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#431592 Reactive Content Will Get to Know You ...

The best storytellers react to their audience. They look for smiles, signs of awe, or boredom; they simultaneously and skillfully read both the story and their sitters. Kevin Brooks, a seasoned storyteller working for Motorola’s Human Interface Labs, explains, “As the storyteller begins, they must tune in to… the audience’s energy. Based on this energy, the storyteller will adjust their timing, their posture, their characterizations, and sometimes even the events of the story. There is a dialog between audience and storyteller.”
Shortly after I read the script to Melita, the latest virtual reality experience from Madrid-based immersive storytelling company Future Lighthouse, CEO Nicolas Alcalá explained to me that the piece is an example of “reactive content,” a concept he’s been working on since his days at Singularity University.

For the first time in history, we have access to technology that can merge the reactive and affective elements of oral storytelling with the affordances of digital media, weaving stunning visuals, rich soundtracks, and complex meta-narratives in a story arena that has the capability to know you more intimately than any conventional storyteller could.
It’s no understatement to say that the storytelling potential here is phenomenal.
In short, we can refer to content as reactive if it reads and reacts to users based on their body rhythms, emotions, preferences, and data points. Artificial intelligence is used to analyze users’ behavior or preferences to sculpt unique storylines and narratives, essentially allowing for a story that changes in real time based on who you are and how you feel.
The development of reactive content will allow those working in the industry to go one step further than simply translating the essence of oral storytelling into VR. Rather than having a narrative experience with a digital storyteller who can read you, reactive content has the potential to create an experience with a storyteller who knows you.
This means being able to subtly insert minor personal details that have a specific meaning to the viewer. When we talk to our friends we often use experiences we’ve shared in the past or knowledge of our audience to give our story as much resonance as possible. Targeting personal memories and aspects of our lives is a highly effective way to elicit emotions and aid in visualizing narratives. When you can do this with the addition of visuals, music, and characters—all lifted from someone’s past—you have the potential for overwhelmingly engaging and emotionally-charged content.
Future Lighthouse inform me that for now, reactive content will rely primarily on biometric feedback technology such as breathing, heartbeat, and eye tracking sensors. A simple example would be a story in which parts of the environment or soundscape change in sync with the user’s heartbeat and breathing, or characters who call you out for not paying attention.
The next step would be characters and situations that react to the user’s emotions, wherein algorithms analyze biometric information to make inferences about states of emotional arousal (“why are you so nervous?” etc.). Another example would be implementing the use of “arousal parameters,” where the audience can choose what level of “fear” they want from a VR horror story before algorithms modulate the experience using information from biometric feedback devices.
The company’s long-term goal is to gather research on storytelling conventions and produce a catalogue of story “wireframes.” This entails distilling the basic formula to different genres so they can then be fleshed out with visuals, character traits, and soundtracks that are tailored for individual users based on their deep data, preferences, and biometric information.
The development of reactive content will go hand in hand with a renewed exploration of diverging, dynamic storylines, and multi-narratives, a concept that hasn’t had much impact in the movie world thus far. In theory, the idea of having a story that changes and mutates is captivating largely because of our love affair with serendipity and unpredictability, a cultural condition theorist Arthur Kroker refers to as the “hypertextual imagination.” This feeling of stepping into the unknown with the possibility of deviation from the habitual translates as a comforting reminder that our own lives can take exciting and unexpected turns at any moment.
The inception of the concept into mainstream culture dates to the classic Choose Your Own Adventure book series that launched in the late 70s, which in its literary form had great success. However, filmic takes on the theme have made somewhat less of an impression. DVDs like I’m Your Man (1998) and Switching (2003) both use scene selection tools to determine the direction of the storyline.
A more recent example comes from Kino Industries, who claim to have developed the technology to allow filmmakers to produce interactive films in which viewers can use smartphones to quickly vote on which direction the narrative takes at numerous decision points throughout the film.
The main problem with diverging narrative films has been the stop-start nature of the interactive element: when I’m immersed in a story I don’t want to have to pick up a controller or remote to select what’s going to happen next. Every time the audience is given the option to take a new path (“press this button”, “vote on X, Y, Z”) the narrative— and immersion within that narrative—is temporarily halted, and it takes the mind a while to get back into this state of immersion.
Reactive content has the potential to resolve these issues by enabling passive interactivity—that is, input and output without having to pause and actively make decisions or engage with the hardware. This will result in diverging, dynamic narratives that will unfold seamlessly while being dependent on and unique to the specific user and their emotions. Passive interactivity will also remove the game feel that can often be a symptom of interactive experiences and put a viewer somewhere in the middle: still firmly ensconced in an interactive dynamic narrative, but in a much subtler way.
While reading the Melita script I was particularly struck by a scene in which the characters start to engage with the user and there’s a synchronicity between the user’s heartbeat and objects in the virtual world. As the narrative unwinds and the words of Melita’s character get more profound, parts of the landscape, which seemed to be flashing and pulsating at random, come together and start to mimic the user’s heartbeat.
In 2013, Jane Aspell of Anglia Ruskin University (UK) and Lukas Heydrich of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology proved that a user’s sense of presence and identification with a virtual avatar could be dramatically increased by syncing the on-screen character with the heartbeat of the user. The relationship between bio-digital synchronicity, immersion, and emotional engagement is something that will surely have revolutionary narrative and storytelling potential.
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Posted in Human Robots

#431371 Amazon Is Quietly Building the Robots of ...

Science fiction is the siren song of hard science. How many innocent young students have been lured into complex, abstract science, technology, engineering, or mathematics because of a reckless and irresponsible exposure to Arthur C. Clarke at a tender age? Yet Arthur C. Clarke has a very famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It’s the prospect of making that… ahem… magic leap that entices so many people into STEM in the first place. A magic leap that would change the world. How about, for example, having humanoid robots? They could match us in dexterity and speed, perceive the world around them as we do, and be programmed to do, well, more or less anything we can do.
Such a technology would change the world forever.
But how will it arrive? While true sci-fi robots won’t get here right away—the pieces are coming together, and the company best developing them at the moment is Amazon. Where others have struggled to succeed, Amazon has been quietly progressing. Notably, Amazon has more than just a dream, it has the most practical of reasons driving it into robotics.
This practicality matters. Technological development rarely proceeds by magic; it’s a process filled with twists, turns, dead-ends, and financial constraints. New technologies often have to answer questions like “What is this good for, are you being realistic?” A good strategy, then, can be to build something more limited than your initial ambition, but useful for a niche market. That way, you can produce a prototype, have a reasonable business plan, and turn a profit within a decade. You might call these “stepping stone” applications that allow for new technologies to be developed in an economically viable way.
You need something you can sell to someone, soon: that’s how you get investment in your idea. It’s this model that iRobot, developers of the Roomba, used: migrating from military prototypes to robotic vacuum cleaners to become the “boring, successful robot company.” Compare this to Willow Garage, a genius factory if ever there was one: they clearly had ambitions towards a general-purpose, multi-functional robot. They built an impressive device—PR2—and programmed the operating system, ROS, that is still the industry and academic standard to this day.
But since they were unable to sell their robot for much less than $250,000, it was never likely to be a profitable business. This is why Willow Garage is no more, and many workers at the company went into telepresence robotics. Telepresence is essentially videoconferencing with a fancy robot attached to move the camera around. It uses some of the same software (for example, navigation and mapping) without requiring you to solve difficult problems of full autonomy for the robot, or manipulating its environment. It’s certainly one of the stepping-stone areas that various companies are investigating.
Another approach is to go to the people with very high research budgets: the military.
This was the Boston Dynamics approach, and their incredible achievements in bipedal locomotion saw them getting snapped up by Google. There was a great deal of excitement and speculation about Google’s “nightmare factory” whenever a new slick video of a futuristic militarized robot surfaced. But Google broadly backed away from Replicant, their robotics program, and Boston Dynamics was sold. This was partly due to PR concerns over the Terminator-esque designs, but partly because they didn’t see the robotics division turning a profit. They hadn’t found their stepping stones.
This is where Amazon comes in. Why Amazon? First off, they just announced that their profits are up by 30 percent, and yet the company is well-known for their constantly-moving Day One philosophy where a great deal of the profits are reinvested back into the business. But lots of companies have ambition.
One thing Amazon has that few other corporations have, as well as big financial resources, is viable stepping stones for developing the technologies needed for this sort of robotics to become a reality. They already employ 100,000 robots: these are of the “pragmatic, boring, useful” kind that we’ve profiled, which move around the shelves in warehouses. These robots are allowing Amazon to develop localization and mapping software for robots that can autonomously navigate in the simple warehouse environment.
But their ambitions don’t end there. The Amazon Robotics Challenge is a multi-million dollar competition, open to university teams, to produce a robot that can pick and package items in warehouses. The problem of grasping and manipulating a range of objects is not a solved one in robotics, so this work is still done by humans—yet it’s absolutely fundamental for any sci-fi dream robot.
Google, for example, attempted to solve this problem by hooking up 14 robot hands to machine learning algorithms and having them grasp thousands of objects. Although results were promising, the 10 to 20 percent failure rate for grasps is too high for warehouse use. This is a perfect stepping stone for Amazon; should they crack the problem, they will likely save millions in logistics.
Another area where humanoid robotics—especially bipedal locomotion, or walking, has been seriously suggested—is in the last mile delivery problem. Amazon has shown willingness to be creative in this department with their notorious drone delivery service. In other words, it’s all very well to have your self-driving car or van deliver packages to people’s doors, but who puts the package on the doorstep? It’s difficult for wheeled robots to navigate the full range of built environments that exist. That’s why bipedal robots like CASSIE, developed by Oregon State, may one day be used to deliver parcels.
Again: no one more than Amazon stands to profit from cracking this technology. The line from robotics research to profit is very clear.
So, perhaps one day Amazon will have robots that can move around and manipulate their environments. But they’re also working on intelligence that will guide those robots and make them truly useful for a variety of tasks. Amazon has an AI, or at least the framework for an AI: it’s called Alexa, and it’s in tens of millions of homes. The Alexa Prize, another multi-million-dollar competition, is attempting to make Alexa more social.
To develop a conversational AI, at least using the current methods of machine learning, you need data on tens of millions of conversations. You need to understand how people will try to interact with the AI. Amazon has access to this in Alexa, and they’re using it. As owners of the leading voice-activated personal assistant, they have an ecosystem of developers creating apps for Alexa. It will be integrated with the smart home and the Internet of Things. It is a very marketable product, a stepping stone for robot intelligence.
What’s more, the company can benefit from its huge sales infrastructure. For Amazon, having an AI in your home is ideal, because it can persuade you to buy more products through its website. Unlike companies like Google, Amazon has an easy way to make a direct profit from IoT devices, which could fuel funding.
For a humanoid robot to be truly useful, though, it will need vision and intelligence. It will have to understand and interpret its environment, and react accordingly. The way humans learn about our environment is by getting out and seeing it. This is something that, for example, an Alexa coupled to smart glasses would be very capable of doing. There are rumors that Alexa’s AI will soon be used in security cameras, which is an ideal stepping stone task to train an AI to process images from its environment, truly perceiving the world and any threats it might contain.
It’s a slight exaggeration to say that Amazon is in the process of building a secret robot army. The gulf between our sci-fi vision of robots that can intelligently serve us, rather than mindlessly assemble cars, is still vast. But in quietly assembling many of the technologies needed for intelligent, multi-purpose robotics—and with the unique stepping stones they have along the way—Amazon might just be poised to leap that gulf. As if by magic.
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Posted in Human Robots

#431343 How Technology Is Driving Us Toward Peak ...

At some point in the future—and in some ways we are already seeing this—the amount of physical stuff moving around the world will peak and begin to decline. By “stuff,” I am referring to liquid fuels, coal, containers on ships, food, raw materials, products, etc.
New technologies are moving us toward “production-at-the-point-of-consumption” of energy, food, and products with reduced reliance on a global supply chain.
The trade of physical stuff has been central to globalization as we’ve known it. So, this declining movement of stuff may signal we are approaching “peak globalization.”
To be clear, even as the movement of stuff may slow, if not decline, the movement of people, information, data, and ideas around the world is growing exponentially and is likely to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.
Peak globalization may provide a pathway to preserving the best of globalization and global interconnectedness, enhancing economic and environmental sustainability, and empowering individuals and communities to strengthen democracy.
At the same time, some of the most troublesome aspects of globalization may be eased, including massive financial transfers to energy producers and loss of jobs to manufacturing platforms like China. This shift could bring relief to the “losers” of globalization and ease populist, nationalist political pressures that are roiling the developed countries.
That is quite a claim, I realize. But let me explain the vision.
New Technologies and Businesses: Digital, Democratized, Decentralized
The key factors moving us toward peak globalization and making it economically viable are new technologies and innovative businesses and business models allowing for “production-at-the-point-of-consumption” of energy, food, and products.
Exponential technologies are enabling these trends by sharply reducing the “cost of entry” for creating businesses. Driven by Moore’s Law, powerful technologies have become available to almost anyone, anywhere.
Beginning with the microchip, which has had a 100-billion-fold improvement in 40 years—10,000 times faster and 10 million times cheaper—the marginal cost of producing almost everything that can be digitized has fallen toward zero.
A hard copy of a book, for example, will always entail the cost of materials, printing, shipping, etc., even if the marginal cost falls as more copies are produced. But the marginal cost of a second digital copy, such as an e-book, streaming video, or song, is nearly zero as it is simply a digital file sent over the Internet, the world’s largest copy machine.* Books are one product, but there are literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in once-physical, separate products jammed into our devices at little to no cost.
A smartphone alone provides half the human population access to artificial intelligence—from SIRI, search, and translation to cloud computing—geolocation, free global video calls, digital photography and free uploads to social network sites, free access to global knowledge, a million apps for a huge variety of purposes, and many other capabilities that were unavailable to most people only a few years ago.
As powerful as dematerialization and demonetization are for private individuals, they’re having a stronger effect on businesses. A small team can access expensive, advanced tools that before were only available to the biggest organizations. Foundational digital platforms, such as the internet and GPS, and the platforms built on top of them by the likes of Google, Apple, Amazon, and others provide the connectivity and services democratizing business tools and driving the next generation of new startups.

“As these trends gain steam in coming decades, they’ll bleed into and fundamentally transform global supply chains.”

An AI startup, for example, doesn’t need its own server farm to train its software and provide service to customers. The team can rent computing power from Amazon Web Services. This platform model enables small teams to do big things on the cheap. And it isn’t just in software. Similar trends are happening in hardware too. Makers can 3D print or mill industrial grade prototypes of physical stuff in a garage or local maker space and send or sell designs to anyone with a laptop and 3D printer via online platforms.
These are early examples of trends that are likely to gain steam in coming decades, and as they do, they’ll bleed into and fundamentally transform global supply chains.
The old model is a series of large, connected bits of centralized infrastructure. It makes sense to mine, farm, or manufacture in bulk when the conditions, resources, machines, and expertise to do so exist in particular places and are specialized and expensive. The new model, however, enables smaller-scale production that is local and decentralized.
To see this more clearly, let’s take a look at the technological trends at work in the three biggest contributors to the global trade of physical stuff—products, energy, and food.
Products
3D printing (additive manufacturing) allows for distributed manufacturing near the point of consumption, eliminating or reducing supply chains and factory production lines.
This is possible because product designs are no longer made manifest in assembly line parts like molds or specialized mechanical tools. Rather, designs are digital and can be called up at will to guide printers. Every time a 3D printer prints, it can print a different item, so no assembly line needs to be set up for every different product. 3D printers can also print an entire finished product in one piece or reduce the number of parts of larger products, such as engines. This further lessens the need for assembly.
Because each item can be customized and printed on demand, there is no cost benefit from scaling production. No inventories. No shipping items across oceans. No carbon emissions transporting not only the final product but also all the parts in that product shipped from suppliers to manufacturer. Moreover, 3D printing builds items layer by layer with almost no waste, unlike “subtractive manufacturing” in which an item is carved out of a piece of metal, and much or even most of the material can be waste.
Finally, 3D printing is also highly scalable, from inexpensive 3D printers (several hundred dollars) for home and school use to increasingly capable and expensive printers for industrial production. There are also 3D printers being developed for printing buildings, including houses and office buildings, and other infrastructure.
The technology for finished products is only now getting underway, and there are still challenges to overcome, such as speed, quality, and range of materials. But as methods and materials advance, it will likely creep into more manufactured goods.
Ultimately, 3D printing will be a general purpose technology that involves many different types of printers and materials—such as plastics, metals, and even human cells—to produce a huge range of items, from human tissue and potentially human organs to household items and a range of industrial items for planes, trains, and automobiles.
Energy
Renewable energy production is located at or relatively near the source of consumption.
Although electricity generated by solar, wind, geothermal, and other renewable sources can of course be transmitted over longer distances, it is mostly generated and consumed locally or regionally. It is not transported around the world in tankers, ships, and pipelines like petroleum, coal, and natural gas.
Moreover, the fuel itself is free—forever. There is no global price on sun or wind. The people relying on solar and wind power need not worry about price volatility and potential disruption of fuel supplies as a result of political, market, or natural causes.
Renewables have their problems, of course, including intermittency and storage, and currently they work best if complementary to other sources, especially natural gas power plants that, unlike coal plants, can be turned on or off and modulated like a gas stove, and are half the carbon emissions of coal.
Within the next decades or so, it is likely the intermittency and storage problems will be solved or greatly mitigated. In addition, unlike coal and natural gas power plants, solar is scalable, from solar panels on individual homes or even cars and other devices, to large-scale solar farms. Solar can be connected with microgrids and even allow for autonomous electricity generation by homes, commercial buildings, and communities.
It may be several decades before fossil fuel power plants can be phased out, but the development cost of renewables has been falling exponentially and, in places, is beginning to compete with coal and gas. Solar especially is expected to continue to increase in efficiency and decline in cost.
Given these trends in cost and efficiency, renewables should become obviously cheaper over time—if the fuel is free for solar and has to be continually purchased for coal and gas, at some point the former is cheaper than the latter. Renewables are already cheaper if externalities such as carbon emissions and environmental degradation involved in obtaining and transporting the fuel are included.
Food
Food can be increasingly produced near the point of consumption with vertical farms and eventually with printed food and even printed or cultured meat.
These sources bring production of food very near the consumer, so transportation costs, which can be a significant portion of the cost of food to consumers, are greatly reduced. The use of land and water are reduced by 95% or more, and energy use is cut by nearly 50%. In addition, fertilizers and pesticides are not required and crops can be grown 365 days a year whatever the weather and in more climates and latitudes than is possible today.
While it may not be practical to grow grains, corn, and other such crops in vertical farms, many vegetables and fruits can flourish in such facilities. In addition, cultured or printed meat is being developed—the big challenge is scaling up and reducing cost—that is based on cells from real animals without slaughtering the animals themselves.
There are currently some 70 billion animals being raised for food around the world [PDF] and livestock alone counts for about 15% of global emissions. Moreover, livestock places huge demands on land, water, and energy. Like vertical farms, cultured or printed meat could be produced with no more land use than a brewery and with far less water and energy.
A More Democratic Economy Goes Bottom Up
This is a very brief introduction to the technologies that can bring “production-at-the-point-of-consumption” of products, energy, and food to cities and regions.
What does this future look like? Here’s a simplified example.
Imagine a universal manufacturing facility with hundreds of 3D printers printing tens of thousands of different products on demand for the local community—rather than assembly lines in China making tens of thousands of the same product that have to be shipped all over the world since no local market can absorb all of the same product.
Nearby, a vertical farm and cultured meat facility produce much of tomorrow night’s dinner. These facilities would be powered by local or regional wind and solar. Depending on need and quality, some infrastructure and machinery, like solar panels and 3D printers, would live in these facilities and some in homes and businesses.
The facilities could be owned by a large global corporation—but still locally produce goods—or they could be franchised or even owned and operated independently by the local population. Upkeep and management at each would provide jobs for communities nearby. Eventually, not only would global trade of parts and products diminish, but even required supplies of raw materials and feed stock would decline since there would be less waste in production, and many materials would be recycled once acquired.

“Peak globalization could be a viable pathway to an economic foundation that puts people first while building a more economically and environmentally sustainable future.”

This model suggests a shift toward a “bottom up” economy that is more democratic, locally controlled, and likely to generate more local jobs.
The global trends in democratization of technology make the vision technologically plausible. Much of this technology already exists and is improving and scaling while exponentially decreasing in cost to become available to almost anyone, anywhere.
This includes not only access to key technologies, but also to education through digital platforms available globally. Online courses are available for free, ranging from advanced physics, math, and engineering to skills training in 3D printing, solar installations, and building vertical farms. Social media platforms can enable local and global collaboration and sharing of knowledge and best practices.
These new communities of producers can be the foundation for new forms of democratic governance as they recognize and “capitalize” on the reality that control of the means of production can translate to political power. More jobs and local control could weaken populist, anti-globalization political forces as people recognize they could benefit from the positive aspects of globalization and international cooperation and connectedness while diminishing the impact of globalization’s downsides.
There are powerful vested interests that stand to lose in such a global structural shift. But this vision builds on trends that are already underway and are gaining momentum. Peak globalization could be a viable pathway to an economic foundation that puts people first while building a more economically and environmentally sustainable future.
This article was originally posted on Open Democracy (CC BY-NC 4.0). The version above was edited with the author for length and includes additions. Read the original article on Open Democracy.
* See Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Part II, pp. 69-154.
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Posted in Human Robots

#431159 How Close Is Turing’s Dream of ...

The quest for conversational artificial intelligence has been a long one.
When Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, racked his considerable brains for a test that would truly indicate that a computer program was intelligent, he landed on this area. If a computer could convince a panel of human judges that they were talking to a human—if it could hold a convincing conversation—then it would indicate that artificial intelligence had advanced to the point where it was indistinguishable from human intelligence.
This gauntlet was thrown down in 1950 and, so far, no computer program has managed to pass the Turing test.
There have been some very notable failures, however: Joseph Weizenbaum, as early as 1966—when computers were still programmed with large punch-cards—developed a piece of natural language processing software called ELIZA. ELIZA was a machine intended to respond to human conversation by pretending to be a psychotherapist; you can still talk to her today.
Talking to ELIZA is a little strange. She’ll often rephrase things you’ve said back at you: so, for example, if you say “I’m feeling depressed,” she might say “Did you come to me because you are feeling depressed?” When she’s unsure about what you’ve said, ELIZA will usually respond with “I see,” or perhaps “Tell me more.”
For the first few lines of dialogue, especially if you treat her as your therapist, ELIZA can be convincingly human. This was something Weizenbaum noticed and was slightly alarmed by: people were willing to treat the algorithm as more human than it really was. Before long, even though some of the test subjects knew ELIZA was just a machine, they were opening up with some of their deepest feelings and secrets. They were pouring out their hearts to a machine. When Weizenbaum’s secretary spoke to ELIZA, even though she knew it was a fairly simple computer program, she still insisted Weizenbaum leave the room.
Part of the unexpected reaction ELIZA generated may be because people are more willing to open up to a machine, feeling they won’t be judged, even if the machine is ultimately powerless to do or say anything to really help. The ELIZA effect was named for this computer program: the tendency of humans to anthropomorphize machines, or think of them as human.

Weizenbaum himself, who later became deeply suspicious of the influence of computers and artificial intelligence in human life, was astonished that people were so willing to believe his script was human. He wrote, “I had not realized…that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people.”

“Consciously, you know you’re talking to a big block of code stored somewhere out there in the ether. But subconsciously, you might feel like you’re interacting with a human.”

The ELIZA effect may have disturbed Weizenbaum, but it has intrigued and fascinated others for decades. Perhaps you’ve noticed it in yourself, when talking to an AI like Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant—the occasional response can seem almost too real. Consciously, you know you’re talking to a big block of code stored somewhere out there in the ether. But subconsciously, you might feel like you’re interacting with a human.
Yet the ELIZA effect, as enticing as it is, has proved a source of frustration for people who are trying to create conversational machines. Natural language processing has proceeded in leaps and bounds since the 1960s. Now you can find friendly chatbots like Mitsuku—which has frequently won the Loebner Prize, awarded to the machines that come closest to passing the Turing test—that aim to have a response to everything you might say.
In the commercial sphere, Facebook has opened up its Messenger program and provided software for people and companies to design their own chatbots. The idea is simple: why have an app for, say, ordering pizza when you can just chatter to a robot through your favorite messenger app and make the order in natural language, as if you were telling your friend to get it for you?
Startups like Semantic Machines hope their AI assistant will be able to interact with you just like a secretary or PA would, but with an unparalleled ability to retrieve information from the internet. They may soon be there.
But people who engineer chatbots—both in the social and commercial realm—encounter a common problem: the users, perhaps subconsciously, assume the chatbots are human and become disappointed when they’re not able to have a normal conversation. Frustration with miscommunication can often stem from raised initial expectations.
So far, no machine has really been able to crack the problem of context retention—understanding what’s been said before, referring back to it, and crafting responses based on the point the conversation has reached. Even Mitsuku will often struggle to remember the topic of conversation beyond a few lines of dialogue.

“For everything you say, there could be hundreds of responses that would make sense. When you travel a layer deeper into the conversation, those factors multiply until you end up with vast numbers of potential conversations.”

This is, of course, understandable. Conversation can be almost unimaginably complex. For everything you say, there could be hundreds of responses that would make sense. When you travel a layer deeper into the conversation, those factors multiply until—like possible games of Go or chess—you end up with vast numbers of potential conversations.
But that hasn’t deterred people from trying, most recently, tech giant Amazon, in an effort to make their AI voice assistant, Alexa, friendlier. They have been running the Alexa Prize competition, which offers a cool $500,000 to the winning AI—and a bonus of a million dollars to any team that can create a ‘socialbot’ capable of sustaining a conversation with human users for 20 minutes on a variety of themes.
Topics Alexa likes to chat about include science and technology, politics, sports, and celebrity gossip. The finalists were recently announced: chatbots from universities in Prague, Edinburgh, and Seattle. Finalists were chosen according to the ratings from Alexa users, who could trigger the socialbots into conversation by saying “Hey Alexa, let’s chat,” although the reviews for the socialbots weren’t always complimentary.
By narrowing down the fields of conversation to a specific range of topics, the Alexa Prize has cleverly started to get around the problem of context—just as commercially available chatbots hope to do. It’s much easier to model an interaction that goes a few layers into the conversational topic if you’re limiting those topics to a specific field.
Developing a machine that can hold almost any conversation with a human interlocutor convincingly might be difficult. It might even be a problem that requires artificial general intelligence to truly solve, rather than the previously-employed approaches of scripted answers or neural networks that associate inputs with responses.
But a machine that can have meaningful interactions that people might value and enjoy could be just around the corner. The Alexa Prize winner is announced in November. The ELIZA effect might mean we will relate to machines sooner than we’d thought.
So, go well, little socialbots. If you ever want to discuss the weather or what the world will be like once you guys take over, I’ll be around. Just don’t start a therapy session.
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Posted in Human Robots

#430830 Biocomputers Made From Cells Can Now ...

When it comes to biomolecules, RNA doesn’t get a lot of love.
Maybe you haven’t even heard of the silent workhorse. RNA is the cell’s de facto translator: like a game of telephone, RNA takes DNA’s genetic code to a cellular factory called ribosomes. There, the cell makes proteins based on RNA’s message.
But RNA isn’t just a middleman. It controls what proteins are formed. Because proteins wiz around the cell completing all sorts of important processes, you can say that RNA is the gatekeeper: no RNA message, no proteins, no life.
In a new study published in Nature, RNA finally took center stage. By adding bits of genetic material to the E. Coli bacteria, a team of biohackers at the Wyss Institute hijacked the organism’s RNA messengers so that they only spring into action following certain inputs.
The result? A bacterial biocomputer capable of performing 12-input logic operations—AND, OR, and NOT—following specific inputs. Rather than outputting 0s and 1s, these biocircuits produce results based on the presence or absence of proteins and other molecules.
“It’s the greatest number of inputs in a circuit that a cell has been able to process,” says study author Dr. Alexander Green at Arizona State University. “To be able to analyze those signals and make a decision is the big advance here.”
When given a specific set of inputs, the bacteria spit out a protein that made them glow neon green under fluorescent light.
But synthetic biology promises far more than just a party trick—by tinkering with a cell’s RNA repertoire, scientists may one day coax them to photosynthesize, produce expensive drugs on the fly, or diagnose and hunt down rogue tumor cells.
Illustration of an RNA-based ‘ribocomputing’ device that makes logic-based decisions in living cells. The long gate RNA (blue) detects the binding of an input RNA (red). The ribosome (purple/mauve) reads the gate RNA to produce an output protein. Image Credit: Alexander Green / Arizona State University
The software of life
This isn’t the first time that scientists hijacked life’s algorithms to reprogram cells into nanocomputing systems. Previous work has already introduced to the world yeast cells that can make anti-malaria drugs from sugar or mammalian cells that can perform Boolean logic.
Yet circuits with multiple inputs and outputs remain hard to program. The reason is this: synthetic biologists have traditionally focused on snipping, fusing, or otherwise arranging a cell’s DNA to produce the outcomes they want.
But DNA is two steps removed from proteins, and tinkering with life’s code often leads to unexpected consequences. For one, the cell may not even accept and produce the extra bits of DNA code. For another, the added code, when transformed into proteins, may not act accordingly in the crowded and ever-changing environment of the cell.
What’s more, tinkering with one gene is often not enough to program an entirely new circuit. Scientists often need to amp up or shut down the activity of multiple genes, or multiple biological “modules” each made up of tens or hundreds of genes.
It’s like trying to fit new Lego pieces in a specific order into a room full of Lego constructions. Each new piece has the potential to wander off track and click onto something it’s not supposed to touch.
Getting every moving component to work in sync—as you might have guessed—is a giant headache.
The RNA way
With “ribocomputing,” Green and colleagues set off to tackle a main problem in synthetic biology: predictability.
Named after the “R (ribo)” in “RNA,” the method grew out of an idea that first struck Green back in 2012.
“The synthetic biological circuits to date have relied heavily on protein-based regulators that are difficult to scale up,” Green wrote at the time. We only have a limited handful of “designable parts” that work well, and these circuits require significant resources to encode and operate, he explains.
RNA, in comparison, is a lot more predictable. Like its more famous sibling DNA, RNA is composed of units that come in four different flavors: A, G, C, and U. Although RNA is only single-stranded, rather than the double helix for which DNA is known for, it can bind short DNA-like sequences in a very predictable manner: Gs always match up with Cs and As always with Us.
Because of this predictability, it’s possible to design RNA components that bind together perfectly. In other words, it reduces the chance that added RNA bits might go rogue in an unsuspecting cell.
Normally, once RNA is produced it immediately rushes to the ribosome—the cell’s protein-building factory. Think of it as a constantly “on” system.
However, Green and his team found a clever mechanism to slow them down. Dubbed the “toehold switch,” it works like this: the artificial RNA component is first incorporated into a chain of A, G, C, and U folded into a paperclip-like structure.
This blocks the RNA from accessing the ribosome. Because one RNA strand generally maps to one protein, the switch prevents that protein from ever getting made.
In this way, the switch is set to “off” by default—a “NOT” gate, in Boolean logic.
To activate the switch, the cell needs another component: a “trigger RNA,” which binds to the RNA toehold switch. This flips it on: the RNA grabs onto the ribosome, and bam—proteins.
BioLogic gates
String a few RNA switches together, with the activity of each one relying on the one before, and it forms an “AND” gate. Alternatively, if the activity of each switch is independent, that’s an “OR” gate.
“Basically, the toehold switches performed so well that we wanted to find a way to best exploit them for cellular applications,” says Green. They’re “kind of the equivalent of your first transistors,” he adds.
Once the team optimized the designs for different logic gates, they carefully condensed the switches into “gate RNA” molecules. These gate RNAs contain both codes for proteins and the logic operations needed to kickstart the process—a molecular logic circuit, so to speak.
If you’ve ever played around with an Arduino-controlled electrical circuit, you probably know the easiest way to test its function is with a light bulb.
That’s what the team did here, though with a biological bulb: green fluorescent protein, a light-sensing protein not normally present in bacteria that—when turned on—makes the microbugs glow neon green.
In a series of experiments, Green and his team genetically inserted gate RNAs into bacteria. Then, depending on the type of logical function, they added different combinations of trigger RNAs—the inputs.
When the input RNA matched up with its corresponding gate RNA, it flipped on the switch, causing the cell to light up.

Their most complex circuit contained five AND gates, five OR gates, and two NOTs—a 12-input ribocomputer that functioned exactly as designed.
That’s quite the achievement. “Everything is interacting with everything else and there are a million ways those interactions could flip the switch on accident,” says RNA researcher Dr. Julies Lucks at Northwestern University.
The specificity is thanks to RNA, the authors explain. Because RNAs bind to others so predictably, we can now design massive libraries of gate and trigger units to mix-and-match into all types of nano-biocomputers.
RNA BioNanobots
Although the technology doesn’t have any immediate applications, the team has high hopes.
For the first time, it’s now possible to massively scale up the process of programming new circuits into living cells. We’ve expanded the library of available biocomponents that can be used to reprogram life’s basic code, the authors say.
What’s more, when freeze-dried onto a piece of tissue paper, RNA keeps very well. We could potentially print RNA toehold switches onto paper that respond to viruses or to tumor cells, the authors say, essentially transforming the technology into highly accurate diagnostic platforms.
But Green’s hopes are even wilder for his RNA-based circuits.
“Because we’re using RNA, a universal molecule of life, we know these interactions can also work in other cells, so our method provides a general strategy that could be ported to other organisms,” he says.
Ultimately, the hope is to program neural network-like capabilities into the body’s other cells.
Imagine cells endowed with circuits capable of performing the kinds of computation the brain does, the authors say.
Perhaps one day, synthetic biology will transform our own cells into fully programmable entities, turning us all into biological cyborgs from the inside. How wild would that be?
Image Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University Continue reading

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