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The key difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is entirely possible because of its grounding in scientific facts, while fantasy is not. This is where Black Mirror is both an entertaining and terrifying work of science fiction. Created by Charlie Brooker, the anthological series tells cautionary tales of emerging technology that could one day be an integral part of our everyday lives.
While watching the often alarming episodes, one can’t help but recognize the eerie similarities to some of the tech tools that are already abundant in our lives today. In fact, many previous Black Mirror predictions are already becoming reality.
The latest season of Black Mirror was arguably darker than ever. This time, Brooker seemed to focus on the ethical implications of one particular area: neurotechnology.
Warning: The remainder of this article may contain spoilers from Season 4 of Black Mirror.
Most of the storylines from season four revolve around neurotechnology and brain-machine interfaces. They are based in a world where people have the power to upload their consciousness onto machines, have fully immersive experiences in virtual reality, merge their minds with other minds, record others’ memories, and even track what others are thinking, feeling, and doing.
How can all this ever be possible? Well, these capabilities are already being developed by pioneers and researchers globally. Early last year, Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a neural lace. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing one brain to communicate with another. Various research teams have been able to develop mechanisms for “reading minds” or reconstructing memories of individuals via devices. The list goes on.
With many of the technologies we see in Black Mirror it’s not a question of if, but when. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to upload our consciousness onto the cloud via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” While other experts continue to challenge Kurzweil on the exact year we’ll accomplish this feat, with the current exponential growth of our technological capabilities, we’re on track to get there eventually.
As always, technology is only half the conversation. Equally fascinating are the many ethical and moral questions this topic raises.
For instance, with the increasing convergence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we have to ask ourselves if our morality from the physical world transfers equally into the virtual world. The first episode of season four, USS Calister, tells the story of a VR pioneer, Robert Daley, who creates breakthrough AI and VR to satisfy his personal frustrations and sexual urges. He uses the DNA of his coworkers (and their children) to re-create them digitally in his virtual world, to which he escapes to torture them, while they continue to be indifferent in the “real” world.
Audiences are left asking themselves: should what happens in the digital world be considered any less “real” than the physical world? How do we know if the individuals in the virtual world (who are ultimately based on algorithms) have true feelings or sentiments? Have they been developed to exhibit characteristics associated with suffering, or can they really feel suffering? Fascinatingly, these questions point to the hard problem of consciousness—the question of if, why, and how a given physical process generates the specific experience it does—which remains a major mystery in neuroscience.
Towards the end of USS Calister, the hostages of Daley’s virtual world attempt to escape through suicide, by committing an act that will delete the code that allows them to exist. This raises yet another mind-boggling ethical question: if we “delete” code that signifies a digital being, should that be considered murder (or suicide, in this case)? Why shouldn’t it? When we murder someone we are, in essence, taking away their capacity to live and to be, without their consent. By unplugging a self-aware AI, wouldn’t we be violating its basic right to live in the same why? Does AI, as code, even have rights?
Brain implants can also have a radical impact on our self-identity and how we define the word “I”. In the episode Black Museum, instead of witnessing just one horror, we get a series of scares in little segments. One of those segments tells the story of a father who attempts to reincarnate the mother of his child by uploading her consciousness into his mind and allowing her to live in his head (essentially giving him multiple personality disorder). In this way, she can experience special moments with their son.
With “no privacy for him, and no agency for her” the good intention slowly goes very wrong. This story raises a critical question: should we be allowed to upload consciousness into limited bodies? Even more, if we are to upload our minds into “the cloud,” at what point do we lose our individuality to become one collective being?
These questions can form the basis of hours of debate, but we’re just getting started. There are no right or wrong answers with many of these moral dilemmas, but we need to start having such discussions.
The Downside of Dystopian Sci-Fi
Like last season’s San Junipero, one episode of the series, Hang the DJ, had an uplifting ending. Yet the overwhelming majority of the stories in Black Mirror continue to focus on the darkest side of human nature, feeding into the pre-existing paranoia of the general public. There is certainly some value in this; it’s important to be aware of the dangers of technology. After all, what better way to explore these dangers before they occur than through speculative fiction?
A big takeaway from every tale told in the series is that the greatest threat to humanity does not come from technology, but from ourselves. Technology itself is not inherently good or evil; it all comes down to how we choose to use it as a society. So for those of you who are techno-paranoid, beware, for it’s not the technology you should fear, but the humans who get their hands on it.
While we can paint negative visions for the future, though, it is also important to paint positive ones. The kind of visions we set for ourselves have the power to inspire and motivate generations. Many people are inherently pessimistic when thinking about the future, and that pessimism in turn can shape their contributions to humanity.
While utopia may not exist, the future of our species could and should be one of solving global challenges, abundance, prosperity, liberation, and cosmic transcendence. Now that would be a thrilling episode to watch.
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The field of artificial intelligence goes back a long way, but many consider it was officially born when a group of scientists at Dartmouth College got together for a summer, back in 1956. Computers had, over the last few decades, come on in incredible leaps and bounds; they could now perform calculations far faster than humans. Optimism, given the incredible progress that had been made, was rational. Genius computer scientist Alan Turing had already mooted the idea of thinking machines just a few years before. The scientists had a fairly simple idea: intelligence is, after all, just a mathematical process. The human brain was a type of machine. Pick apart that process, and you can make a machine simulate it.
The problem didn’t seem too hard: the Dartmouth scientists wrote, “We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.” This research proposal, by the way, contains one of the earliest uses of the term artificial intelligence. They had a number of ideas—maybe simulating the human brain’s pattern of neurons could work and teaching machines the abstract rules of human language would be important.
The scientists were optimistic, and their efforts were rewarded. Before too long, they had computer programs that seemed to understand human language and could solve algebra problems. People were confidently predicting there would be a human-level intelligent machine built within, oh, let’s say, the next twenty years.
It’s fitting that the industry of predicting when we’d have human-level intelligent AI was born at around the same time as the AI industry itself. In fact, it goes all the way back to Turing’s first paper on “thinking machines,” where he predicted that the Turing Test—machines that could convince humans they were human—would be passed in 50 years, by 2000. Nowadays, of course, people are still predicting it will happen within the next 20 years, perhaps most famously Ray Kurzweil. There are so many different surveys of experts and analyses that you almost wonder if AI researchers aren’t tempted to come up with an auto reply: “I’ve already predicted what your question will be, and no, I can’t really predict that.”
The issue with trying to predict the exact date of human-level AI is that we don’t know how far is left to go. This is unlike Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law, the doubling of processing power roughly every couple of years, makes a very concrete prediction about a very specific phenomenon. We understand roughly how to get there—improved engineering of silicon wafers—and we know we’re not at the fundamental limits of our current approach (at least, not until you’re trying to work on chips at the atomic scale). You cannot say the same about artificial intelligence.
Stuart Armstrong’s survey looked for trends in these predictions. Specifically, there were two major cognitive biases he was looking for. The first was the idea that AI experts predict true AI will arrive (and make them immortal) conveniently just before they’d be due to die. This is the “Rapture of the Nerds” criticism people have leveled at Kurzweil—his predictions are motivated by fear of death, desire for immortality, and are fundamentally irrational. The ability to create a superintelligence is taken as an article of faith. There are also criticisms by people working in the AI field who know first-hand the frustrations and limitations of today’s AI.
The second was the idea that people always pick a time span of 15 to 20 years. That’s enough to convince people they’re working on something that could prove revolutionary very soon (people are less impressed by efforts that will lead to tangible results centuries down the line), but not enough for you to be embarrassingly proved wrong. Of the two, Armstrong found more evidence for the second one—people were perfectly happy to predict AI after they died, although most didn’t, but there was a clear bias towards “15–20 years from now” in predictions throughout history.
Armstrong points out that, if you want to assess the validity of a specific prediction, there are plenty of parameters you can look at. For example, the idea that human-level intelligence will be developed by simulating the human brain does at least give you a clear pathway that allows you to assess progress. Every time we get a more detailed map of the brain, or successfully simulate another part of it, we can tell that we are progressing towards this eventual goal, which will presumably end in human-level AI. We may not be 20 years away on that path, but at least you can scientifically evaluate the progress.
Compare this to those that say AI, or else consciousness, will “emerge” if a network is sufficiently complex, given enough processing power. This might be how we imagine human intelligence and consciousness emerged during evolution—although evolution had billions of years, not just decades. The issue with this is that we have no empirical evidence: we have never seen consciousness manifest itself out of a complex network. Not only do we not know if this is possible, we cannot know how far away we are from reaching this, as we can’t even measure progress along the way.
There is an immense difficulty in understanding which tasks are hard, which has continued from the birth of AI to the present day. Just look at that original research proposal, where understanding human language, randomness and creativity, and self-improvement are all mentioned in the same breath. We have great natural language processing, but do our computers understand what they’re processing? We have AI that can randomly vary to be “creative,” but is it creative? Exponential self-improvement of the kind the singularity often relies on seems far away.
We also struggle to understand what’s meant by intelligence. For example, AI experts consistently underestimated the ability of AI to play Go. Many thought, in 2015, it would take until 2027. In the end, it took two years, not twelve. But does that mean AI is any closer to being able to write the Great American Novel, say? Does it mean it’s any closer to conceptually understanding the world around it? Does it mean that it’s any closer to human-level intelligence? That’s not necessarily clear.
Not Human, But Smarter Than Humans
But perhaps we’ve been looking at the wrong problem. For example, the Turing test has not yet been passed in the sense that AI cannot convince people it’s human in conversation; but of course the calculating ability, and perhaps soon the ability to perform other tasks like pattern recognition and driving cars, far exceed human levels. As “weak” AI algorithms make more decisions, and Internet of Things evangelists and tech optimists seek to find more ways to feed more data into more algorithms, the impact on society from this “artificial intelligence” can only grow.
It may be that we don’t yet have the mechanism for human-level intelligence, but it’s also true that we don’t know how far we can go with the current generation of algorithms. Those scary surveys that state automation will disrupt society and change it in fundamental ways don’t rely on nearly as many assumptions about some nebulous superintelligence.
Then there are those that point out we should be worried about AI for other reasons. Just because we can’t say for sure if human-level AI will arrive this century, or never, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare for the possibility that the optimistic predictors could be correct. We need to ensure that human values are programmed into these algorithms, so that they understand the value of human life and can act in “moral, responsible” ways.
Phil Torres, at the Project for Future Human Flourishing, expressed it well in an interview with me. He points out that if we suddenly decided, as a society, that we had to solve the problem of morality—determine what was right and wrong and feed it into a machine—in the next twenty years…would we even be able to do it?
So, we should take predictions with a grain of salt. Remember, it turned out the problems the AI pioneers foresaw were far more complicated than they anticipated. The same could be true today. At the same time, we cannot be unprepared. We should understand the risks and take our precautions. When those scientists met in Dartmouth in 1956, they had no idea of the vast, foggy terrain before them. Sixty years later, we still don’t know how much further there is to go, or how far we can go. But we’re going somewhere.
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Millions of years of evolution have allowed animals to develop some elegant and highly efficient solutions to problems like locomotion, flight, and dexterity. As Boston Dynamics unveils its latest mechanical animals, here’s a rundown of nine recent robots that borrow from nature and why.
SpotMini – Boston Dynamics
Starting with BigDog in 2005, the US company has built a whole stable of four-legged robots in recent years. Their first product was designed to be a robotic packhorse for soldiers that borrowed the quadrupedal locomotion of animals to travel over terrain too rough for conventional vehicles.
The US Army ultimately rejected the robot for being too noisy, according to the Guardian, but since then the company has scaled down its design, first to the Spot, then a first edition of the SpotMini that came out last year.
The latter came with a robotic arm where its head should be and was touted as a domestic helper, but a sleeker second edition without the arm was released earlier this month. There’s little detail on what the new robot is designed for, but the more polished design suggests a more consumer-focused purpose.
OctopusGripper – Festo
Festo has released a long line of animal-inspired machines over the years, from a mechanical kangaroo to robotic butterflies. Its latest creation isn’t a full animal—instead it’s a gripper based on an octopus tentacle that can be attached to the end of a robotic arm.
The pneumatically-powered device is made of soft silicone and features two rows of suction cups on its inner edge. By applying compressed air the tentacle can wrap around a wide variety of differently shaped objects, just like its natural counterpart, and a vacuum can be applied to the larger suction cups to grip the object securely. Because it’s soft, it holds promise for robots required to operate safely in collaboration with humans.
CRAM – University of California, Berkeley
Cockroaches are renowned for their hardiness and ability to disappear down cracks that seem far too small for them. Researchers at UC Berkeley decided these capabilities could be useful for search and rescue missions and so set about experimenting on the insects to find out their secrets.
They found the bugs can squeeze into gaps a fifth of their normal standing height by splaying their legs out to the side without significantly slowing themselves down. So they built a palm-sized robot with a jointed plastic shell that could do the same to squeeze into crevices half its normal height.
Snake Robot – Carnegie Mellon University
Search and rescue missions are a common theme for animal-inspired robots, but the snake robot built by CMU researchers is one of the first to be tested in a real disaster.
A team of roboticists from the university helped Mexican Red Cross workers search collapsed buildings for survivors after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City in September. The snake design provides a small diameter and the ability to move in almost any direction, which makes the robot ideal for accessing tight spaces, though the team was unable to locate any survivors.
The snake currently features a camera on the front, but researchers told IEEE Spectrum that the experience helped them realize they should also add a microphone to listen for people trapped under the rubble.
Bio-Hybrid Stingray – Harvard University
Taking more than just inspiration from the animal kingdom, a group from Harvard built a robotic stingray out of silicone and rat heart muscle cells.
The robot uses the same synchronized undulations along the edge of its fins to propel itself as a ray does. But while a ray has two sets of muscles to pull the fins up and down, the new device has only one that pulls them down, with a springy gold skeleton that pulls them back up again. The cells are also genetically modified to be activated by flashes of light.
The project’s leader eventually hopes to engineer a human heart, and both his stingray and an earlier jellyfish bio-robot are primarily aimed at better understanding how that organ works.
Bat Bot – Caltech
Most recent advances in drone technology have come from quadcopters, but Caltech engineers think rigid devices with rapidly spinning propellers are probably not ideal for use in close quarters with humans.
That’s why they turned to soft-winged bats for inspiration. That’s no easy feat, though, considering bats use more than 40 joints with each flap of their wings, so the team had to optimize down to nine joints to avoid it becoming too bulky. The simplified bat can’t ascend yet, but its onboard computer and sensors let it autonomously carry out glides, turns, and dives.
Salto – UC Berkeley
While even the most advanced robots tend to plod around, tree-dwelling animals have the ability to spring from branch to branch to clear obstacles and climb quickly. This could prove invaluable for search and rescue robots by allowing them to quickly traverse disordered rubble.
UC Berkeley engineers turned to the Senegal bush baby for inspiration after determining it scored highest in “vertical jumping agility”—a combination of how high and how frequently an animal can jump. They recreated its ability to get into a super-low crouch that stores energy in its tendons to create a robot that could carry out parkour-style double jumps off walls to quickly gain height.
Pleurobot – École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Normally robots are masters of air, land, or sea, but the robotic salamander built by researchers at EPFL can both walk and swim.
Its designers used X-ray videos to carefully study how the amphibians move before using this to build a true-to-life robotic version using 3D printed bones, motorized joints, and a synthetic nervous system made up of electronic circuitry.
The robot’s low center of mass and segmented legs make it great at navigating rough terrain without losing balance, and the ability to swim gives added versatility. They also hope it will help paleontologists gain a better understanding of the movements of the first tetrapods to transition from water to land, which salamanders are the best living analog of.
Eelume – Eelume
A snakelike body isn’t only useful on land—eels are living proof it’s an efficient way to travel underwater, too. Norwegian robotics company Eelume has borrowed these principles to build a robot capable of sub-sea inspection, maintenance, and repair.
The modular design allows operators to put together their own favored configuration of joints and payloads such as sensors and tools. And while an early version of the robot used the same method of locomotion as an eel, the latest version undergoing sea trials has added a variety of thrusters for greater speeds and more maneuverability.
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Does creativity make human intelligence special?
It may appear so at first glance. Though machines can calculate, analyze, and even perceive, creativity may seem far out of reach. Perhaps this is because we find it mysterious, even in ourselves. How can the output of a machine be anything more than that which is determined by its programmers?
Increasingly, however, artificial intelligence is moving into creativity’s hallowed domain, from art to industry. And though much is already possible, the future is sure to bring ever more creative machines.
What Is Machine Creativity?
Robotic art is just one example of machine creativity, a rapidly growing sub-field that sits somewhere between the study of artificial intelligence and human psychology.
The winning paintings from the 2017 Robot Art Competition are strikingly reminiscent of those showcased each spring at university exhibitions for graduating art students. Like the works produced by skilled artists, the compositions dreamed up by the competition’s robotic painters are aesthetically ambitious. One robot-made painting features a man’s bearded face gazing intently out from the canvas, his eyes locking with the viewer’s. Another abstract painting, “inspired” by data from EEG signals, visually depicts the human emotion of misery with jagged, gloomy stripes of black and purple.
More broadly, a creative machine is software (sometimes encased in a robotic body) that synthesizes inputs to generate new and valuable ideas, solutions to complex scientific problems, or original works of art. In a process similar to that followed by a human artist or scientist, a creative machine begins its work by framing a problem. Next, its software specifies the requirements the solution should have before generating “answers” in the form of original designs, patterns, or some other form of output.
Although the notion of machine creativity sounds a bit like science fiction, the basic concept is one that has been slowly developing for decades.
Nearly 50 years ago while a high school student, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil created software that could analyze the patterns in musical compositions and then compose new melodies in a similar style. Aaron, one of the world’s most famous painting robots, has been hard at work since the 1970s.
Industrial designers have used an automated, algorithm-driven process for decades to design computer chips (or machine parts) whose layout (or form) is optimized for a particular function or environment. Emily Howell, a computer program created by David Cope, writes original works in the style of classical composers, some of which have been performed by human orchestras to live audiences.
What’s different about today’s new and emerging generation of robotic artists, scientists, composers, authors, and product designers is their ubiquity and power.
“The recent explosion of artificial creativity has been enabled by the rapid maturation of the same exponential technologies that have already re-drawn our daily lives.”
I’ve already mentioned the rapidly advancing fields of robotic art and music. In the realm of scientific research, so-called “robotic scientists” such as Eureqa and Adam and Eve develop new scientific hypotheses; their “insights” have contributed to breakthroughs that are cited by hundreds of academic research papers. In the medical industry, creative machines are hard at work creating chemical compounds for new pharmaceuticals. After it read over seven million words of 20th century English poetry, a neural network developed by researcher Jack Hopkins learned to write passable poetry in a number of different styles and meters.
The recent explosion of artificial creativity has been enabled by the rapid maturation of the same exponential technologies that have already re-drawn our daily lives, including faster processors, ubiquitous sensors and wireless networks, and better algorithms.
As they continue to improve, creative machines—like humans—will perform a broad range of creative activities, ranging from everyday problem solving (sometimes known as “Little C” creativity) to producing once-in-a-century masterpieces (“Big C” creativity). A creative machine’s outputs could range from a design for a cast for a marble sculpture to a schematic blueprint for a clever new gadget for opening bottles of wine.
In the coming decades, by automating the process of solving complex problems, creative machines will again transform our world. Creative machines will serve as a versatile source of on-demand talent.
In the battle to recruit a workforce that can solve complex problems, creative machines will put small businesses on equal footing with large corporations. Art and music lovers will enjoy fresh creative works that re-interpret the style of ancient disciplines. People with a health condition will benefit from individualized medical treatments, and low-income people will receive top-notch legal advice, to name but a few potentially beneficial applications.
How Can We Make Creative Machines, Unless We Understand Our Own Creativity?
One of the most intriguing—yet unsettling—aspects of watching robotic arms skillfully oil paint is that we humans still do not understand our own creative process. Over the centuries, several different civilizations have devised a variety of models to explain creativity.
The ancient Greeks believed that poets drew inspiration from a transcendent realm parallel to the material world where ideas could take root and flourish. In the Middle Ages, philosophers and poets attributed our peculiarly human ability to “make something of nothing” to an external source, namely divine inspiration. Modern academic study of human creativity has generated vast reams of scholarship, but despite the value of these insights, the human imagination remains a great mystery, second only to that of consciousness.
Today, the rise of machine creativity demonstrates (once again), that we do not have to fully understand a biological process in order to emulate it with advanced technology.
Past experience has shown that jet planes can fly higher and faster than birds by using the forward thrust of an engine rather than wings. Submarines propel themselves forward underwater without fins or a tail. Deep learning neural networks identify objects in randomly-selected photographs with super-human accuracy. Similarly, using a fairly straightforward software architecture, creative software (sometimes paired with a robotic body) can paint, write, hypothesize, or design with impressive originality, skill, and boldness.
At the heart of machine creativity is simple iteration. No matter what sort of output they produce, creative machines fall into one of three categories depending on their internal architecture.
Briefly, the first group consists of software programs that use traditional rule-based, or symbolic AI, the second group uses evolutionary algorithms, and the third group uses a variation of a form of machine learning called deep learning that has already revolutionized voice and facial recognition software.
1) Symbolic creative machines are the oldest artificial artists and musicians. In this approach—also known as “good old-fashioned AI (GOFAI) or symbolic AI—the human programmer plays a key role by writing a set of step-by-step instructions to guide the computer through a task. Despite the fact that symbolic AI is limited in its ability to adapt to environmental changes, it’s still possible for a robotic artist programmed this way to create an impressively wide variety of different outputs.
2) Evolutionary algorithms (EA) have been in use for several decades and remain powerful tools for design. In this approach, potential solutions “compete” in a software simulator in a Darwinian process reminiscent of biological evolution. The human programmer specifies a “fitness criterion” that will be used to score and rank the solutions generated by the software. The software then generates a “first generation” population of random solutions (which typically are pretty poor in quality), scores this first generation of solutions, and selects the top 50% (those random solutions deemed to be the best “fit”). The software then takes another pass and recombines the “winning” solutions to create the next generation and repeats this process for thousands (and sometimes millions) of generations.
3) Generative deep learning (DL) neural networks represent the newest software architecture of the three, since DL is data-dependent and resource-intensive. First, a human programmer “trains” a DL neural network to recognize a particular feature in a dataset, for example, an image of a dog in a stream of digital images. Next, the standard “feed forward” process is reversed and the DL neural network begins to generate the feature, for example, eventually producing new and sometimes original images of (or poetry about) dogs. Generative DL networks have tremendous and unexplored creative potential and are able to produce a broad range of original outputs, from paintings to music to poetry.
The Coming Explosion of Machine Creativity
In the near future as Moore’s Law continues its work, we will see sophisticated combinations of these three basic architectures. Since the 1950s, artificial intelligence has steadily mastered one human ability after another, and in the process of doing so, has reduced the cost of calculation, analysis, and most recently, perception. When creative software becomes as inexpensive and ubiquitous as analytical software is today, humans will no longer be the only intelligent beings capable of creative work.
This is why I have to bite my tongue when I hear the well-intended (but shortsighted) advice frequently dispensed to young people that they should pursue work that demands creativity to help them “AI-proof” their futures.
Instead, students should gain skills to harness the power of creative machines.
There are two skills in which humans excel that will enable us to remain useful in a world of ever-advancing artificial intelligence. One, the ability to frame and define a complex problem so that it can be handed off to a creative machine to solve. And two, the ability to communicate the value of both the framework and the proposed solution to the other humans involved.
What will happen to people when creative machines begin to capably tread on intellectual ground that was once considered the sole domain of the human mind, and before that, the product of divine inspiration? While machines engaging in Big C creativity—e.g., oil painting and composing new symphonies—tend to garner controversy and make the headlines, I suspect the real world-changing application of machine creativity will be in the realm of everyday problem solving, or Little C. The mainstream emergence of powerful problem-solving tools will help people create abundance where there was once scarcity.
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