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#434235 The Milestones of Human Progress We ...

When you look back at 2018, do you see a good or a bad year? Chances are, your perception of the year involves fixating on all the global and personal challenges it brought. In fact, every year, we tend to look back at the previous year as “one of the most difficult” and hope that the following year is more exciting and fruitful.

But in the grander context of human history, 2018 was an extraordinarily positive year. In fact, every year has been getting progressively better.

Before we dive into some of the highlights of human progress from 2018, let’s make one thing clear. There is no doubt that there are many overwhelming global challenges facing our species. From climate change to growing wealth inequality, we are far from living in a utopia.

Yet it’s important to recognize that both our news outlets and audiences have been disproportionately fixated on negative news. This emphasis on bad news is detrimental to our sense of empowerment as a species.

So let’s take a break from all the disproportionate negativity and have a look back on how humanity pushed boundaries in 2018.

On Track to Becoming an Interplanetary Species
We often forget how far we’ve come since the very first humans left the African savanna, populated the entire planet, and developed powerful technological capabilities. Our desire to explore the unknown has shaped the course of human evolution and will continue to do so.

This year, we continued to push the boundaries of space exploration. As depicted in the enchanting short film Wanderers, humanity’s destiny is the stars. We are born to be wanderers of the cosmos and the everlasting unknown.

SpaceX had 21 successful launches in 2018 and closed the year with a successful GPS launch. The latest test flight by Virgin Galactic was also an incredible milestone, as SpaceShipTwo was welcomed into space. Richard Branson and his team expect that space tourism will be a reality within the next 18 months.

Our understanding of the cosmos is also moving forward with continuous breakthroughs in astrophysics and astronomy. One notable example is the MARS InSight Mission, which uses cutting-edge instruments to study Mars’ interior structure and has even given us the first recordings of sound on Mars.

Understanding and Tackling Disease
Thanks to advancements in science and medicine, we are currently living longer, healthier, and wealthier lives than at any other point in human history. In fact, for most of human history, life expectancy at birth was around 30. Today it is more than 70 worldwide, and in the developed parts of the world, more than 80.

Brilliant researchers around the world are pushing for even better health outcomes. This year, we saw promising treatments emerge against Alzheimers disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple scleroris, and even the flu.

The deadliest disease of them all, cancer, is also being tackled. According to the American Association of Cancer Research, 22 revolutionary treatments for cancer were approved in the last year, and the death rate in adults is also in decline. Advancements in immunotherapy, genetic engineering, stem cells, and nanotechnology are all powerful resources to tackle killer diseases.

Breakthrough Mental Health Therapy
While cleaner energy, access to education, and higher employment rates can improve quality of life, they do not guarantee happiness and inner peace. According to the World Economic Forum, mental health disorders affect one in four people globally, and in many places they are significantly under-reported. More people are beginning to realize that our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and that we ought to take care of our minds just as much as our bodies.

We are seeing the rise of applications that put mental well-being at their center. Breakthrough advancements in genetics are allowing us to better understand the genetic makeup of disorders like clinical depression or Schizophrenia, and paving the way for personalized medical treatment. We are also seeing the rise of increasingly effective therapeutic treatments for anxiety.

This year saw many milestones for a whole new revolutionary area in mental health: psychedelic therapy. Earlier this summer, the FDA granted breakthrough therapy designation to MDMA for the treatment of PTSD, after several phases of successful trails. Similar research has discovered that Psilocybin (also known as magic mushrooms) combined with therapy is far more effective than traditional forms of treatment for depression and anxiety.

Moral and Social Progress
Innovation is often associated with economic and technological progress. However, we also need leaps of progress in our morality, values, and policies. Throughout the 21st century, we’ve made massive strides in rights for women and children, civil rights, LGBT rights, animal rights, and beyond. However, with rising nationalism and xenophobia in many parts of the developed world, there is significant work to be done on this front.

All hope is not lost, as we saw many noteworthy milestones this year. In January 2018, Iceland introduced the equal wage law, bringing an end to the gender wage gap. On September 6th, the Indian Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality, marking a historical moment. Earlier in December, the European Commission released a draft of ethics guidelines for trustworthy artificial intelligence. Such are just a few examples of positive progress in social justice, ethics, and policy.

We are also seeing a global rise in social impact entrepreneurship. Emerging startups are no longer valued simply based on their profits and revenue, but also on the level of positive impact they are having on the world at large. The world’s leading innovators are not asking themselves “How can I become rich?” but rather “How can I solve this global challenge?”

Intelligently Optimistic for 2019
It’s becoming more and more clear that we are living in the most exciting time in human history. Even more, we mustn’t be afraid to be optimistic about 2019.

An optimistic mindset can be grounded in rationality and evidence. Intelligent optimism is all about being excited about the future in an informed and rational way. The mindset is critical if we are to get everyone excited about the future by highlighting the rapid progress we have made and recognizing the tremendous potential humans have to find solutions to our problems.

In his latest TED talk, Steven Pinker points out, “Progress does not mean that everything becomes better for everyone everywhere all the time. That would be a miracle, and progress is not a miracle but problem-solving. Problems are inevitable and solutions create new problems which have to be solved in their turn.”

Let us not forget that in cosmic time scales, our entire species’ lifetime, including all of human history, is the equivalent of the blink of an eye. The probability of us existing both as an intelligent species and as individuals is so astoundingly low that it’s practically non-existent. We are the products of 14 billion years of cosmic evolution and extraordinarily good fortune. Let’s recognize and leverage this wondrous opportunity, and pave an exciting way forward.

Image Credit: Virgin Galactic / Virgin Galactic 2018. Continue reading

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#433852 How Do We Teach Autonomous Cars To Drive ...

Autonomous vehicles can follow the general rules of American roads, recognizing traffic signals and lane markings, noticing crosswalks and other regular features of the streets. But they work only on well-marked roads that are carefully scanned and mapped in advance.

Many paved roads, though, have faded paint, signs obscured behind trees and unusual intersections. In addition, 1.4 million miles of U.S. roads—one-third of the country’s public roadways—are unpaved, with no on-road signals like lane markings or stop-here lines. That doesn’t include miles of private roads, unpaved driveways or off-road trails.

What’s a rule-following autonomous car to do when the rules are unclear or nonexistent? And what are its passengers to do when they discover their vehicle can’t get them where they’re going?

Accounting for the Obscure
Most challenges in developing advanced technologies involve handling infrequent or uncommon situations, or events that require performance beyond a system’s normal capabilities. That’s definitely true for autonomous vehicles. Some on-road examples might be navigating construction zones, encountering a horse and buggy, or seeing graffiti that looks like a stop sign. Off-road, the possibilities include the full variety of the natural world, such as trees down over the road, flooding and large puddles—or even animals blocking the way.

At Mississippi State University’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems, we have taken up the challenge of training algorithms to respond to circumstances that almost never happen, are difficult to predict and are complex to create. We seek to put autonomous cars in the hardest possible scenario: driving in an area the car has no prior knowledge of, with no reliable infrastructure like road paint and traffic signs, and in an unknown environment where it’s just as likely to see a cactus as a polar bear.

Our work combines virtual technology and the real world. We create advanced simulations of lifelike outdoor scenes, which we use to train artificial intelligence algorithms to take a camera feed and classify what it sees, labeling trees, sky, open paths and potential obstacles. Then we transfer those algorithms to a purpose-built all-wheel-drive test vehicle and send it out on our dedicated off-road test track, where we can see how our algorithms work and collect more data to feed into our simulations.

Starting Virtual
We have developed a simulator that can create a wide range of realistic outdoor scenes for vehicles to navigate through. The system generates a range of landscapes of different climates, like forests and deserts, and can show how plants, shrubs and trees grow over time. It can also simulate weather changes, sunlight and moonlight, and the accurate locations of 9,000 stars.

The system also simulates the readings of sensors commonly used in autonomous vehicles, such as lidar and cameras. Those virtual sensors collect data that feeds into neural networks as valuable training data.

Simulated desert, meadow and forest environments generated by the Mississippi State University Autonomous Vehicle Simulator. Chris Goodin, Mississippi State University, Author provided.
Building a Test Track
Simulations are only as good as their portrayals of the real world. Mississippi State University has purchased 50 acres of land on which we are developing a test track for off-road autonomous vehicles. The property is excellent for off-road testing, with unusually steep grades for our area of Mississippi—up to 60 percent inclines—and a very diverse population of plants.

We have selected certain natural features of this land that we expect will be particularly challenging for self-driving vehicles, and replicated them exactly in our simulator. That allows us to directly compare results from the simulation and real-life attempts to navigate the actual land. Eventually, we’ll create similar real and virtual pairings of other types of landscapes to improve our vehicle’s capabilities.

A road washout, as seen in real life, left, and in simulation. Chris Goodin, Mississippi State University, Author provided.
Collecting More Data
We have also built a test vehicle, called the Halo Project, which has an electric motor and sensors and computers that can navigate various off-road environments. The Halo Project car has additional sensors to collect detailed data about its actual surroundings, which can help us build virtual environments to run new tests in.

The Halo Project car can collect data about driving and navigating in rugged terrain. Beth Newman Wynn, Mississippi State University, Author provided.
Two of its lidar sensors, for example, are mounted at intersecting angles on the front of the car so their beams sweep across the approaching ground. Together, they can provide information on how rough or smooth the surface is, as well as capturing readings from grass and other plants and items on the ground.

Lidar beams intersect, scanning the ground in front of the vehicle. Chris Goodin, Mississippi State University, Author provided
We’ve seen some exciting early results from our research. For example, we have shown promising preliminary results that machine learning algorithms trained on simulated environments can be useful in the real world. As with most autonomous vehicle research, there is still a long way to go, but our hope is that the technologies we’re developing for extreme cases will also help make autonomous vehicles more functional on today’s roads.

Matthew Doude, Associate Director, Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems; Ph.D. Student in Industrial and Systems Engineering, Mississippi State University; Christopher Goodin, Assistant Research Professor, Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems, Mississippi State University, and Daniel Carruth, Assistant Research Professor and Associate Director for Human Factors and Advanced Vehicle System, Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems, Mississippi State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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#433634 This Robotic Skin Makes Inanimate ...

In Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made world-famous by its adaptation in Disney’s Fantasia, a lazy apprentice, left to fetch water, uses magic to bewitch a broom into performing his chores for him. Now, new research from Yale has opened up the possibility of being able to animate—and automate—household objects by fitting them with a robotic skin.

Yale’s Soft Robotics lab, the Faboratory, is led by Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, and has long investigated the possibilities associated with new kinds of manufacturing. While the typical image of a robot is hard, cold steel and rigid movements, soft robotics aims to create something more flexible and versatile. After all, the human body is made up of soft, flexible surfaces, and the world is designed for us. Soft, deformable robots could change shape to adapt to different tasks.

When designing a robot, key components are the robot’s sensors, which allow it to perceive its environment, and its actuators, the electrical or pneumatic motors that allow the robot to move and interact with its environment.

Consider your hand, which has temperature and pressure sensors, but also muscles as actuators. The omni-skins, as the Science Robotics paper dubs them, combine sensors and actuators, embedding them into an elastic sheet. The robotic skins are moved by pneumatic actuators or memory alloy that can bounce back into shape. If this is then wrapped around a soft, deformable object, moving the skin with the actuators can allow the object to crawl along a surface.

The key to the design here is flexibility: rather than adding chips, sensors, and motors into every household object to turn them into individual automatons, the same skin can be used for many purposes. “We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task—locomotion, for example—and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” said Kramer-Bottiglio. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”

The task is then to dream up applications for the omni-skins. Initially, you might imagine demanding a stuffed toy to fetch the remote control for you, or animating a sponge to wipe down kitchen surfaces—but this is just the beginning. The scientists attached the skins to a soft tube and camera, creating a worm-like robot that could compress itself and crawl into small spaces for rescue missions. The same skins could then be worn by a person to sense their posture. One could easily imagine this being adapted into a soft exoskeleton for medical or industrial purposes: for example, helping with rehabilitation after an accident or injury.

The initial motivating factor for creating the robots was in an environment where space and weight are at a premium, and humans are forced to improvise with whatever’s at hand: outer space. Kramer-Bottoglio originally began the work after NASA called out for soft robotics systems for use by astronauts. Instead of wasting valuable rocket payload by sending up a heavy metal droid like ATLAS to fetch items or perform repairs, soft robotic skins with modular sensors could be adapted for a range of different uses spontaneously.

By reassembling components in the soft robotic skin, a crumpled ball of paper could provide the chassis for a robot that performs repairs on the spaceship, or explores the lunar surface. The dynamic compression provided by the robotic skin could be used for g-suits to protect astronauts when they rapidly accelerate or decelerate.

“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multi-functionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable. The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? … Given the design-on-the-fly nature of this approach, it’s unlikely that a robot created using robotic skins will perform any one task optimally,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “However, the goal is not optimization, but rather diversity of applications.”

There are still problems to resolve. Many of the videos of the skins indicate that they can rely on an external power supply. Creating new, smaller batteries that can power wearable devices has been a focus of cutting-edge materials science research for some time. Much of the lab’s expertise is in creating flexible, stretchable electronics that can be deformed by the actuators without breaking the circuitry. In the future, the team hopes to work on streamlining the production process; if the components could be 3D printed, then the skins could be created when needed.

In addition, robotic hardware that’s capable of performing an impressive range of precise motions is quite an advanced technology. The software to control those robots, and enable them to perform a variety of tasks, is quite another challenge. With soft robots, it can become even more complex to design that control software, because the body itself can change shape and deform as the robot moves. The same set of programmed motions, then, can produce different results depending on the environment.

“Let’s say I have a soft robot with four legs that crawls along the ground, and I make it walk up a hard slope,” Dr. David Howard, who works on robotics at CSIRO in Australia, explained to ABC.

“If I make that slope out of gravel and I give it the same control commands, the actual body is going to deform in a different way, and I’m not necessarily going to know what that is.”

Despite these and other challenges, research like that at the Faboratory still hopes to redefine how we think of robots and robotics. Instead of a robot that imitates a human and manipulates objects, the objects themselves will become programmable matter, capable of moving autonomously and carrying out a range of tasks. Futurists speculate about a world where most objects are automated to some degree and can assemble and repair themselves, or are even built entirely of tiny robots.

The tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was first written in 1797, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, over a century before the word “robot” was even coined. Yet more and more roboticists aim to prove Arthur C Clarke’s maxim: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Image Credit: Joran Booth, The Faboratory Continue reading

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#433386 What We Have to Gain From Making ...

The borders between the real world and the digital world keep crumbling, and the latter’s importance in both our personal and professional lives keeps growing. Some describe the melding of virtual and real worlds as part of the fourth industrial revolution. Said revolution’s full impact on us as individuals, our companies, communities, and societies is still unknown.

Greg Cross, chief business officer of New Zealand-based AI company Soul Machines, thinks one inescapable consequence of these crumbling borders is people spending more and more time interacting with technology. In a presentation at Singularity University’s Global Summit in San Francisco last month, Cross unveiled Soul Machines’ latest work and shared his views on the current state of human-like AI and where the technology may go in the near future.

Humanizing Technology Interaction
Cross started by introducing Rachel, one of Soul Machines’ “emotionally responsive digital humans.” The company has built 15 different digital humans of various sexes, groups, and ethnicities. Rachel, along with her “sisters” and “brothers,” has a virtual nervous system based on neural networks and biological models of different paths in the human brain. The system is controlled by virtual neurotransmitters and hormones akin to dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, which influence learning and behavior.

As a result, each digital human can have its own unique set of “feelings” and responses to interactions. People interact with them via visual and audio sensors, and the machines respond in real time.

“Over the last 20 or 30 years, the way we think about machines and the way we interact with machines has changed,” Cross said. “We’ve always had this view that they should actually be more human-like.”

The realism of the digital humans’ graphic representations comes thanks to the work of Soul Machines’ other co-founder, Dr. Mark Sager, who has won two Academy Awards for his work on some computer-generated movies, including James Cameron’s Avatar.

Cross pointed out, for example, that rather than being unrealistically flawless and clear, Rachel’s skin has blemishes and sun spots, just like real human skin would.

The Next Human-Machine Frontier
When people interact with each other face to face, emotional and intellectual engagement both heavily influence the interaction. What would it look like for machines to bring those same emotional and intellectual capacities to our interactions with them, and how would this type of interaction affect the way we use, relate to, and feel about AI?

Cross and his colleagues believe that humanizing artificial intelligence will make the technology more useful to humanity, and prompt people to use AI in more beneficial ways.

“What we think is a very important view as we move forward is that these machines can be more helpful to us. They can be more useful to us. They can be more interesting to us if they’re actually more like us,” Cross said.

It is an approach that seems to resonate with companies and organizations. For example, in the UK, where NatWest Bank is testing out Cora as a digital employee to help answer customer queries. In Germany, Daimler Financial Group plans to employ Sarah as something “similar to a personal concierge” for its customers. According to Cross, Daimler is looking at other ways it could deploy digital humans across the organization, from building digital service people, digital sales people, and maybe in the future, digital chauffeurs.

Soul Machines’ latest creation is Will, a digital teacher that can interact with children through a desktop, tablet, or mobile device and help them learn about renewable energy. Cross sees other social uses for digital humans, including potentially serving as doctors to rural communities.

Our Digital Friends—and Twins
Soul Machines is not alone in its quest to humanize technology. It is a direction many technology companies, including the likes of Amazon, also seem to be pursuing. Amazon is working on building a home robot that, according to Bloomberg, “could be a sort of mobile Alexa.”

Finding a more human form for technology seems like a particularly pervasive pursuit in Japan. Not just when it comes to its many, many robots, but also virtual assistants like Gatebox.

The Japanese approach was perhaps best summed up by famous android researcher Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, who I interviewed last year: “The human brain is set up to recognize and interact with humans. So, it makes sense to focus on developing the body for the AI mind, as well as the AI. I believe that the final goal for both Japanese and other companies and scientists is to create human-like interaction.”

During Cross’s presentation, Rob Nail, CEO and associate founder of Singularity University, joined him on the stage, extending an invitation to Rachel to be SU’s first fully digital faculty member. Rachel accepted, and though she’s the only digital faculty right now, she predicted this won’t be the case for long.

“In 10 years, all of you will have digital versions of yourself, just like me, to take on specific tasks and make your life a whole lot easier,” she said. “This is great news for me. I’ll have millions of digital friends.”

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#432512 How Will Merging Minds and Machines ...

One of the most exciting and frightening outcomes of technological advancement is the potential to merge our minds with machines. If achieved, this would profoundly boost our cognitive capabilities. More importantly, however, it could be a revolution in human identity, emotion, spirituality, and self-awareness.

Brain-machine interface technology is already being developed by pioneers and researchers around the globe. It’s still early and today’s tech is fairly rudimentary, but it’s a fast-moving field, and some believe it will advance faster than generally expected. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to connect our brains to the internet via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” Even if the advances are less dramatic, however, they’ll have significant implications.

How might this technology affect human consciousness? What about its implications on our sentience, self-awareness, or subjective experience of our illusion of self?

Consciousness can be hard to define, but a holistic definition often encompasses many of our most fundamental capacities, such as wakefulness, self-awareness, meta-cognition, and sense of agency. Beyond that, consciousness represents a spectrum of awareness, as seen across various species of animals. Even humans experience different levels of existential awareness.

From psychedelics to meditation, there are many tools we already use to alter and heighten our conscious experience, both temporarily and permanently. These tools have been said to contribute to a richer life, with the potential to bring experiences of beauty, love, inner peace, and transcendence. Relatively non-invasive, these tools show us what a seemingly minor imbalance of neurochemistry and conscious internal effort can do to the subjective experience of being human.

Taking this into account, what implications might emerging brain-machine interface technologies have on the “self”?

The Tools for Self-Transcendence
At the basic level, we are currently seeing the rise of “consciousness hackers” using techniques like non-invasive brain stimulation through EEG, nutrition, virtual reality, and ecstatic experiences to create environments for heightened consciousness and self-awareness. In Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explore this trillion-dollar altered-states economy and how innovators and thought leaders are “harnessing rare and controversial states of consciousness to solve critical challenges and outperform the competition.” Beyond enhanced productivity, these altered states expose our inner potential and give us a glimpse of a greater state of being.

Expanding consciousness through brain augmentation and implants could one day be just as accessible. Researchers are working on an array of neurotechnologies as simple and non-invasive as electrode-based EEGs to invasive implants and techniques like optogenetics, where neurons are genetically reprogrammed to respond to pulses of light. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing the two to communicate, and future-focused startups are researching the possibilities too. With an eye toward advanced brain-machine interfaces, last year Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose ultimate goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a “neural lace.”

Many technologists predict we will one day merge with and, more speculatively, upload our minds onto machines. Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth writes in Skeptic magazine, “All of today’s neuroscience models are fundamentally computational by nature, supporting the theoretical possibility of mind-uploading.” This might include connecting with other minds using digital networks or even uploading minds onto quantum computers, which can be in multiple states of computation at a given time.

In their book Evolving Ourselves, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans describe a world where evolution is no longer driven by natural processes. Instead, it is driven by human choices, through what they call unnatural selection and non-random mutation. With advancements in genetic engineering, we are indeed seeing evolution become an increasingly conscious process with an accelerated pace. This could one day apply to the evolution of our consciousness as well; we would be using our consciousness to expand our consciousness.

What Will It Feel Like?
We may be able to come up with predictions of the impact of these technologies on society, but we can only wonder what they will feel like subjectively.

It’s hard to imagine, for example, what our stream of consciousness will feel like when we can process thoughts and feelings 1,000 times faster, or how artificially intelligent brain implants will impact our capacity to love and hate. What will the illusion of “I” feel like when our consciousness is directly plugged into the internet? Overall, what impact will the process of merging with technology have on the subjective experience of being human?

The Evolution of Consciousness
In The Future Evolution of Consciousness, Thomas Lombardo points out, “We are a journey rather than a destination—a chapter in the evolutionary saga rather than a culmination. Just as probable, there will also be a diversification of species and types of conscious minds. It is also very likely that new psychological capacities, incomprehensible to us, will emerge as well.”

Humans are notorious for fearing the unknown. For any individual who has never experienced an altered state, be it spiritual or psychedelic-induced, it is difficult to comprehend the subjective experience of that state. It is why many refer to their first altered-state experience as “waking up,” wherein they didn’t even realize they were asleep.

Similarly, exponential neurotechnology represents the potential of a higher state of consciousness and a range of experiences that are unimaginable to our current default state.

Our capacity to think and feel is set by the boundaries of our biological brains. To transform and expand these boundaries is to transform and expand the first-hand experience of consciousness. Emerging neurotechnology may end up providing the awakening our species needs.

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