Tag Archives: stem

#432893 These 4 Tech Trends Are Driving Us ...

From a first-principles perspective, the task of feeding eight billion people boils down to converting energy from the sun into chemical energy in our bodies.

Traditionally, solar energy is converted by photosynthesis into carbohydrates in plants (i.e., biomass), which are either eaten by the vegans amongst us, or fed to animals, for those with a carnivorous preference.

Today, the process of feeding humanity is extremely inefficient.

If we could radically reinvent what we eat, and how we create that food, what might you imagine that “future of food” would look like?

In this post we’ll cover:

Vertical farms
CRISPR engineered foods
The alt-protein revolution
Farmer 3.0

Let’s dive in.

Vertical Farming
Where we grow our food…

The average American meal travels over 1,500 miles from farm to table. Wine from France, beef from Texas, potatoes from Idaho.

Imagine instead growing all of your food in a 50-story tall vertical farm in downtown LA or off-shore on the Great Lakes where the travel distance is no longer 1,500 miles but 50 miles.

Delocalized farming will minimize travel costs at the same time that it maximizes freshness.

Perhaps more importantly, vertical farming also allows tomorrow’s farmer the ability to control the exact conditions of her plants year round.

Rather than allowing the vagaries of the weather and soil conditions to dictate crop quality and yield, we can now perfectly control the growing cycle.

LED lighting provides the crops with the maximum amount of light, at the perfect frequency, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

At the same time, sensors and robots provide the root system the exact pH and micronutrients required, while fine-tuning the temperature of the farm.

Such precision farming can generate yields that are 200% to 400% above normal.

Next let’s explore how we can precision-engineer the genetic properties of the plant itself.

CRISPR and Genetically Engineered Foods
What food do we grow?

A fundamental shift is occurring in our relationship with agriculture. We are going from evolution by natural selection (Darwinism) to evolution by human direction.

CRISPR (the cutting edge gene editing tool) is providing a pathway for plant breeding that is more predictable, faster and less expensive than traditional breeding methods.

Rather than our crops being subject to nature’s random, environmental whim, CRISPR unlocks our capability to modify our crops to match the available environment.

Further, using CRISPR we will be able to optimize the nutrient density of our crops, enhancing their value and volume.

CRISPR may also hold the key to eliminating common allergens from crops. As we identify the allergen gene in peanuts, for instance, we can use CRISPR to silence that gene, making the crops we raise safer for and more accessible to a rapidly growing population.

Yet another application is our ability to make plants resistant to infection or more resistant to drought or cold.

Helping to accelerate the impact of CRISPR, the USDA recently announced that genetically engineered crops will not be regulated—providing an opening for entrepreneurs to capitalize on the opportunities for optimization CRISPR enables.

CRISPR applications in agriculture are an opportunity to help a billion people and become a billionaire in the process.

Protecting crops against volatile environments, combating crop diseases and increasing nutrient values, CRISPR is a promising tool to help feed the world’s rising population.

The Alt-Protein/Lab-Grown Meat Revolution
Something like a third of the Earth’s arable land is used for raising livestock—a massive amount of land—and global demand for meat is predicted to double in the coming decade.

Today, we must grow an entire cow—all bones, skin, and internals included—to produce a steak.

Imagine if we could instead start with a single muscle stem cell and only grow the steak, without needing the rest of the cow? Think of it as cellular agriculture.

Imagine returning millions, perhaps billions, of acres of grazing land back to the wilderness? This is the promise of lab-grown meats.

Lab-grown meat can also be engineered (using technology like CRISPR) to be packed with nutrients and be the healthiest, most delicious protein possible.

We’re watching this technology develop in real time. Several startups across the globe are already working to bring artificial meats to the food industry.

JUST, Inc. (previously Hampton Creek) run by my friend Josh Tetrick, has been on a mission to build a food system where everyone can get and afford delicious, nutritious food. They started by exploring 300,000+ species of plants all around the world to see how they can make food better and now are investing heavily in stem-cell-grown meats.

Backed by Richard Branson and Bill Gates, Memphis Meats is working on ways to produce real meat from animal cells, rather than whole animals. So far, they have produced beef, chicken, and duck using cultured cells from living animals.

As with vertical farming, transitioning production of our majority protein source to a carefully cultivated environment allows for agriculture to optimize inputs (water, soil, energy, land footprint), nutrients and, importantly, taste.

Farmer 3.0
Vertical farming and cellular agriculture are reinventing how we think about our food supply chain and what food we produce.

The next question to answer is who will be producing the food?

Let’s look back at how farming evolved through history.

Farmers 0.0 (Neolithic Revolution, around 9000 BCE): The hunter-gatherer to agriculture transition gains momentum, and humans cultivated the ability to domesticate plants for food production.

Farmers 1.0 (until around the 19th century): Farmers spent all day in the field performing backbreaking labor, and agriculture accounted for most jobs.

Farmers 2.0 (mid-20th century, Green Revolution): From the invention of the first farm tractor in 1812 through today, transformative mechanical biochemical technologies (fertilizer) boosted yields and made the job of farming easier, driving the US farm job rate down to less than two percent today.

Farmers 3.0: In the near future, farmers will leverage exponential technologies (e.g., AI, networks, sensors, robotics, drones), CRISPR and genetic engineering, and new business models to solve the world’s greatest food challenges and efficiently feed the eight-billion-plus people on Earth.

An important driver of the Farmer 3.0 evolution is the delocalization of agriculture driven by vertical and urban farms. Vertical farms and urban agriculture are empowering a new breed of agriculture entrepreneurs.

Let’s take a look at an innovative incubator in Brooklyn, New York called Square Roots.

Ten farm-in-a-shipping-containers in a Brooklyn parking lot represent the first Square Roots campus. Each 8-foot x 8.5-foot x 20-foot shipping container contains an equivalent of 2 acres of produce and can yield more than 50 pounds of produce each week.

For 13 months, one cohort of next-generation food entrepreneurs takes part in a curriculum with foundations in farming, business, community and leadership.

The urban farming incubator raised a $5.4 million seed funding round in August 2017.

Training a new breed of entrepreneurs to apply exponential technology to growing food is essential to the future of farming.

One of our massive transformative purposes at the Abundance Group is to empower entrepreneurs to generate extraordinary wealth while creating a world of abundance. Vertical farms and cellular agriculture are key elements enabling the next generation of food and agriculture entrepreneurs.

Conclusion
Technology is driving food abundance.

We’re already seeing food become demonetized, as the graph below shows.

From 1960 to 2014, the percent of income spent on food in the U.S. fell from 19 percent to under 10 percent of total disposable income—a dramatic decrease over the 40 percent of household income spent on food in 1900.

The dropping percent of per-capita disposable income spent on food. Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, Food Expenditure Series
Ultimately, technology has enabled a massive variety of food at a significantly reduced cost and with fewer resources used for production.

We’re increasingly going to optimize and fortify the food supply chain to achieve more reliable, predictable, and nutritious ways to obtain basic sustenance.

And that means a world with abundant, nutritious, and inexpensive food for every man, woman, and child.

What an extraordinary time to be alive.

Join Me
Abundance-Digital Online Community: I’ve created a Digital/Online community of bold, abundance-minded entrepreneurs called Abundance-Digital.

Abundance-Digital is my ‘onramp’ for exponential entrepreneurs—those who want to get involved and play at a higher level. Click here to learn more.

Image Credit: Nejron Photo / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#432691 Is the Secret to Significantly Longer ...

Once upon a time, a powerful Sumerian king named Gilgamesh went on a quest, as such characters often do in these stories of myth and legend. Gilgamesh had witnessed the death of his best friend, Enkidu, and, fearing a similar fate, went in search of immortality. The great king failed to find the secret of eternal life but took solace that his deeds would live well beyond his mortal years.

Fast-forward four thousand years, give or take a century, and Gilgamesh (as famous as any B-list celebrity today, despite the passage of time) would probably be heartened to learn that many others have taken up his search for longevity. Today, though, instead of battling epic monsters and the machinations of fickle gods, those seeking to enhance and extend life are cutting-edge scientists and visionary entrepreneurs who are helping unlock the secrets of human biology.

Chief among them is Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist who founded the SENS Research Foundation, a Silicon Valley-based research organization that seeks to advance the application of regenerative medicine to age-related diseases. SENS stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, a term coined by de Grey to describe a broad array (seven, to be precise) of medical interventions that attempt to repair or prevent different types of molecular and cellular damage that eventually lead to age-related diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Many of the strategies focus on senescent cells, which accumulate in tissues and organs as people age. Not quite dead, senescent cells stop dividing but are still metabolically active, spewing out all sorts of proteins and other molecules that can cause inflammation and other problems. In a young body, that’s usually not a problem (and probably part of general biological maintenance), as a healthy immune system can go to work to put out most fires.

However, as we age, senescent cells continue to accumulate, and at some point the immune system retires from fire watch. Welcome to old age.

Of Mice and Men
Researchers like de Grey believe that treating the cellular underpinnings of aging could not only prevent disease but significantly extend human lifespans. How long? Well, if you’re talking to de Grey, Biblical proportions—on the order of centuries.

De Grey says that science has made great strides toward that end in the last 15 years, such as the ability to copy mitochondrial DNA to the nucleus. Mitochondria serve as the power plant of the cell but are highly susceptible to mutations that lead to cellular degeneration. Copying the mitochondrial DNA into the nucleus would help protect it from damage.

Another achievement occurred about six years ago when scientists first figured out how to kill senescent cells. That discovery led to a spate of new experiments in mice indicating that removing these ticking-time-bomb cells prevented disease and even extended their lifespans. Now the anti-aging therapy is about to be tested in humans.

“As for the next few years, I think the stream of advances is likely to become a flood—once the first steps are made, things get progressively easier and faster,” de Grey tells Singularity Hub. “I think there’s a good chance that we will achieve really dramatic rejuvenation of mice within only six to eight years: maybe taking middle-aged mice and doubling their remaining lifespan, which is an order of magnitude more than can be done today.”

Not Horsing Around
Richard G.A. Faragher, a professor of biogerontology at the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom, recently made discoveries in the lab regarding the rejuvenation of senescent cells with chemical compounds found in foods like chocolate and red wine. He hopes to apply his findings to an animal model in the future—in this case,horses.

“We have been very fortunate in receiving some funding from an animal welfare charity to look at potential treatments for older horses,” he explains to Singularity Hub in an email. “I think this is a great idea. Many aspects of the physiology we are studying are common between horses and humans.”

What Faragher and his colleagues demonstrated in a paper published in BMC Cell Biology last year was that resveralogues, chemicals based on resveratrol, were able to reactivate a protein called a splicing factor that is involved in gene regulation. Within hours, the chemicals caused the cells to rejuvenate and start dividing like younger cells.

“If treatments work in our old pony systems, then I am sure they could be translated into clinical trials in humans,” Faragher says. “How long is purely a matter of money. Given suitable funding, I would hope to see a trial within five years.”

Show Them the Money
Faragher argues that the recent breakthroughs aren’t because a result of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence or the gene-editing tool CRISPR, but a paradigm shift in how scientists understand the underpinnings of cellular aging. Solving the “aging problem” isn’t a question of technology but of money, he says.

“Frankly, when AI and CRISPR have removed cystic fibrosis, Duchenne muscular dystrophy or Gaucher syndrome, I’ll be much more willing to hear tales of amazing progress. Go fix a single, highly penetrant genetic disease in the population using this flashy stuff and then we’ll talk,” he says. “My faith resides in the most potent technological development of all: money.”

De Grey is less flippant about the role that technology will play in the quest to defeat aging. AI, CRISPR, protein engineering, advances in stem cell therapies, and immune system engineering—all will have a part.

“There is not really anything distinctive about the ways in which these technologies will contribute,” he says. “What’s distinctive is that we will need all of these technologies, because there are so many different types of damage to repair and they each require different tricks.”

It’s in the Blood
A startup in the San Francisco Bay Area believes machines can play a big role in discovering the right combination of factors that lead to longer and healthier lives—and then develop drugs that exploit those findings.

BioAge Labs raised nearly $11 million last year for its machine learning platform that crunches big data sets to find blood factors, such as proteins or metabolites, that are tied to a person’s underlying biological age. The startup claims that these factors can predict how long a person will live.

“Our interest in this comes out of research into parabiosis, where joining the circulatory systems of old and young mice—so that they share the same blood—has been demonstrated to make old mice healthier and more robust,” Dr. Eric Morgen, chief medical officer at BioAge, tells Singularity Hub.

Based on that idea, he explains, it should be possible to alter those good or bad factors to produce a rejuvenating effect.

“Our main focus at BioAge is to identify these types of factors in our human cohort data, characterize the important molecular pathways they are involved in, and then drug those pathways,” he says. “This is a really hard problem, and we use machine learning to mine these complex datasets to determine which individual factors and molecular pathways best reflect biological age.”

Saving for the Future
Of course, there’s no telling when any of these anti-aging therapies will come to market. That’s why Forever Labs, a biotechnology startup out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, wants your stem cells now. The company offers a service to cryogenically freeze stem cells taken from bone marrow.

The theory behind the procedure, according to Forever Labs CEO Steven Clausnitzer, is based on research showing that stem cells may be a key component for repairing cellular damage. That’s because stem cells can develop into many different cell types and can divide endlessly to replenish other cells. Clausnitzer notes that there are upwards of a thousand clinical studies looking at using stem cells to treat age-related conditions such as cardiovascular disease.

However, stem cells come with their own expiration date, which usually coincides with the age that most people start experiencing serious health problems. Stem cells harvested from bone marrow at a younger age can potentially provide a therapeutic resource in the future.

“We believe strongly that by having access to your own best possible selves, you’re going to be well positioned to lead healthier, longer lives,” he tells Singularity Hub.

“There’s a compelling argument to be made that if you started to maintain the bone marrow population, the amount of nuclear cells in your bone marrow, and to re-up them so that they aren’t declining with age, it stands to reason that you could absolutely mitigate things like cardiovascular disease and stroke and Alzheimer’s,” he adds.

Clausnitzer notes that the stored stem cells can be used today in developing therapies to treat chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis. However, the more exciting prospect—and the reason he put his own 38-year-old stem cells on ice—is that he believes future stem cell therapies can help stave off the ravages of age-related disease.

“I can start reintroducing them not to treat age-related disease but to treat the decline in the stem-cell niche itself, so that I don’t ever get an age-related disease,” he says. “I don’t think that it equates to immortality, but it certainly is a step in that direction.”

Indecisive on Immortality
The societal implications of a longer-living human species are a guessing game at this point. We do know that by mid-century, the global population of those aged 65 and older will reach 1.6 billion, while those older than 80 will hit nearly 450 million, according to the National Academies of Science. If many of those people could enjoy healthy lives in their twilight years, an enormous medical cost could be avoided.

Faragher is certainly working toward a future where human health is ubiquitous. Human immortality is another question entirely.

“The longer lifespans become, the more heavily we may need to control birth rates and thus we may have fewer new minds. This could have a heavy ‘opportunity cost’ in terms of progress,” he says.

And does anyone truly want to live forever?

“There have been happy moments in my life but I have also suffered some traumatic disappointments. No [drug] will wash those experiences out of me,” Faragher says. “I no longer view my future with unqualified enthusiasm, and I do not think I am the only middle-aged man to feel that way. I don’t think it is an accident that so many ‘immortalists’ are young.

“They should be careful what they wish for.”

Image Credit: Karim Ortiz / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#432279 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

COMPUTING
Google Thinks It’s Close to ‘Quantum Supremacy.’ Here’s What That Really Means.
Martin Giles and Will Knight | MIT Technology Review
“Seventy-two may not be a large number, but in quantum computing terms, it’s massive. This week Google unveiled Bristlecone, a new quantum computing chip with 72 quantum bits, or qubits—the fundamental units of computation in a quantum machine…John Martinis, who heads Google’s effort, says his team still needs to do more testing, but he thinks it’s ‘pretty likely’ that this year, perhaps even in just a few months, the new chip can achieve ‘quantum supremacy.'”

INTERNET
How Project Loon Built the Navigation System That Kept Its Balloons Over Puerto Rico
Amy Nordrum | IEEE Spectrum
“Last year, Alphabet’s Project Loon made a big shift in the way it flies its high-altitude balloons. And that shift—from steering every balloon in a huge circle around the world to clustering balloons over specific areas—allowed the project to provide basic Internet service to more than 200,000 people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.”

DIGITAL MEDIA
The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News
Robinson Meyer | The Atlantic
“The massive new study analyzes every major contested news story in English across the span of Twitter’s existence—some 126,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users, over more than 10 years—and finds that the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumor.”

AUGMENTED REALITY
Magic Leap Raises $461 Million in Fresh Funding From the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Lucas Matney | TechCrunch
“Magic Leap still hasn’t released a product, but they’re continuing to raise a lot of cash to get there. The Plantation, Florida-based augmented reality startup announced today that it has raised $461 million from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign investment arm, The Public Investment Fund…Magic Leap has raised more than $2.3 billion in funding to date.”

TECHNOLOGY & SOCIETY
Social Inequality Will Not Be Solved by an App
Safiya Umoja Noble | Wired
“An app will not save us. We will not sort out social inequality lying in bed staring at smartphones. It will not stem from simply sending emails to people in power, one person at a time…We need more intense attention on how these types of artificial intelligence, under the auspices of individual freedom to make choices, forestall the ability to see what kinds of choices we are making and the collective impact of these choices in reversing decades of struggle for social, political, and economic equality. Digital technologies are implicated in these struggles.”

Image Credit: topseller / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

That needs to change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rejuvenation Biotechnology
The second approach is repair and maintenance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Worraket / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#431371 Amazon Is Quietly Building the Robots of ...

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

Posted in Human Robots