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We profit from it, we fear it, and we find it impossibly hard to quantify: risk.
While not the sexiest of industries, insurance can be a life-saving protector, pooling everyone’s premiums to safeguard against some of our greatest, most unexpected losses.
One of the most profitable in the world, the insurance industry exceeded $1.2 trillion in annual revenue since 2011 in the US alone.
But risk is becoming predictable. And insurance is getting disrupted fast.
By 2025, we’ll be living in a trillion-sensor economy. And as we enter a world where everything is measured all the time, we’ll start to transition from protecting against damages to preventing them in the first place.
But what happens to health insurance when Big Brother is always watching? Do rates go up when you sneak a cigarette? Do they go down when you eat your vegetables?
And what happens to auto insurance when most cars are autonomous? Or life insurance when the human lifespan doubles?
For that matter, what happens to insurance brokers when blockchain makes them irrelevant?
In this article, I’ll be discussing four key transformations:
Sensors and AI replacing your traditional broker
The ecosystem approach
IoT and insurance connectivity
Let’s dive in.
AI and the Trillion-Sensor Economy
As sensors continue to proliferate across every context—from smart infrastructure to millions of connected home devices to medicine—smart environments will allow us to ask any question, anytime, anywhere.
And as I often explain, once your AI has access to this treasure trove of ubiquitous sensor data in real time, it will be the quality of your questions that make or break your business.
But perhaps the most exciting insurance application of AI’s convergence with sensors is in healthcare. Tremendous advances in genetic screening are empowering us with predictive knowledge about our long-term health risks.
Leading the charge in genome sequencing, Illumina predicts that in a matter of years, decoding the full human genome will drop to $100, taking merely one hour to complete. Other companies are racing to get you sequences faster and cheaper.
Adopting an ecosystem approach, incumbent insurers and insurtech firms will soon be able to collaborate to provide risk-minimizing services in the health sector. Using sensor data and AI-driven personalized recommendations, insurance partnerships could keep consumers healthy, dramatically reducing the cost of healthcare.
Some fear that information asymmetry will allow consumers to learn of their health risks and leave insurers in the dark. However, both parties could benefit if insurers become part of the screening process.
A remarkable example of this is Gilad Meiri’s company, Neura AI. Aiming to predict health patterns, Neura has developed machine learning algorithms that analyze data from all of a user’s connected devices (sometimes from up to 54 apps!).
Neura predicts a user’s behavior and draws staggering insights about consumers’ health risks. Meiri soon began selling his personal risk assessment tool to insurers, who could then help insured customers mitigate long-term health risks.
But artificial intelligence will impact far more than just health insurance.
In October of 2016, a claim was submitted to Lemonade, the world’s first peer-to-peer insurance company. Rather than being processed by a human, every step in this claim resolution chain—from initial triage through fraud mitigation through final payment—was handled by an AI.
This transaction marks the first time an AI has processed an insurance claim. And it won’t be the last. A traditional human-processed claim takes 40 days to pay out. In Lemonade’s case, payment was transferred within three seconds.
However, Lemonade’s achievement only marks a starting point. Over the course of the next decade, nearly every facet of the insurance industry will undergo a similarly massive transformation.
New business models like peer-to-peer insurance are replacing traditional brokerage relationships, while AI and blockchain pairings significantly reduce the layers of bureaucracy required (with each layer getting a cut) for traditional insurance.
Consider Juniper, a startup that scrapes social media to build your risk assessment, subsequently asking you 12 questions via an iPhone app. Geared with advanced analytics, the platform can generate a million-dollar life insurance policy, approved in less than five minutes.
But what’s keeping all your data from unwanted hands?
Blockchain Building Trust
Current distrust in centralized financial services has led to staggering rates of underinsurance. Add to this fear of poor data and privacy protection, particularly in the wake of 2017’s widespread cybercriminal hacks.
Enabling secure storage and transfer of personal data, blockchain holds remarkable promise against the fraudulent activity that often plagues insurance firms.
The centralized model of insurance companies and other organizations is becoming redundant. Developing blockchain-based solutions for capital markets, Symbiont develops smart contracts to execute payments with little to no human involvement.
But distributed ledger technology (DLT) is enabling far more than just smart contracts.
Also targeting insurance is Tradle, leveraging blockchain for its proclaimed goal of “building a trust provisioning network.” Built around “know-your-customer” (KYC) data, Tradle aims to verify KYC data so that it can be securely forwarded to other firms without any further verification.
By requiring a certain number of parties to reuse pre-verified data, the platform makes your data much less vulnerable to hacking and allows you to keep it on a personal device. Only its verification—let’s say of a transaction or medical exam—is registered in the blockchain.
As insurance data grow increasingly decentralized, key insurance players will experience more and more pressure to adopt an ecosystem approach.
The Ecosystem Approach
Just as exponential technologies converge to provide new services, exponential businesses must combine the strengths of different sectors to expand traditional product lines.
By partnering with platform-based insurtech firms, forward-thinking insurers will no longer serve only as reactive policy-providers, but provide risk-mitigating services as well.
Especially as digital technologies demonetize security services—think autonomous vehicles—insurers must create new value chains and span more product categories.
For instance, France’s multinational AXA recently partnered with Alibaba and Ant Financial Services to sell a varied range of insurance products on Alibaba’s global e-commerce platform at the click of a button.
Building another ecosystem, Alibaba has also collaborated with Ping An Insurance and Tencent to create ZhongAn Online Property and Casualty Insurance—China’s first internet-only insurer, offering over 300 products. Now with a multibillion-dollar valuation, Zhong An has generated about half its business from selling shipping return insurance to Alibaba consumers.
But it doesn’t stop there. Insurers that participate in digital ecosystems can now sell risk-mitigating services that prevent damage before it occurs.
Imagine a corporate manufacturer whose sensors collect data on environmental factors affecting crop yield in an agricultural community. With the backing of investors and advanced risk analytics, such a manufacturer could sell crop insurance to farmers. By implementing an automated, AI-driven UI, they could automatically make payments when sensors detect weather damage to crops.
Now let’s apply this concept to your house, your car, your health insurance.
What’s stopping insurers from partnering with third-party IoT platforms to predict fires, collisions, chronic heart disease—and then empowering the consumer with preventive services?
This brings us to the powerful field of IoT.
Internet of Things and Insurance Connectivity
Leap ahead a few years. With a centralized hub like Echo, your smart home protects itself with a network of sensors. While gone, you’ve left on a gas burner and your internet-connected stove notifies you via a home app.
Better yet, home sensors monitoring heat and humidity levels run this data through an AI, which then remotely controls heating, humidity levels, and other connected devices based on historical data patterns and fire risk factors.
Several firms are already working toward this reality.
AXA plans to one day cooperate with a centralized home hub whereby remote monitoring will collect data for future analysis and detect abnormalities.
With remote monitoring and app-centralized control for users, MonAXA is aimed at customizing insurance bundles. These would reflect exact security features embedded in smart homes.
Wouldn’t you prefer not to have to rely on insurance after a burglary? With digital ecosystems, insurers may soon prevent break-ins from the start.
By gathering sensor data from third parties on neighborhood conditions, historical theft data, suspicious activity and other risk factors, an insurtech firm might automatically put your smart home on high alert, activating alarms and specialized locks in advance of an attack.
Insurance policy premiums are predicted to vastly reduce with lessened likelihood of insured losses. But insurers moving into preventive insurtech will likely turn a profit from other areas of their business. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that the connected home market will reach $149 billion USD by 2020.
Let’s look at car insurance.
Car insurance premiums are currently calculated according to the driver and traits of the car. But as more autonomous vehicles take to the roads, not only does liability shift to manufacturers and software engineers, but the risk of collision falls dramatically.
But let’s take this a step further.
In a future of autonomous cars, you will no longer own your car, instead subscribing to Transport as a Service (TaaS) and giving up the purchase of automotive insurance altogether.
This paradigm shift has already begun with Waymo, which automatically provides passengers with insurance every time they step into a Waymo vehicle.
And with the rise of smart traffic systems, sensor-embedded roads, and skyrocketing autonomous vehicle technology, the risks involved in transit only continue to plummet.
Insurtech firms are hitting the market fast. IoT, autonomous vehicles and genetic screening are rapidly making us invulnerable to risk. And AI-driven services are quickly pushing conventional insurers out of the market.
By 2024, roll-out of 5G on the ground, as well as OneWeb and Starlink in orbit are bringing 4.2 billion new consumers to the web—most of whom will need insurance. Yet, because of the changes afoot in the industry, none of them will buy policies from a human broker.
While today’s largest insurance companies continue to ignore this fact at their peril (and this segment of the market), thousands of entrepreneurs see it more clearly: as one of the largest opportunities ahead.
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Governments are one of the last strongholds of an undigitized, linear sector of humanity, and they are falling behind fast. Apart from their struggle to keep up with private sector digitization, federal governments are in a crisis of trust.
At almost a 60-year low, only 18 percent of Americans reported that they could trust their government “always” or “most of the time” in a recent Pew survey. And the US is not alone. The Edelman Trust Barometer revealed last year that 41 percent of the world population distrust their nations’ governments.
In many cases, the private sector—particularly tech—is driving greater progress in regulation-targeted issues like climate change than state leaders. And as decentralized systems, digital disruption, and private sector leadership take the world by storm, traditional forms of government are beginning to fear irrelevance. However, the fight for exponential governance is not a lost battle.
Early visionaries like Estonia and the UAE are leading the way in digital governance, empowered by a host of converging technologies.
In this article, we will cover three key trends:
Digital governance divorced from land
AI-driven service delivery and regulation
Let’s dive in.
Governments Going Digital
States and their governments have forever been tied to physical territories, and public services are often delivered through brick-and-mortar institutions. Yet public sector infrastructure and services will soon be hosted on servers, detached from land and physical form.
Enter e-Estonia. Perhaps the least expected on a list of innovative nations, this former Soviet Republic-turned digital society is ushering in an age of technological statecraft.
Hosting every digitizable government function on the cloud, Estonia could run its government almost entirely on a server. Starting in the 1990s, Estonia’s government has covered the nation with ultra-high-speed data connectivity, laying down tremendous amounts of fiber optic cable. By 2007, citizens could vote from their living rooms.
With digitized law, Estonia signs policies into effect using cryptographically secure digital signatures, and every stage of the legislative process is available to citizens online.
Citizens’ healthcare registry is run on the blockchain, allowing patients to own and access their own health data from anywhere in the world—X-rays, digital prescriptions, medical case notes—all the while tracking who has access.
Today, most banks have closed their offices, as 99 percent of banking transactions occur online (with 67 percent of citizens regularly using cryptographically secured e-IDs). And by 2020, e-tax will be entirely automated with Estonia’s new e-Tax and Customs Board portal, allowing companies and tax authority to exchange data automatically. And i-Voting, civil courts, land registries, banking, taxes, and countless e-facilities allow citizens to access almost any government service with an electronic ID and personal PIN online.
But perhaps Estonia’s most revolutionary breakthrough is its recently introduced e-residency. With over 30,000 e-residents, Estonia issues electronic IDs to global residents anywhere in the world. While e-residency doesn’t grant territorial rights, over 5,000 e-residents have already established companies within Estonia’s jurisdiction.
After registering companies online, entrepreneurs pay automated taxes—calculated in minutes and transmitted to the Estonian government with unprecedented ease.
The implications of e-residency and digital governance are huge. As with any software, open-source code for digital governance could be copied perfectly at almost zero cost, lowering the barrier to entry for any group or movement seeking statehood.
We may soon see the rise of competitive governing ecosystems, each testing new infrastructure and public e-services to compete with mainstream governments for taxpaying citizens.
And what better to accelerate digital governance than AI?
Legal Compliance Through AI
Just last year, the UAE became the first nation to appoint a State Minister for AI (actually a friend of mine, H.E. Omar Al Olama), aiming to digitize government services and halve annual costs. Among multiple sector initiatives, the UAE hopes to deploy robotic cops by 2030.
Meanwhile, the U.K. now has a Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, and just last month, world leaders convened at the World Government Summit to discuss guidelines for AI’s global regulation.
As AI infuses government services, emerging applications have caught my eye:
Smart Borders and Checkpoints
With biometrics and facial recognition, traditional checkpoints will soon be a thing of the past. Cubic Transportation Systems—the company behind London’s ticketless public transit—is currently developing facial recognition for automated transport barriers. Digital security company Gemalto predicts that biometric systems will soon cross-reference individual faces with passport databases at security checkpoints, and China has already begun to test this at scale. While the Alibaba Ant Financial affiliate’s “Smile to Pay” feature allows users to authenticate digital payments with their faces, nationally overseen facial recognition technologies allow passengers to board planes, employees to enter office spaces, and students to access university halls. With biometric-geared surveillance at national borders, supply chains and international travelers could be tracked automatically, and granted or denied access according to biometrics and cross-referenced databases.
Policing and Security
Leveraging predictive analytics, China is also working to integrate security footage into a national surveillance and data-sharing system. By merging citizen data in its “Police Cloud”—including everything from criminal and medical records, transaction data, travel records and social media—it may soon be able to spot suspects and predict crime in advance. But China is not alone. During London’s Notting Hill Carnival this year, the Metropolitan Police used facial recognition cross-referenced with crime data to pre-identify and track likely offenders.
AI may soon be reaching legal trials as well. UCL computer scientists have developed software capable of predicting courtroom outcomes based on data patterns with unprecedented accuracy. Assessing risk of flight, the National Bureau of Economic Research now uses an algorithm leveraging data from hundreds of thousands of NYC cases to recommend whether defendants should be granted bail. But while AI allows for streamlined governance, the public sector’s power to misuse our data is a valid concern and issues with bias as a result of historical data still remain. As tons of new information is generated about our every move, how do we keep governments accountable?
Enter the blockchain.
Transparent Governance and Accountability
Without doubt, alongside AI, government’s greatest disruptor is the newly-minted blockchain. Relying on a decentralized web of nodes, blockchain can securely verify transactions, signatures, and other information. This makes it essentially impossible for hackers, companies, officials, or even governments to falsify information on the blockchain.
As you’d expect, many government elites are therefore slow to adopt the technology, fearing enforced accountability. But blockchain’s benefits to government may be too great to ignore.
First, blockchain will be a boon for regulatory compliance.
As transactions on a blockchain are irreversible and transparent, uploaded sensor data can’t be corrupted. This means middlemen have no way of falsifying information to shirk regulation, and governments eliminate the need to enforce charges after the fact.
Apply this to carbon pricing, for instance, and emission sensors could fluidly log carbon credits onto a carbon credit blockchain, such as that developed by Ecosphere+. As carbon values are added to the price of everyday products or to corporations’ automated taxes, compliance and transparency would soon be digitally embedded.
Blockchain could also bolster government efforts in cybersecurity. As supercities and nation-states build IoT-connected traffic systems, surveillance networks, and sensor-tracked supply chain management, blockchain is critical in protecting connected devices from cyberattack.
But blockchain will inevitably hold governments accountable as well. By automating and tracking high-risk transactions, blockchain may soon eliminate fraud in cash transfers, public contracts and aid funds. Already, the UN World Food Program has piloted blockchain to manage cash-based transfers and aid flows to Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Blockchain-enabled “smart contracts” could automate exchange of real assets according to publicly visible, pre-programmed conditions, disrupting the $9.5 trillion market of public-sector contracts and public investment projects.
Eliminating leakages and increasing transparency, a distributed ledger has the potential to save trillions.
It is truly difficult to experiment with new forms of government. It’s not like there are new countries waiting to be discovered where we can begin fresh. And with entrenched bureaucracies and dominant industrial players, changing an existing nation’s form of government is extremely difficult and usually only happens during times of crisis or outright revolution.
Perhaps we will develop and explore new forms of government in the virtual world (to be explored during a future blog), or perhaps Sea Steading will allow us to physically build new island nations. And ultimately, as we move off the earth to Mars and space colonies, we will have yet another chance to start fresh.
But, without question, 90 percent or more of today’s political processes herald back to a day before technology, and it shows in terms of speed and efficiency.
Ultimately, there will be a shift to digital governments enabled with blockchain’s transparency, and we will redefine the relationship between citizens and the public sector.
One day I hope i-voting will allow anyone anywhere to participate in policy, and cloud-based governments will start to compete in e-services. As four billion new minds come online over the next several years, people may soon have the opportunity to choose their preferred government and citizenship digitally, independent of birthplace.
In 50 years, what will our governments look like? Will we have an interplanetary order, or a multitude of publicly-run ecosystems? Will cyber-ocracies rule our physical worlds with machine intelligence, or will blockchains allow for hive mind-like democracy?
The possibilities are endless, and only we can shape them.
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What would happen if we made all of our data public—everything from wearables monitoring our biometrics, all the way to smartphones monitoring our location, our social media activity, and even our internet search history?
Would such insights into our lives simply provide companies and politicians with greater power to invade our privacy and manipulate us by using our psychological profiles against us?
A burgeoning new philosophy called dataism doesn’t think so.
In fact, this trending ideology believes that liberating the flow of data is the supreme value of the universe, and that it could be the key to unleashing the greatest scientific revolution in the history of humanity.
What Is Dataism?
First mentioned by David Brooks in his 2013 New York Times article “The Philosophy of Data,” dataism is an ethical system that has been most heavily explored and popularized by renowned historian, Yuval Noah Harari.
In his 2016 book Homo Deus, Harari described dataism as a new form of religion that celebrates the growing importance of big data.
Its core belief centers around the idea that the universe gives greater value and support to systems, individuals, and societies that contribute most heavily and efficiently to data processing. In an interview with Wired, Harari stated, “Humans were special and important because up until now they were the most sophisticated data processing system in the universe, but this is no longer the case.”
Now, big data and machine learning are proving themselves more sophisticated, and dataists believe we should hand over as much information and power to these algorithms as possible, allowing the free flow of data to unlock innovation and progress unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
Pros: Progress and Personal Growth
When you let data run freely, it’s bound to be mixed and matched in new ways that inevitably spark progress. And as we enter the exponential future where every person is constantly connected and sharing their data, the potential for such collaborative epiphanies becomes even greater.
We can already see important increases in quality of life thanks to companies like Google. With Google Maps on your phone, your position is constantly updating on their servers. This information, combined with everyone else on the planet using a phone with Google Maps, allows your phone to inform you of traffic conditions. Based on the speed and location of nearby phones, Google can reroute you to less congested areas or help you avoid accidents. And since you trust that these algorithms have more data than you, you gladly hand over your power to them, following your GPS’s directions rather than your own.
We can do the same sort of thing with our bodies.
Imagine, for instance, a world where each person has biosensors in their bloodstreams—a not unlikely or distant possibility when considering diabetic people already wear insulin pumps that constantly monitor their blood sugar levels. And let’s assume this data was freely shared to the world.
Now imagine a virus like Zika or the Bird Flu breaks out. Thanks to this technology, the odd change in biodata coming from a particular region flags an artificial intelligence that feeds data to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). Recognizing that a pandemic could be possible, AIs begin 3D printing vaccines on-demand, predicting the number of people who may be afflicted. When our personal AIs tell us the locations of the spreading epidemic and to take the vaccine it just delivered by drone to our homes, are we likely to follow its instructions? Almost certainly—and if so, it’s likely millions, if not billions, of lives will have been saved.
But to quickly create such vaccines, we’ll also need to liberate research.
Currently, universities and companies seeking to benefit humankind with medical solutions have to pay extensively to organize clinical trials and to find people who match their needs. But if all our biodata was freely aggregated, perhaps they could simply say “monitor all people living with cancer” to an AI, and thanks to the constant stream of data coming in from the world’s population, a machine learning program may easily be able to detect a pattern and create a cure.
As always in research, the more sample data you have, the higher the chance that such patterns will emerge. If data is flowing freely, then anyone in the world can suddenly decide they have a hunch they want to explore, and without having to spend months and months of time and money hunting down the data, they can simply test their hypothesis.
Whether garage tinkerers, at-home scientists, or PhD students—an abundance of free data allows for science to progress unhindered, each person able to operate without being slowed by lack of data. And any progress they make is immediately liberated, becoming free data shared with anyone else that may find a use for it.
Any individual with a curious passion would have the entire world’s data at their fingertips, empowering every one of us to become an expert in any subject that inspires us. Expertise we can then share back into the data stream—a positive feedback loop spearheading progress for the entirety of humanity’s knowledge.
Such exponential gains represent a dataism utopia.
Unfortunately, our current incentives and economy also show us the tragic failures of this model.
As Harari has pointed out, the rise of datism means that “humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of ‘free will’ is under threat.”
Cons: Manipulation and Extortion
In 2017, The Economist declared that data was the most valuable resource on the planet—even more valuable than oil.
Perhaps this is because data is ‘priceless’: it represents understanding, and understanding represents control. And so, in the world of advertising and politics, having data on your consumers and voters gives you an incredible advantage.
This was evidenced by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it’s believed that Donald Trump and the architects of Brexit leveraged users’ Facebook data to create psychological profiles that enabled them to manipulate the masses.
How powerful are these psychological models?
A team who built a model similar to that used by Cambridge Analytica said their model could understand someone as well as a coworker with access to only 10 Facebook likes. With 70 likes they could know them as well as a friend might, 150 likes to match their parents’ understanding, and at 300 likes they could even come to know someone better than their lovers. With more likes, they could even come to know someone better than that person knows themselves.
Proceeding With Caution
In a capitalist democracy, do we want businesses and politicians to know us better than we know ourselves?
In spite of the remarkable benefits that may result for our species by freely giving away our information, do we run the risk of that data being used to exploit and manipulate the masses towards a future without free will, where our daily lives are puppeteered by those who own our data?
It’s extremely possible.
And it’s for this reason that one of the most important conversations we’ll have as a species centers around data ownership: do we just give ownership of the data back to the users, allowing them to choose who to sell or freely give their data to? Or will that simply deter the entrepreneurial drive and cause all of the free services we use today, like Google Search and Facebook, to begin charging inaccessible prices? How much are we willing to pay for our freedom? And how much do we actually care?
If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that humans are willing to give up more privacy than they like to think. Fifteen years ago, it would have been crazy to suggest we’d all allow ourselves to be tracked by our cars, phones, and daily check-ins to our favorite neighborhood locations; but now most of us see it as a worthwhile trade for optimized commutes and dating. As we continue navigating that fine line between exploitation and innovation into a more technological future, what other trade-offs might we be willing to make?
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Back in 2016, somewhere in a Google-owned warehouse, more than a dozen robotic arms sat for hours quietly grasping objects of various shapes and sizes. For hours on end, they taught themselves how to pick up and hold the items appropriately—mimicking the way a baby gradually learns to use its hands.
Now, scientists from MIT have made a new breakthrough in machine learning: their new system can not only teach itself to see and identify objects, but also understand how best to manipulate them.
This means that, armed with the new machine learning routine referred to as “dense object nets (DON),” the robot would be capable of picking up an object that it’s never seen before, or in an unfamiliar orientation, without resorting to trial and error—exactly as a human would.
The deceptively simple ability to dexterously manipulate objects with our hands is a huge part of why humans are the dominant species on the planet. We take it for granted. Hardware innovations like the Shadow Dexterous Hand have enabled robots to softly grip and manipulate delicate objects for many years, but the software required to control these precision-engineered machines in a range of circumstances has proved harder to develop.
This was not for want of trying. The Amazon Robotics Challenge offers millions of dollars in prizes (and potentially far more in contracts, as their $775m acquisition of Kiva Systems shows) for the best dexterous robot able to pick and package items in their warehouses. The lucrative dream of a fully-automated delivery system is missing this crucial ability.
Meanwhile, the Robocup@home challenge—an offshoot of the popular Robocup tournament for soccer-playing robots—aims to make everyone’s dream of having a robot butler a reality. The competition involves teams drilling their robots through simple household tasks that require social interaction or object manipulation, like helping to carry the shopping, sorting items onto a shelf, or guiding tourists around a museum.
Yet all of these endeavors have proved difficult; the tasks often have to be simplified to enable the robot to complete them at all. New or unexpected elements, such as those encountered in real life, more often than not throw the system entirely. Programming the robot’s every move in explicit detail is not a scalable solution: this can work in the highly-controlled world of the assembly line, but not in everyday life.
Computer vision is improving all the time. Neural networks, including those you train every time you prove that you’re not a robot with CAPTCHA, are getting better at sorting objects into categories, and identifying them based on sparse or incomplete data, such as when they are occluded, or in different lighting.
But many of these systems require enormous amounts of input data, which is impractical, slow to generate, and often needs to be laboriously categorized by humans. There are entirely new jobs that require people to label, categorize, and sift large bodies of data ready for supervised machine learning. This can make machine learning undemocratic. If you’re Google, you can make thousands of unwitting volunteers label your images for you with CAPTCHA. If you’re IBM, you can hire people to manually label that data. If you’re an individual or startup trying something new, however, you will struggle to access the vast troves of labeled data available to the bigger players.
This is why new systems that can potentially train themselves over time or that allow robots to deal with situations they’ve never seen before without mountains of labelled data are a holy grail in artificial intelligence. The work done by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is part of a new wave of “self-supervised” machine learning systems—little of the data used was labeled by humans.
The robot first inspects the new object from multiple angles, building up a 3D picture of the object with its own coordinate system. This then allows the robotic arm to identify a particular feature on the object—such as a handle, or the tongue of a shoe—from various different angles, based on its relative distance to other grid points.
This is the real innovation: the new means of representing objects to grasp as mapped-out 3D objects, with grid points and subsections of their own. Rather than using a computer vision algorithm to identify a door handle, and then activating a door handle grasping subroutine, the DON system treats all objects by making these spatial maps before classifying or manipulating them, enabling it to deal with a greater range of objects than in other approaches.
“Many approaches to manipulation can’t identify specific parts of an object across the many orientations that object may encounter,” said PhD student Lucas Manuelli, who wrote a new paper about the system with lead author and fellow student Pete Florence, alongside MIT professor Russ Tedrake. “For example, existing algorithms would be unable to grasp a mug by its handle, especially if the mug could be in multiple orientations, like upright, or on its side.”
Class-specific descriptors, which can be applied to the object features, can allow the robot arm to identify a mug, find the handle, and pick the mug up appropriately. Object-specific descriptors allow the robot arm to select a particular mug from a group of similar items. I’m already dreaming of a robot butler reliably picking my favourite mug when it serves me coffee in the morning.
Google’s robot arm-y was an attempt to develop a general grasping algorithm: one that could identify, categorize, and appropriately grip as many items as possible. This requires a great deal of training time and data, which is why Google parallelized their project by having 14 robot arms feed data into a single neural network brain: even then, the algorithm may fail with highly specific tasks. Specialist grasping algorithms might require less training if they’re limited to specific objects, but then your software is useless for general tasks.
As the roboticists noted, their system, with its ability to identify parts of an object rather than just a single object, is better suited to specific tasks, such as “grasp the racquet by the handle,” than Amazon Robotics Challenge robots, which identify whole objects by segmenting an image.
This work is small-scale at present. It has been tested with a few classes of objects, including shoes, hats, and mugs. Yet the use of these dense object nets as a way for robots to represent and manipulate new objects may well be another step towards the ultimate goal of generalized automation: a robot capable of performing every task a person can. If that point is reached, the question that will remain is how to cope with being obsolete.
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The borders between the real world and the digital world keep crumbling, and the latter’s importance in both our personal and professional lives keeps growing. Some describe the melding of virtual and real worlds as part of the fourth industrial revolution. Said revolution’s full impact on us as individuals, our companies, communities, and societies is still unknown.
Greg Cross, chief business officer of New Zealand-based AI company Soul Machines, thinks one inescapable consequence of these crumbling borders is people spending more and more time interacting with technology. In a presentation at Singularity University’s Global Summit in San Francisco last month, Cross unveiled Soul Machines’ latest work and shared his views on the current state of human-like AI and where the technology may go in the near future.
Humanizing Technology Interaction
Cross started by introducing Rachel, one of Soul Machines’ “emotionally responsive digital humans.” The company has built 15 different digital humans of various sexes, groups, and ethnicities. Rachel, along with her “sisters” and “brothers,” has a virtual nervous system based on neural networks and biological models of different paths in the human brain. The system is controlled by virtual neurotransmitters and hormones akin to dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, which influence learning and behavior.
As a result, each digital human can have its own unique set of “feelings” and responses to interactions. People interact with them via visual and audio sensors, and the machines respond in real time.
“Over the last 20 or 30 years, the way we think about machines and the way we interact with machines has changed,” Cross said. “We’ve always had this view that they should actually be more human-like.”
The realism of the digital humans’ graphic representations comes thanks to the work of Soul Machines’ other co-founder, Dr. Mark Sager, who has won two Academy Awards for his work on some computer-generated movies, including James Cameron’s Avatar.
Cross pointed out, for example, that rather than being unrealistically flawless and clear, Rachel’s skin has blemishes and sun spots, just like real human skin would.
The Next Human-Machine Frontier
When people interact with each other face to face, emotional and intellectual engagement both heavily influence the interaction. What would it look like for machines to bring those same emotional and intellectual capacities to our interactions with them, and how would this type of interaction affect the way we use, relate to, and feel about AI?
Cross and his colleagues believe that humanizing artificial intelligence will make the technology more useful to humanity, and prompt people to use AI in more beneficial ways.
“What we think is a very important view as we move forward is that these machines can be more helpful to us. They can be more useful to us. They can be more interesting to us if they’re actually more like us,” Cross said.
It is an approach that seems to resonate with companies and organizations. For example, in the UK, where NatWest Bank is testing out Cora as a digital employee to help answer customer queries. In Germany, Daimler Financial Group plans to employ Sarah as something “similar to a personal concierge” for its customers. According to Cross, Daimler is looking at other ways it could deploy digital humans across the organization, from building digital service people, digital sales people, and maybe in the future, digital chauffeurs.
Soul Machines’ latest creation is Will, a digital teacher that can interact with children through a desktop, tablet, or mobile device and help them learn about renewable energy. Cross sees other social uses for digital humans, including potentially serving as doctors to rural communities.
Our Digital Friends—and Twins
Soul Machines is not alone in its quest to humanize technology. It is a direction many technology companies, including the likes of Amazon, also seem to be pursuing. Amazon is working on building a home robot that, according to Bloomberg, “could be a sort of mobile Alexa.”
Finding a more human form for technology seems like a particularly pervasive pursuit in Japan. Not just when it comes to its many, many robots, but also virtual assistants like Gatebox.
The Japanese approach was perhaps best summed up by famous android researcher Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, who I interviewed last year: “The human brain is set up to recognize and interact with humans. So, it makes sense to focus on developing the body for the AI mind, as well as the AI. I believe that the final goal for both Japanese and other companies and scientists is to create human-like interaction.”
During Cross’s presentation, Rob Nail, CEO and associate founder of Singularity University, joined him on the stage, extending an invitation to Rachel to be SU’s first fully digital faculty member. Rachel accepted, and though she’s the only digital faculty right now, she predicted this won’t be the case for long.
“In 10 years, all of you will have digital versions of yourself, just like me, to take on specific tasks and make your life a whole lot easier,” she said. “This is great news for me. I’ll have millions of digital friends.”
Image Credit: Soul Machines Continue reading →