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As the coronavirus pandemic forces people to keep their distance, could this be robots‘ time to shine? A group of scientists think so, and they’re calling for robots to do the “dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs” of infectious disease management.
Social distancing has emerged as one of the most effective strategies for slowing the spread of COVID-19, but it’s also bringing many jobs to a standstill and severely restricting our daily lives. And unfortunately, the one group that can’t rely on its protective benefits are the medical and emergency services workers we’re relying on to save us.
Robots could be a solution, according to the editorial board of Science Robotics, by helping replace humans in a host of critical tasks, from disinfecting hospitals to collecting patient samples and automating lab tests.
According to the authors, the key areas where robots could help are clinical care, logistics, and reconnaissance, which refers to tasks like identifying the infected or making sure people comply with quarantines or social distancing requirements. Outside of the medical sphere, robots could also help keep the economy and infrastructure going by standing in for humans in factories or vital utilities like waste management or power plants.
When it comes to clinical care, robots can play important roles in disease prevention, diagnosis and screening, and patient care, the researchers say. Robots have already been widely deployed to disinfect hospitals and other public spaces either using UV light that kills bugs or by repurposing agricultural robots and drones to spray disinfectant, reducing the exposure of cleaning staff to potentially contaminated surfaces. They are also being used to carry out crucial deliveries of food and medication without exposing humans.
But they could also play an important role in tracking the disease, say the researchers. Thermal cameras combined with image recognition algorithms are already being used to detect potential cases at places like airports, but incorporating them into mobile robots or drones could greatly expand the coverage of screening programs.
A more complex challenge—but one that could significantly reduce medical workers’ exposure to the virus—would be to design robots that could automate the collection of nasal swabs used to test for COVID-19. Similarly automated blood collection for tests could be of significant help, and researchers are already investigating using ultrasound to help robots locate veins to draw blood from.
Convincing people it’s safe to let a robot stick a swab up their nose or jab a needle in their arm might be a hard sell right now, but a potentially more realistic scenario would be to get robots to carry out laboratory tests on collected samples to reduce exposure to lab technicians. Commercial laboratory automation systems already exist, so this might be a more achievable near-term goal.
Not all solutions need to be automated, though. While autonomous systems will be helpful for reducing the workload of stretched health workers, remote systems can still provide useful distancing. Remote control robotics systems are already becoming increasingly common in the delicate business of surgery, so it would be entirely feasible to create remote systems to carry out more prosaic medical tasks.
Such systems would make it possible for experts to contribute remotely in many different places without having to travel. And robotic systems could combine medical tasks like patient monitoring with equally important social interaction for people who may have been shut off from human contact.
In a teleconference last week Guang-Zhong Yang, a medical roboticist from Carnegie Mellon University and founding editor of Science Robotics, highlighted the importance of including both doctors and patients in the design of these robots to ensure they are safe and effective, but also to make sure people trust them to observe social protocols and not invade their privacy.
But Yang also stressed the importance of putting the pieces in place to enable the rapid development and deployment of solutions. During the 2015 Ebola outbreak, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation organized workshops to identify where robotics could help deal with epidemics.
But once the threat receded, attention shifted elsewhere, and by the time the next pandemic came around little progress had been made on potential solutions. The result is that it’s unclear how much help robots will really be able to provide to the COVID-19 response.
That means it’s crucial to invest in a sustained research effort into this field, say the paper’s authors, with more funding and multidisciplinary research partnerships between government agencies and industry so that next time around we will be prepared.
“These events are rare and then it’s just that people start to direct their efforts to other applications,” said Yang. “So I think this time we really need to nail it, because without a sustained approach to this history will repeat itself and robots won’t be ready.”
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New drug therapies for a range of chronic diseases. Defenses against various cyber attacks. Technologies to make cities work smarter. Weather and wildfire forecasts that boost safety and reduce risk. And commercial efforts to monetize so-called deepfakes.
What do all these disparate efforts have in common? They’re some of the solutions that the world’s most promising artificial intelligence startups are pursuing.
Data research firm CB Insights released its much-anticipated fourth annual list of the top 100 AI startups earlier this month. The New York-based company has become one of the go-to sources for emerging technology trends, especially in the startup scene.
About 10 years ago, it developed its own algorithm to assess the health of private companies using publicly-available information and non-traditional signals (think social media sentiment, for example) thanks to more than $1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation.
It uses that algorithm-generated data from what it calls a company’s Mosaic score—pulling together information on market trends, money, and momentum—along with other details ranging from patent activity to the latest news analysis to identify the best of the best.
“Our final list of companies is a mix of startups at various stages of R&D and product commercialization,” said Deepashri Varadharajanis, a lead analyst at CB Insights, during a recent presentation on the most prominent trends among the 2020 AI 100 startups.
About 10 companies on the list are among the world’s most valuable AI startups. For instance, there’s San Francisco-based Faire, which has raised at least $266 million since it was founded just three years ago. The company offers a wholesale marketplace that uses machine learning to match local retailers with goods that are predicted to sell well in their specific location.
Image courtesy of CB Insights
Funding for AI in Healthcare
Another startup valued at more than $1 billion, referred to as a unicorn in venture capital speak, is Butterfly Network, a company on the East Coast that has figured out a way to turn a smartphone phone into an ultrasound machine. Backed by $350 million in private investments, Butterfly Network uses AI to power the platform’s diagnostics. A more modestly funded San Francisco startup called Eko is doing something similar for stethoscopes.
In fact, there are more than a dozen AI healthcare startups on this year’s AI 100 list, representing the most companies of any industry on the list. In total, investors poured about $4 billion into AI healthcare startups last year, according to CB Insights, out of a record $26.6 billion raised by all private AI companies in 2019. Since 2014, more than 4,300 AI startups in 80 countries have raised about $83 billion.
One of the most intensive areas remains drug discovery, where companies unleash algorithms to screen potential drug candidates at an unprecedented speed and breadth that was impossible just a few years ago. It has led to the discovery of a new antibiotic to fight superbugs. There’s even a chance AI could help fight the coronavirus pandemic.
There are several AI drug discovery startups among the AI 100: San Francisco-based Atomwise claims its deep convolutional neural network, AtomNet, screens more than 100 million compounds each day. Cyclica is an AI drug discovery company in Toronto that just announced it would apply its platform to identify and develop novel cannabinoid-inspired drugs for neuropsychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder and anxiety.
And then there’s OWKIN out of New York City, a startup that uses a type of machine learning called federated learning. Backed by Google, the company’s AI platform helps train algorithms without sharing the necessary patient data required to provide the sort of valuable insights researchers need for designing new drugs or even selecting the right populations for clinical trials.
Keeping Cyber Networks Healthy
Privacy and data security are the focus of a number of AI cybersecurity startups, as hackers attempt to leverage artificial intelligence to launch sophisticated attacks while also trying to fool the AI-powered systems rapidly coming online.
“I think this is an interesting field because it’s a bit of a cat and mouse game,” noted Varadharajanis. “As your cyber defenses get smarter, your cyber attacks get even smarter, and so it’s a constant game of who’s going to match the other in terms of tech capabilities.”
Few AI cybersecurity startups match Silicon Valley-based SentinelOne in terms of private capital. The company has raised more than $400 million, with a valuation of $1.1 billion following a $200 million Series E earlier this year. The company’s platform automates what’s called endpoint security, referring to laptops, phones, and other devices at the “end” of a centralized network.
Fellow AI 100 cybersecurity companies include Blue Hexagon, which protects the “edge” of the network against malware, and Abnormal Security, which stops targeted email attacks, both out of San Francisco. Just down the coast in Los Angeles is Obsidian Security, a startup offering cybersecurity for cloud services.
Deepfakes Get a Friendly Makeover
Deepfakes of videos and other types of AI-manipulated media where faces or voices are synthesized in order to fool viewers or listeners has been a different type of ongoing cybersecurity risk. However, some firms are swapping malicious intent for benign marketing and entertainment purposes.
Now anyone can be a supermodel thanks to Superpersonal, a London-based AI startup that has figured out a way to seamlessly swap a user’s face onto a fashionista modeling the latest threads on the catwalk. The most obvious use case is for shoppers to see how they will look in a particular outfit before taking the plunge on a plunging neckline.
Another British company called Synthesia helps users create videos where a talking head will deliver a customized speech or even talk in a different language. The startup’s claim to fame was releasing a campaign video for the NGO Malaria Must Die showing soccer star David Becham speak in nine different languages.
There’s also a Seattle-based company, Wellsaid Labs, which uses AI to produce voice-over narration where users can choose from a library of digital voices with human pitch, emphasis, and intonation. Because every narrator sounds just a little bit smarter with a British accent.
AI Helps Make Smart Cities Smarter
Speaking of smarter: A handful of AI 100 startups are helping create the smart city of the future, where a digital web of sensors, devices, and cloud-based analytics ensure that nobody is ever stuck in traffic again or without an umbrella at the wrong time. At least that’s the dream.
A couple of them are directly connected to Google subsidiary Sidewalk Labs, which focuses on tech solutions to improve urban design. A company called Replica was spun out just last year. It’s sort of SimCity for urban planning. The San Francisco startup uses location data from mobile phones to understand how people behave and travel throughout a typical day in the city. Those insights can then help city governments, for example, make better decisions about infrastructure development.
Denver-area startup AMP Robotics gets into the nitty gritty details of recycling by training robots on how to recycle trash, since humans have largely failed to do the job. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only about 30 percent of waste is recycled.
Some people might complain that weather forecasters don’t even do that well when trying to predict the weather. An Israeli AI startup, ClimaCell, claims it can forecast rain block by block. While the company taps the usual satellite and ground-based sources to create weather models, it has developed algorithms to analyze how precipitation and other conditions affect signals in cellular networks. By analyzing changes in microwave signals between cellular towers, the platform can predict the type and intensity of the precipitation down to street level.
And those are just some of the highlights of what some of the world’s most promising AI startups are doing.
“You have companies optimizing mining operations, warehouse logistics, insurance, workflows, and even working on bringing AI solutions to designing printed circuit boards,” Varadharajanis said. “So a lot of creative ways in which companies are applying AI to solve different issues in different industries.”
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Electricity plays a surprisingly powerful role in our bodies. While most people are aware that it plays a crucial role in carrying signals to and from our nerves, our bodies produce electric fields that can do everything from helping heal wounds to triggering the release of hormones.
Electric fields can influence a host of important cellular behavior, like directional migration, proliferation, division, or even differentiation into different cell types. The work of Michael Levin at Tufts University even suggests that electrical fields may play a crucial role in the way our bodies organize themselves.
This has prompted considerable interest in exploiting our body’s receptiveness to electrical stimulation for therapeutic means, but given the diffuse nature of electrical fields a key challenge is finding a way to localize these effects. Conductive polymers have proven a useful tool in this regard thanks to their good electrical properties and biocompatibility, and have been used in everything from neural implants to biosensors.
But now, a team at Stanford University has developed a way to genetically engineer neurons to build the materials into their own cell membranes. The approach could make it possible to target highly specific groups of cells, providing unprecedented control over the body’s response to electrical stimulation.
In a paper in Science, the team explained how they used re-engineered viruses to deliver DNA that hijacks cells’ biosynthesis machinery to create an enzyme that assembles electroactive polymers onto their membranes. This changes the electrical properties of the cells, which the team demonstrated could be used to control their behavior.
They used the approach to modulate neuronal firing in cultures of rat hippocampal neurons, mouse brain slices, and even human cortical spheroids. Most impressively, they showed that they could coax the neurons of living C. elegans worms to produce the polymers in large enough quantities to alter their behavior without impairing the cells’ natural function.
Translating the idea to humans poses major challenges, not least because the viruses used to deliver the genetic changes are still a long way from being approved for clinical use. But the ability to precisely target specific cells using a genetic approach holds enormous promise for bioelectronic medicine, Kevin Otto and Christine Schmidt from the University of Florida say in an accompanying perspective.
Interest is booming in therapies that use electrical stimulation of neural circuits as an alternative to drugs for diseases as varied as arthritis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, and hundreds of clinical trials are currently underway.
At present these approaches rely on electrodes that can provide some level of localization, but because different kinds of nerve cells are often packed closely together it’s proven hard to stimulate exactly the right nerves, say Otto and Schmidt. This new approach makes it possible to boost the conductivity of specific cell types, which could make these kinds of interventions dramatically more targeted.
Besides disease-focused bioelectronic interventions, Otto and Schmidt say the approach could prove invaluable for helping to interface advanced prosthetics with patients’ nervous systems by making it possible to excite sensory neurons without accidentally triggering motor neurons, or vice versa.
More speculatively, the approach could one day help create far more efficient bridges between our minds and machines. One of the major challenges for brain-machine interfaces is recording from specific neurons, something that a genetically targeted approach might be able to help greatly with.
If the researchers can replicate the ability to build electronic-tissue “composites” in humans, we may be well on our way to the cyborg future predicted by science fiction.
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We’re in the midst of a public health emergency, and life as we know it has ground to a halt. The places we usually go are closed, the events we were looking forward to are canceled, and some of us have lost our jobs or fear losing them soon.
But although it may not seem like it, there are some silver linings; this crisis is bringing out the worst in some (I’m looking at you, toilet paper hoarders), but the best in many. Italians on lockdown are singing together, Spaniards on lockdown are exercising together, this entrepreneur made a DIY ventilator and put it on YouTube, and volunteers in Italy 3D printed medical valves for virus treatment at a fraction of their usual cost.
Indeed, if you want to feel like there’s still hope for humanity instead of feeling like we’re about to snowball into terribleness as a species, just look at these examples—and I’m sure there are many more out there. There’s plenty of hope and opportunity to be found in this crisis.
Peter Xing, a keynote speaker and writer on emerging technologies and associate director in technology and growth initiatives at KPMG, would agree. Xing believes the coronavirus epidemic is presenting us with ample opportunities for increased automation and remote delivery of goods and services. “The upside right now is the burgeoning platform of the digital transformation ecosystem,” he said.
In a thought-provoking talk at Singularity University’s COVID-19 virtual summit this week, Xing explained how the outbreak is accelerating our transition to a highly-automated society—and painted a picture of what the future may look like.
You’ve probably seen them by now—the barren shelves at your local grocery store. Whether you were in the paper goods aisle, the frozen food section, or the fresh produce area, it was clear something was amiss; the shelves were empty. One of the most inexplicable items people have been panic-bulk-buying is toilet paper.
Xing described this toilet paper scarcity as a prisoner’s dilemma, pointing out that we have a scarcity problem right now in terms of our mindset, not in terms of actual supply shortages. “It’s a prisoner’s dilemma in that we’re all prisoners in our homes right now, and we can either hoard or not hoard, and the outcomes depend on how we collaborate with each other,” he said. “But it’s not a zero-sum game.”
Xing referenced a CNN article about why toilet paper, of all things, is one of the items people have been panic-buying most (I, too, have been utterly baffled by this phenomenon). But maybe there’d be less panic if we knew more about the production methods and supply chain involved in manufacturing toilet paper. It turns out it’s a highly automated process (you can learn more about it in this documentary by National Geographic) and requires very few people (though it does require about 27,000 trees a day—so stop bulk-buying it! Just stop!).
The supply chain limitation here is in the raw material; we certainly can’t keep cutting down this many trees a day forever. But—somewhat ironically, given the Costco cartloads of TP people have been stuffing into their trunks and backseats—thanks to automation, toilet paper isn’t something stores are going to stop receiving anytime soon.
Automation For All
Now we have a reason to apply this level of automation to, well, pretty much everything.
Though our current situation may force us into using more robots and automated systems sooner than we’d planned, it will end up saving us money and creating opportunity, Xing believes. He cited “fast-casual” restaurants (Chipotle, Panera, etc.) as a prime example.
Currently, people in the US spend much more to eat at home than we do to eat in fast-casual restaurants if you take into account the cost of the food we’re preparing plus the value of the time we’re spending on cooking, grocery shopping, and cleaning up after meals. According to research from investment management firm ARK Invest, taking all these costs into account makes for about $12 per meal for food cooked at home.
That’s the same as or more than the cost of grabbing a burrito or a sandwich at the joint around the corner. As more of the repetitive, low-skill tasks involved in preparing fast casual meals are automated, their cost will drop even more, giving us more incentive to forego home cooking. (But, it’s worth noting that these figures don’t take into account that eating at home is, in most cases, better for you since you’re less likely to fill your food with sugar, oil, or various other taste-enhancing but health-destroying ingredients—plus, there are those of us who get a nearly incomparable amount of joy from laboring over then savoring a homemade meal).
Now that we’re not supposed to be touching each other or touching anything anyone else has touched, but we still need to eat, automating food preparation sounds appealing (and maybe necessary). Multiple food delivery services have already implemented a contactless delivery option, where customers can choose to have their food left on their doorstep.
Besides the opportunities for in-restaurant automation, “This is an opportunity for automation to happen at the last mile,” said Xing. Delivery drones, robots, and autonomous trucks and vans could all play a part. In fact, use of delivery drones has ramped up in China since the outbreak.
Speaking of deliveries, service robots have steadily increased in numbers at Amazon; as of late 2019, the company employed around 650,000 humans and 200,000 robots—and costs have gone down as robots have gone up.
ARK Invest’s research predicts automation could add $800 billion to US GDP over the next 5 years and $12 trillion during the next 15 years. On this trajectory, GDP would end up being 40 percent higher with automation than without it.
This is all well and good, but what do these numbers and percentages mean for the average consumer, worker, or citizen?
“The benefits of automation aren’t being passed on to the average citizen,” said Xing. “They’re going to the shareholders of the companies creating the automation.” This is where policies like universal basic income and universal healthcare come in; in the not-too-distant future, we may see more movement toward measures like these (depending how the election goes) that spread the benefit of automation out rather than concentrating it in a few wealthy hands.
In the meantime, though, some people are benefiting from automation in ways that maybe weren’t expected. We’re in the midst of what’s probably the biggest remote-work experiment in US history, not to mention remote learning. Tools that let us digitally communicate and collaborate, like Slack, Zoom, Dropbox, and Gsuite, are enabling remote work in a way that wouldn’t have been possible 20 or even 10 years ago.
In addition, Xing said, tools like DataRobot and H2O.ai are democratizing artificial intelligence by allowing almost anyone, not just data scientists or computer engineers, to run machine learning algorithms. People are codifying the steps in their own repetitive work processes and having their computers take over tasks for them.
As 3D printing gets cheaper and more accessible, it’s also being more widely adopted, and people are finding more applications (case in point: the Italians mentioned above who figured out how to cheaply print a medical valve for coronavirus treatment).
The Mother of Invention
This movement towards a more automated society has some positives: it will help us stay healthy during times like the present, it will drive down the cost of goods and services, and it will grow our GDP in the long run. But by leaning into automation, will we be enabling a future that keeps us more physically, psychologically, and emotionally distant from each other?
We’re in a crisis, and desperate times call for desperate measures. We’re sheltering in place, practicing social distancing, and trying not to touch each other. And for most of us, this is really unpleasant and difficult. We can’t wait for it to be over.
For better or worse, this pandemic will likely make us pick up the pace on our path to automation, across many sectors and processes. The solutions people implement during this crisis won’t disappear when things go back to normal (and, depending who you talk to, they may never really do so).
But let’s make sure to remember something. Even once robots are making our food and drones are delivering it, and our computers are doing data entry and email replies on our behalf, and we all have 3D printers to make anything we want at home—we’re still going to be human. And humans like being around each other. We like seeing one another’s faces, hearing one another’s voices, and feeling one another’s touch—in person, not on a screen or in an app.
No amount of automation is going to change that, and beyond lowering costs or increasing GDP, our greatest and most crucial responsibility will always be to take care of each other.
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As Covid-19 continues to spread, the world has gone digital on an unprecedented scale. Tens of thousands of employees are working from home, and huge conferences, like the Google I/O and Apple WWDC software extravaganzas, plan to experiment with digital events.
Universities too are sending students home. This might have meant an extended break from school not too long ago. But no more. As lecture halls go empty, an experiment into digital learning at scale is ramping up. In the US alone, over 100 universities, from Harvard to Duke, are offering online classes to students to keep the semester going.
While digital learning has been improving for some time, Covid-19 may not only tip us further into a more digitally connected reality, but also help us better appreciate its benefits. This is important because historically, digital learning has been viewed as inferior to traditional learning. But that may be changing.
We often think about digital technologies as ways to reach people without access to traditional services—online learning for children who don’t have schools nearby or telemedicine for patients with no access to doctors. And while these solutions have helped millions of people, they’re often viewed as “second best” and “better than nothing.” Even in more resource-rich environments, there’s an assumption one should pay more to attend an event in person—a concert, a football game, an exercise class—while digital equivalents are extremely cheap or free. Why is this? And is the situation about to change?
Take the case of Dr. Sanjeev Arora, a professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico. Arora started Project Echo because he was frustrated by how many late-stage cases of hepatitis C he encountered in rural New Mexico. He realized that if he had reached patients sooner, he could have prevented needless deaths. The solution? Digital learning for local health workers.
Project Echo connects rural healthcare practitioners to specialists at top health centers by video. The approach is collaborative: Specialists share best practices and work through cases with participants to apply them in the real world and learn from edge cases. Added to expert presentations, there are lots of opportunities to ask questions and interact with specialists.
The method forms a digital loop of learning, practice, assessment, and adjustment.
Since 2003, Project Echo has scaled to 800 locations in 39 countries and trained over 90,000 healthcare providers. Most notably, a study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the outcomes of hepatitis C treatment given by Project Echo trained healthcare workers in rural and underserved areas were similar to outcomes at university medical centers. That is, digital learning in this context was equivalent to high quality in-person learning.
If that is possible today, with simple tools, will they surpass traditional medical centers and schools in the future? Can digital learning more generally follow suit and have the same success? Perhaps. Going digital brings its own special toolset to the table too.
The Benefits of Digital
If you’re training people online, you can record the session to better understand their engagement levels—or even add artificial intelligence to analyze it in real time. Ahura AI, for example, founded by Bryan Talebi, aims to upskill workers through online training. Early study of their method suggests they can significantly speed up learning by analyzing users’ real-time emotions—like frustration or distraction—and adjusting the lesson plan or difficulty on the fly.
Other benefits of digital learning include the near-instantaneous download of course materials—rather than printing and shipping books—and being able to more easily report grades and other results, a requirement for many schools and social services organizations. And of course, as other digitized industries show, digital learning can grow and scale further at much lower costs.
To that last point, 360ed, a digital learning startup founded in 2016 by Hla Hla Win, now serves millions of children in Myanmar with augmented reality lesson plans. And Global Startup Ecosystem, founded by Christine Souffrant Ntim and Einstein Kofi Ntim in 2015, is the world’s first and largest digital accelerator program. Their entirely online programs support over 1,000 companies in 90 countries. It’s astonishing how fast both of these organizations have grown.
Notably, both examples include offline experiences too. Many of the 360ed lesson plans come with paper flashcards children use with their smartphones because the online-offline interaction improves learning. The Global Startup Ecosystem also hosts about 10 additional in-person tech summits around the world on various topics through a related initiative.
Looking further ahead, probably the most important benefit of online learning will be its potential to integrate with other digital systems in the workplace.
Imagine a medical center that has perfect information about every patient and treatment in real time and that this information is (anonymously and privately) centralized, analyzed, and shared with medical centers, research labs, pharmaceutical companies, clinical trials, policy makers, and medical students around the world. Just as self-driving cars can learn to drive better by having access to the experiences of other self-driving cars, so too can any group working to solve complex, time-sensitive challenges learn from and build on each other’s experiences.
Why This Matters
While in the long term the world will likely end up combining the best aspects of traditional and digital learning, it’s important in the near term to be more aware of the assumptions we make about digital technologies. Some of the most pioneering work in education, healthcare, and other industries may not be highly visible right now because it is in a virtual setting. Most people are unaware, for example, that the busiest emergency room in rural America is already virtual.
Once they start converging with other digital technologies, these innovations will likely become the mainstream system for all of us. Which raises more questions: What is the best business model for these virtual services? If they start delivering better healthcare and educational outcomes than traditional institutions, should they charge more? Hopefully, we will see an even bigger shift occurring, in which technology allows us to provide high quality education, healthcare, and other services to everyone at more affordable prices than today.
These are some of the topics we can consider as Covid-19 forces us into uncharted territory.
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