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#437109 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

FUTURE
Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing
Ed Yong | The Atlantic
“…beyond its vast scope and sui generis nature, there are other reasons the pandemic continues to be so befuddling—a slew of forces scientific and societal, epidemiological and epistemological. What follows is an analysis of those forces, and a guide to making sense of a problem that is now too big for any one person to fully comprehend.”

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Common Sense Comes Closer to Computers
John Pavlus | Quanta Magazine
“The problem of common-sense reasoning has plagued the field of artificial intelligence for over 50 years. Now a new approach, borrowing from two disparate lines of thinking, has made important progress.”

BIOTECH
Scientists Create Glowing Plants Using Bioluminescent Mushroom DNA
George Dvorsky | Gizmodo
“New research published today in Nature Biotechnology describes a new technique, in which the DNA from bioluminescent mushrooms was used to create plants that glow 10 times brighter than their bacteria-powered precursors. Botanists could eventually use this technique to study the inner workings of plants, but it also introduces the possibility of glowing ornamental plants for our homes.”

HEALTH
Old Drugs May Find a New Purpose: Fighting the Coronavirus
Carl Zimmer | The New York Times
“Driven by the pandemic’s spread, research teams have been screening thousands of drugs to see if they have this unexpected potential to fight the coronavirus. They’ve tested the drugs on dishes of cells, and a few dozen candidates have made the first cut.”

MACHINE LEARNING
OpenAI’s New Experiments in Music Generation Create an Uncanny Valley Elvis
Devin Coldewey | TechCrunch
“AI-generated music is a fascinating new field, and deep-pocketed research outfit OpenAI has hit new heights in it, creating recreations of songs in the style of Elvis, 2Pac and others. The results are convincing, but fall squarely in the unnerving ‘uncanny valley’ of audio, sounding rather like good, but drunk, karaoke heard through a haze of drugs.”

CULTURE
Neural Net-Generated Memes Are One of the Best Uses of AI on the Internet
Jay Peters | The Verge
“I’ve spent a good chunk of my workday so far creating memes thanks to this amazing website from Imgflip that automatically generates captions for memes using a neural network. …You can pick from 48 classic meme templates, including distracted boyfriend, Drake in ‘Hotline Bling,’ mocking Spongebob, surprised Pikachu, and Oprah giving things away.”

GENETICS
Can Genetic Engineering Bring Back the American Chestnut?
Gabriel Popkin | The New York Times Magazine
“The geneticists’ research forces conservationists to confront, in a new and sometimes discomfiting way, the prospect that repairing the natural world does not necessarily mean returning to an unblemished Eden. It may instead mean embracing a role that we’ve already assumed: engineers of everything, including nature.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#437103 How to Make Sense of Uncertainty in a ...

As the internet churns with information about Covid-19, about the virus that causes the disease, and about what we’re supposed to do to fight it, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. What can we realistically expect for the rest of 2020? And how do we even know what’s realistic?

Today, humanity’s primary, ideal goal is to eliminate the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and Covid-19. Our second-choice goal is to control virus transmission. Either way, we have three big aims: to save lives, to return to public life, and to keep the economy functioning.

To hit our second-choice goal—and maybe even our primary goal—countries are pursuing five major public health strategies. Note that many of these advances cross-fertilize: for example, advances in virus testing and antibody testing will drive data-based prevention efforts.

Five major public health strategies are underway to bring Covid-19 under control and to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
These strategies arise from things we can control based on the things that we know at any given moment. But what about the things we can’t control and don’t yet know?

The biology of the virus and how it interacts with our bodies is what it is, so we should seek to understand it as thoroughly as possible. How long any immunity gained from prior infection lasts—and indeed whether people develop meaningful immunity at all after infection—are open questions urgently in need of greater clarity. Similarly, right now it’s important to focus on understanding rather than making assumptions about environmental factors like seasonality.

But the biggest question on everyone’s lips is, “When?” When will we see therapeutic progress against Covid-19? And when will life get “back to normal”? There are lots of models out there on the internet; which of those models are right? The simple answer is “none of them.” That’s right—it’s almost certain that every model you’ve seen is wrong in at least one detail, if not all of them. But modeling is meant to be a tool for deeper thinking, a way to run mental (and computational) experiments before—and while—taking action. As George E. P. Box famously wrote in 1976, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Here, we’re seeking useful insights, as opposed to exact predictions, which is why we’re pulling back from quantitative details to get at the mindsets that will support agency and hope. To that end, I’ve been putting together timelines that I believe will yield useful expectations for the next year or two—and asking how optimistic I need to be in order to believe a particular timeline.

For a moderately optimistic scenario to be relevant, breakthroughs in science and technology come at paces expected based on previous efforts and assumptions that turn out to be basically correct; accessibility of those breakthroughs increases at a reasonable pace; regulation achieves its desired effects, without major surprises; and compliance with regulations is reasonably high.

In contrast, if I’m being highly optimistic, breakthroughs in science and technology and their accessibility come more quickly than they ever have before; regulation is evidence-based and successful in the first try or two; and compliance with those regulations is high and uniform. If I’m feeling not-so-optimistic, then I anticipate serious setbacks to breakthroughs and accessibility (with the overturning of many important assumptions), repeated failure of regulations to achieve their desired outcomes, and low compliance with those regulations.

The following scenarios outline the things that need to happen in the fight against Covid-19, when I expect to see them, and how confident I feel in those expectations. They focus on North America and Europe because there are data missing about China’s 2019 outbreak and other regions are still early in their outbreaks. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind throughout: We know more today than we did yesterday, but we still have much to learn. New knowledge derived from greater study and debate will almost certainly inspire ongoing course corrections.

As you dive into the scenarios below, practice these three mindset shifts. First, defeating Covid-19 will be a marathon, not a sprint. We shouldn’t expect life to look like 2019 for the next year or two—if ever. As Ed Yong wrote recently in The Atlantic, “There won’t be an obvious moment when everything is under control and regular life can safely resume.” Second, remember that you have important things to do for at least a year. And third, we are all in this together. There is no “us” and “them.” We must all be alert, responsive, generous, and strong throughout 2020 and 2021—and willing to throw away our assumptions when scientific evidence invalidates them.

The Middle Way: Moderate Optimism
Let’s start with the case in which I have the most confidence: moderate optimism.

This timeline considers milestones through late 2021, the earliest that I believe vaccines will become available. The “normal” timeline for developing a vaccine for diseases like seasonal flu is 18 months, which leads to my projection that we could potentially have vaccines as soon as 18 months from the first quarter of 2020. While Melinda Gates agrees with that projection, others (including AI) believe that 3 to 5 years is far more realistic, based on past vaccine development and the need to test safety and efficacy in humans. However, repurposing existing vaccines against other diseases—or piggybacking off clever synthetic platforms—could lead to vaccines being available sooner. I tried to balance these considerations for this moderately optimistic scenario. Either way, deploying vaccines at the end of 2021 is probably much later than you may have been led to believe by the hype engine. Again, if you take away only one message from this article, remember that the fight against Covid-19 is a marathon, not a sprint.

Here, I’ve visualized a moderately optimistic scenario as a baseline. Think of these timelines as living guides, as opposed to exact predictions. There are still many unknowns. More or less optimistic views (see below) and new information could shift these timelines forward or back and change the details of the strategies.
Based on current data, I expect that the first wave of Covid-19 cases (where we are now) will continue to subside in many areas, leading governments to ease restrictions in an effort to get people back to work. We’re already seeing movement in that direction, with a variety of benchmarks and changes at state and country levels around the world. But depending on the details of the changes, easing restrictions will probably cause a second wave of sickness (see Germany and Singapore), which should lead governments to reimpose at least some restrictions.

In tandem, therapeutic efforts will be transitioning from emergency treatments to treatments that have been approved based on safety and efficacy data in clinical trials. In a moderately optimistic scenario, assuming clinical trials currently underway yield at least a few positive results, this shift to mostly approved therapies could happen as early as the third or fourth quarter of this year and continue from there. One approval that should come rather quickly is for plasma therapies, in which the blood from people who have recovered from Covid-19 is used as a source of antibodies for people who are currently sick.

Companies around the world are working on both viral and antibody testing, focusing on speed, accuracy, reliability, and wide accessibility. While these tests are currently being run in hospitals and research laboratories, at-home testing is a critical component of the mass testing we’ll need to keep viral spread in check. These are needed to minimize the impact of asymptomatic cases, test the assumption that infection yields resistance to subsequent infection (and whether it lasts), and construct potential immunity passports if this assumption holds. Testing is also needed for contact tracing efforts to prevent further spread and get people back to public life. Finally, it’s crucial to our fundamental understanding of the biology of SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19.

We need tests that are very reliable, both in the clinic and at home. So, don’t go buying any at-home test kits just yet, even if you find them online. Wait for reliable test kits and deeper understanding of how a test result translates to everyday realities. If we’re moderately optimistic, in-clinic testing will rapidly expand this quarter and/or next, with the possibility of broadly available, high-quality at-home sampling (and perhaps even analysis) thereafter.

Note that testing is not likely to be a “one-and-done” endeavor, as a person’s infection and immunity status change over time. Expect to be testing yourself—and your family—often as we move later into 2020.

Testing data are also going to inform distancing requirements at the country and local levels. In this scenario, restrictions—at some level of stringency—could persist at least through the end of 2020, as most countries are way behind the curve on testing (Iceland is an informative exception). Governments will likely continue to ask citizens to work from home if at all possible; to wear masks or face coverings in public; to employ heightened hygiene and social distancing in workplaces; and to restrict travel and social gatherings. So while it’s likely we’ll be eating in local restaurants again in 2020 in this scenario, at least for a little while, it’s not likely we’ll be heading to big concerts any time soon.

The Extremes: High and Low Optimism
How would high and low levels of optimism change our moderately optimistic timeline? The milestones are the same, but the time required to achieve them is shorter or longer, respectively. Quantifying these shifts is less important than acknowledging and incorporating a range of possibilities into our view. It pays to pay attention to our bias. Here are a few examples of reasonable possibilities that could shift the moderately optimistic timeline.

When vaccines become available
Vaccine repurposing could shorten the time for vaccines to become available; today, many vaccine candidates are in various stages of testing. On the other hand, difficulties in manufacture and distribution, or faster-than-expected mutation of SARS-CoV-2, could slow vaccine development. Given what we know now, I am not strongly concerned about either of these possibilities—drug companies are rapidly expanding their capabilities, and viral mutation isn’t an urgent concern at this time based on sequencing data—but they could happen.

At first, governments will likely supply vaccines to essential workers such as healthcare workers, but it is essential that vaccines become widely available around the world as quickly and as safely as possible. Overall, I suggest a dose of skepticism when reading highly optimistic claims about a vaccine (or multiple vaccines) being available in 2020. Remember, a vaccine is a knockout punch, not a first line of defense for an outbreak.

When testing hits its stride
While I am confident that testing is a critical component of our response to Covid-19, reliability is incredibly important to testing for SARS-CoV-2 and for immunity to the disease, particularly at home. For an individual, a false negative (being told you don’t have antibodies when you really do) could be just as bad as a false positive (being told you do have antibodies when you really don’t). Those errors are compounded when governments are trying to make evidence-based policies for social and physical distancing.

If you’re highly optimistic, high-quality testing will ramp up quickly as companies and scientists innovate rapidly by cleverly combining multiple test modalities, digital signals, and cutting-edge tech like CRISPR. Pop-up testing labs could also take some pressure off hospitals and clinics.

If things don’t go well, reliability issues could hinder testing, manufacturing bottlenecks could limit availability, and both could hamstring efforts to control spread and ease restrictions. And if it turns out that immunity to Covid-19 isn’t working the way we assumed, then we must revisit our assumptions about our path(s) back to public life, as well as our vaccine-development strategies.

How quickly safe and effective treatments appear
Drug development is known to be long, costly, and fraught with failure. It’s not uncommon to see hope in a drug spike early only to be dashed later on down the road. With that in mind, the number of treatments currently under investigation is astonishing, as is the speed through which they’re proceeding through testing. Breakthroughs in a therapeutic area—for example in treating the seriously ill or in reducing viral spread after an infection takes hold—could motivate changes in the focus of distancing regulations.

While speed will save lives, we cannot overlook the importance of knowing a treatment’s efficacy (does it work against Covid-19?) and safety (does it make you sick in a different, or worse, way?). Repurposing drugs that have already been tested for other diseases is speeding innovation here, as is artificial intelligence.

Remarkable collaborations among governments and companies, large and small, are driving innovation in therapeutics and devices such as ventilators for treating the sick.

Whether government policies are effective and responsive
Those of us who have experienced lockdown are eager for it to be over. Businesses, economists, and governments are also eager to relieve the terrible pressure that is being exerted on the global economy. However, lifting restrictions will almost certainly lead to a resurgence in sickness.

Here, the future is hard to model because there are many, many factors at play, and at play differently in different places—including the extent to which individuals actually comply with regulations.

Reliable testing—both in the clinic and at home—is crucial to designing and implementing restrictions, monitoring their effectiveness, and updating them; delays in reliable testing could seriously hamper this design cycle. Lack of trust in governments and/or companies could also suppress uptake. That said, systems are already in place for contact tracing in East Asia. Other governments could learn important lessons, but must also earn—and keep—their citizens’ trust.

Expect to see restrictions descend and then lift in response to changes in the number of Covid-19 cases and in the effectiveness of our prevention strategies. Also expect country-specific and perhaps even area-specific responses that differ from each other. The benefit of this approach? Governments around the world are running perhaps hundreds of real-time experiments and design cycles in balancing health and the economy, and we can learn from the results.

A Way Out
As Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, told Science magazine, “Science is the exit strategy.” Some of our greatest technological assistance is coming from artificial intelligence, digital tools for collaboration, and advances in biotechnology.

Our exit strategy also needs to include empathy and future visioning—because in the midst of this crisis, we are breaking ground for a new, post-Covid future.

What do we want that future to look like? How will the hard choices we make now about data ethics impact the future of surveillance? Will we continue to embrace inclusiveness and mass collaboration? Perhaps most importantly, will we lay the foundation for successfully confronting future challenges? Whether we’re thinking about the next pandemic (and there will be others) or the cascade of catastrophes that climate change is bringing ever closer—it’s important to remember that we all have the power to become agents of that change.

Special thanks to Ola Kowalewski and Jason Dorrier for significant conversations.

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#436984 Robots to the Rescue: How They Can Help ...

As the coronavirus pandemic forces people to keep their distance, could this be robots‘ time to shine? A group of scientists think so, and they’re calling for robots to do the “dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs” of infectious disease management.

Social distancing has emerged as one of the most effective strategies for slowing the spread of COVID-19, but it’s also bringing many jobs to a standstill and severely restricting our daily lives. And unfortunately, the one group that can’t rely on its protective benefits are the medical and emergency services workers we’re relying on to save us.

Robots could be a solution, according to the editorial board of Science Robotics, by helping replace humans in a host of critical tasks, from disinfecting hospitals to collecting patient samples and automating lab tests.

According to the authors, the key areas where robots could help are clinical care, logistics, and reconnaissance, which refers to tasks like identifying the infected or making sure people comply with quarantines or social distancing requirements. Outside of the medical sphere, robots could also help keep the economy and infrastructure going by standing in for humans in factories or vital utilities like waste management or power plants.

When it comes to clinical care, robots can play important roles in disease prevention, diagnosis and screening, and patient care, the researchers say. Robots have already been widely deployed to disinfect hospitals and other public spaces either using UV light that kills bugs or by repurposing agricultural robots and drones to spray disinfectant, reducing the exposure of cleaning staff to potentially contaminated surfaces. They are also being used to carry out crucial deliveries of food and medication without exposing humans.

But they could also play an important role in tracking the disease, say the researchers. Thermal cameras combined with image recognition algorithms are already being used to detect potential cases at places like airports, but incorporating them into mobile robots or drones could greatly expand the coverage of screening programs.

A more complex challenge—but one that could significantly reduce medical workers’ exposure to the virus—would be to design robots that could automate the collection of nasal swabs used to test for COVID-19. Similarly automated blood collection for tests could be of significant help, and researchers are already investigating using ultrasound to help robots locate veins to draw blood from.

Convincing people it’s safe to let a robot stick a swab up their nose or jab a needle in their arm might be a hard sell right now, but a potentially more realistic scenario would be to get robots to carry out laboratory tests on collected samples to reduce exposure to lab technicians. Commercial laboratory automation systems already exist, so this might be a more achievable near-term goal.

Not all solutions need to be automated, though. While autonomous systems will be helpful for reducing the workload of stretched health workers, remote systems can still provide useful distancing. Remote control robotics systems are already becoming increasingly common in the delicate business of surgery, so it would be entirely feasible to create remote systems to carry out more prosaic medical tasks.

Such systems would make it possible for experts to contribute remotely in many different places without having to travel. And robotic systems could combine medical tasks like patient monitoring with equally important social interaction for people who may have been shut off from human contact.

In a teleconference last week Guang-Zhong Yang, a medical roboticist from Carnegie Mellon University and founding editor of Science Robotics, highlighted the importance of including both doctors and patients in the design of these robots to ensure they are safe and effective, but also to make sure people trust them to observe social protocols and not invade their privacy.

But Yang also stressed the importance of putting the pieces in place to enable the rapid development and deployment of solutions. During the 2015 Ebola outbreak, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation organized workshops to identify where robotics could help deal with epidemics.

But once the threat receded, attention shifted elsewhere, and by the time the next pandemic came around little progress had been made on potential solutions. The result is that it’s unclear how much help robots will really be able to provide to the COVID-19 response.

That means it’s crucial to invest in a sustained research effort into this field, say the paper’s authors, with more funding and multidisciplinary research partnerships between government agencies and industry so that next time around we will be prepared.

“These events are rare and then it’s just that people start to direct their efforts to other applications,” said Yang. “So I think this time we really need to nail it, because without a sustained approach to this history will repeat itself and robots won’t be ready.”

Image Credit: ABB’s YuMi collaborative robot. Image courtesy of ABB Continue reading

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#436962 Scientists Engineered Neurons to Make ...

Electricity plays a surprisingly powerful role in our bodies. While most people are aware that it plays a crucial role in carrying signals to and from our nerves, our bodies produce electric fields that can do everything from helping heal wounds to triggering the release of hormones.

Electric fields can influence a host of important cellular behavior, like directional migration, proliferation, division, or even differentiation into different cell types. The work of Michael Levin at Tufts University even suggests that electrical fields may play a crucial role in the way our bodies organize themselves.

This has prompted considerable interest in exploiting our body’s receptiveness to electrical stimulation for therapeutic means, but given the diffuse nature of electrical fields a key challenge is finding a way to localize these effects. Conductive polymers have proven a useful tool in this regard thanks to their good electrical properties and biocompatibility, and have been used in everything from neural implants to biosensors.

But now, a team at Stanford University has developed a way to genetically engineer neurons to build the materials into their own cell membranes. The approach could make it possible to target highly specific groups of cells, providing unprecedented control over the body’s response to electrical stimulation.

In a paper in Science, the team explained how they used re-engineered viruses to deliver DNA that hijacks cells’ biosynthesis machinery to create an enzyme that assembles electroactive polymers onto their membranes. This changes the electrical properties of the cells, which the team demonstrated could be used to control their behavior.

They used the approach to modulate neuronal firing in cultures of rat hippocampal neurons, mouse brain slices, and even human cortical spheroids. Most impressively, they showed that they could coax the neurons of living C. elegans worms to produce the polymers in large enough quantities to alter their behavior without impairing the cells’ natural function.

Translating the idea to humans poses major challenges, not least because the viruses used to deliver the genetic changes are still a long way from being approved for clinical use. But the ability to precisely target specific cells using a genetic approach holds enormous promise for bioelectronic medicine, Kevin Otto and Christine Schmidt from the University of Florida say in an accompanying perspective.

Interest is booming in therapies that use electrical stimulation of neural circuits as an alternative to drugs for diseases as varied as arthritis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, and hundreds of clinical trials are currently underway.

At present these approaches rely on electrodes that can provide some level of localization, but because different kinds of nerve cells are often packed closely together it’s proven hard to stimulate exactly the right nerves, say Otto and Schmidt. This new approach makes it possible to boost the conductivity of specific cell types, which could make these kinds of interventions dramatically more targeted.

Besides disease-focused bioelectronic interventions, Otto and Schmidt say the approach could prove invaluable for helping to interface advanced prosthetics with patients’ nervous systems by making it possible to excite sensory neurons without accidentally triggering motor neurons, or vice versa.

More speculatively, the approach could one day help create far more efficient bridges between our minds and machines. One of the major challenges for brain-machine interfaces is recording from specific neurons, something that a genetically targeted approach might be able to help greatly with.

If the researchers can replicate the ability to build electronic-tissue “composites” in humans, we may be well on our way to the cyborg future predicted by science fiction.

Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay Continue reading

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#436946 Coronavirus May Mean Automation Is ...

We’re in the midst of a public health emergency, and life as we know it has ground to a halt. The places we usually go are closed, the events we were looking forward to are canceled, and some of us have lost our jobs or fear losing them soon.

But although it may not seem like it, there are some silver linings; this crisis is bringing out the worst in some (I’m looking at you, toilet paper hoarders), but the best in many. Italians on lockdown are singing together, Spaniards on lockdown are exercising together, this entrepreneur made a DIY ventilator and put it on YouTube, and volunteers in Italy 3D printed medical valves for virus treatment at a fraction of their usual cost.

Indeed, if you want to feel like there’s still hope for humanity instead of feeling like we’re about to snowball into terribleness as a species, just look at these examples—and I’m sure there are many more out there. There’s plenty of hope and opportunity to be found in this crisis.

Peter Xing, a keynote speaker and writer on emerging technologies and associate director in technology and growth initiatives at KPMG, would agree. Xing believes the coronavirus epidemic is presenting us with ample opportunities for increased automation and remote delivery of goods and services. “The upside right now is the burgeoning platform of the digital transformation ecosystem,” he said.

In a thought-provoking talk at Singularity University’s COVID-19 virtual summit this week, Xing explained how the outbreak is accelerating our transition to a highly-automated society—and painted a picture of what the future may look like.

Confronting Scarcity
You’ve probably seen them by now—the barren shelves at your local grocery store. Whether you were in the paper goods aisle, the frozen food section, or the fresh produce area, it was clear something was amiss; the shelves were empty. One of the most inexplicable items people have been panic-bulk-buying is toilet paper.

Xing described this toilet paper scarcity as a prisoner’s dilemma, pointing out that we have a scarcity problem right now in terms of our mindset, not in terms of actual supply shortages. “It’s a prisoner’s dilemma in that we’re all prisoners in our homes right now, and we can either hoard or not hoard, and the outcomes depend on how we collaborate with each other,” he said. “But it’s not a zero-sum game.”

Xing referenced a CNN article about why toilet paper, of all things, is one of the items people have been panic-buying most (I, too, have been utterly baffled by this phenomenon). But maybe there’d be less panic if we knew more about the production methods and supply chain involved in manufacturing toilet paper. It turns out it’s a highly automated process (you can learn more about it in this documentary by National Geographic) and requires very few people (though it does require about 27,000 trees a day—so stop bulk-buying it! Just stop!).

The supply chain limitation here is in the raw material; we certainly can’t keep cutting down this many trees a day forever. But—somewhat ironically, given the Costco cartloads of TP people have been stuffing into their trunks and backseats—thanks to automation, toilet paper isn’t something stores are going to stop receiving anytime soon.

Automation For All
Now we have a reason to apply this level of automation to, well, pretty much everything.

Though our current situation may force us into using more robots and automated systems sooner than we’d planned, it will end up saving us money and creating opportunity, Xing believes. He cited “fast-casual” restaurants (Chipotle, Panera, etc.) as a prime example.

Currently, people in the US spend much more to eat at home than we do to eat in fast-casual restaurants if you take into account the cost of the food we’re preparing plus the value of the time we’re spending on cooking, grocery shopping, and cleaning up after meals. According to research from investment management firm ARK Invest, taking all these costs into account makes for about $12 per meal for food cooked at home.

That’s the same as or more than the cost of grabbing a burrito or a sandwich at the joint around the corner. As more of the repetitive, low-skill tasks involved in preparing fast casual meals are automated, their cost will drop even more, giving us more incentive to forego home cooking. (But, it’s worth noting that these figures don’t take into account that eating at home is, in most cases, better for you since you’re less likely to fill your food with sugar, oil, or various other taste-enhancing but health-destroying ingredients—plus, there are those of us who get a nearly incomparable amount of joy from laboring over then savoring a homemade meal).

Now that we’re not supposed to be touching each other or touching anything anyone else has touched, but we still need to eat, automating food preparation sounds appealing (and maybe necessary). Multiple food delivery services have already implemented a contactless delivery option, where customers can choose to have their food left on their doorstep.

Besides the opportunities for in-restaurant automation, “This is an opportunity for automation to happen at the last mile,” said Xing. Delivery drones, robots, and autonomous trucks and vans could all play a part. In fact, use of delivery drones has ramped up in China since the outbreak.

Speaking of deliveries, service robots have steadily increased in numbers at Amazon; as of late 2019, the company employed around 650,000 humans and 200,000 robots—and costs have gone down as robots have gone up.

ARK Invest’s research predicts automation could add $800 billion to US GDP over the next 5 years and $12 trillion during the next 15 years. On this trajectory, GDP would end up being 40 percent higher with automation than without it.

Automating Ourselves?
This is all well and good, but what do these numbers and percentages mean for the average consumer, worker, or citizen?

“The benefits of automation aren’t being passed on to the average citizen,” said Xing. “They’re going to the shareholders of the companies creating the automation.” This is where policies like universal basic income and universal healthcare come in; in the not-too-distant future, we may see more movement toward measures like these (depending how the election goes) that spread the benefit of automation out rather than concentrating it in a few wealthy hands.

In the meantime, though, some people are benefiting from automation in ways that maybe weren’t expected. We’re in the midst of what’s probably the biggest remote-work experiment in US history, not to mention remote learning. Tools that let us digitally communicate and collaborate, like Slack, Zoom, Dropbox, and Gsuite, are enabling remote work in a way that wouldn’t have been possible 20 or even 10 years ago.

In addition, Xing said, tools like DataRobot and H2O.ai are democratizing artificial intelligence by allowing almost anyone, not just data scientists or computer engineers, to run machine learning algorithms. People are codifying the steps in their own repetitive work processes and having their computers take over tasks for them.

As 3D printing gets cheaper and more accessible, it’s also being more widely adopted, and people are finding more applications (case in point: the Italians mentioned above who figured out how to cheaply print a medical valve for coronavirus treatment).

The Mother of Invention
This movement towards a more automated society has some positives: it will help us stay healthy during times like the present, it will drive down the cost of goods and services, and it will grow our GDP in the long run. But by leaning into automation, will we be enabling a future that keeps us more physically, psychologically, and emotionally distant from each other?

We’re in a crisis, and desperate times call for desperate measures. We’re sheltering in place, practicing social distancing, and trying not to touch each other. And for most of us, this is really unpleasant and difficult. We can’t wait for it to be over.

For better or worse, this pandemic will likely make us pick up the pace on our path to automation, across many sectors and processes. The solutions people implement during this crisis won’t disappear when things go back to normal (and, depending who you talk to, they may never really do so).

But let’s make sure to remember something. Even once robots are making our food and drones are delivering it, and our computers are doing data entry and email replies on our behalf, and we all have 3D printers to make anything we want at home—we’re still going to be human. And humans like being around each other. We like seeing one another’s faces, hearing one another’s voices, and feeling one another’s touch—in person, not on a screen or in an app.

No amount of automation is going to change that, and beyond lowering costs or increasing GDP, our greatest and most crucial responsibility will always be to take care of each other.

Image Credit: Gritt Zheng on Unsplash Continue reading

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