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Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing
Ed Yong | The Atlantic
“…beyond its vast scope and sui generis nature, there are other reasons the pandemic continues to be so befuddling—a slew of forces scientific and societal, epidemiological and epistemological. What follows is an analysis of those forces, and a guide to making sense of a problem that is now too big for any one person to fully comprehend.”
Common Sense Comes Closer to Computers
John Pavlus | Quanta Magazine
“The problem of common-sense reasoning has plagued the field of artificial intelligence for over 50 years. Now a new approach, borrowing from two disparate lines of thinking, has made important progress.”
Scientists Create Glowing Plants Using Bioluminescent Mushroom DNA
George Dvorsky | Gizmodo
“New research published today in Nature Biotechnology describes a new technique, in which the DNA from bioluminescent mushrooms was used to create plants that glow 10 times brighter than their bacteria-powered precursors. Botanists could eventually use this technique to study the inner workings of plants, but it also introduces the possibility of glowing ornamental plants for our homes.”
Old Drugs May Find a New Purpose: Fighting the Coronavirus
Carl Zimmer | The New York Times
“Driven by the pandemic’s spread, research teams have been screening thousands of drugs to see if they have this unexpected potential to fight the coronavirus. They’ve tested the drugs on dishes of cells, and a few dozen candidates have made the first cut.”
OpenAI’s New Experiments in Music Generation Create an Uncanny Valley Elvis
Devin Coldewey | TechCrunch
“AI-generated music is a fascinating new field, and deep-pocketed research outfit OpenAI has hit new heights in it, creating recreations of songs in the style of Elvis, 2Pac and others. The results are convincing, but fall squarely in the unnerving ‘uncanny valley’ of audio, sounding rather like good, but drunk, karaoke heard through a haze of drugs.”
Neural Net-Generated Memes Are One of the Best Uses of AI on the Internet
Jay Peters | The Verge
“I’ve spent a good chunk of my workday so far creating memes thanks to this amazing website from Imgflip that automatically generates captions for memes using a neural network. …You can pick from 48 classic meme templates, including distracted boyfriend, Drake in ‘Hotline Bling,’ mocking Spongebob, surprised Pikachu, and Oprah giving things away.”
Can Genetic Engineering Bring Back the American Chestnut?
Gabriel Popkin | The New York Times Magazine
“The geneticists’ research forces conservationists to confront, in a new and sometimes discomfiting way, the prospect that repairing the natural world does not necessarily mean returning to an unblemished Eden. It may instead mean embracing a role that we’ve already assumed: engineers of everything, including nature.”
Image credit: Dan Gold / Unsplash Continue reading →
As the internet churns with information about Covid-19, about the virus that causes the disease, and about what we’re supposed to do to fight it, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. What can we realistically expect for the rest of 2020? And how do we even know what’s realistic?
Today, humanity’s primary, ideal goal is to eliminate the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and Covid-19. Our second-choice goal is to control virus transmission. Either way, we have three big aims: to save lives, to return to public life, and to keep the economy functioning.
To hit our second-choice goal—and maybe even our primary goal—countries are pursuing five major public health strategies. Note that many of these advances cross-fertilize: for example, advances in virus testing and antibody testing will drive data-based prevention efforts.
Five major public health strategies are underway to bring Covid-19 under control and to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
These strategies arise from things we can control based on the things that we know at any given moment. But what about the things we can’t control and don’t yet know?
The biology of the virus and how it interacts with our bodies is what it is, so we should seek to understand it as thoroughly as possible. How long any immunity gained from prior infection lasts—and indeed whether people develop meaningful immunity at all after infection—are open questions urgently in need of greater clarity. Similarly, right now it’s important to focus on understanding rather than making assumptions about environmental factors like seasonality.
But the biggest question on everyone’s lips is, “When?” When will we see therapeutic progress against Covid-19? And when will life get “back to normal”? There are lots of models out there on the internet; which of those models are right? The simple answer is “none of them.” That’s right—it’s almost certain that every model you’ve seen is wrong in at least one detail, if not all of them. But modeling is meant to be a tool for deeper thinking, a way to run mental (and computational) experiments before—and while—taking action. As George E. P. Box famously wrote in 1976, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
Here, we’re seeking useful insights, as opposed to exact predictions, which is why we’re pulling back from quantitative details to get at the mindsets that will support agency and hope. To that end, I’ve been putting together timelines that I believe will yield useful expectations for the next year or two—and asking how optimistic I need to be in order to believe a particular timeline.
For a moderately optimistic scenario to be relevant, breakthroughs in science and technology come at paces expected based on previous efforts and assumptions that turn out to be basically correct; accessibility of those breakthroughs increases at a reasonable pace; regulation achieves its desired effects, without major surprises; and compliance with regulations is reasonably high.
In contrast, if I’m being highly optimistic, breakthroughs in science and technology and their accessibility come more quickly than they ever have before; regulation is evidence-based and successful in the first try or two; and compliance with those regulations is high and uniform. If I’m feeling not-so-optimistic, then I anticipate serious setbacks to breakthroughs and accessibility (with the overturning of many important assumptions), repeated failure of regulations to achieve their desired outcomes, and low compliance with those regulations.
The following scenarios outline the things that need to happen in the fight against Covid-19, when I expect to see them, and how confident I feel in those expectations. They focus on North America and Europe because there are data missing about China’s 2019 outbreak and other regions are still early in their outbreaks. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind throughout: We know more today than we did yesterday, but we still have much to learn. New knowledge derived from greater study and debate will almost certainly inspire ongoing course corrections.
As you dive into the scenarios below, practice these three mindset shifts. First, defeating Covid-19 will be a marathon, not a sprint. We shouldn’t expect life to look like 2019 for the next year or two—if ever. As Ed Yong wrote recently in The Atlantic, “There won’t be an obvious moment when everything is under control and regular life can safely resume.” Second, remember that you have important things to do for at least a year. And third, we are all in this together. There is no “us” and “them.” We must all be alert, responsive, generous, and strong throughout 2020 and 2021—and willing to throw away our assumptions when scientific evidence invalidates them.
The Middle Way: Moderate Optimism
Let’s start with the case in which I have the most confidence: moderate optimism.
This timeline considers milestones through late 2021, the earliest that I believe vaccines will become available. The “normal” timeline for developing a vaccine for diseases like seasonal flu is 18 months, which leads to my projection that we could potentially have vaccines as soon as 18 months from the first quarter of 2020. While Melinda Gates agrees with that projection, others (including AI) believe that 3 to 5 years is far more realistic, based on past vaccine development and the need to test safety and efficacy in humans. However, repurposing existing vaccines against other diseases—or piggybacking off clever synthetic platforms—could lead to vaccines being available sooner. I tried to balance these considerations for this moderately optimistic scenario. Either way, deploying vaccines at the end of 2021 is probably much later than you may have been led to believe by the hype engine. Again, if you take away only one message from this article, remember that the fight against Covid-19 is a marathon, not a sprint.
Here, I’ve visualized a moderately optimistic scenario as a baseline. Think of these timelines as living guides, as opposed to exact predictions. There are still many unknowns. More or less optimistic views (see below) and new information could shift these timelines forward or back and change the details of the strategies.
Based on current data, I expect that the first wave of Covid-19 cases (where we are now) will continue to subside in many areas, leading governments to ease restrictions in an effort to get people back to work. We’re already seeing movement in that direction, with a variety of benchmarks and changes at state and country levels around the world. But depending on the details of the changes, easing restrictions will probably cause a second wave of sickness (see Germany and Singapore), which should lead governments to reimpose at least some restrictions.
In tandem, therapeutic efforts will be transitioning from emergency treatments to treatments that have been approved based on safety and efficacy data in clinical trials. In a moderately optimistic scenario, assuming clinical trials currently underway yield at least a few positive results, this shift to mostly approved therapies could happen as early as the third or fourth quarter of this year and continue from there. One approval that should come rather quickly is for plasma therapies, in which the blood from people who have recovered from Covid-19 is used as a source of antibodies for people who are currently sick.
Companies around the world are working on both viral and antibody testing, focusing on speed, accuracy, reliability, and wide accessibility. While these tests are currently being run in hospitals and research laboratories, at-home testing is a critical component of the mass testing we’ll need to keep viral spread in check. These are needed to minimize the impact of asymptomatic cases, test the assumption that infection yields resistance to subsequent infection (and whether it lasts), and construct potential immunity passports if this assumption holds. Testing is also needed for contact tracing efforts to prevent further spread and get people back to public life. Finally, it’s crucial to our fundamental understanding of the biology of SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19.
We need tests that are very reliable, both in the clinic and at home. So, don’t go buying any at-home test kits just yet, even if you find them online. Wait for reliable test kits and deeper understanding of how a test result translates to everyday realities. If we’re moderately optimistic, in-clinic testing will rapidly expand this quarter and/or next, with the possibility of broadly available, high-quality at-home sampling (and perhaps even analysis) thereafter.
Note that testing is not likely to be a “one-and-done” endeavor, as a person’s infection and immunity status change over time. Expect to be testing yourself—and your family—often as we move later into 2020.
Testing data are also going to inform distancing requirements at the country and local levels. In this scenario, restrictions—at some level of stringency—could persist at least through the end of 2020, as most countries are way behind the curve on testing (Iceland is an informative exception). Governments will likely continue to ask citizens to work from home if at all possible; to wear masks or face coverings in public; to employ heightened hygiene and social distancing in workplaces; and to restrict travel and social gatherings. So while it’s likely we’ll be eating in local restaurants again in 2020 in this scenario, at least for a little while, it’s not likely we’ll be heading to big concerts any time soon.
The Extremes: High and Low Optimism
How would high and low levels of optimism change our moderately optimistic timeline? The milestones are the same, but the time required to achieve them is shorter or longer, respectively. Quantifying these shifts is less important than acknowledging and incorporating a range of possibilities into our view. It pays to pay attention to our bias. Here are a few examples of reasonable possibilities that could shift the moderately optimistic timeline.
When vaccines become available
Vaccine repurposing could shorten the time for vaccines to become available; today, many vaccine candidates are in various stages of testing. On the other hand, difficulties in manufacture and distribution, or faster-than-expected mutation of SARS-CoV-2, could slow vaccine development. Given what we know now, I am not strongly concerned about either of these possibilities—drug companies are rapidly expanding their capabilities, and viral mutation isn’t an urgent concern at this time based on sequencing data—but they could happen.
At first, governments will likely supply vaccines to essential workers such as healthcare workers, but it is essential that vaccines become widely available around the world as quickly and as safely as possible. Overall, I suggest a dose of skepticism when reading highly optimistic claims about a vaccine (or multiple vaccines) being available in 2020. Remember, a vaccine is a knockout punch, not a first line of defense for an outbreak.
When testing hits its stride
While I am confident that testing is a critical component of our response to Covid-19, reliability is incredibly important to testing for SARS-CoV-2 and for immunity to the disease, particularly at home. For an individual, a false negative (being told you don’t have antibodies when you really do) could be just as bad as a false positive (being told you do have antibodies when you really don’t). Those errors are compounded when governments are trying to make evidence-based policies for social and physical distancing.
If you’re highly optimistic, high-quality testing will ramp up quickly as companies and scientists innovate rapidly by cleverly combining multiple test modalities, digital signals, and cutting-edge tech like CRISPR. Pop-up testing labs could also take some pressure off hospitals and clinics.
If things don’t go well, reliability issues could hinder testing, manufacturing bottlenecks could limit availability, and both could hamstring efforts to control spread and ease restrictions. And if it turns out that immunity to Covid-19 isn’t working the way we assumed, then we must revisit our assumptions about our path(s) back to public life, as well as our vaccine-development strategies.
How quickly safe and effective treatments appear
Drug development is known to be long, costly, and fraught with failure. It’s not uncommon to see hope in a drug spike early only to be dashed later on down the road. With that in mind, the number of treatments currently under investigation is astonishing, as is the speed through which they’re proceeding through testing. Breakthroughs in a therapeutic area—for example in treating the seriously ill or in reducing viral spread after an infection takes hold—could motivate changes in the focus of distancing regulations.
While speed will save lives, we cannot overlook the importance of knowing a treatment’s efficacy (does it work against Covid-19?) and safety (does it make you sick in a different, or worse, way?). Repurposing drugs that have already been tested for other diseases is speeding innovation here, as is artificial intelligence.
Remarkable collaborations among governments and companies, large and small, are driving innovation in therapeutics and devices such as ventilators for treating the sick.
Whether government policies are effective and responsive
Those of us who have experienced lockdown are eager for it to be over. Businesses, economists, and governments are also eager to relieve the terrible pressure that is being exerted on the global economy. However, lifting restrictions will almost certainly lead to a resurgence in sickness.
Here, the future is hard to model because there are many, many factors at play, and at play differently in different places—including the extent to which individuals actually comply with regulations.
Reliable testing—both in the clinic and at home—is crucial to designing and implementing restrictions, monitoring their effectiveness, and updating them; delays in reliable testing could seriously hamper this design cycle. Lack of trust in governments and/or companies could also suppress uptake. That said, systems are already in place for contact tracing in East Asia. Other governments could learn important lessons, but must also earn—and keep—their citizens’ trust.
Expect to see restrictions descend and then lift in response to changes in the number of Covid-19 cases and in the effectiveness of our prevention strategies. Also expect country-specific and perhaps even area-specific responses that differ from each other. The benefit of this approach? Governments around the world are running perhaps hundreds of real-time experiments and design cycles in balancing health and the economy, and we can learn from the results.
A Way Out
As Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, told Science magazine, “Science is the exit strategy.” Some of our greatest technological assistance is coming from artificial intelligence, digital tools for collaboration, and advances in biotechnology.
Our exit strategy also needs to include empathy and future visioning—because in the midst of this crisis, we are breaking ground for a new, post-Covid future.
What do we want that future to look like? How will the hard choices we make now about data ethics impact the future of surveillance? Will we continue to embrace inclusiveness and mass collaboration? Perhaps most importantly, will we lay the foundation for successfully confronting future challenges? Whether we’re thinking about the next pandemic (and there will be others) or the cascade of catastrophes that climate change is bringing ever closer—it’s important to remember that we all have the power to become agents of that change.
Special thanks to Ola Kowalewski and Jason Dorrier for significant conversations.
Image Credit: Drew Beamer / Unsplash Continue reading →
“What’s past is prologue.” So says the famed quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, alleging that we can look to what has already happened as an indication of what will happen next.
This idea could be interpreted as being rather bleak; are we doomed to repeat the errors of the past until we correct them? We certainly do need to learn and re-learn life lessons—whether in our work, relationships, finances, health, or other areas—in order to grow as people.
Zooming out, the same phenomenon exists on a much bigger scale—that of our collective human history. We like to think we’re improving as a species, but haven’t yet come close to doing away with the conflicts and injustices that plagued our ancestors.
Zooming back in (and lightening up) a little, what about the short-term future? What might happen over the course of this year, and what information would we use to make educated guesses about it?
The editorial team at The Economist took a unique approach to answering these questions. On top of their own projections for 2020, including possible scenarios in politics, economics, and the continued development of technologies like artificial intelligence, they looked to an AI to make predictions of its own. What it came up with is intriguing, and a little bit uncanny.
[For the full list of the questions and answers, read The Economist article].
An AI That Reads—Then Writes
Almost exactly a year ago, non-profit OpenAI announced it had built a neural network for natural language processing called GPT-2. The announcement was met with some controversy, as it included the caveat that the tool would not be immediately released to the public due to its potential for misuse. It was then released in phases over the course of several months.
GPT-2’s creators upped the bar on quality when training the neural net; rather than haphazardly feeding it low-quality text, they only used articles that got more than three upvotes on Reddit (admittedly, this doesn’t guarantee high quality across the board—but it’s something).
The training dataset consisted of 40GB of text. For context, 1GB of text is about 900,000 ASCII pages or 130,000 double-spaced Microsoft Word pages.
The tool has no understanding of the text it’s generating, of course. It uses language patterns and word sequences to draw statistical associations between words and phrases, building a sort of guidebook for itself (not unlike the grammar rules and vocabulary words you might study when trying to learn a foreign language). It then uses that guidebook to answer questions or predict what will come after a particular sequence of words.
GPT-2’s creators did note that when the model is trained on specifically-selected datasets for narrower applications, its replies become more convincing.
Some Light Editing
Though the Economist article detailing GPT-2’s predictions describes the text the model generated as “unedited,” this isn’t wholly accurate. In a Medium post, deputy editor Tom Standage describes the methodology he used, and it does involve a degree of tweaking.
Standage wrote an introductory paragraph, followed by his opening question (“Greetings, GPT-2. Have you done an interview before?”). He configured the tool to generate five responses to each subsequent question then selected the best answer, deleting any questions GPT-2 came up with as part of its response.
AI’s View of the World—and Itself
The questions Standage asked ranged from tech-related (the future of AI, technological unemployment, misuse of technology) to political and economic (re-election of Donald Trump, the US-China trade war). Here are a couple of his questions and GPT-2’s answers:
Q: Do fake news stories, generated using AI, pose a threat to democracy? Are we likely to see this tactic being used in the 2020 American presidential elections?
A: Yes, we’ll probably see them. It’s just a matter of when. Fake news stories are generally generated by political campaigns, and have the potential to have a huge impact on the outcome of an election. This is because they spread misinformation, often with no basis in fact.
Q: How do you see the economic outlook for 2020?
A: I think it is very unclear. The outlook for the UK economy is uncertain, but the American economy is very strong. I think we are going to have a lot of turbulence in the world economy.
While some of its answers seemed insightful—when asked about the future of AI, GPT-2 advised that we treat the technology like a tool and “put as much effort into developing [it] as necessary, rather than worrying that it’s going to harm us and destroy our lives”—many of the responses were quite vague. One answer, for example, mentions that there will “probably be major changes in China.” Are we talking political changes? Social? Economic? All of the above?
However, while nothing the AI wrote was particularly illuminating or new, it’s impressive that it was able to expound on the correct topic for each question, and in fully coherent English.
GPT-2 named itself—AI—as the most important disruptive technology to watch in 2020. This is telling; it’s coming from a synthesis of millions of pages of published articles. If GPT-2 thinks AI is more important than, say, gene editing or quantum computing, it could be right. Or it could simply be that AI is at peak hype, and as such more is being written about it than about other technologies.
Equally intriguing was GPT-2’s response when asked whether Donald Trump will win a second term: “I think he will not win a second term. I think he will be defeated in the general election.” Some deeper insight there would be great, but hey—we’ll take it.
Since an AI can read and synthesize vast data sets much faster than we can, it’s being used to predict all kinds of things, from virus outbreaks to crime. But asking it to philosophize on the future based on the (Reddit-curated) past is new, and if you think about it, a pretty fascinating undertaking.
As GPT-2 and tools like it continually improve, we’ll likely see them making more—and better—predictions of the future. In the meantime, let’s hope that the new data these models are trained on—news of what’s happening this week, this month, this year—add to an already-present sense of optimism.
When asked if it had any advice for readers, GPT-2 replied, “The big projects that you think are impossible today are actually possible in the near future.”
Image Credit: Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay Continue reading →
Roads criss-cross the landscape, but while they provide vital transport links, in many ways they represent a huge amount of wasted space. Advances in “smart road” technology could change that, creating roads that can harvest energy from cars, detect speeding, automatically weigh vehicles, and even communicate with smart cars.
“Smart city” projects are popping up in countries across the world thanks to advances in wireless communication, cloud computing, data analytics, remote sensing, and artificial intelligence. Transportation is a crucial element of most of these plans, but while much of the focus is on public transport solutions, smart roads are increasingly being seen as a crucial feature of these programs.
New technology is making it possible to tackle a host of issues including traffic congestion, accidents, and pollution, say the authors of a paper in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A. And they’ve outlined ten of the most promising advances under development or in planning stages that could feature on tomorrow’s roads.
A variety of energy harvesting technologies integrated into roads have been proposed as ways to power street lights and traffic signals or provide a boost to the grid. Photovoltaic panels could be built into the road surface to capture sunlight, or piezoelectric materials installed beneath the asphalt could generate current when deformed by vehicles passing overhead.
Countries like Japan, Denmark, the Netherlands, Taiwan, and South Korea have built roads that play music as cars pass by. By varying the spacing of rumble strips, it’s possible to produce a series of different notes as vehicles drive over them. The aim is generally to warn of hazards or help drivers keep to the speed limit.
Weight-in-motion technology that measures vehicles’ loads as they drive slowly through a designated lane has been around since the 1970s, but more recently high speed weight-in-motion tech has made it possible to measure vehicles as they travel at regular highway speeds. The latest advance has been integration with automatic licence plate reading and wireless communication to allow continuous remote monitoring both to enforce weight restrictions and monitor wear on roads.
The growing popularity of electric vehicles has spurred the development of technology to charge cars and buses as they drive. The most promising of these approaches is magnetic induction, which involves burying cables beneath the road to generate electromagnetic fields that a receiver device in the car then transforms into electrical power to charge batteries.
Smart traffic signs
Traffic signs aren’t always as visible as they should be, and it can often be hard to remember what all of them mean. So there are now proposals for “smart signs” that wirelessly beam a sign’s content to oncoming cars fitted with receivers, which can then alert the driver verbally or on the car’s display. The approach isn’t affected by poor weather and lighting, can be reprogrammed easily, and could do away with the need for complex sign recognition technology in future self-driving cars.
Traffic violation detection and notification
Sensors and cameras can be combined with these same smart signs to detect and automatically notify drivers of traffic violations. The automatic transmission of traffic signals means drivers won’t be able to deny they’ve seen the warnings or been notified of any fines, as a record will be stored on their car’s black box.
Car-to-car communication technology and V2X, which lets cars share information with any other connected device, are becoming increasingly common. Inter-car communication can be used to propagate accidents or traffic jam alerts to prevent congestion, while letting vehicles communicate with infrastructure can help signals dynamically manage timers to keep traffic flowing or automatically collect tolls.
Combing sensors and cameras with object recognition systems that can detect vehicles and other road users can help increase safety and efficiency at intersections. It can be used to extend green lights for slower road users like pedestrians and cyclists, sense jaywalkers, give priority to emergency vehicles, and dynamically adjust light timers to optimize traffic flow. Information can even be broadcast to oncoming vehicles to highlight blind spots and potential hazards.
Automatic crash detection
There’s a “golden hour” after an accident in which the chance of saving lives is greatly increased. Vehicle communication technology can ensure that notification of a crash reaches the emergency services rapidly, and can also provide vital information about the number and type of vehicles involved, which can help emergency response planning. It can also be used to alert other drivers to slow down or stop to prevent further accidents.
Smart street lights
Street lights are increasingly being embedded with sensors, wireless connectivity, and micro-controllers to enable a variety of smart functions. These include motion activation to save energy, providing wireless access points, air quality monitoring, or parking and litter monitoring. This can also be used to send automatic maintenance requests if a light is faulty, and can even allow neighboring lights to be automatically brightened to compensate.
Image Credit: Image by David Mark from Pixabay Continue reading →
For most of history, technology was about atoms, the manipulation of physical stuff to extend humankind’s reach. But in the last five or six decades, atoms have partnered with bits, the elemental “particles” of the digital world as we know it today. As computing has advanced at the accelerating pace described by Moore’s Law, technological progress has become increasingly digitized.
SpaceX lands and reuses rockets and self-driving cars do away with drivers thanks to automation, sensors, and software. Businesses find and hire talent from anywhere in the world, and for better and worse, a notable fraction of the world learns and socializes online. From the sequencing of DNA to artificial intelligence and from 3D printing to robotics, more and more new technologies are moving at a digital pace and quickly emerging to reshape the world around us.
In 2019, stories charting the advances of some of these digital technologies consistently made headlines. Below is, what is at best, an incomplete list of some of the big stories that caught our eye this year. With so much happening, it’s likely we’ve missed some notable headlines and advances—as well as some of your personal favorites. In either instance, share your thoughts and candidates for the biggest stories and breakthroughs on Facebook and Twitter.
With that said, let’s dive straight into the year.
No technology garnered as much attention as AI in 2019. With good reason. Intelligent computer systems are transitioning from research labs to everyday life. Healthcare, weather forecasting, business process automation, traffic congestion—you name it, and machine learning algorithms are likely beginning to work on it. Yet, AI has also been hyped up and overmarketed, and the latest round of AI technology, deep learning, is likely only one piece of the AI puzzle.
This year, Open AI’s game-playing algorithms beat some of the world’s best Dota 2 players, DeepMind notched impressive wins in Starcraft, and Carnegie Mellon University’s Libratus “crushed” pros at six-player Texas Hold‘em.
Speaking of games, AI’s mastery of the incredibly complex game of Go prompted a former world champion to quit, stating that AI ‘”cannot be defeated.”
But it isn’t just fun and games. Practical, powerful applications that make the best of AI’s pattern recognition abilities are on the way. Insilico Medicine, for example, used machine learning to help discover and design a new drug in just 46 days, and DeepMind is focused on using AI to crack protein folding.
Of course, AI can be a double-edged sword. When it comes to deepfakes and fake news, for example, AI makes both easier to create and detect, and early in the year, OpenAI created and announced a powerful AI text generator but delayed releasing it for fear of malicious use.
Recognizing AI’s power for good and ill, the OECD, EU, World Economic Forum, and China all took a stab at defining an ethical framework for the development and deployment of AI.
Processors and chips kickstarted the digital boom and are still the bedrock of continued growth. While progress in traditional silicon-based chips continues, it’s slowing and getting more expensive. Some say we’re reaching the end of Moore’s Law. While that may be the case for traditional chips, specialized chips and entirely new kinds of computing are waiting in the wings.
In fall 2019, Google confirmed its quantum computer had achieved “quantum supremacy,” a term that means a quantum computer can perform a calculation a normal computer cannot. IBM pushed back on the claim, and it should be noted the calculation was highly specialized. But while it’s still early days, there does appear to be some real progress (and more to come).
Should quantum computing become truly practical, “the implications are staggering.” It could impact machine learning, medicine, chemistry, and materials science, just to name a few areas.
Specialized chips continue to take aim at machine learning—a giant new chip with over a trillion transistors, for example, may make machine learning algorithms significantly more efficient.
Cellular computers also saw advances in 2019 thanks to CRISPR. And the year witnessed the emergence of the first reprogrammable DNA computer and new chips inspired by the brain.
The development of hardware computing platforms is intrinsically linked to software. 2019 saw a continued move from big technology companies towards open sourcing (at least parts of) their software, potentially democratizing the use of advanced systems.
Increasing interconnectedness has, in many ways, defined the 21st century so far. Your phone is no longer just a phone. It’s access to the world’s population and accumulated knowledge—and it fits in your pocket. Pretty neat. This is all thanks to networks, which had some notable advances in 2019.
The biggest network development of the year may well be the arrival of the first 5G networks.
5G’s faster speeds promise advances across many emerging technologies.
Self-driving vehicles, for example, may become both smarter and safer thanks to 5G C-V2X networks. (Don’t worry with trying to remember that. If they catch on, they’ll hopefully get a better name.)
Wi-Fi may have heard the news and said “hold my beer,” as 2019 saw the introduction of Wi-Fi 6. Perhaps the most important upgrade, among others, is that Wi-Fi 6 ensures that the ever-growing number of network connected devices get higher data rates.
Networks also went to space in 2019, as SpaceX began launching its Starlink constellation of broadband satellites. In typical fashion, Elon Musk showed off the network’s ability to bounce data around the world by sending a Tweet.
Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality
Forget Pokemon Go (unless you want to add me as a friend in the game—in which case don’t forget Pokemon Go). 2019 saw AR and VR advance, even as Magic Leap, the most hyped of the lot, struggled to live up to outsized expectations and sell headsets.
Mixed reality AR and VR technologies, along with the explosive growth of sensor-based data about the world around us, is creating a one-to-one “Mirror World” of our physical reality—a digital world you can overlay on our own or dive into immersively thanks to AR and VR.
Facebook launched Replica, for example, which is a photorealistic virtual twin of the real world that, among other things, will help train AIs to better navigate their physical surroundings.
Our other senses (beyond eyes) may also become part of the Mirror World through the use of peripherals like a newly developed synthetic skin that aim to bring a sense of touch to VR.
AR and VR equipment is also becoming cheaper—with more producers entering the space—and more user-friendly. Instead of a wired headset requiring an expensive gaming PC, the new Oculus Quest is a wireless, self-contained step toward the mainstream.
Niche uses also continue to gain traction, from Google Glass’s Enterprise edition to the growth of AR and VR in professional education—including on-the-job-training and roleplaying emotionally difficult work encounters, like firing an employee.
Digital Biology and Biotech
The digitization of biology is happening at an incredible rate. With wild new research coming to light every year and just about every tech giant pouring money into new solutions and startups, we’re likely to see amazing advances in 2020 added to those we saw in 2019.
None were, perhaps, more visible than the success of protein-rich, plant-based substitutes for various meats. This was the year Beyond Meat was the top IPO on the NASDAQ stock exchange and people stood in line for the plant-based Impossible Whopper and KFC’s Beyond Chicken.
In the healthcare space, a report about three people with HIV who became virus free thanks to a bone marrow transplants of stem cells caused a huge stir. The research is still in relatively early stages, and isn’t suitable for most people, but it does provides a glimmer of hope.
CRISPR technology, which almost deserves its own section, progressed by leaps and bounds. One tweak made CRISPR up to 50 times more accurate, while the latest new CRISPR-based system, CRISPR prime, was described as a “word processor” for gene editing.
Many areas of healthcare stand to gain from CRISPR. For instance, cancer treatment, were a first safety test showed ‘promising’ results.
CRISPR’s many potential uses, however, also include some weird/morally questionable areas, which was exemplified by one the year’s stranger CRISPR-related stories about a human-monkey hybrid embryo in China.
Incidentally, China could be poised to take the lead on CRISPR thanks to massive investments and research programs.
As a consequence of quick advances in gene editing, we are approaching a point where we will be able to design our own biology—but first we need to have a serious conversation as a society about the ethics of gene editing and what lines should be drawn.
3D printing has quietly been growing both market size and the objects the printers are capable of producing. While both are impressive, perhaps the biggest story of 2019 is their increased speed.
One example was a boat that was printed in just three days, which also set three new world records for 3D printing.
3D printing is also spreading in the construction industry. In Mexico, the technology is being used to construct 50 new homes with subsidized mortgages of just $20/month.
3D printers also took care of all parts of a 640 square-meter home in Dubai.
Generally speaking, the use of 3D printing to make parts for everything from rocket engines (even entire rockets) to trains to cars illustrates the sturdiness of the technology, anno 2019.
In healthcare, 3D printing is also advancing the cause of bio-printed organs and, in one example, was used to print vascularized parts of a human heart.
Living in Japan, I get to see Pepper, Aibo, and other robots on pretty much a daily basis. The novelty of that experience is spreading to other countries, and robots are becoming a more visible addition to both our professional and private lives.
We can’t talk about robots and 2019 without mentioning Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot, which went on sale for the general public.
Meanwhile, Google, Boston Dynamics’ former owner, rebooted their robotics division with a more down-to-earth focus on everyday uses they hope to commercialize.
SoftBank’s Pepper robot is working as a concierge and receptionist in various countries. It is also being used as a home companion. Not satisfied, Pepper rounded off 2019 by heading to the gym—to coach runners.
Indeed, there’s a growing list of sports where robots perform as well—or better—than humans.
2019 also saw robots launch an assault on the kitchen, including the likes of Samsung’s robot chef, and invade the front yard, with iRobot’s Terra robotic lawnmower.
In the borderlands of robotics, full-body robotic exoskeletons got a bit more practical, as the (by all accounts) user-friendly, battery-powered Sarcos Robotics Guardian XO went commercial.
Self-driving cars did not—if you will forgive the play on words—stay quite on track during 2019. The fallout from Uber’s 2018 fatal crash marred part of the year, while some big players ratcheted back expectations on a quick shift to the driverless future. Still, self-driving cars, trucks, and other autonomous systems did make progress this year.
Winner of my unofficial award for best name in self-driving goes to Optimus Ride. The company also illustrates that self-driving may not be about creating a one-size-fits-all solution but catering to specific markets.
Self-driving trucks had a good year, with tests across many countries and states. One of the year’s odder stories was a self-driving truck traversing the US with a delivery of butter.
A step above the competition may be the future slogan (or perhaps not) of Boeing’s self-piloted air taxi that saw its maiden test flight in 2019. It joins a growing list of companies looking to create autonomous, flying passenger vehicles.
2019 was also the year where companies seemed to go all in on last-mile autonomous vehicles. Who wins that particular competition could well emerge during 2020.
Blockchain and Digital Currencies
Bitcoin continues to be the cryptocurrency equivalent of a rollercoaster, but the underlying blockchain technology is progressing more steadily. Together, they may turn parts of our financial systems cashless and digital—though how and when remains a slightly open question.
One indication of this was Facebook’s hugely controversial announcement of Libra, its proposed cryptocurrency. The company faced immediate pushback and saw a host of partners jump ship. Still, it brought the tech into mainstream conversations as never before and is putting the pressure on governments and central banks to explore their own digital currencies.
Deloitte’s in-depth survey of the state of blockchain highlighted how the technology has moved from fintech into just about any industry you can think of.
One of the biggest issues facing the spread of many digital currencies—Bitcoin in particular, you could argue—is how much energy it consumes to mine them. 2019 saw the emergence of several new digital currencies with a much smaller energy footprint.
2019 was also a year where we saw a new kind of digital currency, stablecoins, rise to prominence. As the name indicates, stablecoins are a group of digital currencies whose price fluctuations are more stable than the likes of Bitcoin.
In a geopolitical sense, 2019 was a year of China playing catch-up. Having initially banned blockchain, the country turned 180 degrees and announced that it was “quite close” to releasing a digital currency and a wave of blockchain-programs.
Renewable Energy and Energy Storage
While not every government on the planet seems to be a fan of renewable energy, it keeps on outperforming fossil fuel after fossil fuel in places well suited to it—even without support from some of said governments.
One of the reasons for renewable energy’s continued growth is that energy efficiency levels keep on improving.
As a result, an increased number of coal plants are being forced to close due to an inability to compete, and the UK went coal-free for a record two weeks.
We are also seeing more and more financial institutions refusing to fund fossil fuel projects. One such example is the European Investment Bank.
Renewable energy’s advance is tied at the hip to the rise of energy storage, which also had a breakout 2019, in part thanks to investments from the likes of Bill Gates.
The size and capabilities of energy storage also grew in 2019. The best illustration came from Australia were Tesla’s mega-battery proved that energy storage has reached a stage where it can prop up entire energy grids.
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