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#433901 The SpiNNaker Supercomputer, Modeled ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Human Robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s dive in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then came the cloud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it doesn’t stop there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#433828 Using Big Data to Give Patients Control ...

Big data, personalized medicine, artificial intelligence. String these three buzzphrases together, and what do you have?

A system that may revolutionize the future of healthcare, by bringing sophisticated health data directly to patients for them to ponder, digest, and act upon—and potentially stop diseases in their tracks.

At Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine conference in San Diego this week, Dr. Ran Balicer, director of the Clalit Research Institute in Israel, painted a futuristic picture of how big data can merge with personalized healthcare into an app-based system in which the patient is in control.

Dr. Ran Balicer at Exponential Medicine
Picture this: instead of going to a physician with your ailments, your doctor calls you with some bad news: “Within six hours, you’re going to have a heart attack. So why don’t you come into the clinic and we can fix that.” Crisis averted.

Following the treatment, you’re at home monitoring your biomarkers, lab test results, and other health information through an app with a clean, beautiful user interface. Within the app, you can observe how various health-influencing life habits—smoking, drinking, insufficient sleep—influence your chance of future cardiovascular disease risks by toggling their levels up or down.

There’s more: you can also set a health goal within the app—for example, stop smoking—which automatically informs your physician. The app will then suggest pharmaceuticals to help you ditch the nicotine and automatically sends the prescription to your local drug store. You’ll also immediately find a list of nearby support groups that can help you reach your health goal.

With this hefty dose of AI, you’re in charge of your health—in fact, probably more so than under current healthcare systems.

Sound fantastical? In fact, this type of preemptive care is already being provided in some countries, including Israel, at a massive scale, said Balicer. By mining datasets with deep learning and other powerful AI tools, we can predict the future—and put it into the hands of patients.

The Israeli Advantage
In order to apply big data approaches to medicine, you first need a giant database.

Israel is ahead of the game in this regard. With decades of electronic health records aggregated within a central warehouse, Israel offers a wealth of health-related data on the scale of millions of people and billions of data points. The data is incredibly multiplex, covering lab tests, drugs, hospital admissions, medical procedures, and more.

One of Balicer’s early successes was an algorithm that predicts diabetes, which allowed the team to notify physicians to target their care. Clalit has also been busy digging into data that predicts winter pneumonia, osteoporosis, and a long list of other preventable diseases.

So far, Balicer’s predictive health system has only been tested on a pilot group of patients, but he is expecting to roll out the platform to all patients in the database in the next few months.

Truly Personalized Medicine
To Balicer, whatever a machine can do better, it should be welcomed to do. AI diagnosticians have already enjoyed plenty of successes—but their collaboration remains mostly with physicians, at a point in time when the patient is already ill.

A particularly powerful use of AI in medicine is to bring insights and trends directly to the patient, such that they can take control over their own health and medical care.

For example, take the problem of tailored drug dosing. Current drug doses are based on average results conducted during clinical trials—the dosing is not tailored for any specific patient’s genetic and health makeup. But what if a doctor had already seen millions of other patients similar to your case, and could generate dosing recommendations more relevant to you based on that particular group of patients?

Such personalized recommendations are beyond the ability of any single human doctor. But with the help of AI, which can quickly process massive datasets to find similarities, doctors may soon be able to prescribe individually-tailored medications.

Tailored treatment doesn’t stop there. Another issue with pharmaceuticals and treatment regimes is that they often come with side effects: potentially health-threatening reactions that may, or may not, happen to you based on your biometrics.

Back in 2017, the New England Journal of Medicine launched the SPRINT Data Analysis Challenge, which urged physicians and data analysts to identify novel clinical findings using shared clinical trial data.

Working with Dr. Noa Dagan at the Clalit Research Institute, Balicer and team developed an algorithm that recommends whether or not a patient receives a particularly intensive treatment regime for hypertension.

Rather than simply looking at one outcome—normalized blood pressure—the algorithm takes into account an individual’s specific characteristics, laying out the treatment’s predicted benefits and harms for a particular patient.

“We built thousands of models for each patient to comprehensively understand the impact of the treatment for the individual; for example, a reduced risk for stroke and cardiovascular-related deaths could be accompanied by an increase in serious renal failure,” said Balicer. “This approach allows a truly personalized balance—allowing patients and their physicians to ultimately decide if the risks of the treatment are worth the benefits.”

This is already personalized medicine at its finest. But Balicer didn’t stop there.

We are not the sum of our biologics and medical stats, he said. A truly personalized approach needs to take a patient’s needs and goals and the sacrifices and tradeoffs they’re willing to make into account, rather than having the physician make decisions for them.

Balicer’s preventative system adds this layer of complexity by giving weights to different outcomes based on patients’ input of their own health goals. Rather than blindly following big data, the system holistically integrates the patient’s opinion to make recommendations.

Balicer’s system is just one example of how AI can truly transform personalized health care. The next big challenge is to work with physicians to further optimize these systems, in a way that doctors can easily integrate them into their workflow and embrace the technology.

“Health systems will not be replaced by algorithms, rest assured,” concluded Balicer, “but health systems that don’t use algorithms will be replaced by those that do.”

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#433776 Why We Should Stop Conflating Human and ...

It’s common to hear phrases like ‘machine learning’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ and believe that somehow, someone has managed to replicate a human mind inside a computer. This, of course, is untrue—but part of the reason this idea is so pervasive is because the metaphor of human learning and intelligence has been quite useful in explaining machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Indeed, some AI researchers maintain a close link with the neuroscience community, and inspiration runs in both directions. But the metaphor can be a hindrance to people trying to explain machine learning to those less familiar with it. One of the biggest risks of conflating human and machine intelligence is that we start to hand over too much agency to machines. For those of us working with software, it’s essential that we remember the agency is human—it’s humans who build these systems, after all.

It’s worth unpacking the key differences between machine and human intelligence. While there are certainly similarities, it’s by looking at what makes them different that we can better grasp how artificial intelligence works, and how we can build and use it effectively.

Neural Networks
Central to the metaphor that links human and machine learning is the concept of a neural network. The biggest difference between a human brain and an artificial neural net is the sheer scale of the brain’s neural network. What’s crucial is that it’s not simply the number of neurons in the brain (which reach into the billions), but more precisely, the mind-boggling number of connections between them.

But the issue runs deeper than questions of scale. The human brain is qualitatively different from an artificial neural network for two other important reasons: the connections that power it are analogue, not digital, and the neurons themselves aren’t uniform (as they are in an artificial neural network).

This is why the brain is such a complex thing. Even the most complex artificial neural network, while often difficult to interpret and unpack, has an underlying architecture and principles guiding it (this is what we’re trying to do, so let’s construct the network like this…).

Intricate as they may be, neural networks in AIs are engineered with a specific outcome in mind. The human mind, however, doesn’t have the same degree of intentionality in its engineering. Yes, it should help us do all the things we need to do to stay alive, but it also allows us to think critically and creatively in a way that doesn’t need to be programmed.

The Beautiful Simplicity of AI
The fact that artificial intelligence systems are so much simpler than the human brain is, ironically, what enables AIs to deal with far greater computational complexity than we can.

Artificial neural networks can hold much more information and data than the human brain, largely due to the type of data that is stored and processed in a neural network. It is discrete and specific, like an entry on an excel spreadsheet.

In the human brain, data doesn’t have this same discrete quality. So while an artificial neural network can process very specific data at an incredible scale, it isn’t able to process information in the rich and multidimensional manner a human brain can. This is the key difference between an engineered system and the human mind.

Despite years of research, the human mind still remains somewhat opaque. This is because the analog synaptic connections between neurons are almost impenetrable to the digital connections within an artificial neural network.

Speed and Scale
Consider what this means in practice. The relative simplicity of an AI allows it to do a very complex task very well, and very quickly. A human brain simply can’t process data at scale and speed in the way AIs need to if they’re, say, translating speech to text, or processing a huge set of oncology reports.

Essential to the way AI works in both these contexts is that it breaks data and information down into tiny constituent parts. For example, it could break sounds down into phonetic text, which could then be translated into full sentences, or break images into pieces to understand the rules of how a huge set of them is composed.

Humans often do a similar thing, and this is the point at which machine learning is most like human learning; like algorithms, humans break data or information into smaller chunks in order to process it.

But there’s a reason for this similarity. This breakdown process is engineered into every neural network by a human engineer. What’s more, the way this process is designed will be down to the problem at hand. How an artificial intelligence system breaks down a data set is its own way of ‘understanding’ it.

Even while running a highly complex algorithm unsupervised, the parameters of how an AI learns—how it breaks data down in order to process it—are always set from the start.

Human Intelligence: Defining Problems
Human intelligence doesn’t have this set of limitations, which is what makes us so much more effective at problem-solving. It’s the human ability to ‘create’ problems that makes us so good at solving them. There’s an element of contextual understanding and decision-making in the way humans approach problems.

AIs might be able to unpack problems or find new ways into them, but they can’t define the problem they’re trying to solve.

Algorithmic insensitivity has come into focus in recent years, with an increasing number of scandals around bias in AI systems. Of course, this is caused by the biases of those making the algorithms, but underlines the point that algorithmic biases can only be identified by human intelligence.

Human and Artificial Intelligence Should Complement Each Other
We must remember that artificial intelligence and machine learning aren’t simply things that ‘exist’ that we can no longer control. They are built, engineered, and designed by us. This mindset puts us in control of the future, and makes algorithms even more elegant and remarkable.

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Posted in Human Robots

#433739 No Safety Driver Here—Volvo’s New ...

Each time there’s a headline about driverless trucking technology, another piece is taken out of the old equation. First, an Uber/Otto truck’s safety driver went hands-off once the truck reached the highway (and said truck successfully delivered its valuable cargo of 50,000 beers). Then, Starsky Robotics announced its trucks would start making autonomous deliveries without a human in the vehicle at all.

Now, Volvo has taken the tech one step further. Its new trucks not only won’t have safety drivers, they won’t even have the option of putting safety drivers behind the wheel, because there is no wheel—and no cab, either.

Vera, as the technology’s been dubbed, was unveiled in September, and consists of a sort of flat-Tesla-like electric car with a standard trailer hookup. The vehicles are connected to a cloud service, which also connects them to each other and to a control center. The control center monitors the trucks’ positioning (they’re designed to locate their position to within centimeters), battery charge, load content, service requirements, and other variables. The driveline and battery pack used in the cars are the same as those Volvo uses in its existing electric trucks.

You won’t see these cruising down an interstate highway, though, or even down a local highway. Vera trucks are designed to be used on short, repetitive routes contained within limited areas—think shipping ports, industrial parks, or logistics hubs. They’re limited to slower speeds than normal cars or trucks, and will be able to operate 24/7. “We will see much higher delivery precision, as well as improved flexibility and productivity,” said Mikael Karlsson, VP of Autonomous Solutions at Volvo Trucks. “Today’s operations are often designed according to standard daytime work hours, but a solution like Vera opens up the possibility of continuous round-the-clock operation and a more optimal flow. This in turn can minimize stock piles and increase overall productivity.”

The trucks are sort of like bigger versions of Amazon’s Kiva robots, which scoot around the aisles of warehouses and fulfillment centers moving pallets between shelves and fetching goods to be shipped.

Pairing trucks like Vera with robots like Kiva makes for a fascinating future landscape of logistics and transport; cargo will be moved from docks to warehouses by a large, flat robot-on-wheels, then distributed throughout that warehouse by smaller, flat robots-on-wheels. To really see the automated process through to the end point, even smaller flat robots-on-wheels will be used to deliver peoples’ goods right to their front doors.

Sounds like a lot of robots and not a lot of humans, right? Anticipating its technology’s implication in the ongoing uproar over technological unemployment, Volvo has already made statements about its intentions to continue to employ humans alongside the driverless trucks. “I foresee that there will be an increased level of automation where it makes sense, such as for repetitive tasks. This in turn will drive prosperity and increase the need for truck drivers in other applications,” said Karlsson.

The end-to-end automation concept has already been put into practice in Caofeidian, a northern Chinese city that houses the world’s first fully autonomous harbor, aiming to be operational by the end of this year. Besides replacing human-driven trucks with autonomous ones (made by Chinese startup TuSimple), the port is using automated cranes and a coordinating central control system.

Besides Uber/Otto, Tesla, or Daimler, which are all working on driverless trucks with a more conventional design (meaning they still have a cab and look like you’d expect a truck to look), Volvo also has competition from a company called Einride. The Swedish startup’s electric, cabless T/Pod looks a lot like Vera, but has some fundamental differences. Rather than being tailored to short distances and high capacity, Einride’s trucks are meant for medium distance and capacity, like moving goods from a distribution center to a series of local stores.

Vera trucks are currently still in the development phase. But since their intended use is quite specific and limited (Karlsson noted “Vera is not intended to be a solution for everyone, everywhere”), the technology could likely be rolled out faster than its more general-use counterparts. Having cabless electric trucks take over short routes in closed environments would be one more baby step along the road to a driverless future—and a testament to the fact that self-driving technology will move into our lives and our jobs incrementally, ostensibly giving us the time we’ll need to adapt and adjust.

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Posted in Human Robots