Tag Archives: systems

#434637 AI Is Rapidly Augmenting Healthcare and ...

When it comes to the future of healthcare, perhaps the only technology more powerful than CRISPR is artificial intelligence.

Over the past five years, healthcare AI startups around the globe raised over $4.3 billion across 576 deals, topping all other industries in AI deal activity.

During this same period, the FDA has given 70 AI healthcare tools and devices ‘fast-tracked approval’ because of their ability to save both lives and money.

The pace of AI-augmented healthcare innovation is only accelerating.

In Part 3 of this blog series on longevity and vitality, I cover the different ways in which AI is augmenting our healthcare system, enabling us to live longer and healthier lives.

In this blog, I’ll expand on:

Machine learning and drug design
Artificial intelligence and big data in medicine
Healthcare, AI & China

Let’s dive in.

Machine Learning in Drug Design
What if AI systems, specifically neural networks, could predict the design of novel molecules (i.e. medicines) capable of targeting and curing any disease?

Imagine leveraging cutting-edge artificial intelligence to accomplish with 50 people what the pharmaceutical industry can barely do with an army of 5,000.

And what if these molecules, accurately engineered by AIs, always worked? Such a feat would revolutionize our $1.3 trillion global pharmaceutical industry, which currently holds a dismal record of 1 in 10 target drugs ever reaching human trials.

It’s no wonder that drug development is massively expensive and slow. It takes over 10 years to bring a new drug to market, with costs ranging from $2.5 billion to $12 billion.

This inefficient, slow-to-innovate, and risk-averse industry is a sitting duck for disruption in the years ahead.

One of the hottest startups in digital drug discovery today is Insilico Medicine. Leveraging AI in its end-to-end drug discovery pipeline, Insilico Medicine aims to extend healthy longevity through drug discovery and aging research.

Their comprehensive drug discovery engine uses millions of samples and multiple data types to discover signatures of disease, identify the most promising protein targets, and generate perfect molecules for these targets. These molecules either already exist or can be generated de novo with the desired set of parameters.

In late 2018, Insilico’s CEO Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov announced the groundbreaking result of generating novel molecules for a challenging protein target with an unprecedented hit rate in under 46 days. This included both synthesis of the molecules and experimental validation in a biological test system—an impressive feat made possible by converging exponential technologies.

Underpinning Insilico’s drug discovery pipeline is a novel machine learning technique called Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs), used in combination with deep reinforcement learning.

Generating novel molecular structures for diseases both with and without known targets, Insilico is now pursuing drug discovery in aging, cancer, fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, diabetes, and many others. Once rolled out, the implications will be profound.

Dr. Zhavoronkov’s ultimate goal is to develop a fully-automated Health-as-a-Service (HaaS) and Longevity-as-a-Service (LaaS) engine.

Once plugged into the services of companies from Alibaba to Alphabet, such an engine would enable personalized solutions for online users, helping them prevent diseases and maintain optimal health.

Insilico, alongside other companies tackling AI-powered drug discovery, truly represents the application of the 6 D’s. What was once a prohibitively expensive and human-intensive process is now rapidly becoming digitized, dematerialized, demonetized and, perhaps most importantly, democratized.

Companies like Insilico can now do with a fraction of the cost and personnel what the pharmaceutical industry can barely accomplish with thousands of employees and a hefty bill to foot.

As I discussed in my blog on ‘The Next Hundred-Billion-Dollar Opportunity,’ Google’s DeepMind has now turned its neural networks to healthcare, entering the digitized drug discovery arena.

In 2017, DeepMind achieved a phenomenal feat by matching the fidelity of medical experts in correctly diagnosing over 50 eye disorders.

And just a year later, DeepMind announced a new deep learning tool called AlphaFold. By predicting the elusive ways in which various proteins fold on the basis of their amino acid sequences, AlphaFold may soon have a tremendous impact in aiding drug discovery and fighting some of today’s most intractable diseases.

Artificial Intelligence and Data Crunching
AI is especially powerful in analyzing massive quantities of data to uncover patterns and insights that can save lives. Take WAVE, for instance. Every year, over 400,000 patients die prematurely in US hospitals as a result of heart attack or respiratory failure.

Yet these patients don’t die without leaving plenty of clues. Given information overload, however, human physicians and nurses alone have no way of processing and analyzing all necessary data in time to save these patients’ lives.

Enter WAVE, an algorithm that can process enough data to offer a six-hour early warning of patient deterioration.

Just last year, the FDA approved WAVE as an AI-based predictive patient surveillance system to predict and thereby prevent sudden death.

Another highly valuable yet difficult-to-parse mountain of medical data comprises the 2.5 million medical papers published each year.

For some time, it has become physically impossible for a human physician to read—let alone remember—all of the relevant published data.

To counter this compounding conundrum, Johnson & Johnson is teaching IBM Watson to read and understand scientific papers that detail clinical trial outcomes.

Enriching Watson’s data sources, Apple is also partnering with IBM to provide access to health data from mobile apps.

One such Watson system contains 40 million documents, ingesting an average of 27,000 new documents per day, and providing insights for thousands of users.

After only one year, Watson’s successful diagnosis rate of lung cancer has reached 90 percent, compared to the 50 percent success rate of human doctors.

But what about the vast amount of unstructured medical patient data that populates today’s ancient medical system? This includes medical notes, prescriptions, audio interview transcripts, and pathology and radiology reports.

In late 2018, Amazon announced a new HIPAA-eligible machine learning service that digests and parses unstructured data into categories, such as patient diagnoses, treatments, dosages, symptoms and signs.

Taha Kass-Hout, Amazon’s senior leader in health care and artificial intelligence, told the Wall Street Journal that internal tests demonstrated that the software even performs as well as or better than other published efforts.

On the heels of this announcement, Amazon confirmed it was teaming up with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to evaluate “millions of clinical notes to extract and index medical conditions.”

Having already driven extraordinary algorithmic success rates in other fields, data is the healthcare industry’s goldmine for future innovation.

Healthcare, AI & China
In 2017, the Chinese government published its ambitious national plan to become a global leader in AI research by 2030, with healthcare listed as one of four core research areas during the first wave of the plan.

Just a year earlier, China began centralizing healthcare data, tackling a major roadblock to developing longevity and healthcare technologies (particularly AI systems): scattered, dispersed, and unlabeled patient data.

Backed by the Chinese government, China’s largest tech companies—particularly Tencent—have now made strong entrances into healthcare.

Just recently, Tencent participated in a $154 million megaround for China-based healthcare AI unicorn iCarbonX.

Hoping to develop a complete digital representation of your biological self, iCarbonX has acquired numerous US personalized medicine startups.

Considering Tencent’s own Miying healthcare AI platform—aimed at assisting healthcare institutions in AI-driven cancer diagnostics—Tencent is quickly expanding into the drug discovery space, participating in two multimillion-dollar, US-based AI drug discovery deals just this year.

China’s biggest, second-order move into the healthtech space comes through Tencent’s WeChat. In the course of a mere few years, already 60 percent of the 38,000 medical institutions registered on WeChat allow patients to digitally book appointments through Tencent’s mobile platform. At the same time, 2,000 Chinese hospitals accept WeChat payments.

Tencent has additionally partnered with the U.K.’s Babylon Health, a virtual healthcare assistant startup whose app now allows Chinese WeChat users to message their symptoms and receive immediate medical feedback.

Similarly, Alibaba’s healthtech focus started in 2016 when it released its cloud-based AI medical platform, ET Medical Brain, to augment healthcare processes through everything from diagnostics to intelligent scheduling.

Conclusion
As Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang has stated, “Software ate the world, but AI is going to eat software.” Extrapolating this statement to a more immediate implication, AI will first eat healthcare, resulting in dramatic acceleration of longevity research and an amplification of the human healthspan.

Next week, I’ll continue to explore this concept of AI systems in healthcare.

Particularly, I’ll expand on how we’re acquiring and using the data for these doctor-augmenting AI systems: from ubiquitous biosensors, to the mobile healthcare revolution, and finally, to the transformative power of the health nucleus.

As AI and other exponential technologies increase our healthspan by 30 to 40 years, how will you leverage these same exponential technologies to take on your moonshots and live out your massively transformative purpose?

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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.

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Posted in Human Robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Human Robots

#434532 How Microrobots Will Fix Our Roads and ...

Swarms of microrobots will scuttle along beneath our roads and pavements, finding and fixing leaky pipes and faulty cables. Thanks to their efforts, we can avoid costly road work that costs billions of dollars each year—not to mention frustrating traffic delays.

That is, if a new project sponsored by the U.K. government is a success. Recent developments in the space seem to point towards a bright future for microrobots.

Microrobots Saving Billions
Each year, around 1.5 million road excavations take place across the U.K. Many are due to leaky pipes and faulty cables that necessitate excavation of road surfaces in order to fix them. The resulting repairs, alongside disruptions to traffic and businesses, are estimated to cost a whopping £6.3 billion ($8 billion).

A consortium of scientists, led by University of Sheffield Professor Kirill Horoshenkov, are planning to use microrobots to negate most of these costs. The group has received a £7.2 million ($9.2 million) grant to develop and build their bots.

According to Horoshenkov, the microrobots will come in two versions. One is an inspection bot, which will navigate along underground infrastructure and examine its condition via sonar. The inspectors will be complemented by worker bots capable of carrying out repairs with cement and adhesives or cleaning out blockages with a high-powered jet. The inspector bots will be around one centimeter long and possibly autonomous, while the worker bots will be slightly larger and steered via remote control.

If successful, it is believed the bots could potentially save the U.K. economy around £5 billion ($6.4 billion) a year.

The U.K. government has set aside a further £19 million ($24 million) for research into robots for hazardous environments, such as nuclear decommissioning, drones for oil pipeline monitoring, and artificial intelligence software to detect the need for repairs on satellites in orbit.

The Lowest-Hanging Fruit
Microrobots like the ones now under development in the U.K. have many potential advantages and use cases. Thanks to their small size they can navigate tight spaces, for example in search and rescue operations, and robot swarm technology would allow them to collaborate to perform many different functions, including in construction projects.

To date, the number of microrobots in use is relatively limited, but that could be about to change, with bots closing in on other types of inspection jobs, which could be considered one of the lowest-hanging fruits.

Engineering firm Rolls-Royce (not the car company, but the one that builds aircraft engines) is looking to use microrobots to inspect some of the up to 25,000 individual parts that make up an engine. The microrobots use the cockroach as a model, and Rolls Royce believes they could save engineers time when performing the maintenance checks that can take over a month per engine.

Even Smaller Successes
Going further down in scale, recent years have seen a string of successes for nanobots. For example, a team of researchers at the Femto-ST Institute have used nanobots to build what is likely the world’s smallest house (if this isn’t a category at Guinness, someone needs to get on the phone with them), which stands a ‘towering’ 0.015 millimeters.

One of the areas where nanobots have shown great promise is in medicine. Several studies have shown how the minute bots are capable of delivering drugs directly into dense biological tissue, which can otherwise be highly challenging to target directly. Such delivery systems have a great potential for improving the treatment of a wide range of ailments and illnesses, including cancer.

There’s no question that the ecosystem of microrobots and nanobots is evolving. While still in their early days, the above successes point to a near-future boom in the bots we may soon refer to as our ‘littlest everyday helpers.’

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Posted in Human Robots