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#436984 Robots to the Rescue: How They Can Help ...

As the coronavirus pandemic forces people to keep their distance, could this be robots‘ time to shine? A group of scientists think so, and they’re calling for robots to do the “dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs” of infectious disease management.

Social distancing has emerged as one of the most effective strategies for slowing the spread of COVID-19, but it’s also bringing many jobs to a standstill and severely restricting our daily lives. And unfortunately, the one group that can’t rely on its protective benefits are the medical and emergency services workers we’re relying on to save us.

Robots could be a solution, according to the editorial board of Science Robotics, by helping replace humans in a host of critical tasks, from disinfecting hospitals to collecting patient samples and automating lab tests.

According to the authors, the key areas where robots could help are clinical care, logistics, and reconnaissance, which refers to tasks like identifying the infected or making sure people comply with quarantines or social distancing requirements. Outside of the medical sphere, robots could also help keep the economy and infrastructure going by standing in for humans in factories or vital utilities like waste management or power plants.

When it comes to clinical care, robots can play important roles in disease prevention, diagnosis and screening, and patient care, the researchers say. Robots have already been widely deployed to disinfect hospitals and other public spaces either using UV light that kills bugs or by repurposing agricultural robots and drones to spray disinfectant, reducing the exposure of cleaning staff to potentially contaminated surfaces. They are also being used to carry out crucial deliveries of food and medication without exposing humans.

But they could also play an important role in tracking the disease, say the researchers. Thermal cameras combined with image recognition algorithms are already being used to detect potential cases at places like airports, but incorporating them into mobile robots or drones could greatly expand the coverage of screening programs.

A more complex challenge—but one that could significantly reduce medical workers’ exposure to the virus—would be to design robots that could automate the collection of nasal swabs used to test for COVID-19. Similarly automated blood collection for tests could be of significant help, and researchers are already investigating using ultrasound to help robots locate veins to draw blood from.

Convincing people it’s safe to let a robot stick a swab up their nose or jab a needle in their arm might be a hard sell right now, but a potentially more realistic scenario would be to get robots to carry out laboratory tests on collected samples to reduce exposure to lab technicians. Commercial laboratory automation systems already exist, so this might be a more achievable near-term goal.

Not all solutions need to be automated, though. While autonomous systems will be helpful for reducing the workload of stretched health workers, remote systems can still provide useful distancing. Remote control robotics systems are already becoming increasingly common in the delicate business of surgery, so it would be entirely feasible to create remote systems to carry out more prosaic medical tasks.

Such systems would make it possible for experts to contribute remotely in many different places without having to travel. And robotic systems could combine medical tasks like patient monitoring with equally important social interaction for people who may have been shut off from human contact.

In a teleconference last week Guang-Zhong Yang, a medical roboticist from Carnegie Mellon University and founding editor of Science Robotics, highlighted the importance of including both doctors and patients in the design of these robots to ensure they are safe and effective, but also to make sure people trust them to observe social protocols and not invade their privacy.

But Yang also stressed the importance of putting the pieces in place to enable the rapid development and deployment of solutions. During the 2015 Ebola outbreak, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation organized workshops to identify where robotics could help deal with epidemics.

But once the threat receded, attention shifted elsewhere, and by the time the next pandemic came around little progress had been made on potential solutions. The result is that it’s unclear how much help robots will really be able to provide to the COVID-19 response.

That means it’s crucial to invest in a sustained research effort into this field, say the paper’s authors, with more funding and multidisciplinary research partnerships between government agencies and industry so that next time around we will be prepared.

“These events are rare and then it’s just that people start to direct their efforts to other applications,” said Yang. “So I think this time we really need to nail it, because without a sustained approach to this history will repeat itself and robots won’t be ready.”

Image Credit: ABB’s YuMi collaborative robot. Image courtesy of ABB Continue reading

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#436488 Tech’s Biggest Leaps From the Last 10 ...

As we enter our third decade in the 21st century, it seems appropriate to reflect on the ways technology developed and note the breakthroughs that were achieved in the last 10 years.

The 2010s saw IBM’s Watson win a game of Jeopardy, ushering in mainstream awareness of machine learning, along with DeepMind’s AlphaGO becoming the world’s Go champion. It was the decade that industrial tools like drones, 3D printers, genetic sequencing, and virtual reality (VR) all became consumer products. And it was a decade in which some alarming trends related to surveillance, targeted misinformation, and deepfakes came online.

For better or worse, the past decade was a breathtaking era in human history in which the idea of exponential growth in information technologies powered by computation became a mainstream concept.

As I did last year for 2018 only, I’ve asked a collection of experts across the Singularity University faculty to help frame the biggest breakthroughs and moments that gave shape to the past 10 years. I asked them what, in their opinion, was the most important breakthrough in their respective fields over the past decade.

My own answer to this question, focused in the space of augmented and virtual reality, would be the stunning announcement in March of 2014 that Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2 billion. Although VR technology had been around for a while, it was at this precise moment that VR arrived as a consumer technology platform. Facebook, largely fueled by the singular interest of CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has funded the development of this industry, keeping alive the hope that consumer VR can become a sustainable business. In the meantime, VR has continued to grow in sophistication and usefulness, though it has yet to truly take off as a mainstream concept. That will hopefully be a development for the 2020s.

Below is a decade in review across the technology areas that are giving shape to our modern world, as described by the SU community of experts.

Digital Biology
Dr. Tiffany Vora | Faculty Director and Vice Chair, Digital Biology and Medicine, Singularity University

In my mind, this decade of astounding breakthroughs in the life sciences and medicine rests on the achievement of the $1,000 human genome in 2016. More-than-exponentially falling costs of DNA sequencing have driven advances in medicine, agriculture, ecology, genome editing, synthetic biology, the battle against climate change, and our fundamental understanding of life and its breathtaking connections. The “digital” revolution in DNA constituted an important model for harnessing other types of biological information, from personalized bio data to massive datasets spanning populations and species.

Crucially, by aggressively driving down the cost of such analyses, researchers and entrepreneurs democratized access to the source code of life—with attendant financial, cultural, and ethical consequences. Exciting, but take heed: Veritas Genetics spearheaded a $600 genome in 2019, only to have to shutter USA operations due to a money trail tangled with the trade war with China. Stay tuned through the early 2020s to see the pricing of DNA sequencing fall even further … and to experience the many ways that cheaper, faster harvesting of biological data will enrich your daily life.

Cryptocurrency
Alex Gladstein | Chief Strategy Officer, Human Rights Foundation

The past decade has seen Bitcoin go from just an idea on an obscure online message board to a global financial network carrying more than 100 billion dollars in value. And we’re just getting started. One recent defining moment in the cryptocurrency space has been a stunning trend underway in Venezuela, where today, the daily dollar-denominated value of Bitcoin traded now far exceeds the daily dollar-denominated value traded on the Caracas Stock Exchange. It’s just one country, but it’s a significant country, and a paradigm shift.

Governments and corporations are following Bitcoin’s success too, and are looking to launch their own digital currencies. China will launch its “DC/EP” project in the coming months, and Facebook is trying to kickstart its Libra project. There are technical and regulatory uncertainties for both, but one thing is for certain: the era of digital currency has arrived.

Business Strategy and Entrepreneurship
Pascal Finnette | Chair, Entrepreneurship and Open Innovation, Singularity University

For me, without a doubt, the most interesting and quite possibly ground-shifting development in the fields of entrepreneurship and corporate innovation in the last ten years is the rapid maturing of customer-driven product development frameworks such as Lean Startup, and its subsequent adoption by corporates for their own innovation purposes.

Tools and frameworks like the Business Model Canvas, agile (software) development and the aforementioned Lean Startup methodology fundamentally shifted the way we think and go about building products, services, and companies, with many of these tools bursting onto the startup scene in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

As these tools matured they found mass adoption not only in startups around the world, but incumbent companies who eagerly adopted them to increase their own innovation velocity and success.

Energy
Ramez Naam | Co-Chair, Energy and Environment, Singularity University

The 2010s were the decade that saw clean electricity, energy storage, and electric vehicles break through price and performance barriers around the world. Solar, wind, batteries, and EVs started this decade as technologies that had to be subsidized. That was the first phase of their existence. Now they’re entering their third, most disruptive phase, where shifting to clean energy and mobility is cheaper than continuing to use existing coal, gas, or oil infrastructure.

Consider that at the start of 2010, there was no place on earth where building new solar or wind was cheaper than building new coal or gas power generation. By 2015, in some of the sunniest and windiest places on earth, solar and wind had entered their second phase, where they were cost-competitive for new power. And then, in 2018 and 2019, we started to see the edge of the third phase, as building new solar and wind, in some parts of the world, was cheaper than operating existing coal or gas power plants.

Food Technology
Liz Specht, Ph. D | Associate Director of Science & Technology, The Good Food Institute

The arrival of mainstream plant-based meat is easily the food tech advance of the decade. Meat analogs have, of course, been around forever. But only in the last decade have companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods decided to cut animals out of the process and build no-compromise meat directly from plants.

Plant-based meat is already transforming the fast-food industry. For example, the introduction of the Impossible Whopper led Burger King to their most profitable quarter in many years. But the global food industry as a whole is shifting as well. Tyson, JBS, Nestle, Cargill, and many others are all embracing plant-based meat.

Augmented and Virtual Reality
Jody Medich | CEO, Superhuman-x

The breakthrough moment for augmented and virtual reality came in 2013 when Palmer Lucky took apart an Android smartphone and added optic lenses to make the first version of the Oculus Rift. Prior to that moment, we struggled with miniaturizing the components needed to develop low-latency head-worn devices. But thanks to the smartphone race started in 2006 with the iPhone, we finally had a suite of sensors, chips, displays, and computing power small enough to put on the head.

What will the next 10 years bring? Look for AR/VR to explode in a big way. We are right on the cusp of that tipping point when the tech is finally “good enough” for our linear expectations. Given all it can do today, we can’t even picture what’s possible. Just as today we can’t function without our phones, by 2029 we’ll feel lost without some AR/VR product. It will be the way we interact with computing, smart objects, and AI. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, predicts it will replace all of today’s computing devices. I can’t wait.

Philosophy of Technology
Alix Rübsaam | Faculty Fellow, Singularity University, Philosophy of Technology/Ethics of AI

The last decade has seen a significant shift in our general attitude towards the algorithms that we now know dictate much of our surroundings. Looking back at the beginning of the decade, it seems we were blissfully unaware of how the data we freely and willingly surrendered would feed the algorithms that would come to shape every aspect of our daily lives: the news we consume, the products we purchase, the opinions we hold, etc.

If I were to isolate a single publication that contributed greatly to the shift in public discourse on algorithms, it would have to be Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction from 2016. It remains a comprehensive, readable, and highly informative insight into how algorithms dictate our finances, our jobs, where we go to school, or if we can get health insurance. Its publication represents a pivotal moment when the general public started to question whether we should be OK with outsourcing decision making to these opaque systems.

The ubiquity of ethical guidelines for AI and algorithms published just in the last year (perhaps most comprehensively by the AI Now Institute) fully demonstrates the shift in public opinion of this decade.

Data Science
Ola Kowalewski | Faculty Fellow, Singularity University, Data Innovation

In the last decade we entered the era of internet and smartphone ubiquity. The number of internet users doubled, with nearly 60 percent of the global population connected online and now over 35 percent of the globe owns a smartphone. With billions of people in a state of constant connectedness and therefore in a state of constant surveillance, the companies that have built the tech infrastructure and information pipelines have dominated the global economy. This shift from tech companies being the underdogs to arguably the world’s major powers sets the landscape we enter for the next decade.

Global Grand Challenges
Darlene Damm | Vice Chair, Faculty, Global Grand Challenges, Singularity University

The biggest breakthrough over the last decade in social impact and technology is that the social impact sector switched from seeing technology as something problematic to avoid, to one of the most effective ways to create social change. We now see people using exponential technologies to solve all sorts of social challenges in areas ranging from disaster response to hunger to shelter.

The world’s leading social organizations, such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme, have launched their own venture funds and accelerators, and the United Nations recently declared that digitization is revolutionizing global development.

Digital Biology
Raymond McCauley | Chair, Digital Biology, Singularity University, Co-Founder & Chief Architect, BioCurious; Principal, Exponential Biosciences

CRISPR is bringing about a revolution in genetic engineering. It’s obvious, and it’s huge. What may not be so obvious is the widespread adoption of genetic testing. And this may have an even longer-lasting effect. It’s used to test new babies, to solve medical mysteries, and to catch serial killers. Thanks to holiday ads from 23andMe and Ancestry.com, it’s everywhere. Testing your DNA is now a common over-the-counter product. People are using it to set their diet, to pick drugs, and even for dating (or at least picking healthy mates).

And we’re just in the early stages. Further down the line, doing large-scale studies on more people, with more data, will lead to the use of polygenic risk scores to help us rank our genetic potential for everything from getting cancer to being a genius. Can you imagine what it would be like for parents to pick new babies, GATTACA-style, to get the smartest kids? You don’t have to; it’s already happening.

Artificial Intelligence
Neil Jacobstein | Chair, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Singularity University

The convergence of exponentially improved computing power, the deep learning algorithm, and access to massive data resulted in a series of AI breakthroughs over the past decade. These included: vastly improved accuracy in identifying images, making self driving cars practical, beating several world champions in Go, and identifying gender, smoking status, and age from retinal fundus photographs.

Combined, these breakthroughs convinced researchers and investors that after 50+ years of research and development, AI was ready for prime-time applications. Now, virtually every field of human endeavor is being revolutionized by machine learning. We still have a long way to go to achieve human-level intelligence and beyond, but the pace of worldwide improvement is blistering.

Hod Lipson | Professor of Engineering and Data Science, Columbia University

The biggest moment in AI in the past decade (and in its entire history, in my humble opinion) was midnight, Pacific time, September 30, 2012: the moment when machines finally opened their eyes. It was the moment when deep learning took off, breaking stagnant decades of machine blindness, when AI couldn’t reliably tell apart even a cat from a dog. That seemingly trivial accomplishment—a task any one-year-old child can do—has had a ripple effect on AI applications from driverless cars to health diagnostics. And this is just the beginning of what is sure to be a Cambrian explosion of AI.

Neuroscience
Divya Chander | Chair, Neuroscience, Singularity University

If the 2000s were the decade of brain mapping, then the 2010s were the decade of brain writing. Optogenetics, a technique for precisely mapping and controlling neurons and neural circuits using genetically-directed light, saw incredible growth in the 2010s.

Also in the last 10 years, neuromodulation, or the ability to rewire the brain using both invasive and non-invasive interfaces and energy, has exploded in use and form. For instance, the Braingate consortium showed us how electrode arrays implanted into the motor cortex could be used by paralyzed people to use their thoughts to direct a robotic arm. These technologies, alone or in combination with robotics, exoskeletons, and flexible, implantable, electronics also make possible a future of human augmentation.

Image Credit: Image by Jorge Guillen from Pixabay Continue reading

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#436482 50+ Reasons Our Favorite Emerging ...

For most of history, technology was about atoms, the manipulation of physical stuff to extend humankind’s reach. But in the last five or six decades, atoms have partnered with bits, the elemental “particles” of the digital world as we know it today. As computing has advanced at the accelerating pace described by Moore’s Law, technological progress has become increasingly digitized.

SpaceX lands and reuses rockets and self-driving cars do away with drivers thanks to automation, sensors, and software. Businesses find and hire talent from anywhere in the world, and for better and worse, a notable fraction of the world learns and socializes online. From the sequencing of DNA to artificial intelligence and from 3D printing to robotics, more and more new technologies are moving at a digital pace and quickly emerging to reshape the world around us.

In 2019, stories charting the advances of some of these digital technologies consistently made headlines. Below is, what is at best, an incomplete list of some of the big stories that caught our eye this year. With so much happening, it’s likely we’ve missed some notable headlines and advances—as well as some of your personal favorites. In either instance, share your thoughts and candidates for the biggest stories and breakthroughs on Facebook and Twitter.

With that said, let’s dive straight into the year.

Artificial Intelligence
No technology garnered as much attention as AI in 2019. With good reason. Intelligent computer systems are transitioning from research labs to everyday life. Healthcare, weather forecasting, business process automation, traffic congestion—you name it, and machine learning algorithms are likely beginning to work on it. Yet, AI has also been hyped up and overmarketed, and the latest round of AI technology, deep learning, is likely only one piece of the AI puzzle.

This year, Open AI’s game-playing algorithms beat some of the world’s best Dota 2 players, DeepMind notched impressive wins in Starcraft, and Carnegie Mellon University’s Libratus “crushed” pros at six-player Texas Hold‘em.
Speaking of games, AI’s mastery of the incredibly complex game of Go prompted a former world champion to quit, stating that AI ‘”cannot be defeated.”
But it isn’t just fun and games. Practical, powerful applications that make the best of AI’s pattern recognition abilities are on the way. Insilico Medicine, for example, used machine learning to help discover and design a new drug in just 46 days, and DeepMind is focused on using AI to crack protein folding.
Of course, AI can be a double-edged sword. When it comes to deepfakes and fake news, for example, AI makes both easier to create and detect, and early in the year, OpenAI created and announced a powerful AI text generator but delayed releasing it for fear of malicious use.
Recognizing AI’s power for good and ill, the OECD, EU, World Economic Forum, and China all took a stab at defining an ethical framework for the development and deployment of AI.

Computing Systems
Processors and chips kickstarted the digital boom and are still the bedrock of continued growth. While progress in traditional silicon-based chips continues, it’s slowing and getting more expensive. Some say we’re reaching the end of Moore’s Law. While that may be the case for traditional chips, specialized chips and entirely new kinds of computing are waiting in the wings.

In fall 2019, Google confirmed its quantum computer had achieved “quantum supremacy,” a term that means a quantum computer can perform a calculation a normal computer cannot. IBM pushed back on the claim, and it should be noted the calculation was highly specialized. But while it’s still early days, there does appear to be some real progress (and more to come).
Should quantum computing become truly practical, “the implications are staggering.” It could impact machine learning, medicine, chemistry, and materials science, just to name a few areas.
Specialized chips continue to take aim at machine learning—a giant new chip with over a trillion transistors, for example, may make machine learning algorithms significantly more efficient.
Cellular computers also saw advances in 2019 thanks to CRISPR. And the year witnessed the emergence of the first reprogrammable DNA computer and new chips inspired by the brain.
The development of hardware computing platforms is intrinsically linked to software. 2019 saw a continued move from big technology companies towards open sourcing (at least parts of) their software, potentially democratizing the use of advanced systems.

Networks
Increasing interconnectedness has, in many ways, defined the 21st century so far. Your phone is no longer just a phone. It’s access to the world’s population and accumulated knowledge—and it fits in your pocket. Pretty neat. This is all thanks to networks, which had some notable advances in 2019.

The biggest network development of the year may well be the arrival of the first 5G networks.
5G’s faster speeds promise advances across many emerging technologies.
Self-driving vehicles, for example, may become both smarter and safer thanks to 5G C-V2X networks. (Don’t worry with trying to remember that. If they catch on, they’ll hopefully get a better name.)
Wi-Fi may have heard the news and said “hold my beer,” as 2019 saw the introduction of Wi-Fi 6. Perhaps the most important upgrade, among others, is that Wi-Fi 6 ensures that the ever-growing number of network connected devices get higher data rates.
Networks also went to space in 2019, as SpaceX began launching its Starlink constellation of broadband satellites. In typical fashion, Elon Musk showed off the network’s ability to bounce data around the world by sending a Tweet.

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality
Forget Pokemon Go (unless you want to add me as a friend in the game—in which case don’t forget Pokemon Go). 2019 saw AR and VR advance, even as Magic Leap, the most hyped of the lot, struggled to live up to outsized expectations and sell headsets.

Mixed reality AR and VR technologies, along with the explosive growth of sensor-based data about the world around us, is creating a one-to-one “Mirror World” of our physical reality—a digital world you can overlay on our own or dive into immersively thanks to AR and VR.
Facebook launched Replica, for example, which is a photorealistic virtual twin of the real world that, among other things, will help train AIs to better navigate their physical surroundings.
Our other senses (beyond eyes) may also become part of the Mirror World through the use of peripherals like a newly developed synthetic skin that aim to bring a sense of touch to VR.
AR and VR equipment is also becoming cheaper—with more producers entering the space—and more user-friendly. Instead of a wired headset requiring an expensive gaming PC, the new Oculus Quest is a wireless, self-contained step toward the mainstream.
Niche uses also continue to gain traction, from Google Glass’s Enterprise edition to the growth of AR and VR in professional education—including on-the-job-training and roleplaying emotionally difficult work encounters, like firing an employee.

Digital Biology and Biotech
The digitization of biology is happening at an incredible rate. With wild new research coming to light every year and just about every tech giant pouring money into new solutions and startups, we’re likely to see amazing advances in 2020 added to those we saw in 2019.

None were, perhaps, more visible than the success of protein-rich, plant-based substitutes for various meats. This was the year Beyond Meat was the top IPO on the NASDAQ stock exchange and people stood in line for the plant-based Impossible Whopper and KFC’s Beyond Chicken.
In the healthcare space, a report about three people with HIV who became virus free thanks to a bone marrow transplants of stem cells caused a huge stir. The research is still in relatively early stages, and isn’t suitable for most people, but it does provides a glimmer of hope.
CRISPR technology, which almost deserves its own section, progressed by leaps and bounds. One tweak made CRISPR up to 50 times more accurate, while the latest new CRISPR-based system, CRISPR prime, was described as a “word processor” for gene editing.
Many areas of healthcare stand to gain from CRISPR. For instance, cancer treatment, were a first safety test showed ‘promising’ results.
CRISPR’s many potential uses, however, also include some weird/morally questionable areas, which was exemplified by one the year’s stranger CRISPR-related stories about a human-monkey hybrid embryo in China.
Incidentally, China could be poised to take the lead on CRISPR thanks to massive investments and research programs.
As a consequence of quick advances in gene editing, we are approaching a point where we will be able to design our own biology—but first we need to have a serious conversation as a society about the ethics of gene editing and what lines should be drawn.

3D Printing
3D printing has quietly been growing both market size and the objects the printers are capable of producing. While both are impressive, perhaps the biggest story of 2019 is their increased speed.

One example was a boat that was printed in just three days, which also set three new world records for 3D printing.
3D printing is also spreading in the construction industry. In Mexico, the technology is being used to construct 50 new homes with subsidized mortgages of just $20/month.
3D printers also took care of all parts of a 640 square-meter home in Dubai.
Generally speaking, the use of 3D printing to make parts for everything from rocket engines (even entire rockets) to trains to cars illustrates the sturdiness of the technology, anno 2019.
In healthcare, 3D printing is also advancing the cause of bio-printed organs and, in one example, was used to print vascularized parts of a human heart.

Robotics
Living in Japan, I get to see Pepper, Aibo, and other robots on pretty much a daily basis. The novelty of that experience is spreading to other countries, and robots are becoming a more visible addition to both our professional and private lives.

We can’t talk about robots and 2019 without mentioning Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot, which went on sale for the general public.
Meanwhile, Google, Boston Dynamics’ former owner, rebooted their robotics division with a more down-to-earth focus on everyday uses they hope to commercialize.
SoftBank’s Pepper robot is working as a concierge and receptionist in various countries. It is also being used as a home companion. Not satisfied, Pepper rounded off 2019 by heading to the gym—to coach runners.
Indeed, there’s a growing list of sports where robots perform as well—or better—than humans.
2019 also saw robots launch an assault on the kitchen, including the likes of Samsung’s robot chef, and invade the front yard, with iRobot’s Terra robotic lawnmower.
In the borderlands of robotics, full-body robotic exoskeletons got a bit more practical, as the (by all accounts) user-friendly, battery-powered Sarcos Robotics Guardian XO went commercial.

Autonomous Vehicles
Self-driving cars did not—if you will forgive the play on words—stay quite on track during 2019. The fallout from Uber’s 2018 fatal crash marred part of the year, while some big players ratcheted back expectations on a quick shift to the driverless future. Still, self-driving cars, trucks, and other autonomous systems did make progress this year.

Winner of my unofficial award for best name in self-driving goes to Optimus Ride. The company also illustrates that self-driving may not be about creating a one-size-fits-all solution but catering to specific markets.
Self-driving trucks had a good year, with tests across many countries and states. One of the year’s odder stories was a self-driving truck traversing the US with a delivery of butter.
A step above the competition may be the future slogan (or perhaps not) of Boeing’s self-piloted air taxi that saw its maiden test flight in 2019. It joins a growing list of companies looking to create autonomous, flying passenger vehicles.
2019 was also the year where companies seemed to go all in on last-mile autonomous vehicles. Who wins that particular competition could well emerge during 2020.

Blockchain and Digital Currencies
Bitcoin continues to be the cryptocurrency equivalent of a rollercoaster, but the underlying blockchain technology is progressing more steadily. Together, they may turn parts of our financial systems cashless and digital—though how and when remains a slightly open question.

One indication of this was Facebook’s hugely controversial announcement of Libra, its proposed cryptocurrency. The company faced immediate pushback and saw a host of partners jump ship. Still, it brought the tech into mainstream conversations as never before and is putting the pressure on governments and central banks to explore their own digital currencies.
Deloitte’s in-depth survey of the state of blockchain highlighted how the technology has moved from fintech into just about any industry you can think of.
One of the biggest issues facing the spread of many digital currencies—Bitcoin in particular, you could argue—is how much energy it consumes to mine them. 2019 saw the emergence of several new digital currencies with a much smaller energy footprint.
2019 was also a year where we saw a new kind of digital currency, stablecoins, rise to prominence. As the name indicates, stablecoins are a group of digital currencies whose price fluctuations are more stable than the likes of Bitcoin.
In a geopolitical sense, 2019 was a year of China playing catch-up. Having initially banned blockchain, the country turned 180 degrees and announced that it was “quite close” to releasing a digital currency and a wave of blockchain-programs.

Renewable Energy and Energy Storage
While not every government on the planet seems to be a fan of renewable energy, it keeps on outperforming fossil fuel after fossil fuel in places well suited to it—even without support from some of said governments.

One of the reasons for renewable energy’s continued growth is that energy efficiency levels keep on improving.
As a result, an increased number of coal plants are being forced to close due to an inability to compete, and the UK went coal-free for a record two weeks.
We are also seeing more and more financial institutions refusing to fund fossil fuel projects. One such example is the European Investment Bank.
Renewable energy’s advance is tied at the hip to the rise of energy storage, which also had a breakout 2019, in part thanks to investments from the likes of Bill Gates.
The size and capabilities of energy storage also grew in 2019. The best illustration came from Australia were Tesla’s mega-battery proved that energy storage has reached a stage where it can prop up entire energy grids.

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#436256 Alphabet Is Developing a Robot to Take ...

Robots excel at carrying out specialized tasks in controlled environments, but put them in your average office and they’d be lost. Alphabet wants to change that by developing what they call the Everyday Robot, which could learn to help us out with our daily chores.

For a long time most robots were painstakingly hand-coded to carry out their functions, but since the deep learning revolution earlier this decade there’s been a growing effort to imbue them with AI that lets them learn new tasks through experience.

That’s led to some impressive breakthroughs, like a robotic hand nimble enough to solve a Rubik’s cube and a robotic arm that can accurately toss bananas across a room.

And it turns out Alphabet’s early-stage research and development division, Alphabet X, has also secretly been using similar machine learning techniques to develop robots adaptable enough to carry out a range of tasks in cluttered and unpredictable human environments like homes and offices.

The robots they’ve built combine a wheeled base with a single arm and a head full of sensors (including LIDAR) for 3D scanning, borrowed from Alphabet’s self-driving car division, Waymo.

At the minute, though, they’re largely restricted to sorting trash for recycling, project leader Hans Peter Brondmo writes in a blog post. While that might sound mundane, identifying different kinds of trash, grasping it, and moving it to the correct bin is still a difficult thing for a robot to do consistently. Some of the robots also have to navigate around the office to sort trash at various recycling stations.

Alphabet says even its human staff were getting it wrong 20 percent of the time, but after several months of training the robots have managed to get that down to 3.5 percent.

Every day, 30 robots toil away in what’s been dubbed the “playpen” sorting trash, and then every night thousands of virtual robots continue to practice in a simulation. This experience is then used to update the robots’ control algorithms each night. All the robots also share their experiences with the others through a process called collaborative learning.

The process isn’t flawless, though. Simonite notes that while the robots exhibit some uncannily smart behaviors, like stirring piles of rubbish to make it easier to grab specific items, they also frequently miss or fumble the objects they’re trying to grasp.

Nonetheless, the project’s leaders are happy with their progress so far. And the hope is that creating robots that are able to learn from little more than experience in complex environments like an office should be a first step towards general-purpose robots that can pick up a variety of useful skills to assist humans.

Taking that next step will be the major test of the project. So far there’s been limited evidence that experience gained by robots in one task can be transferred to learning another. That’s something the group hopes to demonstrate next year.

And it seems there may be more robot news coming out of Alphabet X soon. The group has several other robotics “moonshots” in the pipeline, built on technology and talent transferred over in 2016 from the remains of a broadly unsuccessful splurge on robotics startups by former Google executive Andy Rubin.

Whether this robotics renaissance at Alphabet will finally help robots break into our homes and offices remains to be seen, but with the resources they have at hand, they just may be able to make it happen.

Image Credit: Everyday Robot, Alphabet X Continue reading

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#436151 Natural Language Processing Dates Back ...

This is part one of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing.

We’re in the middle of a boom time for natural language processing (NLP), the field of computer science that focuses on linguistic interactions between humans and machines. Thanks to advances in machine learning over the past decade, we’ve seen vast improvements in speech recognition and machine translation software. Language generators are now good enough to write coherent news articles, and virtual agents like Siri and Alexa are becoming part of our daily lives.

Most trace the origins of this field back to the beginning of the computer age, when Alan Turing, writing in 1950, imagined a smart machine that could interact fluently with a human via typed text on a screen. For this reason, machine-generated language is mostly understood as a digital phenomenon—and a central goal of artificial intelligence (AI) research.

This six-part series will challenge that common understanding of NLP. In fact, attempts to design formal rules and machines that can analyze, process, and generate language go back hundreds of years.

Attempts to design formal rules and machines that can analyze, process, and generate language go back hundreds of years.

While specific technologies have changed over time, the basic idea of treating language as a material that can be artificially manipulated by rule-based systems has been pursued by many people in many cultures and for many different reasons. These historical experiments reveal the promise and perils of attempting to simulate human language in non-human ways—and they hold lessons for today’s practitioners of cutting-edge NLP techniques.

The story begins in medieval Spain. In the late 1200s, a Jewish mystic by the name of Abraham Abulafia sat down at a table in his small house in Barcelona, picked up a quill, dipped it in ink, and began combining the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in strange and seemingly random ways. Aleph with Bet, Bet with Gimmel, Gimmel with Aleph and Bet, and so on.

Abulafia called this practice “the science of the combination of letters.” He wasn’t actually combining letters at random; instead he was carefully following a secret set of rules that he had devised while studying an ancient Kabbalistic text called the Sefer Yetsirah. This book describes how God created “all that is formed and all that is spoken” by combining Hebrew letters according to sacred formulas. In one section, God exhausts all possible two-letter combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters.

By studying the Sefer Yetsirah, Abulafia gained the insight that linguistic symbols can be manipulated with formal rules in order to create new, interesting, insightful sentences. To this end, he spent months generating thousands of combinations of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and eventually emerged with a series of books that he claimed were endowed with prophetic wisdom.

For Abulafia, generating language according to divine rules offered insight into the sacred and the unknown, or as he put it, allowed him to “grasp things which by human tradition or by thyself thou would not be able to know.”

Combining letters to generate language allows thou to “grasp things which by human tradition or by thyself thou would not be able to know.”
—Abraham Abulafia, mystic

But other Jewish scholars considered this rudimentary language generation a dangerous act that bordered on the profane. The Talmud tells stories of rabbis who, by the magical act of permuting language according to the formulas set out in the Sefer Yetsirah, created artificial creatures called golems. In these tales, rabbis manipulated the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to replicate God’s act of creation, using the sacred formulas to imbue inanimate objects with life.

In some of these myths, the rabbis used this skill for practical reasons, to make animals to eat when hungry or servants to help them with domestic duties. But many of these golem stories end badly. In one particularly well-known fable, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the 16th century rabbi of Prague, used the sacred practice of letter combinatorics to conjure a golem to protect the Jewish community from antisemitic attacks, only to see the golem turn violently on him instead.

This “science of the combination of letters” was a rudimentary form of natural language processing, as it involved combining letters of the Hebrew alphabet according to specific rules. For Kabbalists, it was a double-edged sword: a way to access new forms of knowledge and wisdom, but also an inherently dangerous practice that could bring about unintended consequences.

This tension reappears throughout the long history of language processing, and still echoes in discussions about the most cutting-edge NLP technology of our digital era.

This is the first installment of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing. Come back next Monday for part two, “In the 17th Century, Leibniz Dreamed of a Machine That Could Calculate Ideas​.”

You can also check out our prior series on the untold history of AI. Continue reading

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