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Technological progress has radically transformed our concept of privacy. How we share information and display our identities has changed as we’ve migrated to the digital world.
As the Guardian states, “We now carry with us everywhere devices that give us access to all the world’s information, but they can also offer almost all the world vast quantities of information about us.” We are all leaving digital footprints as we navigate through the internet. While sometimes this information can be harmless, it’s often valuable to various stakeholders, including governments, corporations, marketers, and criminals.
The ethical debate around privacy is complex. The reality is that our definition and standards for privacy have evolved over time, and will continue to do so in the next few decades.
Implications of Emerging Technologies
Protecting privacy will only become more challenging as we experience the emergence of technologies such as virtual reality, the Internet of Things, brain-machine interfaces, and much more.
Virtual reality headsets are already gathering information about users’ locations and physical movements. In the future all of our emotional experiences, reactions, and interactions in the virtual world will be able to be accessed and analyzed. As virtual reality becomes more immersive and indistinguishable from physical reality, technology companies will be able to gather an unprecedented amount of data.
It doesn’t end there. The Internet of Things will be able to gather live data from our homes, cities and institutions. Drones may be able to spy on us as we live our everyday lives. As the amount of genetic data gathered increases, the privacy of our genes, too, may be compromised.
It gets even more concerning when we look farther into the future. As companies like Neuralink attempt to merge the human brain with machines, we are left with powerful implications for privacy. Brain-machine interfaces by nature operate by extracting information from the brain and manipulating it in order to accomplish goals. There are many parties that can benefit and take advantage of the information from the interface.
Marketing companies, for instance, would take an interest in better understanding how consumers think and consequently have their thoughts modified. Employers could use the information to find new ways to improve productivity or even monitor their employees. There will notably be risks of “brain hacking,” which we must take extreme precaution against. However, it is important to note that lesser versions of these risks currently exist, i.e., by phone hacking, identify fraud, and the like.
A New Much-Needed Definition of Privacy
In many ways we are already cyborgs interfacing with technology. According to theories like the extended mind hypothesis, our technological devices are an extension of our identities. We use our phones to store memories, retrieve information, and communicate. We use powerful tools like the Hubble Telescope to extend our sense of sight. In parallel, one can argue that the digital world has become an extension of the physical world.
These technological tools are a part of who we are. This has led to many ethical and societal implications. Our Facebook profiles can be processed to infer secondary information about us, such as sexual orientation, political and religious views, race, substance use, intelligence, and personality. Some argue that many of our devices may be mapping our every move. Your browsing history could be spied on and even sold in the open market.
While the argument to protect privacy and individuals’ information is valid to a certain extent, we may also have to accept the possibility that privacy will become obsolete in the future. We have inherently become more open as a society in the digital world, voluntarily sharing our identities, interests, views, and personalities.
“The question we are left with is, at what point does the tradeoff between transparency and privacy become detrimental?”
There also seems to be a contradiction with the positive trend towards mass transparency and the need to protect privacy. Many advocate for a massive decentralization and openness of information through mechanisms like blockchain.
The question we are left with is, at what point does the tradeoff between transparency and privacy become detrimental? We want to live in a world of fewer secrets, but also don’t want to live in a world where our every move is followed (not to mention our every feeling, thought and interaction). So, how do we find a balance?
Traditionally, privacy is used synonymously with secrecy. Many are led to believe that if you keep your personal information secret, then you’ve accomplished privacy. Danny Weitzner, director of the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative, rejects this notion and argues that this old definition of privacy is dead.
From Witzner’s perspective, protecting privacy in the digital age means creating rules that require governments and businesses to be transparent about how they use our information. In other terms, we can’t bring the business of data to an end, but we can do a better job of controlling it. If these stakeholders spy on our personal information, then we should have the right to spy on how they spy on us.
The Role of Policy and Discourse
Almost always, policy has been too slow to adapt to the societal and ethical implications of technological progress. And sometimes the wrong laws can do more harm than good. For instance, in March, the US House of Representatives voted to allow internet service providers to sell your web browsing history on the open market.
More often than not, the bureaucratic nature of governance can’t keep up with exponential growth. New technologies are emerging every day and transforming society. Can we confidently claim that our world leaders, politicians, and local representatives are having these conversations and debates? Are they putting a focus on the ethical and societal implications of emerging technologies? Probably not.
We also can’t underestimate the role of public awareness and digital activism. There needs to be an emphasis on educating and engaging the general public about the complexities of these issues and the potential solutions available. The current solution may not be robust or clear, but having these discussions will get us there.
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Researchers at Columbia Engineering have solved a long-standing issue in the creation of untethered soft robots whose actions and movements can help mimic natural biological systems. A group in the Creative Machines lab led by Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering, has developed a 3D-printable synthetic soft muscle, a one-of-a-kind artificial active tissue with intrinsic expansion ability that does not require an external compressor or high voltage equipment as previous muscles required. The new material has a strain density (expansion per gram) that is 15 times larger than natural muscle, and can lift 1000 times its own weight. Continue reading
We’re no stranger to robotics in the medical field. Robot-assisted surgery is becoming more and more common. Many training programs are starting to include robotic and virtual reality scenarios to provide hands-on training for students without putting patients at risk.
With all of these advances in medical robotics, three niches stand out above the rest: surgery, medical imaging, and drug discovery. How have robotics already begun to exert their influence on these practices, and how will they change them for good?
Robot-assisted surgery was first documented in 1985, when it was used for a neurosurgical biopsy. This led to the use of robotics in a number of similar surgeries, both laparoscopic and traditional operations. The FDA didn’t approve robotic surgery tools until 2000, when the da Vinci Surgery system hit the market.
The robot-assisted surgery market is expected to grow steadily into 2023 and potentially beyond. The only thing that might stand in the way of this growth is the cost of the equipment. The initial investment may prevent small practices from purchasing the necessary devices.
The key to successful medical imaging isn’t the equipment itself. It’s being able to interpret the information in the images. Medical images are some of the most information-dense pieces of data in the medical field and can reveal so much more than a basic visual inspection can.
Robotics and, more specifically, artificial intelligence programs like IBM Watson can help interpret these images more efficiently and accurately. By allowing an AI or basic machine learning program to study the medical images, researchers can find patterns and make more accurate diagnoses than ever before.
Drug discovery is a long and often tedious process that includes years of testing and assessment. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive algorithms could help speed up this system.
Imagine if researchers could input the kind of medicine they’re trying to make and the kind of symptoms they’re trying to treat into a computer and let it do the rest. With robotics, that may someday be possible.
This isn’t a perfect solution yet—these systems require massive amounts of data before they can start making decisions or predictions. By feeding data into the cloud where these programs can access it, researchers can take the first steps towards setting up a functional database.
Another benefit of these AI programs is that they might see connections humans would never have thought of. People can make those leaps, but the chances are much lower, and it takes much longer if it happens at all. Simply put, we’re not capable of processing the sheer amount of data that computers can process.
This isn’t a field where we’re worrying about robots stealing jobs.
Quite the opposite, in fact—we want robots to become commonly-used tools that can help improve patient care and surgical outcomes.
A human surgeon might have intuition, but they’ll never have the steadiness that a pair of robotic hands can provide or the data-processing capabilities of a machine learning algorithm. If we let them, these tools could change the way we look at medicine.
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Remember the 1980s movie Brewster’s Millions, in which a minor league baseball pitcher (played by Richard Pryor) must spend $30 million in 30 days to inherit $300 million? Pryor goes on an epic spending spree for a bigger payoff down the road.
One of the world’s biggest public companies is making that film look like a weekend in the Hamptons. Japan’s SoftBank Group, led by its indefatigable CEO Masayoshi Son, is shooting to invest $100 billion over the next five years toward what the company calls the information revolution.
The newly-created SoftBank Vision Fund, with a handful of key investors, appears ready to almost single-handedly hack the technology revolution. Announced only last year, the fund had its first major close in May with $93 billion in committed capital. The rest of the money is expected to be raised this year.
The fund is unprecedented. Data firm CB Insights notes that the SoftBank Vision Fund, if and when it hits the $100 billion mark, will equal the total amount that VC-backed companies received in all of 2016—$100.8 billion across 8,372 deals globally.
The money will go toward both billion-dollar corporations and startups, with a minimum $100 million buy-in. The focus is on core technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and the Internet of Things.
Aside from being Japan’s richest man, Son is also a futurist who has predicted the singularity, the moment in time when machines will become smarter than humans and technology will progress exponentially. Son pegs the date as 2047. He appears to be hedging that bet in the biggest way possible.
Show Me the Money
Ostensibly a telecommunications company, SoftBank Group was founded in 1981 and started investing in internet technologies by the mid-1990s. Son infamously lost about $70 billion of his own fortune after the dot-com bubble burst around 2001. The company itself has a market cap of nearly $90 billion today, about half of where it was during the heydays of the internet boom.
The ups and downs did nothing to slake the company’s thirst for technology. It has made nine acquisitions and more than 130 investments since 1995. In 2017 alone, SoftBank has poured billions into nearly 30 companies and acquired three others. Some of those investments are being transferred to the massive SoftBank Vision Fund.
SoftBank is not going it alone with the new fund. More than half of the money—$60 billion—comes via the Middle East through Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund ($45 billion) and Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Company ($15 billion). Other players at the table include Apple, Qualcomm, Sharp, Foxconn, and Oracle.
During a company conference in August, Son notes the SoftBank Vision Fund is not just about making money. “We don’t just want to be an investor just for the money game,” he says through a translator. “We want to make the information revolution. To do the information revolution, you can’t do it by yourself; you need a lot of synergy.”
Off to the Races
The fund has wasted little time creating that synergy. In July, its first official investment, not surprisingly, went to a company that specializes in artificial intelligence for robots—Brain Corp. The San Diego-based startup uses AI to turn manual machines into self-driving robots that navigate their environments autonomously. The first commercial application appears to be a really smart commercial-grade version that crosses a Roomba and Zamboni.
A second investment in July was a bit more surprising. SoftBank and its fund partners led a $200 million mega-round for Plenty, an agricultural tech company that promises to reshape farming by going vertical. Using IoT sensors and machine learning, Plenty claims its urban vertical farms can produce 350 times more vegetables than a conventional farm using 1 percent of the water.
The spending spree continued into August.
The SoftBank Vision Fund led a $1.1 billion investment into a little-known biotechnology company called Roivant Sciences that goes dumpster diving for abandoned drugs and then creates subsidiaries around each therapy. For example, Axovant Sciences is devoted to neurology while Urovant focuses on urology. TechCrunch reports that Roivant is also creating a tech-focused subsidiary, called Datavant, that will use AI for drug discovery and other healthcare initiatives, such as designing clinical trials.
The AI angle may partly explain SoftBank’s interest in backing the biggest private placement in healthcare to date.
Also in August, SoftBank Vision Fund led a mix of $2.5 billion in primary and secondary capital investments into India’s largest private company in what was touted as the largest single investment in a private Indian company. Flipkart is an e-commerce company in the mold of Amazon.
The fund tacked on a $250 million investment round in August to Kabbage, an Atlanta-based startup in the alt-lending sector for small businesses. It ended big with a $4.4 billion investment into a co-working company called WeWork.
Betterment of Humanity
And those investments only include companies that SoftBank Vision Fund has backed directly.
SoftBank the company will offer—or has already turned over—previous investments to the Vision Fund in more than a half-dozen companies. Those assets include its shares in Nvidia, which produces chips for AI applications, and its first serious foray into autonomous driving with Nauto, a California startup that uses AI and high-tech cameras to retrofit vehicles to improve driving safety. The more miles the AI logs, the more it learns about safe and unsafe driving behaviors.
Other recent acquisitions, such as Boston Dynamics, a well-known US robotics company owned briefly by Google’s parent company Alphabet, will remain under the SoftBank Group umbrella for now.
This spending spree begs the question: What is the overall vision behind the SoftBank’s relentless pursuit of technology companies? A spokesperson for SoftBank told Singularity Hub that the “common thread among all of these companies is that they are creating the foundational platforms for the next stage of the information revolution.All of the companies, he adds, share SoftBank’s criteria of working toward “the betterment of humanity.”
While the SoftBank portfolio is diverse, from agtech to fintech to biotech, it’s obvious that SoftBank is betting on technologies that will connect the world in new and amazing ways. For instance, it wrote a $1 billion check last year in support of OneWeb, which aims to launch 900 satellites to bring internet to everyone on the planet. (It will also be turned over to the SoftBank Vision Fund.)
SoftBank also led a half-billion equity investment round earlier this year in a UK company called Improbable, which employs cloud-based distributed computing to create virtual worlds for gaming. The next step for the company is massive simulations of the real world that supports simultaneous users who can experience the same environment together(and another candidate for the SoftBank Vision Fund.)
Even something as seemingly low-tech as WeWork, which provides a desk or office in locations around the world, points toward a more connected planet.
In the end, the singularity is about bringing humanity together through technology. No one said it would be easy—or cheap.
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The multiverse of science fiction is populated by robots that are indistinguishable from humans. They are usually smarter, faster, and stronger than us. They seem capable of doing any job imaginable, from piloting a starship and battling alien invaders to taking out the trash and cooking a gourmet meal.
The reality, of course, is far from fantasy. Aside from industrial settings, robots have yet to meet The Jetsons. The robots the public are exposed to seem little more than over-sized plastic toys, pre-programmed to perform a set of tasks without the ability to interact meaningfully with their environment or their creators.
To paraphrase PayPal co-founder and tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, we wanted cool robots, instead we got 140 characters and Flippy the burger bot. But scientists are making progress to empower robots with the ability to see and respond to their surroundings just like humans.
Some of the latest developments in that arena were presented this month at the annual Robotics: Science and Systems Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The papers drilled down into topics that ranged from how to make robots more conversational and help them understand language ambiguities to helping them see and navigate through complex spaces.
Ben Burchfiel, a graduate student at Duke University, and his thesis advisor George Konidaris, an assistant professor of computer science at Brown University, developed an algorithm to enable machines to see the world more like humans.
In the paper, Burchfiel and Konidaris demonstrate how they can teach robots to identify and possibly manipulate three-dimensional objects even when they might be obscured or sitting in unfamiliar positions, such as a teapot that has been tipped over.
The researchers trained their algorithm by feeding it 3D scans of about 4,000 common household items such as beds, chairs, tables, and even toilets. They then tested its ability to identify about 900 new 3D objects just from a bird’s eye view. The algorithm made the right guess 75 percent of the time versus a success rate of about 50 percent for other computer vision techniques.
In an email interview with Singularity Hub, Burchfiel notes his research is not the first to train machines on 3D object classification. How their approach differs is that they confine the space in which the robot learns to classify the objects.
“Imagine the space of all possible objects,” Burchfiel explains. “That is to say, imagine you had tiny Legos, and I told you [that] you could stick them together any way you wanted, just build me an object. You have a huge number of objects you could make!”
The infinite possibilities could result in an object no human or machine might recognize.
To address that problem, the researchers had their algorithm find a more restricted space that would host the objects it wants to classify. “By working in this restricted space—mathematically we call it a subspace—we greatly simplify our task of classification. It is the finding of this space that sets us apart from previous approaches.”
Meanwhile, a pair of undergraduate students at Brown University figured out a way to teach robots to understand directions better, even at varying degrees of abstraction.
The research, led by Dilip Arumugam and Siddharth Karamcheti, addressed how to train a robot to understand nuances of natural language and then follow instructions correctly and efficiently.
“The problem is that commands can have different levels of abstraction, and that can cause a robot to plan its actions inefficiently or fail to complete the task at all,” says Arumugam in a press release.
In this project, the young researchers crowdsourced instructions for moving a virtual robot through an online domain. The space consisted of several rooms and a chair, which the robot was told to manipulate from one place to another. The volunteers gave various commands to the robot, ranging from general (“take the chair to the blue room”) to step-by-step instructions.
The researchers then used the database of spoken instructions to teach their system to understand the kinds of words used in different levels of language. The machine learned to not only follow instructions but to recognize the level of abstraction. That was key to kickstart its problem-solving abilities to tackle the job in the most appropriate way.
The research eventually moved from virtual pixels to a real place, using a Roomba-like robot that was able to respond to instructions within one second 90 percent of the time. Conversely, when unable to identify the specificity of the task, it took the robot 20 or more seconds to plan a task about 50 percent of the time.
One application of this new machine-learning technique referenced in the paper is a robot worker in a warehouse setting, but there are many fields that could benefit from a more versatile machine capable of moving seamlessly between small-scale operations and generalized tasks.
“Other areas that could possibly benefit from such a system include things from autonomous vehicles… to assistive robotics, all the way to medical robotics,” says Karamcheti, responding to a question by email from Singularity Hub.
More to Come
These achievements are yet another step toward creating robots that see, listen, and act more like humans. But don’t expect Disney to build a real-life Westworld next to Toon Town anytime soon.
“I think we’re a long way off from human-level communication,” Karamcheti says. “There are so many problems preventing our learning models from getting to that point, from seemingly simple questions like how to deal with words never seen before, to harder, more complicated questions like how to resolve the ambiguities inherent in language, including idiomatic or metaphorical speech.”
Even relatively verbose chatbots can run out of things to say, Karamcheti notes, as the conversation becomes more complex.
The same goes for human vision, according to Burchfiel.
While deep learning techniques have dramatically improved pattern matching—Google can find just about any picture of a cat—there’s more to human eyesight than, well, meets the eye.
“There are two big areas where I think perception has a long way to go: inductive bias and formal reasoning,” Burchfiel says.
The former is essentially all of the contextual knowledge people use to help them reason, he explains. Burchfiel uses the example of a puddle in the street. People are conditioned or biased to assume it’s a puddle of water rather than a patch of glass, for instance.
“This sort of bias is why we see faces in clouds; we have strong inductive bias helping us identify faces,” he says. “While it sounds simple at first, it powers much of what we do. Humans have a very intuitive understanding of what they expect to see, [and] it makes perception much easier.”
Formal reasoning is equally important. A machine can use deep learning, in Burchfiel’s example, to figure out the direction any river flows once it understands that water runs downhill. But it’s not yet capable of applying the sort of human reasoning that would allow us to transfer that knowledge to an alien setting, such as figuring out how water moves through a plumbing system on Mars.
“Much work was done in decades past on this sort of formal reasoning… but we have yet to figure out how to merge it with standard machine-learning methods to create a seamless system that is useful in the actual physical world.”
Robots still have a lot to learn about being human, which should make us feel good that we’re still by far the most complex machines on the planet.
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