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#435494 Driverless Electric Trucks Are Coming, ...

Self-driving and electric cars just don’t stop making headlines lately. Amazon invested in self-driving startup Aurora earlier this year. Waymo, Daimler, GM, along with startups like Zoox, have all launched or are planning to launch driverless taxis, many of them all-electric. People are even yanking driverless cars from their timeless natural habitat—roads—to try to teach them to navigate forests and deserts.

The future of driving, it would appear, is upon us.

But an equally important vehicle that often gets left out of the conversation is trucks; their relevance to our day-to-day lives may not be as visible as that of cars, but their impact is more profound than most of us realize.

Two recent developments in trucking point to a future of self-driving, electric semis hauling goods across the country, and likely doing so more quickly, cheaply, and safely than trucks do today.

Self-Driving in Texas
Last week, Kodiak Robotics announced it’s beginning its first commercial deliveries using self-driving trucks on a route from Dallas to Houston. The two cities sit about 240 miles apart, connected primarily by interstate 45. Kodiak is aiming to expand its reach far beyond the heart of Texas (if Dallas and Houston can be considered the heart, that is) to the state’s most far-flung cities, including El Paso to the west and Laredo to the south.

If self-driving trucks are going to be constrained to staying within state lines (and given that the laws regulating them differ by state, they will be for the foreseeable future), Texas is a pretty ideal option. It’s huge (thousands of miles of highway run both east-west and north-south), it’s warm (better than cold for driverless tech components like sensors), its proximity to Mexico means constant movement of both raw materials and manufactured goods (basically, you can’t have too many trucks in Texas), and most crucially, it’s lax on laws (driverless vehicles have been permitted there since 2017).

Spoiler, though—the trucks won’t be fully unmanned. They’ll have safety drivers to guide them onto and off of the highway, and to be there in case of any unexpected glitches.

California Goes (Even More) Electric
According to some top executives in the rideshare industry, automation is just one key component of the future of driving. Another is electricity replacing gas, and it’s not just carmakers that are plugging into the trend.

This week, Daimler Trucks North America announced completion of its first electric semis for customers Penske and NFI, to be used in the companies’ southern California operations. Scheduled to start operating later this month, the trucks will essentially be guinea pigs for testing integration of electric trucks into large-scale fleets; intel gleaned from the trucks’ performance will impact the design of later models.

Design-wise, the trucks aren’t much different from any other semi you’ve seen lumbering down the highway recently. Their range is about 250 miles—not bad if you think about how much more weight a semi is pulling than a passenger sedan—and they’ve been dubbed eCascadia, an electrified version of Freightliner’s heavy-duty Cascadia truck.

Batteries have a long way to go before they can store enough energy to make electric trucks truly viable (not to mention setting up a national charging infrastructure), but Daimler’s announcement is an important step towards an electrically-driven future.

Keep on Truckin’
Obviously, it’s more exciting to think about hailing one of those cute little Waymo cars with no steering wheel to shuttle you across town than it is to think about that 12-pack of toilet paper you ordered on Amazon cruising down the highway in a semi while the safety driver takes a snooze. But pushing driverless and electric tech in the trucking industry makes sense for a few big reasons.

Trucks mostly run long routes on interstate highways—with no pedestrians, stoplights, or other city-street obstacles to contend with, highway driving is much easier to automate. What glitches there are to be smoothed out may as well be smoothed out with cargo on board rather than people. And though you wouldn’t know it amid the frantic shouts of ‘a robot could take your job!’, the US is actually in the midst of a massive shortage of truck drivers—60,000 short as of earlier this year, to be exact.

As Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, put it, “Trucking is an absolutely essential, critical industry to the nation, to everybody in it.” Alas, trucks get far less love than cars, but come on—probably 90 percent of the things you ate, bought, or used today were at some point moved by a truck.

Adding driverless and electric tech into that equation, then, should yield positive outcomes on all sides, whether we’re talking about cheaper 12-packs of toilet paper, fewer traffic fatalities due to human error, a less-strained labor force, a stronger economy… or something pretty cool to see as you cruise down the highway in your (driverless, electric, futuristic) car.

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Posted in Human Robots

#435313 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Microsoft Invests $1 Billion in OpenAI to Pursue Holy Grail of Artificial Intelligence
James Vincent | The Verge
“i‘The creation of AGI will be the most important technological development in human history, with the potential to shape the trajectory of humanity,’ said [OpenAI cofounder] Sam Altman. ‘Our mission is to ensure that AGI technology benefits all of humanity, and we’re working with Microsoft to build the supercomputing foundation on which we’ll build AGI.’i”

ROBOTICS
UPS Wants to Go Full-Scale With Its Drone Deliveries
Eric Adams | Wired
“If UPS gets its way, it’ll be known for vehicles other than its famous brown vans. The delivery giant is working to become the first commercial entity authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to use autonomous delivery drones without any of the current restrictions that have governed the aerial testing it has done to date.”

SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY
Scientists Can Finally Build Feedback Circuits in Cells
Megan Molteni | Wired
“Network a few LOCKR-bound molecules together, and you’ve got a circuit that can control a cell’s functions the same way a PID computer program automatically adjusts the pitch of a plane. With the right key, you can make cells glow or blow themselves apart. You can send things to the cell’s trash heap or zoom them to another cellular zip code.”

ENERGY
Carbon Nanotubes Could Increase Solar Efficiency to 80 Percent
David Grossman | Popular Mechanics
“Obviously, that sort of efficiency rating is unheard of in the world of solar panels. But even though a proof of concept is a long way from being used in the real world, any further developments in the nanotubes could bolster solar panels in ways we haven’t seen yet.”

FUTURE
What Technology Is Most Likely to Become Obsolete During Your Lifetime?
Daniel Kolitz | Gizmodo
“Old technology seldom just goes away. Whiteboards and LED screens join chalk blackboards, but don’t eliminate them. Landline phones get scarce, but not phones. …And the technologies that seem to be the most outclassed may come back as a the cult objects of aficionados—the vinyl record, for example. All this is to say that no one can tell us what will be obsolete in fifty years, but probably a lot less will be obsolete than we think.”

NEUROSCIENCE
The Human Brain Project Hasn’t Lived Up to Its Promise
Ed Yong | The Atlantic
“The HBP, then, is in a very odd position, criticized for being simultaneously too grandiose and too narrow. None of the skeptics I spoke with was dismissing the idea of simulating parts of the brain, but all of them felt that such efforts should be driven by actual research questions. …Countless such projects could have been funded with the money channeled into the HBP, which explains much of the furor around the project.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#435224 Can AI Save the Internet from Fake News?

There’s an old proverb that says “seeing is believing.” But in the age of artificial intelligence, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to take anything at face value—literally.

The rise of so-called “deepfakes,” in which different types of AI-based techniques are used to manipulate video content, has reached the point where Congress held its first hearing last month on the potential abuses of the technology. The congressional investigation coincided with the release of a doctored video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivering what appeared to be a sinister speech.

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Scientists are scrambling for solutions on how to combat deepfakes, while at the same time others are continuing to refine the techniques for less nefarious purposes, such as automating video content for the film industry.

At one end of the spectrum, for example, researchers at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering have proposed implanting a type of digital watermark using a neural network that can spot manipulated photos and videos.

The idea is to embed the system directly into a digital camera. Many smartphone cameras and other digital devices already use AI to boost image quality and make other corrections. The authors of the study out of NYU say their prototype platform increased the chances of detecting manipulation from about 45 percent to more than 90 percent without sacrificing image quality.

On the other hand, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently hit on a technique for automatically and rapidly converting large amounts of video content from one source into the style of another. In one example, the scientists transferred the facial expressions of comedian John Oliver onto the bespectacled face of late night show host Stephen Colbert.

The CMU team says the method could be a boon to the movie industry, such as by converting black and white films to color, though it also conceded that the technology could be used to develop deepfakes.

Words Matter with Fake News
While the current spotlight is on how to combat video and image manipulation, a prolonged trench warfare on fake news is being fought by academia, nonprofits, and the tech industry.

This isn’t the fake news that some have come to use as a knee-jerk reaction to fact-based information that might be less than flattering to the subject of the report. Rather, fake news is deliberately-created misinformation that is spread via the internet.

In a recent Pew Research Center poll, Americans said fake news is a bigger problem than violent crime, racism, and terrorism. Fortunately, many of the linguistic tools that have been applied to determine when people are being deliberately deceitful can be baked into algorithms for spotting fake news.

That’s the approach taken by a team at the University of Michigan (U-M) to develop an algorithm that was better than humans at identifying fake news—76 percent versus 70 percent—by focusing on linguistic cues like grammatical structure, word choice, and punctuation.

For example, fake news tends to be filled with hyperbole and exaggeration, using terms like “overwhelming” or “extraordinary.”

“I think that’s a way to make up for the fact that the news is not quite true, so trying to compensate with the language that’s being used,” Rada Mihalcea, a computer science and engineering professor at U-M, told Singularity Hub.

The paper “Automatic Detection of Fake News” was based on the team’s previous studies on how people lie in general, without necessarily having the intention of spreading fake news, she said.

“Deception is a complicated and complex phenomenon that requires brain power,” Mihalcea noted. “That often results in simpler language, where you have shorter sentences or shorter documents.”

AI Versus AI
While most fake news is still churned out by humans with identifiable patterns of lying, according to Mihalcea, other researchers are already anticipating how to detect misinformation manufactured by machines.

A group led by Yejin Choi, with the Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence and the University of Washington in Seattle, is one such team. The researchers recently introduced the world to Grover, an AI platform that is particularly good at catching autonomously-generated fake news because it’s equally good at creating it.

“This is due to a finding that is perhaps counterintuitive: strong generators for neural fake news are themselves strong detectors of it,” wrote Rowan Zellers, a PhD student and team member, in a Medium blog post. “A generator of fake news will be most familiar with its own peculiarities, such as using overly common or predictable words, as well as the peculiarities of similar generators.”

The team found that the best current discriminators can classify neural fake news from real, human-created text with 73 percent accuracy. Grover clocks in with 92 percent accuracy based on a training set of 5,000 neural network-generated fake news samples. Zellers wrote that Grover got better at scale, identifying 97.5 percent of made-up machine mumbo jumbo when trained on 80,000 articles.

It performed almost as well against fake news created by a powerful new text-generation system called GPT-2 built by OpenAI, a nonprofit research lab founded by Elon Musk, classifying 96.1 percent of the machine-written articles.

OpenAI had so feared that the platform could be abused that it has only released limited versions of the software. The public can play with a scaled-down version posted by a machine learning engineer named Adam King, where the user types in a short prompt and GPT-2 bangs out a short story or poem based on the snippet of text.

No Silver AI Bullet
While real progress is being made against fake news, the challenges of using AI to detect and correct misinformation are abundant, according to Hugo Williams, outreach manager for Logically, a UK-based startup that is developing different detectors using elements of deep learning and natural language processing, among others. He explained that the Logically models analyze information based on a three-pronged approach.

Publisher metadata: Is the article from a known, reliable, and trustworthy publisher with a history of credible journalism?
Network behavior: Is the article proliferating through social platforms and networks in ways typically associated with misinformation?
Content: The AI scans articles for hundreds of known indicators typically found in misinformation.

“There is no single algorithm which is capable of doing this,” Williams wrote in an email to Singularity Hub. “Even when you have a collection of different algorithms which—when combined—can give you relatively decent indications of what is unreliable or outright false, there will always need to be a human layer in the pipeline.”

The company released a consumer app in India back in February just before that country’s election cycle that was a “great testing ground” to refine its technology for the next app release, which is scheduled in the UK later this year. Users can submit articles for further scrutiny by a real person.

“We see our technology not as replacing traditional verification work, but as a method of simplifying and streamlining a very manual process,” Williams said. “In doing so, we’re able to publish more fact checks at a far quicker pace than other organizations.”

“With heightened analysis and the addition of more contextual information around the stories that our users are reading, we are not telling our users what they should or should not believe, but encouraging critical thinking based upon reliable, credible, and verified content,” he added.

AI may never be able to detect fake news entirely on its own, but it can help us be smarter about what we read on the internet.

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Posted in Human Robots

#435152 The Futuristic Tech Disrupting Real ...

In the wake of the housing market collapse of 2008, one entrepreneur decided to dive right into the failing real estate industry. But this time, he didn’t buy any real estate to begin with. Instead, Glenn Sanford decided to launch the first-ever cloud-based real estate brokerage, eXp Realty.

Contracting virtual platform VirBELA to build out the company’s mega-campus in VR, eXp Realty demonstrates the power of a dematerialized workspace, throwing out hefty overhead costs and fundamentally redefining what ‘real estate’ really means. Ten years later, eXp Realty has an army of 14,000 agents across all 50 US states, 3 Canadian provinces, and 400 MLS market areas… all without a single physical office.

But VR is just one of many exponential technologies converging to revolutionize real estate and construction. As floating cities and driverless cars spread out your living options, AI and VR are together cutting out the middleman.

Already, the global construction industry is projected to surpass $12.9 trillion in 2022, and the total value of the US housing market alone grew to $33.3 trillion last year. Both vital for our daily lives, these industries will continue to explode in value, posing countless possibilities for disruption.

In this blog, I’ll be discussing the following trends:

New prime real estate locations;
Disintermediation of the real estate broker and search;
Materials science and 3D printing in construction.

Let’s dive in!

Location Location Location
Until today, location has been the name of the game when it comes to hunting down the best real estate. But constraints on land often drive up costs while limiting options, and urbanization is only exacerbating the problem.

Beyond the world of virtual real estate, two primary mechanisms are driving the creation of new locations.

(1) Floating Cities

Offshore habitation hubs, floating cities have long been conceived as a solution to rising sea levels, skyrocketing urban populations, and threatened ecosystems. In success, they will soon unlock an abundance of prime real estate, whether for scenic living, commerce, education, or recreation.

One pioneering model is that of Oceanix City, designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and a host of other domain experts. Intended to adapt organically over time, Oceanix would consist of a galaxy of mass-produced, hexagonal floating modules, built as satellite “cities” off coastal urban centers and sustained by renewable energies.

While individual 4.5-acre platforms would each sustain 300 people, these hexagonal modules are designed to link into 75-acre tessellations sustaining up to 10,000 residents. Each anchored to the ocean floor using biorock, Oceanix cities are slated to be closed-loop systems, as external resources are continuously supplied by automated drone networks.

Electric boats or flying cars might zoom you to work, city-embedded water capture technologies would provide your water, and while vertical and outdoor farming supply your family meal, share economies would dominate goods provision.

AERIAL: Located in calm, sheltered waters, near coastal megacities, OCEANIX City will be an adaptable, sustainable, scalable, and affordable solution for human life on the ocean. Image Credit: OCEANIX/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group.
Joined by countless government officials whose islands risk submersion at the hands of sea level rise, the UN is now getting on board. And just this year, seasteading is exiting the realm of science fiction and testing practical waters.

As French Polynesia seeks out robust solutions to sea level rise, their government has now joined forces with the San Francisco-based Seasteading Institute. With a newly designated special economic zone and 100 acres of beachfront, this joint Floating Island Project could even see up to a dozen inhabitable structures by 2020. And what better to fund the $60 million project than the team’s upcoming ICO?

But aside from creating new locations, autonomous vehicles (AVs) and flying cars are turning previously low-demand land into the prime real estate of tomorrow.

(2) Autonomous Electric Vehicles and Flying Cars

Today, the value of a location is a function of its proximity to your workplace, your city’s central business district, the best schools, or your closest friends.

But what happens when driverless cars desensitize you to distance, or Hyperloop and flying cars decimate your commute time? Historically, every time new transit methods have hit the mainstream, tolerance for distance has opened up right alongside them, further catalyzing city spread.

And just as Hyperloop and the Boring Company aim to make your commute immaterial, autonomous vehicle (AV) ridesharing services will spread out cities in two ways: (1) by drastically reducing parking spaces needed (vertical parking decks = more prime real estate); and (2) by untethering you from the steering wheel. Want an extra two hours of sleep on the way to work? Schedule a sleeper AV and nap on your route to the office. Need a car-turned-mobile-office? No problem.

Meanwhile, aerial taxis (i.e. flying cars) will allow you to escape ground congestion entirely, delivering you from bedroom to boardroom at decimated time scales.

Already working with regulators, Uber Elevate has staked ambitious plans for its UberAIR airborne taxi project. By 2023, Uber anticipates rolling out flying drones in its two first pilot cities, Los Angeles and Dallas. Flying between rooftop skyports, drones would carry passengers at a height of 1,000 to 2,000 feet at speeds between 100 to 200 mph. And while costs per ride are anticipated to resemble those of an Uber Black based on mileage, prices are projected to soon drop to those of an UberX.

But the true economic feat boils down to this: if I were to commute 50 to 100 kilometers, I could get two or three times the house for the same price. (Not to mention the extra living space offered up by my now-unneeded garage.)

All of a sudden, virtual reality, broadband, AVs, or high-speed vehicles are going to change where we live and where we work. So rather than living in a crowded, dense urban core for access to jobs and entertainment, our future of personalized, autonomous, low-cost transport opens the luxury of rural areas to all without compromising the benefits of a short commute.

Once these drivers multiply your real estate options, how will you select your next home?

Disintermediation: Say Bye to Your Broker
In a future of continuous and personalized preference-tracking, why hire a human agent who knows less about your needs and desires than a personal AI?

Just as disintermediation is cutting out bankers and insurance agents, so too is it closing in on real estate brokers. Over the next decade, as AI becomes your agent, VR will serve as your medium.

To paint a more vivid picture of how this will look, over 98 percent of your home search will be conducted from the comfort of your couch through next-generation VR headgear.

Once you’ve verbalized your primary desires for home location, finishings, size, etc. to your personal AI, it will offer you top picks, tour-able 24/7, with optional assistance by a virtual guide and constantly updated data. As a seller, this means potential buyers from two miles, or two continents, away.

Throughout each immersive VR tour, advanced eye-tracking software and a permissioned machine learning algorithm follow your gaze, further learn your likes and dislikes, and intelligently recommend other homes or commercial residences to visit.

Curious as to what the living room might look like with a fresh coat of blue paint and a white carpet? No problem! VR programs will be able to modify rendered environments instantly, changing countless variables, from furniture materials to even the sun’s orientation. Keen to input your own furniture into a VR-rendered home? Advanced AIs could one day compile all your existing furniture, electronics, clothing, decorations, and even books, virtually organizing them across any accommodating new space.

As 3D scanning technologies make extraordinary headway, VR renditions will only grow cheaper and higher resolution. One company called Immersive Media (disclosure: I’m an investor and advisor) has a platform for 360-degree video capture and distribution, and is already exploring real estate 360-degree video.

Smaller firms like Studio 216, Vieweet, Arch Virtual, ArX Solutions, and Rubicon Media can similarly capture and render models of various properties for clients and investors to view and explore. In essence, VR real estate platforms will allow you to explore any home for sale, do the remodel, and determine if it truly is the house of your dreams.

Once you’re ready to make a bid, your AI will even help estimate a bid, process and submit your offer. Real estate companies like Zillow, Trulia, Move, Redfin, ZipRealty (acquired by Realogy in 2014) and many others have already invested millions in machine learning applications to make search, valuation, consulting, and property management easier, faster, and much more accurate.

But what happens if the home you desire most means starting from scratch with new construction?

New Methods and Materials for Construction
For thousands of years, we’ve been constrained by the construction materials of nature. We built bricks from naturally abundant clay and shale, used tree limbs as our rooftops and beams, and mastered incredible structures in ancient Rome with the use of cement.

But construction is now on the cusp of a materials science revolution. Today, I’d like to focus on three key materials:

Upcycled Materials

Imagine if you could turn the world’s greatest waste products into their most essential building blocks. Thanks to UCLA researchers at CO2NCRETE, we can already do this with carbon emissions.

Today, concrete produces about five percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But what if concrete could instead conserve greenhouse emissions? CO2NCRETE engineers capture carbon from smokestacks and combine it with lime to create a new type of cement. The lab’s 3D printers then shape the upcycled concrete to build entirely new structures. Once conquered at scale, upcycled concrete will turn a former polluter into a future conserver.

Or what if we wanted to print new residences from local soil at hand? Marking an extraordinary convergence between robotics and 3D printing, the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) is already working on a solution.

In a major feat for low-cost construction in remote zones, IAAC has found a way to convert almost any soil into a building material with three times the tensile strength of industrial clay. Offering myriad benefits, including natural insulation, low GHG emissions, fire protection, air circulation, and thermal mediation, IAAC’s new 3D printed native soil can build houses on-site for as little as $1,000.

Nanomaterials

Nano- and micro-materials are ushering in a new era of smart, super-strong, and self-charging buildings. While carbon nanotubes dramatically increase the strength-to-weight ratio of skyscrapers, revolutionizing their structural flexibility, nanomaterials don’t stop here.

Several research teams are pioneering silicon nanoparticles to capture everyday light flowing through our windows. Little solar cells at the edges of windows then harvest this energy for ready use. Researchers at the US National Renewable Energy Lab have developed similar smart windows. Turning into solar panels when bathed in sunlight, these thermochromic windows will power our buildings, changing color as they do.

Self-Healing Infrastructure

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the US needs to spend roughly $4.5 trillion to fix nationwide roads, bridges, dams, and common infrastructure by 2025. But what if infrastructure could fix itself?

Enter self-healing concrete. Engineers at Delft University have developed bio-concrete that can repair its own cracks. As head researcher Henk Jonkers explains, “What makes this limestone-producing bacteria so special is that they are able to survive in concrete for more than 200 years and come into play when the concrete is damaged. […] If cracks appear as a result of pressure on the concrete, the concrete will heal these cracks itself.”

But bio-concrete is only the beginning of self-healing technologies. As futurist architecture firms start printing plastic and carbon-fiber houses like the stunner seen below (using Branch Technologies’ 3D printing technology), engineers have begun tackling self-healing plastic.

And in a bid to go smart, burgeoning construction projects have started embedding sensors for preemptive detection. Beyond materials and sensors, however, construction methods are fast colliding into robotics and 3D printing.

While some startups and research institutes have leveraged robot swarm construction (namely, Harvard’s robotic termite-like swarm of programmed constructors), others have taken to large-scale autonomous robots.

One such example involves Fastbrick Robotics. After multiple iterations, the company’s Hadrian X end-to-end bricklaying robot can now autonomously build a fully livable, 180-square meter home in under 3 days. Using a laser-guided robotic attachment, the all-in-one brick-loaded truck simply drives to a construction site and directs blocks through its robotic arm in accordance with a 3D model.

Layhead. Image Credit: Fastbrick Robotics.
Meeting verified building standards, Hadrian and similar solutions hold massive promise in the long term, deployable across post-conflict refugee sites and regions recovering from natural catastrophes.

Imagine the implications. Eliminating human safety concerns and unlocking any environment, autonomous builder robots could collaboratively build massive structures in space or deep underwater habitats.

Final Thoughts
Where, how, and what we live in form a vital pillar of our everyday lives. The concept of “home” is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. At the same time, real estate and construction are two of the biggest playgrounds for technological convergence, each on the verge of revolutionary disruption.

As underlying shifts in transportation, land reclamation, and the definition of “space” (real vs. virtual) take hold, the real estate market is about to explode in value, spreading out urban centers on unprecedented scales and unlocking vast new prime “property.”

Meanwhile, converging advancements in AI and VR are fundamentally disrupting the way we design, build, and explore new residences. Just as mirror worlds create immersive, virtual real estate economies, VR tours and AI agents are absorbing both sides of the coin to entirely obliterate the middleman.

And as materials science breakthroughs meet new modes of construction, the only limits to tomorrow’s structures are those of our own imagination.

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Image Credit: OCEANIX/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435056 How Researchers Used AI to Better ...

A few years back, DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis famously prophesized that AI and neuroscience will positively feed into each other in a “virtuous circle.” If realized, this would fundamentally expand our insight into intelligence, both machine and human.

We’ve already seen some proofs of concept, at least in the brain-to-AI direction. For example, memory replay, a biological mechanism that fortifies our memories during sleep, also boosted AI learning when abstractly appropriated into deep learning models. Reinforcement learning, loosely based on our motivation circuits, is now behind some of AI’s most powerful tools.

Hassabis is about to be proven right again.

Last week, two studies independently tapped into the power of ANNs to solve a 70-year-old neuroscience mystery: how does our visual system perceive reality?

The first, published in Cell, used generative networks to evolve DeepDream-like images that hyper-activate complex visual neurons in monkeys. These machine artworks are pure nightmare fuel to the human eye; but together, they revealed a fundamental “visual hieroglyph” that may form a basic rule for how we piece together visual stimuli to process sight into perception.

In the second study, a team used a deep ANN model—one thought to mimic biological vision—to synthesize new patterns tailored to control certain networks of visual neurons in the monkey brain. When directly shown to monkeys, the team found that the machine-generated artworks could reliably activate predicted populations of neurons. Future improved ANN models could allow even better control, giving neuroscientists a powerful noninvasive tool to study the brain. The work was published in Science.

The individual results, though fascinating, aren’t necessarily the point. Rather, they illustrate how scientists are now striving to complete the virtuous circle: tapping AI to probe natural intelligence. Vision is only the beginning—the tools can potentially be expanded into other sensory domains. And the more we understand about natural brains, the better we can engineer artificial ones.

It’s a “great example of leveraging artificial intelligence to study organic intelligence,” commented Dr. Roman Sandler at Kernel.co on Twitter.

Why Vision?
ANNs and biological vision have quite the history.

In the late 1950s, the legendary neuroscientist duo David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel became some of the first to use mathematical equations to understand how neurons in the brain work together.

In a series of experiments—many using cats—the team carefully dissected the structure and function of the visual cortex. Using myriads of images, they revealed that vision is processed in a hierarchy: neurons in “earlier” brain regions, those closer to the eyes, tend to activate when they “see” simple patterns such as lines. As we move deeper into the brain, from the early V1 to a nub located slightly behind our ears, the IT cortex, neurons increasingly respond to more complex or abstract patterns, including faces, animals, and objects. The discovery led some scientists to call certain IT neurons “Jennifer Aniston cells,” which fire in response to pictures of the actress regardless of lighting, angle, or haircut. That is, IT neurons somehow extract visual information into the “gist” of things.

That’s not trivial. The complex neural connections that lead to increasing abstraction of what we see into what we think we see—what we perceive—is a central question in machine vision: how can we teach machines to transform numbers encoding stimuli into dots, lines, and angles that eventually form “perceptions” and “gists”? The answer could transform self-driving cars, facial recognition, and other computer vision applications as they learn to better generalize.

Hubel and Wiesel’s Nobel-prize-winning studies heavily influenced the birth of ANNs and deep learning. Much of earlier ANN “feed-forward” model structures are based on our visual system; even today, the idea of increasing layers of abstraction—for perception or reasoning—guide computer scientists to build AI that can better generalize. The early romance between vision and deep learning is perhaps the bond that kicked off our current AI revolution.

It only seems fair that AI would feed back into vision neuroscience.

Hieroglyphs and Controllers
In the Cell study, a team led by Dr. Margaret Livingstone at Harvard Medical School tapped into generative networks to unravel IT neurons’ complex visual alphabet.

Scientists have long known that neurons in earlier visual regions (V1) tend to fire in response to “grating patches” oriented in certain ways. Using a limited set of these patches like letters, V1 neurons can “express a visual sentence” and represent any image, said Dr. Arash Afraz at the National Institute of Health, who was not involved in the study.

But how IT neurons operate remained a mystery. Here, the team used a combination of genetic algorithms and deep generative networks to “evolve” computer art for every studied neuron. In seven monkeys, the team implanted electrodes into various parts of the visual IT region so that they could monitor the activity of a single neuron.

The team showed each monkey an initial set of 40 images. They then picked the top 10 images that stimulated the highest neural activity, and married them to 30 new images to “evolve” the next generation of images. After 250 generations, the technique, XDREAM, generated a slew of images that mashed up contorted face-like shapes with lines, gratings, and abstract shapes.

This image shows the evolution of an optimum image for stimulating a visual neuron in a monkey. Image Credit: Ponce, Xiao, and Schade et al. – Cell.
“The evolved images look quite counter-intuitive,” explained Afraz. Some clearly show detailed structures that resemble natural images, while others show complex structures that can’t be characterized by our puny human brains.

This figure shows natural images (right) and images evolved by neurons in the inferotemporal cortex of a monkey (left). Image Credit: Ponce, Xiao, and Schade et al. – Cell.
“What started to emerge during each experiment were pictures that were reminiscent of shapes in the world but were not actual objects in the world,” said study author Carlos Ponce. “We were seeing something that was more like the language cells use with each other.”

This image was evolved by a neuron in the inferotemporal cortex of a monkey using AI. Image Credit: Ponce, Xiao, and Schade et al. – Cell.
Although IT neurons don’t seem to use a simple letter alphabet, it does rely on a vast array of characters like hieroglyphs or Chinese characters, “each loaded with more information,” said Afraz.

The adaptive nature of XDREAM turns it into a powerful tool to probe the inner workings of our brains—particularly for revealing discrepancies between biology and models.

The Science study, led by Dr. James DiCarlo at MIT, takes a similar approach. Using ANNs to generate new patterns and images, the team was able to selectively predict and independently control neuron populations in a high-level visual region called V4.

“So far, what has been done with these models is predicting what the neural responses would be to other stimuli that they have not seen before,” said study author Dr. Pouya Bashivan. “The main difference here is that we are going one step further and using the models to drive the neurons into desired states.”

It suggests that our current ANN models for visual computation “implicitly capture a great deal of visual knowledge” which we can’t really describe, but which the brain uses to turn vision information into perception, the authors said. By testing AI-generated images on biological vision, however, the team concluded that today’s ANNs have a degree of understanding and generalization. The results could potentially help engineer even more accurate ANN models of biological vision, which in turn could feed back into machine vision.

“One thing is clear already: Improved ANN models … have led to control of a high-level neural population that was previously out of reach,” the authors said. “The results presented here have likely only scratched the surface of what is possible with such implemented characterizations of the brain’s neural networks.”

To Afraz, the power of AI here is to find cracks in human perception—both our computational models of sensory processes, as well as our evolved biological software itself. AI can be used “as a perfect adversarial tool to discover design cracks” of IT, said Afraz, such as finding computer art that “fools” a neuron into thinking the object is something else.

“As artificial intelligence researchers develop models that work as well as the brain does—or even better—we will still need to understand which networks are more likely to behave safely and further human goals,” said Ponce. “More efficient AI can be grounded by knowledge of how the brain works.”

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