structures, where the defects can function as qubits, the basic units of information in quantum computing. In today’s of Nature Communications, a team of researchers from MIT, Harvard University, and Sandia National Laboratories reports a new technique for creating targeted defects, which is simpler and more precise than its predecessors.

In experiments, the defects produced by the technique were, on average, within 50 nanometers of their ideal locations.

“The dream scenario in quantum information processing is to make an optical circuit to shuttle photonic qubits and then position a quantum memory wherever you need it,” says Dirk Englund, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science who led the MIT team. “We’re almost there with this. These emitters are almost perfect.”

The new paper has 15 co-authors. Seven are from MIT, including Englund and first author Tim Schröder, who was a postdoc in Englund’s lab when the work was done and is now an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute. Edward Bielejec led the Sandia team, and physics professor Mikhail Lukin led the Harvard team.

Appealing defects

Quantum computers, which are still largely hypothetical, exploit the phenomenon of quantum “superposition,” or the counterintuitive ability of small particles to inhabit contradictory physical states at the same time. An electron, for instance, can be said to be in more than one location simultaneously, or to have both of two opposed magnetic orientations.

Where a bit in a conventional computer can represent zero or one, a “qubit,” or quantum bit, can represent zero, one, or both at the same time. It’s the ability of strings of qubits to, in some sense, simultaneously explore multiple solutions to a problem that promises computational speedups.

Diamond-defect qubits result from the combination of “vacancies,” which are locations in the diamond’s crystal lattice where there should be a carbon atom but there isn’t one, and “dopants,” which are atoms of materials other than carbon that have found their way into the lattice. Together, the dopant and the vacancy create a dopant-vacancy “center,” which has free electrons associated with it. The electrons’ magnetic orientation, or “spin,” which can be in superposition, constitutes the qubit.

A perennial problem in the design of quantum computers is how to read information out of qubits. Diamond defects present a simple solution, because they are natural light emitters. In fact, the light particles emitted by diamond defects can preserve the superposition of the qubits, so they could move quantum information between quantum computing devices.

Silicon switch

The most-studied diamond defect is the nitrogen-vacancy center, which can maintain superposition longer than any other candidate qubit. But it emits light in a relatively broad spectrum of frequencies, which can lead to inaccuracies in the measurements on which quantum computing relies.

In their new paper, the MIT, Harvard, and Sandia researchers instead use silicon-vacancy centers, which emit light in a very narrow band of frequencies. They don’t naturally maintain superposition as well, but theory suggests that cooling them down to temperatures in the millikelvin range — fractions of a degree above absolute zero — could solve that problem. (Nitrogen-vacancy-center qubits require cooling to a relatively balmy 4 kelvins.)

To be readable, however, the signals from light-emitting qubits have to be amplified, and it has to be possible to direct them and recombine them to perform computations. That’s why the ability to precisely locate defects is important: It’s easier to etch optical circuits into a diamond and then insert the defects in the right places than to create defects at random and then try to construct optical circuits around them.

In the process described in the new paper, the MIT and Harvard researchers first planed a synthetic diamond down until it was only 200 nanometers thick. Then they etched optical cavities into the diamond’s surface. These increase the brightness of the light emitted by the defects (while shortening the emission times).

Then they sent the diamond to the Sandia team, who have customized a commercial device called the Nano-Implanter to eject streams of silicon ions. The Sandia researchers fired 20 to 30 silicon ions into each of the optical cavities in the diamond and sent it back to Cambridge.

Mobile vacancies

At this point, only about 2 percent of the cavities had associated silicon-vacancy centers. But the MIT and Harvard researchers have also developed processes for blasting the diamond with beams of electrons to produce more vacancies, and then heating the diamond to about 1,000 degrees Celsius, which causes the vacancies to move around the crystal lattice so they can bond with silicon atoms.

After the researchers had subjected the diamond to these two processes, the yield had increased tenfold, to 20 percent. In principle, repetitions of the processes should increase the yield of silicon vacancy centers still further.

When the researchers analyzed the locations of the silicon-vacancy centers, they found that they were within about 50 nanometers of their optimal positions at the edge of the cavity. That translated to emitted light that was about 85 to 90 percent as bright as it could be, which is still very good.

“It’s an excellent result,” says Jelena Vuckovic, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University who studies nanophotonics and quantum optics. “I hope the technique can be improved beyond 50 nanometers, because 50-nanometer misalignment would degrade the strength of the light-matter interaction. But this is an important step in that direction. And 50-nanometer precision is certainly better than not controlling position at all, which is what we are normally doing in these experiments, where we start with randomly positioned emitters and then make resonators.”