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You don’t have to dig too deeply into the archive of dystopian science fiction to uncover the horror that intelligent machines might unleash. The Matrix and The Terminator are probably the most well-known examples of self-replicating, intelligent machines attempting to enslave or destroy humanity in the process of building a brave new digital world.
The prospect of artificially intelligent machines creating other artificially intelligent machines took a big step forward in 2017. However, we’re far from the runaway technological singularity futurists are predicting by mid-century or earlier, let alone murderous cyborgs or AI avatar assassins.
The first big boost this year came from Google. The tech giant announced it was developing automated machine learning (AutoML), writing algorithms that can do some of the heavy lifting by identifying the right neural networks for a specific job. Now researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), using the most powerful supercomputer in the US, have developed an AI system that can generate neural networks as good if not better than any developed by a human in less than a day.
It can take months for the brainiest, best-paid data scientists to develop deep learning software, which sends data through a complex web of mathematical algorithms. The system is modeled after the human brain and known as an artificial neural network. Even Google’s AutoML took weeks to design a superior image recognition system, one of the more standard operations for AI systems today.
Of course, Google Brain project engineers only had access to 800 graphic processing units (GPUs), a type of computer hardware that works especially well for deep learning. Nvidia, which pioneered the development of GPUs, is considered the gold standard in today’s AI hardware architecture. Titan, the supercomputer at ORNL, boasts more than 18,000 GPUs.
The ORNL research team’s algorithm, called MENNDL for Multinode Evolutionary Neural Networks for Deep Learning, isn’t designed to create AI systems that cull cute cat photos from the internet. Instead, MENNDL is a tool for testing and training thousands of potential neural networks to work on unique science problems.
That requires a different approach from the Google and Facebook AI platforms of the world, notes Steven Young, a postdoctoral research associate at ORNL who is on the team that designed MENNDL.
“We’ve discovered that those [neural networks] are very often not the optimal network for a lot of our problems, because our data, while it can be thought of as images, is different,” he explains to Singularity Hub. “These images, and the problems, have very different characteristics from object detection.”
AI for Science
One application of the technology involved a particle physics experiment at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Fermilab researchers are interested in understanding neutrinos, high-energy subatomic particles that rarely interact with normal matter but could be a key to understanding the early formation of the universe. One Fermilab experiment involves taking a sort of “snapshot” of neutrino interactions.
The team wanted the help of an AI system that could analyze and classify Fermilab’s detector data. MENNDL evaluated 500,000 neural networks in 24 hours. Its final solution proved superior to custom models developed by human scientists.
In another case involving a collaboration with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, MENNDL improved the error rate of a human-designed algorithm for identifying mitochondria inside 3D electron microscopy images of brain tissue by 30 percent.
“We are able to do better than humans in a fraction of the time at designing networks for these sort of very different datasets that we’re interested in,” Young says.
What makes MENNDL particularly adept is its ability to define the best or most optimal hyperparameters—the key variables—to tackle a particular dataset.
“You don’t always need a big, huge deep network. Sometimes you just need a small network with the right hyperparameters,” Young says.
A Virtual Data Scientist
That’s not dissimilar to the approach of a company called H20.ai, a startup out of Silicon Valley that uses open source machine learning platforms to “democratize” AI. It applies machine learning to create business solutions for Fortune 500 companies, including some of the world’s biggest banks and healthcare companies.
“Our software is more [about] pattern detection, let’s say anti-money laundering or fraud detection or which customer is most likely to churn,” Dr. Arno Candel, chief technology officer at H2O.ai, tells Singularity Hub. “And that kind of insight-generating software is what we call AI here.”
The company’s latest product, Driverless AI, promises to deliver the data scientist equivalent of a chessmaster to its customers (the company claims several such grandmasters in its employ and advisory board). In other words, the system can analyze a raw dataset and, like MENNDL, automatically identify what features should be included in the computer model to make the most of the data based on the best “chess moves” of its grandmasters.
“So we’re using those algorithms, but we’re giving them the human insights from those data scientists, and we automate their thinking,” he explains. “So we created a virtual data scientist that is relentless at trying these ideas.”
Inside the Black Box
Not unlike how the human brain reaches a conclusion, it’s not always possible to understand how a machine, despite being designed by humans, reaches its own solutions. The lack of transparency is often referred to as the AI “black box.” Experts like Young say we can learn something about the evolutionary process of machine learning by generating millions of neural networks and seeing what works well and what doesn’t.
“You’re never going to be able to completely explain what happened, but maybe we can better explain it than we currently can today,” Young says.
Transparency is built into the “thought process” of each particular model generated by Driverless AI, according to Candel.
The computer even explains itself to the user in plain English at each decision point. There is also real-time feedback that allows users to prioritize features, or parameters, to see how the changes improve the accuracy of the model. For example, the system may include data from people in the same zip code as it creates a model to describe customer turnover.
“That’s one of the advantages of our automatic feature engineering: it’s basically mimicking human thinking,” Candel says. “It’s not just neural nets that magically come up with some kind of number, but we’re trying to make it statistically significant.”
Much digital ink has been spilled over the dearth of skilled data scientists, so automating certain design aspects for developing artificial neural networks makes sense. Experts agree that automation alone won’t solve that particular problem. However, it will free computer scientists to tackle more difficult issues, such as parsing the inherent biases that exist within the data used by machine learning today.
“I think the world has an opportunity to focus more on the meaning of things and not on the laborious tasks of just fitting a model and finding the best features to make that model,” Candel notes. “By automating, we are pushing the burden back for the data scientists to actually do something more meaningful, which is think about the problem and see how you can address it differently to make an even bigger impact.”
The team at ORNL expects it can also make bigger impacts beginning next year when the lab’s next supercomputer, Summit, comes online. While Summit will boast only 4,600 nodes, it will sport the latest and greatest GPU technology from Nvidia and CPUs from IBM. That means it will deliver more than five times the computational performance of Titan, the world’s fifth-most powerful supercomputer today.
“We’ll be able to look at much larger problems on Summit than we were able to with Titan and hopefully get to a solution much faster,” Young says.
It’s all in a day’s work.
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Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.
This isn’t some post-apocalyptic vision of the future à la The Terminator. This is a snapshot of the farm of the future. Every phase of the operation—from seed to harvest—may someday be automated, without the need to ever get one’s fingernails dirty.
In fact, it’s science fiction already being engineered into reality. Today, robots empowered with artificial intelligence can zap weeds with preternatural precision, while autonomous tractors move with tireless efficiency across the farmland. Satellites can assess crop health from outer space, providing gobs of data to help produce the sort of business intelligence once accessible only to Fortune 500 companies.
“Precision agriculture is on the brink of a new phase of development involving smart machines that can operate by themselves, which will allow production agriculture to become significantly more efficient. Precision agriculture is becoming robotic agriculture,” said professor Simon Blackmore last year during a conference in Asia on the latest developments in robotic agriculture. Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University and head of the National Centre for Precision Farming in the UK.
It’s Blackmore’s university that recently showcased what may someday be possible. The project, dubbed Hands Free Hectare and led by researchers from Harper Adams and private industry, farmed one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of spring barley without one person ever setting foot in the field.
The team re-purposed, re-wired and roboticized farm equipment ranging from a Japanese tractor to a 25-year-old combine. Drones served as scouts to survey the operation and collect samples to help the team monitor the progress of the barley. At the end of the season, the robo farmers harvested about 4.5 tons of barley at a price tag of £200,000.
“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and we’ve done that,” said Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, which partnered with Harper Adams, in a press release.
I, Robot Farmer
The Harper Adams experiment is the latest example of how machines are disrupting the agricultural industry. Around the same time that the Hands Free Hectare combine was harvesting barley, Deere & Company announced it would acquire a startup called Blue River Technology for a reported $305 million.
Blue River has developed a “see-and-spray” system that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to discriminate between crops and weeds. It hits the former with fertilizer and blasts the latter with herbicides with such precision that it can eliminate 90 percent of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
It’s not just farmland that’s getting a helping hand from robots. A California company called Abundant Robotics, spun out of the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is developing robots capable of picking apples with vacuum-like arms that suck the fruit straight off the trees in the orchards.
“Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again. But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what we’ve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment,” Dan Harburg, an associate at venture capital firm Anterra Capital who previously worked at a Massachusetts-based startup making a robotic arm capable of grabbing fruit, told AgFunder News.
“This means ag-focused robotics startups have to design systems from the ground up, which can take time and money, and their robots have to be able to complete multiple tasks to avoid sitting on the shelf for a significant portion of the year,” he noted.
Eyes in the Sky
It will take more than an army of robotic tractors to grow a successful crop. The farm of the future will rely on drones, satellites, and other airborne instruments to provide data about their crops on the ground.
Companies like Descartes Labs, for instance, employ machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to forecast soy and corn yields. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup collects five terabytes of data every day from multiple satellite constellations, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Combined with weather readings and other real-time inputs, Descartes Labs can predict cornfield yields with 99 percent accuracy. Its AI platform can even assess crop health from infrared readings.
The US agency DARPA recently granted Descartes Labs $1.5 million to monitor and analyze wheat yields in the Middle East and Africa. The idea is that accurate forecasts may help identify regions at risk of crop failure, which could lead to famine and political unrest. Another company called TellusLabs out of Somerville, Massachusetts also employs machine learning algorithms to predict corn and soy yields with similar accuracy from satellite imagery.
Farmers don’t have to reach orbit to get insights on their cropland. A startup in Oakland, Ceres Imaging, produces high-resolution imagery from multispectral cameras flown across fields aboard small planes. The snapshots capture the landscape at different wavelengths, identifying insights into problems like water stress, as well as providing estimates of chlorophyll and nitrogen levels. The geo-tagged images mean farmers can easily locate areas that need to be addressed.
Growing From the Inside
Even the best intelligence—whether from drones, satellites, or machine learning algorithms—will be challenged to predict the unpredictable issues posed by climate change. That’s one reason more and more companies are betting the farm on what’s called controlled environment agriculture. Today, that doesn’t just mean fancy greenhouses, but everything from warehouse-sized, automated vertical farms to grow rooms run by robots, located not in the emptiness of Kansas or Nebraska but smack dab in the middle of the main streets of America.
Proponents of these new concepts argue these high-tech indoor farms can produce much higher yields while drastically reducing water usage and synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicides.
Iron Ox, out of San Francisco, is developing one-acre urban greenhouses that will be operated by robots and reportedly capable of producing the equivalent of 30 acres of farmland. Powered by artificial intelligence, a team of three robots will run the entire operation of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops.
Vertical farming startup Plenty, also based in San Francisco, uses AI to automate its operations, and got a $200 million vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund earlier this year. The company claims its system uses only 1 percent of the water consumed in conventional agriculture while producing 350 times as much produce. Plenty is part of a new crop of urban-oriented farms, including Bowery Farming and AeroFarms.
“What I can envision is locating a larger scale indoor farm in the economically disadvantaged food desert, in order to stimulate a broader economic impact that could create jobs and generate income for that area,” said Dr. Gary Stutte, an expert in space agriculture and controlled environment agriculture, in an interview with AgFunder News. “The indoor agriculture model is adaptable to becoming an engine for economic growth and food security in both rural and urban food deserts.”
Still, the model is not without its own challenges and criticisms. Most of what these farms can produce falls into the “leafy greens” category and often comes with a premium price, which seems antithetical to the proposed mission of creating oases in the food deserts of cities. While water usage may be minimized, the electricity required to power the operation, especially the LEDs (which played a huge part in revolutionizing indoor agriculture), are not cheap.
Still, all of these advances, from robo farmers to automated greenhouses, may need to be part of a future where nearly 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050. An oft-quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the world must boost food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of the population. Technology may not save the world, but it will help feed it.
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