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Robots have been masters of manufacturing at speed and precision for decades, but give them a seemingly simple task like stacking shelves, and they quickly get stuck. That’s changing, though, as engineers build systems that can take on the deceptively tricky tasks most humans can do with their eyes closed.
Boston Dynamics is famous for dramatic reveals of robots performing mind-blowing feats that also leave you scratching your head as to what the market is—think the bipedal Atlas doing backflips or Spot the galloping robot dog.
Last week, the company released a video of a robot called Handle that looks like an ostrich on wheels carrying out the seemingly mundane task of stacking boxes in a warehouse.
It might seem like a step backward, but this is exactly the kind of practical task robots have long struggled with. While the speed and precision of industrial robots has seen them take over many functions in modern factories, they’re generally limited to highly prescribed tasks carried out in meticulously-controlled environments.
That’s because despite their mechanical sophistication, most are still surprisingly dumb. They can carry out precision welding on a car or rapidly assemble electronics, but only by rigidly following a prescribed set of motions. Moving cardboard boxes around a warehouse might seem simple to a human, but it actually involves a variety of tasks machines still find pretty difficult—perceiving your surroundings, navigating, and interacting with objects in a dynamic environment.
But the release of this video suggests Boston Dynamics thinks these kinds of applications are close to prime time. Last week the company doubled down by announcing the acquisition of start-up Kinema Systems, which builds computer vision systems for robots working in warehouses.
It’s not the only company making strides in this area. On the same day the video went live, Google unveiled a robot arm called TossingBot that can pick random objects from a box and quickly toss them into another container beyond its reach, which could prove very useful for sorting items in a warehouse. The machine can train on new objects in just an hour or two, and can pick and toss up to 500 items an hour with better accuracy than any of the humans who tried the task.
And an apple-picking robot built by Abundant Robotics is currently on New Zealand farms navigating between rows of apple trees using LIDAR and computer vision to single out ripe apples before using a vacuum tube to suck them off the tree.
In most cases, advances in machine learning and computer vision brought about by the recent AI boom are the keys to these rapidly improving capabilities. Robots have historically had to be painstakingly programmed by humans to solve each new task, but deep learning is making it possible for them to quickly train themselves on a variety of perception, navigation, and dexterity tasks.
It’s not been simple, though, and the application of deep learning in robotics has lagged behind other areas. A major limitation is that the process typically requires huge amounts of training data. That’s fine when you’re dealing with image classification, but when that data needs to be generated by real-world robots it can make the approach impractical. Simulations offer the possibility to run this training faster than real time, but it’s proved difficult to translate policies learned in virtual environments into the real world.
Recent years have seen significant progress on these fronts, though, and the increasing integration of modern machine learning with robotics. In October, OpenAI imbued a robotic hand with human-level dexterity by training an algorithm in a simulation using reinforcement learning before transferring it to the real-world device. The key to ensuring the translation went smoothly was injecting random noise into the simulation to mimic some of the unpredictability of the real world.
And just a couple of weeks ago, MIT researchers demonstrated a new technique that let a robot arm learn to manipulate new objects with far less training data than is usually required. By getting the algorithm to focus on a few key points on the object necessary for picking it up, the system could learn to pick up a previously unseen object after seeing only a few dozen examples (rather than the hundreds or thousands typically required).
How quickly these innovations will trickle down to practical applications remains to be seen, but a number of startups as well as logistics behemoth Amazon are developing robots designed to flexibly pick and place the wide variety of items found in your average warehouse.
Whether the economics of using robots to replace humans at these kinds of menial tasks makes sense yet is still unclear. The collapse of collaborative robotics pioneer Rethink Robotics last year suggests there are still plenty of challenges.
But at the same time, the number of robotic warehouses is expected to leap from 4,000 today to 50,000 by 2025. It may not be long until robots are muscling in on tasks we’ve long assumed only humans could do.
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As artificial intelligence systems take on more tasks and solve more problems, it’s hard to say which is rising faster: our interest in them or our fear of them. Futurist Ray Kurzweil famously predicted that “By 2029, computers will have emotional intelligence and be convincing as people.”
We don’t know how accurate this prediction will turn out to be. Even if it takes more than 10 years, though, is it really possible for machines to become conscious? If the machines Kurzweil describes say they’re conscious, does that mean they actually are?
Perhaps a more relevant question at this juncture is: what is consciousness, and how do we replicate it if we don’t understand it?
In a panel discussion at South By Southwest titled “How AI Will Design the Human Future,” experts from academia and industry discussed these questions and more.
Wait, What Is AI?
Most of AI’s recent feats—diagnosing illnesses, participating in debate, writing realistic text—involve machine learning, which uses statistics to find patterns in large datasets then uses those patterns to make predictions. However, “AI” has been used to refer to everything from basic software automation and algorithms to advanced machine learning and deep learning.
“The term ‘artificial intelligence’ is thrown around constantly and often incorrectly,” said Jennifer Strong, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and host of the podcast “The Future of Everything.” Indeed, one study found that 40 percent of European companies that claim to be working on or using AI don’t actually use it at all.
Dr. Peter Stone, associate chair of computer science at UT Austin, was the study panel chair on the 2016 One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (or AI100) report. Based out of Stanford University, AI100 is studying and anticipating how AI will impact our work, our cities, and our lives.
“One of the first things we had to do was define AI,” Stone said. They defined it as a collection of different technologies inspired by the human brain to be able to perceive their surrounding environment and figure out what actions to take given these inputs.
Modeling on the Unknown
Here’s the crazy thing about that definition (and about AI itself): we’re essentially trying to re-create the abilities of the human brain without having anything close to a thorough understanding of how the human brain works.
“We’re starting to pair our brains with computers, but brains don’t understand computers and computers don’t understand brains,” Stone said. Dr. Heather Berlin, cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, agreed. “It’s still one of the greatest mysteries how this three-pound piece of matter can give us all our subjective experiences, thoughts, and emotions,” she said.
This isn’t to say we’re not making progress; there have been significant neuroscience breakthroughs in recent years. “This has been the stuff of science fiction for a long time, but now there’s active work being done in this area,” said Amir Husain, CEO and founder of Austin-based AI company Spark Cognition.
Advances in brain-machine interfaces show just how much more we understand the brain now than we did even a few years ago. Neural implants are being used to restore communication or movement capabilities in people who’ve been impaired by injury or illness. Scientists have been able to transfer signals from the brain to prosthetic limbs and stimulate specific circuits in the brain to treat conditions like Parkinson’s, PTSD, and depression.
But much of the brain’s inner workings remain a deep, dark mystery—one that will have to be further solved if we’re ever to get from narrow AI, which refers to systems that can perform specific tasks and is where the technology stands today, to artificial general intelligence, or systems that possess the same intelligence level and learning capabilities as humans.
The biggest question that arises here, and one that’s become a popular theme across stories and films, is if machines achieve human-level general intelligence, does that also mean they’d be conscious?
Wait, What Is Consciousness?
As valuable as the knowledge we’ve accumulated about the brain is, it seems like nothing more than a collection of disparate facts when we try to put it all together to understand consciousness.
“If you can replace one neuron with a silicon chip that can do the same function, then replace another neuron, and another—at what point are you still you?” Berlin asked. “These systems will be able to pass the Turing test, so we’re going to need another concept of how to measure consciousness.”
Is consciousness a measurable phenomenon, though? Rather than progressing by degrees or moving through some gray area, isn’t it pretty black and white—a being is either conscious or it isn’t?
This may be an outmoded way of thinking, according to Berlin. “It used to be that only philosophers could study consciousness, but now we can study it from a scientific perspective,” she said. “We can measure changes in neural pathways. It’s subjective, but depends on reportability.”
She described three levels of consciousness: pure subjective experience (“Look, the sky is blue”), awareness of one’s own subjective experience (“Oh, it’s me that’s seeing the blue sky”), and relating one subjective experience to another (“The blue sky reminds me of a blue ocean”).
“These subjective states exist all the way down the animal kingdom. As humans we have a sense of self that gives us another depth to that experience, but it’s not necessary for pure sensation,” Berlin said.
Husain took this definition a few steps farther. “It’s this self-awareness, this idea that I exist separate from everything else and that I can model myself,” he said. “Human brains have a wonderful simulator. They can propose a course of action virtually, in their minds, and see how things play out. The ability to include yourself as an actor means you’re running a computation on the idea of yourself.”
Most of the decisions we make involve envisioning different outcomes, thinking about how each outcome would affect us, and choosing which outcome we’d most prefer.
“Complex tasks you want to achieve in the world are tied to your ability to foresee the future, at least based on some mental model,” Husain said. “With that view, I as an AI practitioner don’t see a problem implementing that type of consciousness.”
Moving Forward Cautiously (But Not too Cautiously)
To be clear, we’re nowhere near machines achieving artificial general intelligence or consciousness, and whether a “conscious machine” is possible—not to mention necessary or desirable—is still very much up for debate.
As machine intelligence continues to advance, though, we’ll need to walk the line between progress and risk management carefully.
Improving the transparency and explainability of AI systems is one crucial goal AI developers and researchers are zeroing in on. Especially in applications that could mean the difference between life and death, AI shouldn’t advance without people being able to trace how it’s making decisions and reaching conclusions.
Medicine is a prime example. “There are already advances that could save lives, but they’re not being used because they’re not trusted by doctors and nurses,” said Stone. “We need to make sure there’s transparency.” Demanding too much transparency would also be a mistake, though, because it will hinder the development of systems that could at best save lives and at worst improve efficiency and free up doctors to have more face time with patients.
Similarly, self-driving cars have great potential to reduce deaths from traffic fatalities. But even though humans cause thousands of deadly crashes every day, we’re terrified by the idea of self-driving cars that are anything less than perfect. “If we only accept autonomous cars when there’s zero probability of an accident, then we will never accept them,” Stone said. “Yet we give 16-year-olds the chance to take a road test with no idea what’s going on in their brains.”
This brings us back to the fact that, in building tech modeled after the human brain—which has evolved over millions of years—we’re working towards an end whose means we don’t fully comprehend, be it something as basic as choosing when to brake or accelerate or something as complex as measuring consciousness.
“We shouldn’t charge ahead and do things just because we can,” Stone said. “The technology can be very powerful, which is exciting, but we have to consider its implications.”
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One of the most contentious debates in technology is around the question of automation and jobs. At issue is whether advances in automation, specifically with regards to artificial intelligence and robotics, will spell trouble for today’s workers. This debate is played out in the media daily, and passions run deep on both sides of the issue. In the past, however, automation has created jobs and increased real wages.
A widespread concern with the current scenario is that the workers most likely to be displaced by technology lack the skills needed to do the new jobs that same technology will create.
Let’s look at this concern in detail. Those who fear automation will hurt workers start by pointing out that there is a wide range of jobs, from low-pay, low-skill to high-pay, high-skill ones. This can be represented as follows:
They then point out that technology primarily creates high-paying jobs, like geneticists, as shown in the diagram below.
Meanwhile, technology destroys low-wage, low-skill jobs like those in fast food restaurants, as shown below:
Then, those who are worried about this dynamic often pose the question, “Do you really think a fast-food worker is going to become a geneticist?”
They worry that we are about to face a huge amount of systemic permanent unemployment, as the unskilled displaced workers are ill-equipped to do the jobs of tomorrow.
It is important to note that both sides of the debate are in agreement at this point. Unquestionably, technology destroys low-skilled, low-paying jobs while creating high-skilled, high-paying ones.
So, is that the end of the story? As a society are we destined to bifurcate into two groups, those who have training and earn high salaries in the new jobs, and those with less training who see their jobs vanishing to machines? Is this latter group forever locked out of economic plenty because they lack training?
The question, “Can a fast food worker become a geneticist?” is where the error comes in. Fast food workers don’t become geneticists. What happens is that a college biology professor becomes a geneticist. Then a high-school biology teacher gets the college job. Then the substitute teacher gets hired on full-time to fill the high school teaching job. All the way down.
The question is not whether those in the lowest-skilled jobs can do the high-skilled work. Instead the question is, “Can everyone do a job just a little harder than the job they have today?” If so, and I believe very deeply that this is the case, then every time technology creates a new job “at the top,” everyone gets a promotion.
This isn’t just an academic theory—it’s 200 years of economic history in the west. For 200 years, with the exception of the Great Depression, unemployment in the US has been between 2 percent and 13 percent. Always. Europe’s range is a bit wider, but not much.
If I took 200 years of unemployment rates and graphed them, and asked you to find where the assembly line took over manufacturing, or where steam power rapidly replaced animal power, or the lightning-fast adoption of electricity by industry, you wouldn’t be able to find those spots. They aren’t even blips in the unemployment record.
You don’t even have to look back as far as the assembly line to see this happening. It has happened non-stop for 200 years. Every fifty years, we lose about half of all jobs, and this has been pretty steady since 1800.
How is it that for 200 years we have lost half of all jobs every half century, but never has this process caused unemployment? Not only has it not caused unemployment, but during that time, we have had full employment against the backdrop of rising wages.
How can wages rise while half of all jobs are constantly being destroyed? Simple. Because new technology always increases worker productivity. It creates new jobs, like web designer and programmer, while destroying low-wage backbreaking work. When this happens, everyone along the way gets a better job.
Our current situation isn’t any different than the past. The nature of technology has always been to create high-skilled jobs and increase worker productivity. This is good news for everyone.
People often ask me what their children should study to make sure they have a job in the future. I usually say it doesn’t really matter. If I knew everything I know now and went back to the mid 1980s, what could I have taken in high school to make me better prepared for today? There is only one class, and it wasn’t computer science. It was typing. Who would have guessed?
The great skill is to be able to learn new things, and luckily, we all have that. In fact, that is our singular ability as a species. What I do in my day-to-day job consists largely of skills I have learned as the years have passed. In my experience, if you ask people at all job levels,“Would you like a little more challenging job to make a little more money?” almost everyone says yes.
That’s all it has taken for us to collectively get here today, and that’s all we need going forward.
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“You really can’t justify tuna in Chicago as a source of sustenance.” That’s according to Dr. Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Society Explorer who was the first female chief scientist at NOAA. She came to the Good Food Institute’s Good Food Conference to deliver a call to action around global food security, agriculture, environmental protection, and the future of consumer choice.
It seems like all options should be on the table to feed an exploding population threatened by climate change. But Dr. Earle, who is faculty at Singularity University, drew a sharp distinction between seafood for sustenance versus seafood as a choice. “There is this widespread claim that we must take large numbers of wildlife from the sea in order to have food security.”
A few minutes later, Dr. Earle directly addressed those of us in the audience. “We know the value of a dead fish,” she said. That’s market price. “But what is the value of a live fish in the ocean?”
That’s when my mind blew open. What is the value—or put another way, the cost—of using the ocean as a major source of protein for humans? How do you put a number on that? Are we talking about dollars and cents, or about something far larger?
Dr. Liz Specht of the Good Food Institute drew the audience’s attention to a strange imbalance. Currently, about half of the yearly global catch of seafood comes from aquaculture. That means that the other half is wild caught. It’s hard to imagine half of your meat coming directly from the forests and the plains, isn’t it? And yet half of the world’s seafood comes from direct harvesting of the oceans, by way of massive overfishing, a terrible toll from bycatch, a widespread lack of regulation and enforcement, and even human rights violations such as slavery.
The search for solutions is on, from both within the fishing industry and from external agencies such as governments and philanthropists. Could there be another way?
Makers of plant-based seafood and clean seafood think they know how to feed the global demand for seafood without harming the ocean. These companies are part of a larger movement harnessing technology to reduce our reliance on wild and domesticated animals—and all the environmental, economic, and ethical issues that come with it.
Producers of plant-based seafood (20 or so currently) are working to capture the taste, texture, and nutrition of conventional seafood without the limitations of geography or the health of a local marine population. Like with plant-based meat, makers of plant-based seafood are harnessing food science and advances in chemistry, biology, and engineering to make great food. The industry’s strategy? Start with what the consumer wants, and then figure out how to achieve that great taste through technology.
So how does plant-based seafood taste? Pretty good, as it turns out. (The biggest benefit of a food-oriented conference is that your mouth is always full!)
I sampled “tuna” salad made from Good Catch Food’s fish-free tuna, which is sourced from legumes; the texture was nearly indistinguishable from that of flaked albacore tuna, and there was no lingering fishy taste to overpower my next bite. In a blind taste test, I probably wouldn’t have known that I was eating a plant-based seafood alternative. Next I reached for Ocean Hugger Food’s Ahimi, a tomato-based alternative to raw tuna. I adore Hawaiian poke, so I was pleasantly surprised when my Ahimi-based poke captured the bite of ahi tuna. It wasn’t quite as delightfully fatty as raw tuna, but with wild tuna populations struggling to recover from a 97% decline in numbers from 40 years ago, Ahimi is a giant stride in the right direction.
These plant-based alternatives aren’t the only game in town, however.
The clean meat industry, which has also been called “cultured meat” or “cellular agriculture,” isn’t seeking to lure consumers away from animal protein. Instead, cells are sampled from live animals and grown in bioreactors—meaning that no animal is slaughtered to produce real meat.
Clean seafood is poised to piggyback off platforms developed for clean meat; growing fish cells in the lab should rely on the same processes as growing meat cells. I know of four companies currently focusing on seafood (Finless Foods, Wild Type, BlueNalu, and Seafuture Sustainable Biotech), and a few more are likely to emerge from stealth mode soon.
Importantly, there’s likely not much difference between growing clean seafood from the top or the bottom of the food chain. Tuna, for example, are top predators that must grow for at least 10 years before they’re suitable as food. Each year, a tuna consumes thousands of pounds of other fish, shellfish, and plankton. That “long tail of groceries,” said Dr. Earle, “is a pretty expensive choice.” Excitingly, clean tuna would “level the trophic playing field,” as Dr. Specht pointed out.
All this is only the beginning of what might be possible.
Combining synthetic biology with clean meat and seafood means that future products could be personalized for individual taste preferences or health needs, by reprogramming the DNA of the cells in the lab. Industries such as bioremediation and biofuels likely have a lot to teach us about sourcing new ingredients and flavors from algae and marine plants. By harnessing rapid advances in automation, robotics, sensors, machine vision, and other big-data analytics, the manufacturing and supply chains for clean seafood could be remarkably safe and robust. Clean seafood would be just that: clean, without pathogens, parasites, or the plastic threatening to fill our oceans, meaning that you could enjoy it raw.
What about price? Dr. Mark Post, a pioneer in clean meat who is also faculty at Singularity University, estimated that 80% of clean-meat production costs come from the expensive medium in which cells are grown—and some ingredients in the medium are themselves sourced from animals, which misses the point of clean meat. Plus, to grow a whole cut of food, like a fish fillet, the cells need to be coaxed into a complex 3D structure with various cell types like muscle cells and fat cells. These two technical challenges must be solved before clean meat and seafood give consumers the experience they want, at the price they want.
In this respect clean seafood has an unusual edge. Most of what we know about growing animal cells in the lab comes from the research and biomedical industries (from tissue engineering, for example)—but growing cells to replace an organ has different constraints than growing cells for food. The link between clean seafood and biomedicine is less direct, empowering innovators to throw out dogma and find novel reagents, protocols, and equipment to grow seafood that captures the tastes, textures, smells, and overall experience of dining by the ocean.
Asked to predict when we’ll be seeing clean seafood in the grocery store, Lou Cooperhouse the CEO of BlueNalu, explained that the challenges aren’t only in the lab: marketing, sales, distribution, and communication with consumers are all critical. As Niya Gupta, the founder of Fork & Goode, said, “The question isn’t ‘can we do it’, but ‘can we sell it’?”
The good news is that the clean meat and seafood industry is highly collaborative; there are at least two dozen companies in the space, and they’re all talking to each other. “This is an ecosystem,” said Dr. Uma Valeti, the co-founder of Memphis Meats. “We’re not competing with each other.” It will likely be at least a decade before science, business, and regulation enable clean meat and seafood to routinely appear on restaurant menus, let alone market shelves.
Until then, think carefully about your food choices. Meditate on Dr. Earle’s question: “What is the real cost of that piece of halibut?” Or chew on this from Dr. Ricardo San Martin, of the Sutardja Center at the University of California, Berkeley: “Food is a system of meanings, not an object.” What are you saying when you choose your food, about your priorities and your values and how you want the future to look? Do you think about animal welfare? Most ethical regulations don’t extend to marine life, and if you don’t think that ocean creatures feel pain, consider the lobster.
Seafood is largely an acquired taste, since most of us don’t live near the water. Imagine a future in which children grow up loving the taste of delicious seafood but without hurting a living animal, the ocean, or the global environment.
Do more than imagine. As Dr. Earle urged us, “Convince the public at large that this is a really cool idea.”
Ahimi (Ocean Hugger)
New Wave Foods
Heritage Health Food
The Vegetarian Butcher
Table based on Figure 5 of the report “An Ocean of Opportunity: Plant-based and clean seafood for sustainable oceans without sacrifice,” from The Good Food Institute.
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