Tag Archives: change

#438001 How an Israeli Startup Is Using AI to ...

The first baby conceived using in-vitro fertilization (IVF) was born in the UK in 1978. Over 40 years later, the technique has become commonplace, but its success rate is still fairly low at around 22 to 30 percent. A female-founded Israeli startup called Embryonics is setting out to change this by using artificial intelligence to screen embryos.

IVF consists of fertilizing a woman’s egg with her partner’s or a donor’s sperm outside of her body, creating an embryo that’s then implanted in the uterus. It’s not an easy process in any sense of the word—physically, emotionally, or financially. Insurance rarely covers IVF, and the costs run anywhere from $12,000 to $25,000 per cycle (a cycle takes about a month and includes stimulating a woman’s ovaries to produce eggs, extracting the eggs, inseminating them outside the body, and implanting an embryo).

Women have to give themselves daily hormone shots to stimulate egg production, and these can cause uncomfortable side effects. After so much stress and expense, it’s disheartening to think that the odds of a successful pregnancy are, at best, one in three.

A crucial factor in whether or not an IVF cycle works—that is, whether the embryo implants in the uterus and begins to develop into a healthy fetus—is the quality of the embryo. Doctors examine embryos through a microscope to determine how many cells they contain and whether they appear healthy, and choose the one that looks most viable.

But the human eye can only see so much, even with the help of a microscope; despite embryologists’ efforts to select the “best” embryo, success rates are still relatively low. “Many decisions are based on gut feeling or personal experience,” said Embryonics founder and CEO Yael Gold-Zamir. “Even if you go to the same IVF center, two experts can give you different opinions on the same embryo.”

This is where Embryonics’ technology comes in. They used 8,789 time-lapse videos of developing embryos to train an algorithm that predicts the likelihood of successful embryo implantation. A little less than half of the embryos from the dataset were graded by embryologists, and implantation data was integrated when it was available (as a binary “successful” or “failed” metric).

The algorithm uses geometric deep learning, a technique that takes a traditional convolutional neural network—which filters input data to create maps of its features, and is most commonly used for image recognition—and applies it to more complex data like 3D objects and graphs. Within days after fertilization, the embryo is still at the blastocyst stage, essentially a microscopic clump of just 200-300 cells; the algorithm uses this deep learning technique to spot and identify patterns in embryo development that human embryologists either wouldn’t see at all, or would require massive collation of data to validate.

On top of the embryo videos, Embryonics’ team incorporated patient data and environmental data from the lab into its algorithm, with encouraging results: the company reports that using its algorithm resulted in a 12 percent increase in positive predictive value (identifying embryos that would lead to implantation and healthy pregnancy) and a 29 percent increase in negative predictive value (identifying embyros that would not result in successful pregnancy) when compared to an external panel of embryologists.

TechCrunch reported last week that in a pilot of 11 women who used Embryonics’ algorithm to select their embryos, 6 are enjoying successful pregnancies, while 5 are still awaiting results.

Embryonics wasn’t the first group to think of using AI to screen embryos; a similar algorithm developed in 2019 by researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine was able to classify the quality of a set of embryo images with 97 percent accuracy. But Embryonics will be one of the first to bring this sort of technology to market. The company is waiting to receive approval from European regulatory bodies to be able to sell the software to fertility clinics in Europe.

Its timing is ripe: as more and more women delay having kids due to lifestyle and career-related factors, demand for IVF is growing, and will likely accelerate in coming years.

The company ultimately hopes to bring its product to the US, as well as to expand its work to include using data to improve hormonal stimulation.

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Posted in Human Robots

#437974 China Wants to Be the World’s AI ...

China’s star has been steadily rising for decades. Besides slashing extreme poverty rates from 88 percent to under 2 percent in just 30 years, the country has become a global powerhouse in manufacturing and technology. Its pace of growth may slow due to an aging population, but China is nonetheless one of the world’s biggest players in multiple cutting-edge tech fields.

One of these fields, and perhaps the most significant, is artificial intelligence. The Chinese government announced a plan in 2017 to become the world leader in AI by 2030, and has since poured billions of dollars into AI projects and research across academia, government, and private industry. The government’s venture capital fund is investing over $30 billion in AI; the northeastern city of Tianjin budgeted $16 billion for advancing AI; and a $2 billion AI research park is being built in Beijing.

On top of these huge investments, the government and private companies in China have access to an unprecedented quantity of data, on everything from citizens’ health to their smartphone use. WeChat, a multi-functional app where people can chat, date, send payments, hail rides, read news, and more, gives the CCP full access to user data upon request; as one BBC journalist put it, WeChat “was ahead of the game on the global stage and it has found its way into all corners of people’s existence. It could deliver to the Communist Party a life map of pretty much everybody in this country, citizens and foreigners alike.” And that’s just one (albeit big) source of data.

Many believe these factors are giving China a serious leg up in AI development, even providing enough of a boost that its progress will surpass that of the US.

But there’s more to AI than data, and there’s more to progress than investing billions of dollars. Analyzing China’s potential to become a world leader in AI—or in any technology that requires consistent innovation—from multiple angles provides a more nuanced picture of its strengths and limitations. In a June 2020 article in Foreign Affairs, Oxford fellows Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne argued that China’s big advantages may not actually be that advantageous in the long run—and its limitations may be very limiting.

Moving the AI Needle
To get an idea of who’s likely to take the lead in AI, it could help to first consider how the technology will advance beyond its current state.

To put it plainly, AI is somewhat stuck at the moment. Algorithms and neural networks continue to achieve new and impressive feats—like DeepMind’s AlphaFold accurately predicting protein structures or OpenAI’s GPT-3 writing convincing articles based on short prompts—but for the most part these systems’ capabilities are still defined as narrow intelligence: completing a specific task for which the system was painstakingly trained on loads of data.

(It’s worth noting here that some have speculated OpenAI’s GPT-3 may be an exception, the first example of machine intelligence that, while not “general,” has surpassed the definition of “narrow”; the algorithm was trained to write text, but ended up being able to translate between languages, write code, autocomplete images, do math, and perform other language-related tasks it wasn’t specifically trained for. However, all of GPT-3’s capabilities are limited to skills it learned in the language domain, whether spoken, written, or programming language).

Both AlphaFold’s and GPT-3’s success was due largely to the massive datasets they were trained on; no revolutionary new training methods or architectures were involved. If all it was going to take to advance AI was a continuation or scaling-up of this paradigm—more input data yields increased capability—China could well have an advantage.

But one of the biggest hurdles AI needs to clear to advance in leaps and bounds rather than baby steps is precisely this reliance on extensive, task-specific data. Other significant challenges include the technology’s fast approach to the limits of current computing power and its immense energy consumption.

Thus, while China’s trove of data may give it an advantage now, it may not be much of a long-term foothold on the climb to AI dominance. It’s useful for building products that incorporate or rely on today’s AI, but not for pushing the needle on how artificially intelligent systems learn. WeChat data on users’ spending habits, for example, would be valuable in building an AI that helps people save money or suggests items they might want to purchase. It will enable (and already has enabled) highly tailored products that will earn their creators and the companies that use them a lot of money.

But data quantity isn’t what’s going to advance AI. As Frey and Osborne put it, “Data efficiency is the holy grail of further progress in artificial intelligence.”

To that end, research teams in academia and private industry are working on ways to make AI less data-hungry. New training methods like one-shot learning and less-than-one-shot learning have begun to emerge, along with myriad efforts to make AI that learns more like the human brain.

While not insignificant, these advancements still fall into the “baby steps” category. No one knows how AI is going to progress beyond these small steps—and that uncertainty, in Frey and Osborne’s opinion, is a major speed bump on China’s fast-track to AI dominance.

How Innovation Happens
A lot of great inventions have happened by accident, and some of the world’s most successful companies started in garages, dorm rooms, or similarly low-budget, nondescript circumstances (including Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, to name a few). Innovation, the authors point out, often happens “through serendipity and recombination, as inventors and entrepreneurs interact and exchange ideas.”

Frey and Osborne argue that although China has great reserves of talent and a history of building on technologies conceived elsewhere, it doesn’t yet have a glowing track record in terms of innovation. They note that of the 100 most-cited patents from 2003 to present, none came from China. Giants Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu are all wildly successful in the Chinese market, but they’re rooted in technologies or business models that came out of the US and were tweaked for the Chinese population.

“The most innovative societies have always been those that allowed people to pursue controversial ideas,” Frey and Osborne write. China’s heavy censorship of the internet and surveillance of citizens don’t quite encourage the pursuit of controversial ideas. The country’s social credit system rewards people who follow the rules and punishes those who step out of line. Frey adds that top-down execution of problem-solving is effective when the problem at hand is clearly defined—and the next big leaps in AI are not.

It’s debatable how strongly a culture of social conformism can impact technological innovation, and of course there can be exceptions. But a relevant historical example is the Soviet Union, which, despite heavy investment in science and technology that briefly rivaled the US in fields like nuclear energy and space exploration, ended up lagging far behind primarily due to political and cultural factors.

Similarly, China’s focus on computer science in its education system could give it an edge—but, as Frey told me in an email, “The best students are not necessarily the best researchers. Being a good researcher also requires coming up with new ideas.”

Winner Take All?
Beyond the question of whether China will achieve AI dominance is the issue of how it will use the powerful technology. Several of the ways China has already implemented AI could be considered morally questionable, from facial recognition systems used aggressively against ethnic minorities to smart glasses for policemen that can pull up information about whoever the wearer looks at.

This isn’t to say the US would use AI for purely ethical purposes. The military’s Project Maven, for example, used artificially intelligent algorithms to identify insurgent targets in Iraq and Syria, and American law enforcement agencies are also using (mostly unregulated) facial recognition systems.

It’s conceivable that “dominance” in AI won’t go to one country; each nation could meet milestones in different ways, or meet different milestones. Researchers from both countries, at least in the academic sphere, could (and likely will) continue to collaborate and share their work, as they’ve done on many projects to date.

If one country does take the lead, it will certainly see some major advantages as a result. Brookings Institute fellow Indermit Gill goes so far as to say that whoever leads in AI in 2030 will “rule the world” until 2100. But Gill points out that in addition to considering each country’s strengths, we should consider how willing they are to improve upon their weaknesses.

While China leads in investment and the US in innovation, both nations are grappling with huge economic inequalities that could negatively impact technological uptake. “Attitudes toward the social change that accompanies new technologies matter as much as the technologies, pointing to the need for complementary policies that shape the economy and society,” Gill writes.

Will China’s leadership be willing to relax its grip to foster innovation? Will the US business environment be enough to compete with China’s data, investment, and education advantages? And can both countries find a way to distribute technology’s economic benefits more equitably?

Time will tell, but it seems we’ve got our work cut out for us—and China does too.

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Posted in Human Robots

#437929 These Were Our Favorite Tech Stories ...

This time last year we were commemorating the end of a decade and looking ahead to the next one. Enter the year that felt like a decade all by itself: 2020. News written in January, the before-times, feels hopelessly out of touch with all that came after. Stories published in the early days of the pandemic are, for the most part, similarly naive.

The year’s news cycle was swift and brutal, ping-ponging from pandemic to extreme social and political tension, whipsawing economies, and natural disasters. Hope. Despair. Loneliness. Grief. Grit. More hope. Another lockdown. It’s been a hell of a year.

Though 2020 was dominated by big, hairy societal change, science and technology took significant steps forward. Researchers singularly focused on the pandemic and collaborated on solutions to a degree never before seen. New technologies converged to deliver vaccines in record time. The dark side of tech, from biased algorithms to the threat of omnipresent surveillance and corporate control of artificial intelligence, continued to rear its head.

Meanwhile, AI showed uncanny command of language, joined Reddit threads, and made inroads into some of science’s grandest challenges. Mars rockets flew for the first time, and a private company delivered astronauts to the International Space Station. Deprived of night life, concerts, and festivals, millions traveled to virtual worlds instead. Anonymous jet packs flew over LA. Mysterious monoliths appeared and disappeared worldwide.

It was all, you know, very 2020. For this year’s (in-no-way-all-encompassing) list of fascinating stories in tech and science, we tried to select those that weren’t totally dated by the news, but rose above it in some way. So, without further ado: This year’s picks.

How Science Beat the Virus
Ed Yong | The Atlantic
“Much like famous initiatives such as the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program, epidemics focus the energies of large groups of scientists. …But ‘nothing in history was even close to the level of pivoting that’s happening right now,’ Madhukar Pai of McGill University told me. … No other disease has been scrutinized so intensely, by so much combined intellect, in so brief a time.”

‘It Will Change Everything’: DeepMind’s AI Makes Gigantic Leap in Solving Protein Structures
Ewen Callaway | Nature
“In some cases, AlphaFold’s structure predictions were indistinguishable from those determined using ‘gold standard’ experimental methods such as X-ray crystallography and, in recent years, cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). AlphaFold might not obviate the need for these laborious and expensive methods—yet—say scientists, but the AI will make it possible to study living things in new ways.”

OpenAI’s Latest Breakthrough Is Astonishingly Powerful, But Still Fighting Its Flaws
James Vincent | The Verge
“What makes GPT-3 amazing, they say, is not that it can tell you that the capital of Paraguay is Asunción (it is) or that 466 times 23.5 is 10,987 (it’s not), but that it’s capable of answering both questions and many more beside simply because it was trained on more data for longer than other programs. If there’s one thing we know that the world is creating more and more of, it’s data and computing power, which means GPT-3’s descendants are only going to get more clever.”

Artificial General Intelligence: Are We Close, and Does It Even Make Sense to Try?
Will Douglas Heaven | MIT Technology Review
“A machine that could think like a person has been the guiding vision of AI research since the earliest days—and remains its most divisive idea. …So why is AGI controversial? Why does it matter? And is it a reckless, misleading dream—or the ultimate goal?”

The Dark Side of Big Tech’s Funding for AI Research
Tom Simonite | Wired
“Timnit Gebru’s exit from Google is a powerful reminder of how thoroughly companies dominate the field, with the biggest computers and the most resources. …[Meredith] Whittaker of AI Now says properly probing the societal effects of AI is fundamentally incompatible with corporate labs. ‘That kind of research that looks at the power and politics of AI is and must be inherently adversarial to the firms that are profiting from this technology.’i”

We’re Not Prepared for the End of Moore’s Law
David Rotman | MIT Technology Review
“Quantum computing, carbon nanotube transistors, even spintronics, are enticing possibilities—but none are obvious replacements for the promise that Gordon Moore first saw in a simple integrated circuit. We need the research investments now to find out, though. Because one prediction is pretty much certain to come true: we’re always going to want more computing power.”

Inside the Race to Build the Best Quantum Computer on Earth
Gideon Lichfield | MIT Technology Review
“Regardless of whether you agree with Google’s position [on ‘quantum supremacy’] or IBM’s, the next goal is clear, Oliver says: to build a quantum computer that can do something useful. …The trouble is that it’s nearly impossible to predict what the first useful task will be, or how big a computer will be needed to perform it.”

The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It
Kashmir Hill | The New York Times
“Searching someone by face could become as easy as Googling a name. Strangers would be able to listen in on sensitive conversations, take photos of the participants and know personal secrets. Someone walking down the street would be immediately identifiable—and his or her home address would be only a few clicks away. It would herald the end of public anonymity.”

Wrongfully Accused by an Algorithm
Kashmir Hill | The New York Times
“Mr. Williams knew that he had not committed the crime in question. What he could not have known, as he sat in the interrogation room, is that his case may be the first known account of an American being wrongfully arrested based on a flawed match from a facial recognition algorithm, according to experts on technology and the law.”

Predictive Policing Algorithms Are Racist. They Need to Be Dismantled.
Will Douglas Heaven | MIT Technology Review
“A number of studies have shown that these tools perpetuate systemic racism, and yet we still know very little about how they work, who is using them, and for what purpose. All of this needs to change before a proper reckoning can take pace. Luckily, the tide may be turning.”

The Panopticon Is Already Here
Ross Andersen | The Atlantic
“Artificial intelligence has applications in nearly every human domain, from the instant translation of spoken language to early viral-outbreak detection. But Xi [Jinping] also wants to use AI’s awesome analytical powers to push China to the cutting edge of surveillance. He wants to build an all-seeing digital system of social control, patrolled by precog algorithms that identify potential dissenters in real time.”

The Case For Cities That Aren’t Dystopian Surveillance States
Cory Doctorow | The Guardian
“Imagine a human-centered smart city that knows everything it can about things. It knows how many seats are free on every bus, it knows how busy every road is, it knows where there are short-hire bikes available and where there are potholes. …What it doesn’t know is anything about individuals in the city.”

The Modern World Has Finally Become Too Complex for Any of Us to Understand
Tim Maughan | OneZero
“One of the dominant themes of the last few years is that nothing makes sense. …I am here to tell you that the reason so much of the world seems incomprehensible is that it is incomprehensible. From social media to the global economy to supply chains, our lives rest precariously on systems that have become so complex, and we have yielded so much of it to technologies and autonomous actors that no one totally comprehends it all.”

The Conscience of Silicon Valley
Zach Baron | GQ
“What I really hoped to do, I said, was to talk about the future and how to live in it. This year feels like a crossroads; I do not need to explain what I mean by this. …I want to destroy my computer, through which I now work and ‘have drinks’ and stare at blurry simulations of my parents sometimes; I want to kneel down and pray to it like a god. I want someone—I want Jaron Lanier—to tell me where we’re going, and whether it’s going to be okay when we get there. Lanier just nodded. All right, then.”

Yes to Tech Optimism. And Pessimism.
Shira Ovide | The New York Times
“Technology is not something that exists in a bubble; it is a phenomenon that changes how we live or how our world works in ways that help and hurt. That calls for more humility and bridges across the optimism-pessimism divide from people who make technology, those of us who write about it, government officials and the public. We need to think on the bright side. And we need to consider the horribles.”

How Afrofuturism Can Help the World Mend
C. Brandon Ogbunu | Wired
“…[W. E. B. DuBois’] ‘The Comet’ helped lay the foundation for a paradigm known as Afrofuturism. A century later, as a comet carrying disease and social unrest has upended the world, Afrofuturism may be more relevant than ever. Its vision can help guide us out of the rubble, and help us to consider universes of better alternatives.”

Wikipedia Is the Last Best Place on the Internet
Richard Cooke | Wired
“More than an encyclopedia, Wikipedia has become a community, a library, a constitution, an experiment, a political manifesto—the closest thing there is to an online public square. It is one of the few remaining places that retains the faintly utopian glow of the early World Wide Web.”

Can Genetic Engineering Bring Back the American Chestnut?
Gabriel Popkin | The New York Times Magazine
“The geneticists’ research forces conservationists to confront, in a new and sometimes discomfiting way, the prospect that repairing the natural world does not necessarily mean returning to an unblemished Eden. It may instead mean embracing a role that we’ve already assumed: engineers of everything, including nature.”

At the Limits of Thought
David C. Krakauer | Aeon
“A schism is emerging in the scientific enterprise. On the one side is the human mind, the source of every story, theory, and explanation that our species holds dear. On the other stand the machines, whose algorithms possess astonishing predictive power but whose inner workings remain radically opaque to human observers.”

Is the Internet Conscious? If It Were, How Would We Know?
Meghan O’Gieblyn | Wired
“Does the internet behave like a creature with an internal life? Does it manifest the fruits of consciousness? There are certainly moments when it seems to. Google can anticipate what you’re going to type before you fully articulate it to yourself. Facebook ads can intuit that a woman is pregnant before she tells her family and friends. It is easy, in such moments, to conclude that you’re in the presence of another mind—though given the human tendency to anthropomorphize, we should be wary of quick conclusions.”

The Internet Is an Amnesia Machine
Simon Pitt | OneZero
“There was a time when I didn’t know what a Baby Yoda was. Then there was a time I couldn’t go online without reading about Baby Yoda. And now, Baby Yoda is a distant, shrugging memory. Soon there will be a generation of people who missed the whole thing and for whom Baby Yoda is as meaningless as it was for me a year ago.”

Digital Pregnancy Tests Are Almost as Powerful as the Original IBM PC
Tom Warren | The Verge
“Each test, which costs less than $5, includes a processor, RAM, a button cell battery, and a tiny LCD screen to display the result. …Foone speculates that this device is ‘probably faster at number crunching and basic I/O than the CPU used in the original IBM PC.’ IBM’s original PC was based on Intel’s 8088 microprocessor, an 8-bit chip that operated at 5Mhz. The difference here is that this is a pregnancy test you pee on and then throw away.”

The Party Goes on in Massive Online Worlds
Cecilia D’Anastasio | Wired
“We’re more stand-outside types than the types to cast a flashy glamour spell and chat up the nearest cat girl. But, hey, it’s Final Fantasy XIV online, and where my body sat in New York, the epicenter of America’s Covid-19 outbreak, there certainly weren’t any parties.”

The Facebook Groups Where People Pretend the Pandemic Isn’t Happening
Kaitlyn Tiffany | The Atlantic
“Losing track of a friend in a packed bar or screaming to be heard over a live band is not something that’s happening much in the real world at the moment, but it happens all the time in the 2,100-person Facebook group ‘a group where we all pretend we’re in the same venue.’ So does losing shoes and Juul pods, and shouting matches over which bands are the saddest, and therefore the greatest.”

Did You Fly a Jetpack Over Los Angeles This Weekend? Because the FBI Is Looking for You
Tom McKay | Gizmodo
“Did you fly a jetpack over Los Angeles at approximately 3,000 feet on Sunday? Some kind of tiny helicopter? Maybe a lawn chair with balloons tied to it? If the answer to any of the above questions is ‘yes,’ you should probably lay low for a while (by which I mean cool it on the single-occupant flying machine). That’s because passing airline pilots spotted you, and now it’s this whole thing with the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration, both of which are investigating.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#437924 How a Software Map of the Entire Planet ...

“3D map data is the scaffolding of the 21st century.”

–Edward Miller, Founder, Scape Technologies, UK

Covered in cameras, sensors, and a distinctly spaceship looking laser system, Google’s autonomous vehicles were easy to spot when they first hit public roads in 2015. The key hardware ingredient is a spinning laser fixed to the roof, called lidar, which provides the car with a pair of eyes to see the world. Lidar works by sending out beams of light and measuring the time it takes to bounce off objects back to the source. By timing the light’s journey, these depth-sensing systems construct fully 3D maps of their surroundings.

3D maps like these are essentially software copies of the real world. They will be crucial to the development of a wide range of emerging technologies including autonomous driving, drone delivery, robotics, and a fast-approaching future filled with augmented reality.

Like other rapidly improving technologies, lidar is moving quickly through its development cycle. What was an expensive technology on the roof of a well-funded research project is now becoming cheaper, more capable, and readily available to consumers. At some point, lidar will come standard on most mobile devices and is now available to early-adopting owners of the iPhone 12 Pro.

Consumer lidar represents the inevitable shift from wealthy tech companies generating our world’s map data, to a more scalable crowd-sourced approach. To develop the repository for their Street View Maps product, Google reportedly spent $1-2 billion sending cars across continents photographing every street. Compare that to a live-mapping service like Waze, which uses crowd-sourced user data from its millions of users to generate accurate and real-time traffic conditions. Though these maps serve different functions, one is a static, expensive, unchanging map of the world while the other is dynamic, real-time, and constructed by users themselves.

Soon millions of people may be scanning everything from bedrooms to neighborhoods, resulting in 3D maps of significant quality. An online search for lidar room scans demonstrates just how richly textured these three-dimensional maps are compared to anything we’ve had before. With lidar and other depth-sensing systems, we now have the tools to create exact software copies of everywhere and everything on earth.

At some point, likely aided by crowdsourcing initiatives, these maps will become living breathing, real-time representations of the world. Some refer to this idea as a “digital twin” of the planet. In a feature cover story, Kevin Kelly, the cofounder of Wired magazine, calls this concept the “mirrorworld,” a one-to-one software map of everything.

So why is that such a big deal? Take augmented reality as an example.

Of all the emerging industries dependent on such a map, none are more invested in seeing this concept emerge than those within the AR landscape. Apple, for example, is not-so-secretly developing a pair of AR glasses, which they hope will deliver a mainstream turning point for the technology.

For Apple’s AR devices to work as anticipated, they will require virtual maps of the world, a concept AR insiders call the “AR cloud,” which is synonymous with the “mirrorworld” concept. These maps will be two things. First, they will be a tool that creators use to place AR content in very specific locations; like a world canvas to paint on. Second, they will help AR devices both locate and understand the world around them so they can render content in a believable way.

Imagine walking down a street wanting to check the trading hours of a local business. Instead of pulling out your phone to do a tedious search online, you conduct the equivalent of a visual google search simply by gazing at the store. Albeit a trivial example, the AR cloud represents an entirely non-trivial new way of managing how we organize the world’s information. Access to knowledge can be shifted away from the faraway monitors in our pocket, to its relevant real-world location.

Ultimately this describes a blurring of physical and digital infrastructure. Our public and private spaces will thus be comprised equally of both.

No example demonstrates this idea better than Pokémon Go. The game is straightforward enough; users capture virtual characters scattered around the real world. Today, the game relies on traditional GPS technology to place its characters, but GPS is accurate only to within a few meters of a location. For a car navigating on a highway or locating Pikachus in the world, that level of precision is sufficient. For drone deliveries, driverless cars, or placing a Pikachu in a specific location, say on a tree branch in a park, GPS isn’t accurate enough. As astonishing as it may seem, many experimental AR cloud concepts, even entirely mapped cities, are location specific down to the centimeter.

Niantic, the $4 billion publisher behind Pokémon Go, is aggressively working on developing a crowd-sourced approach to building better AR Cloud maps by encouraging their users to scan the world for them. Their recent acquisition of 6D.ai, a mapping software company developed by the University of Oxford’s Victor Prisacariu through his work at Oxford’s Active Vision Lab, indicates Niantic’s ambition to compete with the tech giants in this space.

With 6D.ai’s technology, Niantic is developing the in-house ability to generate their own 3D maps while gaining better semantic understanding of the world. By going beyond just knowing there’s a temporary collection of orange cones in a certain location, for example, the game may one day understand the meaning behind this; that a temporary construction zone means no Pokémon should spawn here to avoid drawing players to this location.

Niantic is not the only company working on this. Many of the big tech firms you would expect have entire teams focused on map data. Facebook, for example, recently acquired the UK-based Scape technologies, a computer vision startup mapping entire cities with centimeter precision.

As our digital maps of the world improve, expect a relentless and justified discussion of privacy concerns as well. How will society react to the idea of a real-time 3D map of their bedroom living on a Facebook or Amazon server? Those horrified by the use of facial recognition AI being used in public spaces are unlikely to find comfort in the idea of a machine-readable world subject to infinite monitoring.

The ability to build high-precision maps of the world could reshape the way we engage with our planet and promises to be one of the biggest technology developments of the next decade. While these maps may stay hidden as behind-the-scenes infrastructure powering much flashier technologies that capture the world’s attention, they will soon prop up large portions of our technological future.

Keep that in mind when a car with no driver is sharing your road.

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Posted in Human Robots

#437905 New Deep Learning Method Helps Robots ...

One of the biggest things standing in the way of the robot revolution is their inability to adapt. That may be about to change though, thanks to a new approach that blends pre-learned skills on the fly to tackle new challenges.

Put a robot in a tightly-controlled environment and it can quickly surpass human performance at complex tasks, from building cars to playing table tennis. But throw these machines a curve ball and they’re in trouble—just check out this compilation of some of the world’s most advanced robots coming unstuck in the face of notoriously challenging obstacles like sand, steps, and doorways.

The reason robots tend to be so fragile is that the algorithms that control them are often manually designed. If they encounter a situation the designer didn’t think of, which is almost inevitable in the chaotic real world, then they simply don’t have the tools to react.

Rapid advances in AI have provided a potential workaround by letting robots learn how to carry out tasks instead of relying on hand-coded instructions. A particularly promising approach is deep reinforcement learning, where the robot interacts with its environment through a process of trial-and-error and is rewarded for carrying out the correct actions. Over many repetitions it can use this feedback to learn how to accomplish the task at hand.

But the approach requires huge amounts of data to solve even simple tasks. And most of the things we would want a robot to do are actually comprised of many smaller tasks—for instance, delivering a parcel involves learning how to pick an object up, how to walk, how to navigate, and how to pass an object to someone else, among other things.

Training all these sub-tasks simultaneously is hugely complex and far beyond the capabilities of most current AI systems, so many experiments so far have focused on narrow skills. Some have tried to train AI on multiple skills separately and then use an overarching system to flip between these expert sub-systems, but these approaches still can’t adapt to completely new challenges.

Building off this research, though, scientists have now created a new AI system that can blend together expert sub-systems specialized for a specific task. In a paper in Science Robotics, they explain how this allows a four-legged robot to improvise new skills and adapt to unfamiliar challenges in real time.

The technique, dubbed multi-expert learning architecture (MELA), relies on a two-stage training approach. First the researchers used a computer simulation to train two neural networks to carry out two separate tasks: trotting and recovering from a fall.

They then used the models these two networks learned as seeds for eight other neural networks specialized for more specific motor skills, like rolling over or turning left or right. The eight “expert networks” were trained simultaneously along with a “gating network,” which learns how to combine these experts to solve challenges.

Because the gating network synthesizes the expert networks rather than switching them on sequentially, MELA is able to come up with blends of different experts that allow it to tackle problems none could solve alone.

The authors liken the approach to training people in how to play soccer. You start out by getting them to do drills on individual skills like dribbling, passing, or shooting. Once they’ve mastered those, they can then intelligently combine them to deal with more dynamic situations in a real game.

After training the algorithm in simulation, the researchers uploaded it to a four-legged robot and subjected it to a battery of tests, both indoors and outdoors. The robot was able to adapt quickly to tricky surfaces like gravel or pebbles, and could quickly recover from being repeatedly pushed over before continuing on its way.

There’s still some way to go before the approach could be adapted for real-world commercially useful robots. For a start, MELA currently isn’t able to integrate visual perception or a sense of touch; it simply relies on feedback from the robot’s joints to tell it what’s going on around it. The more tasks you ask the robot to master, the more complex and time-consuming the training will get.

Nonetheless, the new approach points towards a promising way to make multi-skilled robots become more than the sum of their parts. As much fun as it is, it seems like laughing at compilations of clumsy robots may soon be a thing of the past.

Image Credit: Yang et al., Science Robotics Continue reading

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