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Move over, deep learning. Neuromorphic computing—the next big thing in artificial intelligence—is on fire.
Just last week, two studies individually unveiled computer chips modeled after information processing in the human brain.
The first, published in Nature Materials, found a perfect solution to deal with unpredictability at synapses—the gap between two neurons that transmit and store information. The second, published in Science Advances, further amped up the system’s computational power, filling synapses with nanoclusters of supermagnetic material to bolster information encoding.
The result? Brain-like hardware systems that compute faster—and more efficiently—than the human brain.
“Ultimately we want a chip as big as a fingernail to replace one big supercomputer,” said Dr. Jeehwan Kim, who led the first study at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Experts are hopeful.
“The field’s full of hype, and it’s nice to see quality work presented in an objective way,” said Dr. Carver Mead, an engineer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena not involved in the work.
Software to Hardware
The human brain is the ultimate computational wizard. With roughly 100 billion neurons densely packed into the size of a small football, the brain can deftly handle complex computation at lightning speed using very little energy.
AI experts have taken note. The past few years saw brain-inspired algorithms that can identify faces, falsify voices, and play a variety of games at—and often above—human capability.
But software is only part of the equation. Our current computers, with their transistors and binary digital systems, aren’t equipped to run these powerful algorithms.
That’s where neuromorphic computing comes in. The idea is simple: fabricate a computer chip that mimics the brain at the hardware level. Here, data is both processed and stored within the chip in an analog manner. Each artificial synapse can accumulate and integrate small bits of information from multiple sources and fire only when it reaches a threshold—much like its biological counterpart.
Experts believe the speed and efficiency gains will be enormous.
For one, the chips will no longer have to transfer data between the central processing unit (CPU) and storage blocks, which wastes both time and energy. For another, like biological neural networks, neuromorphic devices can support neurons that run millions of streams of parallel computation.
Optimism aside, reproducing the biological synapse in hardware form hasn’t been as easy as anticipated.
Neuromorphic chips exist in many forms, but often look like a nanoscale metal sandwich. The “bread” pieces are generally made of conductive plates surrounding a switching medium—a conductive material of sorts that acts like the gap in a biological synapse.
When a voltage is applied, as in the case of data input, ions move within the switching medium, which then creates conductive streams to stimulate the downstream plate. This change in conductivity mimics the way biological neurons change their “weight,” or the strength of connectivity between two adjacent neurons.
But so far, neuromorphic synapses have been rather unpredictable. According to Kim, that’s because the switching medium is often comprised of material that can’t channel ions to exact locations on the downstream plate.
“Once you apply some voltage to represent some data with your artificial neuron, you have to erase and be able to write it again in the exact same way,” explains Kim. “But in an amorphous solid, when you write again, the ions go in different directions because there are lots of defects.”
In his new study, Kim and colleagues swapped the jelly-like switching medium for silicon, a material with only a single line of defects that acts like a channel to guide ions.
The chip starts with a thin wafer of silicon etched with a honeycomb-like pattern. On top is a layer of silicon germanium—something often present in transistors—in the same pattern. This creates a funnel-like dislocation, a kind of Grand Canal that perfectly shuttles ions across the artificial synapse.
The researchers then made a neuromorphic chip containing these synapses and shot an electrical zap through them. Incredibly, the synapses’ response varied by only four percent—much higher than any neuromorphic device made with an amorphous switching medium.
In a computer simulation, the team built a multi-layer artificial neural network using parameters measured from their device. After tens of thousands of training examples, their neural network correctly recognized samples 95 percent of the time, just 2 percent lower than state-of-the-art software algorithms.
The upside? The neuromorphic chip requires much less space than the hardware that runs deep learning algorithms. Forget supercomputers—these chips could one day run complex computations right on our handheld devices.
A Magnetic Boost
Meanwhile, in Boulder, Colorado, Dr. Michael Schneider at the National Institute of Standards and Technology also realized that the standard switching medium had to go.
“There must be a better way to do this, because nature has figured out a better way to do this,” he says.
His solution? Nanoclusters of magnetic manganese.
Schneider’s chip contained two slices of superconducting electrodes made out of niobium, which channel electricity with no resistance. When researchers applied different magnetic fields to the synapse, they could control the alignment of the manganese “filling.”
The switch gave the chip a double boost. For one, by aligning the switching medium, the team could predict the ion flow and boost uniformity. For another, the magnetic manganese itself adds computational power. The chip can now encode data in both the level of electrical input and the direction of the magnetisms without bulking up the synapse.
It seriously worked. At one billion times per second, the chips fired several orders of magnitude faster than human neurons. Plus, the chips required just one ten-thousandth of the energy used by their biological counterparts, all the while synthesizing input from nine different sources in an analog manner.
The Road Ahead
These studies show that we may be nearing a benchmark where artificial synapses match—or even outperform—their human inspiration.
But to Dr. Steven Furber, an expert in neuromorphic computing, we still have a ways before the chips go mainstream.
Many of the special materials used in these chips require specific temperatures, he says. Magnetic manganese chips, for example, require temperatures around absolute zero to operate, meaning they come with the need for giant cooling tanks filled with liquid helium—obviously not practical for everyday use.
Another is scalability. Millions of synapses are necessary before a neuromorphic device can be used to tackle everyday problems such as facial recognition. So far, no deal.
But these problems may in fact be a driving force for the entire field. Intense competition could push teams into exploring different ideas and solutions to similar problems, much like these two studies.
If so, future chips may come in diverse flavors. Similar to our vast array of deep learning algorithms and operating systems, the computer chips of the future may also vary depending on specific requirements and needs.
It is worth developing as many different technological approaches as possible, says Furber, especially as neuroscientists increasingly understand what makes our biological synapses—the ultimate inspiration—so amazingly efficient.
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I don’t have to open the doors of AImotive’s white 2015 Prius to see that it’s not your average car. This particular Prius has been christened El Capitan, the name written below the rear doors, and two small cameras are mounted on top of the car. Bundles of wire snake out from them, as well as from the two additional cameras on the car’s hood and trunk.
Inside is where things really get interesting, though. The trunk holds a computer the size of a microwave, and a large monitor covers the passenger glove compartment and dashboard. The center console has three switches labeled “Allowed,” “Error,” and “Active.”
Budapest-based AImotive is working to provide scalable self-driving technology alongside big players like Waymo and Uber in the autonomous vehicle world. On a highway test ride with CEO Laszlo Kishonti near the company’s office in Mountain View, California, I got a glimpse of just how complex that world is.
Camera-Based Feedback System
AImotive’s approach to autonomous driving is a little different from that of some of the best-known systems. For starters, they’re using cameras, not lidar, as primary sensors. “The traffic system is visual and the cost of cameras is low,” Kishonti said. “A lidar can recognize when there are people near the car, but a camera can differentiate between, say, an elderly person and a child. Lidar’s resolution isn’t high enough to recognize the subtle differences of urban driving.”
Image Credit: AImotive
The company’s aiDrive software uses data from the camera sensors to feed information to its algorithms for hierarchical decision-making, grouped under four concurrent activities: recognition, location, motion, and control.
Kishonti pointed out that lidar has already gotten more cost-efficient, and will only continue to do so.
“Ten years ago, lidar was best because there wasn’t enough processing power to do all the calculations by AI. But the cost of running AI is decreasing,” he said. “In our approach, computer vision and AI processing are key, and for safety, we’ll have fallback sensors like radar or lidar.”
aiDrive currently runs on Nvidia chips, which Kishonti noted were originally designed for graphics, and are not terribly efficient given how power-hungry they are. “We’re planning to substitute lower-cost, lower-energy chips in the next six months,” he said.
Testing in Virtual Reality
Waymo recently announced its fleet has now driven four million miles autonomously. That’s a lot of miles, and hard to compete with. But AImotive isn’t trying to compete, at least not by logging more real-life test miles. Instead, the company is doing 90 percent of its testing in virtual reality. “This is what truly differentiates us from competitors,” Kishonti said.
He outlined the three main benefits of VR testing: it can simulate scenarios too dangerous for the real world (such as hitting something), too costly (not every company has Waymo’s funds to run hundreds of cars on real roads), or too time-consuming (like waiting for rain, snow, or other weather conditions to occur naturally and repeatedly).
“Real-world traffic testing is very skewed towards the boring miles,” he said. “What we want to do is test all the cases that are hard to solve.”
On a screen that looked not unlike multiple games of Mario Kart, he showed me the simulator. Cartoon cars cruised down winding streets, outfitted with all the real-world surroundings: people, trees, signs, other cars. As I watched, a furry kangaroo suddenly hopped across one screen. “Volvo had an issue in Australia,” Kishonti explained. “A kangaroo’s movement is different than other animals since it hops instead of running.” Talk about cases that are hard to solve.
AImotive is currently testing around 1,000 simulated scenarios every night, with a steadily-rising curve of successful tests. These scenarios are broken down into features, and the car’s behavior around those features fed into a neural network. As the algorithms learn more features, the level of complexity the vehicles can handle goes up.
On the Road
After Kishonti and his colleagues filled me in on the details of their product, it was time to test it out. A safety driver sat in the driver’s seat, a computer operator in the passenger seat, and Kishonti and I in back. The driver maintained full control of the car until we merged onto the highway. Then he flicked the “Allowed” switch, his copilot pressed the “Active” switch, and he took his hands off the wheel.
What happened next, you ask?
A few things. El Capitan was going exactly the speed limit—65 miles per hour—which meant all the other cars were passing us. When a car merged in front of us or cut us off, El Cap braked accordingly (if a little abruptly). The monitor displayed the feed from each of the car’s cameras, plus multiple data fields and a simulation where a blue line marked the center of the lane, measured by the cameras tracking the lane markings on either side.
I noticed El Cap wobbling out of our lane a bit, but it wasn’t until two things happened in a row that I felt a little nervous: first we went under a bridge, then a truck pulled up next to us, both bridge and truck casting a complete shadow over our car. At that point El Cap lost it, and we swerved haphazardly to the right, narrowly missing the truck’s rear wheels. The safety driver grabbed the steering wheel and took back control of the car.
What happened, Kishonti explained, was that the shadows made it hard for the car’s cameras to see the lane markings. This was a new scenario the algorithm hadn’t previously encountered. If we’d only gone under a bridge or only been next to the truck for a second, El Cap may not have had so much trouble, but the two events happening in a row really threw the car for a loop—almost literally.
“This is a new scenario we’ll add to our testing,” Kishonti said. He added that another way for the algorithm to handle this type of scenario, rather than basing its speed and positioning on the lane markings, is to mimic nearby cars. “The human eye would see that other cars are still moving at the same speed, even if it can’t see details of the road,” he said.
After another brief—and thankfully uneventful—hands-off cruise down the highway, the safety driver took over, exited the highway, and drove us back to the office.
Driving into the Future
I climbed out of the car feeling amazed not only that self-driving cars are possible, but that driving is possible at all. I squint when driving into a tunnel, swerve to avoid hitting a stray squirrel, and brake gradually at stop signs—all without consciously thinking to do so. On top of learning to steer, brake, and accelerate, self-driving software has to incorporate our brains’ and bodies’ unconscious (but crucial) reactions, like our pupils dilating to let in more light so we can see in a tunnel.
Despite all the progress of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and computing power, I have a wholly renewed appreciation for the thing that’s been in charge of driving up till now: the human brain.
Kishonti seemed to feel similarly. “I don’t think autonomous vehicles in the near future will be better than the best drivers,” he said. “But they’ll be better than the average driver. What we want to achieve is safe, good-quality driving for everyone, with scalability.”
AImotive is currently working with American tech firms and with car and truck manufacturers in Europe, China, and Japan.
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Millions of years of evolution have allowed animals to develop some elegant and highly efficient solutions to problems like locomotion, flight, and dexterity. As Boston Dynamics unveils its latest mechanical animals, here’s a rundown of nine recent robots that borrow from nature and why.
SpotMini – Boston Dynamics
Starting with BigDog in 2005, the US company has built a whole stable of four-legged robots in recent years. Their first product was designed to be a robotic packhorse for soldiers that borrowed the quadrupedal locomotion of animals to travel over terrain too rough for conventional vehicles.
The US Army ultimately rejected the robot for being too noisy, according to the Guardian, but since then the company has scaled down its design, first to the Spot, then a first edition of the SpotMini that came out last year.
The latter came with a robotic arm where its head should be and was touted as a domestic helper, but a sleeker second edition without the arm was released earlier this month. There’s little detail on what the new robot is designed for, but the more polished design suggests a more consumer-focused purpose.
OctopusGripper – Festo
Festo has released a long line of animal-inspired machines over the years, from a mechanical kangaroo to robotic butterflies. Its latest creation isn’t a full animal—instead it’s a gripper based on an octopus tentacle that can be attached to the end of a robotic arm.
The pneumatically-powered device is made of soft silicone and features two rows of suction cups on its inner edge. By applying compressed air the tentacle can wrap around a wide variety of differently shaped objects, just like its natural counterpart, and a vacuum can be applied to the larger suction cups to grip the object securely. Because it’s soft, it holds promise for robots required to operate safely in collaboration with humans.
CRAM – University of California, Berkeley
Cockroaches are renowned for their hardiness and ability to disappear down cracks that seem far too small for them. Researchers at UC Berkeley decided these capabilities could be useful for search and rescue missions and so set about experimenting on the insects to find out their secrets.
They found the bugs can squeeze into gaps a fifth of their normal standing height by splaying their legs out to the side without significantly slowing themselves down. So they built a palm-sized robot with a jointed plastic shell that could do the same to squeeze into crevices half its normal height.
Snake Robot – Carnegie Mellon University
Search and rescue missions are a common theme for animal-inspired robots, but the snake robot built by CMU researchers is one of the first to be tested in a real disaster.
A team of roboticists from the university helped Mexican Red Cross workers search collapsed buildings for survivors after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City in September. The snake design provides a small diameter and the ability to move in almost any direction, which makes the robot ideal for accessing tight spaces, though the team was unable to locate any survivors.
The snake currently features a camera on the front, but researchers told IEEE Spectrum that the experience helped them realize they should also add a microphone to listen for people trapped under the rubble.
Bio-Hybrid Stingray – Harvard University
Taking more than just inspiration from the animal kingdom, a group from Harvard built a robotic stingray out of silicone and rat heart muscle cells.
The robot uses the same synchronized undulations along the edge of its fins to propel itself as a ray does. But while a ray has two sets of muscles to pull the fins up and down, the new device has only one that pulls them down, with a springy gold skeleton that pulls them back up again. The cells are also genetically modified to be activated by flashes of light.
The project’s leader eventually hopes to engineer a human heart, and both his stingray and an earlier jellyfish bio-robot are primarily aimed at better understanding how that organ works.
Bat Bot – Caltech
Most recent advances in drone technology have come from quadcopters, but Caltech engineers think rigid devices with rapidly spinning propellers are probably not ideal for use in close quarters with humans.
That’s why they turned to soft-winged bats for inspiration. That’s no easy feat, though, considering bats use more than 40 joints with each flap of their wings, so the team had to optimize down to nine joints to avoid it becoming too bulky. The simplified bat can’t ascend yet, but its onboard computer and sensors let it autonomously carry out glides, turns, and dives.
Salto – UC Berkeley
While even the most advanced robots tend to plod around, tree-dwelling animals have the ability to spring from branch to branch to clear obstacles and climb quickly. This could prove invaluable for search and rescue robots by allowing them to quickly traverse disordered rubble.
UC Berkeley engineers turned to the Senegal bush baby for inspiration after determining it scored highest in “vertical jumping agility”—a combination of how high and how frequently an animal can jump. They recreated its ability to get into a super-low crouch that stores energy in its tendons to create a robot that could carry out parkour-style double jumps off walls to quickly gain height.
Pleurobot – École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Normally robots are masters of air, land, or sea, but the robotic salamander built by researchers at EPFL can both walk and swim.
Its designers used X-ray videos to carefully study how the amphibians move before using this to build a true-to-life robotic version using 3D printed bones, motorized joints, and a synthetic nervous system made up of electronic circuitry.
The robot’s low center of mass and segmented legs make it great at navigating rough terrain without losing balance, and the ability to swim gives added versatility. They also hope it will help paleontologists gain a better understanding of the movements of the first tetrapods to transition from water to land, which salamanders are the best living analog of.
Eelume – Eelume
A snakelike body isn’t only useful on land—eels are living proof it’s an efficient way to travel underwater, too. Norwegian robotics company Eelume has borrowed these principles to build a robot capable of sub-sea inspection, maintenance, and repair.
The modular design allows operators to put together their own favored configuration of joints and payloads such as sensors and tools. And while an early version of the robot used the same method of locomotion as an eel, the latest version undergoing sea trials has added a variety of thrusters for greater speeds and more maneuverability.
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“We cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.” – Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Unlike the director leads you to believe, the protagonist of Ex Machina, Andrew Garland’s 2015 masterpiece, isn’t Caleb, a young programmer tasked with evaluating machine consciousness. Rather, it’s his target Ava, a breathtaking humanoid AI with a seemingly child-like naïveté and an enigmatic mind.
Like most cerebral movies, Ex Machina leaves the conclusion up to the viewer: was Ava actually conscious? In doing so, it also cleverly avoids a thorny question that has challenged most AI-centric movies to date: what is consciousness, and can machines have it?
Hollywood producers aren’t the only people stumped. As machine intelligence barrels forward at breakneck speed—not only exceeding human performance on games such as DOTA and Go, but doing so without the need for human expertise—the question has once more entered the scientific mainstream.
Are machines on the verge of consciousness?
This week, in a review published in the prestigious journal Science, cognitive scientists Drs. Stanislas Dehaene, Hakwan Lau and Sid Kouider of the Collège de France, University of California, Los Angeles and PSL Research University, respectively, argue: not yet, but there is a clear path forward.
The reason? Consciousness is “resolutely computational,” the authors say, in that it results from specific types of information processing, made possible by the hardware of the brain.
There is no magic juice, no extra spark—in fact, an experiential component (“what is it like to be conscious?”) isn’t even necessary to implement consciousness.
If consciousness results purely from the computations within our three-pound organ, then endowing machines with a similar quality is just a matter of translating biology to code.
Much like the way current powerful machine learning techniques heavily borrow from neurobiology, the authors write, we may be able to achieve artificial consciousness by studying the structures in our own brains that generate consciousness and implementing those insights as computer algorithms.
From Brain to Bot
Without doubt, the field of AI has greatly benefited from insights into our own minds, both in form and function.
For example, deep neural networks, the architecture of algorithms that underlie AlphaGo’s breathtaking sweep against its human competitors, are loosely based on the multi-layered biological neural networks that our brain cells self-organize into.
Reinforcement learning, a type of “training” that teaches AIs to learn from millions of examples, has roots in a centuries-old technique familiar to anyone with a dog: if it moves toward the right response (or result), give a reward; otherwise ask it to try again.
In this sense, translating the architecture of human consciousness to machines seems like a no-brainer towards artificial consciousness. There’s just one big problem.
“Nobody in AI is working on building conscious machines because we just have nothing to go on. We just don’t have a clue about what to do,” said Dr. Stuart Russell, the author of Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach in a 2015 interview with Science.
The hard part, long before we can consider coding machine consciousness, is figuring out what consciousness actually is.
To Dehaene and colleagues, consciousness is a multilayered construct with two “dimensions:” C1, the information readily in mind, and C2, the ability to obtain and monitor information about oneself. Both are essential to consciousness, but one can exist without the other.
Say you’re driving a car and the low fuel light comes on. Here, the perception of the fuel-tank light is C1—a mental representation that we can play with: we notice it, act upon it (refill the gas tank) and recall and speak about it at a later date (“I ran out of gas in the boonies!”).
“The first meaning we want to separate (from consciousness) is the notion of global availability,” explains Dehaene in an interview with Science. When you’re conscious of a word, your whole brain is aware of it, in a sense that you can use the information across modalities, he adds.
But C1 is not just a “mental sketchpad.” It represents an entire architecture that allows the brain to draw multiple modalities of information from our senses or from memories of related events, for example.
Unlike subconscious processing, which often relies on specific “modules” competent at a defined set of tasks, C1 is a global workspace that allows the brain to integrate information, decide on an action, and follow through until the end.
Like The Hunger Games, what we call “conscious” is whatever representation, at one point in time, wins the competition to access this mental workspace. The winners are shared among different brain computation circuits and are kept in the spotlight for the duration of decision-making to guide behavior.
Because of these features, C1 consciousness is highly stable and global—all related brain circuits are triggered, the authors explain.
For a complex machine such as an intelligent car, C1 is a first step towards addressing an impending problem, such as a low fuel light. In this example, the light itself is a type of subconscious signal: when it flashes, all of the other processes in the machine remain uninformed, and the car—even if equipped with state-of-the-art visual processing networks—passes by gas stations without hesitation.
With C1 in place, the fuel tank would alert the car computer (allowing the light to enter the car’s “conscious mind”), which in turn checks the built-in GPS to search for the next gas station.
“We think in a machine this would translate into a system that takes information out of whatever processing module it’s encapsulated in, and make it available to any of the other processing modules so they can use the information,” says Dehaene. “It’s a first sense of consciousness.”
In a way, C1 reflects the mind’s capacity to access outside information. C2 goes introspective.
The authors define the second facet of consciousness, C2, as “meta-cognition:” reflecting on whether you know or perceive something, or whether you just made an error (“I think I may have filled my tank at the last gas station, but I forgot to keep a receipt to make sure”). This dimension reflects the link between consciousness and sense of self.
C2 is the level of consciousness that allows you to feel more or less confident about a decision when making a choice. In computational terms, it’s an algorithm that spews out the probability that a decision (or computation) is correct, even if it’s often experienced as a “gut feeling.”
C2 also has its claws in memory and curiosity. These self-monitoring algorithms allow us to know what we know or don’t know—so-called “meta-memory,” responsible for that feeling of having something at the tip of your tongue. Monitoring what we know (or don’t know) is particularly important for children, says Dehaene.
“Young children absolutely need to monitor what they know in order to…inquire and become curious and learn more,” he explains.
The two aspects of consciousness synergize to our benefit: C1 pulls relevant information into our mental workspace (while discarding other “probable” ideas or solutions), while C2 helps with long-term reflection on whether the conscious thought led to a helpful response.
Going back to the low fuel light example, C1 allows the car to solve the problem in the moment—these algorithms globalize the information, so that the car becomes aware of the problem.
But to solve the problem, the car would need a “catalog of its cognitive abilities”—a self-awareness of what resources it has readily available, for example, a GPS map of gas stations.
“A car with this sort of self-knowledge is what we call having C2,” says Dehaene. Because the signal is globally available and because it’s being monitored in a way that the machine is looking at itself, the car would care about the low gas light and behave like humans do—lower fuel consumption and find a gas station.
“Most present-day machine learning systems are devoid of any self-monitoring,” the authors note.
But their theory seems to be on the right track. The few examples whereby a self-monitoring system was implemented—either within the structure of the algorithm or as a separate network—the AI has generated “internal models that are meta-cognitive in nature, making it possible for an agent to develop a (limited, implicit, practical) understanding of itself.”
Towards conscious machines
Would a machine endowed with C1 and C2 behave as if it were conscious? Very likely: a smartcar would “know” that it’s seeing something, express confidence in it, report it to others, and find the best solutions for problems. If its self-monitoring mechanisms break down, it may also suffer “hallucinations” or even experience visual illusions similar to humans.
Thanks to C1 it would be able to use the information it has and use it flexibly, and because of C2 it would know the limit of what it knows, says Dehaene. “I think (the machine) would be conscious,” and not just merely appearing so to humans.
If you’re left with a feeling that consciousness is far more than global information sharing and self-monitoring, you’re not alone.
“Such a purely functional definition of consciousness may leave some readers unsatisfied,” the authors acknowledge.
“But we’re trying to take a radical stance, maybe simplifying the problem. Consciousness is a functional property, and when we keep adding functions to machines, at some point these properties will characterize what we mean by consciousness,” Dehaene concludes.
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Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.
This isn’t some post-apocalyptic vision of the future à la The Terminator. This is a snapshot of the farm of the future. Every phase of the operation—from seed to harvest—may someday be automated, without the need to ever get one’s fingernails dirty.
In fact, it’s science fiction already being engineered into reality. Today, robots empowered with artificial intelligence can zap weeds with preternatural precision, while autonomous tractors move with tireless efficiency across the farmland. Satellites can assess crop health from outer space, providing gobs of data to help produce the sort of business intelligence once accessible only to Fortune 500 companies.
“Precision agriculture is on the brink of a new phase of development involving smart machines that can operate by themselves, which will allow production agriculture to become significantly more efficient. Precision agriculture is becoming robotic agriculture,” said professor Simon Blackmore last year during a conference in Asia on the latest developments in robotic agriculture. Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University and head of the National Centre for Precision Farming in the UK.
It’s Blackmore’s university that recently showcased what may someday be possible. The project, dubbed Hands Free Hectare and led by researchers from Harper Adams and private industry, farmed one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of spring barley without one person ever setting foot in the field.
The team re-purposed, re-wired and roboticized farm equipment ranging from a Japanese tractor to a 25-year-old combine. Drones served as scouts to survey the operation and collect samples to help the team monitor the progress of the barley. At the end of the season, the robo farmers harvested about 4.5 tons of barley at a price tag of £200,000.
“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and we’ve done that,” said Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, which partnered with Harper Adams, in a press release.
I, Robot Farmer
The Harper Adams experiment is the latest example of how machines are disrupting the agricultural industry. Around the same time that the Hands Free Hectare combine was harvesting barley, Deere & Company announced it would acquire a startup called Blue River Technology for a reported $305 million.
Blue River has developed a “see-and-spray” system that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to discriminate between crops and weeds. It hits the former with fertilizer and blasts the latter with herbicides with such precision that it can eliminate 90 percent of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
It’s not just farmland that’s getting a helping hand from robots. A California company called Abundant Robotics, spun out of the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is developing robots capable of picking apples with vacuum-like arms that suck the fruit straight off the trees in the orchards.
“Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again. But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what we’ve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment,” Dan Harburg, an associate at venture capital firm Anterra Capital who previously worked at a Massachusetts-based startup making a robotic arm capable of grabbing fruit, told AgFunder News.
“This means ag-focused robotics startups have to design systems from the ground up, which can take time and money, and their robots have to be able to complete multiple tasks to avoid sitting on the shelf for a significant portion of the year,” he noted.
Eyes in the Sky
It will take more than an army of robotic tractors to grow a successful crop. The farm of the future will rely on drones, satellites, and other airborne instruments to provide data about their crops on the ground.
Companies like Descartes Labs, for instance, employ machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to forecast soy and corn yields. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup collects five terabytes of data every day from multiple satellite constellations, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Combined with weather readings and other real-time inputs, Descartes Labs can predict cornfield yields with 99 percent accuracy. Its AI platform can even assess crop health from infrared readings.
The US agency DARPA recently granted Descartes Labs $1.5 million to monitor and analyze wheat yields in the Middle East and Africa. The idea is that accurate forecasts may help identify regions at risk of crop failure, which could lead to famine and political unrest. Another company called TellusLabs out of Somerville, Massachusetts also employs machine learning algorithms to predict corn and soy yields with similar accuracy from satellite imagery.
Farmers don’t have to reach orbit to get insights on their cropland. A startup in Oakland, Ceres Imaging, produces high-resolution imagery from multispectral cameras flown across fields aboard small planes. The snapshots capture the landscape at different wavelengths, identifying insights into problems like water stress, as well as providing estimates of chlorophyll and nitrogen levels. The geo-tagged images mean farmers can easily locate areas that need to be addressed.
Growing From the Inside
Even the best intelligence—whether from drones, satellites, or machine learning algorithms—will be challenged to predict the unpredictable issues posed by climate change. That’s one reason more and more companies are betting the farm on what’s called controlled environment agriculture. Today, that doesn’t just mean fancy greenhouses, but everything from warehouse-sized, automated vertical farms to grow rooms run by robots, located not in the emptiness of Kansas or Nebraska but smack dab in the middle of the main streets of America.
Proponents of these new concepts argue these high-tech indoor farms can produce much higher yields while drastically reducing water usage and synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicides.
Iron Ox, out of San Francisco, is developing one-acre urban greenhouses that will be operated by robots and reportedly capable of producing the equivalent of 30 acres of farmland. Powered by artificial intelligence, a team of three robots will run the entire operation of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops.
Vertical farming startup Plenty, also based in San Francisco, uses AI to automate its operations, and got a $200 million vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund earlier this year. The company claims its system uses only 1 percent of the water consumed in conventional agriculture while producing 350 times as much produce. Plenty is part of a new crop of urban-oriented farms, including Bowery Farming and AeroFarms.
“What I can envision is locating a larger scale indoor farm in the economically disadvantaged food desert, in order to stimulate a broader economic impact that could create jobs and generate income for that area,” said Dr. Gary Stutte, an expert in space agriculture and controlled environment agriculture, in an interview with AgFunder News. “The indoor agriculture model is adaptable to becoming an engine for economic growth and food security in both rural and urban food deserts.”
Still, the model is not without its own challenges and criticisms. Most of what these farms can produce falls into the “leafy greens” category and often comes with a premium price, which seems antithetical to the proposed mission of creating oases in the food deserts of cities. While water usage may be minimized, the electricity required to power the operation, especially the LEDs (which played a huge part in revolutionizing indoor agriculture), are not cheap.
Still, all of these advances, from robo farmers to automated greenhouses, may need to be part of a future where nearly 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050. An oft-quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the world must boost food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of the population. Technology may not save the world, but it will help feed it.
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