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#433892 The Spatial Web Will Map Our 3D ...

The boundaries between digital and physical space are disappearing at a breakneck pace. What was once static and boring is becoming dynamic and magical.

For all of human history, looking at the world through our eyes was the same experience for everyone. Beyond the bounds of an over-active imagination, what you see is the same as what I see.

But all of this is about to change. Over the next two to five years, the world around us is about to light up with layer upon layer of rich, fun, meaningful, engaging, and dynamic data. Data you can see and interact with.

This magical future ahead is called the Spatial Web and will transform every aspect of our lives, from retail and advertising, to work and education, to entertainment and social interaction.

Massive change is underway as a result of a series of converging technologies, from 5G global networks and ubiquitous artificial intelligence, to 30+ billion connected devices (known as the IoT), each of which will generate scores of real-world data every second, everywhere.

The current AI explosion will make everything smart, autonomous, and self-programming. Blockchain and cloud-enabled services will support a secure data layer, putting data back in the hands of users and allowing us to build complex rule-based infrastructure in tomorrow’s virtual worlds.

And with the rise of online-merge-offline (OMO) environments, two-dimensional screens will no longer serve as our exclusive portal to the web. Instead, virtual and augmented reality eyewear will allow us to interface with a digitally-mapped world, richly layered with visual data.

Welcome to the Spatial Web. Over the next few months, I’ll be doing a deep dive into the Spatial Web (a.k.a. Web 3.0), covering what it is, how it works, and its vast implications across industries, from real estate and healthcare to entertainment and the future of work. In this blog, I’ll discuss the what, how, and why of Web 3.0—humanity’s first major foray into our virtual-physical hybrid selves (BTW, this year at Abundance360, we’ll be doing a deep dive into the Spatial Web with the leaders of HTC, Magic Leap, and High-Fidelity).

Let’s dive in.

What is the Spatial Web?
While we humans exist in three dimensions, our web today is flat.

The web was designed for shared information, absorbed through a flat screen. But as proliferating sensors, ubiquitous AI, and interconnected networks blur the lines between our physical and online worlds, we need a spatial web to help us digitally map a three-dimensional world.

To put Web 3.0 in context, let’s take a trip down memory lane. In the late 1980s, the newly-birthed world wide web consisted of static web pages and one-way information—a monumental system of publishing and linking information unlike any unified data system before it. To connect, we had to dial up through unstable modems and struggle through insufferably slow connection speeds.

But emerging from this revolutionary (albeit non-interactive) infodump, Web 2.0 has connected the planet more in one decade than empires did in millennia.

Granting democratized participation through newly interactive sites and applications, today’s web era has turbocharged information-sharing and created ripple effects of scientific discovery, economic growth, and technological progress on an unprecedented scale.

We’ve seen the explosion of social networking sites, wikis, and online collaboration platforms. Consumers have become creators; physically isolated users have been handed a global microphone; and entrepreneurs can now access billions of potential customers.

But if Web 2.0 took the world by storm, the Spatial Web emerging today will leave it in the dust.

While there’s no clear consensus about its definition, the Spatial Web refers to a computing environment that exists in three-dimensional space—a twinning of real and virtual realities—enabled via billions of connected devices and accessed through the interfaces of virtual and augmented reality.

In this way, the Spatial Web will enable us to both build a twin of our physical reality in the virtual realm and bring the digital into our real environments.

It’s the next era of web-like technologies:

Spatial computing technologies, like augmented and virtual reality;
Physical computing technologies, like IoT and robotic sensors;
And decentralized computing: both blockchain—which enables greater security and data authentication—and edge computing, which pushes computing power to where it’s most needed, speeding everything up.

Geared with natural language search, data mining, machine learning, and AI recommendation agents, the Spatial Web is a growing expanse of services and information, navigable with the use of ever-more-sophisticated AI assistants and revolutionary new interfaces.

Where Web 1.0 consisted of static documents and read-only data, Web 2.0 introduced multimedia content, interactive web applications, and social media on two-dimensional screens. But converging technologies are quickly transcending the laptop, and will even disrupt the smartphone in the next decade.

With the rise of wearables, smart glasses, AR / VR interfaces, and the IoT, the Spatial Web will integrate seamlessly into our physical environment, overlaying every conversation, every road, every object, conference room, and classroom with intuitively-presented data and AI-aided interaction.

Think: the Oasis in Ready Player One, where anyone can create digital personas, build and invest in smart assets, do business, complete effortless peer-to-peer transactions, and collect real estate in a virtual world.

Or imagine a virtual replica or “digital twin” of your office, each conference room authenticated on the blockchain, requiring a cryptographic key for entry.

As I’ve discussed with my good friend and “VR guru” Philip Rosedale, I’m absolutely clear that in the not-too-distant future, every physical element of every building in the world is going to be fully digitized, existing as a virtual incarnation or even as N number of these. “Meet me at the top of the Empire State Building?” “Sure, which one?”

This digitization of life means that suddenly every piece of information can become spatial, every environment can be smarter by virtue of AI, and every data point about me and my assets—both virtual and physical—can be reliably stored, secured, enhanced, and monetized.

In essence, the Spatial Web lets us interface with digitally-enhanced versions of our physical environment and build out entirely fictional virtual worlds—capable of running simulations, supporting entire economies, and even birthing new political systems.

But while I’ll get into the weeds of different use cases next week, let’s first concretize.

How Does It Work?
Let’s start with the stack. In the PC days, we had a database accompanied by a program that could ingest that data and present it to us as digestible information on a screen.

Then, in the early days of the web, data migrated to servers. Information was fed through a website, with which you would interface via a browser—whether Mosaic or Mozilla.

And then came the cloud.

Resident at either the edge of the cloud or on your phone, today’s rapidly proliferating apps now allow us to interact with previously read-only data, interfacing through a smartphone. But as Siri and Alexa have brought us verbal interfaces, AI-geared phone cameras can now determine your identity, and sensors are beginning to read our gestures.

And now we’re not only looking at our screens but through them, as the convergence of AI and AR begins to digitally populate our physical worlds.

While Pokémon Go sent millions of mobile game-players on virtual treasure hunts, IKEA is just one of the many companies letting you map virtual furniture within your physical home—simulating everything from cabinets to entire kitchens. No longer the one-sided recipients, we’re beginning to see through sensors, creatively inserting digital content in our everyday environments.

Let’s take a look at how the latest incarnation might work. In this new Web 3.0 stack, my personal AI would act as an intermediary, accessing public or privately-authorized data through the blockchain on my behalf, and then feed it through an interface layer composed of everything from my VR headset, to numerous wearables, to my smart environment (IoT-connected devices or even in-home robots).

But as we attempt to build a smart world with smart infrastructure, smart supply chains and smart everything else, we need a set of basic standards with addresses for people, places, and things. Just like our web today relies on the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) and other infrastructure, by which your computer is addressed and data packets are transferred, we need infrastructure for the Spatial Web.

And a select group of players is already stepping in to fill this void. Proposing new structural designs for Web 3.0, some are attempting to evolve today’s web model from text-based web pages in 2D to three-dimensional AR and VR web experiences located in both digitally-mapped physical worlds and newly-created virtual ones.

With a spatial programming language analogous to HTML, imagine building a linkable address for any physical or virtual space, granting it a format that then makes it interchangeable and interoperable with all other spaces.

But it doesn’t stop there.

As soon as we populate a virtual room with content, we then need to encode who sees it, who can buy it, who can move it…

And the Spatial Web’s eventual governing system (for posting content on a centralized grid) would allow us to address everything from the room you’re sitting in, to the chair on the other side of the table, to the building across the street.

Just as we have a DNS for the web and the purchasing of web domains, once we give addresses to spaces (akin to granting URLs), we then have the ability to identify and visit addressable locations, physical objects, individuals, or pieces of digital content in cyberspace.

And these not only apply to virtual worlds, but to the real world itself. As new mapping technologies emerge, we can now map rooms, objects, and large-scale environments into virtual space with increasing accuracy.

We might then dictate who gets to move your coffee mug in a virtual conference room, or when a team gets to use the room itself. Rules and permissions would be set in the grid, decentralized governance systems, or in the application layer.

Taken one step further, imagine then monetizing smart spaces and smart assets. If you have booked the virtual conference room, perhaps you’ll let me pay you 0.25 BTC to let me use it instead?

But given the Spatial Web’s enormous technological complexity, what’s allowing it to emerge now?

Why Is It Happening Now?
While countless entrepreneurs have already started harnessing blockchain technologies to build decentralized apps (or dApps), two major developments are allowing today’s birth of Web 3.0:

High-resolution wireless VR/AR headsets are finally catapulting virtual and augmented reality out of a prolonged winter.

The International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts the VR and AR headset market will reach 65.9 million units by 2022. Already in the next 18 months, 2 billion devices will be enabled with AR. And tech giants across the board have long begun investing heavy sums.

In early 2019, HTC is releasing the VIVE Focus, a wireless self-contained VR headset. At the same time, Facebook is charging ahead with its Project Santa Cruz—the Oculus division’s next-generation standalone, wireless VR headset. And Magic Leap has finally rolled out its long-awaited Magic Leap One mixed reality headset.

Mass deployment of 5G will drive 10 to 100-gigabit connection speeds in the next 6 years, matching hardware progress with the needed speed to create virtual worlds.

We’ve already seen tremendous leaps in display technology. But as connectivity speeds converge with accelerating GPUs, we’ll start to experience seamless VR and AR interfaces with ever-expanding virtual worlds.

And with such democratizing speeds, every user will be able to develop in VR.

But accompanying these two catalysts is also an important shift towards the decentralized web and a demand for user-controlled data.

Converging technologies, from immutable ledgers and blockchain to machine learning, are now enabling the more direct, decentralized use of web applications and creation of user content. With no central point of control, middlemen are removed from the equation and anyone can create an address, independently interacting with the network.

Enabled by a permission-less blockchain, any user—regardless of birthplace, gender, ethnicity, wealth, or citizenship—would thus be able to establish digital assets and transfer them seamlessly, granting us a more democratized Internet.

And with data stored on distributed nodes, this also means no single point of failure. One could have multiple backups, accessible only with digital authorization, leaving users immune to any single server failure.

Implications Abound–What’s Next…
With a newly-built stack and an interface built from numerous converging technologies, the Spatial Web will transform every facet of our everyday lives—from the way we organize and access our data, to our social and business interactions, to the way we train employees and educate our children.

We’re about to start spending more time in the virtual world than ever before. Beyond entertainment or gameplay, our livelihoods, work, and even personal decisions are already becoming mediated by a web electrified with AI and newly-emerging interfaces.

In our next blog on the Spatial Web, I’ll do a deep dive into the myriad industry implications of Web 3.0, offering tangible use cases across sectors.

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#433785 DeepMind’s Eerie Reimagination of the ...

If a recent project using Google’s DeepMind were a recipe, you would take a pair of AI systems, images of animals, and a whole lot of computing power. Mix it all together, and you’d get a series of imagined animals dreamed up by one of the AIs. A look through the research paper about the project—or this open Google Folder of images it produced—will likely lead you to agree that the results are a mix of impressive and downright eerie.

But the eerie factor doesn’t mean the project shouldn’t be considered a success and a step forward for future uses of AI.

From GAN To BigGAN
The team behind the project consists of Andrew Brock, a PhD student at Edinburgh Center for Robotics, and DeepMind intern and researcher Jeff Donahue and Karen Simonyan.

They used a so-called Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) to generate the images. In a GAN, two AI systems collaborate in a game-like manner. One AI produces images of an object or creature. The human equivalent would be drawing pictures of, for example, a dog—without necessarily knowing what a dog exactly looks like. Those images are then shown to the second AI, which has already been fed images of dogs. The second AI then tells the first one how far off its efforts were. The first one uses this information to improve its images. The two go back and forth in an iterative process, and the goal is for the first AI to become so good at creating images of dogs that the second can’t tell the difference between its creations and actual pictures of dogs.

The team was able to draw on Google’s vast vaults of computational power to create images of a quality and life-like nature that were beyond almost anything seen before. In part, this was achieved by feeding the GAN with more images than is usually the case. According to IFLScience, the standard is to feed about 64 images per subject into the GAN. In this case, the research team fed about 2,000 images per subject into the system, leading to it being nicknamed BigGAN.

Their results showed that feeding the system with more images and using masses of raw computer power markedly increased the GAN’s precision and ability to create life-like renditions of the subjects it was trained to reproduce.

“The main thing these models need is not algorithmic improvements, but computational ones. […] When you increase model capacity and you increase the number of images you show at every step, you get this twofold combined effect,” Andrew Brock told Fast Company.

The Power Drain
The team used 512 of Google’s AI-focused Tensor Processing Units (TPU) to generate 512-pixel images. Each experiment took between 24 and 48 hours to run.

That kind of computing power needs a lot of electricity. As artist and Innovator-In-Residence at the Library of Congress Jer Thorp tongue-in-cheek put it on Twitter: “The good news is that AI can now give you a more believable image of a plate of spaghetti. The bad news is that it used roughly enough energy to power Cleveland for the afternoon.”

Thorp added that a back-of-the-envelope calculation showed that the computations to produce the images would require about 27,000 square feet of solar panels to have adequate power.

BigGAN’s images have been hailed by researchers, with Oriol Vinyals, research scientist at DeepMind, rhetorically asking if these were the ‘Best GAN samples yet?’

However, they are still not perfect. The number of legs on a given creature is one example of where the BigGAN seemed to struggle. The system was good at recognizing that something like a spider has a lot of legs, but seemed unable to settle on how many ‘a lot’ was supposed to be. The same applied to dogs, especially if the images were supposed to show said dogs in motion.

Those eerie images are contrasted by other renditions that show such lifelike qualities that a human mind has a hard time identifying them as fake. Spaniels with lolling tongues, ocean scenery, and butterflies were all rendered with what looks like perfection. The same goes for an image of a hamburger that was good enough to make me stop writing because I suddenly needed lunch.

The Future Use Cases
GAN networks were first introduced in 2014, and given their relative youth, researchers and companies are still busy trying out possible use cases.

One possible use is image correction—making pixillated images clearer. Not only does this help your future holiday snaps, but it could be applied in industries such as space exploration. A team from the University of Michigan and the Max Planck Institute have developed a method for GAN networks to create images from text descriptions. At Berkeley, a research group has used GAN to create an interface that lets users change the shape, size, and design of objects, including a handbag.

For anyone who has seen a film like Wag the Dog or read 1984, the possibilities are also starkly alarming. GANs could, in other words, make fake news look more real than ever before.

For now, it seems that while not all GANs require the computational and electrical power of the BigGAN, there is still some way to reach these potential use cases. However, if there’s one lesson from Moore’s Law and exponential technology, it is that today’s technical roadblock quickly becomes tomorrow’s minor issue as technology progresses.

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#433634 This Robotic Skin Makes Inanimate ...

In Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made world-famous by its adaptation in Disney’s Fantasia, a lazy apprentice, left to fetch water, uses magic to bewitch a broom into performing his chores for him. Now, new research from Yale has opened up the possibility of being able to animate—and automate—household objects by fitting them with a robotic skin.

Yale’s Soft Robotics lab, the Faboratory, is led by Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, and has long investigated the possibilities associated with new kinds of manufacturing. While the typical image of a robot is hard, cold steel and rigid movements, soft robotics aims to create something more flexible and versatile. After all, the human body is made up of soft, flexible surfaces, and the world is designed for us. Soft, deformable robots could change shape to adapt to different tasks.

When designing a robot, key components are the robot’s sensors, which allow it to perceive its environment, and its actuators, the electrical or pneumatic motors that allow the robot to move and interact with its environment.

Consider your hand, which has temperature and pressure sensors, but also muscles as actuators. The omni-skins, as the Science Robotics paper dubs them, combine sensors and actuators, embedding them into an elastic sheet. The robotic skins are moved by pneumatic actuators or memory alloy that can bounce back into shape. If this is then wrapped around a soft, deformable object, moving the skin with the actuators can allow the object to crawl along a surface.

The key to the design here is flexibility: rather than adding chips, sensors, and motors into every household object to turn them into individual automatons, the same skin can be used for many purposes. “We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task—locomotion, for example—and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” said Kramer-Bottiglio. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”

The task is then to dream up applications for the omni-skins. Initially, you might imagine demanding a stuffed toy to fetch the remote control for you, or animating a sponge to wipe down kitchen surfaces—but this is just the beginning. The scientists attached the skins to a soft tube and camera, creating a worm-like robot that could compress itself and crawl into small spaces for rescue missions. The same skins could then be worn by a person to sense their posture. One could easily imagine this being adapted into a soft exoskeleton for medical or industrial purposes: for example, helping with rehabilitation after an accident or injury.

The initial motivating factor for creating the robots was in an environment where space and weight are at a premium, and humans are forced to improvise with whatever’s at hand: outer space. Kramer-Bottoglio originally began the work after NASA called out for soft robotics systems for use by astronauts. Instead of wasting valuable rocket payload by sending up a heavy metal droid like ATLAS to fetch items or perform repairs, soft robotic skins with modular sensors could be adapted for a range of different uses spontaneously.

By reassembling components in the soft robotic skin, a crumpled ball of paper could provide the chassis for a robot that performs repairs on the spaceship, or explores the lunar surface. The dynamic compression provided by the robotic skin could be used for g-suits to protect astronauts when they rapidly accelerate or decelerate.

“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multi-functionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable. The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? … Given the design-on-the-fly nature of this approach, it’s unlikely that a robot created using robotic skins will perform any one task optimally,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “However, the goal is not optimization, but rather diversity of applications.”

There are still problems to resolve. Many of the videos of the skins indicate that they can rely on an external power supply. Creating new, smaller batteries that can power wearable devices has been a focus of cutting-edge materials science research for some time. Much of the lab’s expertise is in creating flexible, stretchable electronics that can be deformed by the actuators without breaking the circuitry. In the future, the team hopes to work on streamlining the production process; if the components could be 3D printed, then the skins could be created when needed.

In addition, robotic hardware that’s capable of performing an impressive range of precise motions is quite an advanced technology. The software to control those robots, and enable them to perform a variety of tasks, is quite another challenge. With soft robots, it can become even more complex to design that control software, because the body itself can change shape and deform as the robot moves. The same set of programmed motions, then, can produce different results depending on the environment.

“Let’s say I have a soft robot with four legs that crawls along the ground, and I make it walk up a hard slope,” Dr. David Howard, who works on robotics at CSIRO in Australia, explained to ABC.

“If I make that slope out of gravel and I give it the same control commands, the actual body is going to deform in a different way, and I’m not necessarily going to know what that is.”

Despite these and other challenges, research like that at the Faboratory still hopes to redefine how we think of robots and robotics. Instead of a robot that imitates a human and manipulates objects, the objects themselves will become programmable matter, capable of moving autonomously and carrying out a range of tasks. Futurists speculate about a world where most objects are automated to some degree and can assemble and repair themselves, or are even built entirely of tiny robots.

The tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was first written in 1797, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, over a century before the word “robot” was even coined. Yet more and more roboticists aim to prove Arthur C Clarke’s maxim: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Image Credit: Joran Booth, The Faboratory Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#433506 MIT’s New Robot Taught Itself to Pick ...

Back in 2016, somewhere in a Google-owned warehouse, more than a dozen robotic arms sat for hours quietly grasping objects of various shapes and sizes. For hours on end, they taught themselves how to pick up and hold the items appropriately—mimicking the way a baby gradually learns to use its hands.

Now, scientists from MIT have made a new breakthrough in machine learning: their new system can not only teach itself to see and identify objects, but also understand how best to manipulate them.

This means that, armed with the new machine learning routine referred to as “dense object nets (DON),” the robot would be capable of picking up an object that it’s never seen before, or in an unfamiliar orientation, without resorting to trial and error—exactly as a human would.

The deceptively simple ability to dexterously manipulate objects with our hands is a huge part of why humans are the dominant species on the planet. We take it for granted. Hardware innovations like the Shadow Dexterous Hand have enabled robots to softly grip and manipulate delicate objects for many years, but the software required to control these precision-engineered machines in a range of circumstances has proved harder to develop.

This was not for want of trying. The Amazon Robotics Challenge offers millions of dollars in prizes (and potentially far more in contracts, as their $775m acquisition of Kiva Systems shows) for the best dexterous robot able to pick and package items in their warehouses. The lucrative dream of a fully-automated delivery system is missing this crucial ability.

Meanwhile, the Robocup@home challenge—an offshoot of the popular Robocup tournament for soccer-playing robots—aims to make everyone’s dream of having a robot butler a reality. The competition involves teams drilling their robots through simple household tasks that require social interaction or object manipulation, like helping to carry the shopping, sorting items onto a shelf, or guiding tourists around a museum.

Yet all of these endeavors have proved difficult; the tasks often have to be simplified to enable the robot to complete them at all. New or unexpected elements, such as those encountered in real life, more often than not throw the system entirely. Programming the robot’s every move in explicit detail is not a scalable solution: this can work in the highly-controlled world of the assembly line, but not in everyday life.

Computer vision is improving all the time. Neural networks, including those you train every time you prove that you’re not a robot with CAPTCHA, are getting better at sorting objects into categories, and identifying them based on sparse or incomplete data, such as when they are occluded, or in different lighting.

But many of these systems require enormous amounts of input data, which is impractical, slow to generate, and often needs to be laboriously categorized by humans. There are entirely new jobs that require people to label, categorize, and sift large bodies of data ready for supervised machine learning. This can make machine learning undemocratic. If you’re Google, you can make thousands of unwitting volunteers label your images for you with CAPTCHA. If you’re IBM, you can hire people to manually label that data. If you’re an individual or startup trying something new, however, you will struggle to access the vast troves of labeled data available to the bigger players.

This is why new systems that can potentially train themselves over time or that allow robots to deal with situations they’ve never seen before without mountains of labelled data are a holy grail in artificial intelligence. The work done by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is part of a new wave of “self-supervised” machine learning systems—little of the data used was labeled by humans.

The robot first inspects the new object from multiple angles, building up a 3D picture of the object with its own coordinate system. This then allows the robotic arm to identify a particular feature on the object—such as a handle, or the tongue of a shoe—from various different angles, based on its relative distance to other grid points.

This is the real innovation: the new means of representing objects to grasp as mapped-out 3D objects, with grid points and subsections of their own. Rather than using a computer vision algorithm to identify a door handle, and then activating a door handle grasping subroutine, the DON system treats all objects by making these spatial maps before classifying or manipulating them, enabling it to deal with a greater range of objects than in other approaches.

“Many approaches to manipulation can’t identify specific parts of an object across the many orientations that object may encounter,” said PhD student Lucas Manuelli, who wrote a new paper about the system with lead author and fellow student Pete Florence, alongside MIT professor Russ Tedrake. “For example, existing algorithms would be unable to grasp a mug by its handle, especially if the mug could be in multiple orientations, like upright, or on its side.”

Class-specific descriptors, which can be applied to the object features, can allow the robot arm to identify a mug, find the handle, and pick the mug up appropriately. Object-specific descriptors allow the robot arm to select a particular mug from a group of similar items. I’m already dreaming of a robot butler reliably picking my favourite mug when it serves me coffee in the morning.

Google’s robot arm-y was an attempt to develop a general grasping algorithm: one that could identify, categorize, and appropriately grip as many items as possible. This requires a great deal of training time and data, which is why Google parallelized their project by having 14 robot arms feed data into a single neural network brain: even then, the algorithm may fail with highly specific tasks. Specialist grasping algorithms might require less training if they’re limited to specific objects, but then your software is useless for general tasks.

As the roboticists noted, their system, with its ability to identify parts of an object rather than just a single object, is better suited to specific tasks, such as “grasp the racquet by the handle,” than Amazon Robotics Challenge robots, which identify whole objects by segmenting an image.

This work is small-scale at present. It has been tested with a few classes of objects, including shoes, hats, and mugs. Yet the use of these dense object nets as a way for robots to represent and manipulate new objects may well be another step towards the ultimate goal of generalized automation: a robot capable of performing every task a person can. If that point is reached, the question that will remain is how to cope with being obsolete.

Image Credit: Tom Buehler/CSAIL Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#433486 This AI Predicts Obesity ...

A research team at the University of Washington has trained an artificial intelligence system to spot obesity—all the way from space. The system used a convolutional neural network (CNN) to analyze 150,000 satellite images and look for correlations between the physical makeup of a neighborhood and the prevalence of obesity.

The team’s results, presented in JAMA Network Open, showed that features of a given neighborhood could explain close to two-thirds (64.8 percent) of the variance in obesity. Researchers found that analyzing satellite data could help increase understanding of the link between peoples’ environment and obesity prevalence. The next step would be to make corresponding structural changes in the way neighborhoods are built to encourage physical activity and better health.

Training AI to Spot Obesity
Convolutional neural networks (CNNs) are particularly adept at image analysis, object recognition, and identifying special hierarchies in large datasets.

Prior to analyzing 150,000 high-resolution satellite images of Bellevue, Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles, Memphis, and San Antonio, the researchers trained the CNN on 1.2 million images from the ImageNet database. The categorizations were correlated with obesity prevalence estimates for the six urban areas from census tracts gathered by the 500 Cities project.

The system was able to identify the presence of certain features that increased likelihood of obesity in a given area. Some of these features included tightly–packed houses, being close to roadways, and living in neighborhoods with a lack of greenery.

Visualization of features identified by the convolutional neural network (CNN) model. The images on the left column are satellite images taken from Google Static Maps API (application programming interface). Images in the middle and right columns are activation maps taken from the second convolutional layer of VGG-CNN-F network after forward pass of the respective satellite images through the network. From Google Static Maps API, DigitalGlobe, US Geological Survey (accessed July 2017). Credit: JAMA Network Open
Your Surroundings Are Key
In their discussion of the findings, the researchers stressed that there are limitations to the conclusions that can be drawn from the AI’s results. For example, socio-economic factors like income likely play a major role for obesity prevalence in a given geographic area.

However, the study concluded that the AI-powered analysis showed the prevalence of specific man-made features in neighborhoods consistently correlating with obesity prevalence and not necessarily correlating with socioeconomic status.

The system’s success rates varied between studied cities, with Memphis being the highest (73.3 percent) and Seattle being the lowest (55.8 percent).

AI Takes To the Sky
Around a third of the US population is categorized as obese. Obesity is linked to a number of health-related issues, and the AI-generated results could potentially help improve city planning and better target campaigns to limit obesity.

The study is one of the latest of a growing list that uses AI to analyze images and extrapolate insights.

A team at Stanford University has used a CNN to predict poverty via satellite imagery, assisting governments and NGOs to better target their efforts. A combination of the public Automatic Identification System for shipping, satellite imagery, and Google’s AI has proven able to identify illegal fishing activity. Researchers have even been able to use AI and Google Street View to predict what party a given city will vote for, based on what cars are parked on the streets.

In each case, the AI systems have been able to look at volumes of data about our world and surroundings that are beyond the capabilities of humans and extrapolate new insights. If one were to moralize about the good and bad sides of AI (new opportunities vs. potential job losses, for example) it could seem that it comes down to what we ask AI systems to look at—and what questions we ask of them.

Image Credit: Ocean Biology Processing Group at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Continue reading

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