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#433807 The How, Why, and Whether of Custom ...

A digital afterlife may soon be within reach, but it might not be for your benefit.

The reams of data we’re creating could soon make it possible to create digital avatars that live on after we die, aimed at comforting our loved ones or sharing our experience with future generations.

That may seem like a disappointing downgrade from the vision promised by the more optimistic futurists, where we upload our consciousness to the cloud and live forever in machines. But it might be a realistic possibility in the not-too-distant future—and the first steps have already been taken.

After her friend died in a car crash, Eugenia Kuyda, co-founder of Russian AI startup Luka, trained a neural network-powered chatbot on their shared message history to mimic him. Journalist and amateur coder James Vlahos took a more involved approach, carrying out extensive interviews with his terminally ill father so that he could create a digital clone of him when he died.

For those of us without the time or expertise to build our own artificial intelligence-powered avatar, startup Eternime is offering to take your social media posts and interactions as well as basic personal information to build a copy of you that could then interact with relatives once you’re gone. The service is so far only running a private beta with a handful of people, but with 40,000 on its waiting list, it’s clear there’s a market.

Comforting—Or Creepy?
The whole idea may seem eerily similar to the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, in which a woman pays a company to create a digital copy of her deceased husband and eventually a realistic robot replica. And given the show’s focus on the emotional turmoil she goes through, people might question whether the idea is a sensible one.

But it’s hard to say at this stage whether being able to interact with an approximation of a deceased loved one would be a help or a hindrance in the grieving process. The fear is that it could make it harder for people to “let go” or “move on,” but others think it could play a useful therapeutic role, reminding people that just because someone is dead it doesn’t mean they’re gone, and providing a novel way for them to express and come to terms with their feelings.

While at present most envisage these digital resurrections as a way to memorialize loved ones, there are also more ambitious plans to use the technology as a way to preserve expertise and experience. A project at MIT called Augmented Eternity is investigating whether we could use AI to trawl through someone’s digital footprints and extract both their knowledge and elements of their personality.

Project leader Hossein Rahnama says he’s already working with a CEO who wants to leave behind a digital avatar that future executives could consult with after he’s gone. And you wouldn’t necessarily have to wait until you’re dead—experts could create virtual clones of themselves that could dispense advice on demand to far more people. These clones could soon be more than simple chatbots, too. Hollywood has already started spending millions of dollars to create 3D scans of its most bankable stars so that they can keep acting beyond the grave.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the idea; imagine if we could bring back Stephen Hawking or Tim Cook to share their wisdom with us. And what if we could create a digital brain trust combining the experience and wisdom of all the world’s greatest thinkers, accessible on demand?

But there are still huge hurdles ahead before we could create truly accurate representations of people by simply trawling through their digital remains. The first problem is data. Most peoples’ digital footprints only started reaching significant proportions in the last decade or so, and cover a relatively small period of their lives. It could take many years before there’s enough data to create more than just a superficial imitation of someone.

And that’s assuming that the data we produce is truly representative of who we are. Carefully-crafted Instagram profiles and cautiously-worded work emails hardly capture the messy realities of most peoples’ lives.

Perhaps if the idea is simply to create a bank of someone’s knowledge and expertise, accurately capturing the essence of their character would be less important. But these clones would also be static. Real people continually learn and change, but a digital avatar is a snapshot of someone’s character and opinions at the point they died. An inability to adapt as the world around them changes could put a shelf life on the usefulness of these replicas.

Who’s Calling the (Digital) Shots?
It won’t stop people trying, though, and that raises a potentially more important question: Who gets to make the calls about our digital afterlife? The subjects, their families, or the companies that hold their data?

In most countries, the law is currently pretty hazy on this topic. Companies like Google and Facebook have processes to let you choose who should take control of your accounts in the event of your death. But if you’ve forgotten to do that, the fate of your virtual remains comes down to a tangle of federal law, local law, and tech company terms of service.

This lack of regulation could create incentives and opportunities for unscrupulous behavior. The voice of a deceased loved one could be a highly persuasive tool for exploitation, and digital replicas of respected experts could be powerful means of pushing a hidden agenda.

That means there’s a pressing need for clear and unambiguous rules. Researchers at Oxford University recently suggested ethical guidelines that would treat our digital remains the same way museums and archaeologists are required to treat mortal remains—with dignity and in the interest of society.

Whether those kinds of guidelines are ever enshrined in law remains to be seen, but ultimately they may decide whether the digital afterlife turns out to be heaven or hell.

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Posted in Human Robots

#433776 Why We Should Stop Conflating Human and ...

It’s common to hear phrases like ‘machine learning’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ and believe that somehow, someone has managed to replicate a human mind inside a computer. This, of course, is untrue—but part of the reason this idea is so pervasive is because the metaphor of human learning and intelligence has been quite useful in explaining machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Indeed, some AI researchers maintain a close link with the neuroscience community, and inspiration runs in both directions. But the metaphor can be a hindrance to people trying to explain machine learning to those less familiar with it. One of the biggest risks of conflating human and machine intelligence is that we start to hand over too much agency to machines. For those of us working with software, it’s essential that we remember the agency is human—it’s humans who build these systems, after all.

It’s worth unpacking the key differences between machine and human intelligence. While there are certainly similarities, it’s by looking at what makes them different that we can better grasp how artificial intelligence works, and how we can build and use it effectively.

Neural Networks
Central to the metaphor that links human and machine learning is the concept of a neural network. The biggest difference between a human brain and an artificial neural net is the sheer scale of the brain’s neural network. What’s crucial is that it’s not simply the number of neurons in the brain (which reach into the billions), but more precisely, the mind-boggling number of connections between them.

But the issue runs deeper than questions of scale. The human brain is qualitatively different from an artificial neural network for two other important reasons: the connections that power it are analogue, not digital, and the neurons themselves aren’t uniform (as they are in an artificial neural network).

This is why the brain is such a complex thing. Even the most complex artificial neural network, while often difficult to interpret and unpack, has an underlying architecture and principles guiding it (this is what we’re trying to do, so let’s construct the network like this…).

Intricate as they may be, neural networks in AIs are engineered with a specific outcome in mind. The human mind, however, doesn’t have the same degree of intentionality in its engineering. Yes, it should help us do all the things we need to do to stay alive, but it also allows us to think critically and creatively in a way that doesn’t need to be programmed.

The Beautiful Simplicity of AI
The fact that artificial intelligence systems are so much simpler than the human brain is, ironically, what enables AIs to deal with far greater computational complexity than we can.

Artificial neural networks can hold much more information and data than the human brain, largely due to the type of data that is stored and processed in a neural network. It is discrete and specific, like an entry on an excel spreadsheet.

In the human brain, data doesn’t have this same discrete quality. So while an artificial neural network can process very specific data at an incredible scale, it isn’t able to process information in the rich and multidimensional manner a human brain can. This is the key difference between an engineered system and the human mind.

Despite years of research, the human mind still remains somewhat opaque. This is because the analog synaptic connections between neurons are almost impenetrable to the digital connections within an artificial neural network.

Speed and Scale
Consider what this means in practice. The relative simplicity of an AI allows it to do a very complex task very well, and very quickly. A human brain simply can’t process data at scale and speed in the way AIs need to if they’re, say, translating speech to text, or processing a huge set of oncology reports.

Essential to the way AI works in both these contexts is that it breaks data and information down into tiny constituent parts. For example, it could break sounds down into phonetic text, which could then be translated into full sentences, or break images into pieces to understand the rules of how a huge set of them is composed.

Humans often do a similar thing, and this is the point at which machine learning is most like human learning; like algorithms, humans break data or information into smaller chunks in order to process it.

But there’s a reason for this similarity. This breakdown process is engineered into every neural network by a human engineer. What’s more, the way this process is designed will be down to the problem at hand. How an artificial intelligence system breaks down a data set is its own way of ‘understanding’ it.

Even while running a highly complex algorithm unsupervised, the parameters of how an AI learns—how it breaks data down in order to process it—are always set from the start.

Human Intelligence: Defining Problems
Human intelligence doesn’t have this set of limitations, which is what makes us so much more effective at problem-solving. It’s the human ability to ‘create’ problems that makes us so good at solving them. There’s an element of contextual understanding and decision-making in the way humans approach problems.

AIs might be able to unpack problems or find new ways into them, but they can’t define the problem they’re trying to solve.

Algorithmic insensitivity has come into focus in recent years, with an increasing number of scandals around bias in AI systems. Of course, this is caused by the biases of those making the algorithms, but underlines the point that algorithmic biases can only be identified by human intelligence.

Human and Artificial Intelligence Should Complement Each Other
We must remember that artificial intelligence and machine learning aren’t simply things that ‘exist’ that we can no longer control. They are built, engineered, and designed by us. This mindset puts us in control of the future, and makes algorithms even more elegant and remarkable.

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Posted in Human Robots

#433748 Could Tech Make Government As We Know It ...

Governments are one of the last strongholds of an undigitized, linear sector of humanity, and they are falling behind fast. Apart from their struggle to keep up with private sector digitization, federal governments are in a crisis of trust.

At almost a 60-year low, only 18 percent of Americans reported that they could trust their government “always” or “most of the time” in a recent Pew survey. And the US is not alone. The Edelman Trust Barometer revealed last year that 41 percent of the world population distrust their nations’ governments.

In many cases, the private sector—particularly tech—is driving greater progress in regulation-targeted issues like climate change than state leaders. And as decentralized systems, digital disruption, and private sector leadership take the world by storm, traditional forms of government are beginning to fear irrelevance. However, the fight for exponential governance is not a lost battle.

Early visionaries like Estonia and the UAE are leading the way in digital governance, empowered by a host of converging technologies.

In this article, we will cover three key trends:

Digital governance divorced from land
AI-driven service delivery and regulation
Blockchain-enforced transparency

Let’s dive in.

Governments Going Digital
States and their governments have forever been tied to physical territories, and public services are often delivered through brick-and-mortar institutions. Yet public sector infrastructure and services will soon be hosted on servers, detached from land and physical form.

Enter e-Estonia. Perhaps the least expected on a list of innovative nations, this former Soviet Republic-turned digital society is ushering in an age of technological statecraft.

Hosting every digitizable government function on the cloud, Estonia could run its government almost entirely on a server. Starting in the 1990s, Estonia’s government has covered the nation with ultra-high-speed data connectivity, laying down tremendous amounts of fiber optic cable. By 2007, citizens could vote from their living rooms.

With digitized law, Estonia signs policies into effect using cryptographically secure digital signatures, and every stage of the legislative process is available to citizens online.

Citizens’ healthcare registry is run on the blockchain, allowing patients to own and access their own health data from anywhere in the world—X-rays, digital prescriptions, medical case notes—all the while tracking who has access.

Today, most banks have closed their offices, as 99 percent of banking transactions occur online (with 67 percent of citizens regularly using cryptographically secured e-IDs). And by 2020, e-tax will be entirely automated with Estonia’s new e-Tax and Customs Board portal, allowing companies and tax authority to exchange data automatically. And i-Voting, civil courts, land registries, banking, taxes, and countless e-facilities allow citizens to access almost any government service with an electronic ID and personal PIN online.

But perhaps Estonia’s most revolutionary breakthrough is its recently introduced e-residency. With over 30,000 e-residents, Estonia issues electronic IDs to global residents anywhere in the world. While e-residency doesn’t grant territorial rights, over 5,000 e-residents have already established companies within Estonia’s jurisdiction.

After registering companies online, entrepreneurs pay automated taxes—calculated in minutes and transmitted to the Estonian government with unprecedented ease.

The implications of e-residency and digital governance are huge. As with any software, open-source code for digital governance could be copied perfectly at almost zero cost, lowering the barrier to entry for any group or movement seeking statehood.

We may soon see the rise of competitive governing ecosystems, each testing new infrastructure and public e-services to compete with mainstream governments for taxpaying citizens.

And what better to accelerate digital governance than AI?

Legal Compliance Through AI
Just last year, the UAE became the first nation to appoint a State Minister for AI (actually a friend of mine, H.E. Omar Al Olama), aiming to digitize government services and halve annual costs. Among multiple sector initiatives, the UAE hopes to deploy robotic cops by 2030.

Meanwhile, the U.K. now has a Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, and just last month, world leaders convened at the World Government Summit to discuss guidelines for AI’s global regulation.

As AI infuses government services, emerging applications have caught my eye:

Smart Borders and Checkpoints

With biometrics and facial recognition, traditional checkpoints will soon be a thing of the past. Cubic Transportation Systems—the company behind London’s ticketless public transit—is currently developing facial recognition for automated transport barriers. Digital security company Gemalto predicts that biometric systems will soon cross-reference individual faces with passport databases at security checkpoints, and China has already begun to test this at scale. While the Alibaba Ant Financial affiliate’s “Smile to Pay” feature allows users to authenticate digital payments with their faces, nationally overseen facial recognition technologies allow passengers to board planes, employees to enter office spaces, and students to access university halls. With biometric-geared surveillance at national borders, supply chains and international travelers could be tracked automatically, and granted or denied access according to biometrics and cross-referenced databases.

Policing and Security

Leveraging predictive analytics, China is also working to integrate security footage into a national surveillance and data-sharing system. By merging citizen data in its “Police Cloud”—including everything from criminal and medical records, transaction data, travel records and social media—it may soon be able to spot suspects and predict crime in advance. But China is not alone. During London’s Notting Hill Carnival this year, the Metropolitan Police used facial recognition cross-referenced with crime data to pre-identify and track likely offenders.

Smart Courts

AI may soon be reaching legal trials as well. UCL computer scientists have developed software capable of predicting courtroom outcomes based on data patterns with unprecedented accuracy. Assessing risk of flight, the National Bureau of Economic Research now uses an algorithm leveraging data from hundreds of thousands of NYC cases to recommend whether defendants should be granted bail. But while AI allows for streamlined governance, the public sector’s power to misuse our data is a valid concern and issues with bias as a result of historical data still remain. As tons of new information is generated about our every move, how do we keep governments accountable?

Enter the blockchain.

Transparent Governance and Accountability
Without doubt, alongside AI, government’s greatest disruptor is the newly-minted blockchain. Relying on a decentralized web of nodes, blockchain can securely verify transactions, signatures, and other information. This makes it essentially impossible for hackers, companies, officials, or even governments to falsify information on the blockchain.

As you’d expect, many government elites are therefore slow to adopt the technology, fearing enforced accountability. But blockchain’s benefits to government may be too great to ignore.

First, blockchain will be a boon for regulatory compliance.

As transactions on a blockchain are irreversible and transparent, uploaded sensor data can’t be corrupted. This means middlemen have no way of falsifying information to shirk regulation, and governments eliminate the need to enforce charges after the fact.

Apply this to carbon pricing, for instance, and emission sensors could fluidly log carbon credits onto a carbon credit blockchain, such as that developed by Ecosphere+. As carbon values are added to the price of everyday products or to corporations’ automated taxes, compliance and transparency would soon be digitally embedded.

Blockchain could also bolster government efforts in cybersecurity. As supercities and nation-states build IoT-connected traffic systems, surveillance networks, and sensor-tracked supply chain management, blockchain is critical in protecting connected devices from cyberattack.

But blockchain will inevitably hold governments accountable as well. By automating and tracking high-risk transactions, blockchain may soon eliminate fraud in cash transfers, public contracts and aid funds. Already, the UN World Food Program has piloted blockchain to manage cash-based transfers and aid flows to Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Blockchain-enabled “smart contracts” could automate exchange of real assets according to publicly visible, pre-programmed conditions, disrupting the $9.5 trillion market of public-sector contracts and public investment projects.

Eliminating leakages and increasing transparency, a distributed ledger has the potential to save trillions.

Future Implications
It is truly difficult to experiment with new forms of government. It’s not like there are new countries waiting to be discovered where we can begin fresh. And with entrenched bureaucracies and dominant industrial players, changing an existing nation’s form of government is extremely difficult and usually only happens during times of crisis or outright revolution.

Perhaps we will develop and explore new forms of government in the virtual world (to be explored during a future blog), or perhaps Sea Steading will allow us to physically build new island nations. And ultimately, as we move off the earth to Mars and space colonies, we will have yet another chance to start fresh.

But, without question, 90 percent or more of today’s political processes herald back to a day before technology, and it shows in terms of speed and efficiency.

Ultimately, there will be a shift to digital governments enabled with blockchain’s transparency, and we will redefine the relationship between citizens and the public sector.

One day I hope i-voting will allow anyone anywhere to participate in policy, and cloud-based governments will start to compete in e-services. As four billion new minds come online over the next several years, people may soon have the opportunity to choose their preferred government and citizenship digitally, independent of birthplace.

In 50 years, what will our governments look like? Will we have an interplanetary order, or a multitude of publicly-run ecosystems? Will cyber-ocracies rule our physical worlds with machine intelligence, or will blockchains allow for hive mind-like democracy?

The possibilities are endless, and only we can shape them.

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Posted in Human Robots

#433668 A Decade of Commercial Space ...

In many industries, a decade is barely enough time to cause dramatic change unless something disruptive comes along—a new technology, business model, or service design. The space industry has recently been enjoying all three.

But 10 years ago, none of those innovations were guaranteed. In fact, on Sept. 28, 2008, an entire company watched and hoped as their flagship product attempted a final launch after three failures. With cash running low, this was the last shot. Over 21,000 kilograms of kerosene and liquid oxygen ignited and powered two booster stages off the launchpad.

This first official picture of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I was issued in Moscow Oct. 9, 1957. The satellite measured 1 foot, 11 inches and weighed 184 pounds. The Space Age began as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit, on Oct. 4, 1957.AP Photo/TASS
When that Falcon 1 rocket successfully reached orbit and the company secured a subsequent contract with NASA, SpaceX had survived its ‘startup dip’. That milestone, the first privately developed liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit, ignited a new space industry that is changing our world, on this planet and beyond. What has happened in the intervening years, and what does it mean going forward?

While scientists are busy developing new technologies that address the countless technical problems of space, there is another segment of researchers, including myself, studying the business angle and the operations issues facing this new industry. In a recent paper, my colleague Christopher Tang and I investigate the questions firms need to answer in order to create a sustainable space industry and make it possible for humans to establish extraterrestrial bases, mine asteroids and extend space travel—all while governments play an increasingly smaller role in funding space enterprises. We believe these business solutions may hold the less-glamorous key to unlocking the galaxy.

The New Global Space Industry
When the Soviet Union launched their Sputnik program, putting a satellite in orbit in 1957, they kicked off a race to space fueled by international competition and Cold War fears. The Soviet Union and the United States played the primary roles, stringing together a series of “firsts” for the record books. The first chapter of the space race culminated with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic Apollo 11 moon landing which required massive public investment, on the order of US$25.4 billion, almost $200 billion in today’s dollars.

Competition characterized this early portion of space history. Eventually, that evolved into collaboration, with the International Space Station being a stellar example, as governments worked toward shared goals. Now, we’ve entered a new phase—openness—with private, commercial companies leading the way.

The industry for spacecraft and satellite launches is becoming more commercialized, due, in part, to shrinking government budgets. According to a report from the investment firm Space Angels, a record 120 venture capital firms invested over $3.9 billion in private space enterprises last year. The space industry is also becoming global, no longer dominated by the Cold War rivals, the United States and USSR.

In 2018 to date, there have been 72 orbital launches, an average of two per week, from launch pads in China, Russia, India, Japan, French Guinea, New Zealand, and the US.

The uptick in orbital launches of actual rockets as well as spacecraft launches, which includes satellites and probes launched from space, coincides with this openness over the past decade.

More governments, firms and even amateurs engage in various spacecraft launches than ever before. With more entities involved, innovation has flourished. As Roberson notes in Digital Trends, “Private, commercial spaceflight. Even lunar exploration, mining, and colonization—it’s suddenly all on the table, making the race for space today more vital than it has felt in years.”

Worldwide launches into space. Orbital launches include manned and unmanned spaceships launched into orbital flight from Earth. Spacecraft launches include all vehicles such as spaceships, satellites and probes launched from Earth or space. Wooten, J. and C. Tang (2018) Operations in space, Decision Sciences; Space Launch Report (Kyle 2017); Spacecraft Encyclopedia (Lafleur 2017), CC BY-ND

One can see this vitality plainly in the news. On Sept. 21, Japan announced that two of its unmanned rovers, dubbed Minerva-II-1, had landed on a small, distant asteroid. For perspective, the scale of this landing is similar to hitting a 6-centimeter target from 20,000 kilometers away. And earlier this year, people around the world watched in awe as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched and, more impressively, returned its two boosters to a landing pad in a synchronized ballet of epic proportions.

Challenges and Opportunities
Amidst the growth of capital, firms, and knowledge, both researchers and practitioners must figure out how entities should manage their daily operations, organize their supply chain, and develop sustainable operations in space. This is complicated by the hurdles space poses: distance, gravity, inhospitable environments, and information scarcity.

One of the greatest challenges involves actually getting the things people want in space, into space. Manufacturing everything on Earth and then launching it with rockets is expensive and restrictive. A company called Made In Space is taking a different approach by maintaining an additive manufacturing facility on the International Space Station and 3D printing right in space. Tools, spare parts, and medical devices for the crew can all be created on demand. The benefits include more flexibility and better inventory management on the space station. In addition, certain products can be produced better in space than on Earth, such as pure optical fiber.

How should companies determine the value of manufacturing in space? Where should capacity be built and how should it be scaled up? The figure below breaks up the origin and destination of goods between Earth and space and arranges products into quadrants. Humans have mastered the lower left quadrant, made on Earth—for use on Earth. Moving clockwise from there, each quadrant introduces new challenges, for which we have less and less expertise.

A framework of Earth-space operations. Wooten, J. and C. Tang (2018) Operations in Space, Decision Sciences, CC BY-ND
I first became interested in this particular problem as I listened to a panel of robotics experts discuss building a colony on Mars (in our third quadrant). You can’t build the structures on Earth and easily send them to Mars, so you must manufacture there. But putting human builders in that extreme environment is equally problematic. Essentially, an entirely new mode of production using robots and automation in an advance envoy may be required.

Resources in Space
You might wonder where one gets the materials for manufacturing in space, but there is actually an abundance of resources: Metals for manufacturing can be found within asteroids, water for rocket fuel is frozen as ice on planets and moons, and rare elements like helium-3 for energy are embedded in the crust of the moon. If we brought that particular isotope back to Earth, we could eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.

As demonstrated by the recent Minerva-II-1 asteroid landing, people are acquiring the technical know-how to locate and navigate to these materials. But extraction and transport are open questions.

How do these cases change the economics in the space industry? Already, companies like Planetary Resources, Moon Express, Deep Space Industries, and Asterank are organizing to address these opportunities. And scholars are beginning to outline how to navigate questions of property rights, exploitation and partnerships.

Threats From Space Junk
A computer-generated image of objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95 percent of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris – not functional satellites. The dots represent the current location of each item. The orbital debris dots are scaled according to the image size of the graphic to optimize their visibility and are not scaled to Earth. NASA
The movie “Gravity” opens with a Russian satellite exploding, which sets off a chain reaction of destruction thanks to debris hitting a space shuttle, the Hubble telescope, and part of the International Space Station. The sequence, while not perfectly plausible as written, is a very real phenomenon. In fact, in 2013, a Russian satellite disintegrated when it was hit with fragments from a Chinese satellite that exploded in 2007. Known as the Kessler effect, the danger from the 500,000-plus pieces of space debris has already gotten some attention in public policy circles. How should one prevent, reduce or mitigate this risk? Quantifying the environmental impact of the space industry and addressing sustainable operations is still to come.

NASA scientist Mark Matney is seen through a fist-sized hole in a 3-inch thick piece of aluminum at Johnson Space Center’s orbital debris program lab. The hole was created by a thumb-size piece of material hitting the metal at very high speed simulating possible damage from space junk. AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
What’s Next?
It’s true that space is becoming just another place to do business. There are companies that will handle the logistics of getting your destined-for-space module on board a rocket; there are companies that will fly those rockets to the International Space Station; and there are others that can make a replacement part once there.

What comes next? In one sense, it’s anybody’s guess, but all signs point to this new industry forging ahead. A new breakthrough could alter the speed, but the course seems set: exploring farther away from home, whether that’s the moon, asteroids, or Mars. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, SpaceX launches were yet to be successful. Today, a vibrant private sector consists of scores of companies working on everything from commercial spacecraft and rocket propulsion to space mining and food production. The next step is working to solidify the business practices and mature the industry.

Standing in a large hall at the University of Pittsburgh as part of the White House Frontiers Conference, I see the future. Wrapped around my head are state-of-the-art virtual reality goggles. I’m looking at the surface of Mars. Every detail is immediate and crisp. This is not just a video game or an aimless exercise. The scientific community has poured resources into such efforts because exploration is preceded by information. And who knows, maybe 10 years from now, someone will be standing on the actual surface of Mars.

Image Credit: SpaceX

Joel Wooten, Assistant Professor of Management Science, University of South Carolina

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Posted in Human Robots

#433506 MIT’s New Robot Taught Itself to Pick ...

Back in 2016, somewhere in a Google-owned warehouse, more than a dozen robotic arms sat for hours quietly grasping objects of various shapes and sizes. For hours on end, they taught themselves how to pick up and hold the items appropriately—mimicking the way a baby gradually learns to use its hands.

Now, scientists from MIT have made a new breakthrough in machine learning: their new system can not only teach itself to see and identify objects, but also understand how best to manipulate them.

This means that, armed with the new machine learning routine referred to as “dense object nets (DON),” the robot would be capable of picking up an object that it’s never seen before, or in an unfamiliar orientation, without resorting to trial and error—exactly as a human would.

The deceptively simple ability to dexterously manipulate objects with our hands is a huge part of why humans are the dominant species on the planet. We take it for granted. Hardware innovations like the Shadow Dexterous Hand have enabled robots to softly grip and manipulate delicate objects for many years, but the software required to control these precision-engineered machines in a range of circumstances has proved harder to develop.

This was not for want of trying. The Amazon Robotics Challenge offers millions of dollars in prizes (and potentially far more in contracts, as their $775m acquisition of Kiva Systems shows) for the best dexterous robot able to pick and package items in their warehouses. The lucrative dream of a fully-automated delivery system is missing this crucial ability.

Meanwhile, the Robocup@home challenge—an offshoot of the popular Robocup tournament for soccer-playing robots—aims to make everyone’s dream of having a robot butler a reality. The competition involves teams drilling their robots through simple household tasks that require social interaction or object manipulation, like helping to carry the shopping, sorting items onto a shelf, or guiding tourists around a museum.

Yet all of these endeavors have proved difficult; the tasks often have to be simplified to enable the robot to complete them at all. New or unexpected elements, such as those encountered in real life, more often than not throw the system entirely. Programming the robot’s every move in explicit detail is not a scalable solution: this can work in the highly-controlled world of the assembly line, but not in everyday life.

Computer vision is improving all the time. Neural networks, including those you train every time you prove that you’re not a robot with CAPTCHA, are getting better at sorting objects into categories, and identifying them based on sparse or incomplete data, such as when they are occluded, or in different lighting.

But many of these systems require enormous amounts of input data, which is impractical, slow to generate, and often needs to be laboriously categorized by humans. There are entirely new jobs that require people to label, categorize, and sift large bodies of data ready for supervised machine learning. This can make machine learning undemocratic. If you’re Google, you can make thousands of unwitting volunteers label your images for you with CAPTCHA. If you’re IBM, you can hire people to manually label that data. If you’re an individual or startup trying something new, however, you will struggle to access the vast troves of labeled data available to the bigger players.

This is why new systems that can potentially train themselves over time or that allow robots to deal with situations they’ve never seen before without mountains of labelled data are a holy grail in artificial intelligence. The work done by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is part of a new wave of “self-supervised” machine learning systems—little of the data used was labeled by humans.

The robot first inspects the new object from multiple angles, building up a 3D picture of the object with its own coordinate system. This then allows the robotic arm to identify a particular feature on the object—such as a handle, or the tongue of a shoe—from various different angles, based on its relative distance to other grid points.

This is the real innovation: the new means of representing objects to grasp as mapped-out 3D objects, with grid points and subsections of their own. Rather than using a computer vision algorithm to identify a door handle, and then activating a door handle grasping subroutine, the DON system treats all objects by making these spatial maps before classifying or manipulating them, enabling it to deal with a greater range of objects than in other approaches.

“Many approaches to manipulation can’t identify specific parts of an object across the many orientations that object may encounter,” said PhD student Lucas Manuelli, who wrote a new paper about the system with lead author and fellow student Pete Florence, alongside MIT professor Russ Tedrake. “For example, existing algorithms would be unable to grasp a mug by its handle, especially if the mug could be in multiple orientations, like upright, or on its side.”

Class-specific descriptors, which can be applied to the object features, can allow the robot arm to identify a mug, find the handle, and pick the mug up appropriately. Object-specific descriptors allow the robot arm to select a particular mug from a group of similar items. I’m already dreaming of a robot butler reliably picking my favourite mug when it serves me coffee in the morning.

Google’s robot arm-y was an attempt to develop a general grasping algorithm: one that could identify, categorize, and appropriately grip as many items as possible. This requires a great deal of training time and data, which is why Google parallelized their project by having 14 robot arms feed data into a single neural network brain: even then, the algorithm may fail with highly specific tasks. Specialist grasping algorithms might require less training if they’re limited to specific objects, but then your software is useless for general tasks.

As the roboticists noted, their system, with its ability to identify parts of an object rather than just a single object, is better suited to specific tasks, such as “grasp the racquet by the handle,” than Amazon Robotics Challenge robots, which identify whole objects by segmenting an image.

This work is small-scale at present. It has been tested with a few classes of objects, including shoes, hats, and mugs. Yet the use of these dense object nets as a way for robots to represent and manipulate new objects may well be another step towards the ultimate goal of generalized automation: a robot capable of performing every task a person can. If that point is reached, the question that will remain is how to cope with being obsolete.

Image Credit: Tom Buehler/CSAIL Continue reading

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