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Artificial intelligence has received its fair share of hype recently. However, it’s hype that’s well-founded: IDC predicts worldwide spend on AI and cognitive computing will culminate to a whopping $46 billion (with a “b”) by 2020, and all the tech giants are jumping on board faster than you can say “ROI.” But what is AI, exactly?
According to Hilary Mason, AI today is being misused as a sort of catch-all term to basically describe “any system that uses data to do anything.” But it’s so much more than that. A truly artificially intelligent system is one that learns on its own, one that’s capable of crunching copious amounts of data in order to create associations and intelligently mimic actual human behavior.
It’s what powers the technology anticipating our next online purchase (Amazon), or the virtual assistant that deciphers our voice commands with incredible accuracy (Siri), or even the hipster-friendly recommendation engine that helps you discover new music before your friends do (Pandora). But AI is moving past these consumer-pleasing “nice-to-haves” and getting down to serious business: saving our butts.
Much in the same way robotics entered manufacturing, AI is making its mark in healthcare by automating mundane, repetitive tasks. This is especially true in the case of detecting cancer. By leveraging the power of deep learning, algorithms can now be trained to distinguish between sets of pixels in an image that represents cancer versus sets that don’t—not unlike how Facebook’s image recognition software tags pictures of our friends without us having to type in their names first. This software can then go ahead and scour millions of medical images (MRIs, CT scans, etc.) in a single day to detect anomalies on a scope that humans just aren’t capable of. That’s huge.
As if that wasn’t enough, these algorithms are constantly learning and evolving, getting better at making these associations with each new data set that gets fed to them. Radiology, dermatology, and pathology will experience a giant upheaval as tech giants and startups alike jump in to bring these deep learning algorithms to a hospital near you.
In fact, some already are: the FDA recently gave their seal of approval for an AI-powered medical imaging platform that helps doctors analyze and diagnose heart anomalies. This is the first time the FDA has approved a machine learning application for use in a clinical setting.
But how efficient is AI compared to humans, really? Well, aside from the obvious fact that software programs don’t get bored or distracted or have to check Facebook every twenty minutes, AI is exponentially better than us at analyzing data.
Take, for example, IBM’s Watson. Watson analyzed genomic data from both tumor cells and healthy cells and was ultimately able to glean actionable insights in a mere 10 minutes. Compare that to the 160 hours it would have taken a human to analyze that same data. Diagnoses aside, AI is also being leveraged in pharmaceuticals to aid in the very time-consuming grunt work of discovering new drugs, and all the big players are getting involved.
But AI is far from being just a behind-the-scenes player. Gartner recently predicted that by 2025, 50 percent of the population will rely on AI-powered “virtual personal health assistants” for their routine primary care needs. What this means is that consumer-facing voice and chat-operated “assistants” (think Siri or Cortana) would, in effect, serve as a central hub of interaction for all our connected health devices and the algorithms crunching all our real-time biometric data. These assistants would keep us apprised of our current state of well-being, acting as a sort of digital facilitator for our personal health objectives and an always-on health alert system that would notify us when we actually need to see a physician.
Slowly, and thanks to the tsunami of data and advancements in self-learning algorithms, healthcare is transitioning from a reactive model to more of a preventative model—and it’s completely upending the way care is delivered. Whether Elon Musk’s dystopian outlook on AI holds any weight or not is yet to be determined. But one thing’s certain: for the time being, artificial intelligence is saving our lives.
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Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.
This isn’t some post-apocalyptic vision of the future à la The Terminator. This is a snapshot of the farm of the future. Every phase of the operation—from seed to harvest—may someday be automated, without the need to ever get one’s fingernails dirty.
In fact, it’s science fiction already being engineered into reality. Today, robots empowered with artificial intelligence can zap weeds with preternatural precision, while autonomous tractors move with tireless efficiency across the farmland. Satellites can assess crop health from outer space, providing gobs of data to help produce the sort of business intelligence once accessible only to Fortune 500 companies.
“Precision agriculture is on the brink of a new phase of development involving smart machines that can operate by themselves, which will allow production agriculture to become significantly more efficient. Precision agriculture is becoming robotic agriculture,” said professor Simon Blackmore last year during a conference in Asia on the latest developments in robotic agriculture. Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University and head of the National Centre for Precision Farming in the UK.
It’s Blackmore’s university that recently showcased what may someday be possible. The project, dubbed Hands Free Hectare and led by researchers from Harper Adams and private industry, farmed one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of spring barley without one person ever setting foot in the field.
The team re-purposed, re-wired and roboticized farm equipment ranging from a Japanese tractor to a 25-year-old combine. Drones served as scouts to survey the operation and collect samples to help the team monitor the progress of the barley. At the end of the season, the robo farmers harvested about 4.5 tons of barley at a price tag of £200,000.
“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and we’ve done that,” said Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, which partnered with Harper Adams, in a press release.
I, Robot Farmer
The Harper Adams experiment is the latest example of how machines are disrupting the agricultural industry. Around the same time that the Hands Free Hectare combine was harvesting barley, Deere & Company announced it would acquire a startup called Blue River Technology for a reported $305 million.
Blue River has developed a “see-and-spray” system that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to discriminate between crops and weeds. It hits the former with fertilizer and blasts the latter with herbicides with such precision that it can eliminate 90 percent of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
It’s not just farmland that’s getting a helping hand from robots. A California company called Abundant Robotics, spun out of the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is developing robots capable of picking apples with vacuum-like arms that suck the fruit straight off the trees in the orchards.
“Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again. But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what we’ve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment,” Dan Harburg, an associate at venture capital firm Anterra Capital who previously worked at a Massachusetts-based startup making a robotic arm capable of grabbing fruit, told AgFunder News.
“This means ag-focused robotics startups have to design systems from the ground up, which can take time and money, and their robots have to be able to complete multiple tasks to avoid sitting on the shelf for a significant portion of the year,” he noted.
Eyes in the Sky
It will take more than an army of robotic tractors to grow a successful crop. The farm of the future will rely on drones, satellites, and other airborne instruments to provide data about their crops on the ground.
Companies like Descartes Labs, for instance, employ machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to forecast soy and corn yields. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup collects five terabytes of data every day from multiple satellite constellations, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Combined with weather readings and other real-time inputs, Descartes Labs can predict cornfield yields with 99 percent accuracy. Its AI platform can even assess crop health from infrared readings.
The US agency DARPA recently granted Descartes Labs $1.5 million to monitor and analyze wheat yields in the Middle East and Africa. The idea is that accurate forecasts may help identify regions at risk of crop failure, which could lead to famine and political unrest. Another company called TellusLabs out of Somerville, Massachusetts also employs machine learning algorithms to predict corn and soy yields with similar accuracy from satellite imagery.
Farmers don’t have to reach orbit to get insights on their cropland. A startup in Oakland, Ceres Imaging, produces high-resolution imagery from multispectral cameras flown across fields aboard small planes. The snapshots capture the landscape at different wavelengths, identifying insights into problems like water stress, as well as providing estimates of chlorophyll and nitrogen levels. The geo-tagged images mean farmers can easily locate areas that need to be addressed.
Growing From the Inside
Even the best intelligence—whether from drones, satellites, or machine learning algorithms—will be challenged to predict the unpredictable issues posed by climate change. That’s one reason more and more companies are betting the farm on what’s called controlled environment agriculture. Today, that doesn’t just mean fancy greenhouses, but everything from warehouse-sized, automated vertical farms to grow rooms run by robots, located not in the emptiness of Kansas or Nebraska but smack dab in the middle of the main streets of America.
Proponents of these new concepts argue these high-tech indoor farms can produce much higher yields while drastically reducing water usage and synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicides.
Iron Ox, out of San Francisco, is developing one-acre urban greenhouses that will be operated by robots and reportedly capable of producing the equivalent of 30 acres of farmland. Powered by artificial intelligence, a team of three robots will run the entire operation of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops.
Vertical farming startup Plenty, also based in San Francisco, uses AI to automate its operations, and got a $200 million vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund earlier this year. The company claims its system uses only 1 percent of the water consumed in conventional agriculture while producing 350 times as much produce. Plenty is part of a new crop of urban-oriented farms, including Bowery Farming and AeroFarms.
“What I can envision is locating a larger scale indoor farm in the economically disadvantaged food desert, in order to stimulate a broader economic impact that could create jobs and generate income for that area,” said Dr. Gary Stutte, an expert in space agriculture and controlled environment agriculture, in an interview with AgFunder News. “The indoor agriculture model is adaptable to becoming an engine for economic growth and food security in both rural and urban food deserts.”
Still, the model is not without its own challenges and criticisms. Most of what these farms can produce falls into the “leafy greens” category and often comes with a premium price, which seems antithetical to the proposed mission of creating oases in the food deserts of cities. While water usage may be minimized, the electricity required to power the operation, especially the LEDs (which played a huge part in revolutionizing indoor agriculture), are not cheap.
Still, all of these advances, from robo farmers to automated greenhouses, may need to be part of a future where nearly 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050. An oft-quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the world must boost food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of the population. Technology may not save the world, but it will help feed it.
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Quantum computers could give the machine learning algorithms at the heart of modern artificial intelligence a dramatic speed up, but how far off are we? An international group of researchers has outlined the barriers that still need to be overcome.
This year has seen a surge of interest in quantum computing, driven in part by Google’s announcement that it will demonstrate “quantum supremacy” by the end of 2017. That means solving a problem beyond the capabilities of normal computers, which the company predicts will take 49 qubits—the quantum computing equivalent of bits.
As impressive as such a feat would be, the demonstration is likely to be on an esoteric problem that stacks the odds heavily in the quantum processor’s favor, and getting quantum computers to carry out practically useful calculations will take a lot more work.
But these devices hold great promise for solving problems in fields as diverse as cryptography or weather forecasting. One application people are particularly excited about is whether they could be used to supercharge the machine learning algorithms already transforming the modern world.
The potential is summarized in a recent review paper in the journal Nature written by a group of experts from the emerging field of quantum machine learning.
“Classical machine learning methods such as deep neural networks frequently have the feature that they can both recognize statistical patterns in data and produce data that possess the same statistical patterns: they recognize the patterns that they produce,” they write.
“This observation suggests the following hope. If small quantum information processors can produce statistical patterns that are computationally difficult for a classical computer to produce, then perhaps they can also recognize patterns that are equally difficult to recognize classically.”
Because of the way quantum computers work—taking advantage of strange quantum mechanical effects like entanglement and superposition—algorithms running on them should in principle be able to solve problems much faster than the best known classical algorithms, a phenomenon known as quantum speedup.
Designing these algorithms is tricky work, but the authors of the review note that there has been significant progress in recent years. They highlight multiple quantum algorithms exhibiting quantum speedup that could act as subroutines, or building blocks, for quantum machine learning programs.
We still don’t have the hardware to implement these algorithms, but according to the researchers the challenge is a technical one and clear paths to overcoming them exist. More challenging, they say, are four fundamental conceptual problems that could limit the applicability of quantum machine learning.
The first two are the input and output problems. Quantum computers, unsurprisingly, deal with quantum data, but the majority of the problems humans want to solve relate to the classical world. Translating significant amounts of classical data into the quantum systems can take so much time it can cancel out the benefits of the faster processing speeds, and the same is true of reading out the solution at the end.
The input problem could be mitigated to some extent by the development of quantum random access memory (qRAM)—the equivalent to RAM in a conventional computer used to provide the machine with quick access to its working memory. A qRAM can be configured to store classical data but allow the quantum computers to access all that information simultaneously as a superposition, which is required for a variety of quantum algorithms. But the authors note this is still a considerable engineering challenge and may not be sustainable for big data problems.
Closely related to the input/output problem is the costing problem. At present, the authors say very little is known about how many gates—or operations—a quantum machine learning algorithm will require to solve a given problem when operated on real-world devices. It’s expected that on highly complex problems they will offer considerable improvements over classical computers, but it’s not clear how big problems have to be before this becomes apparent.
Finally, whether or when these advantages kick in may be hard to prove, something the authors call the benchmarking problem. Claiming that a quantum algorithm can outperform any classical machine learning approach requires extensive testing against these other techniques that may not be feasible.
They suggest that this could be sidestepped by lowering the standards quantum machine learning algorithms are currently held to. This makes sense, as it doesn’t really matter whether an algorithm is intrinsically faster than all possible classical ones, as long as it’s faster than all the existing ones.
Another way of avoiding some of these problems is to apply these techniques directly to quantum data, the actual states generated by quantum systems and processes. The authors say this is probably the most promising near-term application for quantum machine learning and has the added benefit that any insights can be fed back into the design of better hardware.
“This would enable a virtuous cycle of innovation similar to that which occurred in classical computing, wherein each generation of processors is then leveraged to design the next-generation processors,” they conclude.
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