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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.
Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay Continue reading
“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.
Image credit: sergio souza / Pexels Continue reading
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