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It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.
In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?
This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”
In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.
Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.
Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.
Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.
Such are the dreams, anyway.
But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”
Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.
For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.
One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.
Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.
Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.
In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.
You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).
Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.
Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.
Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?
We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.
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Hardly a day goes by without a research study or article published talking sh*t—or more precisely, talking about the gut microbiome. When it comes to cutting-edge innovations in medicine, all signs point to the microbiome. Maybe we should have listened to Hippocrates: “All disease begins in the gut.”
Your microbiome is mostly located in your gut and contains trillions of little guys and gals called microbes. If you want to optimize your health, biohack your body, make progress against chronic disease, or know which foods are right for you—almost all of this information can be found in your microbiome.
My company, Viome, offers technology to measure your microscopic organisms and their behavior at a molecular level. Think of it as the Instagram of your inner world. A snapshot of what’s happening inside your body. New research about the microbiome is changing our understanding of who we are as humans and how the human body functions.
It turns out the microbiome may be mission control for your body and mind. Your healthy microbiome is part best friend, part power converter, part engine, and part pharmacist. At Viome, we’re working to analyze these microbial functions and recommend a list of personalized food and supplements to keep these internal complex machines in a finely tuned balance.
We now have more information than ever before about what your microbiome is doing, and it’s going to help you and the rest of the world do a whole lot better. The new insights emerging from microbiome research are changing our perception of what keeps us healthy and what makes us sick. This new understanding of the microbiome activities may put an end to conflicting food advice and make fad diets a thing of the past.
What are these new insights showing us? The information is nothing short of mind-blowing. The value of your poop just got an upgrade.
Here are some of the amazing things we’ve learned from our work at Viome.
1. Was Popeye wrong? Why “health food” isn’t necessarily healthy.
Each week there is a new fad diet released, discussed, and followed. The newest “research” shows that this is now the superfood to eat for everyone. But, too often, the fad diet is just a regurgitation of what worked for one person and shouldn’t be followed by everyone else.
For example, we’ve been told to eat our greens and that greens and nuts are “anti-inflammatory,” but this is actually not always true. Spinach, bran, rhubarb, beets, nuts, and nut butters all contain oxalate. We now know that oxalate-containing food can be harmful, unless you have the microbes present that can metabolize it into a non-harmful substance.
30% of Viome customers do not have the microbes to metabolize oxalates properly. In other words, “healthy foods” like spinach are actually not healthy for these people.
Looks like not everyone should follow Popeye’s food plan.
2. Aren’t foods containing “antioxidants” always good for everyone?
Just like oxalates, polyphenols in foods are usually considered very healthy, but unless you have microbes that utilize specific polyphenols, you may not get full benefit from them. One example is a substance found in these foods called ellagic acid. We can detect if your microbiome is metabolizing ellagic acid and converting it into urolithin A. It is only the urolithin A that has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Without the microbes to do this conversion you will not benefit from the ellagic acid in foods.
Examples: Walnuts, raspberries, pomegranate, blackberries, pecans, and cranberries all contain ellagic acid.
We have analyzed tens of thousands of people, and only about 50% of the people actually benefit from eating more foods containing ellagic acid.
3. You’re probably eating too much protein (and it may be causing inflammation).
When you think high-protein diet, you think paleo, keto, and high-performance diets.
Protein is considered good for you. It helps build muscle and provide energy—but if you eat too much, it can cause inflammation and decrease longevity.
We can analyze the activity of your microbiome to determine if you are eating too much protein that feeds protein-fermenting bacteria like Alistipes putredinis and Tannerella forsythia, and if these organisms are producing harmful substances such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, p-cresol, or putrescine. These substances can damage your gut lining and lead to things like leaky gut.
4. Something’s fishy. Are “healthy foods” causing heart disease?
Choline in certain foods can get converted by bacteria into a substance called trimethylamine (TMA) that is associated with heart disease when it gets absorbed into your body and converted to TMAO. However, TMA conversion doesn’t happen in individuals without these types of bacteria in their microbiome.
We can see the TMA production pathways and many of the gammaproteobacteria that do this conversion.
What foods contain choline? Liver, salmon, chickpeas, split peas, eggs, navy beans, peanuts, and many others.
Before you decide to go full-on pescatarian or paleo, you may want to check if your microbiome is producing TMA with that salmon or steak.
5. Hold up, Iron Man. We can see inflammation from too much iron.
Minerals like iron in your food can, in certain inflammatory microbial environments, promote growth of pathogens like Esherichia, Shigella, and Salmonella.
Maybe it wasn’t just that raw chicken that gave you food poisoning, but your toxic microbiome that made you sick.
On the other hand, when you don’t have enough iron, you could become anemic leading to weakness and shortness of breath.
So, just like Iron Man, it’s about finding your balance so that you can fly.
6. Are you anxious or stressed? Your poop will tell you.
Our gut and brain are connected via the vagus nerve. A large majority of neurotransmitters are either produced or consumed by our microbiome. In fact, some 90% of all serotonin (a feel-good neurotransmitter) is produced by your gut microbiome and not by your brain.
When you have a toxic microbiome that’s producing a large amount of toxins like hydrogen sulfide, the lining of your gut starts to deteriorate into what’s known as leaky gut. Think of leaky gut as your gut not having healthy borders or boundaries. And when this happens, all kinds of disease can emerge. When the barrier of the gut breaks down, it starts a chain reaction causing low-grade chronic inflammation—which has been identified as a potential source of depression and higher levels of anxiety, in addition to many other chronic diseases.
We’re not saying you shouldn’t meditate, but if you want to get the most out of your meditation and really reduce your stress levels, make sure you are eating the right food that promotes a healthy microbiome.
7. Your microbiome is better than Red Bull.
If you want more energy, get your microbiome back into balance.
No you don’t need three pots of coffee to keep you going, you just need a balanced microbiome.
Your microbiome is responsible for calorie extraction, or creating energy, through pathways such as the Tricarboxylic acid cycle. Our bodies depend on the energy that our microbiome produces.
How much energy we get from our food is dependent on how efficient our microbiome is at converting the food into energy. High-performing microbiomes are excellent at converting food into energy. This is great when you are an athlete and need the extra energy, but if you don’t use up the energy it may be the source of some of those unwanted pounds.
If the microbes can’t or won’t metabolize the glucose (sugar) that you eat, it will be stored as fat. If the microbes are extracting too many calories from your food or producing lipopolysaccharides (LPS) and causing metabolic endotoxemia leading to activation of toll-like receptors and insulin resistance you may end up storing what you eat as fat.
Think of your microbiome as Doc Brown’s car from the future—it can take pretty much anything and turn it into fuel if it’s strong and resilient enough.
8. We can see your joint pain in your poop.
Got joint pain? Your microbiome can tell you why.
Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) is a key pro-inflammatory molecule made by some of your microbes. If your microbes are making too much LPS, it can wreak havoc on your immune system by putting it into overdrive. When your immune system goes on the warpath there is often collateral damage to your joints and other body parts.
Perhaps balancing your microbiome is a better solution than reaching for the glucosamine. Think of your microbiome as the top general of your immune army. It puts your immune system through basic training and determines when it goes to war.
Ideally, your immune system wins the quick battle and gets some rest, but sometimes if your microbiome keeps it on constant high alert it becomes a long, drawn-out war resulting in chronic inflammation and chronic diseases.
Are you really “getting older” or is your microbiome just making you “feel” older because it keeps giving warnings to your immune system ultimately leading to chronic pain?
Before you throw in the towel on your favorite activities, check your microbiome. And, if you have anything with “itis” in it, it’s possible that when you balance your microbiome the inflammation from your “itis” will be reduced.
9. Your gut is doing the talking for your mouth.
When you have low stomach acid, your mouth bacteria makes it down to your GI tract.
Stomach acid is there to protect you from the bacteria in your mouth and the parasites and fungi that are in your food. If you don’t have enough of it, the bacteria in your mouth will invade your gut. This invasion is associated with and a risk factor for autoimmune disease and inflammation in the gut.
We are learning that low stomach acid is perhaps one of the major causes of chronic disease. This stomach acid is essential to kill mouth bacteria and help us digest our food.
What kinds of things cause low stomach acid? Stress and antacids like Nexium, Zantac, and Prilosec.
10. Carbs can be protein precursors.
Rejoice! Perhaps carbs aren’t as bad as we thought (as long as your microbiome is up to the task). We can see if some of the starches you eat can be made into amino acids by the microbiome.
Our microbiome makes 20% of our branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) for us, and it will adapt to make these vital BCAAs for us in almost any way it can.
Essentially, your microbiome is hooking up carbons and hydrogens into different formulations of BCAAs, depending on what you feed it. The microbiome is excellent at adapting and pivoting based on the food you feed it and the environment that it’s in.
So, good news: Carbs are protein precursors, as long as you have the right microbiome.
Stop Talking Sh*t Now
Your microbiome is a world class entrepreneur that can take low-grade sources of food and turn them into valuable and useable energy.
You have a best friend and confidant within you that is working wonders to make sure you have energy and that all of your needs are met.
And, just like a best friend, if you take great care of your microbiome, it will take great care of you.
Given the research emerging daily about the microbiome and its importance on your quality of life, prioritizing the health of your microbiome is essential.
When you have a healthy microbiome, you’ll have a healthy life.
It’s now clear that some of the greatest insights for your health will come from your poop.
It’s time to stop talking sh*t and get your sh*t together. Your life may depend on it.
Viome can help you identify what your microbiome is actually doing. The combination of Viome’s metatranscriptomic technology and cutting-edge artificial intelligence is paving a brand new path forward for microbiome health.
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The US Army recently announced that it is developing the first drones that can spot and target vehicles and people using artificial intelligence (AI). This is a big step forward. Whereas current military drones are still controlled by people, this new technology will decide who to kill with almost no human involvement. Continue reading
The tech industry touts its ability to automate tasks and remove slow and expensive humans from the equation. But in the background, a lot of the legwork training machine learning systems, solving problems software can’t, and cleaning up its mistakes is still done by people.
This was highlighted recently when Expensify, which promises to automatically scan photos of receipts to extract data for expense reports, was criticized for sending customers’ personally identifiable receipts to workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) crowdsourcing platform.
The company uses text analysis software to read the receipts, but if the automated system falls down then the images are passed to a human for review. While entrusting this job to random workers on MTurk was maybe not so wise—and the company quickly stopped after the furor—the incident brought to light that this kind of human safety net behind AI-powered services is actually very common.
As Wired notes, similar services like Ibotta and Receipt Hog that collect receipt information for marketing purposes also use crowdsourced workers. In a similar vein, while most users might assume their Facebook newsfeed is governed by faceless algorithms, the company has been ramping up the number of human moderators it employs to catch objectionable content that slips through the net, as has YouTube. Twitter also has thousands of human overseers.
Humans aren’t always witting contributors either. The old text-based reCAPTCHA problems Google used to use to distinguish humans from machines was actually simultaneously helping the company digitize books by getting humans to interpret hard-to-read text.
“Every product that uses AI also uses people,” Jeffrey Bigham, a crowdsourcing expert at Carnegie Mellon University, told Wired. “I wouldn’t even say it’s a backstop so much as a core part of the process.”
Some companies are not shy about their use of crowdsourced workers. Startup Eloquent Labs wants to insert them between customer service chatbots and human agents who step in when the machines fail. Many times the AI is pretty certain what particular work means, and an MTurk worker can step in and quickly classify them faster and cheaper than a service agent.
Fashion retailer Gilt provides “pre-emptive shipping,” which uses data analytics to predict what people will buy to get products to them faster. The company uses MTurk workers to provide subjective critiques of clothing that feed into their models.
MTurk isn’t the only player. Companies like Cloudfactory and Crowdflower provide crowdsourced human manpower tailored to particular niches, and some companies prefer to maintain their own communities of workers. Unlabel uses an army of 50,000 humans to check and edit the translations its artificial intelligence system produces for customers.
Most of the time these human workers aren’t just filling in the gaps, they’re also helping to train the machine learning component of these companies’ services by providing new examples of how to solve problems. Other times humans aren’t used “in-the-loop” with AI systems, but to prepare data sets they can learn from by labeling images, text, or audio.
It’s even possible to use crowdsourced workers to carry out tasks typically tackled by machine learning, such as large-scale image analysis and forecasting.
Zooniverse gets citizen scientists to classify images of distant galaxies or videos of animals to help academics analyze large data sets too complex for computers. Almanis creates forecasts on everything from economics to politics with impressive accuracy by giving those who sign up to the website incentives for backing the correct answer to a question. Researchers have used MTurkers to power a chatbot, and there’s even a toolkit for building algorithms to control this human intelligence called TurKit.
So what does this prominent role for humans in AI services mean? Firstly, it suggests that many tools people assume are powered by AI may in fact be relying on humans. This has obvious privacy implications, as the Expensify story highlighted, but should also raise concerns about whether customers are really getting what they pay for.
One example of this is IBM’s Watson for oncology, which is marketed as a data-driven AI system for providing cancer treatment recommendations. But an investigation by STAT highlighted that it’s actually largely driven by recommendations from a handful of (admittedly highly skilled) doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Secondly, humans intervening in AI-run processes also suggests AI is still largely helpless without us, which is somewhat comforting to know among all the doomsday predictions of AI destroying jobs. At the same time, though, much of this crowdsourced work is monotonous, poorly paid, and isolating.
As machines trained by human workers get better at all kinds of tasks, this kind of piecemeal work filling in the increasingly small gaps in their capabilities may get more common. While tech companies often talk about AI augmenting human intelligence, for many it may actually end up being the other way around.
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Millions of years of evolution have allowed animals to develop some elegant and highly efficient solutions to problems like locomotion, flight, and dexterity. As Boston Dynamics unveils its latest mechanical animals, here’s a rundown of nine recent robots that borrow from nature and why.
SpotMini – Boston Dynamics
Starting with BigDog in 2005, the US company has built a whole stable of four-legged robots in recent years. Their first product was designed to be a robotic packhorse for soldiers that borrowed the quadrupedal locomotion of animals to travel over terrain too rough for conventional vehicles.
The US Army ultimately rejected the robot for being too noisy, according to the Guardian, but since then the company has scaled down its design, first to the Spot, then a first edition of the SpotMini that came out last year.
The latter came with a robotic arm where its head should be and was touted as a domestic helper, but a sleeker second edition without the arm was released earlier this month. There’s little detail on what the new robot is designed for, but the more polished design suggests a more consumer-focused purpose.
OctopusGripper – Festo
Festo has released a long line of animal-inspired machines over the years, from a mechanical kangaroo to robotic butterflies. Its latest creation isn’t a full animal—instead it’s a gripper based on an octopus tentacle that can be attached to the end of a robotic arm.
The pneumatically-powered device is made of soft silicone and features two rows of suction cups on its inner edge. By applying compressed air the tentacle can wrap around a wide variety of differently shaped objects, just like its natural counterpart, and a vacuum can be applied to the larger suction cups to grip the object securely. Because it’s soft, it holds promise for robots required to operate safely in collaboration with humans.
CRAM – University of California, Berkeley
Cockroaches are renowned for their hardiness and ability to disappear down cracks that seem far too small for them. Researchers at UC Berkeley decided these capabilities could be useful for search and rescue missions and so set about experimenting on the insects to find out their secrets.
They found the bugs can squeeze into gaps a fifth of their normal standing height by splaying their legs out to the side without significantly slowing themselves down. So they built a palm-sized robot with a jointed plastic shell that could do the same to squeeze into crevices half its normal height.
Snake Robot – Carnegie Mellon University
Search and rescue missions are a common theme for animal-inspired robots, but the snake robot built by CMU researchers is one of the first to be tested in a real disaster.
A team of roboticists from the university helped Mexican Red Cross workers search collapsed buildings for survivors after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City in September. The snake design provides a small diameter and the ability to move in almost any direction, which makes the robot ideal for accessing tight spaces, though the team was unable to locate any survivors.
The snake currently features a camera on the front, but researchers told IEEE Spectrum that the experience helped them realize they should also add a microphone to listen for people trapped under the rubble.
Bio-Hybrid Stingray – Harvard University
Taking more than just inspiration from the animal kingdom, a group from Harvard built a robotic stingray out of silicone and rat heart muscle cells.
The robot uses the same synchronized undulations along the edge of its fins to propel itself as a ray does. But while a ray has two sets of muscles to pull the fins up and down, the new device has only one that pulls them down, with a springy gold skeleton that pulls them back up again. The cells are also genetically modified to be activated by flashes of light.
The project’s leader eventually hopes to engineer a human heart, and both his stingray and an earlier jellyfish bio-robot are primarily aimed at better understanding how that organ works.
Bat Bot – Caltech
Most recent advances in drone technology have come from quadcopters, but Caltech engineers think rigid devices with rapidly spinning propellers are probably not ideal for use in close quarters with humans.
That’s why they turned to soft-winged bats for inspiration. That’s no easy feat, though, considering bats use more than 40 joints with each flap of their wings, so the team had to optimize down to nine joints to avoid it becoming too bulky. The simplified bat can’t ascend yet, but its onboard computer and sensors let it autonomously carry out glides, turns, and dives.
Salto – UC Berkeley
While even the most advanced robots tend to plod around, tree-dwelling animals have the ability to spring from branch to branch to clear obstacles and climb quickly. This could prove invaluable for search and rescue robots by allowing them to quickly traverse disordered rubble.
UC Berkeley engineers turned to the Senegal bush baby for inspiration after determining it scored highest in “vertical jumping agility”—a combination of how high and how frequently an animal can jump. They recreated its ability to get into a super-low crouch that stores energy in its tendons to create a robot that could carry out parkour-style double jumps off walls to quickly gain height.
Pleurobot – École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Normally robots are masters of air, land, or sea, but the robotic salamander built by researchers at EPFL can both walk and swim.
Its designers used X-ray videos to carefully study how the amphibians move before using this to build a true-to-life robotic version using 3D printed bones, motorized joints, and a synthetic nervous system made up of electronic circuitry.
The robot’s low center of mass and segmented legs make it great at navigating rough terrain without losing balance, and the ability to swim gives added versatility. They also hope it will help paleontologists gain a better understanding of the movements of the first tetrapods to transition from water to land, which salamanders are the best living analog of.
Eelume – Eelume
A snakelike body isn’t only useful on land—eels are living proof it’s an efficient way to travel underwater, too. Norwegian robotics company Eelume has borrowed these principles to build a robot capable of sub-sea inspection, maintenance, and repair.
The modular design allows operators to put together their own favored configuration of joints and payloads such as sensors and tools. And while an early version of the robot used the same method of locomotion as an eel, the latest version undergoing sea trials has added a variety of thrusters for greater speeds and more maneuverability.
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