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In pursuit of pragmatic solutions to pervasive problems

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In pursuit of pragmatic solutions to pervasive problems


The Alibaba Damo Academy is a unique hybrid research and development (R&D) facility. An academically-oriented independent science organization established in 2017 in Hangzhou, China, it is also an arms-length research affiliate of its founder, Chinese internet technology giant Alibaba. Damo’s project development pipelines are positioned around developing data-enabled technologies for fundamental business and social challenges, such as alleviating traffic congestion in mega-cities and workforce productivity in logistics. But the approach to solving these foundational problems is purposefully focused on commercialization-centric principles and development, which Damo’s leaders believe help shorten their development cycle and improve the efficiency of their scientific research.

Damo’s approach to R&D is a founding principal linked to an even deeper strategic objective: that the academy must “outlast Alibaba,” to become an enduring, sustainable, and independent developer of all of the group’s technology innovation. Yet, while Damo grows “out from under the shade of Alibaba’s tree,” (to paraphrase one of company founder Jack Ma’s favorite metaphors), the parent is still vital to its success: the technological and operational challenges of Alibaba’s business ecosystem serve as a source of inspiration for Damo.

Damo categorizes its technology projects into “emergent” (cutting-edge technology), “mature discussion” (market-ready technology), and “commercialized” (ready to be a product). “Commercialized” projects and some “mature discussion” projects are tightly connected to Alibaba’s technology development processes through a virtuous R&D circuit, which aims to quickly bring concepts to market through a frugal innovation process that uses lightweight, scalable, and sharable development resources: more than 80% of the projects run by Damo’s Voice Recognition Lab, for instance, host their applications on the cloud. 

Such applications include AI-enabled medical image analysis technology, which Damo says can conduct coronary pneumonia clinical tests in under two seconds and deliver a full diagnosis with 99% accuracy in 20 seconds, which helps hospitals greatly accelerate their diagnosis process. A robotics division at Damo is trialling an autonomous last-mile logistics robot, inspired by the strain China’s fast-growing e-commerce demand is placing on door-to-door delivery services. The robot can potentially make 500 deliveries over 100 kilometers a day on four kilowatt-hours of electricity, navigating complex road and urban conditions and distinguishing between the action of pedestrians and vehicles.

Big brains for big city problems

Still other Damo projects attempt to address a number of organizational and social challenges through cross-functional, multi-application programs. A primary example of this are Damo’s projects using natural language processing in AI-enabled digital assistants to increase operational efficiency in businesses. Seeking to lift the capabilities of office-based smart speakers beyond the fairly rudimentary interactions that consumers have with their devices (largely simple verbal commands to conduct internet searches or navigate e-commerce sites), Damo has developed a prototype natural conversation analysis tool called ting wu (Chinese for listen and understand). It is designed to listen to meetings with multiple participants and will parse discussion patterns to produce informative synopses and assign post-meeting action items.

Source: Alibaba Damo Academy

Damo’s speech model has also been used to develop a simultaneous translation service for AliExpress (Alibaba’s global retail marketplace), which is embedded in its customer engagement platform and allows participating merchant suppliers to translate from Chinese to English, Russian, Spanish, and French. The service was launched during last year’s Alibaba global shopping festival (also known as Singles’ Day) on November 11, and Damo reports that 70% of its merchant clients used the service. The technology was also used for the company’s customer service chatbot Alime, which served over 50 million active users on the company’s e-commerce sites Taobao and Tmall during Singles’ Day.

Grounded, but reaching for the clouds

Rather than being guided by formal key performance indicators, R&D direction is defined by five key terms, according to Xu Yinghui, Alibaba Group vice president and head of Damo’s Vision Lab, all of which underpin the academy’s focus on practical innovation. “The first is scalable: we want all our applications to have a big impact, and keeping things at the demo state is meaningless. The second is interpretable: we have to turn the black boxes of algorithms and other new tools into white boxes. The third is speed, then affordability, and then public benefit—so that as many as possible can enjoy the technology,” says Xu.

Jin Rong, an Alibaba Group vice president and the director of Damo’s Machine Intelligence Lab, believes that the academy’s “demand-oriented” R&D approach distinguishes it from other research institutes. “Good technologies should have application prospects and should effectively solve practical problems—not just technological, but organizational, or operational. Projects are established for specific market needs, and research and development results are quickly implemented in business and application scenarios,” says Jin. This culminates in a productization process “where the technology is deposited on our cloud platform as soon as possible,” ensuring both wider scalability and accessibility, as well as ongoing cost efficiency—the “engineering of controllable costs,” in Alibaba parlance. “It is an early-or-late issue, but not a yes-or-no issue,” says Jin.

In this sense, Damo’s cost and time constraints promote innovation: in order to make projects business viable, cost efficiency needs to be baked into the thesis. While Damo’s AI research is deep and significant, freewheeling experimentation untethered by practical application is frowned upon. “First, an idea must survive on its own in the real world rather than in one’s mind,” says Hua Xiansheng, head of City Brain Lab at the academy.  Damo’s leaders believe it is this ethos that has driven the academy to swiftly claim numerous breakthrough projects in such wide-ranging foundational sectors like new computing architecture and autonomous driving, and in industrial applications across sectors including health care, logistics, transport and education sectors. Driven to solve deep, pernicious and socially significant problems, but with an embedded pragmatism, Damo is keen to keep growing far out from its parent’s shade.

This content was produced by Alibaba Damo Academy. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions


Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.

But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)

2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)

3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)

5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)

6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)

7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)

8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review) 

9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)

10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”

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