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You might not have heard of Hanson Robotics, but if you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen their work. They were the company behind Sophia, the lifelike humanoid avatar that’s made dozens of high-profile media appearances. Before that, they were the company behind that strange-looking robot that seemed a bit like Asimo with Albert Einstein’s head—or maybe you saw BINA48, who was interviewed for the New York Times in 2010 and featured in Jon Ronson’s books. For the sci-fi aficionados amongst you, they even made a replica of legendary author Philip K. Dick, best remembered for having books with titles like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? turned into films with titles like Blade Runner.
Hanson Robotics, in other words, with their proprietary brand of life-like humanoid robots, have been playing the same game for a while. Sometimes it can be a frustrating game to watch. Anyone who gives the robot the slightest bit of thought will realize that this is essentially a chat-bot, with all the limitations this implies. Indeed, even in that New York Times interview with BINA48, author Amy Harmon describes it as a frustrating experience—with “rare (but invariably thrilling) moments of coherence.” This sensation will be familiar to anyone who’s conversed with a chatbot that has a few clever responses.
The glossy surface belies the lack of real intelligence underneath; it seems, at first glance, like a much more advanced machine than it is. Peeling back that surface layer—at least for a Hanson robot—means you’re peeling back Frubber. This proprietary substance—short for “Flesh Rubber,” which is slightly nightmarish—is surprisingly complicated. Up to thirty motors are required just to control the face; they manipulate liquid cells in order to make the skin soft, malleable, and capable of a range of different emotional expressions.
A quick combinatorial glance at the 30+ motors suggests that there are millions of possible combinations; researchers identify 62 that they consider “human-like” in Sophia, although not everyone agrees with this assessment. Arguably, the technical expertise that went into reconstructing the range of human facial expressions far exceeds the more simplistic chat engine the robots use, although it’s the second one that allows it to inflate the punters’ expectations with a few pre-programmed questions in an interview.
Hanson Robotics’ belief is that, ultimately, a lot of how humans will eventually relate to robots is going to depend on their faces and voices, as well as on what they’re saying. “The perception of identity is so intimately bound up with the perception of the human form,” says David Hanson, company founder.
Yet anyone attempting to design a robot that won’t terrify people has to contend with the uncanny valley—that strange blend of concern and revulsion people react with when things appear to be creepily human. Between cartoonish humanoids and genuine humans lies what has often been a no-go zone in robotic aesthetics.
The uncanny valley concept originated with roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that roboticists should avoid trying to replicate humans exactly. Since anything that wasn’t perfect, but merely very good, would elicit an eerie feeling in humans, shirking the challenge entirely was the only way to avoid the uncanny valley. It’s probably a task made more difficult by endless streams of articles about AI taking over the world that inexplicably conflate AI with killer humanoid Terminators—which aren’t particularly likely to exist (although maybe it’s best not to push robots around too much).
The idea behind this realm of psychological horror is fairly simple, cognitively speaking.
We know how to categorize things that are unambiguously human or non-human. This is true even if they’re designed to interact with us. Consider the popularity of Aibo, Jibo, or even some robots that don’t try to resemble humans. Something that resembles a human, but isn’t quite right, is bound to evoke a fear response in the same way slightly distorted music or slightly rearranged furniture in your home will. The creature simply doesn’t fit.
You may well reject the idea of the uncanny valley entirely. David Hanson, naturally, is not a fan. In the paper Upending the Uncanny Valley, he argues that great art forms have often resembled humans, but the ultimate goal for humanoid roboticists is probably to create robots we can relate to as something closer to humans than works of art.
Meanwhile, Hanson and other scientists produce competing experiments to either demonstrate that the uncanny valley is overhyped, or to confirm it exists and probe its edges.
The classic experiment involves gradually morphing a cartoon face into a human face, via some robotic-seeming intermediaries—yet it’s in movement that the real horror of the almost-human often lies. Hanson has argued that incorporating cartoonish features may help—and, sometimes, that the uncanny valley is a generational thing which will melt away when new generations grow used to the quirks of robots. Although Hanson might dispute the severity of this effect, it’s clearly what he’s trying to avoid with each new iteration.
Hiroshi Ishiguro is the latest of the roboticists to have dived headlong into the valley.
Building on the work of pioneers like Hanson, those who study human-robot interaction are pushing at the boundaries of robotics—but also of social science. It’s usually difficult to simulate what you don’t understand, and there’s still an awful lot we don’t understand about how we interpret the constant streams of non-verbal information that flow when you interact with people in the flesh.
Ishiguro took this imitation of human forms to extreme levels. Not only did he monitor and log the physical movements people made on videotapes, but some of his robots are based on replicas of people; the Repliee series began with a ‘replicant’ of his daughter. This involved making a rubber replica—a silicone cast—of her entire body. Future experiments were focused on creating Geminoid, a replica of Ishiguro himself.
As Ishiguro aged, he realized that it would be more effective to resemble his replica through cosmetic surgery rather than by continually creating new casts of his face, each with more lines than the last. “I decided not to get old anymore,” Ishiguro said.
We love to throw around abstract concepts and ideas: humans being replaced by machines, cared for by machines, getting intimate with machines, or even merging themselves with machines. You can take an idea like that, hold it in your hand, and examine it—dispassionately, if not without interest. But there’s a gulf between thinking about it and living in a world where human-robot interaction is not a field of academic research, but a day-to-day reality.
As the scientists studying human-robot interaction develop their robots, their replicas, and their experiments, they are making some of the first forays into that world. We might all be living there someday. Understanding ourselves—decrypting the origins of empathy and love—may be the greatest challenge to face. That is, if you want to avoid the valley.
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Upgrading our biology may sound like science fiction, but attempts to improve humanity actually date back thousands of years. Every day, we enhance ourselves through seemingly mundane activities such as exercising, meditating, or consuming performance-enhancing drugs, such as caffeine or adderall. However, the tools with which we upgrade our biology are improving at an accelerating rate and becoming increasingly invasive.
In recent decades, we have developed a wide array of powerful methods, such as genetic engineering and brain-machine interfaces, that are redefining our humanity. In the short run, such enhancement technologies have medical applications and may be used to treat many diseases and disabilities. Additionally, in the coming decades, they could allow us to boost our physical abilities or even digitize human consciousness.
Many futurists argue that our devices, such as our smartphones, are already an extension of our cortex and in many ways an abstract form of enhancement. According to philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ theory of extended mind, we use technology to expand the boundaries of the human mind beyond our skulls.
One can argue that having access to a smartphone enhances one’s cognitive capacities and abilities and is an indirect form of enhancement of its own. It can be considered an abstract form of brain-machine interface. Beyond that, wearable devices and computers are already accessible in the market, and people like athletes use them to boost their progress.
However, these interfaces are becoming less abstract.
Not long ago, Elon Musk announced a new company, Neuralink, with the goal of merging the human mind with AI. The past few years have seen remarkable developments in both the hardware and software of brain-machine interfaces. Experts are designing more intricate electrodes while programming better algorithms to interpret neural signals. Scientists have already succeeded in enabling paralyzed patients to type with their minds, and are even allowing brains to communicate with one another purely through brainwaves.
Ethical Challenges of Enhancement
There are many social and ethical implications of such advancements.
One of the most fundamental issues with cognitive and physical enhancement techniques is that they contradict the very definition of merit and success that society has relied on for millennia. Many forms of performance-enhancing drugs have been considered “cheating” for the longest time.
But perhaps we ought to revisit some of our fundamental assumptions as a society.
For example, we like to credit hard work and talent in a fair manner, where “fair” generally implies that an individual has acted in a way that has served him to merit his rewards. If you are talented and successful, it is considered to be because you chose to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities available to you. But by these standards, how much of our accomplishments can we truly be credited for?
For instance, the genetic lottery can have an enormous impact on an individual’s predisposition and personality, which can in turn affect factors such as motivation, reasoning skills, and other mental abilities. Many people are born with a natural ability or a physique that gives them an advantage in a particular area or predisposes them to learn faster. But is it justified to reward someone for excellence if their genes had a pivotal role in their path to success?
Beyond that, there are already many ways in which we take “shortcuts” to better mental performance. Seemingly mundane activities like drinking coffee, meditating, exercising, or sleeping well can boost one’s performance in any given area and are tolerated by society. Even the use of language can have positive physical and psychological effects on the human brain, which can be liberating to the individual and immensely beneficial to society at large. And let’s not forget the fact that some of us are born into more access to developing literacy than others.
Given all these reasons, one could argue that cognitive abilities and talents are currently derived more from uncontrollable factors and luck than we like to admit. If anything, technologies like brain-machine interfaces can enhance individual autonomy and allow one a choice of how capable they become.
As Karim Jebari points out (pdf), if a certain characteristic or trait is required to perform a particular role and an individual lacks this trait, would it be wrong to implement the trait through brain-machine interfaces or genetic engineering? How is this different from any conventional form of learning or acquiring a skill? If anything, this would be removing limitations on individuals that result from factors outside their control, such as biological predisposition (or even traits induced from traumatic experiences) to act or perform in a certain way.
Another major ethical concern is equality. As with any other emerging technology, there are valid concerns that cognitive enhancement tech will benefit only the wealthy, thus exacerbating current inequalities. This is where public policy and regulations can play a pivotal role in the impact of technology on society.
Enhancement technologies can either contribute to inequality or allow us to solve it. Educating and empowering the under-privileged can happen at a much more rapid rate, helping the overall rate of human progress accelerate. The “normal range” for human capacity and intelligence, however it is defined, could shift dramatically towards more positive trends.
Many have also raised concerns over the negative applications of government-led biological enhancement, including eugenics-like movements and super-soldiers. Naturally, there are also issues of safety, security, and well-being, especially within the early stages of experimentation with enhancement techniques.
Brain-machine interfaces, for instance, could have implications on autonomy. The interface involves using information extracted from the brain to stimulate or modify systems in order to accomplish a goal. This part of the process can be enhanced by implementing an artificial intelligence system onto the interface—one that exposes the possibility of a third party potentially manipulating individual’s personalities, emotions, and desires by manipulating the interface.
A Tool For Transcendence
It’s important to discuss these risks, not so that we begin to fear and avoid such technologies, but so that we continue to advance in a way that minimizes harm and allows us to optimize the benefits.
Stephen Hawking notes that “with genetic engineering, we will be able to increase the complexity of our DNA, and improve the human race.” Indeed, the potential advantages of modifying biology are revolutionary. Doctors would gain access to a powerful tool to tackle disease, allowing us to live longer and healthier lives. We might be able to extend our lifespan and tackle aging, perhaps a critical step to becoming a space-faring species. We may begin to modify the brain’s building blocks to become more intelligent and capable of solving grand challenges.
In their book Evolving Ourselves, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans describe a world where evolution is no longer driven by natural processes. Instead, it is driven by human choices, through what they call unnatural selection and non-random mutation. Human enhancement is bringing us closer to such a world—it could allow us to take control of our evolution and truly shape the future of our species.
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The longevity field is bustling but still fragmented, and the “silver tsunami” is coming.
That is the takeaway of The Science of Longevity, the behemoth first volume of a four-part series offering a bird’s-eye view of the longevity industry in 2017. The report, a joint production of the Biogerontology Research Foundation, Deep Knowledge Life Science, Aging Analytics Agency, and Longevity.International, synthesizes the growing array of academic and industry ventures related to aging, healthspan, and everything in between.
This is huge, not only in scale but also in ambition. The report, totally worth a read here, will be followed by four additional volumes in 2018, covering topics ranging from the business side of longevity ventures to financial systems to potential tensions between life extension and religion.
And that’s just the first step. The team hopes to publish updated versions of the report annually, giving scientists, investors, and regulatory agencies an easy way to keep their finger on the longevity pulse.
“In 2018, ‘aging’ remains an unnamed adversary in an undeclared war. For all intents and purposes it is mere abstraction in the eyes of regulatory authorities worldwide,” the authors write.
That needs to change.
People often arrive at the field of aging from disparate areas with wildly diverse opinions and strengths. The report compiles these individual efforts at cracking aging into a systematic resource—a “periodic table” for longevity that clearly lays out emerging trends and promising interventions.
The ultimate goal? A global framework serving as a road map to guide the burgeoning industry. With such a framework in hand, academics and industry alike are finally poised to petition the kind of large-scale investments and regulatory changes needed to tackle aging with a unified front.
Infographic depicting many of the key research hubs and non-profits within the field of geroscience.
Image Credit: Longevity.International
The Aging Globe
The global population is rapidly aging. And our medical and social systems aren’t ready to handle this oncoming “silver tsunami.”
Take the medical field. Many age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s lack effective treatment options. Others, including high blood pressure, stroke, lung or heart problems, require continuous medication and monitoring, placing enormous strain on medical resources.
What’s more, because disease risk rises exponentially with age, medical care for the elderly becomes a game of whack-a-mole: curing any individual disease such as cancer only increases healthy lifespan by two to three years before another one hits.
That’s why in recent years there’s been increasing support for turning the focus to the root of the problem: aging. Rather than tackling individual diseases, geroscience aims to add healthy years to our lifespan—extending “healthspan,” so to speak.
Despite this relative consensus, the field still faces a roadblock. The US FDA does not yet recognize aging as a bona fide disease. Without such a designation, scientists are banned from testing potential interventions for aging in clinical trials (that said, many have used alternate measures such as age-related biomarkers or Alzheimer’s symptoms as a proxy).
Luckily, the FDA’s stance is set to change. The promising anti-aging drug metformin, for example, is already in clinical trials, examining its effect on a variety of age-related symptoms and diseases. This report, and others to follow, may help push progress along.
“It is critical for investors, policymakers, scientists, NGOs, and influential entities to prioritize the amelioration of the geriatric world scenario and recognize aging as a critical matter of global economic security,” the authors say.
The causes of aging are complex, stubborn, and not all clear.
But the report lays out two main streams of intervention with already promising results.
The first is to understand the root causes of aging and stop them before damage accumulates. It’s like meddling with cogs and other inner workings of a clock to slow it down, the authors say.
The report lays out several treatments to keep an eye on.
Geroprotective drugs is a big one. Often repurposed from drugs already on the market, these traditional small molecule drugs target a wide variety of metabolic pathways that play a role in aging. Think anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory, and drugs that mimic caloric restriction, a proven way to extend healthspan in animal models.
More exciting are the emerging technologies. One is nanotechnology. Nanoparticles of carbon, “bucky-balls,” for example, have already been shown to fight viral infections and dangerous ion particles, as well as stimulate the immune system and extend lifespan in mice (though others question the validity of the results).
Blood is another promising, if surprising, fountain of youth: recent studies found that molecules in the blood of the young rejuvenate the heart, brain, and muscles of aged rodents, though many of these findings have yet to be replicated.
The second approach is repair and maintenance.
Rather than meddling with inner clockwork, here we force back the hands of a clock to set it back. The main example? Stem cell therapy.
This type of approach would especially benefit the brain, which harbors small, scattered numbers of stem cells that deplete with age. For neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, in which neurons progressively die off, stem cell therapy could in theory replace those lost cells and mend those broken circuits.
Once a blue-sky idea, the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), where scientists can turn skin and other mature cells back into a stem-like state, hugely propelled the field into near reality. But to date, stem cells haven’t been widely adopted in clinics.
It’s “a toolkit of highly innovative, highly invasive technologies with clinical trials still a great many years off,” the authors say.
But there is a silver lining. The boom in 3D tissue printing offers an alternative approach to stem cells in replacing aging organs. Recent investment from the Methuselah Foundation and other institutions suggests interest remains high despite still being a ways from mainstream use.
A Disruptive Future
“We are finally beginning to see an industry emerge from mankind’s attempts to make sense of the biological chaos,” the authors conclude.
Looking through the trends, they identified several technologies rapidly gaining steam.
One is artificial intelligence, which is already used to bolster drug discovery. Machine learning may also help identify new longevity genes or bring personalized medicine to the clinic based on a patient’s records or biomarkers.
Another is senolytics, a class of drugs that kill off “zombie cells.” Over 10 prospective candidates are already in the pipeline, with some expected to enter the market in less than a decade, the authors say.
Finally, there’s the big gun—gene therapy. The treatment, unlike others mentioned, can directly target the root of any pathology. With a snip (or a swap), genetic tools can turn off damaging genes or switch on ones that promote a youthful profile. It is the most preventative technology at our disposal.
There have already been some success stories in animal models. Using gene therapy, rodents given a boost in telomerase activity, which lengthens the protective caps of DNA strands, live healthier for longer.
“Although it is the prospect farthest from widespread implementation, it may ultimately prove the most influential,” the authors say.
Ultimately, can we stop the silver tsunami before it strikes?
Perhaps not, the authors say. But we do have defenses: the technologies outlined in the report, though still immature, could one day stop the oncoming tidal wave in its tracks.
Now we just have to bring them out of the lab and into the real world. To push the transition along, the team launched Longevity.International, an online meeting ground that unites various stakeholders in the industry.
By providing scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, and policy-makers a platform for learning and discussion, the authors say, we may finally generate enough drive to implement our defenses against aging. The war has begun.
Read the report in full here, and watch out for others coming soon here. The second part of the report profiles 650 (!!!) longevity-focused research hubs, non-profits, scientists, conferences, and literature. It’s an enormously helpful resource—totally worth keeping it in your back pocket for future reference.
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Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics can perform an increasingly wider variety of jobs, and automation is no longer confined to routine tasks. Nevertheless, the automation potential for non-routine tasks seems to remain limited, especially for tasks involving autonomous mobility, creativity, problem solving, and complex communication. Continue reading →
Robotics research has been making great strides in recent years, but there are still many hurdles to the machines becoming a ubiquitous presence in our lives. The journal Science Robotics has now identified 10 grand challenges the field will have to grapple with to make that a reality.
Editors conducted an online survey on unsolved challenges in robotics and assembled an expert panel of roboticists to shortlist the 30 most important topics, which were then grouped into 10 grand challenges that could have major impact in the next 5 to 10 years. Here’s what they came up with.
1. New Materials and Fabrication Schemes
Roboticists are beginning to move beyond motors, gears, and sensors by experimenting with things like artificial muscles, soft robotics, and new fabrication methods that combine multiple functions in one material. But most of these advances have been “one-off” demonstrations, which are not easy to combine.
Multi-functional materials merging things like sensing, movement, energy harvesting, or energy storage could allow more efficient robot designs. But combining these various properties in a single machine will require new approaches that blend micro-scale and large-scale fabrication techniques. Another promising direction is materials that can change over time to adapt or heal, but this requires much more research.
2. Bioinspired and Bio-Hybrid Robots
Nature has already solved many of the problems roboticists are trying to tackle, so many are turning to biology for inspiration or even incorporating living systems into their robots. But there are still major bottlenecks in reproducing the mechanical performance of muscle and the ability of biological systems to power themselves.
There has been great progress in artificial muscles, but their robustness, efficiency, and energy and power density need to be improved. Embedding living cells into robots can overcome challenges of powering small robots, as well as exploit biological features like self-healing and embedded sensing, though how to integrate these components is still a major challenge. And while a growing “robo-zoo” is helping tease out nature’s secrets, more work needs to be done on how animals transition between capabilities like flying and swimming to build multimodal platforms.
3. Power and Energy
Energy storage is a major bottleneck for mobile robotics. Rising demand from drones, electric vehicles, and renewable energy is driving progress in battery technology, but the fundamental challenges have remained largely unchanged for years.
That means that in parallel to battery development, there need to be efforts to minimize robots’ power utilization and give them access to new sources of energy. Enabling them to harvest energy from their environment and transmitting power to them wirelessly are two promising approaches worthy of investigation.
4. Robot Swarms
Swarms of simple robots that assemble into different configurations to tackle various tasks can be a cheaper, more flexible alternative to large, task-specific robots. Smaller, cheaper, more powerful hardware that lets simple robots sense their environment and communicate is combining with AI that can model the kind of behavior seen in nature’s flocks.
But there needs to be more work on the most efficient forms of control at different scales—small swarms can be controlled centrally, but larger ones need to be more decentralized. They also need to be made robust and adaptable to the changing conditions of the real world and resilient to deliberate or accidental damage. There also needs to be more work on swarms of non-homogeneous robots with complementary capabilities.
5. Navigation and Exploration
A key use case for robots is exploring places where humans cannot go, such as the deep sea, space, or disaster zones. That means they need to become adept at exploring and navigating unmapped, often highly disordered and hostile environments.
The major challenges include creating systems that can adapt, learn, and recover from navigation failures and are able to make and recognize new discoveries. This will require high levels of autonomy that allow the robots to monitor and reconfigure themselves while being able to build a picture of the world from multiple data sources of varying reliability and accuracy.
6. AI for Robotics
Deep learning has revolutionized machines’ ability to recognize patterns, but that needs to be combined with model-based reasoning to create adaptable robots that can learn on the fly.
Key to this will be creating AI that’s aware of its own limitations and can learn how to learn new things. It will also be important to create systems that are able to learn quickly from limited data rather than the millions of examples used in deep learning. Further advances in our understanding of human intelligence will be essential to solving these problems.
7. Brain-Computer Interfaces
BCIs will enable seamless control of advanced robotic prosthetics but could also prove a faster, more natural way to communicate instructions to robots or simply help them understand human mental states.
Most current approaches to measuring brain activity are expensive and cumbersome, though, so work on compact, low-power, and wireless devices will be important. They also tend to involve extended training, calibration, and adaptation due to the imprecise nature of reading brain activity. And it remains to be seen if they will outperform simpler techniques like eye tracking or reading muscle signals.
8. Social Interaction
If robots are to enter human environments, they will need to learn to deal with humans. But this will be difficult, as we have very few concrete models of human behavior and we are prone to underestimate the complexity of what comes naturally to us.
Social robots will need to be able to perceive minute social cues like facial expression or intonation, understand the cultural and social context they are operating in, and model the mental states of people they interact with to tailor their dealings with them, both in the short term and as they develop long-standing relationships with them.
9. Medical Robotics
Medicine is one of the areas where robots could have significant impact in the near future. Devices that augment a surgeon’s capabilities are already in regular use, but the challenge will be to increase the autonomy of these systems in such a high-stakes environment.
Autonomous robot assistants will need to be able to recognize human anatomy in a variety of contexts and be able to use situational awareness and spoken commands to understand what’s required of them. In surgery, autonomous robots could perform the routine steps of a procedure, giving way to the surgeon for more complicated patient-specific bits.
Micro-robots that operate inside the human body also hold promise, but there are still many roadblocks to their adoption, including effective delivery systems, tracking and control methods, and crucially, finding therapies where they improve on current approaches.
10. Robot Ethics and Security
As the preceding challenges are overcome and robots are increasingly integrated into our lives, this progress will create new ethical conundrums. Most importantly, we may become over-reliant on robots.
That could lead to humans losing certain skills and capabilities, making us unable to take the reins in the case of failures. We may end up delegating tasks that should, for ethical reasons, have some human supervision, and allow people to pass the buck to autonomous systems in the case of failure. It could also reduce self-determination, as human behaviors change to accommodate the routines and restrictions required for robots and AI to work effectively.
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