Tag Archives: 2016

#433884 Designer Babies, and Their Babies: How ...

As if stand-alone technologies weren’t advancing fast enough, we’re in age where we must study the intersection points of these technologies. How is what’s happening in robotics influenced by what’s happening in 3D printing? What could be made possible by applying the latest advances in quantum computing to nanotechnology?

Along these lines, one crucial tech intersection is that of artificial intelligence and genomics. Each field is seeing constant progress, but Jamie Metzl believes it’s their convergence that will really push us into uncharted territory, beyond even what we’ve imagined in science fiction. “There’s going to be this push and pull, this competition between the reality of our biology with its built-in limitations and the scope of our aspirations,” he said.

Metzl is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. At Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine conference last week, he shared his insights on genomics and AI, and where their convergence could take us.

Life As We Know It
Metzl explained how genomics as a field evolved slowly—and then quickly. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick identified the double helix structure of DNA, and realized that the order of the base pairs held a treasure trove of genetic information. There was such a thing as a book of life, and we’d found it.

In 2003, when the Human Genome Project was completed (after 13 years and $2.7 billion), we learned the order of the genome’s 3 billion base pairs, and the location of specific genes on our chromosomes. Not only did a book of life exist, we figured out how to read it.

Jamie Metzl at Exponential Medicine
Fifteen years after that, it’s 2018 and precision gene editing in plants, animals, and humans is changing everything, and quickly pushing us into an entirely new frontier. Forget reading the book of life—we’re now learning how to write it.

“Readable, writable, and hackable, what’s clear is that human beings are recognizing that we are another form of information technology, and just like our IT has entered this exponential curve of discovery, we will have that with ourselves,” Metzl said. “And it’s intersecting with the AI revolution.”

Learning About Life Meets Machine Learning
In 2016, DeepMind’s AlphaGo program outsmarted the world’s top Go player. In 2017 AlphaGo Zero was created: unlike AlphaGo, AlphaGo Zero wasn’t trained using previous human games of Go, but was simply given the rules of Go—and in four days it defeated the AlphaGo program.

Our own biology is, of course, vastly more complex than the game of Go, and that, Metzl said, is our starting point. “The system of our own biology that we are trying to understand is massively, but very importantly not infinitely, complex,” he added.

Getting a standardized set of rules for our biology—and, eventually, maybe even outsmarting our biology—will require genomic data. Lots of it.

Multiple countries already starting to produce this data. The UK’s National Health Service recently announced a plan to sequence the genomes of five million Britons over the next five years. In the US the All of Us Research Program will sequence a million Americans. China is the most aggressive in sequencing its population, with a goal of sequencing half of all newborns by 2020.

“We’re going to get these massive pools of sequenced genomic data,” Metzl said. “The real gold will come from comparing people’s sequenced genomes to their electronic health records, and ultimately their life records.” Getting people comfortable with allowing open access to their data will be another matter; Metzl mentioned that Luna DNA and others have strategies to help people get comfortable with giving consent to their private information. But this is where China’s lack of privacy protection could end up being a significant advantage.

To compare genotypes and phenotypes at scale—first millions, then hundreds of millions, then eventually billions, Metzl said—we’re going to need AI and big data analytic tools, and algorithms far beyond what we have now. These tools will let us move from precision medicine to predictive medicine, knowing precisely when and where different diseases are going to occur and shutting them down before they start.

But, Metzl said, “As we unlock the genetics of ourselves, it’s not going to be about just healthcare. It’s ultimately going to be about who and what we are as humans. It’s going to be about identity.”

Designer Babies, and Their Babies
In Metzl’s mind, the most serious application of our genomic knowledge will be in embryo selection.

Currently, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures can extract around 15 eggs, fertilize them, then do pre-implantation genetic testing; right now what’s knowable is single-gene mutation diseases and simple traits like hair color and eye color. As we get to the millions and then billions of people with sequences, we’ll have information about how these genetics work, and we’re going to be able to make much more informed choices,” Metzl said.

Imagine going to a fertility clinic in 2023. You give a skin graft or a blood sample, and using in-vitro gametogenesis (IVG)—infertility be damned—your skin or blood cells are induced to become eggs or sperm, which are then combined to create embryos. The dozens or hundreds of embryos created from artificial gametes each have a few cells extracted from them, and these cells are sequenced. The sequences will tell you the likelihood of specific traits and disease states were that embryo to be implanted and taken to full term. “With really anything that has a genetic foundation, we’ll be able to predict with increasing levels of accuracy how that potential child will be realized as a human being,” Metzl said.

This, he added, could lead to some wild and frightening possibilities: if you have 1,000 eggs and you pick one based on its optimal genetic sequence, you could then mate your embryo with somebody else who has done the same thing in a different genetic line. “Your five-day-old embryo and their five-day-old embryo could have a child using the same IVG process,” Metzl said. “Then that child could have a child with another five-day-old embryo from another genetic line, and you could go on and on down the line.”

Sounds insane, right? But wait, there’s more: as Jason Pontin reported earlier this year in Wired, “Gene-editing technologies such as Crispr-Cas9 would make it relatively easy to repair, add, or remove genes during the IVG process, eliminating diseases or conferring advantages that would ripple through a child’s genome. This all may sound like science fiction, but to those following the research, the combination of IVG and gene editing appears highly likely, if not inevitable.”

From Crazy to Commonplace?
It’s a slippery slope from gene editing and embryo-mating to a dystopian race to build the most perfect humans possible. If somebody’s investing so much time and energy in selecting their embryo, Metzl asked, how will they think about the mating choices of their children? IVG could quickly leave the realm of healthcare and enter that of evolution.

“We all need to be part of an inclusive, integrated, global dialogue on the future of our species,” Metzl said. “Healthcare professionals are essential nodes in this.” Not least among this dialogue should be the question of access to tech like IVG; are there steps we can take to keep it from becoming a tool for a wealthy minority, and thereby perpetuating inequality and further polarizing societies?

As Pontin points out, at its inception 40 years ago IVF also sparked fear, confusion, and resistance—and now it’s as normal and common as could be, with millions of healthy babies conceived using the technology.

The disruption that genomics, AI, and IVG will bring to reproduction could follow a similar story cycle—if we’re smart about it. As Metzl put it, “This must be regulated, because it is life.”

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#433770 Will Tech Make Insurance Obsolete in the ...

We profit from it, we fear it, and we find it impossibly hard to quantify: risk.

While not the sexiest of industries, insurance can be a life-saving protector, pooling everyone’s premiums to safeguard against some of our greatest, most unexpected losses.

One of the most profitable in the world, the insurance industry exceeded $1.2 trillion in annual revenue since 2011 in the US alone.

But risk is becoming predictable. And insurance is getting disrupted fast.

By 2025, we’ll be living in a trillion-sensor economy. And as we enter a world where everything is measured all the time, we’ll start to transition from protecting against damages to preventing them in the first place.

But what happens to health insurance when Big Brother is always watching? Do rates go up when you sneak a cigarette? Do they go down when you eat your vegetables?

And what happens to auto insurance when most cars are autonomous? Or life insurance when the human lifespan doubles?

For that matter, what happens to insurance brokers when blockchain makes them irrelevant?

In this article, I’ll be discussing four key transformations:

Sensors and AI replacing your traditional broker
Blockchain
The ecosystem approach
IoT and insurance connectivity

Let’s dive in.

AI and the Trillion-Sensor Economy
As sensors continue to proliferate across every context—from smart infrastructure to millions of connected home devices to medicine—smart environments will allow us to ask any question, anytime, anywhere.

And as I often explain, once your AI has access to this treasure trove of ubiquitous sensor data in real time, it will be the quality of your questions that make or break your business.

But perhaps the most exciting insurance application of AI’s convergence with sensors is in healthcare. Tremendous advances in genetic screening are empowering us with predictive knowledge about our long-term health risks.

Leading the charge in genome sequencing, Illumina predicts that in a matter of years, decoding the full human genome will drop to $100, taking merely one hour to complete. Other companies are racing to get you sequences faster and cheaper.

Adopting an ecosystem approach, incumbent insurers and insurtech firms will soon be able to collaborate to provide risk-minimizing services in the health sector. Using sensor data and AI-driven personalized recommendations, insurance partnerships could keep consumers healthy, dramatically reducing the cost of healthcare.

Some fear that information asymmetry will allow consumers to learn of their health risks and leave insurers in the dark. However, both parties could benefit if insurers become part of the screening process.

A remarkable example of this is Gilad Meiri’s company, Neura AI. Aiming to predict health patterns, Neura has developed machine learning algorithms that analyze data from all of a user’s connected devices (sometimes from up to 54 apps!).

Neura predicts a user’s behavior and draws staggering insights about consumers’ health risks. Meiri soon began selling his personal risk assessment tool to insurers, who could then help insured customers mitigate long-term health risks.

But artificial intelligence will impact far more than just health insurance.

In October of 2016, a claim was submitted to Lemonade, the world’s first peer-to-peer insurance company. Rather than being processed by a human, every step in this claim resolution chain—from initial triage through fraud mitigation through final payment—was handled by an AI.

This transaction marks the first time an AI has processed an insurance claim. And it won’t be the last. A traditional human-processed claim takes 40 days to pay out. In Lemonade’s case, payment was transferred within three seconds.

However, Lemonade’s achievement only marks a starting point. Over the course of the next decade, nearly every facet of the insurance industry will undergo a similarly massive transformation.

New business models like peer-to-peer insurance are replacing traditional brokerage relationships, while AI and blockchain pairings significantly reduce the layers of bureaucracy required (with each layer getting a cut) for traditional insurance.

Consider Juniper, a startup that scrapes social media to build your risk assessment, subsequently asking you 12 questions via an iPhone app. Geared with advanced analytics, the platform can generate a million-dollar life insurance policy, approved in less than five minutes.

But what’s keeping all your data from unwanted hands?

Blockchain Building Trust
Current distrust in centralized financial services has led to staggering rates of underinsurance. Add to this fear of poor data and privacy protection, particularly in the wake of 2017’s widespread cybercriminal hacks.

Enabling secure storage and transfer of personal data, blockchain holds remarkable promise against the fraudulent activity that often plagues insurance firms.

The centralized model of insurance companies and other organizations is becoming redundant. Developing blockchain-based solutions for capital markets, Symbiont develops smart contracts to execute payments with little to no human involvement.

But distributed ledger technology (DLT) is enabling far more than just smart contracts.

Also targeting insurance is Tradle, leveraging blockchain for its proclaimed goal of “building a trust provisioning network.” Built around “know-your-customer” (KYC) data, Tradle aims to verify KYC data so that it can be securely forwarded to other firms without any further verification.

By requiring a certain number of parties to reuse pre-verified data, the platform makes your data much less vulnerable to hacking and allows you to keep it on a personal device. Only its verification—let’s say of a transaction or medical exam—is registered in the blockchain.

As insurance data grow increasingly decentralized, key insurance players will experience more and more pressure to adopt an ecosystem approach.

The Ecosystem Approach
Just as exponential technologies converge to provide new services, exponential businesses must combine the strengths of different sectors to expand traditional product lines.

By partnering with platform-based insurtech firms, forward-thinking insurers will no longer serve only as reactive policy-providers, but provide risk-mitigating services as well.

Especially as digital technologies demonetize security services—think autonomous vehicles—insurers must create new value chains and span more product categories.

For instance, France’s multinational AXA recently partnered with Alibaba and Ant Financial Services to sell a varied range of insurance products on Alibaba’s global e-commerce platform at the click of a button.

Building another ecosystem, Alibaba has also collaborated with Ping An Insurance and Tencent to create ZhongAn Online Property and Casualty Insurance—China’s first internet-only insurer, offering over 300 products. Now with a multibillion-dollar valuation, Zhong An has generated about half its business from selling shipping return insurance to Alibaba consumers.

But it doesn’t stop there. Insurers that participate in digital ecosystems can now sell risk-mitigating services that prevent damage before it occurs.

Imagine a corporate manufacturer whose sensors collect data on environmental factors affecting crop yield in an agricultural community. With the backing of investors and advanced risk analytics, such a manufacturer could sell crop insurance to farmers. By implementing an automated, AI-driven UI, they could automatically make payments when sensors detect weather damage to crops.

Now let’s apply this concept to your house, your car, your health insurance.

What’s stopping insurers from partnering with third-party IoT platforms to predict fires, collisions, chronic heart disease—and then empowering the consumer with preventive services?

This brings us to the powerful field of IoT.

Internet of Things and Insurance Connectivity
Leap ahead a few years. With a centralized hub like Echo, your smart home protects itself with a network of sensors. While gone, you’ve left on a gas burner and your internet-connected stove notifies you via a home app.

Better yet, home sensors monitoring heat and humidity levels run this data through an AI, which then remotely controls heating, humidity levels, and other connected devices based on historical data patterns and fire risk factors.

Several firms are already working toward this reality.

AXA plans to one day cooperate with a centralized home hub whereby remote monitoring will collect data for future analysis and detect abnormalities.

With remote monitoring and app-centralized control for users, MonAXA is aimed at customizing insurance bundles. These would reflect exact security features embedded in smart homes.

Wouldn’t you prefer not to have to rely on insurance after a burglary? With digital ecosystems, insurers may soon prevent break-ins from the start.

By gathering sensor data from third parties on neighborhood conditions, historical theft data, suspicious activity and other risk factors, an insurtech firm might automatically put your smart home on high alert, activating alarms and specialized locks in advance of an attack.

Insurance policy premiums are predicted to vastly reduce with lessened likelihood of insured losses. But insurers moving into preventive insurtech will likely turn a profit from other areas of their business. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that the connected home market will reach $149 billion USD by 2020.

Let’s look at car insurance.

Car insurance premiums are currently calculated according to the driver and traits of the car. But as more autonomous vehicles take to the roads, not only does liability shift to manufacturers and software engineers, but the risk of collision falls dramatically.

But let’s take this a step further.

In a future of autonomous cars, you will no longer own your car, instead subscribing to Transport as a Service (TaaS) and giving up the purchase of automotive insurance altogether.

This paradigm shift has already begun with Waymo, which automatically provides passengers with insurance every time they step into a Waymo vehicle.

And with the rise of smart traffic systems, sensor-embedded roads, and skyrocketing autonomous vehicle technology, the risks involved in transit only continue to plummet.

Final Thoughts
Insurtech firms are hitting the market fast. IoT, autonomous vehicles and genetic screening are rapidly making us invulnerable to risk. And AI-driven services are quickly pushing conventional insurers out of the market.

By 2024, roll-out of 5G on the ground, as well as OneWeb and Starlink in orbit are bringing 4.2 billion new consumers to the web—most of whom will need insurance. Yet, because of the changes afoot in the industry, none of them will buy policies from a human broker.

While today’s largest insurance companies continue to ignore this fact at their peril (and this segment of the market), thousands of entrepreneurs see it more clearly: as one of the largest opportunities ahead.

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#433758 DeepMind’s New Research Plan to Make ...

Making sure artificial intelligence does what we want and behaves in predictable ways will be crucial as the technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous. It’s an area frequently neglected in the race to develop products, but DeepMind has now outlined its research agenda to tackle the problem.

AI safety, as the field is known, has been gaining prominence in recent years. That’s probably at least partly down to the overzealous warnings of a coming AI apocalypse from well-meaning, but underqualified pundits like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. But it’s also recognition of the fact that AI technology is quickly pervading all aspects of our lives, making decisions on everything from what movies we watch to whether we get a mortgage.

That’s why DeepMind hired a bevy of researchers who specialize in foreseeing the unforeseen consequences of the way we built AI back in 2016. And now the team has spelled out the three key domains they think require research if we’re going to build autonomous machines that do what we want.

In a new blog designed to provide updates on the team’s work, they introduce the ideas of specification, robustness, and assurance, which they say will act as the cornerstones of their future research. Specification involves making sure AI systems do what their operator intends; robustness means a system can cope with changes to its environment and attempts to throw it off course; and assurance involves our ability to understand what systems are doing and how to control them.

A classic thought experiment designed to illustrate how we could lose control of an AI system can help illustrate the problem of specification. Philosopher Nick Bostrom’s posited a hypothetical machine charged with making as many paperclips as possible. Because the creators fail to add what they might assume are obvious additional goals like not harming people, the AI wipes out humanity so we can’t switch it off before turning all matter in the universe into paperclips.

Obviously the example is extreme, but it shows how a poorly-specified goal can lead to unexpected and disastrous outcomes. Properly codifying the desires of the designer is no easy feat, though; often there are not neat ways to encompass both the explicit and implicit goals in ways that are understandable to the machine and don’t leave room for ambiguities, meaning we often rely on incomplete approximations.

The researchers note recent research by OpenAI in which an AI was trained to play a boat-racing game called CoastRunners. The game rewards players for hitting targets laid out along the race route. The AI worked out that it could get a higher score by repeatedly knocking over regenerating targets rather than actually completing the course. The blog post includes a link to a spreadsheet detailing scores of such examples.

Another key concern for AI designers is making their creation robust to the unpredictability of the real world. Despite their superhuman abilities on certain tasks, most cutting-edge AI systems are remarkably brittle. They tend to be trained on highly-curated datasets and so can fail when faced with unfamiliar input. This can happen by accident or by design—researchers have come up with numerous ways to trick image recognition algorithms into misclassifying things, including thinking a 3D printed tortoise was actually a gun.

Building systems that can deal with every possible encounter may not be feasible, so a big part of making AIs more robust may be getting them to avoid risks and ensuring they can recover from errors, or that they have failsafes to ensure errors don’t lead to catastrophic failure.

And finally, we need to have ways to make sure we can tell whether an AI is performing the way we expect it to. A key part of assurance is being able to effectively monitor systems and interpret what they’re doing—if we’re basing medical treatments or sentencing decisions on the output of an AI, we’d like to see the reasoning. That’s a major outstanding problem for popular deep learning approaches, which are largely indecipherable black boxes.

The other half of assurance is the ability to intervene if a machine isn’t behaving the way we’d like. But designing a reliable off switch is tough, because most learning systems have a strong incentive to prevent anyone from interfering with their goals.

The authors don’t pretend to have all the answers, but they hope the framework they’ve come up with can help guide others working on AI safety. While it may be some time before AI is truly in a position to do us harm, hopefully early efforts like these will mean it’s built on a solid foundation that ensures it is aligned with our goals.

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#433689 The Rise of Dataism: A Threat to Freedom ...

What would happen if we made all of our data public—everything from wearables monitoring our biometrics, all the way to smartphones monitoring our location, our social media activity, and even our internet search history?

Would such insights into our lives simply provide companies and politicians with greater power to invade our privacy and manipulate us by using our psychological profiles against us?

A burgeoning new philosophy called dataism doesn’t think so.

In fact, this trending ideology believes that liberating the flow of data is the supreme value of the universe, and that it could be the key to unleashing the greatest scientific revolution in the history of humanity.

What Is Dataism?
First mentioned by David Brooks in his 2013 New York Times article “The Philosophy of Data,” dataism is an ethical system that has been most heavily explored and popularized by renowned historian, Yuval Noah Harari.

In his 2016 book Homo Deus, Harari described dataism as a new form of religion that celebrates the growing importance of big data.

Its core belief centers around the idea that the universe gives greater value and support to systems, individuals, and societies that contribute most heavily and efficiently to data processing. In an interview with Wired, Harari stated, “Humans were special and important because up until now they were the most sophisticated data processing system in the universe, but this is no longer the case.”

Now, big data and machine learning are proving themselves more sophisticated, and dataists believe we should hand over as much information and power to these algorithms as possible, allowing the free flow of data to unlock innovation and progress unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Pros: Progress and Personal Growth
When you let data run freely, it’s bound to be mixed and matched in new ways that inevitably spark progress. And as we enter the exponential future where every person is constantly connected and sharing their data, the potential for such collaborative epiphanies becomes even greater.

We can already see important increases in quality of life thanks to companies like Google. With Google Maps on your phone, your position is constantly updating on their servers. This information, combined with everyone else on the planet using a phone with Google Maps, allows your phone to inform you of traffic conditions. Based on the speed and location of nearby phones, Google can reroute you to less congested areas or help you avoid accidents. And since you trust that these algorithms have more data than you, you gladly hand over your power to them, following your GPS’s directions rather than your own.

We can do the same sort of thing with our bodies.

Imagine, for instance, a world where each person has biosensors in their bloodstreams—a not unlikely or distant possibility when considering diabetic people already wear insulin pumps that constantly monitor their blood sugar levels. And let’s assume this data was freely shared to the world.

Now imagine a virus like Zika or the Bird Flu breaks out. Thanks to this technology, the odd change in biodata coming from a particular region flags an artificial intelligence that feeds data to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). Recognizing that a pandemic could be possible, AIs begin 3D printing vaccines on-demand, predicting the number of people who may be afflicted. When our personal AIs tell us the locations of the spreading epidemic and to take the vaccine it just delivered by drone to our homes, are we likely to follow its instructions? Almost certainly—and if so, it’s likely millions, if not billions, of lives will have been saved.

But to quickly create such vaccines, we’ll also need to liberate research.

Currently, universities and companies seeking to benefit humankind with medical solutions have to pay extensively to organize clinical trials and to find people who match their needs. But if all our biodata was freely aggregated, perhaps they could simply say “monitor all people living with cancer” to an AI, and thanks to the constant stream of data coming in from the world’s population, a machine learning program may easily be able to detect a pattern and create a cure.

As always in research, the more sample data you have, the higher the chance that such patterns will emerge. If data is flowing freely, then anyone in the world can suddenly decide they have a hunch they want to explore, and without having to spend months and months of time and money hunting down the data, they can simply test their hypothesis.

Whether garage tinkerers, at-home scientists, or PhD students—an abundance of free data allows for science to progress unhindered, each person able to operate without being slowed by lack of data. And any progress they make is immediately liberated, becoming free data shared with anyone else that may find a use for it.

Any individual with a curious passion would have the entire world’s data at their fingertips, empowering every one of us to become an expert in any subject that inspires us. Expertise we can then share back into the data stream—a positive feedback loop spearheading progress for the entirety of humanity’s knowledge.

Such exponential gains represent a dataism utopia.

Unfortunately, our current incentives and economy also show us the tragic failures of this model.

As Harari has pointed out, the rise of datism means that “humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of ‘free will’ is under threat.”

Cons: Manipulation and Extortion
In 2017, The Economist declared that data was the most valuable resource on the planet—even more valuable than oil.

Perhaps this is because data is ‘priceless’: it represents understanding, and understanding represents control. And so, in the world of advertising and politics, having data on your consumers and voters gives you an incredible advantage.

This was evidenced by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it’s believed that Donald Trump and the architects of Brexit leveraged users’ Facebook data to create psychological profiles that enabled them to manipulate the masses.

How powerful are these psychological models?

A team who built a model similar to that used by Cambridge Analytica said their model could understand someone as well as a coworker with access to only 10 Facebook likes. With 70 likes they could know them as well as a friend might, 150 likes to match their parents’ understanding, and at 300 likes they could even come to know someone better than their lovers. With more likes, they could even come to know someone better than that person knows themselves.

Proceeding With Caution
In a capitalist democracy, do we want businesses and politicians to know us better than we know ourselves?

In spite of the remarkable benefits that may result for our species by freely giving away our information, do we run the risk of that data being used to exploit and manipulate the masses towards a future without free will, where our daily lives are puppeteered by those who own our data?

It’s extremely possible.

And it’s for this reason that one of the most important conversations we’ll have as a species centers around data ownership: do we just give ownership of the data back to the users, allowing them to choose who to sell or freely give their data to? Or will that simply deter the entrepreneurial drive and cause all of the free services we use today, like Google Search and Facebook, to begin charging inaccessible prices? How much are we willing to pay for our freedom? And how much do we actually care?

If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that humans are willing to give up more privacy than they like to think. Fifteen years ago, it would have been crazy to suggest we’d all allow ourselves to be tracked by our cars, phones, and daily check-ins to our favorite neighborhood locations; but now most of us see it as a worthwhile trade for optimized commutes and dating. As we continue navigating that fine line between exploitation and innovation into a more technological future, what other trade-offs might we be willing to make?

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#433506 MIT’s New Robot Taught Itself to Pick ...

Back in 2016, somewhere in a Google-owned warehouse, more than a dozen robotic arms sat for hours quietly grasping objects of various shapes and sizes. For hours on end, they taught themselves how to pick up and hold the items appropriately—mimicking the way a baby gradually learns to use its hands.

Now, scientists from MIT have made a new breakthrough in machine learning: their new system can not only teach itself to see and identify objects, but also understand how best to manipulate them.

This means that, armed with the new machine learning routine referred to as “dense object nets (DON),” the robot would be capable of picking up an object that it’s never seen before, or in an unfamiliar orientation, without resorting to trial and error—exactly as a human would.

The deceptively simple ability to dexterously manipulate objects with our hands is a huge part of why humans are the dominant species on the planet. We take it for granted. Hardware innovations like the Shadow Dexterous Hand have enabled robots to softly grip and manipulate delicate objects for many years, but the software required to control these precision-engineered machines in a range of circumstances has proved harder to develop.

This was not for want of trying. The Amazon Robotics Challenge offers millions of dollars in prizes (and potentially far more in contracts, as their $775m acquisition of Kiva Systems shows) for the best dexterous robot able to pick and package items in their warehouses. The lucrative dream of a fully-automated delivery system is missing this crucial ability.

Meanwhile, the Robocup@home challenge—an offshoot of the popular Robocup tournament for soccer-playing robots—aims to make everyone’s dream of having a robot butler a reality. The competition involves teams drilling their robots through simple household tasks that require social interaction or object manipulation, like helping to carry the shopping, sorting items onto a shelf, or guiding tourists around a museum.

Yet all of these endeavors have proved difficult; the tasks often have to be simplified to enable the robot to complete them at all. New or unexpected elements, such as those encountered in real life, more often than not throw the system entirely. Programming the robot’s every move in explicit detail is not a scalable solution: this can work in the highly-controlled world of the assembly line, but not in everyday life.

Computer vision is improving all the time. Neural networks, including those you train every time you prove that you’re not a robot with CAPTCHA, are getting better at sorting objects into categories, and identifying them based on sparse or incomplete data, such as when they are occluded, or in different lighting.

But many of these systems require enormous amounts of input data, which is impractical, slow to generate, and often needs to be laboriously categorized by humans. There are entirely new jobs that require people to label, categorize, and sift large bodies of data ready for supervised machine learning. This can make machine learning undemocratic. If you’re Google, you can make thousands of unwitting volunteers label your images for you with CAPTCHA. If you’re IBM, you can hire people to manually label that data. If you’re an individual or startup trying something new, however, you will struggle to access the vast troves of labeled data available to the bigger players.

This is why new systems that can potentially train themselves over time or that allow robots to deal with situations they’ve never seen before without mountains of labelled data are a holy grail in artificial intelligence. The work done by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is part of a new wave of “self-supervised” machine learning systems—little of the data used was labeled by humans.

The robot first inspects the new object from multiple angles, building up a 3D picture of the object with its own coordinate system. This then allows the robotic arm to identify a particular feature on the object—such as a handle, or the tongue of a shoe—from various different angles, based on its relative distance to other grid points.

This is the real innovation: the new means of representing objects to grasp as mapped-out 3D objects, with grid points and subsections of their own. Rather than using a computer vision algorithm to identify a door handle, and then activating a door handle grasping subroutine, the DON system treats all objects by making these spatial maps before classifying or manipulating them, enabling it to deal with a greater range of objects than in other approaches.

“Many approaches to manipulation can’t identify specific parts of an object across the many orientations that object may encounter,” said PhD student Lucas Manuelli, who wrote a new paper about the system with lead author and fellow student Pete Florence, alongside MIT professor Russ Tedrake. “For example, existing algorithms would be unable to grasp a mug by its handle, especially if the mug could be in multiple orientations, like upright, or on its side.”

Class-specific descriptors, which can be applied to the object features, can allow the robot arm to identify a mug, find the handle, and pick the mug up appropriately. Object-specific descriptors allow the robot arm to select a particular mug from a group of similar items. I’m already dreaming of a robot butler reliably picking my favourite mug when it serves me coffee in the morning.

Google’s robot arm-y was an attempt to develop a general grasping algorithm: one that could identify, categorize, and appropriately grip as many items as possible. This requires a great deal of training time and data, which is why Google parallelized their project by having 14 robot arms feed data into a single neural network brain: even then, the algorithm may fail with highly specific tasks. Specialist grasping algorithms might require less training if they’re limited to specific objects, but then your software is useless for general tasks.

As the roboticists noted, their system, with its ability to identify parts of an object rather than just a single object, is better suited to specific tasks, such as “grasp the racquet by the handle,” than Amazon Robotics Challenge robots, which identify whole objects by segmenting an image.

This work is small-scale at present. It has been tested with a few classes of objects, including shoes, hats, and mugs. Yet the use of these dense object nets as a way for robots to represent and manipulate new objects may well be another step towards the ultimate goal of generalized automation: a robot capable of performing every task a person can. If that point is reached, the question that will remain is how to cope with being obsolete.

Image Credit: Tom Buehler/CSAIL Continue reading

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