Tag Archives: built

#436526 Not Bot, Not Beast: Scientists Create ...

A remarkable combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and biology has produced the world’s first “living robots.”

This week, a research team of roboticists and scientists published their recipe for making a new lifeform called xenobots from stem cells. The term “xeno” comes from the frog cells (Xenopus laevis) used to make them.

One of the researchers described the creation as “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal,” but a “new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”

Xenobots are less than 1 millimeter long and made of 500-1,000 living cells. They have various simple shapes, including some with squat “legs.” They can propel themselves in linear or circular directions, join together to act collectively, and move small objects. Using their own cellular energy, they can live up to 10 days.

While these “reconfigurable biomachines” could vastly improve human, animal, and environmental health, they raise legal and ethical concerns.

Strange New ‘Creature’
To make xenobots, the research team used a supercomputer to test thousands of random designs of simple living things that could perform certain tasks.

The computer was programmed with an AI “evolutionary algorithm” to predict which organisms would likely display useful tasks, such as moving towards a target.

After the selection of the most promising designs, the scientists attempted to replicate the virtual models with frog skin or heart cells, which were manually joined using microsurgery tools. The heart cells in these bespoke assemblies contract and relax, giving the organisms motion.

The creation of xenobots is groundbreaking. Despite being described as “programmable living robots,” they are actually completely organic and made of living tissue. The term “robot” has been used because xenobots can be configured into different forms and shapes, and “programmed” to target certain objects, which they then unwittingly seek. They can also repair themselves after being damaged.

Possible Applications
Xenobots may have great value. Some speculate they could be used to clean our polluted oceans by collecting microplastics. Similarly, they may be used to enter confined or dangerous areas to scavenge toxins or radioactive materials. Xenobots designed with carefully shaped “pouches” might be able to carry drugs into human bodies.

Future versions may be built from a patient’s own cells to repair tissue or target cancers. Being biodegradable, xenobots would have an edge on technologies made of plastic or metal.

Further development of biological “robots” could accelerate our understanding of living and robotic systems. Life is incredibly complex, so manipulating living things could reveal some of life’s mysteries—and improve our use of AI.

Legal and Ethical Questions
Conversely, xenobots raise legal and ethical concerns. In the same way they could help target cancers, they could also be used to hijack life functions for malevolent purposes.

Some argue artificially making living things is unnatural, hubristic, or involves “playing God.” A more compelling concern is that of unintended or malicious use, as we have seen with technologies in fields including nuclear physics, chemistry, biology and AI. For instance, xenobots might be used for hostile biological purposes prohibited under international law.

More advanced future xenobots, especially ones that live longer and reproduce, could potentially “malfunction” and go rogue, and out-compete other species.

For complex tasks, xenobots may need sensory and nervous systems, possibly resulting in their sentience. A sentient programmed organism would raise additional ethical questions. Last year, the revival of a disembodied pig brain elicited concerns about different species’ suffering.

Managing Risks
The xenobot’s creators have rightly acknowledged the need for discussion around the ethics of their creation. The 2018 scandal over using CRISPR (which allows the introduction of genes into an organism) may provide an instructive lesson here. While the experiment’s goal was to reduce the susceptibility of twin baby girls to HIV-AIDS, associated risks caused ethical dismay. The scientist in question is in prison.

When CRISPR became widely available, some experts called for a moratorium on heritable genome editing. Others argued the benefits outweighed the risks.

While each new technology should be considered impartially and based on its merits, giving life to xenobots raises certain significant questions:

Should xenobots have biological kill-switches in case they go rogue?
Who should decide who can access and control them?
What if “homemade” xenobots become possible? Should there be a moratorium until regulatory frameworks are established? How much regulation is required?

Lessons learned in the past from advances in other areas of science could help manage future risks, while reaping the possible benefits.

Long Road Here, Long Road Ahead
The creation of xenobots had various biological and robotic precedents. Genetic engineering has created genetically modified mice that become fluorescent in UV light.

Designer microbes can produce drugs and food ingredients that may eventually replace animal agriculture. In 2012, scientists created an artificial jellyfish called a “medusoid” from rat cells.

Robotics is also flourishing. Nanobots can monitor people’s blood sugar levels and may eventually be able to clear clogged arteries. Robots can incorporate living matter, which we witnessed when engineers and biologists created a sting-ray robot powered by light-activated cells.

In the coming years, we are sure to see more creations like xenobots that evoke both wonder and due concern. And when we do, it is important we remain both open-minded and critical.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image Credit: Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436488 Tech’s Biggest Leaps From the Last 10 ...

As we enter our third decade in the 21st century, it seems appropriate to reflect on the ways technology developed and note the breakthroughs that were achieved in the last 10 years.

The 2010s saw IBM’s Watson win a game of Jeopardy, ushering in mainstream awareness of machine learning, along with DeepMind’s AlphaGO becoming the world’s Go champion. It was the decade that industrial tools like drones, 3D printers, genetic sequencing, and virtual reality (VR) all became consumer products. And it was a decade in which some alarming trends related to surveillance, targeted misinformation, and deepfakes came online.

For better or worse, the past decade was a breathtaking era in human history in which the idea of exponential growth in information technologies powered by computation became a mainstream concept.

As I did last year for 2018 only, I’ve asked a collection of experts across the Singularity University faculty to help frame the biggest breakthroughs and moments that gave shape to the past 10 years. I asked them what, in their opinion, was the most important breakthrough in their respective fields over the past decade.

My own answer to this question, focused in the space of augmented and virtual reality, would be the stunning announcement in March of 2014 that Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2 billion. Although VR technology had been around for a while, it was at this precise moment that VR arrived as a consumer technology platform. Facebook, largely fueled by the singular interest of CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has funded the development of this industry, keeping alive the hope that consumer VR can become a sustainable business. In the meantime, VR has continued to grow in sophistication and usefulness, though it has yet to truly take off as a mainstream concept. That will hopefully be a development for the 2020s.

Below is a decade in review across the technology areas that are giving shape to our modern world, as described by the SU community of experts.

Digital Biology
Dr. Tiffany Vora | Faculty Director and Vice Chair, Digital Biology and Medicine, Singularity University

In my mind, this decade of astounding breakthroughs in the life sciences and medicine rests on the achievement of the $1,000 human genome in 2016. More-than-exponentially falling costs of DNA sequencing have driven advances in medicine, agriculture, ecology, genome editing, synthetic biology, the battle against climate change, and our fundamental understanding of life and its breathtaking connections. The “digital” revolution in DNA constituted an important model for harnessing other types of biological information, from personalized bio data to massive datasets spanning populations and species.

Crucially, by aggressively driving down the cost of such analyses, researchers and entrepreneurs democratized access to the source code of life—with attendant financial, cultural, and ethical consequences. Exciting, but take heed: Veritas Genetics spearheaded a $600 genome in 2019, only to have to shutter USA operations due to a money trail tangled with the trade war with China. Stay tuned through the early 2020s to see the pricing of DNA sequencing fall even further … and to experience the many ways that cheaper, faster harvesting of biological data will enrich your daily life.

Cryptocurrency
Alex Gladstein | Chief Strategy Officer, Human Rights Foundation

The past decade has seen Bitcoin go from just an idea on an obscure online message board to a global financial network carrying more than 100 billion dollars in value. And we’re just getting started. One recent defining moment in the cryptocurrency space has been a stunning trend underway in Venezuela, where today, the daily dollar-denominated value of Bitcoin traded now far exceeds the daily dollar-denominated value traded on the Caracas Stock Exchange. It’s just one country, but it’s a significant country, and a paradigm shift.

Governments and corporations are following Bitcoin’s success too, and are looking to launch their own digital currencies. China will launch its “DC/EP” project in the coming months, and Facebook is trying to kickstart its Libra project. There are technical and regulatory uncertainties for both, but one thing is for certain: the era of digital currency has arrived.

Business Strategy and Entrepreneurship
Pascal Finnette | Chair, Entrepreneurship and Open Innovation, Singularity University

For me, without a doubt, the most interesting and quite possibly ground-shifting development in the fields of entrepreneurship and corporate innovation in the last ten years is the rapid maturing of customer-driven product development frameworks such as Lean Startup, and its subsequent adoption by corporates for their own innovation purposes.

Tools and frameworks like the Business Model Canvas, agile (software) development and the aforementioned Lean Startup methodology fundamentally shifted the way we think and go about building products, services, and companies, with many of these tools bursting onto the startup scene in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

As these tools matured they found mass adoption not only in startups around the world, but incumbent companies who eagerly adopted them to increase their own innovation velocity and success.

Energy
Ramez Naam | Co-Chair, Energy and Environment, Singularity University

The 2010s were the decade that saw clean electricity, energy storage, and electric vehicles break through price and performance barriers around the world. Solar, wind, batteries, and EVs started this decade as technologies that had to be subsidized. That was the first phase of their existence. Now they’re entering their third, most disruptive phase, where shifting to clean energy and mobility is cheaper than continuing to use existing coal, gas, or oil infrastructure.

Consider that at the start of 2010, there was no place on earth where building new solar or wind was cheaper than building new coal or gas power generation. By 2015, in some of the sunniest and windiest places on earth, solar and wind had entered their second phase, where they were cost-competitive for new power. And then, in 2018 and 2019, we started to see the edge of the third phase, as building new solar and wind, in some parts of the world, was cheaper than operating existing coal or gas power plants.

Food Technology
Liz Specht, Ph. D | Associate Director of Science & Technology, The Good Food Institute

The arrival of mainstream plant-based meat is easily the food tech advance of the decade. Meat analogs have, of course, been around forever. But only in the last decade have companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods decided to cut animals out of the process and build no-compromise meat directly from plants.

Plant-based meat is already transforming the fast-food industry. For example, the introduction of the Impossible Whopper led Burger King to their most profitable quarter in many years. But the global food industry as a whole is shifting as well. Tyson, JBS, Nestle, Cargill, and many others are all embracing plant-based meat.

Augmented and Virtual Reality
Jody Medich | CEO, Superhuman-x

The breakthrough moment for augmented and virtual reality came in 2013 when Palmer Lucky took apart an Android smartphone and added optic lenses to make the first version of the Oculus Rift. Prior to that moment, we struggled with miniaturizing the components needed to develop low-latency head-worn devices. But thanks to the smartphone race started in 2006 with the iPhone, we finally had a suite of sensors, chips, displays, and computing power small enough to put on the head.

What will the next 10 years bring? Look for AR/VR to explode in a big way. We are right on the cusp of that tipping point when the tech is finally “good enough” for our linear expectations. Given all it can do today, we can’t even picture what’s possible. Just as today we can’t function without our phones, by 2029 we’ll feel lost without some AR/VR product. It will be the way we interact with computing, smart objects, and AI. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, predicts it will replace all of today’s computing devices. I can’t wait.

Philosophy of Technology
Alix Rübsaam | Faculty Fellow, Singularity University, Philosophy of Technology/Ethics of AI

The last decade has seen a significant shift in our general attitude towards the algorithms that we now know dictate much of our surroundings. Looking back at the beginning of the decade, it seems we were blissfully unaware of how the data we freely and willingly surrendered would feed the algorithms that would come to shape every aspect of our daily lives: the news we consume, the products we purchase, the opinions we hold, etc.

If I were to isolate a single publication that contributed greatly to the shift in public discourse on algorithms, it would have to be Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction from 2016. It remains a comprehensive, readable, and highly informative insight into how algorithms dictate our finances, our jobs, where we go to school, or if we can get health insurance. Its publication represents a pivotal moment when the general public started to question whether we should be OK with outsourcing decision making to these opaque systems.

The ubiquity of ethical guidelines for AI and algorithms published just in the last year (perhaps most comprehensively by the AI Now Institute) fully demonstrates the shift in public opinion of this decade.

Data Science
Ola Kowalewski | Faculty Fellow, Singularity University, Data Innovation

In the last decade we entered the era of internet and smartphone ubiquity. The number of internet users doubled, with nearly 60 percent of the global population connected online and now over 35 percent of the globe owns a smartphone. With billions of people in a state of constant connectedness and therefore in a state of constant surveillance, the companies that have built the tech infrastructure and information pipelines have dominated the global economy. This shift from tech companies being the underdogs to arguably the world’s major powers sets the landscape we enter for the next decade.

Global Grand Challenges
Darlene Damm | Vice Chair, Faculty, Global Grand Challenges, Singularity University

The biggest breakthrough over the last decade in social impact and technology is that the social impact sector switched from seeing technology as something problematic to avoid, to one of the most effective ways to create social change. We now see people using exponential technologies to solve all sorts of social challenges in areas ranging from disaster response to hunger to shelter.

The world’s leading social organizations, such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme, have launched their own venture funds and accelerators, and the United Nations recently declared that digitization is revolutionizing global development.

Digital Biology
Raymond McCauley | Chair, Digital Biology, Singularity University, Co-Founder & Chief Architect, BioCurious; Principal, Exponential Biosciences

CRISPR is bringing about a revolution in genetic engineering. It’s obvious, and it’s huge. What may not be so obvious is the widespread adoption of genetic testing. And this may have an even longer-lasting effect. It’s used to test new babies, to solve medical mysteries, and to catch serial killers. Thanks to holiday ads from 23andMe and Ancestry.com, it’s everywhere. Testing your DNA is now a common over-the-counter product. People are using it to set their diet, to pick drugs, and even for dating (or at least picking healthy mates).

And we’re just in the early stages. Further down the line, doing large-scale studies on more people, with more data, will lead to the use of polygenic risk scores to help us rank our genetic potential for everything from getting cancer to being a genius. Can you imagine what it would be like for parents to pick new babies, GATTACA-style, to get the smartest kids? You don’t have to; it’s already happening.

Artificial Intelligence
Neil Jacobstein | Chair, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Singularity University

The convergence of exponentially improved computing power, the deep learning algorithm, and access to massive data resulted in a series of AI breakthroughs over the past decade. These included: vastly improved accuracy in identifying images, making self driving cars practical, beating several world champions in Go, and identifying gender, smoking status, and age from retinal fundus photographs.

Combined, these breakthroughs convinced researchers and investors that after 50+ years of research and development, AI was ready for prime-time applications. Now, virtually every field of human endeavor is being revolutionized by machine learning. We still have a long way to go to achieve human-level intelligence and beyond, but the pace of worldwide improvement is blistering.

Hod Lipson | Professor of Engineering and Data Science, Columbia University

The biggest moment in AI in the past decade (and in its entire history, in my humble opinion) was midnight, Pacific time, September 30, 2012: the moment when machines finally opened their eyes. It was the moment when deep learning took off, breaking stagnant decades of machine blindness, when AI couldn’t reliably tell apart even a cat from a dog. That seemingly trivial accomplishment—a task any one-year-old child can do—has had a ripple effect on AI applications from driverless cars to health diagnostics. And this is just the beginning of what is sure to be a Cambrian explosion of AI.

Neuroscience
Divya Chander | Chair, Neuroscience, Singularity University

If the 2000s were the decade of brain mapping, then the 2010s were the decade of brain writing. Optogenetics, a technique for precisely mapping and controlling neurons and neural circuits using genetically-directed light, saw incredible growth in the 2010s.

Also in the last 10 years, neuromodulation, or the ability to rewire the brain using both invasive and non-invasive interfaces and energy, has exploded in use and form. For instance, the Braingate consortium showed us how electrode arrays implanted into the motor cortex could be used by paralyzed people to use their thoughts to direct a robotic arm. These technologies, alone or in combination with robotics, exoskeletons, and flexible, implantable, electronics also make possible a future of human augmentation.

Image Credit: Image by Jorge Guillen from Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436426 Video Friday: This Robot Refuses to Fall ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

Robotic Arena – January 25, 2020 – Wrocław, Poland
DARPA SubT Urban Circuit – February 18-27, 2020 – Olympia, Wash., USA
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

In case you somehow missed the massive Skydio 2 review we posted earlier this week, the first batches of the drone are now shipping. Each drone gets a lot of attention before it goes out the door, and here’s a behind-the-scenes clip of the process.

[ Skydio ]

Sphero RVR is one of the 15 robots on our robot gift guide this year. Here’s a new video Sphero just released showing some of the things you can do with the robot.

[ RVR ]

NimbRo-OP2 has some impressive recovery skills from the obligatory research-motivated robot abuse.

[ NimbRo ]

Teams seeking to qualify for the Virtual Urban Circuit of the Subterranean Challenge can access practice worlds to test their approaches prior to submitting solutions for the competition. This video previews three of the practice environments.

[ DARPA SubT ]

Stretchable skin-like robots that can be rolled up and put in your pocket have been developed by a University of Bristol team using a new way of embedding artificial muscles and electrical adhesion into soft materials.

[ Bristol ]

Happy Holidays from ABB!

Helping New York celebrate the festive season, twelve ABB robots are interacting with visitors to Bloomingdale’s iconic holiday celebration at their 59th Street flagship store. ABB’s robots are the main attraction in three of Bloomingdale’s twelve-holiday window displays at Lexington and Third Avenue, as ABB demonstrates the potential for its robotics and automation technology to revolutionize visual merchandising and make the retail experience more dynamic and whimsical.

[ ABB ]

We introduce pelican eel–inspired dual-morphing architectures that embody quasi-sequential behaviors of origami unfolding and skin stretching in response to fluid pressure. In the proposed system, fluid paths were enclosed and guided by a set of entirely stretchable origami units that imitate the morphing principle of the pelican eel’s stretchable and foldable frames. This geometric and elastomeric design of fluid networks, in which fluid pressure acts in the direction that the whole body deploys first, resulted in a quasi-sequential dual-morphing response. To verify the effectiveness of our design rule, we built an artificial creature mimicking a pelican eel and reproduced biomimetic dual-morphing behavior.

And here’s a real pelican eel:

[ Science Robotics ]

Delft Dynamics’ updated anti-drone system involves a tether, mid-air net gun, and even a parachute.

[ Delft Dynamics ]

Teleoperation is a great way of helping robots with complex tasks, especially if you can do it through motion capture. But what if you’re teleoperating a non-anthropomorphic robot? Columbia’s ROAM Lab is working on it.

[ Paper ] via [ ROAM Lab ]

I don’t know how I missed this video last year because it’s got a steely robot hand squeezing a cute lil’ chick.

[ MotionLib ] via [ RobotStart ]

In this video we present results of a trajectory generation method for autonomous overtaking of unexpected obstacles in a dynamic urban environment. In these settings, blind spots can arise from perception limitations. For example when overtaking unexpected objects on the vehicle’s ego lane on a two-way street. In this case, a human driver would first make sure that the opposite lane is free and that there is enough room to successfully execute the maneuver, and then it would cut into the opposite lane in order to execute the maneuver successfully. We consider the practical problem of autonomous overtaking when the coverage of the perception system is impaired due to occlusion.

[ Paper ]

New weirdness from Toio!

[ Toio ]

Palo Alto City Library won a technology innovation award! Watch to see how Senior Librarian Dan Lou is using Misty to enhance their technology programs to inspire and educate customers.

[ Misty Robotics ]

We consider the problem of reorienting a rigid object with arbitrary known shape on a table using a two-finger pinch gripper. Reorienting problem is challenging because of its non-smoothness and high dimensionality. In this work, we focus on solving reorienting using pivoting, in which we allow the grasped object to rotate between fingers. Pivoting decouples the gripper rotation from the object motion, making it possible to reorient an object under strict robot workspace constraints.

[ CMU ]

How can a mobile robot be a good pedestrian without bumping into you on the sidewalk? It must be hard for a robot to navigate in crowded environments since the flow of traffic follows implied social rules. But researchers from MIT developed an algorithm that teaches mobile robots to maneuver in crowds of people, respecting their natural behaviour.

[ Roboy Research Reviews ]

What happens when humans and robots make art together? In this awe-inspiring talk, artist Sougwen Chung shows how she “taught” her artistic style to a machine — and shares the results of their collaboration after making an unexpected discovery: robots make mistakes, too. “Part of the beauty of human and machine systems is their inherent, shared fallibility,” she says.

[ TED ]

Last month at the Cooper Union in New York City, IEEE TechEthics hosted a public panel session on the facts and misperceptions of autonomous vehicles, part of the IEEE TechEthics Conversations Series. The speakers were: Jason Borenstein from Georgia Tech; Missy Cummings from Duke University; Jack Pokrzywa from SAE; and Heather M. Roff from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The panel was moderated by Mark A. Vasquez, program manager for IEEE TechEthics.

[ IEEE TechEthics ]

Two videos this week from Lex Fridman’s AI podcast: Noam Chomsky, and Whitney Cummings.

[ AI Podcast ]

This week’s CMU RI Seminar comes from Jeff Clune at the University of Wyoming, on “Improving Robot and Deep Reinforcement Learning via Quality Diversity and Open-Ended Algorithms.”

Quality Diversity (QD) algorithms are those that seek to produce a diverse set of high-performing solutions to problems. I will describe them and a number of their positive attributes. I will then summarize our Nature paper on how they, when combined with Bayesian Optimization, produce a learning algorithm that enables robots, after being damaged, to adapt in 1-2 minutes in order to continue performing their mission, yielding state-of-the-art robot damage recovery. I will next describe our QD-based Go-Explore algorithm, which dramatically improves the ability of deep reinforcement learning algorithms to solve previously unsolvable problems wherein reward signals are sparse, meaning that intelligent exploration is required. Go-Explore solves Montezuma’s Revenge, considered by many to be a major AI research challenge. Finally, I will motivate research into open-ended algorithms, which seek to innovate endlessly, and introduce our POET algorithm, which generates its own training challenges while learning to solve them, automatically creating a curricula for robots to learn an expanding set of diverse skills. POET creates and solves challenges that are unsolvable with traditional deep reinforcement learning techniques.

[ CMU RI ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436263 Skydio 2 Review: This Is the Drone You ...

Let me begin this review by saying that the Skydio 2 is one of the most impressive robots that I have ever seen. Over the last decade, I’ve spent enough time around robots to have a very good sense of what kinds of things are particularly challenging for them, and to set my expectations accordingly. Those expectations include things like “unstructured environments are basically impossible” and “full autonomy is impractically expensive” and “robot videos rarely reflect reality.”

Skydio’s newest drone is an exception to all of this. It’s able to fly autonomously at speed through complex environments in challenging real-world conditions in a way that’s completely effortless and stress-free for the end user, allowing you to capture the kind of video that would be otherwise impossible, even (I’m guessing) for professional drone pilots. When you see this technology in action, it’s (almost) indistinguishable from magic.

Skydio 2 Price
To be clear, the Skydio 2 is not without compromises, and the price of $999 (on pre-order with delivery of the next batch expected in spring of 2020) requires some justification. But the week I’ve had with this drone has left me feeling like its fundamental autonomous capability is so far beyond just about anything that I’ve ever experienced that I’m questioning why I would every fly anything else ever again.

We’ve written extensively about Skydio, beginning in early 2016 when the company posted a video of a prototype drone dodging trees while following a dude on a bike. Even three years ago, Skydio’s tech was way better than anything we’d seen outside of a research lab, and in early 2018, they introduced their first consumer product, the Skydio R1. A little over a year later, Skydio has introduced the Skydio 2, which is smaller, smarter, and much more affordable. Here’s an overview video just to get you caught up:

Skydio sent me a Skydio 2 review unit last week, and while I’m reasonably experienced with drones in general, this is the first time I’ve tried a Skydio drone in person. I had a pretty good idea what to expect, and I was absolutely blown away. Like, I was giggling to myself while running through the woods as the drone zoomed around, deftly avoiding trees and keeping me in sight. Robots aren’t supposed to be this good.

A week is really not enough time to explore everything that the Skydio can do, especially Thanksgiving week in Washington, D.C. (a no-fly zone) in early winter. But I found a nearby state park in which I could legally and safely fly the drone, and I did my best to put the Skydio 2 through its paces.

Note: Throughout this review, we’ve got a bunch of GIFs to help illustrate different features of the drone. To fit them all in, these GIFs had to be heavily compressed. Underneath each GIF is a timestamped link to this YouTube video (also available at the bottom of the post), which you can click on to see the an extended cut of the original 4K 30 fps footage. And there’s a bunch of interesting extra video in there as well.

Skydio 2 Specs

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 is primarily made out of magnesium, which (while light) is both heavier and more rigid and durable than plastic. The offset props (the back pair are above the body, and the front pair are below) are necessary to maintain the field of view of the navigation cameras.

The Skydio 2 both looks and feels like a well-designed and carefully thought-out drone. It’s solid, and a little on the heavy side as far as drones go—it’s primarily made out of magnesium, which (while light) is both heavier and more rigid and durable than plastic. The blue and black color scheme is far more attractive than you typically see with drones.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

To detect and avoid obstacles, the Skydio 2 uses an array of six 4K hemispherical cameras that feed data into an NVIDIA Jetson TX2 at 30 fps, with the drone processing a million points in 3D space per second to plan the safest path.

The Skydio 2 is built around an array of six hemispherical obstacle-avoidance cameras and the NVIDIA Jetson TX2 computing module that they’re connected to. This defines the placement of the gimbal, the motors and props, and the battery, since all of this stuff has to be as much as possible out of the view of the cameras in order for the drone to effectively avoid obstacles in any direction.

Without the bottom-mounted battery attached, the drone is quite flat. The offset props (the back pair are above the body, and the front pair are below) are necessary to maintain the field of view of the obstacle-avoidance cameras. These hemispherical cameras are on the end of each of the prop arms as well as above and below the body of the drone. They look awfully exposed, even though each is protected from ground contact by a little fin. You need to make sure these cameras are clean and smudge-free, and Skydio includes a cleaning cloth for this purpose. Underneath the drone there are slots for microSD cards, one for recording from the camera and a second one that the drone uses to store data. The attention to detail extends to the SD card insertion, which has a sloped channel that guides the card securely into its slot.

Once you snap the battery in, the drone goes from looking streamlined to looking a little chubby. Relative to other drones, the battery almost seems like an afterthought, like Skydio designed the drone and then remembered, “oops we have to add a battery somewhere, let’s just kludge it onto the bottom.” But again, the reason for this is to leave room inside the body for the NVIDIA TX2, while making sure that the battery stays out of view of the obstacle avoidance cameras.

The magnetic latching system for the battery is both solid and satisfying. I’m not sure why it’s necessary, strictly speaking, but I do like it, and it doesn’t seem like the battery will fly off even during the most aggressive maneuvers. Each battery includes an LED array that will display its charge level in 25 percent increments, as well as a button that you push to turn the drone on and off. Charging takes place via a USB-C port in the top of the drone, which I don’t like, because it means that the batteries can’t be charged on their own (like the Parrot Anafi’s battery), and that you can’t charge one battery while flying with another, like basically every other drone ever. A separate battery charger that will charge two at once is available from Skydio for an eyebrow-raising $129.

I appreciate that all of Skydio’s stuff (batteries, controller, and beacon) charges via USB-C, though. The included USB-C adapter with its beefy cable will output at up to 65 watts, which’ll charge a mostly depleted battery in under an hour. The drone turns itself on while charging, which seems unnecessary.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 is not foldable, making it not nearly as easy to transport as some other drones. But it does come with a nice case that mitigates this issue somewhat, and the drone plus two batteries end up as a passably flat package about the size of a laptop case.

The most obvious compromise that Skydio made with the Skydio 2 is that the drone is not foldable. Skydio CEO Adam Bry told us that adding folding joints to the arms of the Skydio 2 would have made calibrating all six cameras a nightmare and significantly impacted performance. This makes complete sense, of course, but it does mean that the Skydio 2 is not nearly as easy to transport as some other drones.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Folded and unfolded: The Skydio 2 compared to the Parrot Anafi (upper left) and the DJI Mavic Pro (upper right).

The Skydio 2 does come with a very nice case that mitigates this issue somewhat, and the drone plus two batteries end up as a passably flat package about the size of a laptop case. Still, it’s just not as convenient to toss into a backpack as my Anafi, although the Mavic Mini might be even more portable.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

While the Skydio 2’s case is relatively compact, the non-foldable drone is overall a significantly larger package than the Parrot Anafi.

The design of the drone leads to some other compromises as well. Since landing gear would, I assume, occlude the camera system, the drone lands directly on the bottom of its battery pack, which has a slightly rubberized pad about the size of a playing card. This does’t feel particularly stable unless you end up on a very flat surface, and made me concerned for the exposed cameras underneath the drone as well as the lower set of props. I’d recommend hand takeoffs and landings—more on those later.

Skydio 2 Camera System

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2’s primary camera is a Sony IMX577 1/2.3″ 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. It’s mounted to a three-axis gimbal and records 4K video at 60 fps, or 1080p video at 120 fps.

The Skydio 2 comes with a three-axis gimbal supporting a 12-megapixel camera, just enough to record 4K video at 60 fps, or 1080p video at 120 fps. Skydio has provided plenty of evidence that its imaging system is at least as good if not better than other drone cameras. Tested against my Mavic Pro and Parrot Anafi, I found no reason to doubt that. To be clear, I didn’t do exhaustive pixel-peeping comparisons between them, you’re just getting my subjective opinion that the Skydio 2 has a totally decent camera that you won’t be disappointed with. I will say that I found the HDR photo function to be not all that great under the few situations in which I tested it—after looking at a few muddy sunset shots, I turned it off and was much happier.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2’s 12-megapixel camera is solid, although we weren’t impressed with the HDR option.

The video stabilization is fantastic, to the point where watching the video footage can be underwhelming because it doesn’t reflect the motion of the drone. I almost wish there was a way to change to unstabilized (or less-stabilized) video so that the viewer could get a little more of a wild ride. Or, ideally, there’d be a way for the drone to provide you with a visualization of what it was doing using the data collected by its cameras. That’s probably wishful thinking, though. The drone itself doesn’t record audio because all you’d get would be an annoying buzz, but the app does record audio, so the audio from your phone gets combined with the drone video. Don’t expect great quality, but it’s better than nothing.

Skydio 2 App
The app is very simple compared to every other drone app I’ve tried, and that’s a good thing. Here’s what it looks like:

Image: Skydio

Trackable subjects get a blue “+” sign over them, and if you tap them, the “+” turns into a spinny blue circle. Once you’ve got a subject selected, you can choose from a variety of cinematic skills that the drone will execute while following you.

You get the controls that you need and the information that you need, and nothing else. Manual flight with the on-screen buttons works adequately, and the double-tap to fly function on the phone works surprisingly well, making it easy to direct the drone to a particular spot above the ground.

The settings menus are limited but functional, allowing you to change settings for the camera and a few basic tweaks for controlling the drone. One unique setting to the Skydio 2 is the height floor—since the drone only avoids static obstacles, you can set it to maintain a height of at least 8 feet above the ground while flying autonomously to make sure that if you’re flying around other people, it won’t run into anyone who isn’t absurdly tall and therefore asking for it.

Trackable subjects get a blue “+” sign over them in the app, and if you tap them, the “+” turns into a spinny blue circle. Once you’ve got a subject selected, you can choose from a variety of cinematic skills that the drone will execute while following you, and in addition, you can select “one-shot” skills that involve the drone performing a specific maneuver before returning to the previously selected cinematic skill. For example, you can tell the drone to orbit around you, and then do a “rocket” one-shot where it’ll fly straight up above you (recording the whole time, of course), before returning to its orbiting.

After you’re done flying, you can scroll through your videos and easily clip out excerpts from them and save them to your phone for sharing. Again, it’s a fairly simple interface without a lot of options. You could call it limited, I guess, but I appreciate that it just does a few things that you care about and otherwise doesn’t clutter itself up.

The real limitation of the app is that it uses Wi-Fi to connect to the Skydio 2, which restricts the range. To fly much beyond a hundred meters or so, you’ll need to use the controller or beacon instead.

Skydio 2 Controller and Beacon

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

While the Skydio 2 controller provides a better hands-on flight experience than with the phone, plus an extended range of up to 3.5 km, more experienced pilots may find manual control a bit frustrating, because the underlying autonomy will supersede your maneuvers when you start getting close to objects.

I was looking forward to using the controller, because with every other drone I’ve had, the precision that a physically controller provides is, I find, mandatory for a good flying experience and to get the photos and videos that you want. With Skydio 2, that’s all out the window. It’s not that the controller is useless or anything, it’s just that because the drone tracks you and avoids obstacles on its own, that level of control precision becomes largely unnecessary.

The controller itself is perfectly fine. It’s a rebranded Parrot Skycontroller3, which is the same as the one that you get with a Parrot Anafi. It’s too bad that the sticks don’t unscrew to make it a little more portable, and overall it’s functional rather than fancy, but it feels good to use and includes a sizeable antenna that makes a significant difference to the range that you get (up to 3.5 kilometers).

You definitely get a better hands-on flight experience with the controller than with the phone, so if you want to (say) zip the drone around some big open space for fun, it’s good for that. And it’s nice to be able to hand the controller to someone who’s never flown a drone before and let them take it for a spin without freaking out about them crashing it the whole time. For more experienced pilots, though, the controller is ultimately just a bit frustrating, because the underlying autonomy will supersede your control when you start getting close to objects, which (again) limits how useful the controller is relative to your phone.

I do still prefer the controller over the phone, but I’m not sure that it’s worth the extra $150, unless you plan to fly the Skydio 2 at very long distances or primarily in manual mode. And honestly, if either of those two things are your top priority, the Skydio 2 is probably not the drone for you.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 beacon uses GPS tracking to help the drone follow you, extending range up to 1.5 km. You can also fly the with the beacon alone, no phone necessary.

The purpose of the beacon, according to Skydio, is to give the drone a way of tracking you if it can’t see you, which can happen, albeit infrequently. My initial impression of the beacon was that it was primarily useful as a range-extending bridge between my phone and the drone. But I accidentally left my phone at home one day (oops) and had to fly the drone with only the beacon, and it was a surprisingly decent experience. The beacon allows for full manual control of a sort—you can tap different buttons to rotate, fly forward, and ascend or descend. This is sufficient for takeoff, landing, to make sure that the drone is looking at you when you engage visual tracking, and to rescue it if it gets trapped somewhere.

The rest of the beacon’s control functions are centered around a few different tracking modes, and with these, it works just about as well as your phone. You have fewer options overall, but all the basic stuff is there with just a few intuitive button clicks, including tracking range and angle. If you’re willing to deal with this relatively minor compromise, it’s nice to not have your phone available for other things rather than being monopolized by the drone.

Skydio 2 In Flight

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Hand takeoffs are simple and reliable.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

Starting up the Skydio 2 doesn’t require any kind of unusual calibration steps or anything like that. It prefers to be kept still, but you can start it up while holding it, it’ll just take a few seconds longer to tell you that it’s ready to go. While the drone will launch from any flat surface with significant clearance around it (it’ll tell you if it needs more room), the small footprint of the battery means that I was more comfortable hand launching it. This is not a “throw” launch; you just let the drone rest on your palm, tell it to take off, and then stay still while it gets its motors going and then gently lifts off. The lift off is so gentle that you have to be careful not to pull your hand away too soon—I did that once and the drone, being not quite ready, dropped towards the ground, but managed to recover without much drama.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Hand landings always look scary, but the Skydio 2 is incredibly gentle. After trying this once, it became the only way I ever landed the drone.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

Catching the drone for landing is perhaps very slightly more dangerous, but not any more difficult. You put the drone above and in front of you facing away, tell it to land in the app or with the beacon, and then put your hand underneath it to grasp it as it slowly descends. It settles delicately and promptly turns itself off. Every drone should land this way. The battery pack provides a good place to grip, although you do have to be mindful of the forward set of props, which (since they’re the pair that are beneath the body of drone) are quite close to your fingers. You’ll certainly be mindful after you catch a blade with your fingers once. Which I did. For the purposes of this review and totally not by accident. No damage, for the record.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

You won’t be disappointed with the Skydio 2’s in-flight performance, unless you’re looking for a dedicated racing drone.

In normal flight, the Skydio 2 performs as well as you’d expect. It’s stable and manages light to moderate wind without any problems, although I did notice some occasional lateral drifting when the drone should have been in a stationary hover. While the controller gains are adjustable, the Skydio 2 isn’t quite as aggressive in flight as my Mavic Pro on Sport Mode, but again, if you’re looking for a high-speed drone, that’s really not what the Skydio is all about.

The Skydio 2 is substantially louder than my Anafi, although the Anafi is notably quiet for a drone. It’s not annoying to hear (not a high-pitched whine), but you can hear it from a ways away, and farther away than my Mavic Pro. I’m not sure whether that’s because of the absolute volume or the volume plus the pitch. In some ways, this is a feature, since you can hear the drone following you even if you’re not looking at it, you just need to be aware of the noise it makes when you’re flying it around people.

Obstacle Avoidance
The primary reason Skydio 2 is the drone that you want to fly is because of its autonomous subject tracking and obstacle avoidance. Skydio’s PR videos make this capability look almost too good, and since I hadn’t tried out one of their drones before, the first thing I did with it was exactly what you’d expect: attempt to fly it directly into the nearest tree.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 deftly slides around trees and branches. The control inputs here were simple “forward” or “turn,” all obstacle avoidance is autonomous.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

And it just won’t do it. It slows down a bit, and then slides right around one tree after another, going over and under and around branches. I pointed the drone into a forest and just held down “forward” and away it went, without any fuss, effortlessly ducking and weaving its way around. Of course, it wasn’t effortless at all—six 4K cameras were feeding data into the NVIDIA TX2 at 30 fps, and the drone was processing a million points in 3D space per second to plan the safest path while simultaneously taking into account where I wanted it to go. I spent about 10 more minutes doing my level best to crash the drone into anything at all using a flying technique probably best described as “reckless,” but the drone was utterly unfazed. It’s incredible.

What knocked my socks off was telling the drone to pass through treetops—in the clip below, I’m just telling the drone to fly straight down. Watch as it weaves its way through gaps between the branches:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The result of parking the Skydio 2 above some trees and holding “down” on the controller is this impressive fully autonomous descent through the branches.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

Here’s one more example, where I sent the drone across a lake and started poking around in a tree. Sometimes the Skydio 2 isn’t sure where you want it to go, and you have to give it a little bit of a nudge in a clear direction, but that’s it.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

In obstacle-heavy environments, the Skydio 2 prudently slows down, but it can pick its way through almost anything that it can see.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

It’s important to keep in mind that all of the Skydio 2’s intelligence is based on vision. It uses cameras to see the world, which means that it has similar challenges as your eyes do. Specifically, Skydio warns against flying in the following conditions:

Skydio 2 can’t see certain visually challenging obstacles. Do not fly around thin branches, telephone or power lines, ropes, netting, wires, chain link fencing or other objects less than ½ inch in diameter.
Do not fly around transparent surfaces like windows or reflective surfaces like mirrors greater than 60 cm wide.
When the sun is low on the horizon, it can temporarily blind Skydio 2’s cameras depending on the angle of flight. Your drone may be cautious or jerky when flying directly toward the sun.

Basically, if you’d have trouble seeing a thing, or seeing under some specific flight conditions, then the Skydio 2 almost certainly will also. It gets even more problematic when challenging obstacles are combined with challenging flight conditions, which is what I’m pretty sure led to the only near-crash I had with the drone. Here’s a video:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Flying around very thin branches and into the sun can cause problems for the Skydio 2’s obstacle avoidance.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

I had the Skydio 2 set to follow me on my bike (more about following and tracking in a bit). It was mid afternoon, but since it’s late fall here in Washington, D.C., the sun doesn’t get much higher than 30 degrees above the horizon. Late fall also means that most of the deciduous trees have lost their leaves, and so there are a bunch of skinny branches all over the place. The drone was doing a pretty good job of following me along the road at a relatively slow speed, and then it clipped the branch that you can just barely see in the video above. It recovered in an acrobatic maneuver that has been mostly video-stabilized out, and resumed tracking me before I freaked and told it to land. You can see another example here, where the drone (again) clips a branch that has the sun behind it, and this clip shows me stopping my bike before the drone runs into another branch in a similar orientation. As the video shows, it’s very hard to see the branches until it’s too late.

As far as I can tell, the drone is no worse for wear from any of this, apart from a small nick in one of the props. But, this is a good illustration of a problematic situation for the Skydio 2: flying into a low sun angle around small bare branches. Should I not have been flying the drone in this situation? It’s hard to say. These probably qualify as “thin branches,” although there was plenty of room along with middle of the road. There is an open question with the Skydio 2 as to exactly how much responsibility the user should have about when and where it’s safe to fly—for branches, how thin is too thin? How low can the sun be? What if the branches are only kinda thin and the sun is only kinda low, but it’s also a little windy? Better to be safe than sorry, of course, but there’s really no way for the user (or the drone) to know what it can’t handle until it can’t handle it.

Edge cases like these aside, the obstacle avoidance just works. Even if you’re not deliberately trying to fly into branches, it’s keeping a lookout for you all the time, which means that flying the drone goes from somewhat stressful to just pure fun. I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is to be able to fly without worrying about running into things, and how great it feels to be able to hand the controller to someone who’s never flown a drone before and say, with complete confidence, “go ahead, fly it around!”

Skydio 2 vs. DJI Mavic

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Both the Skydio 2 and many models of DJI’s Mavic use visual obstacle avoidance, but the Skydio 2 is so much more advanced that you can’t really compare the two systems.

It’s important to note that there’s a huge difference between the sort of obstacle avoidance that you get with a DJI Mavic, and the sort of obstacle avoidance that you get with the Skydio 2. The objective of the Mavic’s obstacle avoidance is really there to prevent you from accidentally running into things, and in that capacity, it usually works. But there are two things to keep in mind here—first, not running into things is not the same as avoiding things, because avoiding things means planning several steps ahead, not just one step.

Second, there’s the fact that the Mavic’s obstacle detection only works most of the time. Fundamentally, I don’t trust my Mavic Pro, because sometimes the safety system doesn’t kick in for whatever reason and the drone ends up alarmingly close to something. And that’s actually fine, because with the Mavic, I expect to be piloting it. It’s for this same reason that I don’t care that my Parrot Anafi doesn’t have obstacle avoidance at all: I’m piloting it anyway, and I’m a careful pilot, so it just doesn’t matter. The Skydio 2 is totally and completely different. It’s in a class by itself, and you can’t compare what it can do to what anything else out there right now. Period.

Skydio 2 Tracking
Skydio’s big selling point on the Skydio 2 is that it’ll autonomously track you while avoiding obstacles. It does this visually, by watching where you go, predicting your future motion, and then planning its own motion to keep you in frame. The works better than you might expect, in that it’s really very good at not losing you. Obviously, the drone prioritizes not running into stuff over tracking you, which means that it may not always be where you feel like it should be. It’s probably trying to get there, but in obstacle dense environments, it can take some creative paths.

Having said that, I found it to be very consistent with keeping me in the frame, and I only managed to lose it when changing direction while fully occluded by an obstacle, or while it was executing an avoidance maneuver that was more dynamic than normal. If you deliberately try to hide from the drone it’s not that hard to do so if there are enough obstacles around, but I didn’t find the tracking to be something that I had to worry about it most cases. When tracking does fail and you’re not using the beacon, the drone will come to a hover. It won’t try and find you, but it will reacquire you if you get back into its field of view.

The Skydio 2 had no problem tracking me running through fairly dense trees:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 had no problem chasing me around through these trees, even while I was asking it to continually change its tracking angle.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

It also managed to keep up with me as I rode my bike along a tree-lined road:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 is easily fast enough to keep up with me on a bike, even while avoiding tree branches.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

It lost me when I asked it to follow very close behind me as I wove through some particularly branch-y trees, but it fails more or less gracefully by just sort of nope-ing out of situations when they start to get bad and coming to a hover somewhere safe.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 knows better than to put itself into situations that it can’t handle, and will bail to a safe spot if things get too complicated.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

After a few days of playing with the drone, I started to get to the point where I could set it to track me and then just forget about it while I rode my bike or whatever, as opposed to constantly turning around to make sure it was still behind me, which is what I was doing initially. It’s a level of trust that I don’t think would be possible with any other drone.

Should You Buy a Skydio 2?

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

We think the Skydio 2 is fun and relaxing to fly, with unique autonomous intelligence that makes it worth the cost.

In case I haven’t said it often enough in this review, the Skydio 2 is an incredible piece of technology. As far as I know (as a robotics journalist, mind you), this represents the state of the art in commercial drone autonomy, and quite possibly the state of the art in drone autonomy, period. And it’s available for $999, which is expensive, but less money than a Mavic Pro 2. If you’re interested in a new drone, you should absolutely consider the Skydio 2.

There are some things to keep in mind—battery life is a solid but not stellar 20 minutes. Extra batteries are expensive at $99 each (the base kit includes just one). The controller and the beacon are also expensive, at $150 each. And while I think the Skydio 2 is definitely the drone you want to fly, it may not be the drone you want to travel with, since it’s bulky compared to other options.

But there’s no denying the fact that the experience is uniquely magical. Once you’ve flown the Skydio 2, you won’t want to fly anything else. This drone makes it possible to get pictures and videos that would be otherwise impossible, and you can do it completely on your own. You can trust the drone to do what it promises, as long as you’re mindful of some basic and common sense safety guidelines. And we’ve been told that the drone is only going to get smarter and more capable over time.

If you buy a Skydio 2, it comes with the following warranty from Skydio:

“If you’re operating your Skydio 2 within our Safe Flight guidelines, and it crashes, we’ll repair or replace it for free.”

Skydio trusts their drone to go out into a chaotic and unstructured world and dodge just about anything that comes its way. And after a week with this drone, I can see how they’re able to offer this kind of guarantee. This is the kind of autonomy that robots have been promising for years, and the Skydio 2 makes it real.

Detailed technical specifications are available on Skydio’s website, and if you have any questions, post a comment—we’ve got this drone for a little while longer, and I’d be happy to try out (nearly) anything with it.

Skydio 2 Review Video Highlights
This video is about 7 minutes of 4K, 30 fps footage directly from the Skydio 2. The only editing I did was cutting clips together, no stabilization or color correcting or anything like that. The drone will record in 4K 60 fps, so it gets smoother than this, but I, er, forgot to change the setting.

[ Skydio ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436258 For Centuries, People Dreamed of a ...

This is part six of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing.

In February of this year, OpenAI, one of the foremost artificial intelligence labs in the world, announced that a team of researchers had built a powerful new text generator called the Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 2, or GPT-2 for short. The researchers used a reinforcement learning algorithm to train their system on a broad set of natural language processing (NLP) capabilities, including reading comprehension, machine translation, and the ability to generate long strings of coherent text.

But as is often the case with NLP technology, the tool held both great promise and great peril. Researchers and policy makers at the lab were concerned that their system, if widely released, could be exploited by bad actors and misappropriated for “malicious purposes.”

The people of OpenAI, which defines its mission as “discovering and enacting the path to safe artificial general intelligence,” were concerned that GPT-2 could be used to flood the Internet with fake text, thereby degrading an already fragile information ecosystem. For this reason, OpenAI decided that it would not release the full version of GPT-2 to the public or other researchers.

GPT-2 is an example of a technique in NLP called language modeling, whereby the computational system internalizes a statistical blueprint of a text so it’s able to mimic it. Just like the predictive text on your phone—which selects words based on words you’ve used before—GPT-2 can look at a string of text and then predict what the next word is likely to be based on the probabilities inherent in that text.

GPT-2 can be seen as a descendant of the statistical language modeling that the Russian mathematician A. A. Markov developed in the early 20th century (covered in part three of this series).

GPT-2 used cutting-edge machine learning algorithms to do linguistic analysis with over 1.5 million parameters.

What’s different with GPT-2, though, is the scale of the textual data modeled by the system. Whereas Markov analyzed a string of 20,000 letters to create a rudimentary model that could predict the likelihood of the next letter of a text being a consonant or a vowel, GPT-2 used 8 million articles scraped from Reddit to predict what the next word might be within that entire dataset.

And whereas Markov manually trained his model by counting only two parameters—vowels and consonants—GPT-2 used cutting-edge machine learning algorithms to do linguistic analysis with over 1.5 million parameters, burning through huge amounts of computational power in the process.

The results were impressive. In their blog post, OpenAI reported that GPT-2 could generate synthetic text in response to prompts, mimicking whatever style of text it was shown. If you prompt the system with a line of William Blake’s poetry, it can generate a line back in the Romantic poet’s style. If you prompt the system with a cake recipe, you get a newly invented recipe in response.

Perhaps the most compelling feature of GPT-2 is that it can answer questions accurately. For example, when OpenAI researchers asked the system, “Who wrote the book The Origin of Species?”—it responded: “Charles Darwin.” While only able to respond accurately some of the time, the feature does seem to be a limited realization of Gottfried Leibniz’s dream of a language-generating machine that could answer any and all human questions (described in part two of this series).

After observing the power of the new system in practice, OpenAI elected not to release the fully trained model. In the lead up to its release in February, there had been heightened awareness about “deepfakes”—synthetic images and videos, generated via machine learning techniques, in which people do and say things they haven’t really done and said. Researchers at OpenAI worried that GPT-2 could be used to essentially create deepfake text, making it harder for people to trust textual information online.

Responses to this decision varied. On one hand, OpenAI’s caution prompted an overblown reaction in the media, with articles about the “dangerous” technology feeding into the Frankenstein narrative that often surrounds developments in AI.

Others took issue with OpenAI’s self-promotion, with some even suggesting that OpenAI purposefully exaggerated GPT-2s power in order to create hype—while contravening a norm in the AI research community, where labs routinely share data, code, and pre-trained models. As machine learning researcher Zachary Lipton tweeted, “Perhaps what's *most remarkable* about the @OpenAI controversy is how *unremarkable* the technology is. Despite their outsize attention & budget, the research itself is perfectly ordinary—right in the main branch of deep learning NLP research.”

OpenAI stood by its decision to release only a limited version of GPT-2, but has since released larger models for other researchers and the public to experiment with. As yet, there has been no reported case of a widely distributed fake news article generated by the system. But there have been a number of interesting spin-off projects, including GPT-2 poetry and a webpage where you can prompt the system with questions yourself.

Mimicking humans on Reddit, the bots have long conversations about a variety of topics, including conspiracy theories and
Star Wars movies.

There’s even a Reddit group populated entirely with text produced by GPT-2-powered bots. Mimicking humans on Reddit, the bots have long conversations about a variety of topics, including conspiracy theories and Star Wars movies.

This bot-powered conversation may signify the new condition of life online, where language is increasingly created by a combination of human and non-human agents, and where maintaining the distinction between human and non-human, despite our best efforts, is increasingly difficult.

The idea of using rules, mechanisms, and algorithms to generate language has inspired people in many different cultures throughout history. But it’s in the online world that this powerful form of wordcraft may really find its natural milieu—in an environment where the identity of speakers becomes more ambiguous, and perhaps, less relevant. It remains to be seen what the consequences will be for language, communication, and our sense of human identity, which is so bound up with our ability to speak in natural language.

This is the sixth installment of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing. Last week’s post explained how an innocent Microsoft chatbot turned instantly racist on Twitter.

You can also check out our prior series on the untold history of AI. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots