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In 2016, Cruise, an autonomous vehicle startup acquired by General Motors, had about 50 employees. At the beginning of 2019, the headcount at its San Francisco headquarters—mostly software engineers, mostly working on projects connected to machine learning and artificial intelligence—hit around 1000. Now that number is up to 1500, and by the end of this year it’s expected to reach about 2000, sprawling into a recently purchased building that had housed Dropbox. And that’s not counting the 200 or so tech workers that Cruise is aiming to install in a Seattle, Wash., satellite development center and a handful of others in Phoenix, Ariz., and Pasadena, Calif.
Cruise’s recent hires aren’t all engineers—it takes more than engineering talent to manage operations. And there are hundreds of so-called safety drivers that are required to sit in the 180 or so autonomous test vehicles whenever they roam the San Francisco streets. But that’s still a lot of AI experts to be hiring in a time of AI engineer shortages.
Hussein Mehanna, head of AI/ML at Cruise, says the company’s hiring efforts are on track, due to the appeal of the challenge of autonomous vehicles in drawing in AI experts from other fields. Mehanna himself joined Cruise in May from Google, where he was director of engineering at Google Cloud AI. Mehanna had been there about a year and a half, a relatively quick career stop after a short stint at Snap following four years working in machine learning at Facebook.
Mehanna has been immersed in AI and machine learning research since his graduate studies in speech recognition and natural language processing at the University of Cambridge. I sat down with Mehanna to talk about his career, the challenges of recruiting AI experts and autonomous vehicle development in general—and some of the challenges specific to San Francisco. We were joined by Michael Thomas, Cruise’s manager of AI/ML recruiting, who had also spent time recruiting AI engineers at Google and then Facebook.
IEEE Spectrum: When you were at Cambridge, did you think AI was going to take off like a rocket?
Mehanna: Did I imagine that AI was going to be as dominant and prevailing and sometimes hyped as it is now? No. I do recall in 2003 that my supervisor and I were wondering if neural networks could help at all in speech recognition. I remember my supervisor saying if anyone could figure out how use a neural net for speech he would give them a grant immediately. So he was on the right path. Now neural networks have dominated vision, speech, and language [processing]. But that boom started in 2012.
“In the early days, Facebook wasn’t that open to PhDs, it actually had a negative sentiment about researchers, and then Facebook shifted”
I didn’t [expect it], but I certainly aimed for it when [I was at] Microsoft, where I deliberately pushed my career towards machine learning instead of big data, which was more popular at the time. And [I aimed for it] when I joined Facebook.
In the early days, Facebook wasn’t that open to PhDs, or researchers. It actually had a negative sentiment about researchers. And then Facebook shifted to becoming one of the key places where PhD students wanted to do internships or join after they graduated. It was a mindset shift, they were [once] at a point in time where they thought what was needed for success wasn’t research, but now it’s different.
There was definitely an element of risk [in taking a machine learning career path], but I was very lucky, things developed very fast.
IEEE Spectrum: Is it getting harder or easier to find AI engineers to hire, given the reported shortages?
Mehanna: There is a mismatch [between job openings and qualified engineers], though it is hard to quantify it with numbers. There is good news as well: I see a lot more students diving deep into machine learning and data in their [undergraduate] computer science studies, so it’s not as bleak as it seems. But there is massive demand in the market.
Here at Cruise, demand for AI talent is just growing and growing. It might be is saturating or slowing down at other kinds of companies, though, [which] are leveraging more traditional applications—ad prediction, recommendations—that have been out there in the market for a while. These are more mature, better understood problems.
I believe autonomous vehicle technologies is the most difficult AI problem out there. The magnitude of the challenge of these problems is 1000 times more than other problems. They aren’t as well understood yet, and they require far deeper technology. And also the quality at which they are expected to operate is off the roof.
The autonomous vehicle problem is the engineering challenge of our generation. There’s a lot of code to write, and if we think we are going to hire armies of people to write it line by line, it’s not going to work. Machine learning can accelerate the process of generating the code, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to have engineers; we actually need a lot more engineers.
Sometimes people worry that AI is taking jobs. It is taking some developer jobs, but it is actually generating other developer jobs as well, protecting developers from the mundane and helping them build software faster and faster.
IEEE Spectrum: Are you concerned that the demand for AI in industry is drawing out the people in academia who are needed to educate future engineers, that is, the “eating the seed corn” problem?
Mehanna: There are some negative examples in the industry, but that’s not our style. We are looking for collaborations with professors, we want to cultivate a very deep and respectful relationship with universities.
And there’s another angle to this: Universities require a thriving industry for them to thrive. It is going to be extremely beneficial for academia to have this flourishing industry in AI, because it attracts more students to academia. I think we are doing them a fantastic favor by building these career opportunities. This is not the same as in my early days, [when] people told me “don’t go to AI; go to networking, work in the mobile industry; mobile is flourishing.”
IEEE Spectrum: Where are you looking as you try to find a thousand or so engineers to hire this year?
Thomas: We look for people who want to use machine learning to solve problems. They can be in many different industries—in the financial markets, in social media, in advertising. The autonomous vehicle industry is in its infancy. You can compare it to mobile in the early days: When the iPhone first came out, everyone was looking for developers with mobile experience, but you weren’t going to find them unless you went to straight to Apple, [so you had to hire other kinds of engineers]. This is the same type of thing: it is so new that you aren’t going to find experts in this area, because we are all still learning.
“You don’t have to be an autonomous vehicle expert to flourish in this world. It’s not too late to move…now would be a great time for AI experts working on other problems to shift their attention to autonomous vehicles.”
Mehanna: Because autonomous vehicle technology is the new frontier for AI experts, [the number of] people with both AI and autonomous vehicle experience is quite limited. So we are acquiring AI experts wherever they are, and helping them grow into the autonomous vehicle area. You don’t have to be an autonomous vehicle expert to flourish in this world. It’s not too late to move; even though there is a lot of great tech developed, there’s even more innovation ahead, so now would be a great time for AI experts working on other problems or applications to shift their attention to autonomous vehicles.
It feels like the Internet in 1980. It’s about to happen, but there are endless applications [to be developed over] the next few decades. Even if we can get a car to drive safely, there is the question of how can we tune the ride comfort, and then applying it all to different cities, different vehicles, different driving situations, and who knows to what other applications.
I can see how I can spend a lifetime career trying to solve this problem.
IEEE Spectrum: Why are you doing most of your development in San Francisco?
Mehanna: I think the best talent of the world is in Silicon Valley, and solving the autonomous vehicle problem is going to require the best of the best. It’s not just the engineering talent that is here, but [also] the entrepreneurial spirit. Solving the problem just as a technology is not going to be successful, you need to solve the product and the technology together. And the entrepreneurial spirit is one of the key reasons Cruise secured 7.5 billion in funding [besides GM, the company has a number of outside investors, including Honda, Softbank, and T. Rowe Price]. That [funding] is another reason Cruise is ahead of many others, because this problem requires deep resources.
“If you can do an autonomous vehicle in San Francisco you can do it almost anywhere.”
[And then there is the driving environment.] When I speak to my peers in the industry, they have a lot of respect for us, because the problems to solve in San Francisco technically are an order of magnitude harder. It is a tight environment, with a lot of pedestrians, and driving patterns that, let’s put it this way, are not necessarily the best in the nation. Which means we are seeing more problems ahead of our competitors, which gets us to better [software]. I think if you can do an autonomous vehicle in San Francisco you can do it almost anywhere.
A version of this post appears in the September 2019 print magazine as “AI Engineers: The Autonomous-Vehicle Industry Wants You.” Continue reading →
The narratives about automation and its impact on jobs go from urgent to hopeful and everything in between. Regardless where you land, it’s hard to argue against the idea that technologies like AI and robotics will change our economy and the nature of work in the coming years.
A recent World Economic Forum report noted that some estimates show automation could displace 75 million jobs by 2022, while at the same time creating 133 million new roles. While these estimates predict a net positive for the number of new jobs in the coming decade, displaced workers will need to learn new skills to adapt to the changes. If employees can’t be retrained quickly for jobs in the changing economy, society is likely to face some degree of turmoil.
According to Bryan Talebi, CEO and founder of AI education startup Ahura AI, the same technologies erasing and creating jobs can help workers bridge the gap between the two.
Ahura is developing a product to capture biometric data from adult learners who are using computers to complete online education programs. The goal is to feed this data to an AI system that can modify and adapt their program to optimize for the most effective teaching method.
While the prospect of a computer recording and scrutinizing a learner’s behavioral data will surely generate unease across a society growing more aware and uncomfortable with digital surveillance, some people may look past such discomfort if they experience improved learning outcomes. Users of the system would, in theory, have their own personalized instruction shaped specifically for their unique learning style.
And according to Talebi, their systems are showing some promise.
“Based on our early tests, our technology allows people to learn three to five times faster than traditional education,” Talebi told me.
Currently, Ahura’s system uses the video camera and microphone that come standard on the laptops, tablets, and mobile devices most students are using for their learning programs.
With the computer’s camera Ahura can capture facial movements and micro expressions, measure eye movements, and track fidget score (a measure of how much a student moves while learning). The microphone tracks voice sentiment, and the AI leverages natural language processing to review the learner’s word usage.
From this collection of data Ahura can, according to Talebi, identify the optimal way to deliver content to each individual.
For some users that might mean a video tutorial is the best style of learning, while others may benefit more from some form of experiential or text-based delivery.
“The goal is to alter the format of the content in real time to optimize for attention and retention of the information,” said Talebi. One of Ahura’s main goals is to reduce the frequency with which students switch from their learning program to distractions like social media.
“We can now predict with a 60 percent confidence interval ten seconds before someone switches over to Facebook or Instagram. There’s a lot of work to do to get that up to a 95 percent level, so I don’t want to overstate things, but that’s a promising indication that we can work to cut down on the amount of context-switching by our students,” Talebi said.
Talebi repeatedly mentioned his ambition to leverage the same design principles used by Facebook, Twitter, and others to increase the time users spend on those platforms, but instead use them to design more compelling and even addictive education programs that can compete for attention with social media.
But the notion that Ahura’s system could one day be used to create compelling or addictive education necessarily presses against a set of justified fears surrounding data privacy. Growing anxiety surrounding the potential to misuse user data for social manipulation is widespread.
“Of course there is a real danger, especially because we are collecting so much data about our users which is specifically connected to how they consume content. And because we are looking so closely at the ways people interact with content, it’s incredibly important that this technology never be used for propaganda or to sell things to people,” Talebi tried to assure me.
Unsurprisingly (and worrying), using this AI system to sell products to people is exactly where some investors’ ambitions immediately turn once they learn about the company’s capabilities, according to Talebi. During our discussion Talebi regularly cited the now infamous example of Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm hired by the Trump campaign to run a psychographically targeted persuasion campaign on the US population during the most recent presidential election.
“It’s important that we don’t use this technology in those ways. We’re aware that things can go sideways, so we’re hoping to put up guardrails to ensure our system is helping and not harming society,” Talebi said.
Talebi will surely need to take real action on such a claim, but says the company is in the process of identifying a structure for an ethics review board—one that carries significant influence with similar voting authority as the executive team and the regular board.
“Our goal is to build an ethics review board that has teeth, is diverse in both gender and background but also in thought and belief structures. The idea is to have our ethics review panel ensure we’re building things ethically,” he said.
Data privacy appears to be an important issue for Talebi, who occasionally referenced a major competitor in the space based in China. According to a recent article from MIT Tech Review outlining the astonishing growth of AI-powered education platforms in China, data privacy concerns may be less severe there than in the West.
Ahura is currently developing upgrades to an early alpha-stage prototype, but is already capturing data from students from at least one Ivy League school and a variety of other places. Their next step is to roll out a working beta version to over 200,000 users as part of a partnership with an unnamed corporate client who will be measuring the platform’s efficacy against a control group.
Going forward, Ahura hopes to add to its suite of biometric data capture by including things like pupil dilation and facial flushing, heart rate, sleep patterns, or whatever else may give their system an edge in improving learning outcomes.
As information technologies increasingly automate work, it’s likely we’ll also see rapid changes to our labor systems. It’s also looking increasingly likely that those same technologies will be used to improve our ability to give people the right skills when they need them. It may be one way to address the challenges automation is sure to bring.
Image Credit: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay Continue reading →
Lucas Joppa thinks big. Even while gazing down into his cup of tea in his modest office on Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, he seems to see the entire planet bobbing in there like a spherical tea bag.
As Microsoft’s first chief environmental officer, Joppa came up with the company’s AI for Earth program, a five-year effort that’s spending US $50 million on AI-powered solutions to global environmental challenges.
The program is not just about specific deliverables, though. It’s also about mindset, Joppa told IEEE Spectrum in an interview in July. “It’s a plea for people to think about the Earth in the same way they think about the technologies they’re developing,” he says. “You start with an objective. So what’s our objective function for Earth?” (In computer science, an objective function describes the parameter or parameters you are trying to maximize or minimize for optimal results.)
AI for Earth launched in December 2017, and Joppa’s team has since given grants to more than 400 organizations around the world. In addition to receiving funding, some grantees get help from Microsoft’s data scientists and access to the company’s computing resources.
In a wide-ranging interview about the program, Joppa described his vision of the “ultimate optimization problem”—figuring out which parts of the planet should be used for farming, cities, wilderness reserves, energy production, and so on.
Every square meter of land and water on Earth has an infinite number of possible utility functions. It’s the job of Homo sapiens to describe our overall objective for the Earth. Then it’s the job of computers to produce optimization results that are aligned with the human-defined objective.
I don’t think we’re close at all to being able to do this. I think we’re closer from a technology perspective—being able to run the model—than we are from a social perspective—being able to make decisions about what the objective should be. What do we want to do with the Earth’s surface?
Such questions are increasingly urgent, as climate change has already begun reshaping our planet and our societies. Global sea and air surface temperatures have already risen by an average of 1 degree Celsius above preindustrial levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Today, people all around the world participated in a “climate strike,” with young people leading the charge and demanding a global transition to renewable energy. On Monday, world leaders will gather in New York for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where they’re expected to present plans to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Joppa says such summit discussions should aim for a truly holistic solution.
We talk about how to solve climate change. There’s a higher-order question for society: What climate do we want? What output from nature do we want and desire? If we could agree on those things, we could put systems in place for optimizing our environment accordingly. Instead we have this scattered approach, where we try for local optimization. But the sum of local optimizations is never a global optimization.
There’s increasing interest in using artificial intelligence to tackle global environmental problems. New sensing technologies enable scientists to collect unprecedented amounts of data about the planet and its denizens, and AI tools are becoming vital for interpreting all that data.
The 2018 report “Harnessing AI for the Earth,” produced by the World Economic Forum and the consulting company PwC, discusses ways that AI can be used to address six of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges (climate change, biodiversity, and healthy oceans, water security, clean air, and disaster resilience).
Many of the proposed applications involve better monitoring of human and natural systems, as well as modeling applications that would enable better predictions and more efficient use of natural resources.
Joppa says that AI for Earth is taking a two-pronged approach, funding efforts to collect and interpret vast amounts of data alongside efforts that use that data to help humans make better decisions. And that’s where the global optimization engine would really come in handy.
For any location on earth, you should be able to go and ask: What’s there, how much is there, and how is it changing? And more importantly: What should be there?
On land, the data is really only interesting for the first few hundred feet. Whereas in the ocean, the depth dimension is really important.
We need a planet with sensors, with roving agents, with remote sensing. Otherwise our decisions aren’t going to be any good.
AI for Earth isn’t going to create such an online portal within five years, Joppa stresses. But he hopes the projects that he’s funding will contribute to making such a portal possible—eventually.
We’re asking ourselves: What are the fundamental missing layers in the tech stack that would allow people to build a global optimization engine? Some of them are clear, some are still opaque to me.
By the end of five years, I’d like to have identified these missing layers, and have at least one example of each of the components.
Some of the projects that AI for Earth has funded seem to fit that desire. Examples include SilviaTerra, which used satellite imagery and AI to create a map of the 92 billion trees in forested areas across the United States. There’s also OceanMind, a non-profit that detects illegal fishing and helps marine authorities enforce compliance. Platforms like Wildbook and iNaturalist enable citizen scientists to upload pictures of animals and plants, aiding conservation efforts and research on biodiversity. And FarmBeats aims to enable data-driven agriculture with low-cost sensors, drones, and cloud services.
It’s not impossible to imagine putting such services together into an optimization engine that knows everything about the land, the water, and the creatures who live on planet Earth. Then we’ll just have to tell that engine what we want to do about it.
Editor’s note: This story is published in cooperation with more than 250 media organizations and independent journalists that have focused their coverage on climate change ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit. IEEE Spectrum’s participation in the Covering Climate Now partnership builds on our past reporting about this global issue. Continue reading →
How each of us sees the world is about to change dramatically.
For all of human history, the experience of looking at the world was roughly the same for everyone. But boundaries between the digital and physical are beginning to fade.
The world around us is gaining layer upon layer of digitized, virtually overlaid information—making it rich, meaningful, and interactive. As a result, our respective experiences of the same environment are becoming vastly different, personalized to our goals, dreams, and desires.
Welcome to Web 3.0, or the Spatial Web. In version 1.0, static documents and read-only interactions limited the internet to one-way exchanges. Web 2.0 provided quite an upgrade, introducing multimedia content, interactive web pages, and participatory social media. Yet, all this was still mediated by two-dimensional screens.
Today, we are witnessing the rise of Web 3.0, riding the convergence of high-bandwidth 5G connectivity, rapidly evolving AR eyewear, an emerging trillion-sensor economy, and powerful artificial intelligence.
As a result, we will soon be able to superimpose digital information atop any physical surrounding—freeing our eyes from the tyranny of the screen, immersing us in smart environments, and making our world endlessly dynamic.
In the third post of our five-part series on augmented reality, we will explore the convergence of AR, AI, sensors, and blockchain and dive into the implications through a key use case in manufacturing.
A Tale of Convergence
Let’s deconstruct everything beneath the sleek AR display.
It all begins with graphics processing units (GPUs)—electric circuits that perform rapid calculations to render images. (GPUs can be found in mobile phones, game consoles, and computers.)
However, because AR requires such extensive computing power, single GPUs will not suffice. Instead, blockchain can now enable distributed GPU processing power, and blockchains specifically dedicated to AR holographic processing are on the rise.
Next up, cameras and sensors will aggregate real-time data from any environment to seamlessly integrate physical and virtual worlds. Meanwhile, body-tracking sensors are critical for aligning a user’s self-rendering in AR with a virtually enhanced environment. Depth sensors then provide data for 3D spatial maps, while cameras absorb more surface-level, detailed visual input. In some cases, sensors might even collect biometric data, such as heart rate and brain activity, to incorporate health-related feedback in our everyday AR interfaces and personal recommendation engines.
The next step in the pipeline involves none other than AI. Processing enormous volumes of data instantaneously, embedded AI algorithms will power customized AR experiences in everything from artistic virtual overlays to personalized dietary annotations.
In retail, AIs will use your purchasing history, current closet inventory, and possibly even mood indicators to display digitally rendered items most suitable for your wardrobe, tailored to your measurements.
In healthcare, smart AR glasses will provide physicians with immediately accessible and maximally relevant information (parsed from the entirety of a patient’s medical records and current research) to aid in accurate diagnoses and treatments, freeing doctors to engage in the more human-centric tasks of establishing trust, educating patients and demonstrating empathy.
Image Credit: PHD Ventures.
Convergence in Manufacturing
One of the nearest-term use cases of AR is manufacturing, as large producers begin dedicating capital to enterprise AR headsets. And over the next ten years, AR will converge with AI, sensors, and blockchain to multiply manufacturer productivity and employee experience.
(1) Convergence with AI
In initial application, digital guides superimposed on production tables will vastly improve employee accuracy and speed, while minimizing error rates.
Already, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — whose airlines supply 82 percent of air travel — recently implemented industrial tech company Atheer’s AR headsets in cargo management. And with barely any delay, IATA reported a whopping 30 percent improvement in cargo handling speed and no less than a 90 percent reduction in errors.
With similar success rates, Boeing brought Skylight’s smart AR glasses to the runway, now used in the manufacturing of hundreds of airplanes. Sure enough—the aerospace giant has now seen a 25 percent drop in production time and near-zero error rates.
Beyond cargo management and air travel, however, smart AR headsets will also enable on-the-job training without reducing the productivity of other workers or sacrificing hardware. Jaguar Land Rover, for instance, implemented Bosch’s Re’flekt One AR solution to gear technicians with “x-ray” vision: allowing them to visualize the insides of Range Rover Sport vehicles without removing any dashboards.
And as enterprise capabilities continue to soar, AIs will soon become the go-to experts, offering support to manufacturers in need of assembly assistance. Instant guidance and real-time feedback will dramatically reduce production downtime, boost overall output, and even help customers struggling with DIY assembly at home.
Perhaps one of the most profitable business opportunities, AR guidance through centralized AI systems will also serve to mitigate supply chain inefficiencies at extraordinary scale. Coordinating moving parts, eliminating the need for manned scanners at each checkpoint, and directing traffic within warehouses, joint AI-AR systems will vastly improve workflow while overseeing quality assurance.
After its initial implementation of AR “vision picking” in 2015, leading courier company DHL recently announced it would continue to use Google’s newest smart lens in warehouses across the world. Motivated by the initial group’s reported 15 percent jump in productivity, DHL’s decision is part of the logistics giant’s $300 million investment in new technologies.
And as direct-to-consumer e-commerce fundamentally transforms the retail sector, supply chain optimization will only grow increasingly vital. AR could very well prove the definitive step for gaining a competitive edge in delivery speeds.
As explained by Vital Enterprises CEO Ash Eldritch, “All these technologies that are coming together around artificial intelligence are going to augment the capabilities of the worker and that’s very powerful. I call it Augmented Intelligence. The idea is that you can take someone of a certain skill level and by augmenting them with artificial intelligence via augmented reality and the Internet of Things, you can elevate the skill level of that worker.”
Already, large producers like Goodyear, thyssenkrupp, and Johnson Controls are using the Microsoft HoloLens 2—priced at $3,500 per headset—for manufacturing and design purposes.
Perhaps the most heartening outcome of the AI-AR convergence is that, rather than replacing humans in manufacturing, AR is an ideal interface for human collaboration with AI. And as AI merges with human capital, prepare to see exponential improvements in productivity, professional training, and product quality.
(2) Convergence with Sensors
On the hardware front, these AI-AR systems will require a mass proliferation of sensors to detect the external environment and apply computer vision in AI decision-making.
To measure depth, for instance, some scanning depth sensors project a structured pattern of infrared light dots onto a scene, detecting and analyzing reflected light to generate 3D maps of the environment. Stereoscopic imaging, using two lenses, has also been commonly used for depth measurements. But leading technology like Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 and Intel’s RealSense 400-series camera implement a new method called “phased time-of-flight” (ToF).
In ToF sensing, the HoloLens 2 uses numerous lasers, each with 100 milliwatts (mW) of power, in quick bursts. The distance between nearby objects and the headset wearer is then measured by the amount of light in the return beam that has shifted from the original signal. Finally, the phase difference reveals the location of each object within the field of view, which enables accurate hand-tracking and surface reconstruction.
With a far lower computing power requirement, the phased ToF sensor is also more durable than stereoscopic sensing, which relies on the precise alignment of two prisms. The phased ToF sensor’s silicon base also makes it easily mass-produced, rendering the HoloLens 2 a far better candidate for widespread consumer adoption.
To apply inertial measurement—typically used in airplanes and spacecraft—the HoloLens 2 additionally uses a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer. Further equipped with four “environment understanding cameras” that track head movements, the headset also uses a 2.4MP HD photographic video camera and ambient light sensor that work in concert to enable advanced computer vision.
For natural viewing experiences, sensor-supplied gaze tracking increasingly creates depth in digital displays. Nvidia’s work on Foveated AR Display, for instance, brings the primary foveal area into focus, while peripheral regions fall into a softer background— mimicking natural visual perception and concentrating computing power on the area that needs it most.
Gaze tracking sensors are also slated to grant users control over their (now immersive) screens without any hand gestures. Conducting simple visual cues, even staring at an object for more than three seconds, will activate commands instantaneously.
And our manufacturing example above is not the only one. Stacked convergence of blockchain, sensors, AI and AR will disrupt almost every major industry.
Take healthcare, for example, wherein biometric sensors will soon customize users’ AR experiences. Already, MIT Media Lab’s Deep Reality group has created an underwater VR relaxation experience that responds to real-time brain activity detected by a modified version of the Muse EEG. The experience even adapts to users’ biometric data, from heart rate to electro dermal activity (inputted from an Empatica E4 wristband).
Now rapidly dematerializing, sensors will converge with AR to improve physical-digital surface integration, intuitive hand and eye controls, and an increasingly personalized augmented world. Keep an eye on companies like MicroVision, now making tremendous leaps in sensor technology.
While I’ll be doing a deep dive into sensor applications across each industry in our next blog, it’s critical to first discuss how we might power sensor- and AI-driven augmented worlds.
(3) Convergence with Blockchain
Because AR requires much more compute power than typical 2D experiences, centralized GPUs and cloud computing systems are hard at work to provide the necessary infrastructure. Nonetheless, the workload is taxing and blockchain may prove the best solution.
A major player in this pursuit, Otoy aims to create the largest distributed GPU network in the world, called the Render Network RNDR. Built specifically on the Ethereum blockchain for holographic media, and undergoing Beta testing, this network is set to revolutionize AR deployment accessibility.
Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt (an investor in Otoy’s network), has even said, “I predicted that 90% of computing would eventually reside in the web based cloud… Otoy has created a remarkable technology which moves that last 10%—high-end graphics processing—entirely to the cloud. This is a disruptive and important achievement. In my view, it marks the tipping point where the web replaces the PC as the dominant computing platform of the future.”
Leveraging the crowd, RNDR allows anyone with a GPU to contribute their power to the network for a commission of up to $300 a month in RNDR tokens. These can then be redeemed in cash or used to create users’ own AR content.
In a double win, Otoy’s blockchain network and similar iterations not only allow designers to profit when not using their GPUs, but also democratize the experience for newer artists in the field.
And beyond these networks’ power suppliers, distributing GPU processing power will allow more manufacturing companies to access AR design tools and customize learning experiences. By further dispersing content creation across a broad network of individuals, blockchain also has the valuable potential to boost AR hardware investment across a number of industry beneficiaries.
On the consumer side, startups like Scanetchain are also entering the blockchain-AR space for a different reason. Allowing users to scan items with their smartphone, Scanetchain’s app provides access to a trove of information, from manufacturer and price, to origin and shipping details.
Based on NEM (a peer-to-peer cryptocurrency that implements a blockchain consensus algorithm), the app aims to make information far more accessible and, in the process, create a social network of purchasing behavior. Users earn tokens by watching ads, and all transactions are hashed into blocks and securely recorded.
The writing is on the wall—our future of brick-and-mortar retail will largely lean on blockchain to create the necessary digital links.
Integrating AI into AR creates an “auto-magical” manufacturing pipeline that will fundamentally transform the industry, cutting down on marginal costs, reducing inefficiencies and waste, and maximizing employee productivity.
Bolstering the AI-AR convergence, sensor technology is already blurring the boundaries between our augmented and physical worlds, soon to be near-undetectable. While intuitive hand and eye motions dictate commands in a hands-free interface, biometric data is poised to customize each AR experience to be far more in touch with our mental and physical health.
And underpinning it all, distributed computing power with blockchain networks like RNDR will democratize AR, boosting global consumer adoption at plummeting price points.
As AR soars in importance—whether in retail, manufacturing, entertainment, or beyond—the stacked convergence discussed above merits significant investment over the next decade. The augmented world is only just getting started.
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This article originally appeared on Diamandis.com
Image Credit: Funky Focus / Pixabay Continue reading →
Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):
ICRES 2019 – July 29-30, 2019 – London, U.K.
DARPA SubT Tunnel Circuit – August 15-22, 2019 – Pittsburgh, Pa., USA
IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.
We’re used to seeing bristle bots about the size of a toothbrush head (which is not a coincidence), but Georgia Tech has downsized them, with some interesting benefits.
Researchers have created a new type of tiny 3D-printed robot that moves by harnessing vibration from piezoelectric actuators, ultrasound sources or even tiny speakers. Swarms of these “micro-bristle-bots” might work together to sense environmental changes, move materials – or perhaps one day repair injuries inside the human body.
The prototype robots respond to different vibration frequencies depending on their configurations, allowing researchers to control individual bots by adjusting the vibration. Approximately two millimeters long – about the size of the world’s smallest ant – the bots can cover four times their own length in a second despite the physical limitations of their small size.
“We are working to make the technology robust, and we have a lot of potential applications in mind,” said Azadeh Ansari, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We are working at the intersection of mechanics, electronics, biology and physics. It’s a very rich area and there’s a lot of room for multidisciplinary concepts.”
[ Georgia Tech ]
Most consumer drones are “multi-copters,” meaning that they have a series of rotors or propellers that allow them to hover like helicopters. But having rotors severely limits their energy efficiency, which means that they can’t easily carry heavy payloads or fly for long periods of time. To get the best of both worlds, drone designers have tried to develop “hybrid” fixed-wing drones that can fly as efficiently as airplanes, while still taking off and landing vertically like multi-copters.
These drones are extremely hard to control because of the complexity of dealing with their flight dynamics, but a team from MIT CSAIL aims to make the customization process easier, with a new system that allows users to design drones of different sizes and shapes that can nimbly switch between hovering and gliding – all by using a single controller.
In future work, the team plans to try to further increase the drone’s maneuverability by improving its design. The model doesn’t yet fully take into account complex aerodynamic effects between the propeller’s airflow and the wings. And lastly, their method trained the copter with “yaw velocity” set at zero, which means that it cannot currently perform sharp turns.
[ Paper ] via [ MIT ]
We’re not quite at the point where we can 3D print entire robots, but UCSD is getting us closer.
The UC San Diego researchers’ insight was twofold. They turned to a commercially available printer for the job, (the Stratasys Objet350 Connex3—a workhorse in many robotics labs). In addition, they realized one of the materials used by the 3D printer is made of carbon particles that can conduct power to sensors when connected to a power source. So roboticists used the black resin to manufacture complex sensors embedded within robotic parts made of clear polymer. They designed and manufactured several prototypes, including a gripper.
When stretched, the sensors failed at approximately the same strain as human skin. But the polymers the 3D printer uses are not designed to conduct electricity, so their performance is not optimal. The 3D printed robots also require a lot of post-processing before they can be functional, including careful washing to clean up impurities and drying.
However, researchers remain optimistic that in the future, materials will improve and make 3D printed robots equipped with embedded sensors much easier to manufacture.
[ UCSD ]
Congrats to Team Homer from the University of Koblenz-Landau, who won the RoboCup@Home world championship in Sydney!
[ Team Homer ]
When you’ve got a robot with both wheels and legs, motion planning is complicated. IIT has developed a new planner for CENTAURO that takes advantage of the different ways that the robot is able to get past obstacles.
[ Centauro ]
If you constrain a problem tightly enough, you can solve it even with a relatively simple robot. Here’s an example of an experimental breakfast robot named “Loraine” that can cook eggs, bacon, and potatoes using what looks to be zero sensing at all, just moving to different positions and actuating its gripper.
There’s likely to be enough human work required in the prep here to make the value that the robot adds questionable at best, but it’s a good example of how you can make a relatively complex task robot-compatible as long as you set it up in just the right way.
[ Connected Robotics ] via [ RobotStart ]
It’s been a while since we’ve seen a ball bot, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen one with a manipulator on it.
[ ETH Zurich RSL ]
Soft Robotics’ new mini fingers are able to pick up taco shells without shattering them, which as far as I can tell is 100 percent impossible for humans to do.
[ Soft Robotics ]
Yes, Starship’s wheeled robots can climb curbs, and indeed they have a pretty neat way of doing it.
[ Starship ]
Last year we posted a long interview with Christoph Bartneck about his research into robots and racism, and here’s a nice video summary of the work.
[ Christoph Bartneck ]
Canada’s contribution to the Lunar Gateway will be a smart robotic system which includes a next-generation robotic arm known as Canadarm3, as well as equipment, and specialized tools. Using cutting-edge software and advances in artificial intelligence, this highly-autonomous system will be able to maintain, repair and inspect the Gateway, capture visiting vehicles, relocate Gateway modules, help astronauts during spacewalks, and enable science both in lunar orbit and on the surface of the Moon.
[ CSA ]
An interesting demo of how Misty can integrate sound localization with other services.
[ Misty Robotics ]
The third and last period of H2020 AEROARMS project has brought the final developments in industrial inspection and maintenance tasks, such as the crawler retrieval and deployment (DLR) or the industrial validation in stages like a refinery or a cement factory.
[ Aeroarms ]
The Guardian S remote visual inspection and surveillance robot navigates a disaster training site to demonstrate its advanced maneuverability, long-range wireless communications and extended run times.
[ Sarcos ]
This appears to be a cake frosting robot and I wish I had like 3 more hours of this to share:
Also here is a robot that picks fried chicken using a curiously successful technique:
[ Kazumichi Moriyama ]
This isn’t strictly robots, but professor Hiroshi Ishii, associate director of the MIT Media Lab, gave a fascinating SIGCHI Lifetime Achievement Talk that’s absolutely worth your time.
[ Tangible Media Group ] Continue reading →