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Long before coronavirus appeared and shattered our pre-existing “normal,” the future of work was a widely discussed and debated topic. We’ve watched automation slowly but surely expand its capabilities and take over more jobs, and we’ve wondered what artificial intelligence will eventually be capable of.
The pandemic swiftly turned the working world on its head, putting millions of people out of a job and forcing millions more to work remotely. But essential questions remain largely unchanged: we still want to make sure we’re not replaced, we want to add value, and we want an equitable society where different types of work are valued fairly.
To address these issues—as well as how the pandemic has impacted them—this week Singularity University held a digital summit on the future of work. Forty-three speakers from multiple backgrounds, countries, and sectors of the economy shared their expertise on everything from work in developing markets to why we shouldn’t want to go back to the old normal.
Gary Bolles, SU’s chair for the Future of Work, kicked off the discussion with his thoughts on a future of work that’s human-centric, including why it matters and how to build it.
What Is Work?
“Work” seems like a straightforward concept to define, but since it’s constantly shifting shape over time, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Bolles defined work, very basically, as human skills applied to problems.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a dirty floor or a complex market entry strategy or a major challenge in the world,” he said. “We as humans create value by applying our skills to solve problems in the world.” You can think of the problems that need solving as the demand and human skills as the supply, and the two are in constant oscillation, including, every few decades or centuries, a massive shift.
We’re in the midst of one of those shifts right now (and we already were, long before the pandemic). Skills that have long been in demand are declining. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs report listed things like manual dexterity, management of financial and material resources, and quality control and safety awareness as declining skills. Meanwhile, skills the next generation will need include analytical thinking and innovation, emotional intelligence, creativity, and systems analysis.
Along Came a Pandemic
With the outbreak of coronavirus and its spread around the world, the demand side of work shrunk; all the problems that needed solving gave way to the much bigger, more immediate problem of keeping people alive. But as a result, tens of millions of people around the world are out of work—and those are just the ones that are being counted, and they’re a fraction of the true total. There are additional millions in seasonal or gig jobs or who work in informal economies now without work, too.
“This is our opportunity to focus,” Bolles said. “How do we help people re-engage with work? And make it better work, a better economy, and a better set of design heuristics for a world that we all want?”
Bolles posed five key questions—some spurred by impact of the pandemic—on which future of work conversations should focus to make sure it’s a human-centric future.
1. What does an inclusive world of work look like? Rather than seeing our current systems of work as immutable, we need to actually understand those systems and how we want to change them.
2. How can we increase the value of human work? We know that robots and software are going to be fine in the future—but for humans to be fine, we need to design for that very intentionally.
3. How can entrepreneurship help create a better world of work? In many economies the new value that’s created often comes from younger companies; how do we nurture entrepreneurship?
4. What will the intersection of workplace and geography look like? A large percentage of the global workforce is now working from home; what could some of the outcomes of that be? How does gig work fit in?
5. How can we ensure a healthy evolution of work and life? The health and the protection of those at risk is why we shut down our economies, but we need to find a balance that allows people to work while keeping them safe.
Problem-Solving Doesn’t End
The end result these questions are driving towards, and our overarching goal, is maximizing human potential. “If we come up with ways we can continue to do that, we’ll have a much more beneficial future of work,” Bolles said. “We should all be talking about where we can have an impact.”
One small silver lining? We had plenty of problems to solve in the world before ever hearing about coronavirus, and now we have even more. Is the pace of automation accelerating due to the virus? Yes. Are companies finding more ways to automate their processes in order to keep people from getting sick? They are.
But we have a slew of new problems on our hands, and we’re not going to stop needing human skills to solve them (not to mention the new problems that will surely emerge as second- and third-order effects of the shutdowns). If Bolles’ definition of work holds up, we’ve got ours cut out for us.
In an article from April titled The Great Reset, Bolles outlined three phases of the unemployment slump (we’re currently still in the first phase) and what we should be doing to minimize the damage. “The evolution of work is not about what will happen 10 to 20 years from now,” he said. “It’s about what we could be doing differently today.”
Watch Bolles’ talk and those of dozens of other experts for more insights into building a human-centric future of work here.
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Scientists have linked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one across multiple countries into a fully-functional network. Using standard internet protocols, they established a chain of communication whereby an artificial neuron controls a living, biological one, and passes on the info to another artificial one.
We’ve talked plenty about brain-computer interfaces and novel computer chips that resemble the brain. We’ve covered how those “neuromorphic” chips could link up into tremendously powerful computing entities, using engineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.
As Moore’s law is dying, we even said that neuromorphic computing is one path towards the future of extremely powerful, low energy consumption artificial neural network-based computing—in hardware—that could in theory better link up with the brain. Because the chips “speak” the brain’s language, in theory they could become neuroprosthesis hubs far more advanced and “natural” than anything currently possible.
This month, an international team put all of those ingredients together, turning theory into reality.
The three labs, scattered across Padova, Italy, Zurich, Switzerland, and Southampton, England, collaborated to create a fully self-controlled, hybrid artificial-biological neural network that communicated using biological principles, but over the internet.
The three-neuron network, linked through artificial synapses that emulate the real thing, was able to reproduce a classic neuroscience experiment that’s considered the basis of learning and memory in the brain. In other words, artificial neuron and synapse “chips” have progressed to the point where they can actually use a biological neuron intermediary to form a circuit that, at least partially, behaves like the real thing.
That’s not to say cyborg brains are coming soon. The simulation only recreated a small network that supports excitatory transmission in the hippocampus—a critical region that supports memory—and most brain functions require enormous cross-talk between numerous neurons and circuits. Nevertheless, the study is a jaw-dropping demonstration of how far we’ve come in recreating biological neurons and synapses in artificial hardware.
And perhaps one day, the currently “experimental” neuromorphic hardware will be integrated into broken biological neural circuits as bridges to restore movement, memory, personality, and even a sense of self.
The Artificial Brain Boom
One important thing: this study relies heavily on a decade of research into neuromorphic computing, or the implementation of brain functions inside computer chips.
The best-known example is perhaps IBM’s TrueNorth, which leveraged the brain’s computational principles to build a completely different computer than what we have today. Today’s computers run on a von Neumann architecture, in which memory and processing modules are physically separate. In contrast, the brain’s computing and memory are simultaneously achieved at synapses, small “hubs” on individual neurons that talk to adjacent ones.
Because memory and processing occur on the same site, biological neurons don’t have to shuttle data back and forth between processing and storage compartments, massively reducing processing time and energy use. What’s more, a neuron’s history will also influence how it behaves in the future, increasing flexibility and adaptability compared to computers. With the rise of deep learning, which loosely mimics neural processing as the prima donna of AI, the need to reduce power while boosting speed and flexible learning is becoming ever more tantamount in the AI community.
Neuromorphic computing was partially born out of this need. Most chips utilize special ingredients that change their resistance (or other physical characteristics) to mimic how a neuron might adapt to stimulation. Some chips emulate a whole neuron, that is, how it responds to a history of stimulation—does it get easier or harder to fire? Others imitate synapses themselves, that is, how easily they will pass on the information to another neuron.
Although single neuromorphic chips have proven to be far more efficient and powerful than current computer chips running machine learning algorithms in toy problems, so far few people have tried putting the artificial components together with biological ones in the ultimate test.
That’s what this study did.
A Hybrid Network
Still with me? Let’s talk network.
It’s gonna sound complicated, but remember: learning is the formation of neural networks, and neurons that fire together wire together. To rephrase: when learning, neurons will spontaneously organize into networks so that future instances will re-trigger the entire network. To “wire” together, downstream neurons will become more responsive to their upstream neural partners, so that even a whisper will cause them to activate. In contrast, some types of stimulation will cause the downstream neuron to “chill out” so that only an upstream “shout” will trigger downstream activation.
Both these properties—easier or harder to activate downstream neurons—are essentially how the brain forms connections. The “amping up,” in neuroscience jargon, is long-term potentiation (LTP), whereas the down-tuning is LTD (long-term depression). These two phenomena were first discovered in the rodent hippocampus more than half a century ago, and ever since have been considered as the biological basis of how the brain learns and remembers, and implicated in neurological problems such as addition (seriously, you can’t pass Neuro 101 without learning about LTP and LTD!).
So it’s perhaps especially salient that one of the first artificial-brain hybrid networks recapitulated this classic result.
To visualize: the three-neuron network began in Switzerland, with an artificial neuron with the badass name of “silicon spiking neuron.” That neuron is linked to an artificial synapse, a “memristor” located in the UK, which is then linked to a biological rat neuron cultured in Italy. The rat neuron has a “smart” microelectrode, controlled by the artificial synapse, to stimulate it. This is the artificial-to-biological pathway.
Meanwhile, the rat neuron in Italy also has electrodes that listen in on its electrical signaling. This signaling is passed back to another artificial synapse in the UK, which is then used to control a second artificial neuron back in Switzerland. This is the biological-to-artificial pathway back. As a testimony in how far we’ve come in digitizing neural signaling, all of the biological neural responses are digitized and sent over the internet to control its far-out artificial partner.
Here’s the crux: to demonstrate a functional neural network, just having the biological neuron passively “pass on” electrical stimulation isn’t enough. It has to show the capacity to learn, that is, to be able to mimic the amping up and down-tuning that are LTP and LTD, respectively.
You’ve probably guessed the results: certain stimulation patterns to the first artificial neuron in Switzerland changed how the artificial synapse in the UK operated. This, in turn, changed the stimulation to the biological neuron, so that it either amped up or toned down depending on the input.
Similarly, the response of the biological neuron altered the second artificial synapse, which then controlled the output of the second artificial neuron. Altogether, the biological and artificial components seamlessly linked up, over thousands of miles, into a functional neural circuit.
So…I’m still picking my jaw up off the floor.
It’s utterly insane seeing a classic neuroscience learning experiment repeated with an integrated network with artificial components. That said, a three-neuron network is far from the thousands of synapses (if not more) needed to truly re-establish a broken neural circuit in the hippocampus, which DARPA has been aiming to do. And LTP/LTD has come under fire recently as the de facto brain mechanism for learning, though so far they remain cemented as neuroscience dogma.
However, this is one of the few studies where you see fields coming together. As Richard Feynman famously said, “What I cannot recreate, I cannot understand.” Even though neuromorphic chips were built on a high-level rather than molecular-level understanding of how neurons work, the study shows that artificial versions can still synapse with their biological counterparts. We’re not just on the right path towards understanding the brain, we’re recreating it, in hardware—if just a little.
While the study doesn’t have immediate use cases, practically it does boost both the neuromorphic computing and neuroprosthetic fields.
“We are very excited with this new development,” said study author Dr. Themis Prodromakis at the University of Southampton. “On one side it sets the basis for a novel scenario that was never encountered during natural evolution, where biological and artificial neurons are linked together and communicate across global networks; laying the foundations for the Internet of Neuro-electronics. On the other hand, it brings new prospects to neuroprosthetic technologies, paving the way towards research into replacing dysfunctional parts of the brain with AI chips.”
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