Tag Archives: science

#432051 What Roboticists Are Learning From Early ...

You might not have heard of Hanson Robotics, but if you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen their work. They were the company behind Sophia, the lifelike humanoid avatar that’s made dozens of high-profile media appearances. Before that, they were the company behind that strange-looking robot that seemed a bit like Asimo with Albert Einstein’s head—or maybe you saw BINA48, who was interviewed for the New York Times in 2010 and featured in Jon Ronson’s books. For the sci-fi aficionados amongst you, they even made a replica of legendary author Philip K. Dick, best remembered for having books with titles like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? turned into films with titles like Blade Runner.

Hanson Robotics, in other words, with their proprietary brand of life-like humanoid robots, have been playing the same game for a while. Sometimes it can be a frustrating game to watch. Anyone who gives the robot the slightest bit of thought will realize that this is essentially a chat-bot, with all the limitations this implies. Indeed, even in that New York Times interview with BINA48, author Amy Harmon describes it as a frustrating experience—with “rare (but invariably thrilling) moments of coherence.” This sensation will be familiar to anyone who’s conversed with a chatbot that has a few clever responses.

The glossy surface belies the lack of real intelligence underneath; it seems, at first glance, like a much more advanced machine than it is. Peeling back that surface layer—at least for a Hanson robot—means you’re peeling back Frubber. This proprietary substance—short for “Flesh Rubber,” which is slightly nightmarish—is surprisingly complicated. Up to thirty motors are required just to control the face; they manipulate liquid cells in order to make the skin soft, malleable, and capable of a range of different emotional expressions.

A quick combinatorial glance at the 30+ motors suggests that there are millions of possible combinations; researchers identify 62 that they consider “human-like” in Sophia, although not everyone agrees with this assessment. Arguably, the technical expertise that went into reconstructing the range of human facial expressions far exceeds the more simplistic chat engine the robots use, although it’s the second one that allows it to inflate the punters’ expectations with a few pre-programmed questions in an interview.

Hanson Robotics’ belief is that, ultimately, a lot of how humans will eventually relate to robots is going to depend on their faces and voices, as well as on what they’re saying. “The perception of identity is so intimately bound up with the perception of the human form,” says David Hanson, company founder.

Yet anyone attempting to design a robot that won’t terrify people has to contend with the uncanny valley—that strange blend of concern and revulsion people react with when things appear to be creepily human. Between cartoonish humanoids and genuine humans lies what has often been a no-go zone in robotic aesthetics.

The uncanny valley concept originated with roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that roboticists should avoid trying to replicate humans exactly. Since anything that wasn’t perfect, but merely very good, would elicit an eerie feeling in humans, shirking the challenge entirely was the only way to avoid the uncanny valley. It’s probably a task made more difficult by endless streams of articles about AI taking over the world that inexplicably conflate AI with killer humanoid Terminators—which aren’t particularly likely to exist (although maybe it’s best not to push robots around too much).

The idea behind this realm of psychological horror is fairly simple, cognitively speaking.

We know how to categorize things that are unambiguously human or non-human. This is true even if they’re designed to interact with us. Consider the popularity of Aibo, Jibo, or even some robots that don’t try to resemble humans. Something that resembles a human, but isn’t quite right, is bound to evoke a fear response in the same way slightly distorted music or slightly rearranged furniture in your home will. The creature simply doesn’t fit.

You may well reject the idea of the uncanny valley entirely. David Hanson, naturally, is not a fan. In the paper Upending the Uncanny Valley, he argues that great art forms have often resembled humans, but the ultimate goal for humanoid roboticists is probably to create robots we can relate to as something closer to humans than works of art.

Meanwhile, Hanson and other scientists produce competing experiments to either demonstrate that the uncanny valley is overhyped, or to confirm it exists and probe its edges.

The classic experiment involves gradually morphing a cartoon face into a human face, via some robotic-seeming intermediaries—yet it’s in movement that the real horror of the almost-human often lies. Hanson has argued that incorporating cartoonish features may help—and, sometimes, that the uncanny valley is a generational thing which will melt away when new generations grow used to the quirks of robots. Although Hanson might dispute the severity of this effect, it’s clearly what he’s trying to avoid with each new iteration.

Hiroshi Ishiguro is the latest of the roboticists to have dived headlong into the valley.

Building on the work of pioneers like Hanson, those who study human-robot interaction are pushing at the boundaries of robotics—but also of social science. It’s usually difficult to simulate what you don’t understand, and there’s still an awful lot we don’t understand about how we interpret the constant streams of non-verbal information that flow when you interact with people in the flesh.

Ishiguro took this imitation of human forms to extreme levels. Not only did he monitor and log the physical movements people made on videotapes, but some of his robots are based on replicas of people; the Repliee series began with a ‘replicant’ of his daughter. This involved making a rubber replica—a silicone cast—of her entire body. Future experiments were focused on creating Geminoid, a replica of Ishiguro himself.

As Ishiguro aged, he realized that it would be more effective to resemble his replica through cosmetic surgery rather than by continually creating new casts of his face, each with more lines than the last. “I decided not to get old anymore,” Ishiguro said.

We love to throw around abstract concepts and ideas: humans being replaced by machines, cared for by machines, getting intimate with machines, or even merging themselves with machines. You can take an idea like that, hold it in your hand, and examine it—dispassionately, if not without interest. But there’s a gulf between thinking about it and living in a world where human-robot interaction is not a field of academic research, but a day-to-day reality.

As the scientists studying human-robot interaction develop their robots, their replicas, and their experiments, they are making some of the first forays into that world. We might all be living there someday. Understanding ourselves—decrypting the origins of empathy and love—may be the greatest challenge to face. That is, if you want to avoid the valley.

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#432036 The Power to Upgrade Our Own Biology Is ...

Upgrading our biology may sound like science fiction, but attempts to improve humanity actually date back thousands of years. Every day, we enhance ourselves through seemingly mundane activities such as exercising, meditating, or consuming performance-enhancing drugs, such as caffeine or adderall. However, the tools with which we upgrade our biology are improving at an accelerating rate and becoming increasingly invasive.

In recent decades, we have developed a wide array of powerful methods, such as genetic engineering and brain-machine interfaces, that are redefining our humanity. In the short run, such enhancement technologies have medical applications and may be used to treat many diseases and disabilities. Additionally, in the coming decades, they could allow us to boost our physical abilities or even digitize human consciousness.

What’s New?
Many futurists argue that our devices, such as our smartphones, are already an extension of our cortex and in many ways an abstract form of enhancement. According to philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ theory of extended mind, we use technology to expand the boundaries of the human mind beyond our skulls.

One can argue that having access to a smartphone enhances one’s cognitive capacities and abilities and is an indirect form of enhancement of its own. It can be considered an abstract form of brain-machine interface. Beyond that, wearable devices and computers are already accessible in the market, and people like athletes use them to boost their progress.

However, these interfaces are becoming less abstract.

Not long ago, Elon Musk announced a new company, Neuralink, with the goal of merging the human mind with AI. The past few years have seen remarkable developments in both the hardware and software of brain-machine interfaces. Experts are designing more intricate electrodes while programming better algorithms to interpret neural signals. Scientists have already succeeded in enabling paralyzed patients to type with their minds, and are even allowing brains to communicate with one another purely through brainwaves.

Ethical Challenges of Enhancement
There are many social and ethical implications of such advancements.

One of the most fundamental issues with cognitive and physical enhancement techniques is that they contradict the very definition of merit and success that society has relied on for millennia. Many forms of performance-enhancing drugs have been considered “cheating” for the longest time.

But perhaps we ought to revisit some of our fundamental assumptions as a society.

For example, we like to credit hard work and talent in a fair manner, where “fair” generally implies that an individual has acted in a way that has served him to merit his rewards. If you are talented and successful, it is considered to be because you chose to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities available to you. But by these standards, how much of our accomplishments can we truly be credited for?

For instance, the genetic lottery can have an enormous impact on an individual’s predisposition and personality, which can in turn affect factors such as motivation, reasoning skills, and other mental abilities. Many people are born with a natural ability or a physique that gives them an advantage in a particular area or predisposes them to learn faster. But is it justified to reward someone for excellence if their genes had a pivotal role in their path to success?

Beyond that, there are already many ways in which we take “shortcuts” to better mental performance. Seemingly mundane activities like drinking coffee, meditating, exercising, or sleeping well can boost one’s performance in any given area and are tolerated by society. Even the use of language can have positive physical and psychological effects on the human brain, which can be liberating to the individual and immensely beneficial to society at large. And let’s not forget the fact that some of us are born into more access to developing literacy than others.

Given all these reasons, one could argue that cognitive abilities and talents are currently derived more from uncontrollable factors and luck than we like to admit. If anything, technologies like brain-machine interfaces can enhance individual autonomy and allow one a choice of how capable they become.

As Karim Jebari points out (pdf), if a certain characteristic or trait is required to perform a particular role and an individual lacks this trait, would it be wrong to implement the trait through brain-machine interfaces or genetic engineering? How is this different from any conventional form of learning or acquiring a skill? If anything, this would be removing limitations on individuals that result from factors outside their control, such as biological predisposition (or even traits induced from traumatic experiences) to act or perform in a certain way.

Another major ethical concern is equality. As with any other emerging technology, there are valid concerns that cognitive enhancement tech will benefit only the wealthy, thus exacerbating current inequalities. This is where public policy and regulations can play a pivotal role in the impact of technology on society.

Enhancement technologies can either contribute to inequality or allow us to solve it. Educating and empowering the under-privileged can happen at a much more rapid rate, helping the overall rate of human progress accelerate. The “normal range” for human capacity and intelligence, however it is defined, could shift dramatically towards more positive trends.

Many have also raised concerns over the negative applications of government-led biological enhancement, including eugenics-like movements and super-soldiers. Naturally, there are also issues of safety, security, and well-being, especially within the early stages of experimentation with enhancement techniques.

Brain-machine interfaces, for instance, could have implications on autonomy. The interface involves using information extracted from the brain to stimulate or modify systems in order to accomplish a goal. This part of the process can be enhanced by implementing an artificial intelligence system onto the interface—one that exposes the possibility of a third party potentially manipulating individual’s personalities, emotions, and desires by manipulating the interface.

A Tool For Transcendence
It’s important to discuss these risks, not so that we begin to fear and avoid such technologies, but so that we continue to advance in a way that minimizes harm and allows us to optimize the benefits.

Stephen Hawking notes that “with genetic engineering, we will be able to increase the complexity of our DNA, and improve the human race.” Indeed, the potential advantages of modifying biology are revolutionary. Doctors would gain access to a powerful tool to tackle disease, allowing us to live longer and healthier lives. We might be able to extend our lifespan and tackle aging, perhaps a critical step to becoming a space-faring species. We may begin to modify the brain’s building blocks to become more intelligent and capable of solving grand challenges.

In their book Evolving Ourselves, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans describe a world where evolution is no longer driven by natural processes. Instead, it is driven by human choices, through what they call unnatural selection and non-random mutation. Human enhancement is bringing us closer to such a world—it could allow us to take control of our evolution and truly shape the future of our species.

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#432027 We Read This 800-Page Report on the ...

The longevity field is bustling but still fragmented, and the “silver tsunami” is coming.

That is the takeaway of The Science of Longevity, the behemoth first volume of a four-part series offering a bird’s-eye view of the longevity industry in 2017. The report, a joint production of the Biogerontology Research Foundation, Deep Knowledge Life Science, Aging Analytics Agency, and Longevity.International, synthesizes the growing array of academic and industry ventures related to aging, healthspan, and everything in between.

This is huge, not only in scale but also in ambition. The report, totally worth a read here, will be followed by four additional volumes in 2018, covering topics ranging from the business side of longevity ventures to financial systems to potential tensions between life extension and religion.

And that’s just the first step. The team hopes to publish updated versions of the report annually, giving scientists, investors, and regulatory agencies an easy way to keep their finger on the longevity pulse.

“In 2018, ‘aging’ remains an unnamed adversary in an undeclared war. For all intents and purposes it is mere abstraction in the eyes of regulatory authorities worldwide,” the authors write.

That needs to change.

People often arrive at the field of aging from disparate areas with wildly diverse opinions and strengths. The report compiles these individual efforts at cracking aging into a systematic resource—a “periodic table” for longevity that clearly lays out emerging trends and promising interventions.

The ultimate goal? A global framework serving as a road map to guide the burgeoning industry. With such a framework in hand, academics and industry alike are finally poised to petition the kind of large-scale investments and regulatory changes needed to tackle aging with a unified front.

Infographic depicting many of the key research hubs and non-profits within the field of geroscience.
Image Credit: Longevity.International
The Aging Globe
The global population is rapidly aging. And our medical and social systems aren’t ready to handle this oncoming “silver tsunami.”

Take the medical field. Many age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s lack effective treatment options. Others, including high blood pressure, stroke, lung or heart problems, require continuous medication and monitoring, placing enormous strain on medical resources.

What’s more, because disease risk rises exponentially with age, medical care for the elderly becomes a game of whack-a-mole: curing any individual disease such as cancer only increases healthy lifespan by two to three years before another one hits.

That’s why in recent years there’s been increasing support for turning the focus to the root of the problem: aging. Rather than tackling individual diseases, geroscience aims to add healthy years to our lifespan—extending “healthspan,” so to speak.

Despite this relative consensus, the field still faces a roadblock. The US FDA does not yet recognize aging as a bona fide disease. Without such a designation, scientists are banned from testing potential interventions for aging in clinical trials (that said, many have used alternate measures such as age-related biomarkers or Alzheimer’s symptoms as a proxy).

Luckily, the FDA’s stance is set to change. The promising anti-aging drug metformin, for example, is already in clinical trials, examining its effect on a variety of age-related symptoms and diseases. This report, and others to follow, may help push progress along.

“It is critical for investors, policymakers, scientists, NGOs, and influential entities to prioritize the amelioration of the geriatric world scenario and recognize aging as a critical matter of global economic security,” the authors say.

Biomedical Gerontology
The causes of aging are complex, stubborn, and not all clear.

But the report lays out two main streams of intervention with already promising results.

The first is to understand the root causes of aging and stop them before damage accumulates. It’s like meddling with cogs and other inner workings of a clock to slow it down, the authors say.

The report lays out several treatments to keep an eye on.

Geroprotective drugs is a big one. Often repurposed from drugs already on the market, these traditional small molecule drugs target a wide variety of metabolic pathways that play a role in aging. Think anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory, and drugs that mimic caloric restriction, a proven way to extend healthspan in animal models.

More exciting are the emerging technologies. One is nanotechnology. Nanoparticles of carbon, “bucky-balls,” for example, have already been shown to fight viral infections and dangerous ion particles, as well as stimulate the immune system and extend lifespan in mice (though others question the validity of the results).

Blood is another promising, if surprising, fountain of youth: recent studies found that molecules in the blood of the young rejuvenate the heart, brain, and muscles of aged rodents, though many of these findings have yet to be replicated.

Rejuvenation Biotechnology
The second approach is repair and maintenance.

Rather than meddling with inner clockwork, here we force back the hands of a clock to set it back. The main example? Stem cell therapy.

This type of approach would especially benefit the brain, which harbors small, scattered numbers of stem cells that deplete with age. For neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, in which neurons progressively die off, stem cell therapy could in theory replace those lost cells and mend those broken circuits.

Once a blue-sky idea, the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), where scientists can turn skin and other mature cells back into a stem-like state, hugely propelled the field into near reality. But to date, stem cells haven’t been widely adopted in clinics.

It’s “a toolkit of highly innovative, highly invasive technologies with clinical trials still a great many years off,” the authors say.

But there is a silver lining. The boom in 3D tissue printing offers an alternative approach to stem cells in replacing aging organs. Recent investment from the Methuselah Foundation and other institutions suggests interest remains high despite still being a ways from mainstream use.

A Disruptive Future
“We are finally beginning to see an industry emerge from mankind’s attempts to make sense of the biological chaos,” the authors conclude.

Looking through the trends, they identified several technologies rapidly gaining steam.

One is artificial intelligence, which is already used to bolster drug discovery. Machine learning may also help identify new longevity genes or bring personalized medicine to the clinic based on a patient’s records or biomarkers.

Another is senolytics, a class of drugs that kill off “zombie cells.” Over 10 prospective candidates are already in the pipeline, with some expected to enter the market in less than a decade, the authors say.

Finally, there’s the big gun—gene therapy. The treatment, unlike others mentioned, can directly target the root of any pathology. With a snip (or a swap), genetic tools can turn off damaging genes or switch on ones that promote a youthful profile. It is the most preventative technology at our disposal.

There have already been some success stories in animal models. Using gene therapy, rodents given a boost in telomerase activity, which lengthens the protective caps of DNA strands, live healthier for longer.

“Although it is the prospect farthest from widespread implementation, it may ultimately prove the most influential,” the authors say.

Ultimately, can we stop the silver tsunami before it strikes?

Perhaps not, the authors say. But we do have defenses: the technologies outlined in the report, though still immature, could one day stop the oncoming tidal wave in its tracks.

Now we just have to bring them out of the lab and into the real world. To push the transition along, the team launched Longevity.International, an online meeting ground that unites various stakeholders in the industry.

By providing scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, and policy-makers a platform for learning and discussion, the authors say, we may finally generate enough drive to implement our defenses against aging. The war has begun.

Read the report in full here, and watch out for others coming soon here. The second part of the report profiles 650 (!!!) longevity-focused research hubs, non-profits, scientists, conferences, and literature. It’s an enormously helpful resource—totally worth keeping it in your back pocket for future reference.

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#432013 How AI Can Overcome Planet’s ...

People are often quick to link artificial intelligence with the future of every industry including technology, medicine, and science. For most scientists, there is a common belief that the answer lies in data mining through the information we have already generated online. Whereas humans cannot analyze large amounts of data, AI can produce fast, accurate …

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#431999 Brain-Like Chips Now Beat the Human ...

Move over, deep learning. Neuromorphic computing—the next big thing in artificial intelligence—is on fire.

Just last week, two studies individually unveiled computer chips modeled after information processing in the human brain.

The first, published in Nature Materials, found a perfect solution to deal with unpredictability at synapses—the gap between two neurons that transmit and store information. The second, published in Science Advances, further amped up the system’s computational power, filling synapses with nanoclusters of supermagnetic material to bolster information encoding.

The result? Brain-like hardware systems that compute faster—and more efficiently—than the human brain.

“Ultimately we want a chip as big as a fingernail to replace one big supercomputer,” said Dr. Jeehwan Kim, who led the first study at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Experts are hopeful.

“The field’s full of hype, and it’s nice to see quality work presented in an objective way,” said Dr. Carver Mead, an engineer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena not involved in the work.

Software to Hardware
The human brain is the ultimate computational wizard. With roughly 100 billion neurons densely packed into the size of a small football, the brain can deftly handle complex computation at lightning speed using very little energy.

AI experts have taken note. The past few years saw brain-inspired algorithms that can identify faces, falsify voices, and play a variety of games at—and often above—human capability.

But software is only part of the equation. Our current computers, with their transistors and binary digital systems, aren’t equipped to run these powerful algorithms.

That’s where neuromorphic computing comes in. The idea is simple: fabricate a computer chip that mimics the brain at the hardware level. Here, data is both processed and stored within the chip in an analog manner. Each artificial synapse can accumulate and integrate small bits of information from multiple sources and fire only when it reaches a threshold—much like its biological counterpart.

Experts believe the speed and efficiency gains will be enormous.

For one, the chips will no longer have to transfer data between the central processing unit (CPU) and storage blocks, which wastes both time and energy. For another, like biological neural networks, neuromorphic devices can support neurons that run millions of streams of parallel computation.

A “Brain-on-a-chip”
Optimism aside, reproducing the biological synapse in hardware form hasn’t been as easy as anticipated.

Neuromorphic chips exist in many forms, but often look like a nanoscale metal sandwich. The “bread” pieces are generally made of conductive plates surrounding a switching medium—a conductive material of sorts that acts like the gap in a biological synapse.

When a voltage is applied, as in the case of data input, ions move within the switching medium, which then creates conductive streams to stimulate the downstream plate. This change in conductivity mimics the way biological neurons change their “weight,” or the strength of connectivity between two adjacent neurons.

But so far, neuromorphic synapses have been rather unpredictable. According to Kim, that’s because the switching medium is often comprised of material that can’t channel ions to exact locations on the downstream plate.

“Once you apply some voltage to represent some data with your artificial neuron, you have to erase and be able to write it again in the exact same way,” explains Kim. “But in an amorphous solid, when you write again, the ions go in different directions because there are lots of defects.”

In his new study, Kim and colleagues swapped the jelly-like switching medium for silicon, a material with only a single line of defects that acts like a channel to guide ions.

The chip starts with a thin wafer of silicon etched with a honeycomb-like pattern. On top is a layer of silicon germanium—something often present in transistors—in the same pattern. This creates a funnel-like dislocation, a kind of Grand Canal that perfectly shuttles ions across the artificial synapse.

The researchers then made a neuromorphic chip containing these synapses and shot an electrical zap through them. Incredibly, the synapses’ response varied by only four percent—much higher than any neuromorphic device made with an amorphous switching medium.

In a computer simulation, the team built a multi-layer artificial neural network using parameters measured from their device. After tens of thousands of training examples, their neural network correctly recognized samples 95 percent of the time, just 2 percent lower than state-of-the-art software algorithms.

The upside? The neuromorphic chip requires much less space than the hardware that runs deep learning algorithms. Forget supercomputers—these chips could one day run complex computations right on our handheld devices.

A Magnetic Boost
Meanwhile, in Boulder, Colorado, Dr. Michael Schneider at the National Institute of Standards and Technology also realized that the standard switching medium had to go.

“There must be a better way to do this, because nature has figured out a better way to do this,” he says.

His solution? Nanoclusters of magnetic manganese.

Schneider’s chip contained two slices of superconducting electrodes made out of niobium, which channel electricity with no resistance. When researchers applied different magnetic fields to the synapse, they could control the alignment of the manganese “filling.”

The switch gave the chip a double boost. For one, by aligning the switching medium, the team could predict the ion flow and boost uniformity. For another, the magnetic manganese itself adds computational power. The chip can now encode data in both the level of electrical input and the direction of the magnetisms without bulking up the synapse.

It seriously worked. At one billion times per second, the chips fired several orders of magnitude faster than human neurons. Plus, the chips required just one ten-thousandth of the energy used by their biological counterparts, all the while synthesizing input from nine different sources in an analog manner.

The Road Ahead
These studies show that we may be nearing a benchmark where artificial synapses match—or even outperform—their human inspiration.

But to Dr. Steven Furber, an expert in neuromorphic computing, we still have a ways before the chips go mainstream.

Many of the special materials used in these chips require specific temperatures, he says. Magnetic manganese chips, for example, require temperatures around absolute zero to operate, meaning they come with the need for giant cooling tanks filled with liquid helium—obviously not practical for everyday use.

Another is scalability. Millions of synapses are necessary before a neuromorphic device can be used to tackle everyday problems such as facial recognition. So far, no deal.

But these problems may in fact be a driving force for the entire field. Intense competition could push teams into exploring different ideas and solutions to similar problems, much like these two studies.

If so, future chips may come in diverse flavors. Similar to our vast array of deep learning algorithms and operating systems, the computer chips of the future may also vary depending on specific requirements and needs.

It is worth developing as many different technological approaches as possible, says Furber, especially as neuroscientists increasingly understand what makes our biological synapses—the ultimate inspiration—so amazingly efficient.

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