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One of the most contentious debates in technology is around the question of automation and jobs. At issue is whether advances in automation, specifically with regards to artificial intelligence and robotics, will spell trouble for today’s workers. This debate is played out in the media daily, and passions run deep on both sides of the issue. In the past, however, automation has created jobs and increased real wages.
A widespread concern with the current scenario is that the workers most likely to be displaced by technology lack the skills needed to do the new jobs that same technology will create.
Let’s look at this concern in detail. Those who fear automation will hurt workers start by pointing out that there is a wide range of jobs, from low-pay, low-skill to high-pay, high-skill ones. This can be represented as follows:
They then point out that technology primarily creates high-paying jobs, like geneticists, as shown in the diagram below.
Meanwhile, technology destroys low-wage, low-skill jobs like those in fast food restaurants, as shown below:
Then, those who are worried about this dynamic often pose the question, “Do you really think a fast-food worker is going to become a geneticist?”
They worry that we are about to face a huge amount of systemic permanent unemployment, as the unskilled displaced workers are ill-equipped to do the jobs of tomorrow.
It is important to note that both sides of the debate are in agreement at this point. Unquestionably, technology destroys low-skilled, low-paying jobs while creating high-skilled, high-paying ones.
So, is that the end of the story? As a society are we destined to bifurcate into two groups, those who have training and earn high salaries in the new jobs, and those with less training who see their jobs vanishing to machines? Is this latter group forever locked out of economic plenty because they lack training?
The question, “Can a fast food worker become a geneticist?” is where the error comes in. Fast food workers don’t become geneticists. What happens is that a college biology professor becomes a geneticist. Then a high-school biology teacher gets the college job. Then the substitute teacher gets hired on full-time to fill the high school teaching job. All the way down.
The question is not whether those in the lowest-skilled jobs can do the high-skilled work. Instead the question is, “Can everyone do a job just a little harder than the job they have today?” If so, and I believe very deeply that this is the case, then every time technology creates a new job “at the top,” everyone gets a promotion.
This isn’t just an academic theory—it’s 200 years of economic history in the west. For 200 years, with the exception of the Great Depression, unemployment in the US has been between 2 percent and 13 percent. Always. Europe’s range is a bit wider, but not much.
If I took 200 years of unemployment rates and graphed them, and asked you to find where the assembly line took over manufacturing, or where steam power rapidly replaced animal power, or the lightning-fast adoption of electricity by industry, you wouldn’t be able to find those spots. They aren’t even blips in the unemployment record.
You don’t even have to look back as far as the assembly line to see this happening. It has happened non-stop for 200 years. Every fifty years, we lose about half of all jobs, and this has been pretty steady since 1800.
How is it that for 200 years we have lost half of all jobs every half century, but never has this process caused unemployment? Not only has it not caused unemployment, but during that time, we have had full employment against the backdrop of rising wages.
How can wages rise while half of all jobs are constantly being destroyed? Simple. Because new technology always increases worker productivity. It creates new jobs, like web designer and programmer, while destroying low-wage backbreaking work. When this happens, everyone along the way gets a better job.
Our current situation isn’t any different than the past. The nature of technology has always been to create high-skilled jobs and increase worker productivity. This is good news for everyone.
People often ask me what their children should study to make sure they have a job in the future. I usually say it doesn’t really matter. If I knew everything I know now and went back to the mid 1980s, what could I have taken in high school to make me better prepared for today? There is only one class, and it wasn’t computer science. It was typing. Who would have guessed?
The great skill is to be able to learn new things, and luckily, we all have that. In fact, that is our singular ability as a species. What I do in my day-to-day job consists largely of skills I have learned as the years have passed. In my experience, if you ask people at all job levels,“Would you like a little more challenging job to make a little more money?” almost everyone says yes.
That’s all it has taken for us to collectively get here today, and that’s all we need going forward.
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When was the last time you watched a movie where you could control the plot?
Bandersnatch is the first interactive film in the sci fi anthology series Black Mirror. Written by series creator Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade, the film tells the story of young programmer Stefan Butler, who is adapting a fantasy choose-your-own-adventure novel called Bandersnatch into a video game. Throughout the film, viewers are given the power to influence Butler’s decisions, leading to diverging plots with different endings.
Like many Black Mirror episodes, this film is mind-bending, dark, and thought-provoking. In addition to innovating cinema as we know it, it is a fascinating rumination on free will, parallel realities, and emerging technologies.
Pick Your Own Adventure
With a non-linear script, Bandersnatch is a viewing experience like no other. Throughout the film viewers are given the option of making a decision for the protagonist. In these instances, they have 10 seconds to make a decision until a default decision is made. For example, in the early stage of the plot, Butler is given the choice of accepting or rejecting Tuckersoft’s offer to develop a video game and the viewer gets to decide what he does. The decision then shapes the plot accordingly.
The video game Butler is developing involves moving through a graphical maze of corridors while avoiding a creature called the Pax, and at times making choices through an on-screen instruction (sound familiar?). In other words, it’s a pick-your-own-adventure video game in a pick-your-own-adventure movie.
Many viewers have ended up spending hours exploring all the different branches of the narrative (though the average viewing is 90 minutes). One user on reddit has mapped out an entire flowchart, showing how all the different decisions (and pseudo-decisions) lead to various endings.
However, over time, Butler starts to question his own free will. It’s almost as if he’s beginning to realize that the audience is controlling him. In one branch of the narrative, he is confronted by this reality when the audience indicates to him that he is being controlled in a Netflix show: “I am watching you on Netflix. I make all the decisions for you”. Butler, as you can imagine, is horrified by this message.
But Butler isn’t the only one who has an illusion of choice. We, the seemingly powerful viewers, also appear to operate under the illusion of choice. Despite there being five main endings to the film, they are all more or less the same.
The Science Behind Bandersnatch
The premise of Bandersnatch isn’t based on fantasy, but hard science. Free will has always been a widely-debated issue in neuroscience, with reputable scientists and studies demonstrating that the whole concept may be an illusion.
In the 1970s, a psychologist named Benjamin Libet conducted a series of experiments that studied voluntary decision making in humans. He found that brain activity imitating an action, such as moving your wrist, preceded the conscious awareness of the action.
Psychologist Malcom Gladwell theorizes that while we like to believe we spend a lot of time thinking about our decisions, our mental processes actually work rapidly, automatically, and often subconsciously, from relatively little information. In addition to this, thinking and making decisions are usually a byproduct of several different brain systems, such as the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex working together. You are more conscious of some information processes in the brain than others.
As neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris points out in his book Free Will, “You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime.” Like Butler, we may believe we are operating under full agency of our abilities, but we are at the mercy of many internal and external factors that influence our decisions.
Beyond free will, Bandersnatch also taps into the theory of parallel universes, a facet of the astronomical theory of the multiverse. In astrophysics, there is a theory that there are parallel universes other than our own, where all the choices you made are played out in alternate realities. For instance, if today you had the option of having cereal or eggs for breakfast, and you chose eggs, in a parallel universe, you chose cereal. Human history and our lives may have taken different paths in these parallel universes.
The Future of Cinema
In the future, the viewing experience will no longer be a passive one. Bandersnatch is just a glimpse into how technology is revolutionizing film as we know it and making it a more interactive and personalized experience. All the different scenarios and branches of the plot were scripted and filmed, but in the future, they may be adapted real-time via artificial intelligence.
Virtual reality may allow us to play an even more active role by making us participants or characters in the film. Data from your history of preferences and may be used to create a unique version of the plot that is optimized for your viewing experience.
Let’s also not underestimate the social purpose of advancing film and entertainment. Science fiction gives us the ability to create simulations of the future. Different narratives can allow us to explore how powerful technologies combined with human behavior can result in positive or negative scenarios. Perhaps in the future, science fiction will explore implications of technologies and observe human decision making in novel contexts, via AI-powered films in the virtual world.
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Development across the entire information technology landscape certainly didn’t slow down this year. From CRISPR babies, to the rapid decline of the crypto markets, to a new robot on Mars, and discovery of subatomic particles that could change modern physics as we know it, there was no shortage of headline-grabbing breakthroughs and discoveries.
As 2018 comes to a close, we can pause and reflect on some of the biggest technology breakthroughs and scientific discoveries that occurred this year.
I reached out to a few Singularity University speakers and faculty across the various technology domains we cover asking what they thought the biggest breakthrough was in their area of expertise. The question posed was:
“What, in your opinion, was the biggest development in your area of focus this year? Or, what was the breakthrough you were most surprised by in 2018?”
I can share that for me, hands down, the most surprising development I came across in 2018 was learning that a publicly-traded company that was briefly valued at over $1 billion, and has over 12,000 employees and contractors spread around the world, has no physical office space and the entire business is run and operated from inside an online virtual world. This is Ready Player One stuff happening now.
For the rest, here’s what our experts had to say.
Dr. Tiffany Vora | Faculty Director and Vice Chair, Digital Biology and Medicine, Singularity University
“That’s easy: CRISPR babies. I knew it was technically possible, and I’ve spent two years predicting it would happen first in China. I knew it was just a matter of time but I failed to predict the lack of oversight, the dubious consent process, the paucity of publicly-available data, and the targeting of a disease that we already know how to prevent and treat and that the children were at low risk of anyway.
I’m not convinced that this counts as a technical breakthrough, since one of the girls probably isn’t immune to HIV, but it sure was a surprise.”
For more, read Dr. Vora’s summary of this recent stunning news from China regarding CRISPR-editing human embryos.
Andrew Fursman | Co-Founder/CEO 1Qbit, Faculty, Quantum Computing, Singularity University
“There were two last-minute holiday season surprise quantum computing funding and technology breakthroughs:
First, right before the government shutdown, one priority legislative accomplishment will provide $1.2 billion in quantum computing research over the next five years. Second, there’s the rise of ions as a truly viable, scalable quantum computing architecture.”
*Read this Gizmodo profile on an exciting startup in the space to learn more about this type of quantum computing
Ramez Naam | Chair, Energy and Environmental Systems, Singularity University
“2018 had plenty of energy surprises. In solar, we saw unsubsidized prices in the sunny parts of the world at just over two cents per kwh, or less than half the price of new coal or gas electricity. In the US southwest and Texas, new solar is also now cheaper than new coal or gas. But even more shockingly, in Germany, which is one of the least sunny countries on earth (it gets less sunlight than Canada) the average bid for new solar in a 2018 auction was less than 5 US cents per kwh. That’s as cheap as new natural gas in the US, and far cheaper than coal, gas, or any other new electricity source in most of Europe.
In fact, it’s now cheaper in some parts of the world to build new solar or wind than to run existing coal plants. Think tank Carbon Tracker calculates that, over the next 10 years, it will become cheaper to build new wind or solar than to operate coal power in most of the world, including specifically the US, most of Europe, and—most importantly—India and the world’s dominant burner of coal, China.
Here comes the sun.”
GLOBAL GRAND CHALLENGES
Darlene Damm | Vice Chair, Faculty, Global Grand Challenges, Singularity University
“In 2018 we saw a lot of areas in the Global Grand Challenges move forward—advancements in robotic farming technology and cultured meat, low-cost 3D printed housing, more sophisticated types of online education expanding to every corner of the world, and governments creating new policies to deal with the ethics of the digital world. These were the areas we were watching and had predicted there would be change.
What most surprised me was to see young people, especially teenagers, start to harness technology in powerful ways and use it as a platform to make their voices heard and drive meaningful change in the world. In 2018 we saw teenagers speak out on a number of issues related to their well-being and launch digital movements around issues such as gun and school safety, global warming and environmental issues. We often talk about the harm technology can cause to young people, but on the flip side, it can be a very powerful tool for youth to start changing the world today and something I hope we see more of in the future.”
Pascal Finette | Chair, Entrepreneurship and Open Innovation, Singularity University
“Without a doubt the rapid and massive adoption of AI, specifically deep learning, across industries, sectors, and organizations. What was a curiosity for most companies at the beginning of the year has quickly made its way into the boardroom and leadership meetings, and all the way down into the innovation and IT department’s agenda. You are hard-pressed to find a mid- to large-sized company today that is not experimenting or implementing AI in various aspects of its business.
On the slightly snarkier side of answering this question: The very rapid decline in interest in blockchain (and cryptocurrencies). The blockchain party was short, ferocious, and ended earlier than most would have anticipated, with a huge hangover for some. The good news—with the hot air dissipated, we can now focus on exploring the unique use cases where blockchain does indeed offer real advantages over centralized approaches.”
*Author note: snark is welcome and appreciated
Hod Lipson | Director, Creative Machines Lab, Columbia University
“The biggest surprise for me this year in robotics was learning dexterity. For decades, roboticists have been trying to understand and imitate dexterous manipulation. We humans seem to be able to manipulate objects with our fingers with incredible ease—imagine sifting through a bunch of keys in the dark, or tossing and catching a cube. And while there has been much progress in machine perception, dexterous manipulation remained elusive.
There seemed to be something almost magical in how we humans can physically manipulate the physical world around us. Decades of research in grasping and manipulation, and millions of dollars spent on robot-hand hardware development, has brought us little progress. But in late 2018, the Berkley OpenAI group demonstrated that this hurdle may finally succumb to machine learning as well. Given 200 years worth of practice, machines learned to manipulate a physical object with amazing fluidity. This might be the beginning of a new age for dexterous robotics.”
Jeremy Howard | Founding Researcher, fast.ai, Founder/CEO, Enlitic, Faculty Data Science, Singularity University
“The biggest development in machine learning this year has been the development of effective natural language processing (NLP).
The New York Times published an article last month titled “Finally, a Machine That Can Finish Your Sentence,” which argued that NLP neural networks have reached a significant milestone in capability and speed of development. The “finishing your sentence” capability mentioned in the title refers to a type of neural network called a “language model,” which is literally a model that learns how to finish your sentences.
Earlier this year, two systems (one, called ELMO, is from the Allen Institute for AI, and the other, called ULMFiT, was developed by me and Sebastian Ruder) showed that such a model could be fine-tuned to dramatically improve the state-of-the-art in nearly every NLP task that researchers study. This work was further developed by OpenAI, which in turn was greatly scaled up by Google Brain, who created a system called BERT which reached human-level performance on some of NLP’s toughest challenges.
Over the next year, expect to see fine-tuned language models used for everything from understanding medical texts to building disruptive social media troll armies.”
Andre Wegner | Founder/CEO Authentise, Chair, Digital Manufacturing, Singularity University
“Most surprising to me was the extent and speed at which the industry finally opened up.
While previously, only few 3D printing suppliers had APIs and knew what to do with them, 2018 saw nearly every OEM (or original equipment manufacturer) enabling data access and, even more surprisingly, shying away from proprietary standards and adopting MTConnect, as stalwarts such as 3D Systems and Stratasys have been. This means that in two to three years, data access to machines will be easy, commonplace, and free. The value will be in what is being done with that data.
Another example of this openness are the seemingly endless announcements of integrated workflows: GE’s announcement with most major software players to enable integrated solutions, EOS’s announcement with Siemens, and many more. It’s clear that all actors in the additive ecosystem have taken a step forward in terms of openness. The result is a faster pace of innovation, particularly in the software and data domains that are crucial to enabling comprehensive digital workflow to drive agile and resilient manufacturing.
I’m more optimistic we’ll achieve that now than I was at the end of 2017.”
SCIENCE AND DISCOVERY
Paul Saffo | Chair, Future Studies, Singularity University, Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Stanford Media-X Research Network
“The most important development in technology this year isn’t a technology, but rather the astonishing science surprises made possible by recent technology innovations. My short list includes the discovery of the “neptmoon”, a Neptune-scale moon circling a Jupiter-scale planet 8,000 lightyears from us; the successful deployment of the Mars InSight Lander a month ago; and the tantalizing ANITA detection (what could be a new subatomic particle which would in turn blow the standard model wide open). The highest use of invention is to support science discovery, because those discoveries in turn lead us to the future innovations that will improve the state of the world—and fire up our imaginations.”
Pablos Holman | Inventor, Hacker, Faculty, Singularity University
“Just five or ten years ago, if you’d asked any of us technologists “What is harder for robots? Eyes, or fingers?” We’d have all said eyes. Robots have extraordinary eyes now, but even in a surgical robot, the fingers are numb and don’t feel anything. Stanford robotics researchers have invented fingertips that can feel, and this will be a kingpin that allows robots to go everywhere they haven’t been yet.”
Nathana Sharma | Blockchain, Policy, Law, and Ethics, Faculty, Singularity University
“2017 was the year of peak blockchain hype. 2018 has been a year of resetting expectations and technological development, even as the broader cryptocurrency markets have faced a winter. It’s now about seeing adoption and applications that people want and need to use rise. An incredible piece of news from December 2018 is that Facebook is developing a cryptocurrency for users to make payments through Whatsapp. That’s surprisingly fast mainstream adoption of this new technology, and indicates how powerful it is.”
Neil Jacobstein | Chair, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Singularity University
“I think one of the most visible improvements in AI was illustrated by the Boston Dynamics Parkour video. This was not due to an improvement in brushless motors, accelerometers, or gears. It was due to improvements in AI algorithms and training data. To be fair, the video released was cherry-picked from numerous attempts, many of which ended with a crash. However, the fact that it could be accomplished at all in 2018 was a real win for both AI and robotics.”
Divya Chander | Chair, Neuroscience, Singularity University
“2018 ushered in a new era of exponential trends in non-invasive brain modulation. Changing behavior or restoring function takes on a new meaning when invasive interfaces are no longer needed to manipulate neural circuitry. The end of 2018 saw two amazing announcements: the ability to grow neural organoids (mini-brains) in a dish from neural stem cells that started expressing electrical activity, mimicking the brain function of premature babies, and the first (known) application of CRISPR to genetically alter two fetuses grown through IVF. Although this was ostensibly to provide genetic resilience against HIV infections, imagine what would happen if we started tinkering with neural circuitry and intelligence.”
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How we work and play is about to transform.
After a prolonged technology “winter”—or what I like to call the ‘deceptive growth’ phase of any exponential technology—the hardware and software that power virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications are accelerating at an extraordinary rate.
Unprecedented new applications in almost every industry are exploding onto the scene.
Both VR and AR, combined with artificial intelligence, will significantly disrupt the “middleman” and make our lives “auto-magical.” The implications will touch every aspect of our lives, from education and real estate to healthcare and manufacturing.
The Future of Work
How and where we work is already changing, thanks to exponential technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics.
But virtual and augmented reality are taking the future workplace to an entirely new level.
Virtual Reality Case Study: eXp Realty
I recently interviewed Glenn Sanford, who founded eXp Realty in 2008 (imagine: a real estate company on the heels of the housing market collapse) and is the CEO of eXp World Holdings.
Ten years later, eXp Realty has an army of 14,000 agents across all 50 US states, three Canadian provinces, and 400 MLS market areas… all without a single traditional staffed office.
In a bid to transition from 2D interfaces to immersive, 3D work experiences, virtual platform VirBELA built out the company’s office space in VR, unlocking indefinite scaling potential and an extraordinary new precedent.
Real estate agents, managers, and even clients gather in a unique virtual campus, replete with a sports field, library, and lobby. It’s all accessible via head-mounted displays, but most agents join with a computer browser. Surprisingly, the campus-style setup enables the same type of water-cooler conversations I see every day at the XPRIZE headquarters.
With this centralized VR campus, eXp Realty has essentially thrown out overhead costs and entered a lucrative market without the same constraints of brick-and-mortar businesses.
Delocalize with VR, and you can now hire anyone with internet access (right next door or on the other side of the planet), redesign your corporate office every month, throw in an ocean-view office or impromptu conference room for client meetings, and forget about guzzled-up hours in traffic.
As a leader, what happens when you can scalably expand and connect your workforce, not to mention your customer base, without the excess overhead of office space and furniture? Your organization can run faster and farther than your competition.
But beyond the indefinite scalability achieved through digitizing your workplace, VR’s implications extend to the lives of your employees and even the future of urban planning:
Home Prices: As virtual headquarters and office branches take hold of the 21st-century workplace, those who work on campuses like eXp Realty’s won’t need to commute to work. As a result, VR has the potential to dramatically influence real estate prices—after all, if you don’t need to drive to an office, your home search isn’t limited to a specific set of neighborhoods anymore.
Transportation: In major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, the implications are tremendous. Analysts have revealed that it’s already cheaper to use ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft than to own a car in many major cities. And once autonomous “Car-as-a-Service” platforms proliferate, associated transportation costs like parking fees, fuel, and auto repairs will no longer fall on the individual, if not entirely disappear.
Augmented Reality: Annotate and Interact with Your Workplace
As I discussed in a recent Spatial Web blog, not only will Web 3.0 and VR advancements allow us to build out virtual worlds, but we’ll soon be able to digitally map our real-world physical offices or entire commercial high-rises.
Enter a professional world electrified by augmented reality.
Our workplaces are practically littered with information. File cabinets abound with archival data and relevant documents, and company databases continue to grow at a breakneck pace. And, as all of us are increasingly aware, cybersecurity and robust data permission systems remain a major concern for CEOs and national security officials alike.
What if we could link that information to specific locations, people, time frames, and even moving objects?
As data gets added and linked to any given employee’s office, conference room, or security system, we might then access online-merge-offline environments and information through augmented reality.
Imagine showing up at your building’s concierge and your AR glasses automatically check you into the building, authenticating your identity and pulling up any reminders you’ve linked to that specific location.
You stop by a friend’s office, and his smart security system lets you know he’ll arrive in an hour. Need to book a public conference room that’s already been scheduled by another firm’s marketing team? Offer to pay them a fee and, once accepted, a smart transaction will automatically deliver a payment to their company account.
With blockchain-verified digital identities, spatially logged data, and virtually manifest information, business logistics take a fraction of the time, operations grow seamless, and corporate data will be safer than ever.
Or better yet, imagine precise and high-dexterity work environments populated with interactive annotations that guide an artisan, surgeon, or engineer through meticulous handiwork.
Take, for instance, AR service 3D4Medical, which annotates virtual anatomy in midair. And as augmented reality hardware continues to advance, we might envision a future wherein surgeons perform operations on annotated organs and magnified incision sites, or one in which quantum computer engineers can magnify and annotate mechanical parts, speeding up reaction times and vastly improving precision.
The Future of Free Time and Play
In Abundance, I wrote about today’s rapidly demonetizing cost of living. In 2011, almost 75 percent of the average American’s income was spent on housing, transportation, food, personal insurance, health, and entertainment. What the headlines don’t mention: this is a dramatic improvement over the last 50 years. We’re spending less on basic necessities and working fewer hours than previous generations.
Chart depicts the average weekly work hours for full-time production employees in non-agricultural activities. Source: Diamandis.com data
Technology continues to change this, continues to take care of us and do our work for us. One phrase that describes this is “technological socialism,” where it’s technology, not the government, that takes care of us.
Extrapolating from the data, I believe we are heading towards a post-scarcity economy. Perhaps we won’t need to work at all, because we’ll own and operate our own fleet of robots or AI systems that do our work for us.
As living expenses demonetize and workplace automation increases, what will we do with this abundance of time? How will our children and grandchildren connect and find their purpose if they don’t have to work for a living?
As I write this on a Saturday afternoon and watch my two seven-year-old boys immersed in Minecraft, building and exploring worlds of their own creation, I can’t help but imagine that this future is about to enter its disruptive phase.
Exponential technologies are enabling a new wave of highly immersive games, virtual worlds, and online communities. We’ve likely all heard of the Oasis from Ready Player One. But far beyond what we know today as ‘gaming,’ VR is fast becoming a home to immersive storytelling, interactive films, and virtual world creation.
Within the virtual world space, let’s take one of today’s greatest precursors, the aforementioned game Minecraft.
For reference, Minecraft is over eight times the size of planet Earth. And in their free time, my kids would rather build in Minecraft than almost any other activity. I think of it as their primary passion: to create worlds, explore worlds, and be challenged in worlds.
And in the near future, we’re all going to become creators of or participants in virtual worlds, each populated with assets and storylines interoperable with other virtual environments.
But while the technological methods are new, this concept has been alive and well for generations. Whether you got lost in the world of Heidi or Harry Potter, grew up reading comic books or watching television, we’ve all been playing in imaginary worlds, with characters and story arcs populating our minds. That’s the nature of childhood.
In the past, however, your ability to edit was limited, especially if a given story came in some form of 2D media. I couldn’t edit where Tom Sawyer was going or change what Iron Man was doing. But as a slew of new software advancements underlying VR and AR allow us to interact with characters and gain (albeit limited) agency (for now), both new and legacy stories will become subjects of our creation and playgrounds for virtual interaction.
Take VR/AR storytelling startup Fable Studio’s Wolves in the Walls film. Debuting at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Fable’s immersive story is adapted from Neil Gaiman’s book and tracks the protagonist, Lucy, whose programming allows her to respond differently based on what her viewers do.
And while Lucy can merely hand virtual cameras to her viewers among other limited tasks, Fable Studio’s founder Edward Saatchi sees this project as just the beginning.
Imagine a virtual character—either in augmented or virtual reality—geared with AI capabilities, that now can not only participate in a fictional storyline but interact and dialogue directly with you in a host of virtual and digitally overlayed environments.
Or imagine engaging with a less-structured environment, like the Star Wars cantina, populated with strangers and friends to provide an entirely novel social media experience.
Already, we’ve seen characters like that of Pokémon brought into the real world with Pokémon Go, populating cities and real spaces with holograms and tasks. And just as augmented reality has the power to turn our physical environments into digital gaming platforms, advanced AR could bring on a new era of in-home entertainment.
Imagine transforming your home into a narrative environment for your kids or overlaying your office interior design with Picasso paintings and gothic architecture. As computer vision rapidly grows capable of identifying objects and mapping virtual overlays atop them, we might also one day be able to project home theaters or live sports within our homes, broadcasting full holograms that allow us to zoom into the action and place ourselves within it.
Increasingly honed and commercialized, augmented and virtual reality are on the cusp of revolutionizing the way we play, tell stories, create worlds, and interact with both fictional characters and each other.
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When it comes to applications for machine learning, few can be more widely hyped than medicine. This is hardly surprising: it’s a huge industry that generates a phenomenal amount of data and revenue, where technological advances can improve or save the lives of millions of people. Hardly a week passes without a study that suggests algorithms will soon be better than experts at detecting pneumonia, or Alzheimer’s—diseases in complex organs ranging from the eye to the heart.
The problems of overcrowded hospitals and overworked medical staff plague public healthcare systems like Britain’s NHS and lead to rising costs for private healthcare systems. Here, again, algorithms offer a tantalizing solution. How many of those doctor’s visits really need to happen? How many could be replaced by an interaction with an intelligent chatbot—especially if it can be combined with portable diagnostic tests, utilizing the latest in biotechnology? That way, unnecessary visits could be reduced, and patients could be diagnosed and referred to specialists more quickly without waiting for an initial consultation.
As ever with artificial intelligence algorithms, the aim is not to replace doctors, but to give them tools to reduce the mundane or repetitive parts of the job. With an AI that can examine thousands of scans in a minute, the “dull drudgery” is left to machines, and the doctors are freed to concentrate on the parts of the job that require more complex, subtle, experience-based judgement of the best treatments and the needs of the patient.
But, as ever with AI algorithms, there are risks involved with relying on them—even for tasks that are considered mundane. The problems of black-box algorithms that make inexplicable decisions are bad enough when you’re trying to understand why that automated hiring chatbot was unimpressed by your job interview performance. In a healthcare context, where the decisions made could mean life or death, the consequences of algorithmic failure could be grave.
A new paper in Science Translational Medicine, by Nicholson Price, explores some of the promises and pitfalls of using these algorithms in the data-rich medical environment.
Neural networks excel at churning through vast quantities of training data and making connections, absorbing the underlying patterns or logic for the system in hidden layers of linear algebra; whether it’s detecting skin cancer from photographs or learning to write in pseudo-Shakespearean script. They are terrible, however, at explaining the underlying logic behind the relationships that they’ve found: there is often little more than a string of numbers, the statistical “weights” between the layers. They struggle to distinguish between correlation and causation.
This raises interesting dilemmas for healthcare providers. The dream of big data in medicine is to feed a neural network on “huge troves of health data, finding complex, implicit relationships and making individualized assessments for patients.” What if, inevitably, such an algorithm proves to be unreasonably effective at diagnosing a medical condition or prescribing a treatment, but you have no scientific understanding of how this link actually works?
Too Many Threads to Unravel?
The statistical models that underlie such neural networks often assume that variables are independent of each other, but in a complex, interacting system like the human body, this is not always the case.
In some ways, this is a familiar concept in medical science—there are many phenomena and links which have been observed for decades but are still poorly understood on a biological level. Paracetamol is one of the most commonly-prescribed painkillers, but there’s still robust debate about how it actually works. Medical practitioners may be keen to deploy whatever tool is most effective, regardless of whether it’s based on a deeper scientific understanding. Fans of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics might spin this as “Shut up and medicate!”
But as in that field, there’s a debate to be had about whether this approach risks losing sight of a deeper understanding that will ultimately prove more fruitful—for example, for drug discovery.
Away from the philosophical weeds, there are more practical problems: if you don’t understand how a black-box medical algorithm is operating, how should you approach the issues of clinical trials and regulation?
Price points out that, in the US, the “21st-Century Cures Act” allows the FDA to regulate any algorithm that analyzes images, or doesn’t allow a provider to review the basis for its conclusions: this could completely exclude “black-box” algorithms of the kind described above from use.
Transparency about how the algorithm functions—the data it looks at, and the thresholds for drawing conclusions or providing medical advice—may be required, but could also conflict with the profit motive and the desire for secrecy in healthcare startups.
One solution might be to screen algorithms that can’t explain themselves, or don’t rely on well-understood medical science, from use before they enter the healthcare market. But this could prevent people from reaping the benefits that they can provide.
New healthcare algorithms will be unable to do what physicists did with quantum mechanics, and point to a track record of success, because they will not have been deployed in the field. And, as Price notes, many algorithms will improve as they’re deployed in the field for a greater amount of time, and can harvest and learn from the performance data that’s actually used. So how can we choose between the most promising approaches?
Creating a standardized clinical trial and validation system that’s equally valid across algorithms that function in different ways, or use different input or training data, will be a difficult task. Clinical trials that rely on small sample sizes, such as for algorithms that attempt to personalize treatment to individuals, will also prove difficult. With a small sample size and little scientific understanding, it’s hard to tell whether the algorithm succeeded or failed because it’s bad at its job or by chance.
Add learning into the mix and the picture gets more complex. “Perhaps more importantly, to the extent that an ideal black-box algorithm is plastic and frequently updated, the clinical trial validation model breaks down further, because the model depends on a static product subject to stable validation.” As Price describes, the current system for testing and validation of medical products needs some adaptation to deal with this new software before it can successfully test and validate the new algorithms.
Striking a Balance
The story in healthcare reflects the AI story in so many other fields, and the complexities involved perhaps illustrate why even an illustrious company like IBM appears to be struggling to turn its famed Watson AI into a viable product in the healthcare space.
A balance must be struck, both in our rush to exploit big data and the eerie power of neural networks, and to automate thinking. We must be aware of the biases and flaws of this approach to problem-solving: to realize that it is not a foolproof panacea.
But we also need to embrace these technologies where they can be a useful complement to the skills, insights, and deeper understanding that humans can provide. Much like a neural network, our industries need to train themselves to enhance this cooperation in the future.
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