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#435172 DARPA’s New Project Is Investing ...

When Elon Musk and DARPA both hop aboard the cyborg hypetrain, you know brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) are about to achieve the impossible.

BMIs, already the stuff of science fiction, facilitate crosstalk between biological wetware with external computers, turning human users into literal cyborgs. Yet mind-controlled robotic arms, microelectrode “nerve patches”, or “memory Band-Aids” are still purely experimental medical treatments for those with nervous system impairments.

With the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, DARPA is looking to expand BMIs to the military. This month, the project tapped six academic teams to engineer radically different BMIs to hook up machines to the brains of able-bodied soldiers. The goal is to ditch surgery altogether—while minimizing any biological interventions—to link up brain and machine.

Rather than microelectrodes, which are currently surgically inserted into the brain to hijack neural communication, the project is looking to acoustic signals, electromagnetic waves, nanotechnology, genetically-enhanced neurons, and infrared beams for their next-gen BMIs.

It’s a radical departure from current protocol, with potentially thrilling—or devastating—impact. Wireless BMIs could dramatically boost bodily functions of veterans with neural damage or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or allow a single soldier to control swarms of AI-enabled drones with his or her mind. Or, similar to the Black Mirror episode Men Against Fire, it could cloud the perception of soldiers, distancing them from the emotional guilt of warfare.

When trickled down to civilian use, these new technologies are poised to revolutionize medical treatment. Or they could galvanize the transhumanist movement with an inconceivably powerful tool that fundamentally alters society—for better or worse.

Here’s what you need to know.

Radical Upgrades
The four-year N3 program focuses on two main aspects: noninvasive and “minutely” invasive neural interfaces to both read and write into the brain.

Because noninvasive technologies sit on the scalp, their sensors and stimulators will likely measure entire networks of neurons, such as those controlling movement. These systems could then allow soldiers to remotely pilot robots in the field—drones, rescue bots, or carriers like Boston Dynamics’ BigDog. The system could even boost multitasking prowess—mind-controlling multiple weapons at once—similar to how able-bodied humans can operate a third robotic arm in addition to their own two.

In contrast, minutely invasive technologies allow scientists to deliver nanotransducers without surgery: for example, an injection of a virus carrying light-sensitive sensors, or other chemical, biotech, or self-assembled nanobots that can reach individual neurons and control their activity independently without damaging sensitive tissue. The proposed use for these technologies isn’t yet well-specified, but as animal experiments have shown, controlling the activity of single neurons at multiple points is sufficient to program artificial memories of fear, desire, and experiences directly into the brain.

“A neural interface that enables fast, effective, and intuitive hands-free interaction with military systems by able-bodied warfighters is the ultimate program goal,” DARPA wrote in its funding brief, released early last year.

The only technologies that will be considered must have a viable path toward eventual use in healthy human subjects.

“Final N3 deliverables will include a complete integrated bidirectional brain-machine interface system,” the project description states. This doesn’t just include hardware, but also new algorithms tailored to these system, demonstrated in a “Department of Defense-relevant application.”

The Tools
Right off the bat, the usual tools of the BMI trade, including microelectrodes, MRI, or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are off the table. These popular technologies rely on surgery, heavy machinery, or personnel to sit very still—conditions unlikely in the real world.

The six teams will tap into three different kinds of natural phenomena for communication: magnetism, light beams, and acoustic waves.

Dr. Jacob Robinson at Rice University, for example, is combining genetic engineering, infrared laser beams, and nanomagnets for a bidirectional system. The $18 million project, MOANA (Magnetic, Optical and Acoustic Neural Access device) uses viruses to deliver two extra genes into the brain. One encodes a protein that sits on top of neurons and emits infrared light when the cell activates. Red and infrared light can penetrate through the skull. This lets a skull cap, embedded with light emitters and detectors, pick up these signals for subsequent decoding. Ultra-fast and utra-sensitvie photodetectors will further allow the cap to ignore scattered light and tease out relevant signals emanating from targeted portions of the brain, the team explained.

The other new gene helps write commands into the brain. This protein tethers iron nanoparticles to the neurons’ activation mechanism. Using magnetic coils on the headset, the team can then remotely stimulate magnetic super-neurons to fire while leaving others alone. Although the team plans to start in cell cultures and animals, their goal is to eventually transmit a visual image from one person to another. “In four years we hope to demonstrate direct, brain-to-brain communication at the speed of thought and without brain surgery,” said Robinson.

Other projects in N3 are just are ambitious.

The Carnegie Mellon team, for example, plans to use ultrasound waves to pinpoint light interaction in targeted brain regions, which can then be measured through a wearable “hat.” To write into the brain, they propose a flexible, wearable electrical mini-generator that counterbalances the noisy effect of the skull and scalp to target specific neural groups.

Similarly, a group at Johns Hopkins is also measuring light path changes in the brain to correlate them with regional brain activity to “read” wetware commands.

The Teledyne Scientific & Imaging group, in contrast, is turning to tiny light-powered “magnetometers” to detect small, localized magnetic fields that neurons generate when they fire, and match these signals to brain output.

The nonprofit Battelle team gets even fancier with their ”BrainSTORMS” nanotransducers: magnetic nanoparticles wrapped in a piezoelectric shell. The shell can convert electrical signals from neurons into magnetic ones and vice-versa. This allows external transceivers to wirelessly pick up the transformed signals and stimulate the brain through a bidirectional highway.

The magnetometers can be delivered into the brain through a nasal spray or other non-invasive methods, and magnetically guided towards targeted brain regions. When no longer needed, they can once again be steered out of the brain and into the bloodstream, where the body can excrete them without harm.

Four-Year Miracle
Mind-blown? Yeah, same. However, the challenges facing the teams are enormous.

DARPA’s stated goal is to hook up at least 16 sites in the brain with the BMI, with a lag of less than 50 milliseconds—on the scale of average human visual perception. That’s crazy high resolution for devices sitting outside the brain, both in space and time. Brain tissue, blood vessels, and the scalp and skull are all barriers that scatter and dissipate neural signals. All six teams will need to figure out the least computationally-intensive ways to fish out relevant brain signals from background noise, and triangulate them to the appropriate brain region to decipher intent.

In the long run, four years and an average $20 million per project isn’t much to potentially transform our relationship with machines—for better or worse. DARPA, to its credit, is keenly aware of potential misuse of remote brain control. The program is under the guidance of a panel of external advisors with expertise in bioethical issues. And although DARPA’s focus is on enabling able-bodied soldiers to better tackle combat challenges, it’s hard to argue that wireless, non-invasive BMIs will also benefit those most in need: veterans and other people with debilitating nerve damage. To this end, the program is heavily engaging the FDA to ensure it meets safety and efficacy regulations for human use.

Will we be there in just four years? I’m skeptical. But these electrical, optical, acoustic, magnetic, and genetic BMIs, as crazy as they sound, seem inevitable.

“DARPA is preparing for a future in which a combination of unmanned systems, AI, and cyber operations may cause conflicts to play out on timelines that are too short for humans to effectively manage with current technology alone,” said Al Emondi, the N3 program manager.

The question is, now that we know what’s in store, how should the rest of us prepare?

Image Credit: With permission from DARPA N3 project. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434658 The Next Data-Driven Healthtech ...

Increasing your healthspan (i.e. making 100 years old the new 60) will depend to a large degree on artificial intelligence. And, as we saw in last week’s blog, healthcare AI systems are extremely data-hungry.

Fortunately, a slew of new sensors and data acquisition methods—including over 122 million wearables shipped in 2018—are bursting onto the scene to meet the massive demand for medical data.

From ubiquitous biosensors, to the mobile healthcare revolution, to the transformative power of the Health Nucleus, converging exponential technologies are fundamentally transforming our approach to healthcare.

In Part 4 of this blog series on Longevity & Vitality, I expand on how we’re acquiring the data to fuel today’s AI healthcare revolution.

In this blog, I’ll explore:

How the Health Nucleus is transforming “sick care” to healthcare
Sensors, wearables, and nanobots
The advent of mobile health

Let’s dive in.

Health Nucleus: Transforming ‘Sick Care’ to Healthcare
Much of today’s healthcare system is actually sick care. Most of us assume that we’re perfectly healthy, with nothing going on inside our bodies, until the day we travel to the hospital writhing in pain only to discover a serious or life-threatening condition.

Chances are that your ailment didn’t materialize that morning; rather, it’s been growing or developing for some time. You simply weren’t aware of it. At that point, once you’re diagnosed as “sick,” our medical system engages to take care of you.

What if, instead of this retrospective and reactive approach, you were constantly monitored, so that you could know the moment anything was out of whack?

Better yet, what if you more closely monitored those aspects of your body that your gene sequence predicted might cause you difficulty? Think: your heart, your kidneys, your breasts. Such a system becomes personalized, predictive, and possibly preventative.

This is the mission of the Health Nucleus platform built by Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI). While not continuous—that will come later, with the next generation of wearable and implantable sensors—the Health Nucleus was designed to ‘digitize’ you once per year to help you determine whether anything is going on inside your body that requires immediate attention.

The Health Nucleus visit provides you with the following tests during a half-day visit:

Whole genome sequencing (30x coverage)
Whole body (non-contrast) MRI
Brain magnetic resonance imaging/angiography (MRI/MRA)
CT (computed tomography) of the heart and lungs
Coronary artery calcium scoring
Continuous cardiac monitoring
Clinical laboratory tests and metabolomics

In late 2018, HLI published the results of the first 1,190 clients through the Health Nucleus. The results were eye-opening—especially since these patients were all financially well-off, and already had access to the best doctors.

Following are the physiological and genomic findings in these clients who self-selected to undergo evaluation at HLI’s Health Nucleus.

Physiological Findings [TG]

Two percent had previously unknown tumors detected by MRI
2.5 percent had previously undetected aneurysms detected by MRI
Eight percent had cardiac arrhythmia found on cardiac rhythm monitoring, not previously known
Nine percent had moderate-severe coronary artery disease risk, not previously known
16 percent discovered previously unknown cardiac structure/function abnormalities
30 percent had elevated liver fat, not previously known

Genomic Findings [TG]

24 percent of clients uncovered a rare (unknown) genetic mutation found on WGS
63 percent of clients had a rare genetic mutation with a corresponding phenotypic finding

In summary, HLI’s published results found that 14.4 percent of clients had significant findings that are actionable, requiring immediate or near-term follow-up and intervention.

Long-term value findings were found in 40 percent of the clients we screened. Long-term clinical findings include discoveries that require medical attention or monitoring but are not immediately life-threatening.

The bottom line: most people truly don’t know their actual state of health. The ability to take a fully digital deep dive into your health status at least once per year will enable you to detect disease at stage zero or stage one, when it is most curable.

Sensors, Wearables, and Nanobots
Wearables, connected devices, and quantified self apps will allow us to continuously collect enormous amounts of useful health information.

Wearables like the Quanttus wristband and Vital Connect can transmit your electrocardiogram data, vital signs, posture, and stress levels anywhere on the planet.

In April 2017, we were proud to grant $2.5 million in prize money to the winning team in the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, Final Frontier Medical Devices.

Using a group of noninvasive sensors that collect data on vital signs, body chemistry, and biological functions, Final Frontier integrates this data in their powerful, AI-based DxtER diagnostic engine for rapid, high-precision assessments.

Their engine combines learnings from clinical emergency medicine and data analysis from actual patients.

Google is developing a full range of internal and external sensors (e.g. smart contact lenses) that can monitor the wearer’s vitals, ranging from blood sugar levels to blood chemistry.

In September 2018, Apple announced its Series 4 Apple Watch, including an FDA-approved mobile, on-the-fly ECG. Granted its first FDA approval, Apple appears to be moving deeper into the sensing healthcare market.

Further, Apple is reportedly now developing sensors that can non-invasively monitor blood sugar levels in real time for diabetic treatment. IoT-connected sensors are also entering the world of prescription drugs.

Last year, the FDA approved the first sensor-embedded pill, Abilify MyCite. This new class of digital pills can now communicate medication data to a user-controlled app, to which doctors may be granted access for remote monitoring.

Perhaps what is most impressive about the next generation of wearables and implantables is the density of sensors, processing, networking, and battery capability that we can now cheaply and compactly integrate.

Take the second-generation OURA ring, for example, which focuses on sleep measurement and management.

The OURA ring looks like a slightly thick wedding band, yet contains an impressive array of sensors and capabilities, including:

Two infrared LED
One infrared sensor
Three temperature sensors
One accelerometer
A six-axis gyro
A curved battery with a seven-day life
The memory, processing, and transmission capability required to connect with your smartphone

Disrupting Medical Imaging Hardware
In 2018, we saw lab breakthroughs that will drive the cost of an ultrasound sensor to below $100, in a packaging smaller than most bandages, powered by a smartphone. Dramatically disrupting ultrasound is just the beginning.

Nanobots and Nanonetworks
While wearables have long been able to track and transmit our steps, heart rate, and other health data, smart nanobots and ingestible sensors will soon be able to monitor countless new parameters and even help diagnose disease.

Some of the most exciting breakthroughs in smart nanotechnology from the past year include:

Researchers from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) demonstrated artificial microrobots that can swim and navigate through different fluids, independent of additional sensors, electronics, or power transmission.

Researchers at the University of Chicago proposed specific arrangements of DNA-based molecular logic gates to capture the information contained in the temporal portion of our cells’ communication mechanisms. Accessing the otherwise-lost time-dependent information of these cellular signals is akin to knowing the tune of a song, rather than solely the lyrics.

MIT researchers built micron-scale robots able to sense, record, and store information about their environment. These tiny robots, about 100 micrometers in diameter (approximately the size of a human egg cell), can also carry out pre-programmed computational tasks.

Engineers at University of California, San Diego developed ultrasound-powered nanorobots that swim efficiently through your blood, removing harmful bacteria and the toxins they produce.

But it doesn’t stop there.

As nanosensor and nanonetworking capabilities develop, these tiny bots may soon communicate with each other, enabling the targeted delivery of drugs and autonomous corrective action.

Mobile Health
The OURA ring and the Series 4 Apple Watch are just the tip of the spear when it comes to our future of mobile health. This field, predicted to become a $102 billion market by 2022, puts an on-demand virtual doctor in your back pocket.

Step aside, WebMD.

In true exponential technology fashion, mobile device penetration has increased dramatically, while image recognition error rates and sensor costs have sharply declined.

As a result, AI-powered medical chatbots are flooding the market; diagnostic apps can identify anything from a rash to diabetic retinopathy; and with the advent of global connectivity, mHealth platforms enable real-time health data collection, transmission, and remote diagnosis by medical professionals.

Already available to residents across North London, Babylon Health offers immediate medical advice through AI-powered chatbots and video consultations with doctors via its app.

Babylon now aims to build up its AI for advanced diagnostics and even prescription. Others, like Woebot, take on mental health, using cognitive behavioral therapy in communications over Facebook messenger with patients suffering from depression.

In addition to phone apps and add-ons that test for fertility or autism, the now-FDA-approved Clarius L7 Linear Array Ultrasound Scanner can connect directly to iOS and Android devices and perform wireless ultrasounds at a moment’s notice.

Next, Healthy.io, an Israeli startup, uses your smartphone and computer vision to analyze traditional urine test strips—all you need to do is take a few photos.

With mHealth platforms like ClickMedix, which connects remotely-located patients to medical providers through real-time health data collection and transmission, what’s to stop us from delivering needed treatments through drone delivery or robotic telesurgery?

Welcome to the age of smartphone-as-a-medical-device.

With these DIY data collection and diagnostic tools, we save on transportation costs (time and money), and time bottlenecks.

No longer will you need to wait for your urine or blood results to go through the current information chain: samples will be sent to the lab, analyzed by a technician, results interpreted by your doctor, and only then relayed to you.

Just like the “sage-on-the-stage” issue with today’s education system, healthcare has a “doctor-on-the-dais” problem. Current medical procedures are too complicated and expensive for a layperson to perform and analyze on their own.

The coming abundance of healthcare data promises to transform how we approach healthcare, putting the power of exponential technologies in the patient’s hands and revolutionizing how we live.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434585 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

The World’s Fastest Supercomputer Breaks an AI Record
Tom Simonite | Wired
“Summit, which occupies an area equivalent to two tennis courts, used more than 27,000 powerful graphics processors in the project. It tapped their power to train deep-learning algorithms, the technology driving AI’s frontier, chewing through the exercise at a rate of a billion billion operations per second, a pace known in supercomputing circles as an exaflop.”

iRobot Finally Announces Awesome New Terra Robotic Lawnmower
Evan Ackerman | IEEE Spectrum
“Since the first Roomba came out in 2002, it has seemed inevitable that one day iRobot would develop a robotic lawn mower. After all, a robot mower is basically just a Roomba that works outside, right? Of course, it’s not nearly that simple, as iRobot has spent the last decade or so discovering, but they’ve finally managed to pull it off.”

3D Printing
Watch This Super Speedy 3D Printer Make Objects Suddenly Appear
Erin Winick | MIT Technology Review
“The new machine—which the team nicknamed the ‘replicator’ after the machine from Star Trek—instead forms the entire item all in one go. It does this by shining light onto specific spots in a rotating resin that solidifies when exposed to a certain light level.”

The DIY Designer Baby Project Funded With Bitcoin
Antonio Regalado | MIT Technology Review
“i‘Is DIY bio anywhere close to making a CRISPR baby? No, not remotely,’ David Ishee says. ‘But if some rich guy pays a scientist to do the work, it’s going to happen.’ He adds: ‘What you are reporting on isn’t Bryan—it’s the unseen middle space, a layer of gray-market biotech and freelance science where people with resources can get things done.’i”

The Complete Cancer Cure Story Is Both Bogus and Tragic
Megan Molteni | Wired
“You’d think creators and consumers of news would have learned their lesson by now. But the latest version of the fake cancer cure story is even more flagrantly flawed than usual. The public’s cancer cure–shaped amnesia, and media outlets’ willingness to exploit it for clicks, are as bottomless as ever. Hope, it would seem, trumps history.”

An AI Reading List—From Practical Primers to Sci-Fi Short Stories
James Vincent | The Verge
“The Verge has assembled a reading list: a brief but diverse compendium of books, short stories, and blogs, all chosen by leading figures in the AI world to help you better understand artificial intelligence.”

Image Credit: Katya Havok / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434336 These Smart Seafaring Robots Have a ...

Drones. Self-driving cars. Flying robo taxis. If the headlines of the last few years are to be believed, terrestrial transportation in the future will someday be filled with robotic conveyances and contraptions that will require little input from a human other than to download an app.

But what about the other 70 percent of the planet’s surface—the part that’s made up of water?

Sure, there are underwater drones that can capture 4K video for the next BBC documentary. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are capable of diving down thousands of meters to investigate ocean vents or repair industrial infrastructure.

Yet most of the robots on or below the water today still lean heavily on the human element to operate. That’s not surprising given the unstructured environment of the seas and the poor communication capabilities for anything moving below the waves. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are probably the closest thing today to smart cars in the ocean, but they generally follow pre-programmed instructions.

A new generation of seafaring robots—leveraging artificial intelligence, machine vision, and advanced sensors, among other technologies—are beginning to plunge into the ocean depths. Here are some of the latest and most exciting ones.

The Transformer of the Sea
Nic Radford, chief technology officer of Houston Mechatronics Inc. (HMI), is hesitant about throwing around the word “autonomy” when talking about his startup’s star creation, Aquanaut. He prefers the term “shared control.”

Whatever you want to call it, Aquanaut seems like something out of the script of a Transformers movie. The underwater robot begins each mission in a submarine-like shape, capable of autonomously traveling up to 200 kilometers on battery power, depending on the assignment.

When Aquanaut reaches its destination—oil and gas is the primary industry HMI hopes to disrupt to start—its four specially-designed and built linear actuators go to work. Aquanaut then unfolds into a robot with a head, upper torso, and two manipulator arms, all while maintaining proper buoyancy to get its job done.

The lightbulb moment of how to engineer this transformation from submarine to robot came one day while Aquanaut’s engineers were watching the office’s stand-up desks bob up and down. The answer to the engineering challenge of the hull suddenly seemed obvious.

“We’re just gonna build a big, gigantic, underwater stand-up desk,” Radford told Singularity Hub.

Hardware wasn’t the only problem the team, comprised of veteran NASA roboticists like Radford, had to solve. In order to ditch the expensive support vessels and large teams of humans required to operate traditional ROVs, Aquanaut would have to be able to sense its environment in great detail and relay that information back to headquarters using an underwater acoustics communications system that harkens back to the days of dial-up internet connections.

To tackle that problem of low bandwidth, HMI equipped Aquanaut with a machine vision system comprised of acoustic, optical, and laser-based sensors. All of that dense data is compressed using in-house designed technology and transmitted to a single human operator who controls Aquanaut with a few clicks of a mouse. In other words, no joystick required.

“I don’t know of anyone trying to do this level of autonomy as it relates to interacting with the environment,” Radford said.

HMI got $20 million earlier this year in Series B funding co-led by Transocean, one of the world’s largest offshore drilling contractors. That should be enough money to finish the Aquanaut prototype, which Radford said is about 99.8 percent complete. Some “high-profile” demonstrations are planned for early next year, with commercial deployments as early as 2020.

“What just gives us an incredible advantage here is that we have been born and bred on doing robotic systems for remote locations,” Radford noted. “This is my life, and I’ve bet the farm on it, and it takes this kind of fortitude and passion to see these things through, because these are not easy problems to solve.”

On Cruise Control
Meanwhile, a Boston-based startup is trying to solve the problem of making ships at sea autonomous. Sea Machines is backed by about $12.5 million in capital venture funding, with Toyota AI joining the list of investors in a $10 million Series A earlier this month.

Sea Machines is looking to the self-driving industry for inspiration, developing what it calls “vessel intelligence” systems that can be retrofitted on existing commercial vessels or installed on newly-built working ships.

For instance, the startup announced a deal earlier this year with Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, to deploy a system of artificial intelligence, computer vision, and LiDAR on the Danish company’s new ice-class container ship. The technology works similar to advanced driver-assistance systems found in automobiles to avoid hazards. The proof of concept will lay the foundation for a future autonomous collision avoidance system.

It’s not just startups making a splash in autonomous shipping. Radford noted that Rolls Royce—yes, that Rolls Royce—is leading the way in the development of autonomous ships. Its Intelligence Awareness system pulls in nearly every type of hyped technology on the market today: neural networks, augmented reality, virtual reality, and LiDAR.

In augmented reality mode, for example, a live feed video from the ship’s sensors can detect both static and moving objects, overlaying the scene with details about the types of vessels in the area, as well as their distance, heading, and other pertinent data.

While safety is a primary motivation for vessel automation—more than 1,100 ships have been lost over the past decade—these new technologies could make ships more efficient and less expensive to operate, according to a story in Wired about the Rolls Royce Intelligence Awareness system.

Sea Hunt Meets Science
As Singularity Hub noted in a previous article, ocean robots can also play a critical role in saving the seas from environmental threats. One poster child that has emerged—or, invaded—is the spindly lionfish.

A venomous critter endemic to the Indo-Pacific region, the lionfish is now found up and down the east coast of North America and beyond. And it is voracious, eating up to 30 times its own stomach volume and reducing juvenile reef fish populations by nearly 90 percent in as little as five weeks, according to the Ocean Support Foundation.

That has made the colorful but deadly fish Public Enemy No. 1 for many marine conservationists. Both researchers and startups are developing autonomous robots to hunt down the invasive predator.

At the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, for example, students are building a spear-carrying robot that uses machine learning and computer vision to distinguish lionfish from other aquatic species. The students trained the algorithms on thousands of different images of lionfish. The result: a lionfish-killing machine that boasts an accuracy of greater than 95 percent.

Meanwhile, a small startup called the American Marine Research Corporation out of Pensacola, Florida is applying similar technology to seek and destroy lionfish. Rather than spearfishing, the AMRC drone would stun and capture the lionfish, turning a profit by selling the creatures to local seafood restaurants.

Lionfish: It’s what’s for dinner.

Water Bots
A new wave of smart, independent robots are diving, swimming, and cruising across the ocean and its deepest depths. These autonomous systems aren’t necessarily designed to replace humans, but to venture where we can’t go or to improve safety at sea. And, perhaps, these latest innovations may inspire the robots that will someday plumb the depths of watery planets far from Earth.

Image Credit: Houston Mechatronics, Inc. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#433911 Thanksgiving Food for Thought: The Tech ...

With the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, it’s a great time to reflect on the future of food. Over the last few years, we have seen a dramatic rise in exponential technologies transforming the food industry from seed to plate. Food is important in many ways—too little or too much of it can kill us, and it is often at the heart of family, culture, our daily routines, and our biggest celebrations. The agriculture and food industries are also two of the world’s biggest employers. Let’s take a look to see what is in store for the future.

Robotic Farms
Over the last few years, we have seen a number of new companies emerge in the robotic farming industry. This includes new types of farming equipment used in arable fields, as well as indoor robotic vertical farms. In November 2017, Hands Free Hectare became the first in the world to remotely grow an arable crop. They used autonomous tractors to sow and spray crops, small rovers to take soil samples, drones to monitor crop growth, and an unmanned combine harvester to collect the crops. Since then, they’ve also grown and harvested a field of winter wheat, and have been adding additional technologies and capabilities to their arsenal of robotic farming equipment.

Indoor vertical farming is also rapidly expanding. As Engadget reported in October 2018, a number of startups are now growing crops like leafy greens, tomatoes, flowers, and herbs. These farms can grow food in urban areas, reducing transport, water, and fertilizer costs, and often don’t need pesticides since they are indoors. IronOx, which is using robots to grow plants with navigation technology used by self-driving cars, can grow 30 times more food per acre of land using 90 percent less water than traditional farmers. Vertical farming company Plenty was recently funded by Softbank’s Vision Fund, Jeff Bezos, and others to build 300 vertical farms in China.

These startups are not only succeeding in wealthy countries. Hello Tractor, an “uberized” tractor, has worked with 250,000 smallholder farms in Africa, creating both food security and tech-infused agriculture jobs. The World Food Progam’s Innovation Accelerator (an impact partner of Singularity University) works with hundreds of startups aimed at creating zero hunger. One project is focused on supporting refugees in developing “food computers” in refugee camps—computerized devices that grow food while also adjusting to the conditions around them. As exponential trends drive down the costs of robotics, sensors, software, and energy, we should see robotic farming scaling around the world and becoming the main way farming takes place.

Cultured Meat
Exponential technologies are not only revolutionizing how we grow vegetables and grains, but also how we generate protein and meat. The new cultured meat industry is rapidly expanding, led by startups such as Memphis Meats, Mosa Meats, JUST Meat, Inc. and Finless Foods, and backed by heavyweight investors including DFJ, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill, and Tyson Foods.

Cultured meat is grown in a bioreactor using cells from an animal, a scaffold, and a culture. The process is humane and, potentially, scientists can make the meat healthier by adding vitamins, removing fat, or customizing it to an individual’s diet and health concerns. Another benefit is that cultured meats, if grown at scale, would dramatically reduce environmental destruction, pollution, and climate change caused by the livestock and fishing industries. Similar to vertical farms, cultured meat is produced using technology and can be grown anywhere, on-demand and in a decentralized way.

Similar to robotic farming equipment, bioreactors will also follow exponential trends, rapidly falling in cost. In fact, the first cultured meat hamburger (created by Singularity University faculty Member Mark Post of Mosa Meats in 2013) cost $350,000 dollars. In 2018, Fast Company reported the cost was now about $11 per burger, and the Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies predicted they will produce beef at about $2 per pound in 2020, which will be competitive with existing prices. For those who have turkey on their mind, one can read about New Harvest’s work (one of the leading think tanks and research centers for the cultured meat and cellular agriculture industry) in funding efforts to generate a nugget of cultured turkey meat.

One outstanding question is whether cultured meat is safe to eat and how it will interact with the overall food supply chain. In the US, regulators like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are working out their roles in this process, with the FDA overseeing the cellular process and the FDA overseeing production and labeling.

Food Processing
Tech companies are also making great headway in streamlining food processing. Norwegian company Tomra Foods was an early leader in using imaging recognition, sensors, artificial intelligence, and analytics to more efficiently sort food based on shape, composition of fat, protein, and moisture, and other food safety and quality indicators. Their technologies have improved food yield by 5-10 percent, which is significant given they own 25 percent of their market.

These advances are also not limited to large food companies. In 2016 Google reported how a small family farm in Japan built a world-class cucumber sorting device using their open-source machine learning tool TensorFlow. SU startup Impact Vision uses hyper-spectral imaging to analyze food quality, which increases revenues and reduces food waste and product recalls from contamination.

These examples point to a question many have on their mind: will we live in a future where a few large companies use advanced technologies to grow the majority of food on the planet, or will the falling costs of these technologies allow family farms, startups, and smaller players to take part in creating a decentralized system? Currently, the future could flow either way, but it is important for smaller companies to take advantage of the most cutting-edge technology in order to stay competitive.

Food Purchasing and Delivery
In the last year, we have also seen a number of new developments in technology improving access to food. Amazon Go is opening grocery stores in Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago where customers use an app that allows them to pick up their products and pay without going through cashier lines. Sam’s Club is not far behind, with an app that also allows a customer to purchase goods in-store.

The market for food delivery is also growing. In 2017, Morgan Stanley estimated that the online food delivery market from restaurants could grow to $32 billion by 2021, from $12 billion in 2017. Companies like Zume are pioneering robot-powered pizza making and delivery. In addition to using robotics to create affordable high-end gourmet pizzas in their shop, they also have a pizza delivery truck that can assemble and cook pizzas while driving. Their system combines predictive analytics using past customer data to prepare pizzas for certain neighborhoods before the orders even come in. In early November 2018, the Wall Street Journal estimated that Zume is valued at up to $2.25 billion.

Looking Ahead
While each of these developments is promising on its own, it’s also important to note that since all these technologies are in some way digitized and connected to the internet, the various food tech players can collaborate. In theory, self-driving delivery restaurants could share data on what they are selling to their automated farm equipment, facilitating coordination of future crops. There is a tremendous opportunity to improve efficiency, lower costs, and create an abundance of healthy, sustainable food for all.

On the other hand, these technologies are also deeply disruptive. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, in 2010 about one billion people, or a third of the world’s workforce, worked in the farming and agricultural industries. We need to ensure these farmers are linked to new job opportunities, as well as facilitate collaboration between existing farming companies and technologists so that the industries can continue to grow and lead rather than be displaced.

Just as importantly, each of us might think about how these changes in the food industry might impact our own ways of life and culture. Thanksgiving celebrates community and sharing of food during a time of scarcity. Technology will help create an abundance of food and less need for communities to depend on one another. What are the ways that you will create community, sharing, and culture in this new world?

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