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The tech industry touts its ability to automate tasks and remove slow and expensive humans from the equation. But in the background, a lot of the legwork training machine learning systems, solving problems software can’t, and cleaning up its mistakes is still done by people.
This was highlighted recently when Expensify, which promises to automatically scan photos of receipts to extract data for expense reports, was criticized for sending customers’ personally identifiable receipts to workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) crowdsourcing platform.
The company uses text analysis software to read the receipts, but if the automated system falls down then the images are passed to a human for review. While entrusting this job to random workers on MTurk was maybe not so wise—and the company quickly stopped after the furor—the incident brought to light that this kind of human safety net behind AI-powered services is actually very common.
As Wired notes, similar services like Ibotta and Receipt Hog that collect receipt information for marketing purposes also use crowdsourced workers. In a similar vein, while most users might assume their Facebook newsfeed is governed by faceless algorithms, the company has been ramping up the number of human moderators it employs to catch objectionable content that slips through the net, as has YouTube. Twitter also has thousands of human overseers.
Humans aren’t always witting contributors either. The old text-based reCAPTCHA problems Google used to use to distinguish humans from machines was actually simultaneously helping the company digitize books by getting humans to interpret hard-to-read text.
“Every product that uses AI also uses people,” Jeffrey Bigham, a crowdsourcing expert at Carnegie Mellon University, told Wired. “I wouldn’t even say it’s a backstop so much as a core part of the process.”
Some companies are not shy about their use of crowdsourced workers. Startup Eloquent Labs wants to insert them between customer service chatbots and human agents who step in when the machines fail. Many times the AI is pretty certain what particular work means, and an MTurk worker can step in and quickly classify them faster and cheaper than a service agent.
Fashion retailer Gilt provides “pre-emptive shipping,” which uses data analytics to predict what people will buy to get products to them faster. The company uses MTurk workers to provide subjective critiques of clothing that feed into their models.
MTurk isn’t the only player. Companies like Cloudfactory and Crowdflower provide crowdsourced human manpower tailored to particular niches, and some companies prefer to maintain their own communities of workers. Unlabel uses an army of 50,000 humans to check and edit the translations its artificial intelligence system produces for customers.
Most of the time these human workers aren’t just filling in the gaps, they’re also helping to train the machine learning component of these companies’ services by providing new examples of how to solve problems. Other times humans aren’t used “in-the-loop” with AI systems, but to prepare data sets they can learn from by labeling images, text, or audio.
It’s even possible to use crowdsourced workers to carry out tasks typically tackled by machine learning, such as large-scale image analysis and forecasting.
Zooniverse gets citizen scientists to classify images of distant galaxies or videos of animals to help academics analyze large data sets too complex for computers. Almanis creates forecasts on everything from economics to politics with impressive accuracy by giving those who sign up to the website incentives for backing the correct answer to a question. Researchers have used MTurkers to power a chatbot, and there’s even a toolkit for building algorithms to control this human intelligence called TurKit.
So what does this prominent role for humans in AI services mean? Firstly, it suggests that many tools people assume are powered by AI may in fact be relying on humans. This has obvious privacy implications, as the Expensify story highlighted, but should also raise concerns about whether customers are really getting what they pay for.
One example of this is IBM’s Watson for oncology, which is marketed as a data-driven AI system for providing cancer treatment recommendations. But an investigation by STAT highlighted that it’s actually largely driven by recommendations from a handful of (admittedly highly skilled) doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Secondly, humans intervening in AI-run processes also suggests AI is still largely helpless without us, which is somewhat comforting to know among all the doomsday predictions of AI destroying jobs. At the same time, though, much of this crowdsourced work is monotonous, poorly paid, and isolating.
As machines trained by human workers get better at all kinds of tasks, this kind of piecemeal work filling in the increasingly small gaps in their capabilities may get more common. While tech companies often talk about AI augmenting human intelligence, for many it may actually end up being the other way around.
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The best storytellers react to their audience. They look for smiles, signs of awe, or boredom; they simultaneously and skillfully read both the story and their sitters. Kevin Brooks, a seasoned storyteller working for Motorola’s Human Interface Labs, explains, “As the storyteller begins, they must tune in to… the audience’s energy. Based on this energy, the storyteller will adjust their timing, their posture, their characterizations, and sometimes even the events of the story. There is a dialog between audience and storyteller.”
Shortly after I read the script to Melita, the latest virtual reality experience from Madrid-based immersive storytelling company Future Lighthouse, CEO Nicolas Alcalá explained to me that the piece is an example of “reactive content,” a concept he’s been working on since his days at Singularity University.
For the first time in history, we have access to technology that can merge the reactive and affective elements of oral storytelling with the affordances of digital media, weaving stunning visuals, rich soundtracks, and complex meta-narratives in a story arena that has the capability to know you more intimately than any conventional storyteller could.
It’s no understatement to say that the storytelling potential here is phenomenal.
In short, we can refer to content as reactive if it reads and reacts to users based on their body rhythms, emotions, preferences, and data points. Artificial intelligence is used to analyze users’ behavior or preferences to sculpt unique storylines and narratives, essentially allowing for a story that changes in real time based on who you are and how you feel.
The development of reactive content will allow those working in the industry to go one step further than simply translating the essence of oral storytelling into VR. Rather than having a narrative experience with a digital storyteller who can read you, reactive content has the potential to create an experience with a storyteller who knows you.
This means being able to subtly insert minor personal details that have a specific meaning to the viewer. When we talk to our friends we often use experiences we’ve shared in the past or knowledge of our audience to give our story as much resonance as possible. Targeting personal memories and aspects of our lives is a highly effective way to elicit emotions and aid in visualizing narratives. When you can do this with the addition of visuals, music, and characters—all lifted from someone’s past—you have the potential for overwhelmingly engaging and emotionally-charged content.
Future Lighthouse inform me that for now, reactive content will rely primarily on biometric feedback technology such as breathing, heartbeat, and eye tracking sensors. A simple example would be a story in which parts of the environment or soundscape change in sync with the user’s heartbeat and breathing, or characters who call you out for not paying attention.
The next step would be characters and situations that react to the user’s emotions, wherein algorithms analyze biometric information to make inferences about states of emotional arousal (“why are you so nervous?” etc.). Another example would be implementing the use of “arousal parameters,” where the audience can choose what level of “fear” they want from a VR horror story before algorithms modulate the experience using information from biometric feedback devices.
The company’s long-term goal is to gather research on storytelling conventions and produce a catalogue of story “wireframes.” This entails distilling the basic formula to different genres so they can then be fleshed out with visuals, character traits, and soundtracks that are tailored for individual users based on their deep data, preferences, and biometric information.
The development of reactive content will go hand in hand with a renewed exploration of diverging, dynamic storylines, and multi-narratives, a concept that hasn’t had much impact in the movie world thus far. In theory, the idea of having a story that changes and mutates is captivating largely because of our love affair with serendipity and unpredictability, a cultural condition theorist Arthur Kroker refers to as the “hypertextual imagination.” This feeling of stepping into the unknown with the possibility of deviation from the habitual translates as a comforting reminder that our own lives can take exciting and unexpected turns at any moment.
The inception of the concept into mainstream culture dates to the classic Choose Your Own Adventure book series that launched in the late 70s, which in its literary form had great success. However, filmic takes on the theme have made somewhat less of an impression. DVDs like I’m Your Man (1998) and Switching (2003) both use scene selection tools to determine the direction of the storyline.
A more recent example comes from Kino Industries, who claim to have developed the technology to allow filmmakers to produce interactive films in which viewers can use smartphones to quickly vote on which direction the narrative takes at numerous decision points throughout the film.
The main problem with diverging narrative films has been the stop-start nature of the interactive element: when I’m immersed in a story I don’t want to have to pick up a controller or remote to select what’s going to happen next. Every time the audience is given the option to take a new path (“press this button”, “vote on X, Y, Z”) the narrative— and immersion within that narrative—is temporarily halted, and it takes the mind a while to get back into this state of immersion.
Reactive content has the potential to resolve these issues by enabling passive interactivity—that is, input and output without having to pause and actively make decisions or engage with the hardware. This will result in diverging, dynamic narratives that will unfold seamlessly while being dependent on and unique to the specific user and their emotions. Passive interactivity will also remove the game feel that can often be a symptom of interactive experiences and put a viewer somewhere in the middle: still firmly ensconced in an interactive dynamic narrative, but in a much subtler way.
While reading the Melita script I was particularly struck by a scene in which the characters start to engage with the user and there’s a synchronicity between the user’s heartbeat and objects in the virtual world. As the narrative unwinds and the words of Melita’s character get more profound, parts of the landscape, which seemed to be flashing and pulsating at random, come together and start to mimic the user’s heartbeat.
In 2013, Jane Aspell of Anglia Ruskin University (UK) and Lukas Heydrich of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology proved that a user’s sense of presence and identification with a virtual avatar could be dramatically increased by syncing the on-screen character with the heartbeat of the user. The relationship between bio-digital synchronicity, immersion, and emotional engagement is something that will surely have revolutionary narrative and storytelling potential.
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Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.
This isn’t some post-apocalyptic vision of the future à la The Terminator. This is a snapshot of the farm of the future. Every phase of the operation—from seed to harvest—may someday be automated, without the need to ever get one’s fingernails dirty.
In fact, it’s science fiction already being engineered into reality. Today, robots empowered with artificial intelligence can zap weeds with preternatural precision, while autonomous tractors move with tireless efficiency across the farmland. Satellites can assess crop health from outer space, providing gobs of data to help produce the sort of business intelligence once accessible only to Fortune 500 companies.
“Precision agriculture is on the brink of a new phase of development involving smart machines that can operate by themselves, which will allow production agriculture to become significantly more efficient. Precision agriculture is becoming robotic agriculture,” said professor Simon Blackmore last year during a conference in Asia on the latest developments in robotic agriculture. Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University and head of the National Centre for Precision Farming in the UK.
It’s Blackmore’s university that recently showcased what may someday be possible. The project, dubbed Hands Free Hectare and led by researchers from Harper Adams and private industry, farmed one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of spring barley without one person ever setting foot in the field.
The team re-purposed, re-wired and roboticized farm equipment ranging from a Japanese tractor to a 25-year-old combine. Drones served as scouts to survey the operation and collect samples to help the team monitor the progress of the barley. At the end of the season, the robo farmers harvested about 4.5 tons of barley at a price tag of £200,000.
“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and we’ve done that,” said Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, which partnered with Harper Adams, in a press release.
I, Robot Farmer
The Harper Adams experiment is the latest example of how machines are disrupting the agricultural industry. Around the same time that the Hands Free Hectare combine was harvesting barley, Deere & Company announced it would acquire a startup called Blue River Technology for a reported $305 million.
Blue River has developed a “see-and-spray” system that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to discriminate between crops and weeds. It hits the former with fertilizer and blasts the latter with herbicides with such precision that it can eliminate 90 percent of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
It’s not just farmland that’s getting a helping hand from robots. A California company called Abundant Robotics, spun out of the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is developing robots capable of picking apples with vacuum-like arms that suck the fruit straight off the trees in the orchards.
“Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again. But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what we’ve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment,” Dan Harburg, an associate at venture capital firm Anterra Capital who previously worked at a Massachusetts-based startup making a robotic arm capable of grabbing fruit, told AgFunder News.
“This means ag-focused robotics startups have to design systems from the ground up, which can take time and money, and their robots have to be able to complete multiple tasks to avoid sitting on the shelf for a significant portion of the year,” he noted.
Eyes in the Sky
It will take more than an army of robotic tractors to grow a successful crop. The farm of the future will rely on drones, satellites, and other airborne instruments to provide data about their crops on the ground.
Companies like Descartes Labs, for instance, employ machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to forecast soy and corn yields. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup collects five terabytes of data every day from multiple satellite constellations, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Combined with weather readings and other real-time inputs, Descartes Labs can predict cornfield yields with 99 percent accuracy. Its AI platform can even assess crop health from infrared readings.
The US agency DARPA recently granted Descartes Labs $1.5 million to monitor and analyze wheat yields in the Middle East and Africa. The idea is that accurate forecasts may help identify regions at risk of crop failure, which could lead to famine and political unrest. Another company called TellusLabs out of Somerville, Massachusetts also employs machine learning algorithms to predict corn and soy yields with similar accuracy from satellite imagery.
Farmers don’t have to reach orbit to get insights on their cropland. A startup in Oakland, Ceres Imaging, produces high-resolution imagery from multispectral cameras flown across fields aboard small planes. The snapshots capture the landscape at different wavelengths, identifying insights into problems like water stress, as well as providing estimates of chlorophyll and nitrogen levels. The geo-tagged images mean farmers can easily locate areas that need to be addressed.
Growing From the Inside
Even the best intelligence—whether from drones, satellites, or machine learning algorithms—will be challenged to predict the unpredictable issues posed by climate change. That’s one reason more and more companies are betting the farm on what’s called controlled environment agriculture. Today, that doesn’t just mean fancy greenhouses, but everything from warehouse-sized, automated vertical farms to grow rooms run by robots, located not in the emptiness of Kansas or Nebraska but smack dab in the middle of the main streets of America.
Proponents of these new concepts argue these high-tech indoor farms can produce much higher yields while drastically reducing water usage and synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicides.
Iron Ox, out of San Francisco, is developing one-acre urban greenhouses that will be operated by robots and reportedly capable of producing the equivalent of 30 acres of farmland. Powered by artificial intelligence, a team of three robots will run the entire operation of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops.
Vertical farming startup Plenty, also based in San Francisco, uses AI to automate its operations, and got a $200 million vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund earlier this year. The company claims its system uses only 1 percent of the water consumed in conventional agriculture while producing 350 times as much produce. Plenty is part of a new crop of urban-oriented farms, including Bowery Farming and AeroFarms.
“What I can envision is locating a larger scale indoor farm in the economically disadvantaged food desert, in order to stimulate a broader economic impact that could create jobs and generate income for that area,” said Dr. Gary Stutte, an expert in space agriculture and controlled environment agriculture, in an interview with AgFunder News. “The indoor agriculture model is adaptable to becoming an engine for economic growth and food security in both rural and urban food deserts.”
Still, the model is not without its own challenges and criticisms. Most of what these farms can produce falls into the “leafy greens” category and often comes with a premium price, which seems antithetical to the proposed mission of creating oases in the food deserts of cities. While water usage may be minimized, the electricity required to power the operation, especially the LEDs (which played a huge part in revolutionizing indoor agriculture), are not cheap.
Still, all of these advances, from robo farmers to automated greenhouses, may need to be part of a future where nearly 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050. An oft-quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the world must boost food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of the population. Technology may not save the world, but it will help feed it.
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In an interview at Singularity University’s Global Summit in San Francisco, Andreas Gal explained how his company is applying artificial intelligence to the Internet of Things (IoT). Gal is the former CTO of Mozilla and is currently CEO of Silk Labs.
“For us, the value of IoT is not really in making things connected,” Gal said. “It’s really about bringing intelligence to these devices, and that’s what we are focused on. We are bringing the latest advances in AI technology directly into these devices.”
Watch the interview to learn how infusing machine learning into IoT devices can take them beyond simple connection to add much greater value.
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