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Every year, for just a few days in a major city, a small team of roboticists get to live the dream: ordering around their own personal robot butlers. In carefully-constructed replicas of a restaurant scene or a domestic setting, these robots perform any number of simple algorithmic tasks. “Get the can of beans from the shelf. Greet the visitors to the museum. Help the humans with their shopping. Serve the customers at the restaurant.”
This is Robocup @ Home, the annual tournament where teams of roboticists put their autonomous service robots to the test for practical domestic applications. The tasks seem simple and mundane, but considering the technology required reveals that they’re really not.
The Robot Butler Contest
Say you want a robot to fetch items in the supermarket. In a crowded, noisy environment, the robot must understand your commands, ask for clarification, and map out and navigate an unfamiliar environment, avoiding obstacles and people as it does so. Then it must recognize the product you requested, perhaps in a cluttered environment, perhaps in an unfamiliar orientation. It has to grasp that product appropriately—recall that there are entire multi-million-dollar competitions just dedicated to developing robots that can grasp a range of objects—and then return it to you.
It’s a job so simple that a child could do it—and so complex that teams of smart roboticists can spend weeks programming and engineering, and still end up struggling to complete simplified versions of this task. Of course, the child has the advantage of millions of years of evolutionary research and development, while the first robots that could even begin these tasks were only developed in the 1970s.
Even bearing this in mind, Robocup @ Home can feel like a place where futurist expectations come crashing into technologist reality. You dream of a smooth-voiced, sardonic JARVIS who’s already made your favorite dinner when you come home late from work; you end up shouting “remember the biscuits” at a baffled, ungainly droid in aisle five.
Caring for the Elderly
Famously, Japan is one of the most robo-enthusiastic nations in the world; they are the nation that stunned us all with ASIMO in 2000, and several studies have been conducted into the phenomenon. It’s no surprise, then, that humanoid robotics should be seriously considered as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.
Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR-2) is a simple but programmable robot with a single arm; it can be remote-controlled to pick up objects and can monitor patients. HSR-2 has become the default robot for use in Robocup @ Home tournaments, at least in tasks that involve manipulating objects.
Alongside this, Toyota is working on exoskeletons to assist people in walking after strokes. It may surprise you to learn that nurses suffer back injuries more than any other occupation, at roughly three times the rate of construction workers, due to the day-to-day work of lifting patients. Toyota has a Care Assist robot/exoskeleton designed to fix precisely this problem by helping care workers with the heavy lifting.
The Home of the Future
The enthusiasm for domestic robotics is easy to understand and, in fact, many startups already sell robots marketed as domestic helpers in some form or another. In general, though, they skirt the immensely complicated task of building a fully capable humanoid robot—a task that even Google’s skunk-works department gave up on, at least until recently.
It’s plain to see why: far more research and development is needed before these domestic robots could be used reliably and at a reasonable price. Consumers with expectations inflated by years of science fiction saturation might find themselves frustrated as the robots fail to perform basic tasks.
Instead, domestic robotics efforts fall into one of two categories. There are robots specialized to perform a domestic task, like iRobot’s Roomba, which stuck to vacuuming and became the most successful domestic robot of all time by far.
The tasks need not necessarily be simple, either: the impressive but expensive automated kitchen uses the world’s most dexterous hands to cook meals, providing it can recognize the ingredients. Other robots focus on human-robot interaction, like Jibo: they essentially package the abilities of a voice assistant like Siri, Cortana, or Alexa to respond to simple questions and perform online tasks in a friendly, dynamic robot exterior.
In this way, the future of domestic automation starts to look a lot more like smart homes than a robot or domestic servant. General robotics is difficult in the same way that general artificial intelligence is difficult; competing with humans, the great all-rounders, is a challenge. Getting superhuman performance at a more specific task, however, is feasible and won’t cost the earth.
Individual startups without the financial might of a Google or an Amazon can develop specialized robots, like Seven Dreamers’ laundry robot, and hope that one day it will form part of a network of autonomous robots that each have a role to play in the household.
The Smart Home has been a staple of futurist expectations for a long time, to the extent that movies featuring smart homes out of control are already a cliché. But critics of the smart home idea—and of the internet of things more generally—tend to focus on the idea that, more often than not, software just adds an additional layer of things that can break (NSFW), in exchange for minimal added convenience. A toaster that can short-circuit is bad enough, but a toaster that can refuse to serve you toast because its firmware is updating is something else entirely.
That’s before you even get into the security vulnerabilities, which are all the more important when devices are installed in your home and capable of interacting with them. The idea of a smart watch that lets you keep an eye on your children might sound like something a security-conscious parent would like: a smart watch that can be hacked to track children, listen in on their surroundings, and even fool them into thinking a call is coming from their parents is the stuff of nightmares.
Key to many of these problems is the lack of standardization for security protocols, and even the products themselves. The idea of dozens of startups each developing a highly-specialized piece of robotics to perform a single domestic task sounds great in theory, until you realize the potential hazards and pitfalls of getting dozens of incompatible devices to work together on the same system.
It seems inevitable that there are yet more layers of domestic drudgery that can be automated away, decades after the first generation of time-saving domestic devices like the dishwasher and vacuum cleaner became mainstream. With projected market values into the billions and trillions of dollars, there is no shortage of industry interest in ironing out these kinks. But, for now at least, the answer to the question: “Where’s my robot butler?” is that it is gradually, painstakingly learning how to sort through groceries.
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Last year, a novelist went on a road trip across the USA. The trip was an attempt to emulate Jack Kerouac—to go out on the road and find something essential to write about in the experience. There is, however, a key difference between this writer and anyone else talking your ear off in the bar. This writer is just a microphone, a GPS, and a camera hooked up to a laptop and a whole bunch of linear algebra.
People who are optimistic that artificial intelligence and machine learning won’t put us all out of a job say that human ingenuity and creativity will be difficult to imitate. The classic argument is that, just as machines freed us from repetitive manual tasks, machine learning will free us from repetitive intellectual tasks.
This leaves us free to spend more time on the rewarding aspects of our work, pursuing creative hobbies, spending time with loved ones, and generally being human.
In this worldview, creative works like a great novel or symphony, and the emotions they evoke, cannot be reduced to lines of code. Humans retain a dimension of superiority over algorithms.
But is creativity a fundamentally human phenomenon? Or can it be learned by machines?
And if they learn to understand us better than we understand ourselves, could the great AI novel—tailored, of course, to your own predispositions in fiction—be the best you’ll ever read?
Maybe Not a Beach Read
This is the futurist’s view, of course. The reality, as the jury-rigged contraption in Ross Goodwin’s Cadillac for that road trip can attest, is some way off.
“This is very much an imperfect document, a rapid prototyping project. The output isn’t perfect. I don’t think it’s a human novel, or anywhere near it,” Goodwin said of the novel that his machine created. 1 The Road is currently marketed as the first novel written by AI.
Once the neural network has been trained, it can generate any length of text that the author desires, either at random or working from a specific seed word or phrase. Goodwin used the sights and sounds of the road trip to provide these seeds: the novel is written one sentence at a time, based on images, locations, dialogue from the microphone, and even the computer’s own internal clock.
The results are… mixed.
The novel begins suitably enough, quoting the time: “It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy.” Descriptions of locations begin according to the Foursquare dataset fed into the algorithm, but rapidly veer off into the weeds, becoming surreal. While experimentation in literature is a wonderful thing, repeatedly quoting longitude and latitude coordinates verbatim is unlikely to win anyone the Booker Prize.
Data In, Art Out?
Neural networks as creative agents have some advantages. They excel at being trained on large datasets, identifying the patterns in those datasets, and producing output that follows those same rules. Music inspired by or written by AI has become a growing subgenre—there’s even a pop album by human-machine collaborators called the Songularity.
A neural network can “listen to” all of Bach and Mozart in hours, and train itself on the works of Shakespeare to produce passable pseudo-Bard. The idea of artificial creativity has become so widespread that there’s even a meme format about forcibly training neural network ‘bots’ on human writing samples, with hilarious consequences—although the best joke was undoubtedly human in origin.
The AI that roamed from New York to New Orleans was an LSTM (long short-term memory) neural net. By default, information contained in individual neurons is preserved, and only small parts can be “forgotten” or “learned” in an individual timestep, rather than neurons being entirely overwritten.
The LSTM architecture performs better than previous recurrent neural networks at tasks such as handwriting and speech recognition. The neural net—and its programmer—looked further in search of literary influences, ingesting 60 million words (360 MB) of raw literature according to Goodwin’s recipe: one third poetry, one third science fiction, and one third “bleak” literature.
In this way, Goodwin has some creative control over the project; the source material influences the machine’s vocabulary and sentence structuring, and hence the tone of the piece.
The Thoughts Beneath the Words
The problem with artificially intelligent novelists is the same problem with conversational artificial intelligence that computer scientists have been trying to solve from Turing’s day. The machines can understand and reproduce complex patterns increasingly better than humans can, but they have no understanding of what these patterns mean.
Goodwin’s neural network spits out sentences one letter at a time, on a tiny printer hooked up to the laptop. Statistical associations such as those tracked by neural nets can form words from letters, and sentences from words, but they know nothing of character or plot.
When talking to a chatbot, the code has no real understanding of what’s been said before, and there is no dataset large enough to train it through all of the billions of possible conversations.
Unless restricted to a predetermined set of options, it loses the thread of the conversation after a reply or two. In a similar way, the creative neural nets have no real grasp of what they’re writing, and no way to produce anything with any overarching coherence or narrative.
Goodwin’s experiment is an attempt to add some coherent backbone to the AI “novel” by repeatedly grounding it with stimuli from the cameras or microphones—the thematic links and narrative provided by the American landscape the neural network drives through.
Goodwin feels that this approach (the car itself moving through the landscape, as if a character) borrows some continuity and coherence from the journey itself. “Coherent prose is the holy grail of natural-language generation—feeling that I had somehow solved a small part of the problem was exhilarating. And I do think it makes a point about language in time that’s unexpected and interesting.”
AI Is Still No Kerouac
A coherent tone and semantic “style” might be enough to produce some vaguely-convincing teenage poetry, as Google did, and experimental fiction that uses neural networks can have intriguing results. But wading through the surreal AI prose of this era, searching for some meaning or motif beyond novelty value, can be a frustrating experience.
Maybe machines can learn the complexities of the human heart and brain, or how to write evocative or entertaining prose. But they’re a long way off, and somehow “more layers!” or a bigger corpus of data doesn’t feel like enough to bridge that gulf.
Real attempts by machines to write fiction have so far been broadly incoherent, but with flashes of poetry—dreamlike, hallucinatory ramblings.
Neural networks might not be capable of writing intricately-plotted works with charm and wit, like Dickens or Dostoevsky, but there’s still an eeriness to trying to decipher the surreal, Finnegans’ Wake mish-mash.
You might see, in the odd line, the flickering ghost of something like consciousness, a deeper understanding. Or you might just see fragments of meaning thrown into a neural network blender, full of hype and fury, obeying rules in an occasionally striking way, but ultimately signifying nothing. In that sense, at least, the RNN’s grappling with metaphor feels like a metaphor for the hype surrounding the latest AI summer as a whole.
Or, as the human author of On The Road put it: “You guys are going somewhere or just going?”
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“You really can’t justify tuna in Chicago as a source of sustenance.” That’s according to Dr. Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Society Explorer who was the first female chief scientist at NOAA. She came to the Good Food Institute’s Good Food Conference to deliver a call to action around global food security, agriculture, environmental protection, and the future of consumer choice.
It seems like all options should be on the table to feed an exploding population threatened by climate change. But Dr. Earle, who is faculty at Singularity University, drew a sharp distinction between seafood for sustenance versus seafood as a choice. “There is this widespread claim that we must take large numbers of wildlife from the sea in order to have food security.”
A few minutes later, Dr. Earle directly addressed those of us in the audience. “We know the value of a dead fish,” she said. That’s market price. “But what is the value of a live fish in the ocean?”
That’s when my mind blew open. What is the value—or put another way, the cost—of using the ocean as a major source of protein for humans? How do you put a number on that? Are we talking about dollars and cents, or about something far larger?
Dr. Liz Specht of the Good Food Institute drew the audience’s attention to a strange imbalance. Currently, about half of the yearly global catch of seafood comes from aquaculture. That means that the other half is wild caught. It’s hard to imagine half of your meat coming directly from the forests and the plains, isn’t it? And yet half of the world’s seafood comes from direct harvesting of the oceans, by way of massive overfishing, a terrible toll from bycatch, a widespread lack of regulation and enforcement, and even human rights violations such as slavery.
The search for solutions is on, from both within the fishing industry and from external agencies such as governments and philanthropists. Could there be another way?
Makers of plant-based seafood and clean seafood think they know how to feed the global demand for seafood without harming the ocean. These companies are part of a larger movement harnessing technology to reduce our reliance on wild and domesticated animals—and all the environmental, economic, and ethical issues that come with it.
Producers of plant-based seafood (20 or so currently) are working to capture the taste, texture, and nutrition of conventional seafood without the limitations of geography or the health of a local marine population. Like with plant-based meat, makers of plant-based seafood are harnessing food science and advances in chemistry, biology, and engineering to make great food. The industry’s strategy? Start with what the consumer wants, and then figure out how to achieve that great taste through technology.
So how does plant-based seafood taste? Pretty good, as it turns out. (The biggest benefit of a food-oriented conference is that your mouth is always full!)
I sampled “tuna” salad made from Good Catch Food’s fish-free tuna, which is sourced from legumes; the texture was nearly indistinguishable from that of flaked albacore tuna, and there was no lingering fishy taste to overpower my next bite. In a blind taste test, I probably wouldn’t have known that I was eating a plant-based seafood alternative. Next I reached for Ocean Hugger Food’s Ahimi, a tomato-based alternative to raw tuna. I adore Hawaiian poke, so I was pleasantly surprised when my Ahimi-based poke captured the bite of ahi tuna. It wasn’t quite as delightfully fatty as raw tuna, but with wild tuna populations struggling to recover from a 97% decline in numbers from 40 years ago, Ahimi is a giant stride in the right direction.
These plant-based alternatives aren’t the only game in town, however.
The clean meat industry, which has also been called “cultured meat” or “cellular agriculture,” isn’t seeking to lure consumers away from animal protein. Instead, cells are sampled from live animals and grown in bioreactors—meaning that no animal is slaughtered to produce real meat.
Clean seafood is poised to piggyback off platforms developed for clean meat; growing fish cells in the lab should rely on the same processes as growing meat cells. I know of four companies currently focusing on seafood (Finless Foods, Wild Type, BlueNalu, and Seafuture Sustainable Biotech), and a few more are likely to emerge from stealth mode soon.
Importantly, there’s likely not much difference between growing clean seafood from the top or the bottom of the food chain. Tuna, for example, are top predators that must grow for at least 10 years before they’re suitable as food. Each year, a tuna consumes thousands of pounds of other fish, shellfish, and plankton. That “long tail of groceries,” said Dr. Earle, “is a pretty expensive choice.” Excitingly, clean tuna would “level the trophic playing field,” as Dr. Specht pointed out.
All this is only the beginning of what might be possible.
Combining synthetic biology with clean meat and seafood means that future products could be personalized for individual taste preferences or health needs, by reprogramming the DNA of the cells in the lab. Industries such as bioremediation and biofuels likely have a lot to teach us about sourcing new ingredients and flavors from algae and marine plants. By harnessing rapid advances in automation, robotics, sensors, machine vision, and other big-data analytics, the manufacturing and supply chains for clean seafood could be remarkably safe and robust. Clean seafood would be just that: clean, without pathogens, parasites, or the plastic threatening to fill our oceans, meaning that you could enjoy it raw.
What about price? Dr. Mark Post, a pioneer in clean meat who is also faculty at Singularity University, estimated that 80% of clean-meat production costs come from the expensive medium in which cells are grown—and some ingredients in the medium are themselves sourced from animals, which misses the point of clean meat. Plus, to grow a whole cut of food, like a fish fillet, the cells need to be coaxed into a complex 3D structure with various cell types like muscle cells and fat cells. These two technical challenges must be solved before clean meat and seafood give consumers the experience they want, at the price they want.
In this respect clean seafood has an unusual edge. Most of what we know about growing animal cells in the lab comes from the research and biomedical industries (from tissue engineering, for example)—but growing cells to replace an organ has different constraints than growing cells for food. The link between clean seafood and biomedicine is less direct, empowering innovators to throw out dogma and find novel reagents, protocols, and equipment to grow seafood that captures the tastes, textures, smells, and overall experience of dining by the ocean.
Asked to predict when we’ll be seeing clean seafood in the grocery store, Lou Cooperhouse the CEO of BlueNalu, explained that the challenges aren’t only in the lab: marketing, sales, distribution, and communication with consumers are all critical. As Niya Gupta, the founder of Fork & Goode, said, “The question isn’t ‘can we do it’, but ‘can we sell it’?”
The good news is that the clean meat and seafood industry is highly collaborative; there are at least two dozen companies in the space, and they’re all talking to each other. “This is an ecosystem,” said Dr. Uma Valeti, the co-founder of Memphis Meats. “We’re not competing with each other.” It will likely be at least a decade before science, business, and regulation enable clean meat and seafood to routinely appear on restaurant menus, let alone market shelves.
Until then, think carefully about your food choices. Meditate on Dr. Earle’s question: “What is the real cost of that piece of halibut?” Or chew on this from Dr. Ricardo San Martin, of the Sutardja Center at the University of California, Berkeley: “Food is a system of meanings, not an object.” What are you saying when you choose your food, about your priorities and your values and how you want the future to look? Do you think about animal welfare? Most ethical regulations don’t extend to marine life, and if you don’t think that ocean creatures feel pain, consider the lobster.
Seafood is largely an acquired taste, since most of us don’t live near the water. Imagine a future in which children grow up loving the taste of delicious seafood but without hurting a living animal, the ocean, or the global environment.
Do more than imagine. As Dr. Earle urged us, “Convince the public at large that this is a really cool idea.”
Ahimi (Ocean Hugger)
New Wave Foods
Heritage Health Food
The Vegetarian Butcher
Table based on Figure 5 of the report “An Ocean of Opportunity: Plant-based and clean seafood for sustainable oceans without sacrifice,” from The Good Food Institute.
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