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#431559 Drug Discovery AI to Scour a Universe of ...

On a dark night, away from city lights, the stars of the Milky Way can seem uncountable. Yet from any given location no more than 4,500 are visible to the naked eye. Meanwhile, our galaxy has 100–400 billion stars, and there are even more galaxies in the universe.
The numbers of the night sky are humbling. And they give us a deep perspective…on drugs.
Yes, this includes wow-the-stars-are-freaking-amazing-tonight drugs, but also the kinds of drugs that make us well again when we’re sick. The number of possible organic compounds with “drug-like” properties dwarfs the number of stars in the universe by over 30 orders of magnitude.
Next to this multiverse of possibility, the chemical configurations scientists have made into actual medicines are like the smattering of stars you’d glimpse downtown.
But for good reason.
Exploring all that potential drug-space is as humanly impossible as exploring all of physical space, and even if we could, most of what we’d find wouldn’t fit our purposes. Still, the idea that wonder drugs must surely lurk amid the multitudes is too tantalizing to ignore.
Which is why, Alex Zhavoronkov said at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine in San Diego last week, we should use artificial intelligence to do more of the legwork and speed discovery. This, he said, could be one of the next big medical applications for AI.
Dogs, Diagnosis, and Drugs
Zhavoronkov is CEO of Insilico Medicine and CSO of the Biogerontology Research Foundation. Insilico is one of a number of AI startups aiming to accelerate drug discovery with AI.
In recent years, Zhavoronkov said, the now-famous machine learning technique, deep learning, has made progress on a number of fronts. Algorithms that can teach themselves to play games—like DeepMind’s AlphaGo Zero or Carnegie Mellon’s poker playing AI—are perhaps the most headline-grabbing of the bunch. But pattern recognition was the thing that kicked deep learning into overdrive early on, when machine learning algorithms went from struggling to tell dogs and cats apart to outperforming their peers and then their makers in quick succession.
[Watch this video for an AI update from Neil Jacobstein, chair of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at Singularity University.]

In medicine, deep learning algorithms trained on databases of medical images can spot life-threatening disease with equal or greater accuracy than human professionals. There’s even speculation that AI, if we learn to trust it, could be invaluable in diagnosing disease. And, as Zhavoronkov noted, with more applications and a longer track record that trust is coming.
“Tesla is already putting cars on the street,” Zhavoronkov said. “Three-year, four-year-old technology is already carrying passengers from point A to point B, at 100 miles an hour, and one mistake and you’re dead. But people are trusting their lives to this technology.”
“So, why don’t we do it in pharma?”
Trial and Error and Try Again
AI wouldn’t drive the car in pharmaceutical research. It’d be an assistant that, when paired with a chemist or two, could fast-track discovery by screening more possibilities for better candidates.
There’s plenty of room to make things more efficient, according to Zhavoronkov.
Drug discovery is arduous and expensive. Chemists sift tens of thousands of candidate compounds for the most promising to synthesize. Of these, a handful will go on to further research, fewer will make it to human clinical trials, and a fraction of those will be approved.
The whole process can take many years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
This is a big data problem if ever there was one, and deep learning thrives on big data. Early applications have shown their worth unearthing subtle patterns in huge training databases. Although drug-makers already use software to sift compounds, such software requires explicit rules written by chemists. AI’s allure is its ability to learn and improve on its own.
“There are two strategies for AI-driven innovation in pharma to ensure you get better molecules and much faster approvals,” Zhavoronkov said. “One is looking for the needle in the haystack, and another one is creating a new needle.”
To find the needle in the haystack, algorithms are trained on large databases of molecules. Then they go looking for molecules with attractive properties. But creating a new needle? That’s a possibility enabled by the generative adversarial networks Zhavoronkov specializes in.
Such algorithms pit two neural networks against each other. One generates meaningful output while the other judges whether this output is true or false, Zhavoronkov said. Together, the networks generate new objects like text, images, or in this case, molecular structures.
“We started employing this particular technology to make deep neural networks imagine new molecules, to make it perfect right from the start. So, to come up with really perfect needles,” Zhavoronkov said. “[You] can essentially go to this [generative adversarial network] and ask it to create molecules that inhibit protein X at concentration Y, with the highest viability, specific characteristics, and minimal side effects.”
Zhavoronkov believes AI can find or fabricate more needles from the array of molecular possibilities, freeing human chemists to focus on synthesizing only the most promising. If it works, he hopes we can increase hits, minimize misses, and generally speed the process up.
Proof’s in the Pudding
Insilico isn’t alone on its drug-discovery quest, nor is it a brand new area of interest.
Last year, a Harvard group published a paper on an AI that similarly suggests drug candidates. The software trained on 250,000 drug-like molecules and used its experience to generate new molecules that blended existing drugs and made suggestions based on desired properties.
An MIT Technology Review article on the subject highlighted a few of the challenges such systems may still face. The results returned aren’t always meaningful or easy to synthesize in the lab, and the quality of these results, as always, is only as good as the data dined upon.
Stanford chemistry professor and Andreesen Horowitz partner, Vijay Pande, said that images, speech, and text—three of the areas deep learning’s made quick strides in—have better, cleaner data. Chemical data, on the other hand, is still being optimized for deep learning. Also, while there are public databases, much data still lives behind closed doors at private companies.
To overcome the challenges and prove their worth, Zhavoronkov said, his company is very focused on validating the tech. But this year, skepticism in the pharmaceutical industry seems to be easing into interest and investment.
AI drug discovery startup Exscientia inked a deal with Sanofi for $280 million and GlaxoSmithKline for $42 million. Insilico is also partnering with GlaxoSmithKline, and Numerate is working with Takeda Pharmaceutical. Even Google may jump in. According to an article in Nature outlining the field, the firm’s deep learning project, Google Brain, is growing its biosciences team, and industry watchers wouldn’t be surprised to see them target drug discovery.
With AI and the hardware running it advancing rapidly, the greatest potential may yet be ahead. Perhaps, one day, all 1060 molecules in drug-space will be at our disposal. “You should take all the data you have, build n new models, and search as much of that 1060 as possible” before every decision you make, Brandon Allgood, CTO at Numerate, told Nature.
Today’s projects need to live up to their promises, of course, but Zhavoronkov believes AI will have a big impact in the coming years, and now’s the time to integrate it. “If you are working for a pharma company, and you’re still thinking, ‘Okay, where is the proof?’ Once there is a proof, and once you can see it to believe it—it’s going to be too late,” he said.
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#431543 China Is an Entrepreneurial Hotbed That ...

Last week, Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet, predicted that China will rapidly overtake the US in artificial intelligence…in as little as five years.
Last month, China announced plans to open a $10 billion quantum computing research center in 2020.
Bottom line, China is aggressively investing in exponential technologies, pursuing a bold goal of becoming the global AI superpower by 2030.
Based on what I’ve observed from China’s entrepreneurial scene, I believe they have a real shot of hitting that goal.
As I described in a previous tech blog, I recently traveled to China with a group of my Abundance 360 members, where I was hosted by my friend Kai-Fu Lee, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Sinovation Ventures.
On one of our first nights, Kai-Fu invited us to a special dinner at Da Dong Roast, which specializes in Peking duck, where we shared an 18-course meal.
The meal was amazing, and Kai-Fu’s dinner conversation provided us priceless insights on Chinese entrepreneurs.
Three topics opened my eyes. Here’s the wisdom I’d like to share with you.
1. The Entrepreneurial Culture in China
Chinese entrepreneurship has exploded onto the scene and changed significantly over the past 10 years.
In my opinion, one significant way that Chinese entrepreneurs vary from their American counterparts is in work ethic. The mantra I found in the startups I visited in Beijing and Shanghai was “9-9-6”—meaning the employees only needed to work from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week.
Another concept Kai-Fu shared over dinner was the almost ‘dictatorial’ leadership of the founder/CEO. In China, it’s not uncommon for the Founder/CEO to own the majority of the company, or at least 30–40 percent. It’s also the case that what the CEO says is gospel. Period, no debate. There is no minority or dissenting opinion. When the CEO says “march,” the company asks, “which way?”
When Kai-Fu started Sinovation (his $1 billion+ venture fund), there were few active angel investors. Today, China has a rich ecosystem of angel, venture capital, and government-funded innovation parks.
As venture capital in China has evolved, so too has the mindset of the entrepreneur.
Kai -Fu recalled an early investment he made in which, after an unfortunate streak, the entrepreneur came to him, almost in tears, apologizing for losing his money and promising he would earn it back for him in another way. Kai-Fu comforted the entrepreneur and said there was no such need.
Only a few years later, the situation was vastly different. An entrepreneur who was going through a similar unfortunate streak came to Kai Fu and told him he only had $2 million left of his initial $12 million investment. He informed him he saw no value in returning the money and instead was going to take the last $2 million and use it as a final push to see if the company could succeed. He then promised Kai-Fu if he failed, he would remember what Kai-Fu did for him and, as such, possibly give Sinovation an opportunity to invest in him with his next company.
2. Chinese Companies Are No Longer Just ‘Copycats’
During dinner, Kai-Fu lamented that 10 years ago, it would be fair to call Chinese companies copycats of American companies. Five years ago, the claim would be controversial. Today, however, Kai-Fu is clear that claim is entirely false.
While smart Chinese startups will still look at what American companies are doing and build on trends, today it’s becoming a wise business practice for American tech giants to analyze Chinese companies. If you look at many new features of Facebook’s Messenger, it seems to very closely mirror TenCent’s WeChat.
Interestingly, tight government controls in China have actually spurred innovation. Take TV, for example, a highly regulated industry. Because of this regulation, most entertainment in China is consumed on the internet or by phone. Game shows, reality shows, and more will be entirely centered online.
Kai-Fu told us about one of his investments in a company that helps create Chinese singing sensations. They take girls in from a young age, school them, and regardless of talent, help build their presence and brand as singers. Once ready, these singers are pushed across all the available platforms, and superstars are born. The company recognizes its role in this superstar status, though, which is why it takes a 50 percent cut of all earnings.
This company is just one example of how Chinese entrepreneurs take advantage of China’s unique position, market, and culture.
3. China’s Artificial Intelligence Play
Kai-Fu wrapped up his talk with a brief introduction into the expansive AI industry in China. I previously discussed Face++, a Sinovation investment, which is creating radically efficient facial recognition technology. Face++ is light years ahead of anyone else globally at recognition in live videos. However, Face++ is just one of the incredible advances in AI coming out of China.
Baidu, one of China’s most valuable tech companies, started out as just a search company. However, they now run one of the country’s leading self-driving car programs.
Baidu’s goal is to create a software suite atop existing hardware that will control all self-driving aspects of a vehicle but also be able to provide additional services such as HD mapping and more.
Another interesting application came from another of Sinovation’s investments, Smart Finance Group (SFG). Given most payments are mobile (through WeChat or Alipay), only ~20 percent of the population in China have a credit history. This makes it very difficult for individuals in China to acquire a loan.
SFG’s mobile application takes in user data (as much as the user allows) and, based on the information provided, uses an AI agent to create a financial profile with the power to offer an instant loan. This loan can be deposited directly into their WeChat or Alipay account and is typically approved in minutes. Unlike American loan companies, they avoid default and long-term debt by only providing a one-month loan with 10% interest. Borrow $200, and you pay back $220 by the following month.
Artificial intelligence is exploding in China, and Kai-Fu believes it will touch every single industry.
The only constant is change, and the rate of change is constantly increasing.
In the next 10 years, we’ll see tremendous changes on the geopolitical front and the global entrepreneurial scene caused by technological empowerment.
China is an entrepreneurial hotbed that cannot be ignored. I’m monitoring it closely. Are you?
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#431427 Why the Best Healthcare Hacks Are the ...

Technology has the potential to solve some of our most intractable healthcare problems. In fact, it’s already doing so, with inventions getting us closer to a medical Tricorder, and progress toward 3D printed organs, and AIs that can do point-of-care diagnosis.
No doubt these applications of cutting-edge tech will continue to push the needle on progress in medicine, diagnosis, and treatment. But what if some of the healthcare hacks we need most aren’t high-tech at all?
According to Dr. Darshak Sanghavi, this is exactly the case. In a talk at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine last week, Sanghavi told the audience, “We often think in extremely complex ways, but I think a lot of the improvements in health at scale can be done in an analog way.”
Sanghavi is the chief medical officer and senior vice president of translation at OptumLabs, and was previously director of preventive and population health at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, where he oversaw the development of large pilot programs aimed at improving healthcare costs and quality.
“How can we improve health at scale, not for only a small number of people, but for entire populations?” Sanghavi asked. With programs that benefit a small group of people, he explained, what tends to happen is that the average health of a population improves, but the disparities across the group worsen.
“My mantra became, ‘The denominator is everybody,’” he said. He shared details of some low-tech but crucial fixes he believes could vastly benefit the US healthcare system.
1. Regulatory Hacking
Healthcare regulations are ultimately what drive many aspects of patient care, for better or worse. Worse because the mind-boggling complexity of regulations (exhibit A: the Affordable Care Act is reportedly about 20,000 pages long) can make it hard for people to get the care they need at a cost they can afford, but better because, as Sanghavi explained, tweaking these regulations in the right way can result in across-the-board improvements in a given population’s health.
An adjustment to Medicare hospitalization rules makes for a relevant example. The code was updated to state that if people who left the hospital were re-admitted within 30 days, that hospital had to pay a penalty. The result was hospitals taking more care to ensure patients were released not only in good health, but also with a solid understanding of what they had to do to take care of themselves going forward. “Here, arguably the writing of a few lines of regulatory code resulted in a remarkable decrease in 30-day re-admissions, and the savings of several billion dollars,” Sanghavi said.
2. Long-Term Focus
It’s easy to focus on healthcare hacks that have immediate, visible results—but what about fixes whose benefits take years to manifest? How can we motivate hospitals, regulators, and doctors to take action when they know they won’t see changes anytime soon?
“I call this the reality TV problem,” Sanghavi said. “Reality shows don’t really care about who’s the most talented recording artist—they care about getting the most viewers. That is exactly how we think about health care.”
Sanghavi’s team wanted to address this problem for heart attacks. They found they could reliably determine someone’s 10-year risk of having a heart attack based on a simple risk profile. Rather than monitoring patients’ cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, and other individual factors, the team took the average 10-year risk across entire provider panels, then made providers responsible for controlling those populations.
“Every percentage point you lower that risk, by hook or by crook, you get some people to stop smoking, you get some people on cholesterol medication. It’s patient-centered decision-making, and the provider then makes money. This is the world’s first predictive analytic model, at scale, that’s actually being paid for at scale,” he said.
3. Aligned Incentives
If hospitals are held accountable for the health of the communities they’re based in, those hospitals need to have the right incentives to follow through. “Hospitals have to spend money on community benefit, but linking that benefit to a meaningful population health metric can catalyze significant improvements,” Sanghavi said.
Darshak Sanghavi speaking at Singularity University’s 2017 Exponential Medicine Summit in San Diego, CA.
He used smoking cessation as an example. His team designed a program where hospitals were given a score (determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) based on the smoking rate in the counties where they’re located, then given monetary incentives to improve their score. Improving their score, in turn, resulted in better health for their communities, which meant fewer patients to treat for smoking-related health problems.
4. Social Determinants of Health
Social determinants of health include factors like housing, income, family, and food security. The answer to getting people to pay attention to these factors at scale, and creating aligned incentives, Sanghavi said, is “Very simple. We just have to measure it to start with, and measure it universally.”
His team was behind a $157 million pilot program called Accountable Health Communities that went live this year. The program requires all Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries get screened for various social determinants of health. With all that data being collected, analysts can pinpoint local trends, then target funds to address the underlying problem, whether it’s job training, drug use, or nutritional education. “You’re then free to invest the dollars where they’re needed…this is how we can improve health at scale, with very simple changes in the incentive structures that are created,” he said.
5. ‘Securitizing’ Public Health
Sanghavi’s final point tied back to his discussion of aligning incentives. As misguided as it may seem, the reality is that financial incentives can make a huge difference in healthcare outcomes, from both a patient and a provider perspective.
Sanghavi’s team did an experiment in which they created outcome benchmarks for three major health problems that exist across geographically diverse areas: smoking, adolescent pregnancy, and binge drinking. The team proposed measuring the baseline of these issues then creating what they called a social impact bond. If communities were able to lower their frequency of these conditions by a given percent within a stated period of time, they’d get paid for it.
“What that did was essentially say, ‘you have a buyer for this outcome if you can achieve it,’” Sanghavi said. “And you can try to get there in any way you like.” The program is currently in CMS clearance.
AI and Robots Not Required
Using robots to perform surgery and artificial intelligence to diagnose disease will undoubtedly benefit doctors and patients around the US and the world. But Sanghavi’s talk made it clear that our healthcare system needs much more than this, and that improving population health on a large scale is really a low-tech project—one involving more regulatory and financial innovation than technological innovation.
“The things that get measured are the things that get changed,” he said. “If we choose the right outcomes to predict long-term benefit, and we pay for those outcomes, that’s the way to make progress.”
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#431377 The Farms of the Future Will Be ...

Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.
This isn’t some post-apocalyptic vision of the future à la The Terminator. This is a snapshot of the farm of the future. Every phase of the operation—from seed to harvest—may someday be automated, without the need to ever get one’s fingernails dirty.
In fact, it’s science fiction already being engineered into reality. Today, robots empowered with artificial intelligence can zap weeds with preternatural precision, while autonomous tractors move with tireless efficiency across the farmland. Satellites can assess crop health from outer space, providing gobs of data to help produce the sort of business intelligence once accessible only to Fortune 500 companies.
“Precision agriculture is on the brink of a new phase of development involving smart machines that can operate by themselves, which will allow production agriculture to become significantly more efficient. Precision agriculture is becoming robotic agriculture,” said professor Simon Blackmore last year during a conference in Asia on the latest developments in robotic agriculture. Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University and head of the National Centre for Precision Farming in the UK.
It’s Blackmore’s university that recently showcased what may someday be possible. The project, dubbed Hands Free Hectare and led by researchers from Harper Adams and private industry, farmed one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of spring barley without one person ever setting foot in the field.
The team re-purposed, re-wired and roboticized farm equipment ranging from a Japanese tractor to a 25-year-old combine. Drones served as scouts to survey the operation and collect samples to help the team monitor the progress of the barley. At the end of the season, the robo farmers harvested about 4.5 tons of barley at a price tag of £200,000.

“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and we’ve done that,” said Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, which partnered with Harper Adams, in a press release.
I, Robot Farmer
The Harper Adams experiment is the latest example of how machines are disrupting the agricultural industry. Around the same time that the Hands Free Hectare combine was harvesting barley, Deere & Company announced it would acquire a startup called Blue River Technology for a reported $305 million.
Blue River has developed a “see-and-spray” system that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to discriminate between crops and weeds. It hits the former with fertilizer and blasts the latter with herbicides with such precision that it can eliminate 90 percent of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
It’s not just farmland that’s getting a helping hand from robots. A California company called Abundant Robotics, spun out of the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is developing robots capable of picking apples with vacuum-like arms that suck the fruit straight off the trees in the orchards.
“Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again. But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what we’ve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment,” Dan Harburg, an associate at venture capital firm Anterra Capital who previously worked at a Massachusetts-based startup making a robotic arm capable of grabbing fruit, told AgFunder News.
“This means ag-focused robotics startups have to design systems from the ground up, which can take time and money, and their robots have to be able to complete multiple tasks to avoid sitting on the shelf for a significant portion of the year,” he noted.
Eyes in the Sky
It will take more than an army of robotic tractors to grow a successful crop. The farm of the future will rely on drones, satellites, and other airborne instruments to provide data about their crops on the ground.
Companies like Descartes Labs, for instance, employ machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to forecast soy and corn yields. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup collects five terabytes of data every day from multiple satellite constellations, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Combined with weather readings and other real-time inputs, Descartes Labs can predict cornfield yields with 99 percent accuracy. Its AI platform can even assess crop health from infrared readings.
The US agency DARPA recently granted Descartes Labs $1.5 million to monitor and analyze wheat yields in the Middle East and Africa. The idea is that accurate forecasts may help identify regions at risk of crop failure, which could lead to famine and political unrest. Another company called TellusLabs out of Somerville, Massachusetts also employs machine learning algorithms to predict corn and soy yields with similar accuracy from satellite imagery.
Farmers don’t have to reach orbit to get insights on their cropland. A startup in Oakland, Ceres Imaging, produces high-resolution imagery from multispectral cameras flown across fields aboard small planes. The snapshots capture the landscape at different wavelengths, identifying insights into problems like water stress, as well as providing estimates of chlorophyll and nitrogen levels. The geo-tagged images mean farmers can easily locate areas that need to be addressed.
Growing From the Inside
Even the best intelligence—whether from drones, satellites, or machine learning algorithms—will be challenged to predict the unpredictable issues posed by climate change. That’s one reason more and more companies are betting the farm on what’s called controlled environment agriculture. Today, that doesn’t just mean fancy greenhouses, but everything from warehouse-sized, automated vertical farms to grow rooms run by robots, located not in the emptiness of Kansas or Nebraska but smack dab in the middle of the main streets of America.
Proponents of these new concepts argue these high-tech indoor farms can produce much higher yields while drastically reducing water usage and synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicides.
Iron Ox, out of San Francisco, is developing one-acre urban greenhouses that will be operated by robots and reportedly capable of producing the equivalent of 30 acres of farmland. Powered by artificial intelligence, a team of three robots will run the entire operation of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops.
Vertical farming startup Plenty, also based in San Francisco, uses AI to automate its operations, and got a $200 million vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund earlier this year. The company claims its system uses only 1 percent of the water consumed in conventional agriculture while producing 350 times as much produce. Plenty is part of a new crop of urban-oriented farms, including Bowery Farming and AeroFarms.
“What I can envision is locating a larger scale indoor farm in the economically disadvantaged food desert, in order to stimulate a broader economic impact that could create jobs and generate income for that area,” said Dr. Gary Stutte, an expert in space agriculture and controlled environment agriculture, in an interview with AgFunder News. “The indoor agriculture model is adaptable to becoming an engine for economic growth and food security in both rural and urban food deserts.”
Still, the model is not without its own challenges and criticisms. Most of what these farms can produce falls into the “leafy greens” category and often comes with a premium price, which seems antithetical to the proposed mission of creating oases in the food deserts of cities. While water usage may be minimized, the electricity required to power the operation, especially the LEDs (which played a huge part in revolutionizing indoor agriculture), are not cheap.
Still, all of these advances, from robo farmers to automated greenhouses, may need to be part of a future where nearly 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050. An oft-quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the world must boost food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of the population. Technology may not save the world, but it will help feed it.
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#431371 Amazon Is Quietly Building the Robots of ...

Science fiction is the siren song of hard science. How many innocent young students have been lured into complex, abstract science, technology, engineering, or mathematics because of a reckless and irresponsible exposure to Arthur C. Clarke at a tender age? Yet Arthur C. Clarke has a very famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It’s the prospect of making that… ahem… magic leap that entices so many people into STEM in the first place. A magic leap that would change the world. How about, for example, having humanoid robots? They could match us in dexterity and speed, perceive the world around them as we do, and be programmed to do, well, more or less anything we can do.
Such a technology would change the world forever.
But how will it arrive? While true sci-fi robots won’t get here right away—the pieces are coming together, and the company best developing them at the moment is Amazon. Where others have struggled to succeed, Amazon has been quietly progressing. Notably, Amazon has more than just a dream, it has the most practical of reasons driving it into robotics.
This practicality matters. Technological development rarely proceeds by magic; it’s a process filled with twists, turns, dead-ends, and financial constraints. New technologies often have to answer questions like “What is this good for, are you being realistic?” A good strategy, then, can be to build something more limited than your initial ambition, but useful for a niche market. That way, you can produce a prototype, have a reasonable business plan, and turn a profit within a decade. You might call these “stepping stone” applications that allow for new technologies to be developed in an economically viable way.
You need something you can sell to someone, soon: that’s how you get investment in your idea. It’s this model that iRobot, developers of the Roomba, used: migrating from military prototypes to robotic vacuum cleaners to become the “boring, successful robot company.” Compare this to Willow Garage, a genius factory if ever there was one: they clearly had ambitions towards a general-purpose, multi-functional robot. They built an impressive device—PR2—and programmed the operating system, ROS, that is still the industry and academic standard to this day.
But since they were unable to sell their robot for much less than $250,000, it was never likely to be a profitable business. This is why Willow Garage is no more, and many workers at the company went into telepresence robotics. Telepresence is essentially videoconferencing with a fancy robot attached to move the camera around. It uses some of the same software (for example, navigation and mapping) without requiring you to solve difficult problems of full autonomy for the robot, or manipulating its environment. It’s certainly one of the stepping-stone areas that various companies are investigating.
Another approach is to go to the people with very high research budgets: the military.
This was the Boston Dynamics approach, and their incredible achievements in bipedal locomotion saw them getting snapped up by Google. There was a great deal of excitement and speculation about Google’s “nightmare factory” whenever a new slick video of a futuristic militarized robot surfaced. But Google broadly backed away from Replicant, their robotics program, and Boston Dynamics was sold. This was partly due to PR concerns over the Terminator-esque designs, but partly because they didn’t see the robotics division turning a profit. They hadn’t found their stepping stones.
This is where Amazon comes in. Why Amazon? First off, they just announced that their profits are up by 30 percent, and yet the company is well-known for their constantly-moving Day One philosophy where a great deal of the profits are reinvested back into the business. But lots of companies have ambition.
One thing Amazon has that few other corporations have, as well as big financial resources, is viable stepping stones for developing the technologies needed for this sort of robotics to become a reality. They already employ 100,000 robots: these are of the “pragmatic, boring, useful” kind that we’ve profiled, which move around the shelves in warehouses. These robots are allowing Amazon to develop localization and mapping software for robots that can autonomously navigate in the simple warehouse environment.
But their ambitions don’t end there. The Amazon Robotics Challenge is a multi-million dollar competition, open to university teams, to produce a robot that can pick and package items in warehouses. The problem of grasping and manipulating a range of objects is not a solved one in robotics, so this work is still done by humans—yet it’s absolutely fundamental for any sci-fi dream robot.
Google, for example, attempted to solve this problem by hooking up 14 robot hands to machine learning algorithms and having them grasp thousands of objects. Although results were promising, the 10 to 20 percent failure rate for grasps is too high for warehouse use. This is a perfect stepping stone for Amazon; should they crack the problem, they will likely save millions in logistics.
Another area where humanoid robotics—especially bipedal locomotion, or walking, has been seriously suggested—is in the last mile delivery problem. Amazon has shown willingness to be creative in this department with their notorious drone delivery service. In other words, it’s all very well to have your self-driving car or van deliver packages to people’s doors, but who puts the package on the doorstep? It’s difficult for wheeled robots to navigate the full range of built environments that exist. That’s why bipedal robots like CASSIE, developed by Oregon State, may one day be used to deliver parcels.
Again: no one more than Amazon stands to profit from cracking this technology. The line from robotics research to profit is very clear.
So, perhaps one day Amazon will have robots that can move around and manipulate their environments. But they’re also working on intelligence that will guide those robots and make them truly useful for a variety of tasks. Amazon has an AI, or at least the framework for an AI: it’s called Alexa, and it’s in tens of millions of homes. The Alexa Prize, another multi-million-dollar competition, is attempting to make Alexa more social.
To develop a conversational AI, at least using the current methods of machine learning, you need data on tens of millions of conversations. You need to understand how people will try to interact with the AI. Amazon has access to this in Alexa, and they’re using it. As owners of the leading voice-activated personal assistant, they have an ecosystem of developers creating apps for Alexa. It will be integrated with the smart home and the Internet of Things. It is a very marketable product, a stepping stone for robot intelligence.
What’s more, the company can benefit from its huge sales infrastructure. For Amazon, having an AI in your home is ideal, because it can persuade you to buy more products through its website. Unlike companies like Google, Amazon has an easy way to make a direct profit from IoT devices, which could fuel funding.
For a humanoid robot to be truly useful, though, it will need vision and intelligence. It will have to understand and interpret its environment, and react accordingly. The way humans learn about our environment is by getting out and seeing it. This is something that, for example, an Alexa coupled to smart glasses would be very capable of doing. There are rumors that Alexa’s AI will soon be used in security cameras, which is an ideal stepping stone task to train an AI to process images from its environment, truly perceiving the world and any threats it might contain.
It’s a slight exaggeration to say that Amazon is in the process of building a secret robot army. The gulf between our sci-fi vision of robots that can intelligently serve us, rather than mindlessly assemble cars, is still vast. But in quietly assembling many of the technologies needed for intelligent, multi-purpose robotics—and with the unique stepping stones they have along the way—Amazon might just be poised to leap that gulf. As if by magic.
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