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According to some scientists, humans really do have a sixth sense. There’s nothing supernatural about it: the sense of proprioception tells you about the relative positions of your limbs and the rest of your body. Close your eyes, block out all sound, and you can still use this internal “map” of your external body to locate your muscles and body parts – you have an innate sense of the distances between them, and the perception of how they’re moving, above and beyond your sense of touch.
This sense is invaluable for allowing us to coordinate our movements. In humans, the brain integrates senses including touch, heat, and the tension in muscle spindles to allow us to build up this map.
Replicating this complex sense has posed a great challenge for roboticists. We can imagine simulating the sense of sight with cameras, sound with microphones, or touch with pressure-pads. Robots with chemical sensors could be far more accurate than us in smell and taste, but building in proprioception, the robot’s sense of itself and its body, is far more difficult, and is a large part of why humanoid robots are so tricky to get right.
Simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) software allows robots to use their own senses to build up a picture of their surroundings and environment, but they’d need a keen sense of the position of their own bodies to interact with it. If something unexpected happens, or in dark environments where primary senses are not available, robots can struggle to keep track of their own position and orientation. For human-robot interaction, wearable robotics, and delicate applications like surgery, tiny differences can be extremely important.
In the case of hard robotics, this is generally solved by using a series of strain and pressure sensors in each joint, which allow the robot to determine how its limbs are positioned. That works fine for rigid robots with a limited number of joints, but for softer, more flexible robots, this information is limited. Roboticists are faced with a dilemma: a vast, complex array of sensors for every degree of freedom in the robot’s movement, or limited skill in proprioception?
New techniques, often involving new arrays of sensory material and machine-learning algorithms to fill in the gaps, are starting to tackle this problem. Take the work of Thomas George Thuruthel and colleagues in Pisa and San Diego, who draw inspiration from the proprioception of humans. In a new paper in Science Robotics, they describe the use of soft sensors distributed through a robotic finger at random. This placement is much like the constant adaptation of sensors in humans and animals, rather than relying on feedback from a limited number of positions.
The sensors allow the soft robot to react to touch and pressure in many different locations, forming a map of itself as it contorts into complicated positions. The machine-learning algorithm serves to interpret the signals from the randomly-distributed sensors: as the finger moves around, it’s observed by a motion capture system. After training the robot’s neural network, it can associate the feedback from the sensors with the position of the finger detected in the motion-capture system, which can then be discarded. The robot observes its own motions to understand the shapes that its soft body can take, and translate them into the language of these soft sensors.
“The advantages of our approach are the ability to predict complex motions and forces that the soft robot experiences (which is difficult with traditional methods) and the fact that it can be applied to multiple types of actuators and sensors,” said Michael Tolley of the University of California San Diego. “Our method also includes redundant sensors, which improves the overall robustness of our predictions.”
The use of machine learning lets the roboticists come up with a reliable model for this complex, non-linear system of motions for the actuators, something difficult to do by directly calculating the expected motion of the soft-bot. It also resembles the human system of proprioception, built on redundant sensors that change and shift in position as we age.
In Search of a Perfect Arm
Another approach to training robots in using their bodies comes from Robert Kwiatkowski and Hod Lipson of Columbia University in New York. In their paper “Task-agnostic self-modeling machines,” also recently published in Science Robotics, they describe a new type of robotic arm.
Robotic arms and hands are getting increasingly dexterous, but training them to grasp a large array of objects and perform many different tasks can be an arduous process. It’s also an extremely valuable skill to get right: Amazon is highly interested in the perfect robot arm. Google hooked together an array of over a dozen robot arms so that they could share information about grasping new objects, in part to cut down on training time.
Individually training a robot arm to perform every individual task takes time and reduces the adaptability of your robot: either you need an ML algorithm with a huge dataset of experiences, or, even worse, you need to hard-code thousands of different motions. Kwiatkowski and Lipson attempt to overcome this by developing a robotic system that has a “strong sense of self”: a model of its own size, shape, and motions.
They do this using deep machine learning. The robot begins with no prior knowledge of its own shape or the underlying physics of its motion. It then repeats a series of a thousand random trajectories, recording the motion of its arm. Kwiatkowski and Lipson compare this to a baby in the first year of life observing the motions of its own hands and limbs, fascinated by picking up and manipulating objects.
Again, once the robot has trained itself to interpret these signals and build up a robust model of its own body, it’s ready for the next stage. Using that deep-learning algorithm, the researchers then ask the robot to design strategies to accomplish simple pick-up and place and handwriting tasks. Rather than laboriously and narrowly training itself for each individual task, limiting its abilities to a very narrow set of circumstances, the robot can now strategize how to use its arm for a much wider range of situations, with no additional task-specific training.
In a further experiment, the researchers replaced part of the arm with a “deformed” component, intended to simulate what might happen if the robot was damaged. The robot can then detect that something’s up and “reconfigure” itself, reconstructing its self-model by going through the training exercises once again; it was then able to perform the same tasks with only a small reduction in accuracy.
Machine learning techniques are opening up the field of robotics in ways we’ve never seen before. Combining them with our understanding of how humans and other animals are able to sense and interact with the world around us is bringing robotics closer and closer to becoming truly flexible and adaptable, and, eventually, omnipresent.
But before they can get out and shape the world, as these studies show, they will need to understand themselves.
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When it comes to the future of healthcare, perhaps the only technology more powerful than CRISPR is artificial intelligence.
Over the past five years, healthcare AI startups around the globe raised over $4.3 billion across 576 deals, topping all other industries in AI deal activity.
During this same period, the FDA has given 70 AI healthcare tools and devices ‘fast-tracked approval’ because of their ability to save both lives and money.
The pace of AI-augmented healthcare innovation is only accelerating.
In Part 3 of this blog series on longevity and vitality, I cover the different ways in which AI is augmenting our healthcare system, enabling us to live longer and healthier lives.
In this blog, I’ll expand on:
Machine learning and drug design
Artificial intelligence and big data in medicine
Healthcare, AI & China
Let’s dive in.
Machine Learning in Drug Design
What if AI systems, specifically neural networks, could predict the design of novel molecules (i.e. medicines) capable of targeting and curing any disease?
Imagine leveraging cutting-edge artificial intelligence to accomplish with 50 people what the pharmaceutical industry can barely do with an army of 5,000.
And what if these molecules, accurately engineered by AIs, always worked? Such a feat would revolutionize our $1.3 trillion global pharmaceutical industry, which currently holds a dismal record of 1 in 10 target drugs ever reaching human trials.
It’s no wonder that drug development is massively expensive and slow. It takes over 10 years to bring a new drug to market, with costs ranging from $2.5 billion to $12 billion.
This inefficient, slow-to-innovate, and risk-averse industry is a sitting duck for disruption in the years ahead.
One of the hottest startups in digital drug discovery today is Insilico Medicine. Leveraging AI in its end-to-end drug discovery pipeline, Insilico Medicine aims to extend healthy longevity through drug discovery and aging research.
Their comprehensive drug discovery engine uses millions of samples and multiple data types to discover signatures of disease, identify the most promising protein targets, and generate perfect molecules for these targets. These molecules either already exist or can be generated de novo with the desired set of parameters.
In late 2018, Insilico’s CEO Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov announced the groundbreaking result of generating novel molecules for a challenging protein target with an unprecedented hit rate in under 46 days. This included both synthesis of the molecules and experimental validation in a biological test system—an impressive feat made possible by converging exponential technologies.
Underpinning Insilico’s drug discovery pipeline is a novel machine learning technique called Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs), used in combination with deep reinforcement learning.
Generating novel molecular structures for diseases both with and without known targets, Insilico is now pursuing drug discovery in aging, cancer, fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, diabetes, and many others. Once rolled out, the implications will be profound.
Dr. Zhavoronkov’s ultimate goal is to develop a fully-automated Health-as-a-Service (HaaS) and Longevity-as-a-Service (LaaS) engine.
Once plugged into the services of companies from Alibaba to Alphabet, such an engine would enable personalized solutions for online users, helping them prevent diseases and maintain optimal health.
Insilico, alongside other companies tackling AI-powered drug discovery, truly represents the application of the 6 D’s. What was once a prohibitively expensive and human-intensive process is now rapidly becoming digitized, dematerialized, demonetized and, perhaps most importantly, democratized.
Companies like Insilico can now do with a fraction of the cost and personnel what the pharmaceutical industry can barely accomplish with thousands of employees and a hefty bill to foot.
As I discussed in my blog on ‘The Next Hundred-Billion-Dollar Opportunity,’ Google’s DeepMind has now turned its neural networks to healthcare, entering the digitized drug discovery arena.
In 2017, DeepMind achieved a phenomenal feat by matching the fidelity of medical experts in correctly diagnosing over 50 eye disorders.
And just a year later, DeepMind announced a new deep learning tool called AlphaFold. By predicting the elusive ways in which various proteins fold on the basis of their amino acid sequences, AlphaFold may soon have a tremendous impact in aiding drug discovery and fighting some of today’s most intractable diseases.
Artificial Intelligence and Data Crunching
AI is especially powerful in analyzing massive quantities of data to uncover patterns and insights that can save lives. Take WAVE, for instance. Every year, over 400,000 patients die prematurely in US hospitals as a result of heart attack or respiratory failure.
Yet these patients don’t die without leaving plenty of clues. Given information overload, however, human physicians and nurses alone have no way of processing and analyzing all necessary data in time to save these patients’ lives.
Enter WAVE, an algorithm that can process enough data to offer a six-hour early warning of patient deterioration.
Just last year, the FDA approved WAVE as an AI-based predictive patient surveillance system to predict and thereby prevent sudden death.
Another highly valuable yet difficult-to-parse mountain of medical data comprises the 2.5 million medical papers published each year.
For some time, it has become physically impossible for a human physician to read—let alone remember—all of the relevant published data.
To counter this compounding conundrum, Johnson & Johnson is teaching IBM Watson to read and understand scientific papers that detail clinical trial outcomes.
Enriching Watson’s data sources, Apple is also partnering with IBM to provide access to health data from mobile apps.
One such Watson system contains 40 million documents, ingesting an average of 27,000 new documents per day, and providing insights for thousands of users.
After only one year, Watson’s successful diagnosis rate of lung cancer has reached 90 percent, compared to the 50 percent success rate of human doctors.
But what about the vast amount of unstructured medical patient data that populates today’s ancient medical system? This includes medical notes, prescriptions, audio interview transcripts, and pathology and radiology reports.
In late 2018, Amazon announced a new HIPAA-eligible machine learning service that digests and parses unstructured data into categories, such as patient diagnoses, treatments, dosages, symptoms and signs.
Taha Kass-Hout, Amazon’s senior leader in health care and artificial intelligence, told the Wall Street Journal that internal tests demonstrated that the software even performs as well as or better than other published efforts.
On the heels of this announcement, Amazon confirmed it was teaming up with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to evaluate “millions of clinical notes to extract and index medical conditions.”
Having already driven extraordinary algorithmic success rates in other fields, data is the healthcare industry’s goldmine for future innovation.
Healthcare, AI & China
In 2017, the Chinese government published its ambitious national plan to become a global leader in AI research by 2030, with healthcare listed as one of four core research areas during the first wave of the plan.
Just a year earlier, China began centralizing healthcare data, tackling a major roadblock to developing longevity and healthcare technologies (particularly AI systems): scattered, dispersed, and unlabeled patient data.
Backed by the Chinese government, China’s largest tech companies—particularly Tencent—have now made strong entrances into healthcare.
Just recently, Tencent participated in a $154 million megaround for China-based healthcare AI unicorn iCarbonX.
Hoping to develop a complete digital representation of your biological self, iCarbonX has acquired numerous US personalized medicine startups.
Considering Tencent’s own Miying healthcare AI platform—aimed at assisting healthcare institutions in AI-driven cancer diagnostics—Tencent is quickly expanding into the drug discovery space, participating in two multimillion-dollar, US-based AI drug discovery deals just this year.
China’s biggest, second-order move into the healthtech space comes through Tencent’s WeChat. In the course of a mere few years, already 60 percent of the 38,000 medical institutions registered on WeChat allow patients to digitally book appointments through Tencent’s mobile platform. At the same time, 2,000 Chinese hospitals accept WeChat payments.
Tencent has additionally partnered with the U.K.’s Babylon Health, a virtual healthcare assistant startup whose app now allows Chinese WeChat users to message their symptoms and receive immediate medical feedback.
Similarly, Alibaba’s healthtech focus started in 2016 when it released its cloud-based AI medical platform, ET Medical Brain, to augment healthcare processes through everything from diagnostics to intelligent scheduling.
As Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang has stated, “Software ate the world, but AI is going to eat software.” Extrapolating this statement to a more immediate implication, AI will first eat healthcare, resulting in dramatic acceleration of longevity research and an amplification of the human healthspan.
Next week, I’ll continue to explore this concept of AI systems in healthcare.
Particularly, I’ll expand on how we’re acquiring and using the data for these doctor-augmenting AI systems: from ubiquitous biosensors, to the mobile healthcare revolution, and finally, to the transformative power of the health nucleus.
As AI and other exponential technologies increase our healthspan by 30 to 40 years, how will you leverage these same exponential technologies to take on your moonshots and live out your massively transformative purpose?
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DeepMind Beats Pros at Starcraft in Another Triumph for Bots
Tom Simonite | Wired
“DeepMind’s feat is the most complex yet in a long train of contests in which computers have beaten top humans at games. Checkers fell in 1994, chess in 1997, and DeepMind’s earlier bot AlphaGo became the first to beat a champion at the board game Go in 2016. The StarCraft bot is the most powerful AI game player yet; it may also be the least unexpected.”
Complete Axolotl Genome Could Pave the Way Toward Human Tissue Regeneration
George Dvorsky | Gizmodo
“Now that researchers have a near-complete axolotl genome—the new assembly still requires a bit of fine-tuning (more on that in a bit)—they, along with others, can now go about the work of identifying the genes responsible for axolotl tissue regeneration.”
We Analyzed 16,625 Papers to Figure Out Where AI Is Headed Next
Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“…though deep learning has singlehandedly thrust AI into the public eye, it represents just a small blip in the history of humanity’s quest to replicate our own intelligence. It’s been at the forefront of that effort for less than 10 years. When you zoom out on the whole history of the field, it’s easy to realize that it could soon be on its way out.”
Apple’s Finger-Controller Patent Is a Glimpse at Mixed Reality’s Future
Mark Sullivan | Fast Company
“[Apple’s] engineers are now looking past the phone touchscreen toward mixed reality, where the company’s next great UX will very likely be built. A recent patent application gives some tantalizing clues as to how Apple’s people are thinking about aspects of that challenge.”
How Do You Govern Machines That Can Learn? Policymakers Are Trying to Figure That Out
Steve Lohr | The New York Times
“Regulation is coming. That’s a good thing. Rules of competition and behavior are the foundation of healthy, growing markets. That was the consensus of the policymakers at MIT. But they also agreed that artificial intelligence raises some fresh policy challenges.”
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2018 was bonkers for science.
From a woman who gave birth using a transplanted uterus, to the infamous CRISPR baby scandal, to forensics adopting consumer-based genealogy test kits to track down criminals, last year was a factory churning out scientific “whoa” stories with consequences for years to come.
With CRISPR still in the headlines, Britain ready to bid Europe au revoir, and multiple scientific endeavors taking off, 2019 is shaping up to be just as tumultuous.
Here are the science and health stories that may blow up in the new year. But first, a note of caveat: predicting the future is tough. Forecasting is the lovechild between statistics and (a good deal of) intuition, and entire disciplines have been dedicated to the endeavor. But January is the perfect time to gaze into the crystal ball for wisps of insight into the year to come. Last year we predicted the widespread approval of gene therapy products—on the most part, we nailed it. This year we’re hedging our bets with multiple predictions.
Gene Drives Used in the Wild
The concept of gene drives scares many, for good reason. Gene drives are a step up in severity (and consequences) from CRISPR and other gene-editing tools. Even with germline editing, in which the sperm, egg, or embryos are altered, gene editing affects just one genetic line—one family—at least at the beginning, before they reproduce with the general population.
Gene drives, on the other hand, have the power to wipe out entire species.
In a nutshell, they’re little bits of DNA code that help a gene transfer from parent to child with almost 100 percent perfect probability. The “half of your DNA comes from dad, the other comes from mom” dogma? Gene drives smash that to bits.
In other words, the only time one would consider using a gene drive is to change the genetic makeup of an entire population. It sounds like the plot of a supervillain movie, but scientists have been toying around with the idea of deploying the technology—first in mosquitoes, then (potentially) in rodents.
By releasing just a handful of mutant mosquitoes that carry gene drives for infertility, for example, scientists could potentially wipe out entire populations that carry infectious scourges like malaria, dengue, or Zika. The technology is so potent—and dangerous—the US Defense Advances Research Projects Agency is shelling out $65 million to suss out how to deploy, control, counter, or even reverse the effects of tampering with ecology.
Last year, the U.N. gave a cautious go-ahead for the technology to be deployed in the wild in limited terms. Now, the first release of a genetically modified mosquito is set for testing in Burkina Faso in Africa—the first-ever field experiment involving gene drives.
The experiment will only release mosquitoes in the Anopheles genus, which are the main culprits transferring disease. As a first step, over 10,000 male mosquitoes are set for release into the wild. These dudes are genetically sterile but do not cause infertility, and will help scientists examine how they survive and disperse as a preparation for deploying gene-drive-carrying mosquitoes.
Hot on the project’s heels, the nonprofit consortium Target Malaria, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, is engineering a gene drive called Mosq that will spread infertility across the population or kill out all female insects. Their attempt to hack the rules of inheritance—and save millions in the process—is slated for 2024.
A Universal Flu Vaccine
People often brush off flu as a mere annoyance, but the infection kills hundreds of thousands each year based on the CDC’s statistical estimates.
The flu virus is actually as difficult of a nemesis as HIV—it mutates at an extremely rapid rate, making effective vaccines almost impossible to engineer on time. Scientists currently use data to forecast the strains that will likely explode into an epidemic and urge the public to vaccinate against those predictions. That’s partly why, on average, flu vaccines only have a success rate of roughly 50 percent—not much better than a coin toss.
Tired of relying on educated guesses, scientists have been chipping away at a universal flu vaccine that targets all strains—perhaps even those we haven’t yet identified. Often referred to as the “holy grail” in epidemiology, these vaccines try to alert our immune systems to parts of a flu virus that are least variable from strain to strain.
Last November, a first universal flu vaccine developed by BiondVax entered Phase 3 clinical trials, which means it’s already been proven safe and effective in a small numbers and is now being tested in a broader population. The vaccine doesn’t rely on dead viruses, which is a common technique. Rather, it uses a small chain of amino acids—the chemical components that make up proteins—to stimulate the immune system into high alert.
With the government pouring $160 million into the research and several other universal candidates entering clinical trials, universal flu vaccines may finally experience a breakthrough this year.
In-Body Gene Editing Shows Further Promise
CRISPR and other gene editing tools headed the news last year, including both downers suggesting we already have immunity to the technology and hopeful news of it getting ready for treating inherited muscle-wasting diseases.
But what wasn’t widely broadcasted was the in-body gene editing experiments that have been rolling out with gusto. Last September, Sangamo Therapeutics in Richmond, California revealed that they had injected gene-editing enzymes into a patient in an effort to correct a genetic deficit that prevents him from breaking down complex sugars.
The effort is markedly different than the better-known CAR-T therapy, which extracts cells from the body for genetic engineering before returning them to the hosts. Rather, Sangamo’s treatment directly injects viruses carrying the edited genes into the body. So far, the procedure looks to be safe, though at the time of reporting it was too early to determine effectiveness.
This year the company hopes to finally answer whether it really worked.
If successful, it means that devastating genetic disorders could potentially be treated with just a few injections. With a gamut of new and more precise CRISPR and other gene-editing tools in the works, the list of treatable inherited diseases is likely to grow. And with the CRISPR baby scandal potentially dampening efforts at germline editing via regulations, in-body gene editing will likely receive more attention if Sangamo’s results return positive.
Neuralink and Other Brain-Machine Interfaces
Neuralink is the stuff of sci fi: tiny implanted particles into the brain could link up your biological wetware with silicon hardware and the internet.
But that’s exactly what Elon Musk’s company, founded in 2016, seeks to develop: brain-machine interfaces that could tinker with your neural circuits in an effort to treat diseases or even enhance your abilities.
Last November, Musk broke his silence on the secretive company, suggesting that he may announce something “interesting” in a few months, that’s “better than anyone thinks is possible.”
Musk’s aspiration for achieving symbiosis with artificial intelligence isn’t the driving force for all brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). In the clinics, the main push is to rehabilitate patients—those who suffer from paralysis, memory loss, or other nerve damage.
2019 may be the year that BMIs and neuromodulators cut the cord in the clinics. These devices may finally work autonomously within a malfunctioning brain, applying electrical stimulation only when necessary to reduce side effects without requiring external monitoring. Or they could allow scientists to control brains with light without needing bulky optical fibers.
Cutting the cord is just the first step to fine-tuning neurological treatments—or enhancements—to the tune of your own brain, and 2019 will keep on bringing the music.
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