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New planets found in distant corners of the galaxy. Climate models that may improve our understanding of sea level rise. The emergence of new antimalarial drugs. These scientific advances and discoveries have been in the news in recent months.
While representing wildly divergent disciplines, from astronomy to biotechnology, they all have one thing in common: Artificial intelligence played a key role in their scientific discovery.
One of the more recent and famous examples came out of NASA at the end of 2017. The US space agency had announced an eighth planet discovered in the Kepler-90 system. Scientists had trained a neural network—a computer with a “brain” modeled on the human mind—to re-examine data from Kepler, a space-borne telescope with a four-year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations. Or, more precisely, to find habitable planets where life might just exist.
The researchers trained the artificial neural network on a set of 15,000 previously vetted signals until it could identify true planets and false positives 96 percent of the time. It then went to work on weaker signals from nearly 700 star systems with known planets.
The machine detected Kepler 90i—a hot, rocky planet that orbits its sun about every two Earth weeks—through a nearly imperceptible change in brightness captured when a planet passes a star. It also found a sixth Earth-sized planet in the Kepler-80 system.
AI Handles Big Data
The application of AI to science is being driven by three great advances in technology, according to Ross King from the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Manchester, leader of a team that developed an artificially intelligent “scientist” called Eve.
Those three advances include much faster computers, big datasets, and improved AI methods, King said. “These advances increasingly give AI superhuman reasoning abilities,” he told Singularity Hub by email.
AI systems can flawlessly remember vast numbers of facts and extract information effortlessly from millions of scientific papers, not to mention exhibit flawless logical reasoning and near-optimal probabilistic reasoning, King says.
AI systems also beat humans when it comes to dealing with huge, diverse amounts of data.
That’s partly what attracted a team of glaciologists to turn to machine learning to untangle the factors involved in how heat from Earth’s interior might influence the ice sheet that blankets Greenland.
Algorithms juggled 22 geologic variables—such as bedrock topography, crustal thickness, magnetic anomalies, rock types, and proximity to features like trenches, ridges, young rifts, and volcanoes—to predict geothermal heat flux under the ice sheet throughout Greenland.
The machine learning model, for example, predicts elevated heat flux upstream of Jakobshavn Glacier, the fastest-moving glacier in the world.
“The major advantage is that we can incorporate so many different types of data,” explains Leigh Stearns, associate professor of geology at Kansas University, whose research takes her to the polar regions to understand how and why Earth’s great ice sheets are changing, questions directly related to future sea level rise.
“All of the other models just rely on one parameter to determine heat flux, but the [machine learning] approach incorporates all of them,” Stearns told Singularity Hub in an email. “Interestingly, we found that there is not just one parameter…that determines the heat flux, but a combination of many factors.”
The research was published last month in Geophysical Research Letters.
Stearns says her team hopes to apply high-powered machine learning to characterize glacier behavior over both short and long-term timescales, thanks to the large amounts of data that she and others have collected over the last 20 years.
Emergence of Robot Scientists
While Stearns sees machine learning as another tool to augment her research, King believes artificial intelligence can play a much bigger role in scientific discoveries in the future.
“I am interested in developing AI systems that autonomously do science—robot scientists,” he said. Such systems, King explained, would automatically originate hypotheses to explain observations, devise experiments to test those hypotheses, physically run the experiments using laboratory robotics, and even interpret the results. The conclusions would then influence the next cycle of hypotheses and experiments.
His AI scientist Eve recently helped researchers discover that triclosan, an ingredient commonly found in toothpaste, could be used as an antimalarial drug against certain strains that have developed a resistance to other common drug therapies. The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Automation using artificial intelligence for drug discovery has become a growing area of research, as the machines can work orders of magnitude faster than any human. AI is also being applied in related areas, such as synthetic biology for the rapid design and manufacture of microorganisms for industrial uses.
King argues that machines are better suited to unravel the complexities of biological systems, with even the most “simple” organisms are host to thousands of genes, proteins, and small molecules that interact in complicated ways.
“Robot scientists and semi-automated AI tools are essential for the future of biology, as there are simply not enough human biologists to do the necessary work,” he said.
Creating Shockwaves in Science
The use of machine learning, neural networks, and other AI methods can often get better results in a fraction of the time it would normally take to crunch data.
For instance, scientists at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have a deep learning system for the rapid detection and characterization of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are disturbances in spacetime, emanating from big, high-energy cosmic events, such as the massive explosion of a star known as a supernova. The “Holy Grail” of this type of research is to detect gravitational waves from the Big Bang.
Dubbed Deep Filtering, the method allows real-time processing of data from LIGO, a gravitational wave observatory comprised of two enormous laser interferometers located thousands of miles apart in California and Louisiana. The research was published in Physics Letters B. You can watch a trippy visualization of the results below.
In a more down-to-earth example, scientists published a paper last month in Science Advances on the development of a neural network called ConvNetQuake to detect and locate minor earthquakes from ground motion measurements called seismograms.
ConvNetQuake uncovered 17 times more earthquakes than traditional methods. Scientists say the new method is particularly useful in monitoring small-scale seismic activity, which has become more frequent, possibly due to fracking activities that involve injecting wastewater deep underground. You can learn more about ConvNetQuake in this video:
King says he believes that in the long term there will be no limit to what AI can accomplish in science. He and his team, including Eve, are currently working on developing cancer therapies under a grant from DARPA.
“Robot scientists are getting smarter and smarter; human scientists are not,” he says. “Indeed, there is arguably a case that human scientists are less good. I don’t see any scientist alive today of the stature of a Newton or Einstein—despite the vast number of living scientists. The Physics Nobel [laureate] Frank Wilczek is on record as saying (10 years ago) that in 100 years’ time the best physicist will be a machine. I agree.”
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It’s been a long time coming. For years Waymo (formerly known as Google Chauffeur) has been diligently developing, driving, testing and refining its fleets of various models of self-driving cars. Now Waymo is going big. The company recently placed an order for several thousand new Chrysler Pacifica minivans and next year plans to launch driverless taxis in a number of US cities.
This deal raises one of the biggest unanswered questions about autonomous vehicles: if fleets of driverless taxis make it cheap and easy for regular people to get around, what’s going to happen to car ownership?
One popular line of thought goes as follows: as autonomous ride-hailing services become ubiquitous, people will no longer need to buy their own cars. This notion has a certain logical appeal. It makes sense to assume that as driverless taxis become widely available, most of us will eagerly sell the family car and use on-demand taxis to get to work, run errands, or pick up the kids. After all, vehicle ownership is pricey and most cars spend the vast majority of their lives parked.
Even experts believe commercial availability of autonomous vehicles will cause car sales to drop.
Market research firm KPMG estimates that by 2030, midsize car sales in the US will decline from today’s 5.4 million units sold each year to nearly half that number, a measly 2.1 million units. Another market research firm, ReThinkX, offers an even more pessimistic estimate (or optimistic, depending on your opinion of cars), predicting that autonomous vehicles will reduce consumer demand for new vehicles by a whopping 70 percent.
The reality is that the impending death of private vehicle sales is greatly exaggerated. Despite the fact that autonomous taxis will be a beneficial and widely-embraced form of urban transportation, we will witness the opposite. Most people will still prefer to own their own autonomous vehicle. In fact, the total number of units of autonomous vehicles sold each year is going to increase rather than decrease.
When people predict the demise of car ownership, they are overlooking the reality that the new autonomous automotive industry is not going to be just a re-hash of today’s car industry with driverless vehicles. Instead, the automotive industry of the future will be selling what could be considered an entirely new product: a wide variety of intelligent, self-guiding transportation robots. When cars become a widely used type of transportation robot, they will be cheap, ubiquitous, and versatile.
Several unique characteristics of autonomous vehicles will ensure that people will continue to buy their own cars.
1. Cost: Thanks to simpler electric engines and lighter auto bodies, autonomous vehicles will be cheaper to buy and maintain than today’s human-driven vehicles. Some estimates bring the price to $10K per vehicle, a stark contrast with today’s average of $30K per vehicle.
2. Personal belongings: Consumers will be able to do much more in their driverless vehicles, including work, play, and rest. This means they will want to keep more personal items in their cars.
3. Frequent upgrades: The average (human-driven) car today is owned for 10 years. As driverless cars become software-driven devices, their price/performance ratio will track to Moore’s law. Their rapid improvement will increase the appeal and frequency of new vehicle purchases.
4. Instant accessibility: In a dense urban setting, a driverless taxi is able to show up within minutes of being summoned. But not so in rural areas, where people live miles apart. For many, delay and “loss of control” over their own mobility will increase the appeal of owning their own vehicle.
5. Diversity of form and function: Autonomous vehicles will be available in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Consumers will drive demand for custom-made, purpose-built autonomous vehicles whose form is adapted for a particular function.
Let’s explore each of these characteristics in more detail.
Autonomous vehicles will cost less for several reasons. For one, they will be powered by electric engines, which are cheaper to construct and maintain than gasoline-powered engines. Removing human drivers will also save consumers money. Autonomous vehicles will be much less likely to have accidents, hence they can be built out of lightweight, lower-cost materials and will be cheaper to insure. With the human interface no longer needed, autonomous vehicles won’t be burdened by the manufacturing costs of a complex dashboard, steering wheel, and foot pedals.
While hop-on, hop-off autonomous taxi-based mobility services may be ideal for some of the urban population, several sizeable customer segments will still want to own their own cars.
These include people who live in sparsely-populated rural areas who can’t afford to wait extended periods of time for a taxi to appear. Families with children will prefer to own their own driverless cars to house their childrens’ car seats and favorite toys and sippy cups. Another loyal car-buying segment will be die-hard gadget-hounds who will eagerly buy a sexy upgraded model every year or so, unable to resist the siren song of AI that is three times as safe, or a ride that is twice as smooth.
Finally, consider the allure of robotic diversity.
Commuters will invest in a home office on wheels, a sleek, traveling workspace resembling the first-class suite on an airplane. On the high end of the market, city-dwellers and country-dwellers alike will special-order custom-made autonomous vehicles whose shape and on-board gadgetry is adapted for a particular function or hobby. Privately-owned small businesses will buy their own autonomous delivery robot that could range in size from a knee-high, last-mile delivery pod, to a giant, long-haul shipping device.
As autonomous vehicles near commercial viability, Waymo’s procurement deal with Fiat Chrysler is just the beginning.
The exact value of this future automotive industry has yet to be defined, but research from Intel’s internal autonomous vehicle division estimates this new so-called “passenger economy” could be worth nearly $7 trillion a year. To position themselves to capture a chunk of this potential revenue, companies whose businesses used to lie in previously disparate fields such as robotics, software, ships, and entertainment (to name but a few) have begun to form a bewildering web of what they hope will be symbiotic partnerships. Car hailing and chip companies are collaborating with car rental companies, who in turn are befriending giant software firms, who are launching joint projects with all sizes of hardware companies, and so on.
Last year, car companies sold an estimated 80 million new cars worldwide. Over the course of nearly a century, car companies and their partners, global chains of suppliers and service providers, have become masters at mass-producing and maintaining sturdy and cost-effective human-driven vehicles. As autonomous vehicle technology becomes ready for mainstream use, traditional automotive companies are being forced to grapple with the painful realization that they must compete in a new playing field.
The challenge for traditional car-makers won’t be that people no longer want to own cars. Instead, the challenge will be learning to compete in a new and larger transportation industry where consumers will choose their product according to the appeal of its customized body and the quality of its intelligent software.
Melba Kurman and Hod Lipson are the authors of Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead and Fabricated: the New World of 3D Printing.
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