Tag Archives: Static

#434854 New Lifelike Biomaterial Self-Reproduces ...

Life demands flux.

Every living organism is constantly changing: cells divide and die, proteins build and disintegrate, DNA breaks and heals. Life demands metabolism—the simultaneous builder and destroyer of living materials—to continuously upgrade our bodies. That’s how we heal and grow, how we propagate and survive.

What if we could endow cold, static, lifeless robots with the gift of metabolism?

In a study published this month in Science Robotics, an international team developed a DNA-based method that gives raw biomaterials an artificial metabolism. Dubbed DASH—DNA-based assembly and synthesis of hierarchical materials—the method automatically generates “slime”-like nanobots that dynamically move and navigate their environments.

Like humans, the artificial lifelike material used external energy to constantly change the nanobots’ bodies in pre-programmed ways, recycling their DNA-based parts as both waste and raw material for further use. Some “grew” into the shape of molecular double-helixes; others “wrote” the DNA letters inside micro-chips.

The artificial life forms were also rather “competitive”—in quotes, because these molecular machines are not conscious. Yet when pitted against each other, two DASH bots automatically raced forward, crawling in typical slime-mold fashion at a scale easily seen under the microscope—and with some iterations, with the naked human eye.

“Fundamentally, we may be able to change how we create and use the materials with lifelike characteristics. Typically materials and objects we create in general are basically static… one day, we may be able to ‘grow’ objects like houses and maintain their forms and functions autonomously,” said study author Dr. Shogo Hamada to Singularity Hub.

“This is a great study that combines the versatility of DNA nanotechnology with the dynamics of living materials,” said Dr. Job Boekhoven at the Technical University of Munich, who was not involved in the work.

Dissipative Assembly
The study builds on previous ideas on how to make molecular Lego blocks that essentially assemble—and destroy—themselves.

Although the inspiration came from biological metabolism, scientists have long hoped to cut their reliance on nature. At its core, metabolism is just a bunch of well-coordinated chemical reactions, programmed by eons of evolution. So why build artificial lifelike materials still tethered by evolution when we can use chemistry to engineer completely new forms of artificial life?

Back in 2015, for example, a team led by Boekhoven described a way to mimic how our cells build their internal “structural beams,” aptly called the cytoskeleton. The key here, unlike many processes in nature, isn’t balance or equilibrium; rather, the team engineered an extremely unstable system that automatically builds—and sustains—assemblies from molecular building blocks when given an external source of chemical energy.

Sound familiar? The team basically built molecular devices that “die” without “food.” Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics (hey ya, Newton!), that energy eventually dissipates, and the shapes automatically begin to break down, completing an artificial “circle of life.”

The new study took the system one step further: rather than just mimicking synthesis, they completed the circle by coupling the building process with dissipative assembly.

Here, the “assembling units themselves are also autonomously created from scratch,” said Hamada.

DNA Nanobots
The process of building DNA nanobots starts on a microfluidic chip.

Decades of research have allowed researchers to optimize DNA assembly outside the body. With the help of catalysts, which help “bind” individual molecules together, the team found that they could easily alter the shape of the self-assembling DNA bots—which formed fiber-like shapes—by changing the structure of the microfluidic chambers.

Computer simulations played a role here too: through both digital simulations and observations under the microscope, the team was able to identify a few critical rules that helped them predict how their molecules self-assemble while navigating a maze of blocking “pillars” and channels carved onto the microchips.

This “enabled a general design strategy for the DASH patterns,” they said.

In particular, the whirling motion of the fluids as they coursed through—and bumped into—ridges in the chips seems to help the DNA molecules “entangle into networks,” the team explained.

These insights helped the team further develop the “destroying” part of metabolism. Similar to linking molecules into DNA chains, their destruction also relies on enzymes.

Once the team pumped both “generation” and “degeneration” enzymes into the microchips, along with raw building blocks, the process was completely autonomous. The simultaneous processes were so lifelike that the team used a metric commonly used in robotics, finite-state automation, to measure the behavior of their DNA nanobots from growth to eventual decay.

“The result is a synthetic structure with features associated with life. These behaviors include locomotion, self-regeneration, and spatiotemporal regulation,” said Boekhoven.

Molecular Slime Molds
Just witnessing lifelike molecules grow in place like the dance move running man wasn’t enough.

In their next experiments, the team took inspiration from slugs to program undulating movements into their DNA bots. Here, “movement” is actually a sort of illusion: the machines “moved” because their front ends kept regenerating, whereas their back ends degenerated. In essence, the molecular slime was built from linking multiple individual “DNA robot-like” units together: each unit receives a delayed “decay” signal from the head of the slime in a way that allowed the whole artificial “organism” to crawl forward, against the steam of fluid flow.

Here’s the fun part: the team eventually engineered two molecular slime bots and pitted them against each other, Mario Kart-style. In these experiments, the faster moving bot alters the state of its competitor to promote “decay.” This slows down the competitor, allowing the dominant DNA nanoslug to win in a race.

Of course, the end goal isn’t molecular podracing. Rather, the DNA-based bots could easily amplify a given DNA or RNA sequence, making them efficient nano-diagnosticians for viral and other infections.

The lifelike material can basically generate patterns that doctors can directly ‘see’ with their eyes, which makes DNA or RNA molecules from bacteria and viruses extremely easy to detect, the team said.

In the short run, “the detection device with this self-generating material could be applied to many places and help people on site, from farmers to clinics, by providing an easy and accurate way to detect pathogens,” explained Hamaga.

A Futuristic Iron Man Nanosuit?
I’m letting my nerd flag fly here. In Avengers: Infinity Wars, the scientist-engineer-philanthropist-playboy Tony Stark unveiled a nanosuit that grew to his contours when needed and automatically healed when damaged.

DASH may one day realize that vision. For now, the team isn’t focused on using the technology for regenerating armor—rather, the dynamic materials could create new protein assemblies or chemical pathways inside living organisms, for example. The team also envisions adding simple sensing and computing mechanisms into the material, which can then easily be thought of as a robot.

Unlike synthetic biology, the goal isn’t to create artificial life. Rather, the team hopes to give lifelike properties to otherwise static materials.

“We are introducing a brand-new, lifelike material concept powered by its very own artificial metabolism. We are not making something that’s alive, but we are creating materials that are much more lifelike than have ever been seen before,” said lead author Dr. Dan Luo.

“Ultimately, our material may allow the construction of self-reproducing machines… artificial metabolism is an important step toward the creation of ‘artificial’ biological systems with dynamic, lifelike capabilities,” added Hamada. “It could open a new frontier in robotics.”

Image Credit: A timelapse image of DASH, by Jeff Tyson at Cornell University. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434655 Purposeful Evolution: Creating an ...

More often than not, we fall into the trap of trying to predict and anticipate the future, forgetting that the future is up to us to envision and create. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”

But how, exactly, do we create a “good” future? What does such a future look like to begin with?

In Future Consciousness: The Path to Purposeful Evolution, Tom Lombardo analytically deconstructs how we can flourish in the flow of evolution and create a prosperous future for humanity. Scientifically informed, the books taps into themes that are constructive and profound, from both eastern and western philosophies.

As the executive director of the Center for Future Consciousness and an executive board member and fellow of the World Futures Studies Federation, Lombardo has dedicated his life and career to studying how we can create a “realistic, constructive, and ethical future.”

In a conversation with Singularity Hub, Lombardo discussed purposeful evolution, ethical use of technology, and the power of optimism.

Raya Bidshahri: Tell me more about the title of your book. What is future consciousness and what role does it play in what you call purposeful evolution?

Tom Lombardo: Humans have the unique capacity to purposefully evolve themselves because they possess future consciousness. Future consciousness contains all of the cognitive, motivational, and emotional aspects of the human mind that pertain to the future. It’s because we can imagine and think about the future that we can manipulate and direct our future evolution purposefully. Future consciousness empowers us to become self-responsible in our own evolutionary future. This is a jump in the process of evolution itself.

RB: In several places in the book, you discuss the importance of various eastern philosophies. What can we learn from the east that is often missing from western models?

TL: The key idea in the east that I have been intrigued by for decades is the Taoist Yin Yang, which is the idea that reality should be conceptualized as interdependent reciprocities.

In the west we think dualistically, or we attempt to think in terms of one end of the duality to the exclusion of the other, such as whole versus parts or consciousness versus physical matter. Yin Yang thinking is seeing how both sides of a “duality,” even though they appear to be opposites, are interdependent; you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have order without chaos, consciousness without the physical world, individuals without the whole, humanity without technology, and vice versa for all these complementary pairs.

RB: You talk about the importance of chaos and destruction in the trajectory of human progress. In your own words, “Creativity frequently involves destruction as a prelude to the emergence of some new reality.” Why is this an important principle for readers to keep in mind, especially in the context of today’s world?

TL: In order for there to be progress, there often has to be a disintegration of aspects of the old. Although progress and evolution involve a process of building up, growth isn’t entirely cumulative; it’s also transformative. Things fall apart and come back together again.

Throughout history, we have seen a transformation of what are the most dominant human professions or vocations. At some point, almost everybody worked in agriculture, but most of those agricultural activities were replaced by machines, and a lot of people moved over to industry. Now we’re seeing that jobs and functions are increasingly automated in industry, and humans are being pushed into vocations that involve higher cognitive and artistic skills, services, information technology, and so on.

RB: You raise valid concerns about the dark side of technological progress, especially when it’s combined with mass consumerism, materialism, and anti-intellectualism. How do we counter these destructive forces as we shape the future of humanity?

TL: We can counter such forces by always thoughtfully considering how our technologies are affecting the ongoing purposeful evolution of our conscious minds, bodies, and societies. We should ask ourselves what are the ethical values that are being served by the development of various technologies.

For example, we often hear the criticism that technologies that are driven by pure capitalism degrade human life and only benefit the few people who invented and market them. So we need to also think about what good these new technologies can serve. It’s what I mean when I talk about the “wise cyborg.” A wise cyborg is somebody who uses technology to serve wisdom, or values connected with wisdom.

RB: Creating an ideal future isn’t just about progress in technology, but also progress in morality. How we do decide what a “good” future is? What are some philosophical tools we can use to determine a code of ethics that is as objective as possible?

TL: Let’s keep in mind that ethics will always have some level of subjectivity. That being said, the way to determine a good future is to base it on the best theory of reality that we have, which is that we are evolutionary beings in an evolutionary universe and we are interdependent with everything else in that universe. Our ethics should acknowledge that we are fluid and interactive.

Hence, the “good” can’t be something static, and it can’t be something that pertains to me and not everybody else. It can’t be something that only applies to humans and ignores all other life on Earth, and it must be a mode of change rather than something stable.

RB: You present a consciousness-centered approach to creating a good future for humanity. What are some of the values we should develop in order to create a prosperous future?

TL: A sense of self-responsibility for the future is critical. This means realizing that the “good future” is something we have to take upon ourselves to create; we can’t let something or somebody else do that. We need to feel responsible both for our own futures and for the future around us.

Another one is going to be an informed and hopeful optimism about the future, because both optimism and pessimism have self-fulfilling prophecy effects. If you hope for the best, you are more likely to look deeply into your reality and increase the chance of it coming out that way. In fact, all of the positive emotions that have to do with future consciousness actually make people more intelligent and creative.

Some other important character virtues are discipline and tenacity, deep purpose, the love of learning and thinking, and creativity.

RB: Are you optimistic about the future? If so, what informs your optimism?

I justify my optimism the same way that I have seen Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Kevin Kelly, and Steven Pinker justify theirs. If we look at the history of human civilization and even the history of nature, we see a progressive motion forward toward greater complexity and even greater intelligence. There’s lots of ups and downs, and catastrophes along the way, but the facts of nature and human history support the long-term expectation of continued evolution into the future.

You don’t have to be unrealistic to be optimistic. It’s also, psychologically, the more empowering position. That’s the position we should take if we want to maximize the chances of our individual or collective reality turning out better.

A lot of pessimists are pessimistic because they’re afraid of the future. There are lots of reasons to be afraid, but all in all, fear disempowers, whereas hope empowers.

Image Credit: Quick Shot / Shutterstock.com

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Posted in Human Robots

#434559 Can AI Tell the Difference Between a ...

Scarcely a day goes by without another headline about neural networks: some new task that deep learning algorithms can excel at, approaching or even surpassing human competence. As the application of this approach to computer vision has continued to improve, with algorithms capable of specialized recognition tasks like those found in medicine, the software is getting closer to widespread commercial use—for example, in self-driving cars. Our ability to recognize patterns is a huge part of human intelligence: if this can be done faster by machines, the consequences will be profound.

Yet, as ever with algorithms, there are deep concerns about their reliability, especially when we don’t know precisely how they work. State-of-the-art neural networks will confidently—and incorrectly—classify images that look like television static or abstract art as real-world objects like school-buses or armadillos. Specific algorithms could be targeted by “adversarial examples,” where adding an imperceptible amount of noise to an image can cause an algorithm to completely mistake one object for another. Machine learning experts enjoy constructing these images to trick advanced software, but if a self-driving car could be fooled by a few stickers, it might not be so fun for the passengers.

These difficulties are hard to smooth out in large part because we don’t have a great intuition for how these neural networks “see” and “recognize” objects. The main insight analyzing a trained network itself can give us is a series of statistical weights, associating certain groups of points with certain objects: this can be very difficult to interpret.

Now, new research from UCLA, published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, is testing neural networks to understand the limits of their vision and the differences between computer vision and human vision. Nicholas Baker, Hongjing Lu, and Philip J. Kellman of UCLA, alongside Gennady Erlikhman of the University of Nevada, tested a deep convolutional neural network called VGG-19. This is state-of-the-art technology that is already outperforming humans on standardized tests like the ImageNet Large Scale Visual Recognition Challenge.

They found that, while humans tend to classify objects based on their overall (global) shape, deep neural networks are far more sensitive to the textures of objects, including local color gradients and the distribution of points on the object. This result helps explain why neural networks in image recognition make mistakes that no human ever would—and could allow for better designs in the future.

In the first experiment, a neural network was trained to sort images into 1 of 1,000 different categories. It was then presented with silhouettes of these images: all of the local information was lost, while only the outline of the object remained. Ordinarily, the trained neural net was capable of recognizing these objects, assigning more than 90% probability to the correct classification. Studying silhouettes, this dropped to 10%. While human observers could nearly always produce correct shape labels, the neural networks appeared almost insensitive to the overall shape of the images. On average, the correct object was ranked as the 209th most likely solution by the neural network, even though the overall shapes were an exact match.

A particularly striking example arose when they tried to get the neural networks to classify glass figurines of objects they could already recognize. While you or I might find it easy to identify a glass model of an otter or a polar bear, the neural network classified them as “oxygen mask” and “can opener” respectively. By presenting glass figurines, where the texture information that neural networks relied on for classifying objects is lost, the neural network was unable to recognize the objects by shape alone. The neural network was similarly hopeless at classifying objects based on drawings of their outline.

If you got one of these right, you’re better than state-of-the-art image recognition software. Image Credit: Nicholas Baker, Hongjing Lu, Gennady Erlikhman, Philip J. Kelman. “Deep convolutional networks do not classify based on global object shape.” Plos Computational Biology. 12/7/18. / CC BY 4.0
When the neural network was explicitly trained to recognize object silhouettes—given no information in the training data aside from the object outlines—the researchers found that slight distortions or “ripples” to the contour of the image were again enough to fool the AI, while humans paid them no mind.

The fact that neural networks seem to be insensitive to the overall shape of an object—relying instead on statistical similarities between local distributions of points—suggests a further experiment. What if you scrambled the images so that the overall shape was lost but local features were preserved? It turns out that the neural networks are far better and faster at recognizing scrambled versions of objects than outlines, even when humans struggle. Students could classify only 37% of the scrambled objects, while the neural network succeeded 83% of the time.

Humans vastly outperform machines at classifying object (a) as a bear, while the machine learning algorithm has few problems classifying the bear in figure (b). Image Credit: Nicholas Baker, Hongjing Lu, Gennady Erlikhman, Philip J. Kelman. “Deep convolutional networks do not classify based on global object shape.” Plos Computational Biology. 12/7/18. / CC BY 4.0
“This study shows these systems get the right answer in the images they were trained on without considering shape,” Kellman said. “For humans, overall shape is primary for object recognition, and identifying images by overall shape doesn’t seem to be in these deep learning systems at all.”

Naively, one might expect that—as the many layers of a neural network are modeled on connections between neurons in the brain and resemble the visual cortex specifically—the way computer vision operates must necessarily be similar to human vision. But this kind of research shows that, while the fundamental architecture might resemble that of the human brain, the resulting “mind” operates very differently.

Researchers can, increasingly, observe how the “neurons” in neural networks light up when exposed to stimuli and compare it to how biological systems respond to the same stimuli. Perhaps someday it might be possible to use these comparisons to understand how neural networks are “thinking” and how those responses differ from humans.

But, as yet, it takes a more experimental psychology to probe how neural networks and artificial intelligence algorithms perceive the world. The tests employed against the neural network are closer to how scientists might try to understand the senses of an animal or the developing brain of a young child rather than a piece of software.

By combining this experimental psychology with new neural network designs or error-correction techniques, it may be possible to make them even more reliable. Yet this research illustrates just how much we still don’t understand about the algorithms we’re creating and using: how they tick, how they make decisions, and how they’re different from us. As they play an ever-greater role in society, understanding the psychology of neural networks will be crucial if we want to use them wisely and effectively—and not end up missing the woods for the trees.

Image Credit: Irvan Pratama / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434336 These Smart Seafaring Robots Have a ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lionfish: It’s what’s for dinner.

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

Image Credit: Houston Mechatronics, Inc. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434151 Life-or-Death Algorithms: The Black Box ...

When it comes to applications for machine learning, few can be more widely hyped than medicine. This is hardly surprising: it’s a huge industry that generates a phenomenal amount of data and revenue, where technological advances can improve or save the lives of millions of people. Hardly a week passes without a study that suggests algorithms will soon be better than experts at detecting pneumonia, or Alzheimer’s—diseases in complex organs ranging from the eye to the heart.

The problems of overcrowded hospitals and overworked medical staff plague public healthcare systems like Britain’s NHS and lead to rising costs for private healthcare systems. Here, again, algorithms offer a tantalizing solution. How many of those doctor’s visits really need to happen? How many could be replaced by an interaction with an intelligent chatbot—especially if it can be combined with portable diagnostic tests, utilizing the latest in biotechnology? That way, unnecessary visits could be reduced, and patients could be diagnosed and referred to specialists more quickly without waiting for an initial consultation.

As ever with artificial intelligence algorithms, the aim is not to replace doctors, but to give them tools to reduce the mundane or repetitive parts of the job. With an AI that can examine thousands of scans in a minute, the “dull drudgery” is left to machines, and the doctors are freed to concentrate on the parts of the job that require more complex, subtle, experience-based judgement of the best treatments and the needs of the patient.

High Stakes
But, as ever with AI algorithms, there are risks involved with relying on them—even for tasks that are considered mundane. The problems of black-box algorithms that make inexplicable decisions are bad enough when you’re trying to understand why that automated hiring chatbot was unimpressed by your job interview performance. In a healthcare context, where the decisions made could mean life or death, the consequences of algorithmic failure could be grave.

A new paper in Science Translational Medicine, by Nicholson Price, explores some of the promises and pitfalls of using these algorithms in the data-rich medical environment.

Neural networks excel at churning through vast quantities of training data and making connections, absorbing the underlying patterns or logic for the system in hidden layers of linear algebra; whether it’s detecting skin cancer from photographs or learning to write in pseudo-Shakespearean script. They are terrible, however, at explaining the underlying logic behind the relationships that they’ve found: there is often little more than a string of numbers, the statistical “weights” between the layers. They struggle to distinguish between correlation and causation.

This raises interesting dilemmas for healthcare providers. The dream of big data in medicine is to feed a neural network on “huge troves of health data, finding complex, implicit relationships and making individualized assessments for patients.” What if, inevitably, such an algorithm proves to be unreasonably effective at diagnosing a medical condition or prescribing a treatment, but you have no scientific understanding of how this link actually works?

Too Many Threads to Unravel?
The statistical models that underlie such neural networks often assume that variables are independent of each other, but in a complex, interacting system like the human body, this is not always the case.

In some ways, this is a familiar concept in medical science—there are many phenomena and links which have been observed for decades but are still poorly understood on a biological level. Paracetamol is one of the most commonly-prescribed painkillers, but there’s still robust debate about how it actually works. Medical practitioners may be keen to deploy whatever tool is most effective, regardless of whether it’s based on a deeper scientific understanding. Fans of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics might spin this as “Shut up and medicate!”

But as in that field, there’s a debate to be had about whether this approach risks losing sight of a deeper understanding that will ultimately prove more fruitful—for example, for drug discovery.

Away from the philosophical weeds, there are more practical problems: if you don’t understand how a black-box medical algorithm is operating, how should you approach the issues of clinical trials and regulation?

Price points out that, in the US, the “21st-Century Cures Act” allows the FDA to regulate any algorithm that analyzes images, or doesn’t allow a provider to review the basis for its conclusions: this could completely exclude “black-box” algorithms of the kind described above from use.

Transparency about how the algorithm functions—the data it looks at, and the thresholds for drawing conclusions or providing medical advice—may be required, but could also conflict with the profit motive and the desire for secrecy in healthcare startups.

One solution might be to screen algorithms that can’t explain themselves, or don’t rely on well-understood medical science, from use before they enter the healthcare market. But this could prevent people from reaping the benefits that they can provide.

Evaluating Algorithms
New healthcare algorithms will be unable to do what physicists did with quantum mechanics, and point to a track record of success, because they will not have been deployed in the field. And, as Price notes, many algorithms will improve as they’re deployed in the field for a greater amount of time, and can harvest and learn from the performance data that’s actually used. So how can we choose between the most promising approaches?

Creating a standardized clinical trial and validation system that’s equally valid across algorithms that function in different ways, or use different input or training data, will be a difficult task. Clinical trials that rely on small sample sizes, such as for algorithms that attempt to personalize treatment to individuals, will also prove difficult. With a small sample size and little scientific understanding, it’s hard to tell whether the algorithm succeeded or failed because it’s bad at its job or by chance.

Add learning into the mix and the picture gets more complex. “Perhaps more importantly, to the extent that an ideal black-box algorithm is plastic and frequently updated, the clinical trial validation model breaks down further, because the model depends on a static product subject to stable validation.” As Price describes, the current system for testing and validation of medical products needs some adaptation to deal with this new software before it can successfully test and validate the new algorithms.

Striking a Balance
The story in healthcare reflects the AI story in so many other fields, and the complexities involved perhaps illustrate why even an illustrious company like IBM appears to be struggling to turn its famed Watson AI into a viable product in the healthcare space.

A balance must be struck, both in our rush to exploit big data and the eerie power of neural networks, and to automate thinking. We must be aware of the biases and flaws of this approach to problem-solving: to realize that it is not a foolproof panacea.

But we also need to embrace these technologies where they can be a useful complement to the skills, insights, and deeper understanding that humans can provide. Much like a neural network, our industries need to train themselves to enhance this cooperation in the future.

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