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Notes from the Lab


MIT students have applied system dynamics (SD) to the problem of how to manage atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

SD is a versatile tool that can help in understanding and predicting the behavior of complex systems. As a class project for Professor John Sterman of the Sloan School of Management, the students used SD to analyze one plan to manage atmospheric levels of CO2 in which Costa Rica has agreed to reforest tropical areas-and protect existing forests-in exchange for a certain amount of debt forgiveness from the United States.

But what are the tradeoffs in such a complex situation? How can you set the policy that defines the details of the deal? SD can help answer such questions. While the students' research model needs further refinement-they are speaking with potential partners to continue the research-there have already been valuable insights.

For example, the modeling helps clarify that policies to protect standing forests must deal explicitly with the underlying reasons for the deforestation; otherwise, loggers and ranchers may simply shift their operations to unprotected areas. Moreover, there must be a clear understanding of the cost to agriculture, ranching, and housing of planting new forests, as reforested land will no longer be available to these activities.

(Source: Paul Michelman, MIT-Sloan R.O.I.)


The "artificial artist" is a computer program that creates sculpture in the style of Alexander Calder's abstract kinetic mobiles.

Developed by Matthew Brand, a lecturer in media arts and sciences at the Media Lab, the program does Calder one better by designing sculptures that are actually kinetic portraits. The program looks at an animal or face and identifies interesting parts, such as centers of muscular power, using computer vision and artificial intelligence techniques. Simulated force-fields then reshape these parts and link them into an attractive and well-engineered mobile, ensuring balanced counterweights and strong curve harmonies.

Like their real-life counterparts, these virtual mobiles twist and turn on the computer screen, taking on a life of their own. Dr. Brand's work explores ways of making machines visually fluent so they can assist humans in creative activities such as design, assembly, and play.

Beyond sculpture, such as the horse below, Dr. Brand's computing techniques provide new ways of solving complex spatial design problems such as making lightweight furniture that fits the contours and motions of our bodies. The work is funded by the MIT Media Lab.

(Source: Ellen Hoffman, Frames)

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 2, 1996.

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