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The borders between the real world and the digital world keep crumbling, and the latter’s importance in both our personal and professional lives keeps growing. Some describe the melding of virtual and real worlds as part of the fourth industrial revolution. Said revolution’s full impact on us as individuals, our companies, communities, and societies is still unknown.
Greg Cross, chief business officer of New Zealand-based AI company Soul Machines, thinks one inescapable consequence of these crumbling borders is people spending more and more time interacting with technology. In a presentation at Singularity University’s Global Summit in San Francisco last month, Cross unveiled Soul Machines’ latest work and shared his views on the current state of human-like AI and where the technology may go in the near future.
Humanizing Technology Interaction
Cross started by introducing Rachel, one of Soul Machines’ “emotionally responsive digital humans.” The company has built 15 different digital humans of various sexes, groups, and ethnicities. Rachel, along with her “sisters” and “brothers,” has a virtual nervous system based on neural networks and biological models of different paths in the human brain. The system is controlled by virtual neurotransmitters and hormones akin to dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, which influence learning and behavior.
As a result, each digital human can have its own unique set of “feelings” and responses to interactions. People interact with them via visual and audio sensors, and the machines respond in real time.
“Over the last 20 or 30 years, the way we think about machines and the way we interact with machines has changed,” Cross said. “We’ve always had this view that they should actually be more human-like.”
The realism of the digital humans’ graphic representations comes thanks to the work of Soul Machines’ other co-founder, Dr. Mark Sager, who has won two Academy Awards for his work on some computer-generated movies, including James Cameron’s Avatar.
Cross pointed out, for example, that rather than being unrealistically flawless and clear, Rachel’s skin has blemishes and sun spots, just like real human skin would.
The Next Human-Machine Frontier
When people interact with each other face to face, emotional and intellectual engagement both heavily influence the interaction. What would it look like for machines to bring those same emotional and intellectual capacities to our interactions with them, and how would this type of interaction affect the way we use, relate to, and feel about AI?
Cross and his colleagues believe that humanizing artificial intelligence will make the technology more useful to humanity, and prompt people to use AI in more beneficial ways.
“What we think is a very important view as we move forward is that these machines can be more helpful to us. They can be more useful to us. They can be more interesting to us if they’re actually more like us,” Cross said.
It is an approach that seems to resonate with companies and organizations. For example, in the UK, where NatWest Bank is testing out Cora as a digital employee to help answer customer queries. In Germany, Daimler Financial Group plans to employ Sarah as something “similar to a personal concierge” for its customers. According to Cross, Daimler is looking at other ways it could deploy digital humans across the organization, from building digital service people, digital sales people, and maybe in the future, digital chauffeurs.
Soul Machines’ latest creation is Will, a digital teacher that can interact with children through a desktop, tablet, or mobile device and help them learn about renewable energy. Cross sees other social uses for digital humans, including potentially serving as doctors to rural communities.
Our Digital Friends—and Twins
Soul Machines is not alone in its quest to humanize technology. It is a direction many technology companies, including the likes of Amazon, also seem to be pursuing. Amazon is working on building a home robot that, according to Bloomberg, “could be a sort of mobile Alexa.”
Finding a more human form for technology seems like a particularly pervasive pursuit in Japan. Not just when it comes to its many, many robots, but also virtual assistants like Gatebox.
The Japanese approach was perhaps best summed up by famous android researcher Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, who I interviewed last year: “The human brain is set up to recognize and interact with humans. So, it makes sense to focus on developing the body for the AI mind, as well as the AI. I believe that the final goal for both Japanese and other companies and scientists is to create human-like interaction.”
During Cross’s presentation, Rob Nail, CEO and associate founder of Singularity University, joined him on the stage, extending an invitation to Rachel to be SU’s first fully digital faculty member. Rachel accepted, and though she’s the only digital faculty right now, she predicted this won’t be the case for long.
“In 10 years, all of you will have digital versions of yourself, just like me, to take on specific tasks and make your life a whole lot easier,” she said. “This is great news for me. I’ll have millions of digital friends.”
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By the end of 2018, something will be very different about the harbor area in the northern Chinese city of Caofeidian. If you were to visit, the whirring cranes and tractors driving containers to and fro would be the only things in sight.
Caofeidian is set to become the world’s first fully autonomous harbor by the end of the year. The US-Chinese startup TuSimple, a specialist in developing self-driving trucks, will replace human-driven terminal tractor-trucks with 20 self-driving models. A separate company handles crane automation, and a central control system will coordinate the movements of both.
According to Robert Brown, Director of Public Affairs at TuSimple, the project could quickly transform into a much wider trend. “The potential for automating systems in harbors and ports is staggering when considering the number of deep-water and inland ports around the world. At the same time, the closed, controlled nature of a port environment makes it a perfect proving ground for autonomous truck technology,” he said.
The autonomous cranes and trucks have a big task ahead of them. Caofeidian currently processes around 300,000 TEU containers a year. Even if you were dealing with Lego bricks, that number of units would get you a decent-sized cathedral or a 22-foot-long aircraft carrier. For any maritime fans—or people who enjoy the moving of heavy objects—TEU stands for twenty-foot equivalent unit. It is the industry standard for containers. A TEU equals an 8-foot (2.43 meter) wide, 8.5-foot (2.59 meter) high, and 20-foot (6.06 meter) long container.
While impressive, the Caofeidian number pales in comparison with the biggest global ports like Shanghai, Singapore, Busan, or Rotterdam. For example, 2017 saw more than 40 million TEU moved through Shanghai port facilities.
Self-driving container vehicles have been trialled elsewhere, including in Yangshan, close to Shanghai, and Rotterdam. Qingdao New Qianwan Container Terminal in China recently laid claim to being the first fully automated terminal in Asia.
The potential for efficiencies has many ports interested in automation. Qingdao said its systems allow the terminal to operate in complete darkness and have reduced labor costs by 70 percent while increasing efficiency by 30 percent. In some cases, the number of workers needed to unload a cargo ship has gone from 60 to 9.
TuSimple says it is in negotiations with several other ports and also sees potential in related logistics-heavy fields.
Stable Testing Ground
For autonomous vehicles, ports seem like a perfect testing ground. They are restricted, confined areas with few to no pedestrians where operating speeds are limited. The predictability makes it unlike, say, city driving.
Robert Brown describes it as an ideal setting for the first adaptation of TuSimple’s technology. The company, which, amongst others, is backed by chipmaker Nvidia, have been retrofitting existing vehicles from Shaanxi Automobile Group with sensors and technology.
At the same time, it is running open road tests in Arizona and China of its Class 8 Level 4 autonomous trucks.
The Camera Approach
Dozens of autonomous truck startups are reported to have launched in China over the past two years. In other countries the situation is much the same, as the race for the future of goods transportation heats up. Startup companies like Embark, Einride, Starsky Robotics, and Drive.ai are just a few of the names in the space. They are facing competition from the likes of Tesla, Daimler, VW, Uber’s Otto subsidiary, and in March, Waymo announced it too was getting into the truck race.
Compared to many of its competitors, TuSimple’s autonomous driving system is based on a different approach. Instead of laser-based radar (LIDAR), TuSimple primarily uses cameras to gather data about its surroundings. Currently, the company uses ten cameras, including forward-facing, backward-facing, and wide-lens. Together, they produce the 360-degree “God View” of the vehicle’s surroundings, which is interpreted by the onboard autonomous driving systems.
Each camera gathers information at 30 frames a second. Millimeter wave radar is used as a secondary sensor. In total, the vehicles generate what Robert Brown describes with a laugh as “almost too much” data about its surroundings and is accurate beyond 300 meters in locating and identifying objects. This includes objects that have given LIDAR problems, such as black vehicles.
Another advantage is price. Companies often loathe revealing exact amounts, but Tesla has gone as far as to say that the ‘expected’ price of its autonomous truck will be from $150,0000 and upwards. While unconfirmed, TuSimple’s retrofitted, camera-based solution is thought to cost around $20,000.
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