Tag Archives: style
In the HBO show Westworld, robots designed to display emotion, feel pain, and die like humans populate a sprawling western-style theme park for wealthy guests who pay to act out their fantasies. As the show progresses, and the robots learn more about the world in which they live, they begin to realize that they are the playthings of the person who programmed them. Continue reading →
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.
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.
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 →
Deep learning is powering some amazing new capabilities, but we find it hard to scrutinize the workings of these algorithms. Lack of interpretability in AI is a common concern and many are trying to fix it, but is it really always necessary to know what’s going on inside these “black boxes”?
In a recent perspective piece for Science, Elizabeth Holm, a professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, argued in defense of the black box algorithm. I caught up with her last week to find out more.
Edd Gent: What’s your experience with black box algorithms?
Elizabeth Holm: I got a dual PhD in materials science and engineering and scientific computing. I came to academia about six years ago and part of what I wanted to do in making this career change was to refresh and revitalize my computer science side.
I realized that computer science had changed completely. It used to be about algorithms and making codes run fast, but now it’s about data and artificial intelligence. There are the interpretable methods like random forest algorithms, where we can tell how the machine is making its decisions. And then there are the black box methods, like convolutional neural networks.
Once in a while we can find some information about their inner workings, but most of the time we have to accept their answers and kind of probe around the edges to figure out the space in which we can use them and how reliable and accurate they are.
EG: What made you feel like you had to mount a defense of these black box algorithms?
EH: When I started talking with my colleagues, I found that the black box nature of many of these algorithms was a real problem for them. I could understand that because we’re scientists, we always want to know why and how.
It got me thinking as a bit of a contrarian, “Are black boxes all bad? Must we reject them?” Surely not, because human thought processes are fairly black box. We often rely on human thought processes that the thinker can’t necessarily explain.
It’s looking like we’re going to be stuck with these methods for a while, because they’re really helpful. They do amazing things. And so there’s a very pragmatic realization that these are the best methods we’ve got to do some really important problems, and we’re not right now seeing alternatives that are interpretable. We’re going to have to use them, so we better figure out how.
EG: In what situations do you think we should be using black box algorithms?
EH: I came up with three rules. The simplest rule is: when the cost of a bad decision is small and the value of a good decision is high, it’s worth it. The example I gave in the paper is targeted advertising. If you send an ad no one wants it doesn’t cost a lot. If you’re the receiver it doesn’t cost a lot to get rid of it.
There are cases where the cost is high, and that’s then we choose the black box if it’s the best option to do the job. Things get a little trickier here because we have to ask “what are the costs of bad decisions, and do we really have them fully characterized?” We also have to be very careful knowing that our systems may have biases, they may have limitations in where you can apply them, they may be breakable.
But at the same time, there are certainly domains where we’re going to test these systems so extensively that we know their performance in virtually every situation. And if their performance is better than the other methods, we need to do it. Self driving vehicles are a significant example—it’s almost certain they’re going to have to use black box methods, and that they’re going to end up being better drivers than humans.
The third rule is the more fun one for me as a scientist, and that’s the case where the black box really enlightens us as to a new way to look at something. We have trained a black box to recognize the fracture energy of breaking a piece of metal from a picture of the broken surface. It did a really good job, and humans can’t do this and we don’t know why.
What the computer seems to be seeing is noise. There’s a signal in that noise, and finding it is very difficult, but if we do we may find something significant to the fracture process, and that would be an awesome scientific discovery.
EG: Do you think there’s been too much emphasis on interpretability?
EH: I think the interpretability problem is a fundamental, fascinating computer science grand challenge and there are significant issues where we need to have an interpretable model. But how I would frame it is not that there’s too much emphasis on interpretability, but rather that there’s too much dismissiveness of uninterpretable models.
I think that some of the current social and political issues surrounding some very bad black box outcomes have convinced people that all machine learning and AI should be interpretable because that will somehow solve those problems.
Asking humans to explain their rationale has not eliminated bias, or stereotyping, or bad decision-making in humans. Relying too much on interpreted ability perhaps puts the responsibility in the wrong place for getting better results. I can make a better black box without knowing exactly in what way the first one was bad.
EG: Looking further into the future, do you think there will be situations where humans will have to rely on black box algorithms to solve problems we can’t get our heads around?
EH: I do think so, and it’s not as much of a stretch as we think it is. For example, humans don’t design the circuit map of computer chips anymore. We haven’t for years. It’s not a black box algorithm that designs those circuit boards, but we’ve long since given up trying to understand a particular computer chip’s design.
With the billions of circuits in every computer chip, the human mind can’t encompass it, either in scope or just the pure time that it would take to trace every circuit. There are going to be cases where we want a system so complex that only the patience that computers have and their ability to work in very high-dimensional spaces is going to be able to do it.
So we can continue to argue about interpretability, but we need to acknowledge that we’re going to need to use black boxes. And this is our opportunity to do our due diligence to understand how to use them responsibly, ethically, and with benefits rather than harm. And that’s going to be a social conversation as well as as a scientific one.
*Responses have been edited for length and style
Image Credit: Chingraph / Shutterstock.com Continue reading →
FUTURE OF FOOD
Behold the ‘Beefless Impossible Whopper’
Nathaniel Popper | The New York Times
“Burger King is introducing a Whopper made with a vegetarian patty from the start-up Impossible Foods. The deal is a big step toward the mainstream for start-ups trying to mimic and replace meat.”
The Animal-AI Olympics Is Going to Treat AI Like a Lab Rat
Oscar Schwartz | MIT Technology Review
“What is being tested is not a particular type of intelligence but the ability for a single agent to adapt to diverse environments. This would demonstrate a limited form of generalized intelligence—a type of common sense that AI will need if it is ever to succeed in our homes or in our daily lives.”
Falcon Heavy’s First Real Launch on Sunday Is the Dawn of a New Heavy-Lift Era in Space
Devin Coldewey | TechCrunch
“The Falcon Heavy has flown before, but now it’s got a payload that matters and competitors nipping at its heels. It’s the first of a new generation of launch vehicles that can take huge payloads to space cheaply and frequently, opening up a new frontier in the space race.”
Self-Driving Harvesting Robot Suctions the Fruit Off Trees
Luke Dormehl | Digital Trends
“[Abundant Robotics] has developed a cutting edge solution to the apple-picking problem in the form of an autonomous tractor-style vehicle which can navigate through orchards using Lidar. Once it spots the apples it seeks, it’s able to detect their ripeness using image recognition technology. It can then reach out and literally suction its chosen apples off the trees and into an on-board storage bin.”
Amid Bitcoin Uncertainty ‘the Smart Money Knows That Crypto Is Not Ready’
Nathaniel Popper | The New York Times
“Some cryptocurrency enthusiasts had hoped that the entrance of Wall Street institutions would give them legitimacy with traditional investors. But their struggles—and waning interest—illustrate the difficulty in bringing Bitcoin from the fringes of the internet into the mainstream financial world.”
Sorry, Graphene—Borophene Is the New Wonder Material That’s Got Everyone Excited
Emerging Technology from the arXiv | MIT Technology Review
“Stronger and more flexible than graphene, a single-atom layer of boron could revolutionize sensors, batteries, and catalytic chemistry.”
Image Credit: JoeZ / Shutterstock.com Continue reading →
In recent years, the media has sounded the alarm about mass job loss to automation and robotics—some studies predict that up to 50 percent of current jobs or tasks could be automated in coming decades. While this topic has received significant attention, much of the press focuses on potential problems without proposing realistic solutions or considering new opportunities.
The economic impacts of AI, robotics, and automation are complex topics that require a more comprehensive perspective to understand. Is universal basic income, for example, the answer? Many believe so, and there are a number of experiments in progress. But it’s only one strategy, and without a sustainable funding source, universal basic income may not be practical.
As automation continues to accelerate, we’ll need a multi-pronged approach to ease the transition. In short, we need to update broad socioeconomic strategies for a new century of rapid progress. How, then, do we plan practical solutions to support these new strategies?
Take history as a rough guide to the future. Looking back, technology revolutions have three themes in common.
First, past revolutions each produced profound benefits to productivity, increasing human welfare. Second, technological innovation and technology diffusion have accelerated over time, each iteration placing more strain on the human ability to adapt. And third, machines have gradually replaced more elements of human work, with human societies adapting by moving into new forms of work—from agriculture to manufacturing to service, for example.
Public and private solutions, therefore, need to be developed to address each of these three components of change. Let’s explore some practical solutions for each in turn.
Figure 1. Technology’s structural impacts in the 21st century. Refer to Appendix I for quantitative charts and technological examples corresponding to the numbers (1-22) in each slice.
Solution 1: Capture New Opportunities Through Aggressive Investment
The rapid emergence of new technology promises a bounty of opportunity for the twenty-first century’s economic winners. This technological arms race is shaping up to be a global affair, and the winners will be determined in part by who is able to build the future economy fastest and most effectively. Both the private and public sectors have a role to play in stimulating growth.
At the country level, several nations have created competitive strategies to promote research and development investments as automation technologies become more mature.
Germany and China have two of the most notable growth strategies. Germany’s Industrie 4.0 plan targets a 50 percent increase in manufacturing productivity via digital initiatives, while halving the resources required. China’s Made in China 2025 national strategy sets ambitious targets and provides subsidies for domestic innovation and production. It also includes building new concept cities, investing in robotics capabilities, and subsidizing high-tech acquisitions abroad to become the leader in certain high-tech industries. For China, specifically, tech innovation is driven partially by a fear that technology will disrupt social structures and government control.
Such opportunities are not limited to existing economic powers. Estonia’s progress after the breakup of the Soviet Union is a good case study in transitioning to a digital economy. The nation rapidly implemented capitalistic reforms and transformed itself into a technology-centric economy in preparation for a massive tech disruption. Internet access was declared a right in 2000, and the country’s classrooms were outfitted for a digital economy, with coding as a core educational requirement starting at kindergarten. Internet broadband speeds in Estonia are among the fastest in the world. Accordingly, the World Bank now ranks Estonia as a high-income country.
Solution 2: Address Increased Rate of Change With More Nimble Education Systems
Education and training are currently not set for the speed of change in the modern economy. Schools are still based on a one-time education model, with school providing the foundation for a single lifelong career. With content becoming obsolete faster and rapidly escalating costs, this system may be unsustainable in the future. To help workers more smoothly transition from one job into another, for example, we need to make education a more nimble, lifelong endeavor.
Primary and university education may still have a role in training foundational thinking and general education, but it will be necessary to curtail rising price of tuition and increase accessibility. Massive open online courses (MooCs) and open-enrollment platforms are early demonstrations of what the future of general education may look like: cheap, effective, and flexible.
Georgia Tech’s online Engineering Master’s program (a fraction of the cost of residential tuition) is an early example in making university education more broadly available. Similarly, nanodegrees or microcredentials provided by online education platforms such as Udacity and Coursera can be used for mid-career adjustments at low cost. AI itself may be deployed to supplement the learning process, with applications such as AI-enhanced tutorials or personalized content recommendations backed by machine learning. Recent developments in neuroscience research could optimize this experience by perfectly tailoring content and delivery to the learner’s brain to maximize retention.
Finally, companies looking for more customized skills may take a larger role in education, providing on-the-job training for specific capabilities. One potential model involves partnering with community colleges to create apprenticeship-style learning, where students work part-time in parallel with their education. Siemens has pioneered such a model in four states and is developing a playbook for other companies to do the same.
Solution 3: Enhance Social Safety Nets to Smooth Automation Impacts
If predicted job losses to automation come to fruition, modernizing existing social safety nets will increasingly become a priority. While the issue of safety nets can become quickly politicized, it is worth noting that each prior technological revolution has come with corresponding changes to the social contract (see below).
The evolving social contract (U.S. examples)
– 1842 | Right to strike
– 1924 | Abolish child labor
– 1935 | Right to unionize
– 1938 | 40-hour work week
– 1962, 1974 | Trade adjustment assistance
– 1964 | Pay discrimination prohibited
– 1970 | Health and safety laws
– 21st century | AI and automation adjustment assistance?
Figure 2. Labor laws have historically adjusted as technology and society progressed
Solutions like universal basic income (no-strings-attached monthly payout to all citizens) are appealing in concept, but somewhat difficult to implement as a first measure in countries such as the US or Japan that already have high debt. Additionally, universal basic income may create dis-incentives to stay in the labor force. A similar cautionary tale in program design was the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which was designed to protect industries and workers from import competition shocks from globalization, but is viewed as a missed opportunity due to insufficient coverage.
A near-term solution could come in the form of graduated wage insurance (compensation for those forced to take a lower-paying job), including health insurance subsidies to individuals directly impacted by automation, with incentives to return to the workforce quickly. Another topic to tackle is geographic mismatch between workers and jobs, which can be addressed by mobility assistance. Lastly, a training stipend can be issued to individuals as means to upskill.
Policymakers can intervene to reverse recent historical trends that have shifted incomes from labor to capital owners. The balance could be shifted back to labor by placing higher taxes on capital—an example is the recently proposed “robot tax” where the taxation would be on the work rather than the individual executing it. That is, if a self-driving car performs the task that formerly was done by a human, the rideshare company will still pay the tax as if a human was driving.
Other solutions may involve distribution of work. Some countries, such as France and Sweden, have experimented with redistributing working hours. The idea is to cap weekly hours, with the goal of having more people employed and work more evenly spread. So far these programs have had mixed results, with lower unemployment but high costs to taxpayers, but are potential models that can continue to be tested.
We cannot stop growth, nor should we. With the roles in response to this evolution shifting, so should the social contract between the stakeholders. Government will continue to play a critical role as a stabilizing “thumb” in the invisible hand of capitalism, regulating and cushioning against extreme volatility, particularly in labor markets.
However, we already see business leaders taking on some of the role traditionally played by government—thinking about measures to remedy risks of climate change or economic proposals to combat unemployment—in part because of greater agility in adapting to change. Cross-disciplinary collaboration and creative solutions from all parties will be critical in crafting the future economy.
Note: The full paper this article is based on is available here.
Image Credit: Dmitry Kalinovsky / Shutterstock.com Continue reading →