CSS Length Units

A comprehensive guide covering nine types of lengths that CSS uses to size elements in terms of dimensions, space, time, and even sound.

CSS Length Units originally published on CSS-Tricks, which is part of the DigitalOcean family. You should get the newsletter….

Diane Hoskins ’79: How going off-track can lead new SA+P graduates to become integrators of ideas

For the graduating class of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, the advice they received from their highly accomplished Commencement speaker may have come as a surprise.

“The title of this talk is ‘Off Track is On Track,’” said Diane Hoskins ’79, the global co-chair of Gensler, an international architecture, design, and planning firm with 55 offices across the world. “Being ‘off track’ is actually the best way to build a career of impact.”

Before a gathering of family, friends, and MIT faculty and administrators at a full Kresge Auditorium, Hoskins shared how her path from MIT led her to have an impact on spaces that inspire, engage, and support people around the world.

While hard work and perseverance likely paved the way for the Class of 2024 to be accepted to MIT — and begin what many assume is the first step in establishing a career — Hoskins posed that there was no point on her professional journey that felt like a predictable career path.

Instead, less than a year after graduating and landing her “dream job” at an architecture firm — which proved to be disappointing — she found herself working at a Chicago department store perfume counter. There, she happened to connect with a classmate who mentioned that a firm in Chicago was hiring, and that Hoskins should apply. Upon her initial visit to the firm’s offices, she said, something “clicked.”

“I was impressed with the work, the people, and the energy,” said Hoskins. “I liked the scale of the work. These were serious real projects all over the world, multidisciplinary teams, and complex challenges. I dove in 100 percent. The work was hard, and the push was real, but I learned something new every day. I knew that was the type of environment that I needed.”

Hoskins later worked at architecture firms in New York and Los Angeles, and then allowed her curiosity and interests to guide her to a variety of professional venues. Intrigued by the impact design could have on the workforce, she moved to corporate interior design. That work inspired her to go to the University of California Los Angeles, where she earned a master’s degree in business administration and developed an interest in real estate. For three years, she worked for a major real estate developer and explored how business owners and developers impacted the built environment. She then returned to architecture with a more robust understanding of the connectivity between the many disciplines the assembled graduates represented.

“Because of that unconventional, off-track model, I amassed a unique breadth of knowledge and more importantly, I understood how things fit together in the built environment,” said Hoskins. “I became an integrator of ideas. It created an ability to see how design and architecture connect to the world around us in powerful ways. Because of this, I ultimately became CEO of one of the largest design firms in the world.”

Perhaps most important, Hoskins — who is also a trustee of the MIT Corporation and a member of two MIT visiting committees — reminded the graduates that their work will touch the lives of millions of people everywhere and their impact will be “real.”

“Design is not a luxury,” she said. “It’s for everyone, everywhere. I know what it means to touch the lives of millions of people through my work. And you can, too.”

SA+P dean Hashim Sarkis opened the ceremony by welcoming guests and sharing his reflections on the Class of 2024. In preparing for his talk, Sarkis asked faculty and staff to characterize the class. “Diversity,” “self-advocacy,” and “vocal” were the terms repeated across the school. 

“Unhappy with the many circumstances that shaped your world, you took it upon yourselves to point to inadequacies and injustices, to assume your responsibilities, to defend your rights and those of others, and to work to fix things,” said Sarkis, who referenced the loss of innocent lives in ongoing wars, political polarization, climate disasters, and the resulting inequities from these global problems.

“Class of 2024, your outlook toward the world is indispensable, because the world is not in a good place. We have tried our best to deliver it to you better than we have inherited it. In many cases we didn’t. In some other cases, however, we did succeed. For one, we did select the best students … our generation needs the help of your generation. We have learned a lot from your self-advocacy and its power to steer the world to a better place. For that we thank you, Class of 2024.”

New MIT-LUMA Lab created to address climate challenges in the Mediterranean region

The MIT School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) and the LUMA Foundation announced today the establishment of the MIT-LUMA Lab to advance paradigm-shifting innovations at the nexus of art, science, technology, conservation, and design. The aim is to empower innovative thinkers to realize their ambitions, support local communities as they seek to address climate-related issues, and scale solutions to pressing challenges facing the Mediterranean region.  

The main programmatic pillars of the lab will be collaborative scholarship and research around design, new materials, and sustainability; scholar exchange and education collaborations between the two organizations; innovation and entrepreneurship activities to transfer new ideas into practical applications; and co-production of exhibitions and events. The hope is that this engagement will create a novel model for other institutions to follow to craft innovative solutions to the leading challenge of our time.

The MIT-LUMA Lab draws on an establishing gift from the LUMA Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Zurich formed by Maja Hoffmann in 2004 to support contemporary artistic production. The foundation supports a range of multidisciplinary projects that increase understanding of the environment, human rights, education, and culture.

These themes are explored through programs organized by LUMA Arles, a project begun in 2013 and housed on a 27-acre interdisciplinary campus known as the Parc des Ateliers in Arles, France, an experimental site of exhibitions, artists’ residencies, research laboratories, and educational programs.

“The Luma Foundation is committed to finding ways to address the current climate emergencies we are facing, focusing on exploring the potentials that can be found in diversity and engagement in every possible form,” says Maja Hoffmann, founder and president of the LUMA Foundation. “Cultural diversity, pluralism, and biodiversity feature at the top of our mission and our work is informed by these concepts.” 

A focus on the Mediterranean region

“The culturally rich area of the Mediterranean, which has produced some of the most remarkable civilizational paradigms across geographies and historical periods, plays an important role in our thinking. Focusing the efforts of the MIT-LUMA Lab on the Mediterranean means extending the possibilities for positive change throughout other global ecosystems,” says Hoffmann. 

“Our projects of LUMA Arles and its research laboratory on materials and natural resources, the Atelier Luma, our position in one of Europe’s most important natural reserves, in conjunction with the expertise and forward-thinking approach of MIT, define the perfect framework that will allow us to explore new frontiers and devise novel ways to tackle our most significant civilizational risks,” she adds. “Supporting the production of new forms of knowledge and practices, and with locations in Cambridge and in Arles, our collaboration and partnership with MIT will generate solutions and models for the future, for the generations to come, in order to provide them the same and even better opportunities that what we have experienced.”

“We know we do not have all the answers at MIT, but we do know how to ask the right questions, how to design effective experiments, and how to build meaningful collaborations,” says Hashim Sarkis, dean of SA+P, which will host the lab. 

“I am grateful to the LUMA Foundation for offering support for faculty research deployment designed to engage local communities and create jobs, for course development to empower our faculty to teach classes centered on these issues, and for students who seek to dedicate their lives and careers to sustainability. We also look forward to hosting fellows and researchers from the foundation to strengthen our collaboration,” he adds.

The Mediterranean region, the MIT-LUMA Lab’s focus, is one of the world’s most vital and fragile global commons. The future of climate relies on the sustainability of the region’s forests, oceans, and deserts that have for millennia created the environmental conditions and system-regulating functions necessary for life on Earth. Those who live in these areas are often the most severely affected by even relatively modest changes in the climate. 

Climate research and action: A priority at MIT

To reverse negative trends and provide a new approach to addressing the climate crisis in these vast areas, SA+P is establishing international collaborations that bring know-how to the field, and in turn to learn from the communities and groups most challenged by climate impacts.

The MIT-LUMA Lab is the first in what is envisioned as a series of regionally focused labs at SA+P under the conceptual aegis of a collaborative platform called Our Global Commons. This project will support progress on today’s climate challenges by focusing on community empowerment, long-term local collaborations around research and education, and job creation. Faculty-led fieldwork, engagements with local stakeholders, and student involvement will be the key elements.

The creation of Our Global Commons comes as MIT works to dramatically expand its efforts to address climate change. In February 2024, President Sally Kornbluth announced the Climate Project at MIT, a major new initiative to mobilize the Institute’s resources and capabilities to research, develop, deploy, and scale-up new climate solutions. The Institute will hire its first-ever vice president for climate to oversee the new effort. 

“With the Climate Project at MIT, we aim to help make a decisive difference, at scale, on crucial global climate challenges — and we can only do that by engaging with outstanding colleagues around the globe,” says Kornbluth. “By connecting us to creative thinkers steeped in the cultural and environmental history and emerging challenges of the Mediterranean region, the MIT-LUMA Lab promises to spark important new ideas and collaborations.”

“We are excited that the LUMA team will be joining in MIT’s engagement with climate issues, especially given their expertise in advancing vital work at the intersection of art and science, and their long-standing commitment to expanding the frontiers of sustainability and biodiversity,” says Sarkis. “With climate change upending many aspects of our society, the time is now for us to reaffirm and strengthen our SA+P tradition of on-the-ground work with and for communities around the world. Shared efforts among local communities, governments and corporations, and academia are necessary to bring about real change.”

Using art and science to depict the MIT family from 1861 to the present

In MIT.nano’s laboratories, researchers use silicon wafers as the platform to shape transformative technologies such as quantum circuitry, microfluidic devices, or energy-harvesting structures. But these substrates can also serve as a canvas for an artist, as MIT Professor W. Craig Carter demonstrates in the latest One.MIT mosaic.

The One.MIT project celebrates the people of MIT by using the tools of MIT.nano to etch their collective names, arranged as a mosaic by Carter, into a silicon wafer just 8 inches in diameter. The latest edition of One.MIT — including 339,537 names of students, faculty, staff, and alumni associated with MIT from 1861 to September 2023 — is now on display in the ground-floor galleries at MIT.nano in the Lisa T. Su Building (Building 12).

“A spirit of innovation and a relentless drive to solve big problems have permeated the campus in every decade of our history. This passion for discovery, learning, and invention is the thread connecting MIT’s 21st-century family to our 19th-century beginnings and all the years in between,” says Vladimir Bulović, director of MIT.nano and the Fariborz Maseeh Chair in Emerging Technology. “One.MIT celebrates the MIT ethos and reminds us that no matter when we came to MIT, whatever our roles, we all leave a mark on this remarkable community.”

A team of students, faculty, staff, and alumni inscribed the design on the wafer inside the MIT.nano cleanrooms. Because the names are too small to be seen with the naked eye — they measure only microns high on the wafer — the One.MIT website allows anyone to look up a name and find its location in the mosaic.

Finding inspiration in the archives

The first two One.MIT art pieces, created in 2018 and 2020, were inscribed in silicon wafers 6 inches in diameter, slightly smaller than the latest art piece, which benefited from the newest MIT.nano tools that can fabricate 8-inch wafers. The first designs form well-known, historic MIT images: the Great Dome (2018) and the MIT seal (2020).

Carter, who is the Toyota Professor of Materials Processing and professor of materials science and engineering, created the designs and algorithms for each version of One.MIT. He started a search last summer for inspiration for the 2024 design. “The image needed to be iconic of MIT,” says Carter, “and also work within the constraints of a large-scale mosaic.”

Carter ultimately found the solution within the Institute Archives, in the form of a lithograph used on the cover of a program for the 1916 MIT rededication ceremony that celebrated the Institute’s move from Boston to Cambridge on its 50th anniversary.

Incorporating MIT nerdiness

Carter began by creating a black-and-white image, redrawing the lithograph’s architectural features and character elements. He recreated the kerns (spaces) and the fonts of the letters as algorithmic geometric objects.

The color gradient of the sky behind the dome presented a challenge because only two shades were available. To tackle this issue and impart texture, Carter created a Hilbert curve — a hierarchical, continuous curve made by replacing an element with a combination of four elements. Each of these four elements are replaced by another four elements, and so on. The resulting object is like a fractal — the curve changes shape as it goes from top to bottom, with 90-degree turns throughout.

“This was an opportunity to add a fun and ‘nerdy’ element — fitting for MIT,” says Carter.

To achieve both the gradient and the round wafer shape, Carter morphed the square Hilbert curve (consisting of 90-degree angles) into a disk shape using Schwarz-Christoffel mapping, a type of conformal mapping that can be used to solve problems in many different domains.

“Conformal maps are lovely convergences of physics and engineering with mathematics and geometry,” says Carter.

Because the conformal mapping is smooth and also preserves the angles, the square’s corners produce four singular points on the circle where the Hilbert curve’s line segments shrink to a point. The location of the four points in the upper part of the circle “squeezes” the curve and creates the gradient (and the texture of the illustration) — dense-to-sparse from top-to-bottom.

The final mosaic is made up of 6,476,403 characters, and Carter needed to use font and kern types that would fill as much of the wafer’s surface as possible without having names break up and wrap around to the next line. Carter’s algorithm alleviated this problem, at least somewhat, by searching for names that slotted into remaining spaces at the end of each row. The algorithm also performed an optimization over many different choices for the random order of the names. 

Finding — and wrangling — hundreds of thousands of names

In addition to the art and algorithms, the foundation of One.MIT is the extensive collection of names spanning more than 160 years of MIT. The names reflect students, alumni, faculty, and staff — the wide variety of individuals who have always formed the MIT community.

Annie Wang, research scientist and special projects coordinator for MIT.nano, again played an instrumental role in collecting the names for the project, just as she had for the 2018 and 2020 versions. Despite her experience, collating the names to construct the newest edition still presented several challenges, given the variety of input sources to the dataset and the need to format names in a consistent manner.

“Both databases and OCR-scanned text can be messy,” says Wang, referring to the electronic databases and old paper directories from which names were sourced. “And cleaning them up is a lot of work.”

Many names were listed in multiple places, sometimes spelled or formatted differently across sources. There were very short first and last names, very long first and last names — and also a portion of names in which more than one person had nearly identical names. And some groups are simply hard to find in the records. “One thing I wish we had,” comments Wang, “is a list of long-term volunteers at MIT who contribute so much but aren’t reflected in the main directories.”

Once the design was completed, Carter and Wang handed off a CAD file to Jorg Scholvin, associate director of fabrication at MIT.nano. Scholvin assembled a team that reflected One.MIT — students, faculty, staff, and alumni — and worked with them to fabricate the wafer inside MIT.nano’s cleanroom. The fab team included Carter; undergraduate students Akorfa Dagadu, Sean Luk, Emilia K. Szczepaniak, Amber Velez, and twin brothers Juan Antonio Luera and Juan Angel Luera; MIT Sloan School of Management EMBA student Patricia LaBorda; staff member Kevin Verrier of MIT Facilities; and alumnae Madeline Hickman ’11 and Eboney Hearn ’01, who is also the executive director of Engineering Outreach Programs.

Robotic “SuperLimbs” could help moonwalkers recover from falls

Need a moment of levity? Try watching videos of astronauts falling on the moon. NASA’s outtakes of Apollo astronauts tripping and stumbling as they bounce in slow motion are delightfully relatable.

For MIT engineers, the lunar bloopers also highlight an opportunity to innovate.

“Astronauts are physically very capable, but they can struggle on the moon, where gravity is one-sixth that of Earth’s but their inertia is still the same. Furthermore, wearing a spacesuit is a significant burden and can constrict their movements,” says Harry Asada, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “We want to provide a safe way for astronauts to get back on their feet if they fall.”

Asada and his colleagues are designing a pair of wearable robotic limbs that can physically support an astronaut and lift them back on their feet after a fall. The system, which the researchers have dubbed Supernumerary Robotic Limbs or “SuperLimbs” is designed to extend from a backpack, which would also carry the astronaut’s life support system, along with the controller and motors to power the limbs.

The researchers have built a physical prototype, as well as a control system to direct the limbs, based on feedback from the astronaut using it. The team tested a preliminary version on healthy subjects who also volunteered to wear a constrictive garment similar to an astronaut’s spacesuit. When the volunteers attempted to get up from a sitting or lying position, they did so with less effort when assisted by SuperLimbs, compared to when they had to recover on their own.

The MIT team envisions that SuperLimbs can physically assist astronauts after a fall and, in the process, help them conserve their energy for other essential tasks. The design could prove especially useful in the coming years, with the launch of NASA’s Artemis mission, which plans to send astronauts back to the moon for the first time in over 50 years. Unlike the largely exploratory mission of Apollo, Artemis astronauts will endeavor to build the first permanent moon base — a physically demanding task that will require multiple extended extravehicular activities (EVAs).

“During the Apollo era, when astronauts would fall, 80 percent of the time it was when they were doing excavation or some sort of job with a tool,” says team member and MIT doctoral student Erik Ballesteros. “The Artemis missions will really focus on construction and excavation, so the risk of falling is much higher. We think that SuperLimbs can help them recover so they can be more productive, and extend their EVAs.”

Asada, Ballesteros, and their colleagues will present their design and study this week at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA). Their co-authors include MIT postdoc Sang-Yoep Lee and Kalind Carpenter of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Taking a stand

The team’s design is the latest application of SuperLimbs, which Asada first developed about a decade ago and has since adapted for a range of applications, including assisting workers in aircraft manufacturing, construction, and ship building.

Most recently, Asada and Ballesteros wondered whether SuperLimbs might assist astronauts, particularly as NASA plans to send astronauts back to the surface of the moon.

“In communications with NASA, we learned that this issue of falling on the moon is a serious risk,” Asada says. “We realized that we could make some modifications to our design to help astronauts recover from falls and carry on with their work.”

The team first took a step back, to study the ways in which humans naturally recover from a fall. In their new study, they asked several healthy volunteers to attempt to stand upright after lying on their side, front, and back.

The researchers then looked at how the volunteers’ attempts to stand changed when their movements were constricted, similar to the way astronauts’ movements are limited by the bulk of their spacesuits. The team built a suit to mimic the stiffness of traditional spacesuits, and had volunteers don the suit before again attempting to stand up from various fallen positions. The volunteers’ sequence of movements was similar, though required much more effort compared to their unencumbered attempts.

The team mapped the movements of each volunteer as they stood up, and found that they each carried out a common sequence of motions, moving from one pose, or “waypoint,” to the next, in a predictable order.

“Those ergonomic experiments helped us to model in a straightforward way, how a human stands up,” Ballesteros says. “We could postulate that about 80 percent of humans stand up in a similar way. Then we designed a controller around that trajectory.”

Helping hand

The team developed software to generate a trajectory for a robot, following a sequence that would help support a human and lift them back on their feet. They applied the controller to a heavy, fixed robotic arm, which they attached to a large backpack. The researchers then attached the backpack to the bulky suit and helped volunteers back into the suit. They asked the volunteers to again lie on their back, front, or side, and then had them attempt to stand as the robot sensed the person’s movements and adapted to help them to their feet.

Overall, the volunteers were able to stand stably with much less effort when assisted by the robot, compared to when they tried to stand alone while wearing the bulky suit.

“It feels kind of like an extra force moving with you,” says Ballesteros, who also tried out the suit and arm assist. “Imagine wearing a backpack and someone grabs the top and sort of pulls you up. Over time, it becomes sort of natural.”

The experiments confirmed that the control system can successfully direct a robot to help a person stand back up after a fall. The researchers plan to pair the control system with their latest version of SuperLimbs, which comprises two multijointed robotic arms that can extend out from a backpack. The backpack would also contain the robot’s battery and motors, along with an astronaut’s ventilation system.

“We designed these robotic arms based on an AI search and design optimization, to look for designs of classic robot manipulators with certain engineering constraints,” Ballesteros says. “We filtered through many designs and looked for the design that consumes the least amount of energy to lift a person up. This version of SuperLimbs is the product of that process.”

Over the summer, Ballesteros will build out the full SuperLimbs system at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he plans to streamline the design and minimize the weight of its parts and motors using advanced, lightweight materials. Then, he hopes to pair the limbs with astronaut suits, and test them in low-gravity simulators, with the goal of someday assisting astronauts on future missions to the moon and Mars.

“Wearing a spacesuit can be a physical burden,” Asada notes. “Robotic systems can help ease that burden, and help astronauts be more productive during their missions.”

This research was supported, in part, by NASA.

This sound-suppressing silk can create quiet spaces

We are living in a very noisy world. From the hum of traffic outside your window to the next-door neighbor’s blaring TV to sounds from a co-worker’s cubicle, unwanted noise remains a resounding problem.

To cut through the din, an interdisciplinary collaboration of researchers from MIT and elsewhere developed a sound-suppressing silk fabric that could be used to create quiet spaces.

The fabric, which is barely thicker than a human hair, contains a special fiber that vibrates when a voltage is applied to it. The researchers leveraged those vibrations to suppress sound in two different ways.

In one, the vibrating fabric generates sound waves that interfere with an unwanted noise to cancel it out, similar to noise-canceling headphones, which work well in a small space like your ears but do not work in large enclosures like rooms or planes.

In the other, more surprising technique, the fabric is held still to suppress vibrations that are key to the transmission of sound. This prevents noise from being transmitted through the fabric and quiets the volume beyond. This second approach allows for noise reduction in much larger spaces like rooms or cars.

By using common materials like silk, canvas, and muslin, the researchers created noise-suppressing fabrics which would be practical to implement in real-world spaces. For instance, one could use such a fabric to make dividers in open workspaces or thin fabric walls that prevent sound from getting through.

“Noise is a lot easier to create than quiet. In fact, to keep noise out we dedicate a lot of space to thick walls. [First author] Grace’s work provides a new mechanism for creating quiet spaces with a thin sheet of fabric,” says Yoel Fink, a professor in the departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, a Research Laboratory of Electronics principal investigator, and senior author of a paper on the fabric.

The study’s lead author is Grace (Noel) Yang SM ’21, PhD ’24. Co-authors include MIT graduate students Taigyu Joo, Hyunhee Lee, Henry Cheung, and Yongyi Zhao; Zachary Smith, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT; graduate student Guanchun Rui and professor Lei Zhu of Case Western University; graduate student Jinuan Lin and Assistant Professor Chu Ma of the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and Latika Balachander, a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design. An open-access paper about the research appeared recently in Advanced Materials.

Silky silence

The sound-suppressing silk builds off the group’s prior work to create fabric microphones.

In that research, they sewed a single strand of piezoelectric fiber into fabric. Piezoelectric materials produce an electrical signal when squeezed or bent. When a nearby noise causes the fabric to vibrate, the piezoelectric fiber converts those vibrations into an electrical signal, which can capture the sound.

In the new work, the researchers flipped that idea to create a fabric loudspeaker that can be used to cancel out soundwaves.

“While we can use fabric to create sound, there is already so much noise in our world. We thought creating silence could be even more valuable,” Yang says.

Applying an electrical signal to the piezoelectric fiber causes it to vibrate, which generates sound. The researchers demonstrated this by playing Bach’s “Air” using a 130-micrometer sheet of silk mounted on a circular frame.

To enable direct sound suppression, the researchers use a silk fabric loudspeaker to emit sound waves that destructively interfere with unwanted sound waves. They control the vibrations of the piezoelectric fiber so that sound waves emitted by the fabric are opposite of unwanted sound waves that strike the fabric, which can cancel out the noise.

However, this technique is only effective over a small area. So, the researchers built off this idea to develop a technique that uses fabric vibrations to suppress sound in much larger areas, like a bedroom.

Let’s say your next-door neighbors are playing foosball in the middle of the night. You hear noise in your bedroom because the sound in their apartment causes your shared wall to vibrate, which forms sound waves on your side.

To suppress that sound, the researchers could place the silk fabric onto your side of the shared wall, controlling the vibrations in the fiber to force the fabric to remain still. This vibration-mediated suppression prevents sound from being transmitted through the fabric.

“If we can control those vibrations and stop them from happening, we can stop the noise that is generated, as well,” Yang says.

A mirror for sound

Surprisingly, the researchers found that holding the fabric still causes sound to be reflected by the fabric, resulting in a thin piece of silk that reflects sound like a mirror does with light.

Their experiments also revealed that both the mechanical properties of a fabric and the size of its pores affect the efficiency of sound generation. While silk and muslin have similar mechanical properties, the smaller pore sizes of silk make it a better fabric loudspeaker.

But the effective pore size also depends on the frequency of sound waves. If the frequency is low enough, even a fabric with relatively large pores could function effectively, Yang says.

When they tested the silk fabric in direct suppression mode, the researchers found that it could significantly reduce the volume of sounds up to 65 decibels (about as loud as enthusiastic human conversation). In vibration-mediated suppression mode, the fabric could reduce sound transmission up to 75 percent.

These results were only possible due to a robust group of collaborators, Fink says. Graduate students at the Rhode Island School of Design helped the researchers understand the details of constructing fabrics; scientists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison conducted simulations; researchers at Case Western Reserve University characterized materials; and chemical engineers in the Smith Group at MIT used their expertise in gas membrane separation to measure airflow through the fabric.

Moving forward, the researchers want to explore the use of their fabric to block sound of multiple frequencies. This would likely require complex signal processing and additional electronics.

In addition, they want to further study the architecture of the fabric to see how changing things like the number of piezoelectric fibers, the direction in which they are sewn, or the applied voltages could improve performance.

“There are a lot of knobs we can turn to make this sound-suppressing fabric really effective. We want to get people thinking about controlling structural vibrations to suppress sound. This is just the beginning,” says Yang.

This work is funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Army Research Office (ARO), the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

HPI-MIT design research collaboration creates powerful teams

The recent ransomware attack on ChangeHealthcare, which severed the network connecting health care providers, pharmacies, and hospitals with health insurance companies, demonstrates just how disruptive supply chain attacks can be. In this case, it hindered the ability of those providing medical services to submit insurance claims and receive payments.

This sort of attack and other forms of data theft are becoming increasingly common and often target large, multinational corporations through the small and mid-sized vendors in their corporate supply chains, enabling breaks in these enormous systems of interwoven companies.

Cybersecurity researchers at MIT and the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) in Potsdam, Germany, are focused on the different organizational security cultures that exist within large corporations and their vendors because it’s that difference that creates vulnerabilities, often due to the lack of emphasis on cybersecurity by the senior leadership in these small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Keri Pearlson, executive director of Cybersecurity at MIT Sloan (CAMS); Jillian Kwong, a research scientist at CAMS; and Christian Doerr, a professor of cybersecurity and enterprise security at HPI, are co-principal investigators (PIs) on the research project, “Culture and the Supply Chain: Transmitting Shared Values, Attitudes and Beliefs across Cybersecurity Supply Chains.”

Their project was selected in the 2023 inaugural round of grants from the HPI-MIT Designing for Sustainability program, a multiyear partnership funded by HPI and administered by the MIT Morningside Academy for Design (MAD). The program awards about 10 grants annually of up to $200,000 each to multidisciplinary teams with divergent backgrounds in computer science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, engineering, design, architecture, the natural sciences, humanities, and business and management. The 2024 Call for Applications is open through June 3.

Designing for Sustainability grants support scientific research that promotes the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on topics involving sustainable design, innovation, and digital technologies, with teams made up of PIs from both institutions. The PIs on these projects, who have common interests but different strengths, create more powerful teams by working together.

Transmitting shared values, attitudes, and beliefs to improve cybersecurity across supply chains

The MIT and HPI cybersecurity researchers say that most ransomware attacks aren’t reported. Smaller companies hit with ransomware attacks just shut down, because they can’t afford the payment to retrieve their data. This makes it difficult to know just how many attacks and data breaches occur. “As more data and processes move online and into the cloud, it becomes even more important to focus on securing supply chains,” Kwong says. “Investing in cybersecurity allows information to be exchanged freely while keeping data safe. Without it, any progress towards sustainability is stalled.”

One of the first large data breaches in the United States to be widely publicized provides a clear example of how an SME cybersecurity can leave a multinational corporation vulnerable to attack. In 2013, hackers entered the Target Corporation’s own network by obtaining the credentials of a small vendor in its supply chain: a Pennsylvania HVAC company. Through that breach, thieves were able to install malware that stole the financial and personal information of 110 million Target customers, which they sold to card shops on the black market.

To prevent such attacks, SME vendors in a large corporation’s supply chain are required to agree to follow certain security measures, but the SMEs usually don’t have the expertise or training to make good on these cybersecurity promises, leaving their own systems, and therefore any connected to them, vulnerable to attack.

“Right now, organizations are connected economically, but not aligned in terms of organizational culture, values, beliefs, and practices around cybersecurity,” explains Kwong. “Basically, the big companies are realizing the smaller ones are not able to implement all the cybersecurity requirements. We have seen some larger companies address this by reducing requirements or making the process shorter. However, this doesn’t mean companies are more secure; it just lowers the bar for the smaller suppliers to clear it.”

Pearlson emphasizes the importance of board members and senior management taking responsibility for cybersecurity in order to change the culture at SMEs, rather than pushing that down to a single department, IT office, or in some cases, one IT employee.

The research team is using case studies based on interviews, field studies, focus groups, and direct observation of people in their natural work environments to learn how companies engage with vendors, and the specific ways cybersecurity is implemented, or not, in everyday operations. The goal is to create a shared culture around cybersecurity that can be adopted correctly by all vendors in a supply chain.

This approach is in line with the goals of the Charter of Trust Initiative, a partnership of large, multinational corporations formed to establish a better means of implementing cybersecurity in the supply chain network. The HPI-MIT team worked with companies from the Charter of Trust and others last year to understand the impacts of cybersecurity regulation on SME participation in supply chains and develop a conceptual framework to implement changes for stabilizing supply chains.

Cybersecurity is a prerequisite needed to achieve any of the United Nations’ SDGs, explains Kwong. Without secure supply chains, access to key resources and institutions can be abruptly cut off. This could include food, clean water and sanitation, renewable energy, financial systems, health care, education, and resilient infrastructure. Securing supply chains helps enable progress on all SDGs, and the HPI-MIT project specifically supports SMEs, which are a pillar of the U.S. and European economies.

Personalizing product designs while minimizing material waste

In a vastly different Designing for Sustainability joint research project that employs AI with engineering, “Personalizing Product Designs While Minimizing Material Waste” will use AI design software to lay out multiple parts of a pattern on a sheet of plywood, acrylic, or other material, so that they can be laser cut to create new products in real time without wasting material.

Stefanie Mueller, the TIBCO Career Development Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and Patrick Baudisch, a professor of computer science and chair of the Human Computer Interaction Lab at HPI, are co-PIs on the project. The two have worked together for years; Baudisch was Mueller’s PhD research advisor at HPI.

Baudisch’s lab developed an online design teaching system called Kyub that lets students design 3D objects in pieces that are laser cut from sheets of wood and assembled to become chairs, speaker boxes, radio-controlled aircraft, or even functional musical instruments. For instance, each leg of a chair would consist of four identical vertical pieces attached at the edges to create a hollow-centered column, four of which will provide stability to the chair, even though the material is very lightweight.

“By designing and constructing such furniture, students learn not only design, but also structural engineering,” Baudisch says. “Similarly, by designing and constructing musical instruments, they learn about structural engineering, as well as resonance, types of musical tuning, etc.”

Mueller was at HPI when Baudisch developed the Kyub software, allowing her to observe “how they were developing and making all the design decisions,” she says. “They built a really neat piece for people to quickly design these types of 3D objects.” However, using Kyub for material-efficient design is not fast; in order to fabricate a model, the software has to break the 3D models down into 2D parts and lay these out on sheets of material. This takes time, and makes it difficult to see the impact of design decisions on material use in real-time.

Mueller’s lab at MIT developed software based on a layout algorithm that uses AI to lay out pieces on sheets of material in real time. This allows AI to explore multiple potential layouts while the user is still editing, and thus provide ongoing feedback. “As the user develops their design, Fabricaide decides good placements of parts onto the user’s available materials, provides warnings if the user does not have enough material for a design, and makes suggestions for how the user can resolve insufficient material cases,” according to the project website.

The joint MIT-HPI project integrates Mueller’s AI software with Baudisch’s Kyub software and adds machine learning to train the AI to offer better design suggestions that save material while adhering to the user’s design intent.

“The project is all about minimizing the waste on these materials sheets,” Mueller says. She already envisions the next step in this AI design process: determining how to integrate the laws of physics into the AI’s knowledge base to ensure the structural integrity and stability of objects it designs.

AI-powered startup design for the Anthropocene: Providing guidance for novel enterprises

Through her work with the teams of MITdesignX and its international programs, Svafa Grönfeldt, faculty director of MITdesignX and professor of the practice in MIT MAD, has helped scores of people in startup companies use the tools and methods of design to ensure that the solution a startup proposes actually fits the problem it seeks to solve. This is often called the problem-solution fit.

Grönfeldt and MIT postdoc Norhan Bayomi are now extending this work to incorporate AI into the process, in collaboration with MIT Professor John Fernández and graduate student Tyler Kim. The HPI team includes Professor Gerard de Melo; HPI School of Entrepreneurship Director Frank Pawlitschek; and doctoral student Michael Mansfeld.

“The startup ecosystem is characterized by uncertainty and volatility compounded by growing uncertainties in climate and planetary systems,” Grönfeldt says. “Therefore, there is an urgent need for a robust model that can objectively predict startup success and guide design for the Anthropocene.”

While startup-success forecasting is gaining popularity, it currently focuses on aiding venture capitalists in selecting companies to fund, rather than guiding the startups in the design of their products, services and business plans.

“The coupling of climate and environmental priorities with startup agendas requires deeper analytics for effective enterprise design,” Grönfeldt says. The project aims to explore whether AI-augmented decision-support systems can enhance startup-success forecasting.

“We’re trying to develop a machine learning approach that will give a forecasting of probability of success based on a number of parameters, including the type of business model proposed, how the team came together, the team members’ backgrounds and skill sets, the market and industry sector they’re working in and the problem-solution fit,” says Bayomi, who works with Fernández in the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative. The two are co-founders of the startup Lamarr.AI, which employs robotics and AI to help reduce the carbon dioxide impact of the built environment.

The team is studying “how company founders make decisions across four key areas, starting from the opportunity recognition, how they are selecting the team members, how they are selecting the business model, identifying the most automatic strategy, all the way through the product market fit to gain an understanding of the key governing parameters in each of these areas,” explains Bayomi.

The team is “also developing a large language model that will guide the selection of the business model by using large datasets from different companies in Germany and the U.S. We train the model based on the specific industry sector, such as a technology solution or a data solution, to find what would be the most suitable business model that would increase the success probability of a company,” she says.

The project falls under several of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including economic growth, innovation and infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities, and climate action.

Furthering the goals of the HPI-MIT Joint Research Program

These three diverse projects all advance the mission of the HPI-MIT collaboration. MIT MAD aims to use design to transform learning, catalyze innovation, and empower society by inspiring people from all disciplines to interweave design into problem-solving. HPI uses digital engineering concentrated on the development and research of user-oriented innovations for all areas of life.

Interdisciplinary teams with members from both institutions are encouraged to develop and submit proposals for ambitious, sustainable projects that use design strategically to generate measurable, impactful solutions to the world’s problems.

Exploring frontiers of mechanical engineering

From cutting-edge robotics, design, and bioengineering to sustainable energy solutions, ocean engineering, nanotechnology, and innovative materials science, MechE students and their advisors are doing incredibly innovative work. The graduate students highlighted here represent a snapshot of the great work in progress this spring across the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and demonstrate the ways the future of this field is as limitless as the imaginations of its practitioners.

Democratizing design through AI

Lyle Regenwetter
Hometown: Champaign, Illinois
Advisor: Assistant Professor Faez Ahmed
Interests: Food, climbing, skiing, soccer, tennis, cooking

Lyle Regenwetter finds excitement in the prospect of generative AI to “democratize” design and enable inexperienced designers to tackle complex design problems. His research explores new training methods through which generative AI models can be taught to implicitly obey design constraints and synthesize higher-performing designs. Knowing that prospective designers often have an intimate knowledge of the needs of users, but may otherwise lack the technical training to create solutions, Regenwetter also develops human-AI collaborative tools that allow AI models to interact and support designers in popular CAD software and real design problems. 

Solving a whale of a problem 

Loïcka Baille
Hometown: L’Escale, France
Advisor: Daniel Zitterbart
Interests: Being outdoors — scuba diving, spelunking, or climbing. Sailing on the Charles River, martial arts classes, and playing volleyball

Loïcka Baille’s research focuses on developing remote sensing technologies to study and protect marine life. Her main project revolves around improving onboard whale detection technology to prevent vessel strikes, with a special focus on protecting North Atlantic right whales. Baille is also involved in an ongoing study of Emperor penguins. Her team visits Antarctica annually to tag penguins and gather data to enhance their understanding of penguin population dynamics and draw conclusions regarding the overall health of the ecosystem.

Water, water anywhere

Carlos Díaz-Marín
Hometown: San José, Costa Rica
Advisor: Professor Gang Chen | Former Advisor: Professor Evelyn Wang
Interests: New England hiking, biking, and dancing

Carlos Díaz-Marín designs and synthesizes inexpensive salt-polymer materials that can capture large amounts of humidity from the air. He aims to change the way we generate potable water from the air, even in arid conditions. In addition to water generation, these salt-polymer materials can also be used as thermal batteries, capable of storing and reusing heat. Beyond the scientific applications, Díaz-Marín is excited to continue doing research that can have big social impacts, and that finds and explains new physical phenomena. As a LatinX person, Díaz-Marín is also driven to help increase diversity in STEM.

Scalable fabrication of nano-architected materials

Somayajulu Dhulipala
Hometown: Hyderabad, India
Advisor: Assistant Professor Carlos Portela
Interests: Space exploration, taekwondo, meditation.

Somayajulu Dhulipala works on developing lightweight materials with tunable mechanical properties. He is currently working on methods for the scalable fabrication of nano-architected materials and predicting their mechanical properties. The ability to fine-tune the mechanical properties of specific materials brings versatility and adaptability, making these materials suitable for a wide range of applications across multiple industries. While the research applications are quite diverse, Dhulipala is passionate about making space habitable for humanity, a crucial step toward becoming a spacefaring civilization.

Ingestible health-care devices

Jimmy McRae
Hometown: Woburn, Massachusetts
Advisor: Associate Professor Giovani Traverso
Interests: Anything basketball-related: playing, watching, going to games, organizing hometown tournaments 

Jimmy McRae aims to drastically improve diagnostic and therapeutic capabilities through noninvasive health-care technologies. His research focuses on leveraging materials, mechanics, embedded systems, and microfabrication to develop novel ingestible electronic and mechatronic devices. This ranges from ingestible electroceutical capsules that modulate hunger-regulating hormones to devices capable of continuous ultralong monitoring and remotely triggerable actuations from within the stomach. The principles that guide McRae’s work to develop devices that function in extreme environments can be applied far beyond the gastrointestinal tract, with applications for outer space, the ocean, and more.

Freestyle BMX meets machine learning

Eva Nates
Hometown: Narberth, Pennsylvania 
Advisor: Professor Peko Hosoi
Interests: Rowing, running, biking, hiking, baking

Eva Nates is working with the Australian Cycling Team to create a tool to classify Bicycle Motocross Freestyle (BMX FS) tricks. She uses a singular value decomposition method to conduct a principal component analysis of the time-dependent point-tracking data of an athlete and their bike during a run to classify each trick. The 2024 Olympic team hopes to incorporate this tool in their training workflow, and Nates worked alongside the team at their facilities on the Gold Coast of Australia during MIT’s Independent Activities Period in January.

Augmenting Astronauts with Wearable Limbs 

Erik Ballesteros
Hometown: Spring, Texas
Advisor: Professor Harry Asada
Interests: Cosplay, Star Wars, Lego bricks

Erik Ballesteros’s research seeks to support astronauts who are conducting planetary extravehicular activities through the use of supernumerary robotic limbs (SuperLimbs). His work is tailored toward design and control manifestation to assist astronauts with post-fall recovery, human-leader/robot-follower quadruped locomotion, and coordinated manipulation between the SuperLimbs and the astronaut to perform tasks like excavation and sample handling.

This article appeared in the Spring 2024 edition of the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s magazine, MechE Connects

Weaving memory into textiles

In 2021, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution contacted Chloé Bensahel, currently the MIT 2023-24 Ida Ely Rubin Artist in Residence, and told her about some objects that had been made for space missions. “They were weavings of conductive yarn with magnetic pieces in them,” Bensahel says. “After World War II, you had these really powerful computers but no way to store data, so scientists at MIT and Harvard came up with this magnetic core memory. It was the last moment, I think, in computing history when information was visible: You can actually see the code because of the little magnets that were turned on or turned off.”

What really captured the attention of Bensahel, who works with textiles, is that those items had been woven by hand at MIT. “They’re the result of two histories in New England that are coinciding: the declining textile industry and the increasing space research,” she says. “Legend has it that the women who were getting laid off from the textile industries got hired by MIT to make these objects. They were weaving here on campus.”

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Activating Textiles: Weaving the Future with the Past

Reinventing codes

Eventually, Bensahel connected with Zach Lieberman, an adjunct associate professor who runs the Future Sketches group at the MIT Media Lab, who applied for a MIT Center for Art Science and Technology (CAST) grant to bring her to campus as a visiting artist. The pair share an interest in various forms of code and communication — Bensahel, for example, sees textiles as carrying information, not just in what they visually display, like, say, a slogan on a T-shirt, but in the very way they are made. Now, they are working together at MIT, which has been unfurling in connection with Bensahel’s residency at Villa Albertine, an arts institution launched in 2021 by the French Embassy in the United States that supports cultural exchange between the United States, France and beyond, including offering more than 50 residencies each year for artists, thinkers, and creators across all disciplines.

Bensahel is building on MIT’s groundbreaking legacy in the weaving of memory technology, which complements the research conducted by her MIT collaborators, whether they are faculty members or research assistants. “We’re primarily software-oriented here,” Lieberman says, referring to his group. “We are working in the realm of bits and with language. Chloe’s work is also really intimately concerned with language, but she’s coming at it from a perspective of materials and trying to figure out how to weave them in different ways, and connect with electronics and sensing.”

Theory and craftsmanship

Born in France, Bensahel moved to the United States when she was 7. She attended Parsons School of Design, in New York City. She specialized in integrated design with a focus on textiles, and graduated in 2013. The coursework was essentially theoretical and philosophical, though, and afterward Bensahel moved to France to hone her craftsmanship. “I wanted to learn with my hands, not just my mind,” she says — no doubt making her a perfect fit for MIT, whose motto, “mens et manus,” translates as “mind and hand.”

This interest in the interaction of the physical with the ineffable continues to guide her art, which essentially renders communication tactile. “Chloe’s work is so much about listening to materials and finding ways to hear how they talk, hear the sounds that they make,” Lieberman says. This approach is in evidence at a forthcoming exhibition “Tisser L’Hybride: Chloe Bensahel” at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which features three interactive tapestries. According to Bensahel, the artwork in the exhibit and what she is doing at MIT are “not going to be directly connected,” but she also points out that “they benefit from one another, for sure.”

Indeed, keeping an open mind to different fields and different ways of thinking has been enriching Bensahel’s time on campus. In addition to such public-facing activities as a presentation and demonstration at the MIT Museum’s After Dark series, in March, she has been actively collaborating with various entities, faculty, and students. For instance, she has been leveraging prototyping equipment and exploring potential industrial applications of her work with the public-private partnership Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, of which MIT is a member. “I love that something that could  be in a museum could also be in a hospital,” Bensahel says. AFFOA staff members Jesse Jur, director of technical program development, and Frannie Logan, textile technologist, have been providing technical support as well.

Thriving on collaboration

Interlocutors on campus include Azra Akšamija, the director of the MIT Future Heritage Lab, and Vera van de Seyp, a research assistant in the Future Sketches group, whose interests and experiences complement Bensahel’s. “A lot of my work is text-based and I’m not a typography or graphic designer at all, so it’s really nice to work with Vera, because what we’re essentially doing is thinking about form and function at the same time,” Bensahel says. “I’m working on how I can make a textile that can be magnetized, in the way that magnetic core memory was magnetic. I would like for it to tense up or move in different ways, so that essentially you have a textile that can assemble in different ways.”

Most of all, perhaps, it’s the constant intellectual activity at MIT that has spurred and inspired Bensahel, who relishes the opportunity to integrate perspectives that are new to her. “I’ve had a lot of really eye-opening conversations on what magnetism means,” she says. “I just had lunch with a researcher and she was like, ‘Bacteria sometimes have magnetic fields to know how to grow.’ This place, it’s really about the people,” Bensahel continues. “It’s a very dense group of brilliant people so no matter who you’re running into, they’re going to have this very powerful depth of knowledge in one specific field. Being here also shifted my perspective: I didn’t really consider myself a researcher, or a scientist for that matter, and I feel more comfortable in that space now. Every day, I find new applications or new directions.”