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It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.
In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?
This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”
In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.
Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.
Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.
Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.
Such are the dreams, anyway.
But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”
Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.
For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.
One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.
Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.
Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.
In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.
You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).
Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.
Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.
Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?
We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.
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China Wants to Shape the Global Future of Artificial Intelligence
Will Knight | MIT Technology Review
“China’s booming AI industry and massive government investment in the technology have raised fears in the US and elsewhere that the nation will overtake international rivals in a fundamentally important technology. In truth, it may be possible for both the US and the Chinese economies to benefit from AI. But there may be more rivalry when it comes to influencing the spread of the technology worldwide. ‘I think this is the first technology area where China has a real chance to set the rules of the game,’ says Ding.”
Astronaut’s Gene Expression No Longer Same as His Identical Twin, NASA Finds
Susan Scutti | CNN
“Preliminary results from NASA’s Twins Study reveal that 7% of astronaut Scott Kelly’s genetic expression—how his genes function within cells—did not return to baseline after his return to Earth two years ago. The study looks at what happened to Kelly before, during and after he spent one year aboard the International Space Station through an extensive comparison with his identical twin, Mark, who remained on Earth.”
This Cheap 3D-Printed Home Is a Start for the 1 Billion Who Lack Shelter
Tamara Warren | The Verge
“ICON has developed a method for printing a single-story 650-square-foot house out of cement in only 12 to 24 hours, a fraction of the time it takes for new construction. If all goes according to plan, a community made up of about 100 homes will be constructed for residents in El Salvador next year. The company has partnered with New Story, a nonprofit that is vested in international housing solutions. ‘We have been building homes for communities in Haiti, El Salvador, and Bolivia,’ Alexandria Lafci, co-founder of New Story, tells The Verge.”
Our Microbiomes Are Making Scientists Question What It Means to Be Human
Rebecca Flowers | Motherboard
“Studies in genetics and Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA gave more credence to the idea of individuality. But as scientists learn more about the microbiome, the idea of humans as a singular organism is being reconsidered: ‘There is now overwhelming evidence that normal development as well as the maintenance of the organism depend on the microorganisms…that we harbor,’ they state (others have taken this position, too).”
Stephen Hawking, Who Awed Both Scientists and the Public, Dies
Joe Palca | NPR
“Hawking was probably the best-known scientist in the world. He was a theoretical physicist whose early work on black holes transformed how scientists think about the nature of the universe. But his fame wasn’t just a result of his research. Hawking, who had a debilitating neurological disease that made it impossible for him to move his limbs or speak, was also a popular public figure and best-selling author. There was even a biopic about his life, The Theory of Everything, that won an Oscar for the actor, Eddie Redmayne, who portrayed Hawking.”
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In the myth about the Tower of Babel, people conspired to build a city and tower that would reach heaven. Their creator observed, “And now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” According to the myth, God thwarted this effort by creating diverse languages so that they could no longer collaborate.
In our modern times, we’re experiencing a state of unprecedented connectivity thanks to technology. However, we’re still living under the shadow of the Tower of Babel. Language remains a barrier in business and marketing. Even though technological devices can quickly and easily connect, humans from different parts of the world often can’t.
Translation agencies step in, making presentations, contracts, outsourcing instructions, and advertisements comprehensible to all intended recipients. Some agencies also offer “localization” expertise. For instance, if a company is marketing in Quebec, the advertisements need to be in Québécois French, not European French. Risk-averse companies may be reluctant to invest in these translations. Consequently, these ventures haven’t achieved full market penetration.
Global markets are waiting, but AI-powered language translation isn’t ready yet, despite recent advancements in natural language processing and sentiment analysis. AI still has difficulties processing requests in one language, without the additional complications of translation. In November 2016, Google added a neural network to its translation tool. However, some of its translations are still socially and grammatically odd. I spoke to technologists and a language professor to find out why.
“To Google’s credit, they made a pretty massive improvement that appeared almost overnight. You know, I don’t use it as much. I will say this. Language is hard,” said Michael Housman, chief data science officer at RapportBoost.AI and faculty member of Singularity University.
He explained that the ideal scenario for machine learning and artificial intelligence is something with fixed rules and a clear-cut measure of success or failure. He named chess as an obvious example, and noted machines were able to beat the best human Go player. This happened faster than anyone anticipated because of the game’s very clear rules and limited set of moves.
Housman elaborated, “Language is almost the opposite of that. There aren’t as clearly-cut and defined rules. The conversation can go in an infinite number of different directions. And then of course, you need labeled data. You need to tell the machine to do it right or wrong.”
Housman noted that it’s inherently difficult to assign these informative labels. “Two translators won’t even agree on whether it was translated properly or not,” he said. “Language is kind of the wild west, in terms of data.”
Google’s technology is now able to consider the entirety of a sentence, as opposed to merely translating individual words. Still, the glitches linger. I asked Dr. Jorge Majfud, Associate Professor of Spanish, Latin American Literature, and International Studies at Jacksonville University, to explain why consistently accurate language translation has thus far eluded AI.
He replied, “The problem is that considering the ‘entire’ sentence is still not enough. The same way the meaning of a word depends on the rest of the sentence (more in English than in Spanish), the meaning of a sentence depends on the rest of the paragraph and the rest of the text, as the meaning of a text depends on a larger context called culture, speaker intentions, etc.”
He noted that sarcasm and irony only make sense within this widened context. Similarly, idioms can be problematic for automated translations.
“Google translation is a good tool if you use it as a tool, that is, not to substitute human learning or understanding,” he said, before offering examples of mistranslations that could occur.
“Months ago, I went to buy a drill at Home Depot and I read a sign under a machine: ‘Saw machine.’ Right below it, the Spanish translation: ‘La máquina vió,’ which means, ‘The machine did see it.’ Saw, not as a noun but as a verb in the preterit form,” he explained.
Dr. Majfud warned, “We should be aware of the fragility of their ‘interpretation.’ Because to translate is basically to interpret, not just an idea but a feeling. Human feelings and ideas that only humans can understand—and sometimes not even we, humans, understand other humans.”
He noted that cultures, gender, and even age can pose barriers to this understanding and also contended that an over-reliance on technology is leading to our cultural and political decline. Dr. Majfud mentioned that Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar used to refer to dictionaries as “cemeteries.” He suggested that automatic translators could be called “zombies.”
Erik Cambria is an academic AI researcher and assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He mostly focuses on natural language processing, which is at the core of AI-powered language translation. Like Dr. Majfud, he sees the complexity and associated risks. “There are so many things that we unconsciously do when we read a piece of text,” he told me. Reading comprehension requires multiple interrelated tasks, which haven’t been accounted for in past attempts to automate translation.
Cambria continued, “The biggest issue with machine translation today is that we tend to go from the syntactic form of a sentence in the input language to the syntactic form of that sentence in the target language. That’s not what we humans do. We first decode the meaning of the sentence in the input language and then we encode that meaning into the target language.”
Additionally, there are cultural risks involved with these translations. Dr. Ramesh Srinivasan, Director of UCLA’s Digital Cultures Lab, said that new technological tools sometimes reflect underlying biases.
“There tend to be two parameters that shape how we design ‘intelligent systems.’ One is the values and you might say biases of those that create the systems. And the second is the world if you will that they learn from,” he told me. “If you build AI systems that reflect the biases of their creators and of the world more largely, you get some, occasionally, spectacular failures.”
Dr. Srinivasan said translation tools should be transparent about their capabilities and limitations. He said, “You know, the idea that a single system can take languages that I believe are very diverse semantically and syntactically from one another and claim to unite them or universalize them, or essentially make them sort of a singular entity, it’s a misnomer, right?”
Mary Cochran, co-founder of Launching Labs Marketing, sees the commercial upside. She mentioned that listings in online marketplaces such as Amazon could potentially be auto-translated and optimized for buyers in other countries.
She said, “I believe that we’re just at the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, with what AI can do with marketing. And with better translation, and more globalization around the world, AI can’t help but lead to exploding markets.”
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It’s been a long time coming. For years Waymo (formerly known as Google Chauffeur) has been diligently developing, driving, testing and refining its fleets of various models of self-driving cars. Now Waymo is going big. The company recently placed an order for several thousand new Chrysler Pacifica minivans and next year plans to launch driverless taxis in a number of US cities.
This deal raises one of the biggest unanswered questions about autonomous vehicles: if fleets of driverless taxis make it cheap and easy for regular people to get around, what’s going to happen to car ownership?
One popular line of thought goes as follows: as autonomous ride-hailing services become ubiquitous, people will no longer need to buy their own cars. This notion has a certain logical appeal. It makes sense to assume that as driverless taxis become widely available, most of us will eagerly sell the family car and use on-demand taxis to get to work, run errands, or pick up the kids. After all, vehicle ownership is pricey and most cars spend the vast majority of their lives parked.
Even experts believe commercial availability of autonomous vehicles will cause car sales to drop.
Market research firm KPMG estimates that by 2030, midsize car sales in the US will decline from today’s 5.4 million units sold each year to nearly half that number, a measly 2.1 million units. Another market research firm, ReThinkX, offers an even more pessimistic estimate (or optimistic, depending on your opinion of cars), predicting that autonomous vehicles will reduce consumer demand for new vehicles by a whopping 70 percent.
The reality is that the impending death of private vehicle sales is greatly exaggerated. Despite the fact that autonomous taxis will be a beneficial and widely-embraced form of urban transportation, we will witness the opposite. Most people will still prefer to own their own autonomous vehicle. In fact, the total number of units of autonomous vehicles sold each year is going to increase rather than decrease.
When people predict the demise of car ownership, they are overlooking the reality that the new autonomous automotive industry is not going to be just a re-hash of today’s car industry with driverless vehicles. Instead, the automotive industry of the future will be selling what could be considered an entirely new product: a wide variety of intelligent, self-guiding transportation robots. When cars become a widely used type of transportation robot, they will be cheap, ubiquitous, and versatile.
Several unique characteristics of autonomous vehicles will ensure that people will continue to buy their own cars.
1. Cost: Thanks to simpler electric engines and lighter auto bodies, autonomous vehicles will be cheaper to buy and maintain than today’s human-driven vehicles. Some estimates bring the price to $10K per vehicle, a stark contrast with today’s average of $30K per vehicle.
2. Personal belongings: Consumers will be able to do much more in their driverless vehicles, including work, play, and rest. This means they will want to keep more personal items in their cars.
3. Frequent upgrades: The average (human-driven) car today is owned for 10 years. As driverless cars become software-driven devices, their price/performance ratio will track to Moore’s law. Their rapid improvement will increase the appeal and frequency of new vehicle purchases.
4. Instant accessibility: In a dense urban setting, a driverless taxi is able to show up within minutes of being summoned. But not so in rural areas, where people live miles apart. For many, delay and “loss of control” over their own mobility will increase the appeal of owning their own vehicle.
5. Diversity of form and function: Autonomous vehicles will be available in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Consumers will drive demand for custom-made, purpose-built autonomous vehicles whose form is adapted for a particular function.
Let’s explore each of these characteristics in more detail.
Autonomous vehicles will cost less for several reasons. For one, they will be powered by electric engines, which are cheaper to construct and maintain than gasoline-powered engines. Removing human drivers will also save consumers money. Autonomous vehicles will be much less likely to have accidents, hence they can be built out of lightweight, lower-cost materials and will be cheaper to insure. With the human interface no longer needed, autonomous vehicles won’t be burdened by the manufacturing costs of a complex dashboard, steering wheel, and foot pedals.
While hop-on, hop-off autonomous taxi-based mobility services may be ideal for some of the urban population, several sizeable customer segments will still want to own their own cars.
These include people who live in sparsely-populated rural areas who can’t afford to wait extended periods of time for a taxi to appear. Families with children will prefer to own their own driverless cars to house their childrens’ car seats and favorite toys and sippy cups. Another loyal car-buying segment will be die-hard gadget-hounds who will eagerly buy a sexy upgraded model every year or so, unable to resist the siren song of AI that is three times as safe, or a ride that is twice as smooth.
Finally, consider the allure of robotic diversity.
Commuters will invest in a home office on wheels, a sleek, traveling workspace resembling the first-class suite on an airplane. On the high end of the market, city-dwellers and country-dwellers alike will special-order custom-made autonomous vehicles whose shape and on-board gadgetry is adapted for a particular function or hobby. Privately-owned small businesses will buy their own autonomous delivery robot that could range in size from a knee-high, last-mile delivery pod, to a giant, long-haul shipping device.
As autonomous vehicles near commercial viability, Waymo’s procurement deal with Fiat Chrysler is just the beginning.
The exact value of this future automotive industry has yet to be defined, but research from Intel’s internal autonomous vehicle division estimates this new so-called “passenger economy” could be worth nearly $7 trillion a year. To position themselves to capture a chunk of this potential revenue, companies whose businesses used to lie in previously disparate fields such as robotics, software, ships, and entertainment (to name but a few) have begun to form a bewildering web of what they hope will be symbiotic partnerships. Car hailing and chip companies are collaborating with car rental companies, who in turn are befriending giant software firms, who are launching joint projects with all sizes of hardware companies, and so on.
Last year, car companies sold an estimated 80 million new cars worldwide. Over the course of nearly a century, car companies and their partners, global chains of suppliers and service providers, have become masters at mass-producing and maintaining sturdy and cost-effective human-driven vehicles. As autonomous vehicle technology becomes ready for mainstream use, traditional automotive companies are being forced to grapple with the painful realization that they must compete in a new playing field.
The challenge for traditional car-makers won’t be that people no longer want to own cars. Instead, the challenge will be learning to compete in a new and larger transportation industry where consumers will choose their product according to the appeal of its customized body and the quality of its intelligent software.
Melba Kurman and Hod Lipson are the authors of Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead and Fabricated: the New World of 3D Printing.
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