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#434837 In Defense of Black Box AI

Deep learning is powering some amazing new capabilities, but we find it hard to scrutinize the workings of these algorithms. Lack of interpretability in AI is a common concern and many are trying to fix it, but is it really always necessary to know what’s going on inside these “black boxes”?

In a recent perspective piece for Science, Elizabeth Holm, a professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, argued in defense of the black box algorithm. I caught up with her last week to find out more.

Edd Gent: What’s your experience with black box algorithms?

Elizabeth Holm: I got a dual PhD in materials science and engineering and scientific computing. I came to academia about six years ago and part of what I wanted to do in making this career change was to refresh and revitalize my computer science side.

I realized that computer science had changed completely. It used to be about algorithms and making codes run fast, but now it’s about data and artificial intelligence. There are the interpretable methods like random forest algorithms, where we can tell how the machine is making its decisions. And then there are the black box methods, like convolutional neural networks.

Once in a while we can find some information about their inner workings, but most of the time we have to accept their answers and kind of probe around the edges to figure out the space in which we can use them and how reliable and accurate they are.

EG: What made you feel like you had to mount a defense of these black box algorithms?

EH: When I started talking with my colleagues, I found that the black box nature of many of these algorithms was a real problem for them. I could understand that because we’re scientists, we always want to know why and how.

It got me thinking as a bit of a contrarian, “Are black boxes all bad? Must we reject them?” Surely not, because human thought processes are fairly black box. We often rely on human thought processes that the thinker can’t necessarily explain.

It’s looking like we’re going to be stuck with these methods for a while, because they’re really helpful. They do amazing things. And so there’s a very pragmatic realization that these are the best methods we’ve got to do some really important problems, and we’re not right now seeing alternatives that are interpretable. We’re going to have to use them, so we better figure out how.

EG: In what situations do you think we should be using black box algorithms?

EH: I came up with three rules. The simplest rule is: when the cost of a bad decision is small and the value of a good decision is high, it’s worth it. The example I gave in the paper is targeted advertising. If you send an ad no one wants it doesn’t cost a lot. If you’re the receiver it doesn’t cost a lot to get rid of it.

There are cases where the cost is high, and that’s then we choose the black box if it’s the best option to do the job. Things get a little trickier here because we have to ask “what are the costs of bad decisions, and do we really have them fully characterized?” We also have to be very careful knowing that our systems may have biases, they may have limitations in where you can apply them, they may be breakable.

But at the same time, there are certainly domains where we’re going to test these systems so extensively that we know their performance in virtually every situation. And if their performance is better than the other methods, we need to do it. Self driving vehicles are a significant example—it’s almost certain they’re going to have to use black box methods, and that they’re going to end up being better drivers than humans.

The third rule is the more fun one for me as a scientist, and that’s the case where the black box really enlightens us as to a new way to look at something. We have trained a black box to recognize the fracture energy of breaking a piece of metal from a picture of the broken surface. It did a really good job, and humans can’t do this and we don’t know why.

What the computer seems to be seeing is noise. There’s a signal in that noise, and finding it is very difficult, but if we do we may find something significant to the fracture process, and that would be an awesome scientific discovery.

EG: Do you think there’s been too much emphasis on interpretability?

EH: I think the interpretability problem is a fundamental, fascinating computer science grand challenge and there are significant issues where we need to have an interpretable model. But how I would frame it is not that there’s too much emphasis on interpretability, but rather that there’s too much dismissiveness of uninterpretable models.

I think that some of the current social and political issues surrounding some very bad black box outcomes have convinced people that all machine learning and AI should be interpretable because that will somehow solve those problems.

Asking humans to explain their rationale has not eliminated bias, or stereotyping, or bad decision-making in humans. Relying too much on interpreted ability perhaps puts the responsibility in the wrong place for getting better results. I can make a better black box without knowing exactly in what way the first one was bad.

EG: Looking further into the future, do you think there will be situations where humans will have to rely on black box algorithms to solve problems we can’t get our heads around?

EH: I do think so, and it’s not as much of a stretch as we think it is. For example, humans don’t design the circuit map of computer chips anymore. We haven’t for years. It’s not a black box algorithm that designs those circuit boards, but we’ve long since given up trying to understand a particular computer chip’s design.

With the billions of circuits in every computer chip, the human mind can’t encompass it, either in scope or just the pure time that it would take to trace every circuit. There are going to be cases where we want a system so complex that only the patience that computers have and their ability to work in very high-dimensional spaces is going to be able to do it.

So we can continue to argue about interpretability, but we need to acknowledge that we’re going to need to use black boxes. And this is our opportunity to do our due diligence to understand how to use them responsibly, ethically, and with benefits rather than harm. And that’s going to be a social conversation as well as as a scientific one.

*Responses have been edited for length and style

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#434648 The Pediatric AI That Outperformed ...

Training a doctor takes years of grueling work in universities and hospitals. Building a doctor may be as easy as teaching an AI how to read.

Artificial intelligence has taken another step towards becoming an integral part of 21st-century medicine. New research out of Guangzhou, China, published February 11th in Nature Medicine Letters, has demonstrated a natural-language processing AI that is capable of out-performing rookie pediatricians in diagnosing common childhood ailments.

The massive study examined the electronic health records (EHR) from nearly 600,000 patients over an 18-month period at the Guangzhou Women and Children’s Medical Center and then compared AI-generated diagnoses against new assessments from physicians with a range of experience.

The verdict? On average, the AI was noticeably more accurate than junior physicians and nearly as reliable as the more senior ones. These results are the latest demonstration that artificial intelligence is on the cusp of becoming a healthcare staple on a global scale.

Less Like a Computer, More Like a Person
To outshine human doctors, the AI first had to become more human. Like IBM’s Watson, the pediatric AI leverages natural language processing, in essence “reading” written notes from EHRs not unlike how a human doctor would review those same records. But the similarities to human doctors don’t end there. The AI is a machine learning classifier (MLC), capable of placing the information learned from the EHRs into categories to improve performance.

Like traditionally-trained pediatricians, the AI broke cases down into major organ groups and infection areas (upper/lower respiratory, gastrointestinal, etc.) before breaking them down even further into subcategories. It could then develop associations between various symptoms and organ groups and use those associations to improve its diagnoses. This hierarchical approach mimics the deductive reasoning human doctors employ.

Another key strength of the AI developed for this study was the enormous size of the dataset collected to teach it: 1,362,559 outpatient visits from 567,498 patients yielded some 101.6 million data points for the MLC to devour on its quest for pediatric dominance. This allowed the AI the depth of learning needed to distinguish and accurately select from the 55 different diagnosis codes across the various organ groups and subcategories.

When comparing against the human doctors, the study used 11,926 records from an unrelated group of children, giving both the MLC and the 20 humans it was compared against an even playing field. The results were clear: while cohorts of senior pediatricians performed better than the AI, junior pediatricians (those with 3-15 years of experience) were outclassed.

Helping, Not Replacing
While the research used a competitive analysis to measure the success of the AI, the results should be seen as anything but hostile to human doctors. The near future of artificial intelligence in medicine will see these machine learning programs augment, not replace, human physicians. The authors of the study specifically call out augmentation as the key short-term application of their work. Triaging incoming patients via intake forms, performing massive metastudies using EHRs, providing rapid ‘second opinions’—the applications for an AI doctor that is better-but-not-the-best are as varied as the healthcare industry itself.

That’s only considering how artificial intelligence could make a positive impact immediately upon implementation. It’s easy to see how long-term use of a diagnostic assistant could reshape the way modern medical institutions approach their work.

Look at how the MLC results fit snugly between the junior and senior physician groups. Essentially, it took nearly 15 years before a physician could consistently out-diagnose the machine. That’s a decade and a half wherein an AI diagnostic assistant would be an invaluable partner—both as a training tool and a safety measure. Likewise, on the other side of the experience curve you have physicians whose performance could be continuously leveraged to improve the AI’s effectiveness. This is a clear opportunity for a symbiotic relationship, with humans and machines each assisting the other as they mature.

Closer to Us, But Still Dependent on Us
No matter the ultimate application, the AI doctors of the future are drawing nearer to us step by step. This latest research is a demonstration that artificial intelligence can mimic the results of human deductive reasoning even in some of the most complex and important decision-making processes. True, the MLC required input from humans to function; both the initial data points and the cases used to evaluate the AI depended on EHRs written by physicians. While every effort was made to design a test schema that removed any indication of the eventual diagnosis, some “data leakage” is bound to occur.

In other words, when AIs use human-created data, they inherit human insight to some degree. Yet the progress made in machine imaging, chatbots, sensors, and other fields all suggest that this dependence on human input is more about where we are right now than where we could be in the near future.

Data, and More Data
That near future may also have some clear winners and losers. For now, those winners seem to be the institutions that can capture and apply the largest sets of data. With a rapidly digitized society gathering incredible amounts of data, China has a clear advantage. Combined with their relatively relaxed approach to privacy, they are likely to continue as one of the driving forces behind machine learning and its applications. So too will Google/Alphabet with their massive medical studies. Data is the uranium in this AI arms race, and everyone seems to be scrambling to collect more.

In a global community that seems increasingly aware of the potential problems arising from this need for and reliance on data, it’s nice to know there’ll be an upside as well. The technology behind AI medical assistants is looking more and more mature—even if we are still struggling to find exactly where, when, and how that technology should first become universal.

Yet wherever we see the next push to make AI a standard tool in a real-world medical setting, I have little doubt it will greatly improve the lives of human patients. Today Doctor AI is performing as well as a human colleague with more than 10 years of experience. By next year or so, it may take twice as long for humans to be competitive. And in a decade, the combined medical knowledge of all human history may be a tool as common as a stethoscope in your doctor’s hands.

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#434324 Big Brother Nation: The Case for ...

Powerful surveillance cameras have crept into public spaces. We are filmed and photographed hundreds of times a day. To further raise the stakes, the resulting video footage is fed to new forms of artificial intelligence software that can recognize faces in real time, read license plates, even instantly detect when a particular pre-defined action or activity takes place in front of a camera.

As most modern cities have quietly become surveillance cities, the law has been slow to catch up. While we wait for robust legal frameworks to emerge, the best way to protect our civil liberties right now is to fight technology with technology. All cities should place local surveillance video into a public cloud-based data trust. Here’s how it would work.

In Public Data We Trust
To democratize surveillance, every city should implement three simple rules. First, anyone who aims a camera at public space must upload that day’s haul of raw video file (and associated camera meta-data) into a cloud-based repository. Second, this cloud-based repository must have open APIs and a publicly-accessible log file that records search histories and tracks who has accessed which video files. And third, everyone in the city should be given the same level of access rights to the stored video data—no exceptions.

This kind of public data repository is called a “data trust.” Public data trusts are not just wishful thinking. Different types of trusts are already in successful use in Estonia and Barcelona, and have been proposed as the best way to store and manage the urban data that will be generated by Alphabet’s planned Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto.

It’s true that few people relish the thought of public video footage of themselves being looked at by strangers and friends, by ex-spouses, potential employers, divorce attorneys, and future romantic prospects. In fact, when I propose this notion when I give talks about smart cities, most people recoil in horror. Some turn red in the face and jeer at my naiveté. Others merely blink quietly in consternation.

The reason we should take this giant step towards extreme transparency is to combat the secrecy that surrounds surveillance. Openness is a powerful antidote to oppression. Edward Snowden summed it up well when he said, “Surveillance is not about public safety, it’s about power. It’s about control.”

Let Us Watch Those Watching Us
If public surveillance video were put back into the hands of the people, citizens could watch their government as it watches them. Right now, government cameras are controlled by the state. Camera locations are kept secret, and only the agencies that control the cameras get to see the footage they generate.

Because of these information asymmetries, civilians have no insight into the size and shape of the modern urban surveillance infrastructure that surrounds us, nor the uses (or abuses) of the video footage it spawns. For example, there is no swift and efficient mechanism to request a copy of video footage from the cameras that dot our downtown. Nor can we ask our city’s police force to show us a map that documents local traffic camera locations.

By exposing all public surveillance videos to the public gaze, cities could give regular people tools to assess the size, shape, and density of their local surveillance infrastructure and neighborhood “digital dragnet.” Using the meta-data that’s wrapped around video footage, citizens could geo-locate individual cameras onto a digital map to generate surveillance “heat maps.” This way people could assess whether their city’s camera density was higher in certain zip codes, or in neighborhoods populated by a dominant ethnic group.

Surveillance heat maps could be used to document which government agencies were refusing to upload their video files, or which neighborhoods were not under surveillance. Given what we already know today about the correlation between camera density, income, and social status, these “dark” camera-free regions would likely be those located near government agencies and in more affluent parts of a city.

Extreme transparency would democratize surveillance. Every city’s data trust would keep a publicly-accessible log of who’s searching for what, and whom. People could use their local data trust’s search history to check whether anyone was searching for their name, face, or license plate. As a result, clandestine spying on—and stalking of—particular individuals would become difficult to hide and simpler to prove.

Protect the Vulnerable and Exonerate the Falsely Accused
Not all surveillance video automatically works against the underdog. As the bungled (and consequently no longer secret) assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi demonstrated, one of the unexpected upsides of surveillance cameras has been the fact that even kings become accountable for their crimes. If opened up to the public, surveillance cameras could serve as witnesses to justice.

Video evidence has the power to protect vulnerable individuals and social groups by shedding light onto messy, unreliable (and frequently conflicting) human narratives of who did what to whom, and why. With access to a data trust, a person falsely accused of a crime could prove their innocence. By searching for their own face in video footage or downloading time/date stamped footage from a particular camera, a potential suspect could document their physical absence from the scene of a crime—no lengthy police investigation or high-priced attorney needed.

Given Enough Eyeballs, All Crimes Are Shallow
Placing public surveillance video into a public trust could make cities safer and would streamline routine police work. Linus Torvalds, the developer of open-source operating system Linux, famously observed that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” In the case of public cameras and a common data repository, Torvald’s Law could be restated as “given enough eyeballs, all crimes are shallow.”

If thousands of citizen eyeballs were given access to a city’s public surveillance videos, local police forces could crowdsource the work of solving crimes and searching for missing persons. Unfortunately, at the present time, cities are unable to wring any social benefit from video footage of public spaces. The most formidable barrier is not government-imposed secrecy, but the fact that as cameras and computers have grown cheaper, a large and fast-growing “mom and pop” surveillance state has taken over most of the filming of public spaces.

While we fear spooky government surveillance, the reality is that we’re much more likely to be filmed by security cameras owned by shopkeepers, landlords, medical offices, hotels, homeowners, and schools. These businesses, organizations, and individuals install cameras in public areas for practical reasons—to reduce their insurance costs, to prevent lawsuits, or to combat shoplifting. In the absence of regulations governing their use, private camera owners store video footage in a wide variety of locations, for varying retention periods.

The unfortunate (and unintended) result of this informal and decentralized network of public surveillance is that video files are not easy to access, even for police officers on official business. After a crime or terrorist attack occurs, local police (or attorneys armed with a subpoena) go from door to door to manually collect video evidence. Once they have the videos in hand, their next challenge is searching for the right “codex” to crack the dozens of different file formats they encounter so they can watch and analyze the footage.

The result of these practical barriers is that as it stands today, only people with considerable legal or political clout are able to successfully gain access into a city’s privately-owned, ad-hoc collections of public surveillance videos. Not only are cities missing the opportunity to streamline routine evidence-gathering police work, they’re missing a radically transformative benefit that would become possible once video footage from thousands of different security cameras were pooled into a single repository: the ability to apply the power of citizen eyeballs to the work of improving public safety.

Why We Need Extreme Transparency
When regular people can’t access their own surveillance videos, there can be no data justice. While we wait for the law to catch up with the reality of modern urban life, citizens and city governments should use technology to address the problem that lies at the heart of surveillance: a power imbalance between those who control the cameras and those who don’t.

Cities should permit individuals and organizations to install and deploy as many public-facing cameras as they wish, but with the mandate that camera owners must place all resulting video footage into the mercilessly bright sunshine of an open data trust. This way, cloud computing, open APIs, and artificial intelligence software can help combat abuses of surveillance and give citizens insight into who’s filming us, where, and why.

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#433901 The SpiNNaker Supercomputer, Modeled ...

We’ve long used the brain as inspiration for computers, but the SpiNNaker supercomputer, switched on this month, is probably the closest we’ve come to recreating it in silicon. Now scientists hope to use the supercomputer to model the very thing that inspired its design.

The brain is the most complex machine in the known universe, but that complexity comes primarily from its architecture rather than the individual components that make it up. Its highly interconnected structure means that relatively simple messages exchanged between billions of individual neurons add up to carry out highly complex computations.

That’s the paradigm that has inspired the ‘Spiking Neural Network Architecture” (SpiNNaker) supercomputer at the University of Manchester in the UK. The project is the brainchild of Steve Furber, the designer of the original ARM processor. After a decade of development, a million-core version of the machine that will eventually be able to simulate up to a billion neurons was switched on earlier this month.

The idea of splitting computation into very small chunks and spreading them over many processors is already the leading approach to supercomputing. But even the most parallel systems require a lot of communication, and messages may have to pack in a lot of information, such as the task that needs to be completed or the data that needs to be processed.

In contrast, messages in the brain consist of simple electrochemical impulses, or spikes, passed between neurons, with information encoded primarily in the timing or rate of those spikes (which is more important is a topic of debate among neuroscientists). Each neuron is connected to thousands of others via synapses, and complex computation relies on how spikes cascade through these highly-connected networks.

The SpiNNaker machine attempts to replicate this using a model called Address Event Representation. Each of the million cores can simulate roughly a million synapses, so depending on the model, 1,000 neurons with 1,000 connections or 100 neurons with 10,000 connections. Information is encoded in the timing of spikes and the identity of the neuron sending them. When a neuron is activated it broadcasts a tiny packet of data that contains its address, and spike timing is implicitly conveyed.

By modeling their machine on the architecture of the brain, the researchers hope to be able to simulate more biological neurons in real time than any other machine on the planet. The project is funded by the European Human Brain Project, a ten-year science mega-project aimed at bringing together neuroscientists and computer scientists to understand the brain, and researchers will be able to apply for time on the machine to run their simulations.

Importantly, it’s possible to implement various different neuronal models on the machine. The operation of neurons involves a variety of complex biological processes, and it’s still unclear whether this complexity is an artefact of evolution or central to the brain’s ability to process information. The ability to simulate up to a billion simple neurons or millions of more complex ones on the same machine should help to slowly tease out the answer.

Even at a billion neurons, that still only represents about one percent of the human brain, so it’s still going to be limited to investigating isolated networks of neurons. But the previous 500,000-core machine has already been used to do useful simulations of the Basal Ganglia—an area affected in Parkinson’s disease—and an outer layer of the brain that processes sensory information.

The full-scale supercomputer will make it possible to study even larger networks previously out of reach, which could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of both the healthy and unhealthy functioning of the brain.

And while neurological simulation is the main goal for the machine, it could also provide a useful research tool for roboticists. Previous research has already shown a small board of SpiNNaker chips can be used to control a simple wheeled robot, but Furber thinks the SpiNNaker supercomputer could also be used to run large-scale networks that can process sensory input and generate motor output in real time and at low power.

That low power operation is of particular promise for robotics. The brain is dramatically more power-efficient than conventional supercomputers, and by borrowing from its principles SpiNNaker has managed to capture some of that efficiency. That could be important for running mobile robotic platforms that need to carry their own juice around.

This ability to run complex neural networks at low power has been one of the main commercial drivers for so-called neuromorphic computing devices that are physically modeled on the brain, such as IBM’s TrueNorth chip and Intel’s Loihi. The hope is that complex artificial intelligence applications normally run in massive data centers could be run on edge devices like smartphones, cars, and robots.

But these devices, including SpiNNaker, operate very differently from the leading AI approaches, and its not clear how easy it would be to transfer between the two. The need to adopt an entirely new programming paradigm is likely to limit widespread adoption, and the lack of commercial traction for the aforementioned devices seems to back that up.

At the same time, though, this new paradigm could potentially lead to dramatic breakthroughs in massively parallel computing. SpiNNaker overturns many of the foundational principles of how supercomputers work that make it much more flexible and error-tolerant.

For now, the machine is likely to be firmly focused on accelerating our understanding of how the brain works. But its designers also hope those findings could in turn point the way to more efficient and powerful approaches to computing.

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#433892 The Spatial Web Will Map Our 3D ...

The boundaries between digital and physical space are disappearing at a breakneck pace. What was once static and boring is becoming dynamic and magical.

For all of human history, looking at the world through our eyes was the same experience for everyone. Beyond the bounds of an over-active imagination, what you see is the same as what I see.

But all of this is about to change. Over the next two to five years, the world around us is about to light up with layer upon layer of rich, fun, meaningful, engaging, and dynamic data. Data you can see and interact with.

This magical future ahead is called the Spatial Web and will transform every aspect of our lives, from retail and advertising, to work and education, to entertainment and social interaction.

Massive change is underway as a result of a series of converging technologies, from 5G global networks and ubiquitous artificial intelligence, to 30+ billion connected devices (known as the IoT), each of which will generate scores of real-world data every second, everywhere.

The current AI explosion will make everything smart, autonomous, and self-programming. Blockchain and cloud-enabled services will support a secure data layer, putting data back in the hands of users and allowing us to build complex rule-based infrastructure in tomorrow’s virtual worlds.

And with the rise of online-merge-offline (OMO) environments, two-dimensional screens will no longer serve as our exclusive portal to the web. Instead, virtual and augmented reality eyewear will allow us to interface with a digitally-mapped world, richly layered with visual data.

Welcome to the Spatial Web. Over the next few months, I’ll be doing a deep dive into the Spatial Web (a.k.a. Web 3.0), covering what it is, how it works, and its vast implications across industries, from real estate and healthcare to entertainment and the future of work. In this blog, I’ll discuss the what, how, and why of Web 3.0—humanity’s first major foray into our virtual-physical hybrid selves (BTW, this year at Abundance360, we’ll be doing a deep dive into the Spatial Web with the leaders of HTC, Magic Leap, and High-Fidelity).

Let’s dive in.

What is the Spatial Web?
While we humans exist in three dimensions, our web today is flat.

The web was designed for shared information, absorbed through a flat screen. But as proliferating sensors, ubiquitous AI, and interconnected networks blur the lines between our physical and online worlds, we need a spatial web to help us digitally map a three-dimensional world.

To put Web 3.0 in context, let’s take a trip down memory lane. In the late 1980s, the newly-birthed world wide web consisted of static web pages and one-way information—a monumental system of publishing and linking information unlike any unified data system before it. To connect, we had to dial up through unstable modems and struggle through insufferably slow connection speeds.

But emerging from this revolutionary (albeit non-interactive) infodump, Web 2.0 has connected the planet more in one decade than empires did in millennia.

Granting democratized participation through newly interactive sites and applications, today’s web era has turbocharged information-sharing and created ripple effects of scientific discovery, economic growth, and technological progress on an unprecedented scale.

We’ve seen the explosion of social networking sites, wikis, and online collaboration platforms. Consumers have become creators; physically isolated users have been handed a global microphone; and entrepreneurs can now access billions of potential customers.

But if Web 2.0 took the world by storm, the Spatial Web emerging today will leave it in the dust.

While there’s no clear consensus about its definition, the Spatial Web refers to a computing environment that exists in three-dimensional space—a twinning of real and virtual realities—enabled via billions of connected devices and accessed through the interfaces of virtual and augmented reality.

In this way, the Spatial Web will enable us to both build a twin of our physical reality in the virtual realm and bring the digital into our real environments.

It’s the next era of web-like technologies:

Spatial computing technologies, like augmented and virtual reality;
Physical computing technologies, like IoT and robotic sensors;
And decentralized computing: both blockchain—which enables greater security and data authentication—and edge computing, which pushes computing power to where it’s most needed, speeding everything up.

Geared with natural language search, data mining, machine learning, and AI recommendation agents, the Spatial Web is a growing expanse of services and information, navigable with the use of ever-more-sophisticated AI assistants and revolutionary new interfaces.

Where Web 1.0 consisted of static documents and read-only data, Web 2.0 introduced multimedia content, interactive web applications, and social media on two-dimensional screens. But converging technologies are quickly transcending the laptop, and will even disrupt the smartphone in the next decade.

With the rise of wearables, smart glasses, AR / VR interfaces, and the IoT, the Spatial Web will integrate seamlessly into our physical environment, overlaying every conversation, every road, every object, conference room, and classroom with intuitively-presented data and AI-aided interaction.

Think: the Oasis in Ready Player One, where anyone can create digital personas, build and invest in smart assets, do business, complete effortless peer-to-peer transactions, and collect real estate in a virtual world.

Or imagine a virtual replica or “digital twin” of your office, each conference room authenticated on the blockchain, requiring a cryptographic key for entry.

As I’ve discussed with my good friend and “VR guru” Philip Rosedale, I’m absolutely clear that in the not-too-distant future, every physical element of every building in the world is going to be fully digitized, existing as a virtual incarnation or even as N number of these. “Meet me at the top of the Empire State Building?” “Sure, which one?”

This digitization of life means that suddenly every piece of information can become spatial, every environment can be smarter by virtue of AI, and every data point about me and my assets—both virtual and physical—can be reliably stored, secured, enhanced, and monetized.

In essence, the Spatial Web lets us interface with digitally-enhanced versions of our physical environment and build out entirely fictional virtual worlds—capable of running simulations, supporting entire economies, and even birthing new political systems.

But while I’ll get into the weeds of different use cases next week, let’s first concretize.

How Does It Work?
Let’s start with the stack. In the PC days, we had a database accompanied by a program that could ingest that data and present it to us as digestible information on a screen.

Then, in the early days of the web, data migrated to servers. Information was fed through a website, with which you would interface via a browser—whether Mosaic or Mozilla.

And then came the cloud.

Resident at either the edge of the cloud or on your phone, today’s rapidly proliferating apps now allow us to interact with previously read-only data, interfacing through a smartphone. But as Siri and Alexa have brought us verbal interfaces, AI-geared phone cameras can now determine your identity, and sensors are beginning to read our gestures.

And now we’re not only looking at our screens but through them, as the convergence of AI and AR begins to digitally populate our physical worlds.

While Pokémon Go sent millions of mobile game-players on virtual treasure hunts, IKEA is just one of the many companies letting you map virtual furniture within your physical home—simulating everything from cabinets to entire kitchens. No longer the one-sided recipients, we’re beginning to see through sensors, creatively inserting digital content in our everyday environments.

Let’s take a look at how the latest incarnation might work. In this new Web 3.0 stack, my personal AI would act as an intermediary, accessing public or privately-authorized data through the blockchain on my behalf, and then feed it through an interface layer composed of everything from my VR headset, to numerous wearables, to my smart environment (IoT-connected devices or even in-home robots).

But as we attempt to build a smart world with smart infrastructure, smart supply chains and smart everything else, we need a set of basic standards with addresses for people, places, and things. Just like our web today relies on the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) and other infrastructure, by which your computer is addressed and data packets are transferred, we need infrastructure for the Spatial Web.

And a select group of players is already stepping in to fill this void. Proposing new structural designs for Web 3.0, some are attempting to evolve today’s web model from text-based web pages in 2D to three-dimensional AR and VR web experiences located in both digitally-mapped physical worlds and newly-created virtual ones.

With a spatial programming language analogous to HTML, imagine building a linkable address for any physical or virtual space, granting it a format that then makes it interchangeable and interoperable with all other spaces.

But it doesn’t stop there.

As soon as we populate a virtual room with content, we then need to encode who sees it, who can buy it, who can move it…

And the Spatial Web’s eventual governing system (for posting content on a centralized grid) would allow us to address everything from the room you’re sitting in, to the chair on the other side of the table, to the building across the street.

Just as we have a DNS for the web and the purchasing of web domains, once we give addresses to spaces (akin to granting URLs), we then have the ability to identify and visit addressable locations, physical objects, individuals, or pieces of digital content in cyberspace.

And these not only apply to virtual worlds, but to the real world itself. As new mapping technologies emerge, we can now map rooms, objects, and large-scale environments into virtual space with increasing accuracy.

We might then dictate who gets to move your coffee mug in a virtual conference room, or when a team gets to use the room itself. Rules and permissions would be set in the grid, decentralized governance systems, or in the application layer.

Taken one step further, imagine then monetizing smart spaces and smart assets. If you have booked the virtual conference room, perhaps you’ll let me pay you 0.25 BTC to let me use it instead?

But given the Spatial Web’s enormous technological complexity, what’s allowing it to emerge now?

Why Is It Happening Now?
While countless entrepreneurs have already started harnessing blockchain technologies to build decentralized apps (or dApps), two major developments are allowing today’s birth of Web 3.0:

High-resolution wireless VR/AR headsets are finally catapulting virtual and augmented reality out of a prolonged winter.

The International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts the VR and AR headset market will reach 65.9 million units by 2022. Already in the next 18 months, 2 billion devices will be enabled with AR. And tech giants across the board have long begun investing heavy sums.

In early 2019, HTC is releasing the VIVE Focus, a wireless self-contained VR headset. At the same time, Facebook is charging ahead with its Project Santa Cruz—the Oculus division’s next-generation standalone, wireless VR headset. And Magic Leap has finally rolled out its long-awaited Magic Leap One mixed reality headset.

Mass deployment of 5G will drive 10 to 100-gigabit connection speeds in the next 6 years, matching hardware progress with the needed speed to create virtual worlds.

We’ve already seen tremendous leaps in display technology. But as connectivity speeds converge with accelerating GPUs, we’ll start to experience seamless VR and AR interfaces with ever-expanding virtual worlds.

And with such democratizing speeds, every user will be able to develop in VR.

But accompanying these two catalysts is also an important shift towards the decentralized web and a demand for user-controlled data.

Converging technologies, from immutable ledgers and blockchain to machine learning, are now enabling the more direct, decentralized use of web applications and creation of user content. With no central point of control, middlemen are removed from the equation and anyone can create an address, independently interacting with the network.

Enabled by a permission-less blockchain, any user—regardless of birthplace, gender, ethnicity, wealth, or citizenship—would thus be able to establish digital assets and transfer them seamlessly, granting us a more democratized Internet.

And with data stored on distributed nodes, this also means no single point of failure. One could have multiple backups, accessible only with digital authorization, leaving users immune to any single server failure.

Implications Abound–What’s Next…
With a newly-built stack and an interface built from numerous converging technologies, the Spatial Web will transform every facet of our everyday lives—from the way we organize and access our data, to our social and business interactions, to the way we train employees and educate our children.

We’re about to start spending more time in the virtual world than ever before. Beyond entertainment or gameplay, our livelihoods, work, and even personal decisions are already becoming mediated by a web electrified with AI and newly-emerging interfaces.

In our next blog on the Spatial Web, I’ll do a deep dive into the myriad industry implications of Web 3.0, offering tangible use cases across sectors.

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