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It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.
In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?
This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”
In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.
Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.
Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.
Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.
Such are the dreams, anyway.
But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”
Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.
For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.
One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.
Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.
Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.
In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.
You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).
Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.
Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.
Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?
We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.
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Robotics has come a long way in the past few years. Robots can now fetch items from specific spots in massive warehouses, swim through the ocean to study marine life, and lift 200 times their own weight. They can even perform synchronized dance routines.
But the really big question is—can robots put together an Ikea chair?
A team of engineers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore decided to find out, detailing their work in a paper published last week in the journal Science Robotics. The team took industrial robot arms and equipped them with parallel grippers, force-detecting sensors, and 3D cameras, and wrote software enabling the souped-up bots to tackle chair assembly. The robots’ starting point was a set of chair parts randomly scattered within reach.
As impressive as the above-mentioned robotic capabilities are, it’s worth noting that they’re mostly limited to a single skill. Putting together furniture, on the other hand, requires using and precisely coordinating multiple skills, including force control, visual localization, hand-eye coordination, and the patience to read each step of the manual without rushing through it and messing everything up.
Indeed, Ikea furniture, while meant to be simple and user-friendly, has left even the best of us scratching our heads and holding a spare oddly-shaped piece of wood as we stare at the desk or bed frame we just put together—or, for the less even-tempered among us, throwing said piece of wood across the room.
It’s a good thing robots don’t have tempers, because it took a few tries for the bots to get the chair assembly right.
Practice makes perfect, though (or in this case, rewriting code makes perfect), and these bots didn’t give up so easily. They had to hone three different skills: identifying which part was which among the scattered, differently-shaped pieces of wood, coordinating their movements to put those pieces in the right place, and knowing how much force to use in various steps of the process (i.e., more force is needed to connect two pieces than to pick up one piece).
A few tries later, the bots were able to assemble the chair from start to finish in about nine minutes.
On the whole, nicely done. But before we applaud the robots’ success too loudly, it’s important to note that they didn’t autonomously assemble the chair. Rather, each step of the process was planned and coded by engineers, down to the millimeter.
However, the team believes this closely-guided chair assembly was just a first step, and they see a not-so-distant future where combining artificial intelligence with advanced robotic capabilities could produce smart bots that would learn to assemble furniture and do other complex tasks on their own.
Future applications mentioned in the paper include electronics and aircraft manufacturing, logistics, and other high-mix, low-volume sectors.
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When? This is probably the question that futurists, AI experts, and even people with a keen interest in technology dread the most. It has proved famously difficult to predict when new developments in AI will take place. The scientists at the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence in 1956 thought that perhaps two months would be enough to make “significant advances” in a whole range of complex problems, including computers that can understand language, improve themselves, and even understand abstract concepts.
Sixty years later, and these problems are not yet solved. The AI Index, from Stanford, is an attempt to measure how much progress has been made in artificial intelligence.
The index adopts a unique approach, and tries to aggregate data across many regimes. It contains Volume of Activity metrics, which measure things like venture capital investment, attendance at academic conferences, published papers, and so on. The results are what you might expect: tenfold increases in academic activity since 1996, an explosive growth in startups focused around AI, and corresponding venture capital investment. The issue with this metric is that it measures AI hype as much as AI progress. The two might be correlated, but then again, they may not.
The index also scrapes data from the popular coding website Github, which hosts more source code than anyone in the world. They can track the amount of AI-related software people are creating, as well as the interest levels in popular machine learning packages like Tensorflow and Keras. The index also keeps track of the sentiment of news articles that mention AI: surprisingly, given concerns about the apocalypse and an employment crisis, those considered “positive” outweigh the “negative” by three to one.
But again, this could all just be a measure of AI enthusiasm in general.
No one would dispute the fact that we’re in an age of considerable AI hype, but the progress of AI is littered by booms and busts in hype, growth spurts that alternate with AI winters. So the AI Index attempts to track the progress of algorithms against a series of tasks. How well does computer vision perform at the Large Scale Visual Recognition challenge? (Superhuman at annotating images since 2015, but they still can’t answer questions about images very well, combining natural language processing and image recognition). Speech recognition on phone calls is almost at parity.
In other narrow fields, AIs are still catching up to humans. Translation might be good enough that you can usually get the gist of what’s being said, but still scores poorly on the BLEU metric for translation accuracy. The AI index even keeps track of how well the programs can do on the SAT test, so if you took it, you can compare your score to an AI’s.
Measuring the performance of state-of-the-art AI systems on narrow tasks is useful and fairly easy to do. You can define a metric that’s simple to calculate, or devise a competition with a scoring system, and compare new software with old in a standardized way. Academics can always debate about the best method of assessing translation or natural language understanding. The Loebner prize, a simplified question-and-answer Turing Test, recently adopted Winograd Schema type questions, which rely on contextual understanding. AI has more difficulty with these.
Where the assessment really becomes difficult, though, is in trying to map these narrow-task performances onto general intelligence. This is hard because of a lack of understanding of our own intelligence. Computers are superhuman at chess, and now even a more complex game like Go. The braver predictors who came up with timelines thought AlphaGo’s success was faster than expected, but does this necessarily mean we’re closer to general intelligence than they thought?
Here is where it’s harder to track progress.
We can note the specialized performance of algorithms on tasks previously reserved for humans—for example, the index cites a Nature paper that shows AI can now predict skin cancer with more accuracy than dermatologists. We could even try to track one specific approach to general AI; for example, how many regions of the brain have been successfully simulated by a computer? Alternatively, we could simply keep track of the number of professions and professional tasks that can now be performed to an acceptable standard by AI.
“We are running a race, but we don’t know how to get to the endpoint, or how far we have to go.”
Progress in AI over the next few years is far more likely to resemble a gradual rising tide—as more and more tasks can be turned into algorithms and accomplished by software—rather than the tsunami of a sudden intelligence explosion or general intelligence breakthrough. Perhaps measuring the ability of an AI system to learn and adapt to the work routines of humans in office-based tasks could be possible.
The AI index doesn’t attempt to offer a timeline for general intelligence, as this is still too nebulous and confused a concept.
Michael Woodridge, head of Computer Science at the University of Oxford, notes, “The main reason general AI is not captured in the report is that neither I nor anyone else would know how to measure progress.” He is concerned about another AI winter, and overhyped “charlatans and snake-oil salesmen” exaggerating the progress that has been made.
A key concern that all the experts bring up is the ethics of artificial intelligence.
Of course, you don’t need general intelligence to have an impact on society; algorithms are already transforming our lives and the world around us. After all, why are Amazon, Google, and Facebook worth any money? The experts agree on the need for an index to measure the benefits of AI, the interactions between humans and AIs, and our ability to program values, ethics, and oversight into these systems.
Barbra Grosz of Harvard champions this view, saying, “It is important to take on the challenge of identifying success measures for AI systems by their impact on people’s lives.”
For those concerned about the AI employment apocalypse, tracking the use of AI in the fields considered most vulnerable (say, self-driving cars replacing taxi drivers) would be a good idea. Society’s flexibility for adapting to AI trends should be measured, too; are we providing people with enough educational opportunities to retrain? How about teaching them to work alongside the algorithms, treating them as tools rather than replacements? The experts also note that the data suffers from being US-centric.
We are running a race, but we don’t know how to get to the endpoint, or how far we have to go. We are judging by the scenery, and how far we’ve run already. For this reason, measuring progress is a daunting task that starts with defining progress. But the AI index, as an annual collection of relevant information, is a good start.
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The key difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is entirely possible because of its grounding in scientific facts, while fantasy is not. This is where Black Mirror is both an entertaining and terrifying work of science fiction. Created by Charlie Brooker, the anthological series tells cautionary tales of emerging technology that could one day be an integral part of our everyday lives.
While watching the often alarming episodes, one can’t help but recognize the eerie similarities to some of the tech tools that are already abundant in our lives today. In fact, many previous Black Mirror predictions are already becoming reality.
The latest season of Black Mirror was arguably darker than ever. This time, Brooker seemed to focus on the ethical implications of one particular area: neurotechnology.
Warning: The remainder of this article may contain spoilers from Season 4 of Black Mirror.
Most of the storylines from season four revolve around neurotechnology and brain-machine interfaces. They are based in a world where people have the power to upload their consciousness onto machines, have fully immersive experiences in virtual reality, merge their minds with other minds, record others’ memories, and even track what others are thinking, feeling, and doing.
How can all this ever be possible? Well, these capabilities are already being developed by pioneers and researchers globally. Early last year, Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a neural lace. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing one brain to communicate with another. Various research teams have been able to develop mechanisms for “reading minds” or reconstructing memories of individuals via devices. The list goes on.
With many of the technologies we see in Black Mirror it’s not a question of if, but when. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to upload our consciousness onto the cloud via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” While other experts continue to challenge Kurzweil on the exact year we’ll accomplish this feat, with the current exponential growth of our technological capabilities, we’re on track to get there eventually.
As always, technology is only half the conversation. Equally fascinating are the many ethical and moral questions this topic raises.
For instance, with the increasing convergence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we have to ask ourselves if our morality from the physical world transfers equally into the virtual world. The first episode of season four, USS Calister, tells the story of a VR pioneer, Robert Daley, who creates breakthrough AI and VR to satisfy his personal frustrations and sexual urges. He uses the DNA of his coworkers (and their children) to re-create them digitally in his virtual world, to which he escapes to torture them, while they continue to be indifferent in the “real” world.
Audiences are left asking themselves: should what happens in the digital world be considered any less “real” than the physical world? How do we know if the individuals in the virtual world (who are ultimately based on algorithms) have true feelings or sentiments? Have they been developed to exhibit characteristics associated with suffering, or can they really feel suffering? Fascinatingly, these questions point to the hard problem of consciousness—the question of if, why, and how a given physical process generates the specific experience it does—which remains a major mystery in neuroscience.
Towards the end of USS Calister, the hostages of Daley’s virtual world attempt to escape through suicide, by committing an act that will delete the code that allows them to exist. This raises yet another mind-boggling ethical question: if we “delete” code that signifies a digital being, should that be considered murder (or suicide, in this case)? Why shouldn’t it? When we murder someone we are, in essence, taking away their capacity to live and to be, without their consent. By unplugging a self-aware AI, wouldn’t we be violating its basic right to live in the same why? Does AI, as code, even have rights?
Brain implants can also have a radical impact on our self-identity and how we define the word “I”. In the episode Black Museum, instead of witnessing just one horror, we get a series of scares in little segments. One of those segments tells the story of a father who attempts to reincarnate the mother of his child by uploading her consciousness into his mind and allowing her to live in his head (essentially giving him multiple personality disorder). In this way, she can experience special moments with their son.
With “no privacy for him, and no agency for her” the good intention slowly goes very wrong. This story raises a critical question: should we be allowed to upload consciousness into limited bodies? Even more, if we are to upload our minds into “the cloud,” at what point do we lose our individuality to become one collective being?
These questions can form the basis of hours of debate, but we’re just getting started. There are no right or wrong answers with many of these moral dilemmas, but we need to start having such discussions.
The Downside of Dystopian Sci-Fi
Like last season’s San Junipero, one episode of the series, Hang the DJ, had an uplifting ending. Yet the overwhelming majority of the stories in Black Mirror continue to focus on the darkest side of human nature, feeding into the pre-existing paranoia of the general public. There is certainly some value in this; it’s important to be aware of the dangers of technology. After all, what better way to explore these dangers before they occur than through speculative fiction?
A big takeaway from every tale told in the series is that the greatest threat to humanity does not come from technology, but from ourselves. Technology itself is not inherently good or evil; it all comes down to how we choose to use it as a society. So for those of you who are techno-paranoid, beware, for it’s not the technology you should fear, but the humans who get their hands on it.
While we can paint negative visions for the future, though, it is also important to paint positive ones. The kind of visions we set for ourselves have the power to inspire and motivate generations. Many people are inherently pessimistic when thinking about the future, and that pessimism in turn can shape their contributions to humanity.
While utopia may not exist, the future of our species could and should be one of solving global challenges, abundance, prosperity, liberation, and cosmic transcendence. Now that would be a thrilling episode to watch.
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