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#437103 How to Make Sense of Uncertainty in a ...

As the internet churns with information about Covid-19, about the virus that causes the disease, and about what we’re supposed to do to fight it, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. What can we realistically expect for the rest of 2020? And how do we even know what’s realistic?

Today, humanity’s primary, ideal goal is to eliminate the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and Covid-19. Our second-choice goal is to control virus transmission. Either way, we have three big aims: to save lives, to return to public life, and to keep the economy functioning.

To hit our second-choice goal—and maybe even our primary goal—countries are pursuing five major public health strategies. Note that many of these advances cross-fertilize: for example, advances in virus testing and antibody testing will drive data-based prevention efforts.

Five major public health strategies are underway to bring Covid-19 under control and to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
These strategies arise from things we can control based on the things that we know at any given moment. But what about the things we can’t control and don’t yet know?

The biology of the virus and how it interacts with our bodies is what it is, so we should seek to understand it as thoroughly as possible. How long any immunity gained from prior infection lasts—and indeed whether people develop meaningful immunity at all after infection—are open questions urgently in need of greater clarity. Similarly, right now it’s important to focus on understanding rather than making assumptions about environmental factors like seasonality.

But the biggest question on everyone’s lips is, “When?” When will we see therapeutic progress against Covid-19? And when will life get “back to normal”? There are lots of models out there on the internet; which of those models are right? The simple answer is “none of them.” That’s right—it’s almost certain that every model you’ve seen is wrong in at least one detail, if not all of them. But modeling is meant to be a tool for deeper thinking, a way to run mental (and computational) experiments before—and while—taking action. As George E. P. Box famously wrote in 1976, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Here, we’re seeking useful insights, as opposed to exact predictions, which is why we’re pulling back from quantitative details to get at the mindsets that will support agency and hope. To that end, I’ve been putting together timelines that I believe will yield useful expectations for the next year or two—and asking how optimistic I need to be in order to believe a particular timeline.

For a moderately optimistic scenario to be relevant, breakthroughs in science and technology come at paces expected based on previous efforts and assumptions that turn out to be basically correct; accessibility of those breakthroughs increases at a reasonable pace; regulation achieves its desired effects, without major surprises; and compliance with regulations is reasonably high.

In contrast, if I’m being highly optimistic, breakthroughs in science and technology and their accessibility come more quickly than they ever have before; regulation is evidence-based and successful in the first try or two; and compliance with those regulations is high and uniform. If I’m feeling not-so-optimistic, then I anticipate serious setbacks to breakthroughs and accessibility (with the overturning of many important assumptions), repeated failure of regulations to achieve their desired outcomes, and low compliance with those regulations.

The following scenarios outline the things that need to happen in the fight against Covid-19, when I expect to see them, and how confident I feel in those expectations. They focus on North America and Europe because there are data missing about China’s 2019 outbreak and other regions are still early in their outbreaks. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind throughout: We know more today than we did yesterday, but we still have much to learn. New knowledge derived from greater study and debate will almost certainly inspire ongoing course corrections.

As you dive into the scenarios below, practice these three mindset shifts. First, defeating Covid-19 will be a marathon, not a sprint. We shouldn’t expect life to look like 2019 for the next year or two—if ever. As Ed Yong wrote recently in The Atlantic, “There won’t be an obvious moment when everything is under control and regular life can safely resume.” Second, remember that you have important things to do for at least a year. And third, we are all in this together. There is no “us” and “them.” We must all be alert, responsive, generous, and strong throughout 2020 and 2021—and willing to throw away our assumptions when scientific evidence invalidates them.

The Middle Way: Moderate Optimism
Let’s start with the case in which I have the most confidence: moderate optimism.

This timeline considers milestones through late 2021, the earliest that I believe vaccines will become available. The “normal” timeline for developing a vaccine for diseases like seasonal flu is 18 months, which leads to my projection that we could potentially have vaccines as soon as 18 months from the first quarter of 2020. While Melinda Gates agrees with that projection, others (including AI) believe that 3 to 5 years is far more realistic, based on past vaccine development and the need to test safety and efficacy in humans. However, repurposing existing vaccines against other diseases—or piggybacking off clever synthetic platforms—could lead to vaccines being available sooner. I tried to balance these considerations for this moderately optimistic scenario. Either way, deploying vaccines at the end of 2021 is probably much later than you may have been led to believe by the hype engine. Again, if you take away only one message from this article, remember that the fight against Covid-19 is a marathon, not a sprint.

Here, I’ve visualized a moderately optimistic scenario as a baseline. Think of these timelines as living guides, as opposed to exact predictions. There are still many unknowns. More or less optimistic views (see below) and new information could shift these timelines forward or back and change the details of the strategies.
Based on current data, I expect that the first wave of Covid-19 cases (where we are now) will continue to subside in many areas, leading governments to ease restrictions in an effort to get people back to work. We’re already seeing movement in that direction, with a variety of benchmarks and changes at state and country levels around the world. But depending on the details of the changes, easing restrictions will probably cause a second wave of sickness (see Germany and Singapore), which should lead governments to reimpose at least some restrictions.

In tandem, therapeutic efforts will be transitioning from emergency treatments to treatments that have been approved based on safety and efficacy data in clinical trials. In a moderately optimistic scenario, assuming clinical trials currently underway yield at least a few positive results, this shift to mostly approved therapies could happen as early as the third or fourth quarter of this year and continue from there. One approval that should come rather quickly is for plasma therapies, in which the blood from people who have recovered from Covid-19 is used as a source of antibodies for people who are currently sick.

Companies around the world are working on both viral and antibody testing, focusing on speed, accuracy, reliability, and wide accessibility. While these tests are currently being run in hospitals and research laboratories, at-home testing is a critical component of the mass testing we’ll need to keep viral spread in check. These are needed to minimize the impact of asymptomatic cases, test the assumption that infection yields resistance to subsequent infection (and whether it lasts), and construct potential immunity passports if this assumption holds. Testing is also needed for contact tracing efforts to prevent further spread and get people back to public life. Finally, it’s crucial to our fundamental understanding of the biology of SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19.

We need tests that are very reliable, both in the clinic and at home. So, don’t go buying any at-home test kits just yet, even if you find them online. Wait for reliable test kits and deeper understanding of how a test result translates to everyday realities. If we’re moderately optimistic, in-clinic testing will rapidly expand this quarter and/or next, with the possibility of broadly available, high-quality at-home sampling (and perhaps even analysis) thereafter.

Note that testing is not likely to be a “one-and-done” endeavor, as a person’s infection and immunity status change over time. Expect to be testing yourself—and your family—often as we move later into 2020.

Testing data are also going to inform distancing requirements at the country and local levels. In this scenario, restrictions—at some level of stringency—could persist at least through the end of 2020, as most countries are way behind the curve on testing (Iceland is an informative exception). Governments will likely continue to ask citizens to work from home if at all possible; to wear masks or face coverings in public; to employ heightened hygiene and social distancing in workplaces; and to restrict travel and social gatherings. So while it’s likely we’ll be eating in local restaurants again in 2020 in this scenario, at least for a little while, it’s not likely we’ll be heading to big concerts any time soon.

The Extremes: High and Low Optimism
How would high and low levels of optimism change our moderately optimistic timeline? The milestones are the same, but the time required to achieve them is shorter or longer, respectively. Quantifying these shifts is less important than acknowledging and incorporating a range of possibilities into our view. It pays to pay attention to our bias. Here are a few examples of reasonable possibilities that could shift the moderately optimistic timeline.

When vaccines become available
Vaccine repurposing could shorten the time for vaccines to become available; today, many vaccine candidates are in various stages of testing. On the other hand, difficulties in manufacture and distribution, or faster-than-expected mutation of SARS-CoV-2, could slow vaccine development. Given what we know now, I am not strongly concerned about either of these possibilities—drug companies are rapidly expanding their capabilities, and viral mutation isn’t an urgent concern at this time based on sequencing data—but they could happen.

At first, governments will likely supply vaccines to essential workers such as healthcare workers, but it is essential that vaccines become widely available around the world as quickly and as safely as possible. Overall, I suggest a dose of skepticism when reading highly optimistic claims about a vaccine (or multiple vaccines) being available in 2020. Remember, a vaccine is a knockout punch, not a first line of defense for an outbreak.

When testing hits its stride
While I am confident that testing is a critical component of our response to Covid-19, reliability is incredibly important to testing for SARS-CoV-2 and for immunity to the disease, particularly at home. For an individual, a false negative (being told you don’t have antibodies when you really do) could be just as bad as a false positive (being told you do have antibodies when you really don’t). Those errors are compounded when governments are trying to make evidence-based policies for social and physical distancing.

If you’re highly optimistic, high-quality testing will ramp up quickly as companies and scientists innovate rapidly by cleverly combining multiple test modalities, digital signals, and cutting-edge tech like CRISPR. Pop-up testing labs could also take some pressure off hospitals and clinics.

If things don’t go well, reliability issues could hinder testing, manufacturing bottlenecks could limit availability, and both could hamstring efforts to control spread and ease restrictions. And if it turns out that immunity to Covid-19 isn’t working the way we assumed, then we must revisit our assumptions about our path(s) back to public life, as well as our vaccine-development strategies.

How quickly safe and effective treatments appear
Drug development is known to be long, costly, and fraught with failure. It’s not uncommon to see hope in a drug spike early only to be dashed later on down the road. With that in mind, the number of treatments currently under investigation is astonishing, as is the speed through which they’re proceeding through testing. Breakthroughs in a therapeutic area—for example in treating the seriously ill or in reducing viral spread after an infection takes hold—could motivate changes in the focus of distancing regulations.

While speed will save lives, we cannot overlook the importance of knowing a treatment’s efficacy (does it work against Covid-19?) and safety (does it make you sick in a different, or worse, way?). Repurposing drugs that have already been tested for other diseases is speeding innovation here, as is artificial intelligence.

Remarkable collaborations among governments and companies, large and small, are driving innovation in therapeutics and devices such as ventilators for treating the sick.

Whether government policies are effective and responsive
Those of us who have experienced lockdown are eager for it to be over. Businesses, economists, and governments are also eager to relieve the terrible pressure that is being exerted on the global economy. However, lifting restrictions will almost certainly lead to a resurgence in sickness.

Here, the future is hard to model because there are many, many factors at play, and at play differently in different places—including the extent to which individuals actually comply with regulations.

Reliable testing—both in the clinic and at home—is crucial to designing and implementing restrictions, monitoring their effectiveness, and updating them; delays in reliable testing could seriously hamper this design cycle. Lack of trust in governments and/or companies could also suppress uptake. That said, systems are already in place for contact tracing in East Asia. Other governments could learn important lessons, but must also earn—and keep—their citizens’ trust.

Expect to see restrictions descend and then lift in response to changes in the number of Covid-19 cases and in the effectiveness of our prevention strategies. Also expect country-specific and perhaps even area-specific responses that differ from each other. The benefit of this approach? Governments around the world are running perhaps hundreds of real-time experiments and design cycles in balancing health and the economy, and we can learn from the results.

A Way Out
As Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, told Science magazine, “Science is the exit strategy.” Some of our greatest technological assistance is coming from artificial intelligence, digital tools for collaboration, and advances in biotechnology.

Our exit strategy also needs to include empathy and future visioning—because in the midst of this crisis, we are breaking ground for a new, post-Covid future.

What do we want that future to look like? How will the hard choices we make now about data ethics impact the future of surveillance? Will we continue to embrace inclusiveness and mass collaboration? Perhaps most importantly, will we lay the foundation for successfully confronting future challenges? Whether we’re thinking about the next pandemic (and there will be others) or the cascade of catastrophes that climate change is bringing ever closer—it’s important to remember that we all have the power to become agents of that change.

Special thanks to Ola Kowalewski and Jason Dorrier for significant conversations.

Image Credit: Drew Beamer / Unsplash Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436491 The Year’s Most Fascinating Tech ...

Last Saturday we took a look at some of the most-read Singularity Hub articles from 2019. This week, we’re featuring some of our favorite articles from the last year. As opposed to short pieces about what’s happening, these are long reads about why it matters and what’s coming next. Some of them make the news while others frame the news, go deep on big ideas, go behind the scenes, or explore the human side of technological progress.

We hope you find them as fascinating, inspiring, and illuminating as we did.

DeepMind and Google: The Battle to Control Artificial Intelligence
Hal Hodson | 1843
“[DeepMind cofounder and CEO Demis] Hassabis thought DeepMind would be a hybrid: it would have the drive of a startup, the brains of the greatest universities, and the deep pockets of one of the world’s most valuable companies. Every element was in place to hasten the arrival of [artificial general intelligence] and solve the causes of human misery.”

The Most Powerful Person in Silicon Valley
Katrina Brooker | Fast Company
“Billionaire Masayoshi Son—not Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg—has the most audacious vision for an AI-powered utopia where machines control how we live. And he’s spending hundreds of billions of dollars to realize it. Are you ready to live in Masa World?”

AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform—Call It Mirrorworld
Kevin Kelly | Wired
“Eventually this melded world will be the size of our planet. It will be humanity’s greatest achievement, creating new levels of wealth, new social problems, and uncountable opportunities for billions of people. There are no experts yet to make this world; you are not late.”

Behind the Scenes of a Radical New Cancer Cure
Ilana Yurkiewicz | Undark
“I remember the first time I watched a patient get his Day 0 infusion. It felt anti-climactic. The entire process took about 15 minutes. The CAR-T cells are invisible to the naked eye, housed in a small plastic bag containing clear liquid. ‘That’s it?’ my patient asked when the nurse said it was over. The infusion part is easy. The hard part is everything that comes next.”

The Promise and Price of Cellular Therapies
Siddhartha Mukherjee | The New Yorker
“We like to imagine medical revolutions as, well, revolutionary—propelled forward through leaps of genius and technological innovation. But they are also evolutionary, nudged forward through the optimization of design and manufacture.”

Impossible Foods’ Rising Empire of Almost Meat
Chris Ip | Engadget
“Impossible says it wants to ultimately create a parallel universe of ersatz animal products from steak to eggs. …Yet as Impossible ventures deeper into the culinary uncanny valley, it also needs society to discard a fundamental cultural idea that dates back millennia and accept a new truth: Meat doesn’t have to come from animals.”

Inside the Amazon Warehouse Where Humans and Machines Become One
Matt Simon | Wired
“Seen from above, the scale of the system is dizzying. My robot, a little orange slab known as a ‘drive’ (or more formally and mythically, Pegasus), is just one of hundreds of its kind swarming a 125,000-square-foot ‘field’ pockmarked with chutes. It’s a symphony of electric whirring, with robots pausing for one another at intersections and delivering their packages to the slides.”

Boston Dynamics’ Robots Are Preparing to Leave the Lab—Is the World Ready?
James Vincent | The Verge
“After decades of kicking machines in parking lots, the company is set to launch its first ever commercial bot later this year: the quadrupedal Spot. It’s a crucial test for a company that’s spent decades pursuing long-sighted R&D. And more importantly, the success—or failure—of Spot will tell us a lot about our own robot future. Are we ready for machines to walk among us?”

I Cut the ‘Big Five’ Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell
Kashmir Hill | Gizmodo
“Critics of the big tech companies are often told, ‘If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.’ I did this experiment to find out if that is possible, and I found out that it’s not—with the exception of Apple. …These companies are unavoidable because they control internet infrastructure, online commerce, and information flows.”

Why I (Still) Love Tech: In Defense of a Difficult Industry
Paul Ford | Wired
“The mysteries of software caught my eye when I was a boy, and I still see it with the same wonder, even though I’m now an adult. Proudshamed, yes, but I still love it, the mess of it, the code and toolkits, down to the pixels and the processors, and up to the buses and bridges. I love the whole made world. But I can’t deny that the miracle is over, and that there is an unbelievable amount of work left for us to do.”

The Peculiar Blindness of Experts
David Epstein | The Atlantic
“In business, esteemed (and lavishly compensated) forecasters routinely are wildly wrong in their predictions of everything from the next stock-market correction to the next housing boom. Reliable insight into the future is possible, however. It just requires a style of thinking that’s uncommon among experts who are certain that their deep knowledge has granted them a special grasp of what is to come.”

The Most Controversial Tree in the World
Rowan Jacobson | Pacific Standard
“…we are all GMOs, the beneficiaries of freakishly unlikely genetic mash-ups, and the real Island of Dr. Moreau is that blue-green botanical garden positioned third from the sun. Rather than changing the nature of nature, as I once thought, this might just be the very nature of nature.”

How an Augmented Reality Game Escalated Into Real-World Spy Warfare
Elizabeth Ballou | Vice
“In Ingress, players accept that every park and train station could be the site of an epic showdown, but that’s only the first step. The magic happens when other people accept that, too. When players feel like that magic is real, there are few limits to what they’ll do or where they’ll go for the sake of the game. ”

The Shady Cryptocurrency Boom on the Post-Soviet Frontier
Hannah Lucinda Smith | Wired
“…although the tourists won’t guess it as they stand at Kuchurgan’s gates, admiring how the evening light reflects off the silver plaque of Lenin, this plant is pumping out juice to a modern-day gold rush: a cryptocurrency boom that is underway all across the former Soviet Union, from the battlefields of eastern Ukraine to time-warp enclaves like Transnistria and freshly annexed Crimea.”

Scientists Are Totally Rethinking Animal Cognition
Ross Andersen | The Atlantic
“This idea that animals are conscious was long unpopular in the West, but it has lately found favor among scientists who study animal cognition. …For many scientists, the resonant mystery is no longer which animals are conscious, but which are not.”

I Wrote This on a 30-Year-Old Computer
Ian Bogost | The Atlantic
“[Back then] computing was an accompaniment to life, rather than the sieve through which all ideas and activities must filter. That makes using this 30-year-old device a surprising joy, one worth longing for on behalf of what it was at the time, rather than for the future it inaugurated.”

Image Credit: Wes Hicks / Unsplash Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436263 Skydio 2 Review: This Is the Drone You ...

Let me begin this review by saying that the Skydio 2 is one of the most impressive robots that I have ever seen. Over the last decade, I’ve spent enough time around robots to have a very good sense of what kinds of things are particularly challenging for them, and to set my expectations accordingly. Those expectations include things like “unstructured environments are basically impossible” and “full autonomy is impractically expensive” and “robot videos rarely reflect reality.”

Skydio’s newest drone is an exception to all of this. It’s able to fly autonomously at speed through complex environments in challenging real-world conditions in a way that’s completely effortless and stress-free for the end user, allowing you to capture the kind of video that would be otherwise impossible, even (I’m guessing) for professional drone pilots. When you see this technology in action, it’s (almost) indistinguishable from magic.

Skydio 2 Price
To be clear, the Skydio 2 is not without compromises, and the price of $999 (on pre-order with delivery of the next batch expected in spring of 2020) requires some justification. But the week I’ve had with this drone has left me feeling like its fundamental autonomous capability is so far beyond just about anything that I’ve ever experienced that I’m questioning why I would every fly anything else ever again.

We’ve written extensively about Skydio, beginning in early 2016 when the company posted a video of a prototype drone dodging trees while following a dude on a bike. Even three years ago, Skydio’s tech was way better than anything we’d seen outside of a research lab, and in early 2018, they introduced their first consumer product, the Skydio R1. A little over a year later, Skydio has introduced the Skydio 2, which is smaller, smarter, and much more affordable. Here’s an overview video just to get you caught up:

Skydio sent me a Skydio 2 review unit last week, and while I’m reasonably experienced with drones in general, this is the first time I’ve tried a Skydio drone in person. I had a pretty good idea what to expect, and I was absolutely blown away. Like, I was giggling to myself while running through the woods as the drone zoomed around, deftly avoiding trees and keeping me in sight. Robots aren’t supposed to be this good.

A week is really not enough time to explore everything that the Skydio can do, especially Thanksgiving week in Washington, D.C. (a no-fly zone) in early winter. But I found a nearby state park in which I could legally and safely fly the drone, and I did my best to put the Skydio 2 through its paces.

Note: Throughout this review, we’ve got a bunch of GIFs to help illustrate different features of the drone. To fit them all in, these GIFs had to be heavily compressed. Underneath each GIF is a timestamped link to this YouTube video (also available at the bottom of the post), which you can click on to see the an extended cut of the original 4K 30 fps footage. And there’s a bunch of interesting extra video in there as well.

Skydio 2 Specs

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 is primarily made out of magnesium, which (while light) is both heavier and more rigid and durable than plastic. The offset props (the back pair are above the body, and the front pair are below) are necessary to maintain the field of view of the navigation cameras.

The Skydio 2 both looks and feels like a well-designed and carefully thought-out drone. It’s solid, and a little on the heavy side as far as drones go—it’s primarily made out of magnesium, which (while light) is both heavier and more rigid and durable than plastic. The blue and black color scheme is far more attractive than you typically see with drones.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

To detect and avoid obstacles, the Skydio 2 uses an array of six 4K hemispherical cameras that feed data into an NVIDIA Jetson TX2 at 30 fps, with the drone processing a million points in 3D space per second to plan the safest path.

The Skydio 2 is built around an array of six hemispherical obstacle-avoidance cameras and the NVIDIA Jetson TX2 computing module that they’re connected to. This defines the placement of the gimbal, the motors and props, and the battery, since all of this stuff has to be as much as possible out of the view of the cameras in order for the drone to effectively avoid obstacles in any direction.

Without the bottom-mounted battery attached, the drone is quite flat. The offset props (the back pair are above the body, and the front pair are below) are necessary to maintain the field of view of the obstacle-avoidance cameras. These hemispherical cameras are on the end of each of the prop arms as well as above and below the body of the drone. They look awfully exposed, even though each is protected from ground contact by a little fin. You need to make sure these cameras are clean and smudge-free, and Skydio includes a cleaning cloth for this purpose. Underneath the drone there are slots for microSD cards, one for recording from the camera and a second one that the drone uses to store data. The attention to detail extends to the SD card insertion, which has a sloped channel that guides the card securely into its slot.

Once you snap the battery in, the drone goes from looking streamlined to looking a little chubby. Relative to other drones, the battery almost seems like an afterthought, like Skydio designed the drone and then remembered, “oops we have to add a battery somewhere, let’s just kludge it onto the bottom.” But again, the reason for this is to leave room inside the body for the NVIDIA TX2, while making sure that the battery stays out of view of the obstacle avoidance cameras.

The magnetic latching system for the battery is both solid and satisfying. I’m not sure why it’s necessary, strictly speaking, but I do like it, and it doesn’t seem like the battery will fly off even during the most aggressive maneuvers. Each battery includes an LED array that will display its charge level in 25 percent increments, as well as a button that you push to turn the drone on and off. Charging takes place via a USB-C port in the top of the drone, which I don’t like, because it means that the batteries can’t be charged on their own (like the Parrot Anafi’s battery), and that you can’t charge one battery while flying with another, like basically every other drone ever. A separate battery charger that will charge two at once is available from Skydio for an eyebrow-raising $129.

I appreciate that all of Skydio’s stuff (batteries, controller, and beacon) charges via USB-C, though. The included USB-C adapter with its beefy cable will output at up to 65 watts, which’ll charge a mostly depleted battery in under an hour. The drone turns itself on while charging, which seems unnecessary.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 is not foldable, making it not nearly as easy to transport as some other drones. But it does come with a nice case that mitigates this issue somewhat, and the drone plus two batteries end up as a passably flat package about the size of a laptop case.

The most obvious compromise that Skydio made with the Skydio 2 is that the drone is not foldable. Skydio CEO Adam Bry told us that adding folding joints to the arms of the Skydio 2 would have made calibrating all six cameras a nightmare and significantly impacted performance. This makes complete sense, of course, but it does mean that the Skydio 2 is not nearly as easy to transport as some other drones.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Folded and unfolded: The Skydio 2 compared to the Parrot Anafi (upper left) and the DJI Mavic Pro (upper right).

The Skydio 2 does come with a very nice case that mitigates this issue somewhat, and the drone plus two batteries end up as a passably flat package about the size of a laptop case. Still, it’s just not as convenient to toss into a backpack as my Anafi, although the Mavic Mini might be even more portable.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

While the Skydio 2’s case is relatively compact, the non-foldable drone is overall a significantly larger package than the Parrot Anafi.

The design of the drone leads to some other compromises as well. Since landing gear would, I assume, occlude the camera system, the drone lands directly on the bottom of its battery pack, which has a slightly rubberized pad about the size of a playing card. This does’t feel particularly stable unless you end up on a very flat surface, and made me concerned for the exposed cameras underneath the drone as well as the lower set of props. I’d recommend hand takeoffs and landings—more on those later.

Skydio 2 Camera System

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2’s primary camera is a Sony IMX577 1/2.3″ 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. It’s mounted to a three-axis gimbal and records 4K video at 60 fps, or 1080p video at 120 fps.

The Skydio 2 comes with a three-axis gimbal supporting a 12-megapixel camera, just enough to record 4K video at 60 fps, or 1080p video at 120 fps. Skydio has provided plenty of evidence that its imaging system is at least as good if not better than other drone cameras. Tested against my Mavic Pro and Parrot Anafi, I found no reason to doubt that. To be clear, I didn’t do exhaustive pixel-peeping comparisons between them, you’re just getting my subjective opinion that the Skydio 2 has a totally decent camera that you won’t be disappointed with. I will say that I found the HDR photo function to be not all that great under the few situations in which I tested it—after looking at a few muddy sunset shots, I turned it off and was much happier.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2’s 12-megapixel camera is solid, although we weren’t impressed with the HDR option.

The video stabilization is fantastic, to the point where watching the video footage can be underwhelming because it doesn’t reflect the motion of the drone. I almost wish there was a way to change to unstabilized (or less-stabilized) video so that the viewer could get a little more of a wild ride. Or, ideally, there’d be a way for the drone to provide you with a visualization of what it was doing using the data collected by its cameras. That’s probably wishful thinking, though. The drone itself doesn’t record audio because all you’d get would be an annoying buzz, but the app does record audio, so the audio from your phone gets combined with the drone video. Don’t expect great quality, but it’s better than nothing.

Skydio 2 App
The app is very simple compared to every other drone app I’ve tried, and that’s a good thing. Here’s what it looks like:

Image: Skydio

Trackable subjects get a blue “+” sign over them, and if you tap them, the “+” turns into a spinny blue circle. Once you’ve got a subject selected, you can choose from a variety of cinematic skills that the drone will execute while following you.

You get the controls that you need and the information that you need, and nothing else. Manual flight with the on-screen buttons works adequately, and the double-tap to fly function on the phone works surprisingly well, making it easy to direct the drone to a particular spot above the ground.

The settings menus are limited but functional, allowing you to change settings for the camera and a few basic tweaks for controlling the drone. One unique setting to the Skydio 2 is the height floor—since the drone only avoids static obstacles, you can set it to maintain a height of at least 8 feet above the ground while flying autonomously to make sure that if you’re flying around other people, it won’t run into anyone who isn’t absurdly tall and therefore asking for it.

Trackable subjects get a blue “+” sign over them in the app, and if you tap them, the “+” turns into a spinny blue circle. Once you’ve got a subject selected, you can choose from a variety of cinematic skills that the drone will execute while following you, and in addition, you can select “one-shot” skills that involve the drone performing a specific maneuver before returning to the previously selected cinematic skill. For example, you can tell the drone to orbit around you, and then do a “rocket” one-shot where it’ll fly straight up above you (recording the whole time, of course), before returning to its orbiting.

After you’re done flying, you can scroll through your videos and easily clip out excerpts from them and save them to your phone for sharing. Again, it’s a fairly simple interface without a lot of options. You could call it limited, I guess, but I appreciate that it just does a few things that you care about and otherwise doesn’t clutter itself up.

The real limitation of the app is that it uses Wi-Fi to connect to the Skydio 2, which restricts the range. To fly much beyond a hundred meters or so, you’ll need to use the controller or beacon instead.

Skydio 2 Controller and Beacon

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

While the Skydio 2 controller provides a better hands-on flight experience than with the phone, plus an extended range of up to 3.5 km, more experienced pilots may find manual control a bit frustrating, because the underlying autonomy will supersede your maneuvers when you start getting close to objects.

I was looking forward to using the controller, because with every other drone I’ve had, the precision that a physically controller provides is, I find, mandatory for a good flying experience and to get the photos and videos that you want. With Skydio 2, that’s all out the window. It’s not that the controller is useless or anything, it’s just that because the drone tracks you and avoids obstacles on its own, that level of control precision becomes largely unnecessary.

The controller itself is perfectly fine. It’s a rebranded Parrot Skycontroller3, which is the same as the one that you get with a Parrot Anafi. It’s too bad that the sticks don’t unscrew to make it a little more portable, and overall it’s functional rather than fancy, but it feels good to use and includes a sizeable antenna that makes a significant difference to the range that you get (up to 3.5 kilometers).

You definitely get a better hands-on flight experience with the controller than with the phone, so if you want to (say) zip the drone around some big open space for fun, it’s good for that. And it’s nice to be able to hand the controller to someone who’s never flown a drone before and let them take it for a spin without freaking out about them crashing it the whole time. For more experienced pilots, though, the controller is ultimately just a bit frustrating, because the underlying autonomy will supersede your control when you start getting close to objects, which (again) limits how useful the controller is relative to your phone.

I do still prefer the controller over the phone, but I’m not sure that it’s worth the extra $150, unless you plan to fly the Skydio 2 at very long distances or primarily in manual mode. And honestly, if either of those two things are your top priority, the Skydio 2 is probably not the drone for you.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 beacon uses GPS tracking to help the drone follow you, extending range up to 1.5 km. You can also fly the with the beacon alone, no phone necessary.

The purpose of the beacon, according to Skydio, is to give the drone a way of tracking you if it can’t see you, which can happen, albeit infrequently. My initial impression of the beacon was that it was primarily useful as a range-extending bridge between my phone and the drone. But I accidentally left my phone at home one day (oops) and had to fly the drone with only the beacon, and it was a surprisingly decent experience. The beacon allows for full manual control of a sort—you can tap different buttons to rotate, fly forward, and ascend or descend. This is sufficient for takeoff, landing, to make sure that the drone is looking at you when you engage visual tracking, and to rescue it if it gets trapped somewhere.

The rest of the beacon’s control functions are centered around a few different tracking modes, and with these, it works just about as well as your phone. You have fewer options overall, but all the basic stuff is there with just a few intuitive button clicks, including tracking range and angle. If you’re willing to deal with this relatively minor compromise, it’s nice to not have your phone available for other things rather than being monopolized by the drone.

Skydio 2 In Flight

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Hand takeoffs are simple and reliable.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

Starting up the Skydio 2 doesn’t require any kind of unusual calibration steps or anything like that. It prefers to be kept still, but you can start it up while holding it, it’ll just take a few seconds longer to tell you that it’s ready to go. While the drone will launch from any flat surface with significant clearance around it (it’ll tell you if it needs more room), the small footprint of the battery means that I was more comfortable hand launching it. This is not a “throw” launch; you just let the drone rest on your palm, tell it to take off, and then stay still while it gets its motors going and then gently lifts off. The lift off is so gentle that you have to be careful not to pull your hand away too soon—I did that once and the drone, being not quite ready, dropped towards the ground, but managed to recover without much drama.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Hand landings always look scary, but the Skydio 2 is incredibly gentle. After trying this once, it became the only way I ever landed the drone.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

Catching the drone for landing is perhaps very slightly more dangerous, but not any more difficult. You put the drone above and in front of you facing away, tell it to land in the app or with the beacon, and then put your hand underneath it to grasp it as it slowly descends. It settles delicately and promptly turns itself off. Every drone should land this way. The battery pack provides a good place to grip, although you do have to be mindful of the forward set of props, which (since they’re the pair that are beneath the body of drone) are quite close to your fingers. You’ll certainly be mindful after you catch a blade with your fingers once. Which I did. For the purposes of this review and totally not by accident. No damage, for the record.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

You won’t be disappointed with the Skydio 2’s in-flight performance, unless you’re looking for a dedicated racing drone.

In normal flight, the Skydio 2 performs as well as you’d expect. It’s stable and manages light to moderate wind without any problems, although I did notice some occasional lateral drifting when the drone should have been in a stationary hover. While the controller gains are adjustable, the Skydio 2 isn’t quite as aggressive in flight as my Mavic Pro on Sport Mode, but again, if you’re looking for a high-speed drone, that’s really not what the Skydio is all about.

The Skydio 2 is substantially louder than my Anafi, although the Anafi is notably quiet for a drone. It’s not annoying to hear (not a high-pitched whine), but you can hear it from a ways away, and farther away than my Mavic Pro. I’m not sure whether that’s because of the absolute volume or the volume plus the pitch. In some ways, this is a feature, since you can hear the drone following you even if you’re not looking at it, you just need to be aware of the noise it makes when you’re flying it around people.

Obstacle Avoidance
The primary reason Skydio 2 is the drone that you want to fly is because of its autonomous subject tracking and obstacle avoidance. Skydio’s PR videos make this capability look almost too good, and since I hadn’t tried out one of their drones before, the first thing I did with it was exactly what you’d expect: attempt to fly it directly into the nearest tree.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 deftly slides around trees and branches. The control inputs here were simple “forward” or “turn,” all obstacle avoidance is autonomous.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

And it just won’t do it. It slows down a bit, and then slides right around one tree after another, going over and under and around branches. I pointed the drone into a forest and just held down “forward” and away it went, without any fuss, effortlessly ducking and weaving its way around. Of course, it wasn’t effortless at all—six 4K cameras were feeding data into the NVIDIA TX2 at 30 fps, and the drone was processing a million points in 3D space per second to plan the safest path while simultaneously taking into account where I wanted it to go. I spent about 10 more minutes doing my level best to crash the drone into anything at all using a flying technique probably best described as “reckless,” but the drone was utterly unfazed. It’s incredible.

What knocked my socks off was telling the drone to pass through treetops—in the clip below, I’m just telling the drone to fly straight down. Watch as it weaves its way through gaps between the branches:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The result of parking the Skydio 2 above some trees and holding “down” on the controller is this impressive fully autonomous descent through the branches.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

Here’s one more example, where I sent the drone across a lake and started poking around in a tree. Sometimes the Skydio 2 isn’t sure where you want it to go, and you have to give it a little bit of a nudge in a clear direction, but that’s it.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

In obstacle-heavy environments, the Skydio 2 prudently slows down, but it can pick its way through almost anything that it can see.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

It’s important to keep in mind that all of the Skydio 2’s intelligence is based on vision. It uses cameras to see the world, which means that it has similar challenges as your eyes do. Specifically, Skydio warns against flying in the following conditions:

Skydio 2 can’t see certain visually challenging obstacles. Do not fly around thin branches, telephone or power lines, ropes, netting, wires, chain link fencing or other objects less than ½ inch in diameter.
Do not fly around transparent surfaces like windows or reflective surfaces like mirrors greater than 60 cm wide.
When the sun is low on the horizon, it can temporarily blind Skydio 2’s cameras depending on the angle of flight. Your drone may be cautious or jerky when flying directly toward the sun.

Basically, if you’d have trouble seeing a thing, or seeing under some specific flight conditions, then the Skydio 2 almost certainly will also. It gets even more problematic when challenging obstacles are combined with challenging flight conditions, which is what I’m pretty sure led to the only near-crash I had with the drone. Here’s a video:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Flying around very thin branches and into the sun can cause problems for the Skydio 2’s obstacle avoidance.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

I had the Skydio 2 set to follow me on my bike (more about following and tracking in a bit). It was mid afternoon, but since it’s late fall here in Washington, D.C., the sun doesn’t get much higher than 30 degrees above the horizon. Late fall also means that most of the deciduous trees have lost their leaves, and so there are a bunch of skinny branches all over the place. The drone was doing a pretty good job of following me along the road at a relatively slow speed, and then it clipped the branch that you can just barely see in the video above. It recovered in an acrobatic maneuver that has been mostly video-stabilized out, and resumed tracking me before I freaked and told it to land. You can see another example here, where the drone (again) clips a branch that has the sun behind it, and this clip shows me stopping my bike before the drone runs into another branch in a similar orientation. As the video shows, it’s very hard to see the branches until it’s too late.

As far as I can tell, the drone is no worse for wear from any of this, apart from a small nick in one of the props. But, this is a good illustration of a problematic situation for the Skydio 2: flying into a low sun angle around small bare branches. Should I not have been flying the drone in this situation? It’s hard to say. These probably qualify as “thin branches,” although there was plenty of room along with middle of the road. There is an open question with the Skydio 2 as to exactly how much responsibility the user should have about when and where it’s safe to fly—for branches, how thin is too thin? How low can the sun be? What if the branches are only kinda thin and the sun is only kinda low, but it’s also a little windy? Better to be safe than sorry, of course, but there’s really no way for the user (or the drone) to know what it can’t handle until it can’t handle it.

Edge cases like these aside, the obstacle avoidance just works. Even if you’re not deliberately trying to fly into branches, it’s keeping a lookout for you all the time, which means that flying the drone goes from somewhat stressful to just pure fun. I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is to be able to fly without worrying about running into things, and how great it feels to be able to hand the controller to someone who’s never flown a drone before and say, with complete confidence, “go ahead, fly it around!”

Skydio 2 vs. DJI Mavic

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Both the Skydio 2 and many models of DJI’s Mavic use visual obstacle avoidance, but the Skydio 2 is so much more advanced that you can’t really compare the two systems.

It’s important to note that there’s a huge difference between the sort of obstacle avoidance that you get with a DJI Mavic, and the sort of obstacle avoidance that you get with the Skydio 2. The objective of the Mavic’s obstacle avoidance is really there to prevent you from accidentally running into things, and in that capacity, it usually works. But there are two things to keep in mind here—first, not running into things is not the same as avoiding things, because avoiding things means planning several steps ahead, not just one step.

Second, there’s the fact that the Mavic’s obstacle detection only works most of the time. Fundamentally, I don’t trust my Mavic Pro, because sometimes the safety system doesn’t kick in for whatever reason and the drone ends up alarmingly close to something. And that’s actually fine, because with the Mavic, I expect to be piloting it. It’s for this same reason that I don’t care that my Parrot Anafi doesn’t have obstacle avoidance at all: I’m piloting it anyway, and I’m a careful pilot, so it just doesn’t matter. The Skydio 2 is totally and completely different. It’s in a class by itself, and you can’t compare what it can do to what anything else out there right now. Period.

Skydio 2 Tracking
Skydio’s big selling point on the Skydio 2 is that it’ll autonomously track you while avoiding obstacles. It does this visually, by watching where you go, predicting your future motion, and then planning its own motion to keep you in frame. The works better than you might expect, in that it’s really very good at not losing you. Obviously, the drone prioritizes not running into stuff over tracking you, which means that it may not always be where you feel like it should be. It’s probably trying to get there, but in obstacle dense environments, it can take some creative paths.

Having said that, I found it to be very consistent with keeping me in the frame, and I only managed to lose it when changing direction while fully occluded by an obstacle, or while it was executing an avoidance maneuver that was more dynamic than normal. If you deliberately try to hide from the drone it’s not that hard to do so if there are enough obstacles around, but I didn’t find the tracking to be something that I had to worry about it most cases. When tracking does fail and you’re not using the beacon, the drone will come to a hover. It won’t try and find you, but it will reacquire you if you get back into its field of view.

The Skydio 2 had no problem tracking me running through fairly dense trees:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 had no problem chasing me around through these trees, even while I was asking it to continually change its tracking angle.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

It also managed to keep up with me as I rode my bike along a tree-lined road:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 is easily fast enough to keep up with me on a bike, even while avoiding tree branches.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

It lost me when I asked it to follow very close behind me as I wove through some particularly branch-y trees, but it fails more or less gracefully by just sort of nope-ing out of situations when they start to get bad and coming to a hover somewhere safe.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 knows better than to put itself into situations that it can’t handle, and will bail to a safe spot if things get too complicated.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

After a few days of playing with the drone, I started to get to the point where I could set it to track me and then just forget about it while I rode my bike or whatever, as opposed to constantly turning around to make sure it was still behind me, which is what I was doing initially. It’s a level of trust that I don’t think would be possible with any other drone.

Should You Buy a Skydio 2?

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

We think the Skydio 2 is fun and relaxing to fly, with unique autonomous intelligence that makes it worth the cost.

In case I haven’t said it often enough in this review, the Skydio 2 is an incredible piece of technology. As far as I know (as a robotics journalist, mind you), this represents the state of the art in commercial drone autonomy, and quite possibly the state of the art in drone autonomy, period. And it’s available for $999, which is expensive, but less money than a Mavic Pro 2. If you’re interested in a new drone, you should absolutely consider the Skydio 2.

There are some things to keep in mind—battery life is a solid but not stellar 20 minutes. Extra batteries are expensive at $99 each (the base kit includes just one). The controller and the beacon are also expensive, at $150 each. And while I think the Skydio 2 is definitely the drone you want to fly, it may not be the drone you want to travel with, since it’s bulky compared to other options.

But there’s no denying the fact that the experience is uniquely magical. Once you’ve flown the Skydio 2, you won’t want to fly anything else. This drone makes it possible to get pictures and videos that would be otherwise impossible, and you can do it completely on your own. You can trust the drone to do what it promises, as long as you’re mindful of some basic and common sense safety guidelines. And we’ve been told that the drone is only going to get smarter and more capable over time.

If you buy a Skydio 2, it comes with the following warranty from Skydio:

“If you’re operating your Skydio 2 within our Safe Flight guidelines, and it crashes, we’ll repair or replace it for free.”

Skydio trusts their drone to go out into a chaotic and unstructured world and dodge just about anything that comes its way. And after a week with this drone, I can see how they’re able to offer this kind of guarantee. This is the kind of autonomy that robots have been promising for years, and the Skydio 2 makes it real.

Detailed technical specifications are available on Skydio’s website, and if you have any questions, post a comment—we’ve got this drone for a little while longer, and I’d be happy to try out (nearly) anything with it.

Skydio 2 Review Video Highlights
This video is about 7 minutes of 4K, 30 fps footage directly from the Skydio 2. The only editing I did was cutting clips together, no stabilization or color correcting or anything like that. The drone will record in 4K 60 fps, so it gets smoother than this, but I, er, forgot to change the setting.

[ Skydio ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436215 Help Rescuers Find Missing Persons With ...

There’s a definite sense that robots are destined to become a critical part of search and rescue missions and disaster relief efforts, working alongside humans to help first responders move faster and more efficiently. And we’ve seen all kinds of studies that include the claim “this robot could potentially help with disaster relief,” to varying degrees of plausibility.

But it takes a long time, and a lot of extra effort, for academic research to actually become anything useful—especially for first responders, where there isn’t a lot of financial incentive for further development.

It turns out that if you actually ask first responders what they most need for disaster relief, they’re not necessarily interested in the latest and greatest robotic platform or other futuristic technology. They’re using commercial off-the-shelf drones, often consumer-grade ones, because they’re simple and cheap and great at surveying large areas. The challenge is doing something useful with all of the imagery that these drones collect. Computer vision algorithms could help with that, as long as those algorithms are readily accessible and nearly effortless to use.

The IEEE Robotics and Automation Society and the Center for Robotic-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University have launched a contest to bridge this gap between the kinds of tools that roboticists and computer vision researchers might call “basic” and a system that’s useful to first responders in the field. It’s a simple and straightforward idea, and somewhat surprising that no one had thought of it before now. And if you can develop such a system, it’s worth some cash.

CRASAR does already have a Computer Vision Emergency Response Toolkit (created right after Hurricane Harvey), which includes a few pixel filters and some edge and corner detectors. Through this contest, you can get paid your share of a $3,000 prize pool for adding some other excessively basic tools, including:

Image enhancement through histogram equalization, which can be applied to electro-optical (visible light cameras) and thermal imagery

Color segmentation for a range

Grayscale segmentation for a range in a thermal image

If it seems like this contest is really not that hard, that’s because it isn’t. “The first thing to understand about this contest is that strictly speaking, it’s really not that hard,” says Robin Murphy, director of CRASAR. “This contest isn’t necessarily about coming up with algorithms that are brand new, or even state-of-the-art, but rather algorithms that are functional and reliable and implemented in a way that’s immediately [usable] by inexperienced users in the field.”

Murphy readily admits that some of what needs to be done is not particularly challenging at all, but that’s not the point—the point is to make these functionalities accessible to folks who have better things to do than solve these problems themselves, as Murphy explains.

“A lot of my research is driven by problems that I’ve seen in the field that you’d think somebody would have solved, but apparently not. More than half of this is available in OpenCV, but who’s going to find it, download it, learn Python, that kind of thing? We need to get these tools into an open framework. We’re happy if you take libraries that already exist (just don’t steal code)—not everything needs to be rewritten from scratch. Just use what’s already there. Some of it may seem too simple, because it IS that simple. It already exists and you just need to move some code around.”

If you want to get very slightly more complicated, there’s a second category that involves a little bit of math:

Coders must provide a system that does the following for each nadir image in a set:

Reads the geotag embedded in the .jpg
Overlays a USNG grid for a user-specified interval (e.g., every 50, 100, or 200 meters)
Gives the GPS coordinates of each pixel if a cursor is rolled over the image
Given a set of images with the GPS or USNG coordinate and a bounding box, finds all images in the set that have a pixel intersecting that location

The final category awards prizes to anyone who comes up with anything else that turns out to be useful. Or, more specifically, “entrants can submit any algorithm they believe will be of value.” Whether or not it’s actually of value will be up to a panel of judges that includes both first responders and computer vision experts. More detailed rules can be found here, along with sample datasets that you can use for testing.

The contest deadline is 16 December, so you’ve got about a month to submit an entry. Winners will be announced at the beginning of January. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436188 The Blogger Behind “AI ...

Sure, artificial intelligence is transforming the world’s societies and economies—but can an AI come up with plausible ideas for a Halloween costume?

Janelle Shane has been asking such probing questions since she started her AI Weirdness blog in 2016. She specializes in training neural networks (which underpin most of today’s machine learning techniques) on quirky data sets such as compilations of knitting instructions, ice cream flavors, and names of paint colors. Then she asks the neural net to generate its own contributions to these categories—and hilarity ensues. AI is not likely to disrupt the paint industry with names like “Ronching Blue,” “Dorkwood,” and “Turdly.”

Shane’s antics have a serious purpose. She aims to illustrate the serious limitations of today’s AI, and to counteract the prevailing narrative that describes AI as well on its way to superintelligence and complete human domination. “The danger of AI is not that it’s too smart,” Shane writes in her new book, “but that it’s not smart enough.”

The book, which came out on Tuesday, is called You Look Like a Thing and I Love You. It takes its odd title from a list of AI-generated pick-up lines, all of which would at least get a person’s attention if shouted, preferably by a robot, in a crowded bar. Shane’s book is shot through with her trademark absurdist humor, but it also contains real explanations of machine learning concepts and techniques. It’s a painless way to take AI 101.

She spoke with IEEE Spectrum about the perils of placing too much trust in AI systems, the strange AI phenomenon of “giraffing,” and her next potential Halloween costume.

Janelle Shane on . . .

The un-delicious origin of her blog
“The narrower the problem, the smarter the AI will seem”
Why overestimating AI is dangerous
Giraffing!
Machine and human creativity

The un-delicious origin of her blog IEEE Spectrum: You studied electrical engineering as an undergrad, then got a master’s degree in physics. How did that lead to you becoming the comedian of AI?
Janelle Shane: I’ve been interested in machine learning since freshman year of college. During orientation at Michigan State, a professor who worked on evolutionary algorithms gave a talk about his work. It was full of the most interesting anecdotes–some of which I’ve used in my book. He told an anecdote about people setting up a machine learning algorithm to do lens design, and the algorithm did end up designing an optical system that works… except one of the lenses was 50 feet thick, because they didn’t specify that it couldn’t do that.
I started working in his lab on optics, doing ultra-short laser pulse work. I ended up doing a lot more optics than machine learning, but I always found it interesting. One day I came across a list of recipes that someone had generated using a neural net, and I thought it was hilarious and remembered why I thought machine learning was so cool. That was in 2016, ages ago in machine learning land.
Spectrum: So you decided to “establish weirdness as your goal” for your blog. What was the first weird experiment that you blogged about?
Shane: It was generating cookbook recipes. The neural net came up with ingredients like: “Take ¼ pounds of bones or fresh bread.” That recipe started out: “Brown the salmon in oil, add creamed meat to the mixture.” It was making mistakes that showed the thing had no memory at all.
Spectrum: You say in the book that you can learn a lot about AI by giving it a task and watching it flail. What do you learn?
Shane: One thing you learn is how much it relies on surface appearances rather than deep understanding. With the recipes, for example: It got the structure of title, category, ingredients, instructions, yield at the end. But when you look more closely, it has instructions like “Fold the water and roll it into cubes.” So clearly this thing does not understand water, let alone the other things. It’s recognizing certain phrases that tend to occur, but it doesn’t have a concept that these recipes are describing something real. You start to realize how very narrow the algorithms in this world are. They only know exactly what we tell them in our data set.
BACK TO TOP↑ “The narrower the problem, the smarter the AI will seem” Spectrum: That makes me think of DeepMind’s AlphaGo, which was universally hailed as a triumph for AI. It can play the game of Go better than any human, but it doesn’t know what Go is. It doesn’t know that it’s playing a game.
Shane: It doesn’t know what a human is, or if it’s playing against a human or another program. That’s also a nice illustration of how well these algorithms do when they have a really narrow and well-defined problem.
The narrower the problem, the smarter the AI will seem. If it’s not just doing something repeatedly but instead has to understand something, coherence goes down. For example, take an algorithm that can generate images of objects. If the algorithm is restricted to birds, it could do a recognizable bird. If this same algorithm is asked to generate images of any animal, if its task is that broad, the bird it generates becomes an unrecognizable brown feathered smear against a green background.
Spectrum: That sounds… disturbing.
Shane: It’s disturbing in a weird amusing way. What’s really disturbing is the humans it generates. It hasn’t seen them enough times to have a good representation, so you end up with an amorphous, usually pale-faced thing with way too many orifices. If you asked it to generate an image of a person eating pizza, you’ll have blocks of pizza texture floating around. But if you give that image to an image-recognition algorithm that was trained on that same data set, it will say, “Oh yes, that’s a person eating pizza.”
BACK TO TOP↑ Why overestimating AI is dangerous Spectrum: Do you see it as your role to puncture the AI hype?
Shane: I do see it that way. Not a lot of people are bringing out this side of AI. When I first started posting my results, I’d get people saying, “I don’t understand, this is AI, shouldn’t it be better than this? Why doesn't it understand?” Many of the impressive examples of AI have a really narrow task, or they’ve been set up to hide how little understanding it has. There’s a motivation, especially among people selling products based on AI, to represent the AI as more competent and understanding than it actually is.
Spectrum: If people overestimate the abilities of AI, what risk does that pose?
Shane: I worry when I see people trusting AI with decisions it can’t handle, like hiring decisions or decisions about moderating content. These are really tough tasks for AI to do well on. There are going to be a lot of glitches. I see people saying, “The computer decided this so it must be unbiased, it must be objective.”

“If the algorithm’s task is to replicate human hiring decisions, it’s going to glom onto gender bias and race bias.”
—Janelle Shane, AI Weirdness blogger
That’s another thing I find myself highlighting in the work I’m doing. If the data includes bias, the algorithm will copy that bias. You can’t tell it not to be biased, because it doesn’t understand what bias is. I think that message is an important one for people to understand.
If there’s bias to be found, the algorithm is going to go after it. It’s like, “Thank goodness, finally a signal that’s reliable.” But for a tough problem like: Look at these resumes and decide who’s best for the job. If its task is to replicate human hiring decisions, it’s going to glom onto gender bias and race bias. There’s an example in the book of a hiring algorithm that Amazon was developing that discriminated against women, because the historical data it was trained on had that gender bias.
Spectrum: What are the other downsides of using AI systems that don’t really understand their tasks?
Shane: There is a risk in putting too much trust in AI and not examining its decisions. Another issue is that it can solve the wrong problems, without anyone realizing it. There have been a couple of cases in medicine. For example, there was an algorithm that was trained to recognize things like skin cancer. But instead of recognizing the actual skin condition, it latched onto signals like the markings a surgeon makes on the skin, or a ruler placed there for scale. It was treating those things as a sign of skin cancer. It’s another indication that these algorithms don’t understand what they’re looking at and what the goal really is.
BACK TO TOP↑ Giraffing Spectrum: In your blog, you often have neural nets generate names for things—such as ice cream flavors, paint colors, cats, mushrooms, and types of apples. How do you decide on topics?
Shane: Quite often it’s because someone has written in with an idea or a data set. They’ll say something like, “I’m the MIT librarian and I have a whole list of MIT thesis titles.” That one was delightful. Or they’ll say, “We are a high school robotics team, and we know where there’s a list of robotics team names.” It’s fun to peek into a different world. I have to be careful that I’m not making fun of the naming conventions in the field. But there’s a lot of humor simply in the neural net’s complete failure to understand. Puns in particular—it really struggles with puns.
Spectrum: Your blog is quite absurd, but it strikes me that machine learning is often absurd in itself. Can you explain the concept of giraffing?
Shane: This concept was originally introduced by [internet security expert] Melissa Elliott. She proposed this phrase as a way to describe the algorithms’ tendency to see giraffes way more often than would be likely in the real world. She posted a whole bunch of examples, like a photo of an empty field in which an image-recognition algorithm has confidently reported that there are giraffes. Why does it think giraffes are present so often when they’re actually really rare? Because they’re trained on data sets from online. People tend to say, “Hey look, a giraffe!” And then take a photo and share it. They don’t do that so often when they see an empty field with rocks.
There’s also a chatbot that has a delightful quirk. If you show it some photo and ask it how many giraffes are in the picture, it will always answer with some non zero number. This quirk comes from the way the training data was generated: These were questions asked and answered by humans online. People tended not to ask the question “How many giraffes are there?” when the answer was zero. So you can show it a picture of someone holding a Wii remote. If you ask it how many giraffes are in the picture, it will say two.
BACK TO TOP↑ Machine and human creativity Spectrum: AI can be absurd, and maybe also creative. But you make the point that AI art projects are really human-AI collaborations: Collecting the data set, training the algorithm, and curating the output are all artistic acts on the part of the human. Do you see your work as a human-AI art project?
Shane: Yes, I think there is artistic intent in my work; you could call it literary or visual. It’s not so interesting to just take a pre-trained algorithm that’s been trained on utilitarian data, and tell it to generate a bunch of stuff. Even if the algorithm isn’t one that I’ve trained myself, I think about, what is it doing that’s interesting, what kind of story can I tell around it, and what do I want to show people.

The Halloween costume algorithm “was able to draw on its knowledge of which words are related to suggest things like sexy barnacle.”
—Janelle Shane, AI Weirdness blogger
Spectrum: For the past three years you’ve been getting neural nets to generate ideas for Halloween costumes. As language models have gotten dramatically better over the past three years, are the costume suggestions getting less absurd?
Shane: Yes. Before I would get a lot more nonsense words. This time I got phrases that were related to real things in the data set. I don’t believe the training data had the words Flying Dutchman or barnacle. But it was able to draw on its knowledge of which words are related to suggest things like sexy barnacle and sexy Flying Dutchman.
Spectrum: This year, I saw on Twitter that someone made the gothy giraffe costume happen. Would you ever dress up for Halloween in a costume that the neural net suggested?
Shane: I think that would be fun. But there would be some challenges. I would love to go as the sexy Flying Dutchman. But my ambition may constrict me to do something more like a list of leg parts.
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