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#435172 DARPA’s New Project Is Investing ...

When Elon Musk and DARPA both hop aboard the cyborg hypetrain, you know brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) are about to achieve the impossible.

BMIs, already the stuff of science fiction, facilitate crosstalk between biological wetware with external computers, turning human users into literal cyborgs. Yet mind-controlled robotic arms, microelectrode “nerve patches”, or “memory Band-Aids” are still purely experimental medical treatments for those with nervous system impairments.

With the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, DARPA is looking to expand BMIs to the military. This month, the project tapped six academic teams to engineer radically different BMIs to hook up machines to the brains of able-bodied soldiers. The goal is to ditch surgery altogether—while minimizing any biological interventions—to link up brain and machine.

Rather than microelectrodes, which are currently surgically inserted into the brain to hijack neural communication, the project is looking to acoustic signals, electromagnetic waves, nanotechnology, genetically-enhanced neurons, and infrared beams for their next-gen BMIs.

It’s a radical departure from current protocol, with potentially thrilling—or devastating—impact. Wireless BMIs could dramatically boost bodily functions of veterans with neural damage or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or allow a single soldier to control swarms of AI-enabled drones with his or her mind. Or, similar to the Black Mirror episode Men Against Fire, it could cloud the perception of soldiers, distancing them from the emotional guilt of warfare.

When trickled down to civilian use, these new technologies are poised to revolutionize medical treatment. Or they could galvanize the transhumanist movement with an inconceivably powerful tool that fundamentally alters society—for better or worse.

Here’s what you need to know.

Radical Upgrades
The four-year N3 program focuses on two main aspects: noninvasive and “minutely” invasive neural interfaces to both read and write into the brain.

Because noninvasive technologies sit on the scalp, their sensors and stimulators will likely measure entire networks of neurons, such as those controlling movement. These systems could then allow soldiers to remotely pilot robots in the field—drones, rescue bots, or carriers like Boston Dynamics’ BigDog. The system could even boost multitasking prowess—mind-controlling multiple weapons at once—similar to how able-bodied humans can operate a third robotic arm in addition to their own two.

In contrast, minutely invasive technologies allow scientists to deliver nanotransducers without surgery: for example, an injection of a virus carrying light-sensitive sensors, or other chemical, biotech, or self-assembled nanobots that can reach individual neurons and control their activity independently without damaging sensitive tissue. The proposed use for these technologies isn’t yet well-specified, but as animal experiments have shown, controlling the activity of single neurons at multiple points is sufficient to program artificial memories of fear, desire, and experiences directly into the brain.

“A neural interface that enables fast, effective, and intuitive hands-free interaction with military systems by able-bodied warfighters is the ultimate program goal,” DARPA wrote in its funding brief, released early last year.

The only technologies that will be considered must have a viable path toward eventual use in healthy human subjects.

“Final N3 deliverables will include a complete integrated bidirectional brain-machine interface system,” the project description states. This doesn’t just include hardware, but also new algorithms tailored to these system, demonstrated in a “Department of Defense-relevant application.”

The Tools
Right off the bat, the usual tools of the BMI trade, including microelectrodes, MRI, or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are off the table. These popular technologies rely on surgery, heavy machinery, or personnel to sit very still—conditions unlikely in the real world.

The six teams will tap into three different kinds of natural phenomena for communication: magnetism, light beams, and acoustic waves.

Dr. Jacob Robinson at Rice University, for example, is combining genetic engineering, infrared laser beams, and nanomagnets for a bidirectional system. The $18 million project, MOANA (Magnetic, Optical and Acoustic Neural Access device) uses viruses to deliver two extra genes into the brain. One encodes a protein that sits on top of neurons and emits infrared light when the cell activates. Red and infrared light can penetrate through the skull. This lets a skull cap, embedded with light emitters and detectors, pick up these signals for subsequent decoding. Ultra-fast and utra-sensitvie photodetectors will further allow the cap to ignore scattered light and tease out relevant signals emanating from targeted portions of the brain, the team explained.

The other new gene helps write commands into the brain. This protein tethers iron nanoparticles to the neurons’ activation mechanism. Using magnetic coils on the headset, the team can then remotely stimulate magnetic super-neurons to fire while leaving others alone. Although the team plans to start in cell cultures and animals, their goal is to eventually transmit a visual image from one person to another. “In four years we hope to demonstrate direct, brain-to-brain communication at the speed of thought and without brain surgery,” said Robinson.

Other projects in N3 are just are ambitious.

The Carnegie Mellon team, for example, plans to use ultrasound waves to pinpoint light interaction in targeted brain regions, which can then be measured through a wearable “hat.” To write into the brain, they propose a flexible, wearable electrical mini-generator that counterbalances the noisy effect of the skull and scalp to target specific neural groups.

Similarly, a group at Johns Hopkins is also measuring light path changes in the brain to correlate them with regional brain activity to “read” wetware commands.

The Teledyne Scientific & Imaging group, in contrast, is turning to tiny light-powered “magnetometers” to detect small, localized magnetic fields that neurons generate when they fire, and match these signals to brain output.

The nonprofit Battelle team gets even fancier with their ”BrainSTORMS” nanotransducers: magnetic nanoparticles wrapped in a piezoelectric shell. The shell can convert electrical signals from neurons into magnetic ones and vice-versa. This allows external transceivers to wirelessly pick up the transformed signals and stimulate the brain through a bidirectional highway.

The magnetometers can be delivered into the brain through a nasal spray or other non-invasive methods, and magnetically guided towards targeted brain regions. When no longer needed, they can once again be steered out of the brain and into the bloodstream, where the body can excrete them without harm.

Four-Year Miracle
Mind-blown? Yeah, same. However, the challenges facing the teams are enormous.

DARPA’s stated goal is to hook up at least 16 sites in the brain with the BMI, with a lag of less than 50 milliseconds—on the scale of average human visual perception. That’s crazy high resolution for devices sitting outside the brain, both in space and time. Brain tissue, blood vessels, and the scalp and skull are all barriers that scatter and dissipate neural signals. All six teams will need to figure out the least computationally-intensive ways to fish out relevant brain signals from background noise, and triangulate them to the appropriate brain region to decipher intent.

In the long run, four years and an average $20 million per project isn’t much to potentially transform our relationship with machines—for better or worse. DARPA, to its credit, is keenly aware of potential misuse of remote brain control. The program is under the guidance of a panel of external advisors with expertise in bioethical issues. And although DARPA’s focus is on enabling able-bodied soldiers to better tackle combat challenges, it’s hard to argue that wireless, non-invasive BMIs will also benefit those most in need: veterans and other people with debilitating nerve damage. To this end, the program is heavily engaging the FDA to ensure it meets safety and efficacy regulations for human use.

Will we be there in just four years? I’m skeptical. But these electrical, optical, acoustic, magnetic, and genetic BMIs, as crazy as they sound, seem inevitable.

“DARPA is preparing for a future in which a combination of unmanned systems, AI, and cyber operations may cause conflicts to play out on timelines that are too short for humans to effectively manage with current technology alone,” said Al Emondi, the N3 program manager.

The question is, now that we know what’s in store, how should the rest of us prepare?

Image Credit: With permission from DARPA N3 project. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434792 Extending Human Longevity With ...

Lizards can regrow entire limbs. Flatworms, starfish, and sea cucumbers regrow entire bodies. Sharks constantly replace lost teeth, often growing over 20,000 teeth throughout their lifetimes. How can we translate these near-superpowers to humans?

The answer: through the cutting-edge innovations of regenerative medicine.

While big data and artificial intelligence transform how we practice medicine and invent new treatments, regenerative medicine is about replenishing, replacing, and rejuvenating our physical bodies.

In Part 5 of this blog series on Longevity and Vitality, I detail three of the regenerative technologies working together to fully augment our vital human organs.

Replenish: Stem cells, the regenerative engine of the body
Replace: Organ regeneration and bioprinting
Rejuvenate: Young blood and parabiosis

Let’s dive in.

Replenish: Stem Cells – The Regenerative Engine of the Body
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can transform into specialized cells such as heart, neurons, liver, lung, skin and so on, and can also divide to produce more stem cells.

In a child or young adult, these stem cells are in large supply, acting as a built-in repair system. They are often summoned to the site of damage or inflammation to repair and restore normal function.

But as we age, our supply of stem cells begins to diminish as much as 100- to 10,000-fold in different tissues and organs. In addition, stem cells undergo genetic mutations, which reduce their quality and effectiveness at renovating and repairing your body.

Imagine your stem cells as a team of repairmen in your newly constructed mansion. When the mansion is new and the repairmen are young, they can fix everything perfectly. But as the repairmen age and reduce in number, your mansion eventually goes into disrepair and finally crumbles.

What if you could restore and rejuvenate your stem cell population?

One option to accomplish this restoration and rejuvenation is to extract and concentrate your own autologous adult stem cells from places like your adipose (or fat) tissue or bone marrow.

These stem cells, however, are fewer in number and have undergone mutations (depending on your age) from their original ‘software code.’ Many scientists and physicians now prefer an alternative source, obtaining stem cells from the placenta or umbilical cord, the leftovers of birth.

These stem cells, available in large supply and expressing the undamaged software of a newborn, can be injected into joints or administered intravenously to rejuvenate and revitalize.

Think of these stem cells as chemical factories generating vital growth factors that can help to reduce inflammation, fight autoimmune disease, increase muscle mass, repair joints, and even revitalize skin and grow hair.

Over the last decade, the number of publications per year on stem cell-related research has increased 40x, and the stem cell market is expected to increase to $297 billion by 2022.

Rising research and development initiatives to develop therapeutic options for chronic diseases and growing demand for regenerative treatment options are the most significant drivers of this budding industry.

Biologists led by Kohji Nishida at Osaka University in Japan have discovered a new way to nurture and grow the tissues that make up the human eyeball. The scientists are able to grow retinas, corneas, the eye’s lens, and more, using only a small sample of adult skin.

In a Stanford study, seven of 18 stroke victims who agreed to stem cell treatments showed remarkable motor function improvements. This treatment could work for other neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS.

Doctors from the USC Neurorestoration Center and Keck Medicine of USC injected stem cells into the damaged cervical spine of a recently paralyzed 21-year-old man. Three months later, he showed dramatic improvement in sensation and movement of both arms.

In 2019, doctors in the U.K. cured a patient with HIV for the second time ever thanks to the efficacy of stem cells. After giving the cancer patient (who also had HIV) an allogeneic haematopoietic (e.g. blood) stem cell treatment for his Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the patient went into long-term HIV remission—18 months and counting at the time of the study’s publication.

Replace: Organ Regeneration and 3D Printing
Every 10 minutes, someone is added to the US organ transplant waiting list, totaling over 113,000 people waiting for replacement organs as of January 2019.

Countless more people in need of ‘spare parts’ never make it onto the waiting list. And on average, 20 people die each day while waiting for a transplant.

As a result, 35 percent of all US deaths (~900,000 people) could be prevented or delayed with access to organ replacements.

The excessive demand for donated organs will only intensify as technologies like self-driving cars make the world safer, given that many organ donors result from auto and motorcycle accidents. Safer vehicles mean less accidents and donations.

Clearly, replacement and regenerative medicine represent a massive opportunity.

Organ Entrepreneurs
Enter United Therapeutics CEO, Dr. Martine Rothblatt. A one-time aerospace entrepreneur (she was the founder of Sirius Satellite Radio), Rothblatt changed careers in the 1990s after her daughter developed a rare lung disease.

Her moonshot today is to create an industry of replacement organs. With an initial focus on diseases of the lung, Rothblatt set out to create replacement lungs. To accomplish this goal, her company United Therapeutics has pursued a number of technologies in parallel.

3D Printing Lungs
In 2017, United teamed up with one of the world’s largest 3D printing companies, 3D Systems, to build a collagen bioprinter and is paying another company, 3Scan, to slice up lungs and create detailed maps of their interior.

This 3D Systems bioprinter now operates according to a method called stereolithography. A UV laser flickers through a shallow pool of collagen doped with photosensitive molecules. Wherever the laser lingers, the collagen cures and becomes solid.

Gradually, the object being printed is lowered and new layers are added. The printer can currently lay down collagen at a resolution of around 20 micrometers, but will need to achieve resolution of a micrometer in size to make the lung functional.

Once a collagen lung scaffold has been printed, the next step is to infuse it with human cells, a process called recellularization.

The goal here is to use stem cells that grow on scaffolding and differentiate, ultimately providing the proper functionality. Early evidence indicates this approach can work.

In 2018, Harvard University experimental surgeon Harald Ott reported that he pumped billions of human cells (from umbilical cords and diced lungs) into a pig lung stripped of its own cells. When Ott’s team reconnected it to a pig’s circulation, the resulting organ showed rudimentary function.

Humanizing Pig Lungs
Another of Rothblatt’s organ manufacturing strategies is called xenotransplantation, the idea of transplanting an animal’s organs into humans who need a replacement.

Given the fact that adult pig organs are similar in size and shape to those of humans, United Therapeutics has focused on genetically engineering pigs to allow humans to use their organs. “It’s actually not rocket science,” said Rothblatt in her 2015 TED talk. “It’s editing one gene after another.”

To accomplish this goal, United Therapeutics made a series of investments in companies such as Revivicor Inc. and Synthetic Genomics Inc., and signed large funding agreements with the University of Maryland, University of Alabama, and New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center to create xenotransplantation programs for new hearts, kidneys, and lungs, respectively. Rothblatt hopes to see human translation in three to four years.

In preparation for that day, United Therapeutics owns a 132-acre property in Research Triangle Park and built a 275,000-square-foot medical laboratory that will ultimately have the capability to annually produce up to 1,000 sets of healthy pig lungs—known as xenolungs—from genetically engineered pigs.

Lung Ex Vivo Perfusion Systems
Beyond 3D printing and genetically engineering pig lungs, Rothblatt has already begun implementing a third near-term approach to improve the supply of lungs across the US.

Only about 30 percent of potential donor lungs meet transplant criteria in the first place; of those, only about 85 percent of those are usable once they arrive at the surgery center. As a result, nearly 75 percent of possible lungs never make it to the recipient in need.

What if these lungs could be rejuvenated? This concept informs Dr. Rothblatt’s next approach.

In 2016, United Therapeutics invested $41.8 million in TransMedics Inc., an Andover, Massachusetts company that develops ex vivo perfusion systems for donor lungs, hearts, and kidneys.

The XVIVO Perfusion System takes marginal-quality lungs that initially failed to meet transplantation standard-of-care criteria and perfuses and ventilates them at normothermic conditions, providing an opportunity for surgeons to reassess transplant suitability.

Rejuvenate Young Blood and Parabiosis
In HBO’s parody of the Bay Area tech community, Silicon Valley, one of the episodes (Season 4, Episode 5) is named “The Blood Boy.”

In this installment, tech billionaire Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) is meeting with Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his team, speaking about the future of the decentralized internet. A young, muscled twenty-something disrupts the meeting when he rolls in a transfusion stand and silently hooks an intravenous connection between himself and Belson.

Belson then introduces the newcomer as his “transfusion associate” and begins to explain the science of parabiosis: “Regular transfusions of the blood of a younger physically fit donor can significantly retard the aging process.”

While the sitcom is fiction, that science has merit, and the scenario portrayed in the episode is already happening today.

On the first point, research at Stanford and Harvard has demonstrated that older animals, when transfused with the blood of young animals, experience regeneration across many tissues and organs.

The opposite is also true: young animals, when transfused with the blood of older animals, experience accelerated aging. But capitalizing on this virtual fountain of youth has been tricky.

Ambrosia
One company, a San Francisco-based startup called Ambrosia, recently commenced one of the trials on parabiosis. Their protocol is simple: Healthy participants aged 35 and older get a transfusion of blood plasma from donors under 25, and researchers monitor their blood over the next two years for molecular indicators of health and aging.

Ambrosia’s founder Jesse Karmazin became interested in launching a company around parabiosis after seeing impressive data from animals and studies conducted abroad in humans: In one trial after another, subjects experience a reversal of aging symptoms across every major organ system. “The effects seem to be almost permanent,” he said. “It’s almost like there’s a resetting of gene expression.”

Infusing your own cord blood stem cells as you age may have tremendous longevity benefits. Following an FDA press release in February 2019, Ambrosia halted its consumer-facing treatment after several months of operation.

Understandably, the FDA raised concerns about the practice of parabiosis because to date, there is a marked lack of clinical data to support the treatment’s effectiveness.

Elevian
On the other end of the reputability spectrum is a startup called Elevian, spun out of Harvard University. Elevian is approaching longevity with a careful, scientifically validated strategy. (Full Disclosure: I am both an advisor to and investor in Elevian.)

CEO Mark Allen, MD, is joined by a dozen MDs and Ph.Ds out of Harvard. Elevian’s scientific founders started the company after identifying specific circulating factors that may be responsible for the “young blood” effect.

One example: A naturally occurring molecule known as “growth differentiation factor 11,” or GDF11, when injected into aged mice, reproduces many of the regenerative effects of young blood, regenerating heart, brain, muscles, lungs, and kidneys.

More specifically, GDF11 supplementation reduces age-related cardiac hypertrophy, accelerates skeletal muscle repair, improves exercise capacity, improves brain function and cerebral blood flow, and improves metabolism.

Elevian is developing a number of therapeutics that regulate GDF11 and other circulating factors. The goal is to restore our body’s natural regenerative capacity, which Elevian believes can address some of the root causes of age-associated disease with the promise of reversing or preventing many aging-related diseases and extending the healthy lifespan.

Conclusion
In 1992, futurist Leland Kaiser coined the term “regenerative medicine”:

“A new branch of medicine will develop that attempts to change the course of chronic disease and in many instances will regenerate tired and failing organ systems.”

Since then, the powerful regenerative medicine industry has grown exponentially, and this rapid growth is anticipated to continue.

A dramatic extension of the human healthspan is just over the horizon. Soon, we’ll all have the regenerative superpowers previously relegated to a handful of animals and comic books.

What new opportunities open up when anybody, anywhere, and at anytime can regenerate, replenish, and replace entire organs and metabolic systems on command?

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Posted in Human Robots

#434643 Sensors and Machine Learning Are Giving ...

According to some scientists, humans really do have a sixth sense. There’s nothing supernatural about it: the sense of proprioception tells you about the relative positions of your limbs and the rest of your body. Close your eyes, block out all sound, and you can still use this internal “map” of your external body to locate your muscles and body parts – you have an innate sense of the distances between them, and the perception of how they’re moving, above and beyond your sense of touch.

This sense is invaluable for allowing us to coordinate our movements. In humans, the brain integrates senses including touch, heat, and the tension in muscle spindles to allow us to build up this map.

Replicating this complex sense has posed a great challenge for roboticists. We can imagine simulating the sense of sight with cameras, sound with microphones, or touch with pressure-pads. Robots with chemical sensors could be far more accurate than us in smell and taste, but building in proprioception, the robot’s sense of itself and its body, is far more difficult, and is a large part of why humanoid robots are so tricky to get right.

Simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) software allows robots to use their own senses to build up a picture of their surroundings and environment, but they’d need a keen sense of the position of their own bodies to interact with it. If something unexpected happens, or in dark environments where primary senses are not available, robots can struggle to keep track of their own position and orientation. For human-robot interaction, wearable robotics, and delicate applications like surgery, tiny differences can be extremely important.

Piecemeal Solutions
In the case of hard robotics, this is generally solved by using a series of strain and pressure sensors in each joint, which allow the robot to determine how its limbs are positioned. That works fine for rigid robots with a limited number of joints, but for softer, more flexible robots, this information is limited. Roboticists are faced with a dilemma: a vast, complex array of sensors for every degree of freedom in the robot’s movement, or limited skill in proprioception?

New techniques, often involving new arrays of sensory material and machine-learning algorithms to fill in the gaps, are starting to tackle this problem. Take the work of Thomas George Thuruthel and colleagues in Pisa and San Diego, who draw inspiration from the proprioception of humans. In a new paper in Science Robotics, they describe the use of soft sensors distributed through a robotic finger at random. This placement is much like the constant adaptation of sensors in humans and animals, rather than relying on feedback from a limited number of positions.

The sensors allow the soft robot to react to touch and pressure in many different locations, forming a map of itself as it contorts into complicated positions. The machine-learning algorithm serves to interpret the signals from the randomly-distributed sensors: as the finger moves around, it’s observed by a motion capture system. After training the robot’s neural network, it can associate the feedback from the sensors with the position of the finger detected in the motion-capture system, which can then be discarded. The robot observes its own motions to understand the shapes that its soft body can take, and translate them into the language of these soft sensors.

“The advantages of our approach are the ability to predict complex motions and forces that the soft robot experiences (which is difficult with traditional methods) and the fact that it can be applied to multiple types of actuators and sensors,” said Michael Tolley of the University of California San Diego. “Our method also includes redundant sensors, which improves the overall robustness of our predictions.”

The use of machine learning lets the roboticists come up with a reliable model for this complex, non-linear system of motions for the actuators, something difficult to do by directly calculating the expected motion of the soft-bot. It also resembles the human system of proprioception, built on redundant sensors that change and shift in position as we age.

In Search of a Perfect Arm
Another approach to training robots in using their bodies comes from Robert Kwiatkowski and Hod Lipson of Columbia University in New York. In their paper “Task-agnostic self-modeling machines,” also recently published in Science Robotics, they describe a new type of robotic arm.

Robotic arms and hands are getting increasingly dexterous, but training them to grasp a large array of objects and perform many different tasks can be an arduous process. It’s also an extremely valuable skill to get right: Amazon is highly interested in the perfect robot arm. Google hooked together an array of over a dozen robot arms so that they could share information about grasping new objects, in part to cut down on training time.

Individually training a robot arm to perform every individual task takes time and reduces the adaptability of your robot: either you need an ML algorithm with a huge dataset of experiences, or, even worse, you need to hard-code thousands of different motions. Kwiatkowski and Lipson attempt to overcome this by developing a robotic system that has a “strong sense of self”: a model of its own size, shape, and motions.

They do this using deep machine learning. The robot begins with no prior knowledge of its own shape or the underlying physics of its motion. It then repeats a series of a thousand random trajectories, recording the motion of its arm. Kwiatkowski and Lipson compare this to a baby in the first year of life observing the motions of its own hands and limbs, fascinated by picking up and manipulating objects.

Again, once the robot has trained itself to interpret these signals and build up a robust model of its own body, it’s ready for the next stage. Using that deep-learning algorithm, the researchers then ask the robot to design strategies to accomplish simple pick-up and place and handwriting tasks. Rather than laboriously and narrowly training itself for each individual task, limiting its abilities to a very narrow set of circumstances, the robot can now strategize how to use its arm for a much wider range of situations, with no additional task-specific training.

Damage Control
In a further experiment, the researchers replaced part of the arm with a “deformed” component, intended to simulate what might happen if the robot was damaged. The robot can then detect that something’s up and “reconfigure” itself, reconstructing its self-model by going through the training exercises once again; it was then able to perform the same tasks with only a small reduction in accuracy.

Machine learning techniques are opening up the field of robotics in ways we’ve never seen before. Combining them with our understanding of how humans and other animals are able to sense and interact with the world around us is bringing robotics closer and closer to becoming truly flexible and adaptable, and, eventually, omnipresent.

But before they can get out and shape the world, as these studies show, they will need to understand themselves.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434616 What Games Are Humans Still Better at ...

Artificial intelligence (AI) systems’ rapid advances are continually crossing rows off the list of things humans do better than our computer compatriots.

AI has bested us at board games like chess and Go, and set astronomically high scores in classic computer games like Ms. Pacman. More complex games form part of AI’s next frontier.

While a team of AI bots developed by OpenAI, known as the OpenAI Five, ultimately lost to a team of professional players last year, they have since been running rampant against human opponents in Dota 2. Not to be outdone, Google’s DeepMind AI recently took on—and beat—several professional players at StarCraft II.

These victories beg the questions: what games are humans still better at than AI? And for how long?

The Making Of AlphaStar
DeepMind’s results provide a good starting point in a search for answers. The version of its AI for StarCraft II, dubbed AlphaStar, learned to play the games through supervised learning and reinforcement learning.

First, AI agents were trained by analyzing and copying human players, learning basic strategies. The initial agents then played each other in a sort of virtual death match where the strongest agents stayed on. New iterations of the agents were developed and entered the competition. Over time, the agents became better and better at the game, learning new strategies and tactics along the way.

One of the advantages of AI is that it can go through this kind of process at superspeed and quickly develop better agents. DeepMind researchers estimate that the AlphaStar agents went through the equivalent of roughly 200 years of game time in about 14 days.

Cheating or One Hand Behind the Back?
The AlphaStar AI agents faced off against human professional players in a series of games streamed on YouTube and Twitch. The AIs trounced their human opponents, winning ten games on the trot, before pro player Grzegorz “MaNa” Komincz managed to salvage some pride for humanity by winning the final game. Experts commenting on AlphaStar’s performance used words like “phenomenal” and “superhuman”—which was, to a degree, where things got a bit problematic.

AlphaStar proved particularly skilled at controlling and directing units in battle, known as micromanagement. One reason was that it viewed the whole game map at once—something a human player is not able to do—which made it seemingly able to control units in different areas at the same time. DeepMind researchers said the AIs only focused on a single part of the map at any given time, but interestingly, AlphaStar’s AI agent was limited to a more restricted camera view during the match “MaNA” won.

Potentially offsetting some of this advantage was the fact that AlphaStar was also restricted in certain ways. For example, it was prevented from performing more clicks per minute than a human player would be able to.

Where AIs Struggle
Games like StarCraft II and Dota 2 throw a lot of challenges at AIs. Complex game theory/ strategies, operating with imperfect/incomplete information, undertaking multi-variable and long-term planning, real-time decision-making, navigating a large action space, and making a multitude of possible decisions at every point in time are just the tip of the iceberg. The AIs’ performance in both games was impressive, but also highlighted some of the areas where they could be said to struggle.

In Dota 2 and StarCraft II, AI bots have seemed more vulnerable in longer games, or when confronted with surprising, unfamiliar strategies. They seem to struggle with complexity over time and improvisation/adapting to quick changes. This could be tied to how AIs learn. Even within the first few hours of performing a task, humans tend to gain a sense of familiarity and skill that takes an AI much longer. We are also better at transferring skill from one area to another. In other words, experience playing Dota 2 can help us become good at StarCraft II relatively quickly. This is not the case for AI—yet.

Dwindling Superiority
While the battle between AI and humans for absolute superiority is still on in Dota 2 and StarCraft II, it looks likely that AI will soon reign supreme. Similar things are happening to other types of games.

In 2017, a team from Carnegie Mellon University pitted its Libratus AI against four professionals. After 20 days of No Limit Texas Hold’em, Libratus was up by $1.7 million. Another likely candidate is the destroyer of family harmony at Christmas: Monopoly.

Poker involves bluffing, while Monopoly involves negotiation—skills you might not think AI would be particularly suited to handle. However, an AI experiment at Facebook showed that AI bots are more than capable of undertaking such tasks. The bots proved skilled negotiators, and developed negotiating strategies like pretending interest in one object while they were interested in another altogether—bluffing.

So, what games are we still better at than AI? There is no precise answer, but the list is getting shorter at a rapid pace.

The Aim Of the Game
While AI’s mastery of games might at first glance seem an odd area to focus research on, the belief is that the way AI learn to master a game is transferrable to other areas.

For example, the Libratus poker-playing AI employed strategies that could work in financial trading or political negotiations. The same applies to AlphaStar. As Oriol Vinyals, co-leader of the AlphaStar project, told The Verge:

“First and foremost, the mission at DeepMind is to build an artificial general intelligence. […] To do so, it’s important to benchmark how our agents perform on a wide variety of tasks.”

A 2017 survey of more than 350 AI researchers predicts AI could be a better driver than humans within ten years. By the middle of the century, AI will be able to write a best-selling novel, and a few years later, it will be better than humans at surgery. By the year 2060, AI may do everything better than us.

Whether you think this is a good or a bad thing, it’s worth noting that AI has an often overlooked ability to help us see things differently. When DeepMind’s AlphaGo beat human Go champion Lee Sedol, the Go community learned from it, too. Lee himself went on a win streak after the match with AlphaGo. The same is now happening within the Dota 2 and StarCraft II communities that are studying the human vs. AI games intensely.

More than anything, AI’s recent gaming triumphs illustrate how quickly artificial intelligence is developing. In 1997, Dr. Piet Hut, an astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and a GO enthusiast, told the New York Times that:

”It may be a hundred years before a computer beats humans at Go—maybe even longer.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#434569 From Parkour to Surgery, Here Are the ...

The robot revolution may not be here quite yet, but our mechanical cousins have made some serious strides. And now some of the leading experts in the field have provided a rundown of what they see as the 10 most exciting recent developments.

Compiled by the editors of the journal Science Robotics, the list includes some of the most impressive original research and innovative commercial products to make a splash in 2018, as well as a couple from 2017 that really changed the game.

1. Boston Dynamics’ Atlas doing parkour

It seems like barely a few months go by without Boston Dynamics rewriting the book on what a robot can and can’t do. Last year they really outdid themselves when they got their Atlas humanoid robot to do parkour, leaping over logs and jumping between wooden crates.

Atlas’s creators have admitted that the videos we see are cherry-picked from multiple attempts, many of which don’t go so well. But they say they’re meant to be inspirational and aspirational rather than an accurate picture of where robotics is today. And combined with the company’s dog-like Spot robot, they are certainly pushing boundaries.

2. Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci SP platform
Robotic surgery isn’t new, but the technology is improving rapidly. Market leader Intuitive’s da Vinci surgical robot was first cleared by the FDA in 2000, but since then it’s come a long way, with the company now producing three separate systems.

The latest addition is the da Vinci SP (single port) system, which is able to insert three instruments into the body through a single 2.5cm cannula (tube) bringing a whole new meaning to minimally invasive surgery. The system was granted FDA clearance for urological procedures last year, and the company has now started shipping the new system to customers.

3. Soft robot that navigates through growth

Roboticists have long borrowed principles from the animal kingdom, but a new robot design that mimics the way plant tendrils and fungi mycelium move by growing at the tip has really broken the mold on robot navigation.

The editors point out that this is the perfect example of bio-inspired design; the researchers didn’t simply copy nature, they took a general principle and expanded on it. The tube-like robot unfolds from the front as pneumatic pressure is applied, but unlike a plant, it can grow at the speed of an animal walking and can navigate using visual feedback from a camera.

4. 3D printed liquid crystal elastomers for soft robotics
Soft robotics is one of the fastest-growing sub-disciplines in the field, but powering these devices without rigid motors or pumps is an ongoing challenge. A variety of shape-shifting materials have been proposed as potential artificial muscles, including liquid crystal elastomeric actuators.

Harvard engineers have now demonstrated that these materials can be 3D printed using a special ink that allows the designer to easily program in all kinds of unusual shape-shifting abilities. What’s more, their technique produces actuators capable of lifting significantly more weight than previous approaches.

5. Muscle-mimetic, self-healing, and hydraulically amplified actuators
In another effort to find a way to power soft robots, last year researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder designed a series of super low-cost artificial muscles that can lift 200 times their own weight and even heal themselves.

The devices rely on pouches filled with a liquid that makes them contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied. The most promising for robotics applications is the so-called Peano-HASEL, which features multiple rectangular pouches connected in series that contract linearly, just like real muscle.

6. Self-assembled nanoscale robot from DNA

While you may think of robots as hulking metallic machines, a substantial number of scientists are working on making nanoscale robots out of DNA. And last year German researchers built the first remote-controlled DNA robotic arm.

They created a length of tightly-bound DNA molecules to act as the arm and attached it to a DNA base plate via a flexible joint. Because DNA carries a charge, they were able to get the arm to swivel around like the hand of a clock by applying a voltage and switch direction by reversing that voltage. The hope is that this arm could eventually be used to build materials piece by piece at the nanoscale.

7. DelFly nimble bioinspired robotic flapper

Robotics doesn’t only borrow from biology—sometimes it gives back to it, too. And a new flapping-winged robot designed by Dutch engineers that mimics the humble fruit fly has done just that, by revealing how the animals that inspired it carry out predator-dodging maneuvers.

The lab has been building flapping robots for years, but this time they ditched the airplane-like tail used to control previous incarnations. Instead, they used insect-inspired adjustments to the motions of its twin pairs of flapping wings to hover, pitch, and roll with the agility of a fruit fly. That has provided a useful platform for investigating insect flight dynamics, as well as more practical applications.

8. Soft exosuit wearable robot

Exoskeletons could prevent workplace injuries, help people walk again, and even boost soldiers’ endurance. Strapping on bulky equipment isn’t ideal, though, so researchers at Harvard are working on a soft exoskeleton that combines specially-designed textiles, sensors, and lightweight actuators.

And last year the team made an important breakthrough by combining their novel exoskeleton with a machine-learning algorithm that automatically tunes the device to the user’s particular walking style. Using physiological data, it is able to adjust when and where the device needs to deliver a boost to the user’s natural movements to improve walking efficiency.

9. Universal Robots (UR) e-Series Cobots
Robots in factories are nothing new. The enormous mechanical arms you see in car factories normally have to be kept in cages to prevent them from accidentally crushing people. In recent years there’s been growing interest in “co-bots,” collaborative robots designed to work side-by-side with their human colleagues and even learn from them.

Earlier this year saw the demise of ReThink robotics, the pioneer of the approach. But the simple single arm devices made by Danish firm Universal Robotics are becoming ubiquitous in workshops and warehouses around the world, accounting for about half of global co-bot sales. Last year they released their latest e-Series, with enhanced safety features and force/torque sensing.

10. Sony’s aibo
After a nearly 20-year hiatus, Sony’s robotic dog aibo is back, and it’s had some serious upgrades. As well as a revamp to its appearance, the new robotic pet takes advantage of advances in AI, with improved environmental and command awareness and the ability to develop a unique character based on interactions with its owner.

The editors note that this new context awareness mark the device out as a significant evolution in social robots, which many hope could aid in childhood learning or provide companionship for the elderly.

Image Credit: DelFly Nimble / CC BY – SA 4.0 Continue reading

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