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#432882 Why the Discovery of Room-Temperature ...

Superconductors are among the most bizarre and exciting materials yet discovered. Counterintuitive quantum-mechanical effects mean that, below a critical temperature, they have zero electrical resistance. This property alone is more than enough to spark the imagination.

A current that could flow forever without losing any energy means transmission of power with virtually no losses in the cables. When renewable energy sources start to dominate the grid and high-voltage transmission across continents becomes important to overcome intermittency, lossless cables will result in substantial savings.

What’s more, a superconducting wire carrying a current that never, ever diminishes would act as a perfect store of electrical energy. Unlike batteries, which degrade over time, if the resistance is truly zero, you could return to the superconductor in a billion years and find that same old current flowing through it. Energy could be captured and stored indefinitely!

With no resistance, a huge current could be passed through the superconducting wire and, in turn, produce magnetic fields of incredible power.

You could use them to levitate trains and produce astonishing accelerations, thereby revolutionizing the transport system. You could use them in power plants—replacing conventional methods which spin turbines in magnetic fields to generate electricity—and in quantum computers as the two-level system required for a “qubit,” in which the zeros and ones are replaced by current flowing clockwise or counterclockwise in a superconductor.

Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; superconductors can certainly seem like magical devices. So, why aren’t they busy remaking the world? There’s a problem—that critical temperature.

For all known materials, it’s hundreds of degrees below freezing. Superconductors also have a critical magnetic field; beyond a certain magnetic field strength, they cease to work. There’s a tradeoff: materials with an intrinsically high critical temperature can also often provide the largest magnetic fields when cooled well below that temperature.

This has meant that superconductor applications so far have been limited to situations where you can afford to cool the components of your system to close to absolute zero: in particle accelerators and experimental nuclear fusion reactors, for example.

But even as some aspects of superconductor technology become mature in limited applications, the search for higher temperature superconductors moves on. Many physicists still believe a room-temperature superconductor could exist. Such a discovery would unleash amazing new technologies.

The Quest for Room-Temperature Superconductors
After Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered superconductivity by accident while attempting to prove Lord Kelvin’s theory that resistance would increase with decreasing temperature, theorists scrambled to explain the new property in the hope that understanding it might allow for room-temperature superconductors to be synthesized.

They came up with the BCS theory, which explained some of the properties of superconductors. It also predicted that the dream of technologists, a room-temperature superconductor, could not exist; the maximum temperature for superconductivity according to BCS theory was just 30 K.

Then, in the 1980s, the field changed again with the discovery of unconventional, or high-temperature, superconductivity. “High temperature” is still very cold: the highest temperature for superconductivity achieved was -70°C for hydrogen sulphide at extremely high pressures. For normal pressures, -140°C is near the upper limit. Unfortunately, high-temperature superconductors—which require relatively cheap liquid nitrogen, rather than liquid helium, to cool—are mostly brittle ceramics, which are expensive to form into wires and have limited application.

Given the limitations of high-temperature superconductors, researchers continue to believe there’s a better option awaiting discovery—an incredible new material that checks boxes like superconductivity approaching room temperature, affordability, and practicality.

Tantalizing Clues
Without a detailed theoretical understanding of how this phenomenon occurs—although incremental progress happens all the time—scientists can occasionally feel like they’re taking educated guesses at materials that might be likely candidates. It’s a little like trying to guess a phone number, but with the periodic table of elements instead of digits.

Yet the prospect remains, in the words of one researcher, tantalizing. A Nobel Prize and potentially changing the world of energy and electricity is not bad for a day’s work.

Some research focuses on cuprates, complex crystals that contain layers of copper and oxygen atoms. Doping cuprates with various different elements, such exotic compounds as mercury barium calcium copper oxide, are amongst the best superconductors known today.

Research also continues into some anomalous but unexplained reports that graphite soaked in water can act as a room-temperature superconductor, but there’s no indication that this could be used for technological applications yet.

In early 2017, as part of the ongoing effort to explore the most extreme and exotic forms of matter we can create on Earth, researchers managed to compress hydrogen into a metal.

The pressure required to do this was more than that at the core of the Earth and thousands of times higher than that at the bottom of the ocean. Some researchers in the field, called condensed-matter physics, doubt that metallic hydrogen was produced at all.

It’s considered possible that metallic hydrogen could be a room-temperature superconductor. But getting the samples to stick around long enough for detailed testing has proved tricky, with the diamonds containing the metallic hydrogen suffering a “catastrophic failure” under the pressure.

Superconductivity—or behavior that strongly resembles it—was also observed in yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO) at room temperature in 2014. The only catch was that this electron transport lasted for a tiny fraction of a second and required the material to be bombarded with pulsed lasers.

Not very practical, you might say, but tantalizing nonetheless.

Other new materials display enticing properties too. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the theoretical work that characterizes topological insulators—materials that exhibit similarly strange quantum behaviors. They can be considered perfect insulators for the bulk of the material but extraordinarily good conductors in a thin layer on the surface.

Microsoft is betting on topological insulators as the key component in their attempt at a quantum computer. They’ve also been considered potentially important components in miniaturized circuitry.

A number of remarkable electronic transport properties have also been observed in new, “2D” structures—like graphene, these are materials synthesized to be as thick as a single atom or molecule. And research continues into how we can utilize the superconductors we’ve already discovered; for example, some teams are trying to develop insulating material that prevents superconducting HVDC cable from overheating.

Room-temperature superconductivity remains as elusive and exciting as it has been for over a century. It is unclear whether a room-temperature superconductor can exist, but the discovery of high-temperature superconductors is a promising indicator that unconventional and highly useful quantum effects may be discovered in completely unexpected materials.

Perhaps in the future—through artificial intelligence simulations or the serendipitous discoveries of a 21st century Kamerlingh Onnes—this little piece of magic could move into the realm of reality.

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#432467 Dungeons and Dragons, Not Chess and Go: ...

Everyone had died—not that you’d know it, from how they were laughing about their poor choices and bad rolls of the dice. As a social anthropologist, I study how people understand artificial intelligence (AI) and our efforts towards attaining it; I’m also a life-long fan of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), the inventive fantasy roleplaying game. During a recent quest, when I was playing an elf ranger, the trainee paladin (or holy knight) acted according to his noble character, and announced our presence at the mouth of a dragon’s lair. The results were disastrous. But while success in D&D means “beating the bad guy,” the game is also a creative sandbox, where failure can count as collective triumph so long as you tell a great tale.

What does this have to do with AI? In computer science, games are frequently used as a benchmark for an algorithm’s “intelligence.” The late Robert Wilensky, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and a leading figure in AI, offered one reason why this might be. Computer scientists “looked around at who the smartest people were, and they were themselves, of course,” he told the authors of Compulsive Technology: Computers as Culture (1985). “They were all essentially mathematicians by training, and mathematicians do two things—they prove theorems and play chess. And they said, hey, if it proves a theorem or plays chess, it must be smart.” No surprise that demonstrations of AI’s “smarts” have focused on the artificial player’s prowess.

Yet the games that get chosen—like Go, the main battlefield for Google DeepMind’s algorithms in recent years—tend to be tightly bounded, with set objectives and clear paths to victory or defeat. These experiences have none of the open-ended collaboration of D&D. Which got me thinking: do we need a new test for intelligence, where the goal is not simply about success, but storytelling? What would it mean for an AI to “pass” as human in a game of D&D? Instead of the Turing test, perhaps we need an elf ranger test?

Of course, this is just a playful thought experiment, but it does highlight the flaws in certain models of intelligence. First, it reveals how intelligence has to work across a variety of environments. D&D participants can inhabit many characters in many games, and the individual player can “switch” between roles (the fighter, the thief, the healer). Meanwhile, AI researchers know that it’s super difficult to get a well-trained algorithm to apply its insights in even slightly different domains—something that we humans manage surprisingly well.

Second, D&D reminds us that intelligence is embodied. In computer games, the bodily aspect of the experience might range from pressing buttons on a controller in order to move an icon or avatar (a ping-pong paddle; a spaceship; an anthropomorphic, eternally hungry, yellow sphere), to more recent and immersive experiences involving virtual-reality goggles and haptic gloves. Even without these add-ons, games can still produce biological responses associated with stress and fear (if you’ve ever played Alien: Isolation you’ll understand). In the original D&D, the players encounter the game while sitting around a table together, feeling the story and its impact. Recent research in cognitive science suggests that bodily interactions are crucial to how we grasp more abstract mental concepts. But we give minimal attention to the embodiment of artificial agents, and how that might affect the way they learn and process information.

Finally, intelligence is social. AI algorithms typically learn through multiple rounds of competition, in which successful strategies get reinforced with rewards. True, it appears that humans also evolved to learn through repetition, reward and reinforcement. But there’s an important collaborative dimension to human intelligence. In the 1930s, the psychologist Lev Vygotsky identified the interaction of an expert and a novice as an example of what became called “scaffolded” learning, where the teacher demonstrates and then supports the learner in acquiring a new skill. In unbounded games, this cooperation is channelled through narrative. Games of It among small children can evolve from win/lose into attacks by terrible monsters, before shifting again to more complex narratives that explain why the monsters are attacking, who is the hero, and what they can do and why—narratives that aren’t always logical or even internally compatible. An AI that could engage in social storytelling is doubtless on a surer, more multifunctional footing than one that plays chess; and there’s no guarantee that chess is even a step on the road to attaining intelligence of this sort.

In some ways, this failure to look at roleplaying as a technical hurdle for intelligence is strange. D&D was a key cultural touchstone for technologists in the 1980s and the inspiration for many early text-based computer games, as Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon point out in Where Wizards Stay up Late: The Origins of the Internet (1996). Even today, AI researchers who play games in their free time often mention D&D specifically. So instead of beating adversaries in games, we might learn more about intelligence if we tried to teach artificial agents to play together as we do: as paladins and elf rangers.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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#432051 What Roboticists Are Learning From Early ...

You might not have heard of Hanson Robotics, but if you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen their work. They were the company behind Sophia, the lifelike humanoid avatar that’s made dozens of high-profile media appearances. Before that, they were the company behind that strange-looking robot that seemed a bit like Asimo with Albert Einstein’s head—or maybe you saw BINA48, who was interviewed for the New York Times in 2010 and featured in Jon Ronson’s books. For the sci-fi aficionados amongst you, they even made a replica of legendary author Philip K. Dick, best remembered for having books with titles like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? turned into films with titles like Blade Runner.

Hanson Robotics, in other words, with their proprietary brand of life-like humanoid robots, have been playing the same game for a while. Sometimes it can be a frustrating game to watch. Anyone who gives the robot the slightest bit of thought will realize that this is essentially a chat-bot, with all the limitations this implies. Indeed, even in that New York Times interview with BINA48, author Amy Harmon describes it as a frustrating experience—with “rare (but invariably thrilling) moments of coherence.” This sensation will be familiar to anyone who’s conversed with a chatbot that has a few clever responses.

The glossy surface belies the lack of real intelligence underneath; it seems, at first glance, like a much more advanced machine than it is. Peeling back that surface layer—at least for a Hanson robot—means you’re peeling back Frubber. This proprietary substance—short for “Flesh Rubber,” which is slightly nightmarish—is surprisingly complicated. Up to thirty motors are required just to control the face; they manipulate liquid cells in order to make the skin soft, malleable, and capable of a range of different emotional expressions.

A quick combinatorial glance at the 30+ motors suggests that there are millions of possible combinations; researchers identify 62 that they consider “human-like” in Sophia, although not everyone agrees with this assessment. Arguably, the technical expertise that went into reconstructing the range of human facial expressions far exceeds the more simplistic chat engine the robots use, although it’s the second one that allows it to inflate the punters’ expectations with a few pre-programmed questions in an interview.

Hanson Robotics’ belief is that, ultimately, a lot of how humans will eventually relate to robots is going to depend on their faces and voices, as well as on what they’re saying. “The perception of identity is so intimately bound up with the perception of the human form,” says David Hanson, company founder.

Yet anyone attempting to design a robot that won’t terrify people has to contend with the uncanny valley—that strange blend of concern and revulsion people react with when things appear to be creepily human. Between cartoonish humanoids and genuine humans lies what has often been a no-go zone in robotic aesthetics.

The uncanny valley concept originated with roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that roboticists should avoid trying to replicate humans exactly. Since anything that wasn’t perfect, but merely very good, would elicit an eerie feeling in humans, shirking the challenge entirely was the only way to avoid the uncanny valley. It’s probably a task made more difficult by endless streams of articles about AI taking over the world that inexplicably conflate AI with killer humanoid Terminators—which aren’t particularly likely to exist (although maybe it’s best not to push robots around too much).

The idea behind this realm of psychological horror is fairly simple, cognitively speaking.

We know how to categorize things that are unambiguously human or non-human. This is true even if they’re designed to interact with us. Consider the popularity of Aibo, Jibo, or even some robots that don’t try to resemble humans. Something that resembles a human, but isn’t quite right, is bound to evoke a fear response in the same way slightly distorted music or slightly rearranged furniture in your home will. The creature simply doesn’t fit.

You may well reject the idea of the uncanny valley entirely. David Hanson, naturally, is not a fan. In the paper Upending the Uncanny Valley, he argues that great art forms have often resembled humans, but the ultimate goal for humanoid roboticists is probably to create robots we can relate to as something closer to humans than works of art.

Meanwhile, Hanson and other scientists produce competing experiments to either demonstrate that the uncanny valley is overhyped, or to confirm it exists and probe its edges.

The classic experiment involves gradually morphing a cartoon face into a human face, via some robotic-seeming intermediaries—yet it’s in movement that the real horror of the almost-human often lies. Hanson has argued that incorporating cartoonish features may help—and, sometimes, that the uncanny valley is a generational thing which will melt away when new generations grow used to the quirks of robots. Although Hanson might dispute the severity of this effect, it’s clearly what he’s trying to avoid with each new iteration.

Hiroshi Ishiguro is the latest of the roboticists to have dived headlong into the valley.

Building on the work of pioneers like Hanson, those who study human-robot interaction are pushing at the boundaries of robotics—but also of social science. It’s usually difficult to simulate what you don’t understand, and there’s still an awful lot we don’t understand about how we interpret the constant streams of non-verbal information that flow when you interact with people in the flesh.

Ishiguro took this imitation of human forms to extreme levels. Not only did he monitor and log the physical movements people made on videotapes, but some of his robots are based on replicas of people; the Repliee series began with a ‘replicant’ of his daughter. This involved making a rubber replica—a silicone cast—of her entire body. Future experiments were focused on creating Geminoid, a replica of Ishiguro himself.

As Ishiguro aged, he realized that it would be more effective to resemble his replica through cosmetic surgery rather than by continually creating new casts of his face, each with more lines than the last. “I decided not to get old anymore,” Ishiguro said.

We love to throw around abstract concepts and ideas: humans being replaced by machines, cared for by machines, getting intimate with machines, or even merging themselves with machines. You can take an idea like that, hold it in your hand, and examine it—dispassionately, if not without interest. But there’s a gulf between thinking about it and living in a world where human-robot interaction is not a field of academic research, but a day-to-day reality.

As the scientists studying human-robot interaction develop their robots, their replicas, and their experiments, they are making some of the first forays into that world. We might all be living there someday. Understanding ourselves—decrypting the origins of empathy and love—may be the greatest challenge to face. That is, if you want to avoid the valley.

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#431678 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Can A.I. Be Taught to Explain Itself?Cliff Kuang | New York Times“Kosinski’s results suggested something stranger: that artificial intelligences often excel by developing whole new ways of seeing, or even thinking, that are inscrutable to us. It’s a more profound version of what’s often called the ‘black box’ problem—the inability to discern exactly what machines are doing when they’re teaching themselves novel skills—and it has become a central concern in artificial-intelligence research.”
BIOTECH
Semi-Synthetic Life Form Now Fully Armed and OperationalAntonio Regalado | MIT Technology Review “By this year, the team had devised a more stable bacterium. But it wasn’t enough to endow the germ with a partly alien code—it needed to use that code to make a partly alien protein. That’s what Romesberg’s team, reporting today in the journal Nature, says it has done.”
COMPUTING
4 Strange New Ways to ComputeSamuel K. Moore | IEEE Spectrum “With Moore’s Law slowing, engineers have been taking a cold hard look at what will keep computing going when it’s gone…What follows includes a taste of both the strange and the potentially impactful.”
INNOVATION
Google X and the Science of Radical CreativityDerek Thompson | The Atlantic “But what X is attempting is nonetheless audacious. It is investing in both invention and innovation. Its founders hope to demystify and routinize the entire process of making a technological breakthrough—to nurture each moonshot, from question to idea to discovery to product—and, in so doing, to write an operator’s manual for radical creativity.”
PRIVACY AND SECURITY
Uber Paid Hackers to Delete Stolen Data on 57 Million PeopleEric Newcomer | Bloomberg “Hackers stole the personal data of 57 million customers and drivers from Uber Technologies Inc., a massive breach that the company concealed for more than a year. This week, the ride-hailing firm ousted its chief security officer and one of his deputies for their roles in keeping the hack under wraps, which included a $100,000 payment to the attackers.”
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#431159 How Close Is Turing’s Dream of ...

The quest for conversational artificial intelligence has been a long one.
When Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, racked his considerable brains for a test that would truly indicate that a computer program was intelligent, he landed on this area. If a computer could convince a panel of human judges that they were talking to a human—if it could hold a convincing conversation—then it would indicate that artificial intelligence had advanced to the point where it was indistinguishable from human intelligence.
This gauntlet was thrown down in 1950 and, so far, no computer program has managed to pass the Turing test.
There have been some very notable failures, however: Joseph Weizenbaum, as early as 1966—when computers were still programmed with large punch-cards—developed a piece of natural language processing software called ELIZA. ELIZA was a machine intended to respond to human conversation by pretending to be a psychotherapist; you can still talk to her today.
Talking to ELIZA is a little strange. She’ll often rephrase things you’ve said back at you: so, for example, if you say “I’m feeling depressed,” she might say “Did you come to me because you are feeling depressed?” When she’s unsure about what you’ve said, ELIZA will usually respond with “I see,” or perhaps “Tell me more.”
For the first few lines of dialogue, especially if you treat her as your therapist, ELIZA can be convincingly human. This was something Weizenbaum noticed and was slightly alarmed by: people were willing to treat the algorithm as more human than it really was. Before long, even though some of the test subjects knew ELIZA was just a machine, they were opening up with some of their deepest feelings and secrets. They were pouring out their hearts to a machine. When Weizenbaum’s secretary spoke to ELIZA, even though she knew it was a fairly simple computer program, she still insisted Weizenbaum leave the room.
Part of the unexpected reaction ELIZA generated may be because people are more willing to open up to a machine, feeling they won’t be judged, even if the machine is ultimately powerless to do or say anything to really help. The ELIZA effect was named for this computer program: the tendency of humans to anthropomorphize machines, or think of them as human.

Weizenbaum himself, who later became deeply suspicious of the influence of computers and artificial intelligence in human life, was astonished that people were so willing to believe his script was human. He wrote, “I had not realized…that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people.”

“Consciously, you know you’re talking to a big block of code stored somewhere out there in the ether. But subconsciously, you might feel like you’re interacting with a human.”

The ELIZA effect may have disturbed Weizenbaum, but it has intrigued and fascinated others for decades. Perhaps you’ve noticed it in yourself, when talking to an AI like Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant—the occasional response can seem almost too real. Consciously, you know you’re talking to a big block of code stored somewhere out there in the ether. But subconsciously, you might feel like you’re interacting with a human.
Yet the ELIZA effect, as enticing as it is, has proved a source of frustration for people who are trying to create conversational machines. Natural language processing has proceeded in leaps and bounds since the 1960s. Now you can find friendly chatbots like Mitsuku—which has frequently won the Loebner Prize, awarded to the machines that come closest to passing the Turing test—that aim to have a response to everything you might say.
In the commercial sphere, Facebook has opened up its Messenger program and provided software for people and companies to design their own chatbots. The idea is simple: why have an app for, say, ordering pizza when you can just chatter to a robot through your favorite messenger app and make the order in natural language, as if you were telling your friend to get it for you?
Startups like Semantic Machines hope their AI assistant will be able to interact with you just like a secretary or PA would, but with an unparalleled ability to retrieve information from the internet. They may soon be there.
But people who engineer chatbots—both in the social and commercial realm—encounter a common problem: the users, perhaps subconsciously, assume the chatbots are human and become disappointed when they’re not able to have a normal conversation. Frustration with miscommunication can often stem from raised initial expectations.
So far, no machine has really been able to crack the problem of context retention—understanding what’s been said before, referring back to it, and crafting responses based on the point the conversation has reached. Even Mitsuku will often struggle to remember the topic of conversation beyond a few lines of dialogue.

“For everything you say, there could be hundreds of responses that would make sense. When you travel a layer deeper into the conversation, those factors multiply until you end up with vast numbers of potential conversations.”

This is, of course, understandable. Conversation can be almost unimaginably complex. For everything you say, there could be hundreds of responses that would make sense. When you travel a layer deeper into the conversation, those factors multiply until—like possible games of Go or chess—you end up with vast numbers of potential conversations.
But that hasn’t deterred people from trying, most recently, tech giant Amazon, in an effort to make their AI voice assistant, Alexa, friendlier. They have been running the Alexa Prize competition, which offers a cool $500,000 to the winning AI—and a bonus of a million dollars to any team that can create a ‘socialbot’ capable of sustaining a conversation with human users for 20 minutes on a variety of themes.
Topics Alexa likes to chat about include science and technology, politics, sports, and celebrity gossip. The finalists were recently announced: chatbots from universities in Prague, Edinburgh, and Seattle. Finalists were chosen according to the ratings from Alexa users, who could trigger the socialbots into conversation by saying “Hey Alexa, let’s chat,” although the reviews for the socialbots weren’t always complimentary.
By narrowing down the fields of conversation to a specific range of topics, the Alexa Prize has cleverly started to get around the problem of context—just as commercially available chatbots hope to do. It’s much easier to model an interaction that goes a few layers into the conversational topic if you’re limiting those topics to a specific field.
Developing a machine that can hold almost any conversation with a human interlocutor convincingly might be difficult. It might even be a problem that requires artificial general intelligence to truly solve, rather than the previously-employed approaches of scripted answers or neural networks that associate inputs with responses.
But a machine that can have meaningful interactions that people might value and enjoy could be just around the corner. The Alexa Prize winner is announced in November. The ELIZA effect might mean we will relate to machines sooner than we’d thought.
So, go well, little socialbots. If you ever want to discuss the weather or what the world will be like once you guys take over, I’ll be around. Just don’t start a therapy session.
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