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#432671 Stuff 3.0: The Era of Programmable ...

It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.

In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?

This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”

In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.

Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.

Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.

Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.

Such are the dreams, anyway.

But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”

Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.

For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.

One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.

Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.

Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.

In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.

You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).

Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.

Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.

Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?

We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.

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#432487 Can We Make a Musical Turing Test?

As artificial intelligence advances, we’re encountering the same old questions. How much of what we consider to be fundamentally human can be reduced to an algorithm? Can we create something sufficiently advanced that people can no longer distinguish between the two? This, after all, is the idea behind the Turing Test, which has yet to be passed.

At first glance, you might think music is beyond the realm of algorithms. Birds can sing, and people can compose symphonies. Music is evocative; it makes us feel. Very often, our intense personal and emotional attachments to music are because it reminds us of our shared humanity. We are told that creative jobs are the least likely to be automated. Creativity seems fundamentally human.

But I think above all, we view it as reductionist sacrilege: to dissect beautiful things. “If you try to strangle a skylark / to cut it up, see how it works / you will stop its heart from beating / you will stop its mouth from singing.” A human musician wrote that; a machine might be able to string words together that are happy or sad; it might even be able to conjure up a decent metaphor from the depths of some neural network—but could it understand humanity enough to produce art that speaks to humans?

Then, of course, there’s the other side of the debate. Music, after all, has a deeply mathematical structure; you can train a machine to produce harmonics. “In the teachings of Pythagoras and his followers, music was inseparable from numbers, which were thought to be the key to the whole spiritual and physical universe,” according to Grout in A History of Western Music. You might argue that the process of musical composition cannot be reduced to a simple algorithm, yet musicians have often done so. Mozart, with his “Dice Music,” used the roll of a dice to decide how to order musical fragments; creativity through an 18th-century random number generator. Algorithmic music goes back a very long way, with the first papers on the subject from the 1960s.

Then there’s the techno-enthusiast side of the argument. iTunes has 26 million songs, easily more than a century of music. A human could never listen to and learn from them all, but a machine could. It could also memorize every note of Beethoven. Music can be converted into MIDI files, a nice chewable data format that allows even a character-by-character neural net you can run on your computer to generate music. (Seriously, even I could get this thing working.)

Indeed, generating music in the style of Bach has long been a test for AI, and you can see neural networks gradually learn to imitate classical composers while trying to avoid overfitting. When an algorithm overfits, it essentially starts copying the existing music, rather than being inspired by it but creating something similar: a tightrope the best human artists learn to walk. Creativity doesn’t spring from nowhere; even maverick musical geniuses have their influences.

Does a machine have to be truly ‘creative’ to produce something that someone would find valuable? To what extent would listeners’ attitudes change if they thought they were hearing a human vs. an AI composition? This all suggests a musical Turing Test. Of course, it already exists. In fact, it’s run out of Dartmouth, the school that hosted that first, seminal AI summer conference. This year, the contest is bigger than ever: alongside the PoetiX, LimeriX and LyriX competitions for poetry and lyrics, there’s a DigiKidLit competition for children’s literature (although you may have reservations about exposing your children to neural-net generated content… it can get a bit surreal).

There’s also a pair of musical competitions, including one for original compositions in different genres. Key genres and styles are represented by Charlie Parker for Jazz and the Bach chorales for classical music. There’s also a free composition, and a contest where a human and an AI try to improvise together—the AI must respond to a human spontaneously, in real time, and in a musically pleasing way. Quite a challenge! In all cases, if any of the generated work is indistinguishable from human performers, the neural net has passed the Turing Test.

Did they? Here’s part of 2017’s winning sonnet from Charese Smiley and Hiroko Bretz:

The large cabin was in total darkness.
Come marching up the eastern hill afar.
When is the clock on the stairs dangerous?
Everything seemed so near and yet so far.
Behind the wall silence alone replied.
Was, then, even the staircase occupied?
Generating the rhymes is easy enough, the sentence structure a little trickier, but what’s impressive about this sonnet is that it sticks to a single topic and appears to be a more coherent whole. I’d guess they used associated “lexical fields” of similar words to help generate something coherent. In a similar way, most of the more famous examples of AI-generated music still involve some amount of human control, even if it’s editorial; a human will build a song around an AI-generated riff, or select the most convincing Bach chorale from amidst many different samples.

We are seeing strides forward in the ability of AI to generate human voices and human likenesses. As the latter example shows, in the fake news era people have focused on the dangers of this tech– but might it also be possible to create a virtual performer, trained on a dataset of their original music? Did you ever want to hear another Beatles album, or jam with Miles Davis? Of course, these things are impossible—but could we create a similar experience that people would genuinely value? Even, to the untrained eye, something indistinguishable from the real thing?

And if it did measure up to the real thing, what would this mean? Jaron Lanier is a fascinating technology writer, a critic of strong AI, and a believer in the power of virtual reality to change the world and provide truly meaningful experiences. He’s also a composer and a musical aficionado. He pointed out in a recent interview that translation algorithms, by reducing the amount of work translators are commissioned to do, have, in some sense, profited from stolen expertise. They were trained on huge datasets purloined from human linguists and translators. If you can train an AI on someone’s creative output and it produces new music, who “owns” it?

Although companies that offer AI music tools are starting to proliferate, and some groups will argue that the musical Turing test has been passed already, AI-generated music is hardly racing to the top of the pop charts just yet. Even as the line between human-composed and AI-generated music starts to blur, there’s still a gulf between the average human and musical genius. In the next few years, we’ll see how far the current techniques can take us. It may be the case that there’s something in the skylark’s song that can’t be generated by machines. But maybe not, and then this song might need an extra verse.

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#432163 Humanoid robot supports emergency ...

Researchers at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia tested a new version of the WALK-MAN humanoid robot for supporting emergency response teams in fires. The robot is able to locate the fire and walk toward it, and then activate an extinguisher. During the operation, it collects images and transmits them back to emergency teams, who can evaluate the situation and guide the robot remotely. The new WALK-MAN design has a lighter upper body and new hands in order to reduce construction cost and improve performance. Continue reading

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#431873 Why the World Is Still Getting ...

If you read or watch the news, you’ll likely think the world is falling to pieces. Trends like terrorism, climate change, and a growing population straining the planet’s finite resources can easily lead you to think our world is in crisis.
But there’s another story, a story the news doesn’t often report. This story is backed by data, and it says we’re actually living in the most peaceful, abundant time in history, and things are likely to continue getting better.
The News vs. the Data
The reality that’s often clouded by a constant stream of bad news is we’re actually seeing a massive drop in poverty, fewer deaths from violent crime and preventable diseases. On top of that, we’re the most educated populace to ever walk the planet.
“Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceful era in the existence of our species.” –Steven Pinker
In the last hundred years, we’ve seen the average human life expectancy nearly double, the global GDP per capita rise exponentially, and childhood mortality drop 10-fold.

That’s pretty good progress! Maybe the world isn’t all gloom and doom.If you’re still not convinced the world is getting better, check out the charts in this article from Vox and on Peter Diamandis’ website for a lot more data.
Abundance for All Is Possible
So now that you know the world isn’t so bad after all, here’s another thing to think about: it can get much better, very soon.
In their book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis suggest it may be possible for us to meet and even exceed the basic needs of all the people living on the planet today.
“In the hands of smart and driven innovators, science and technology take things which were once scarce and make them abundant and accessible to all.”
This means making sure every single person in the world has adequate food, water and shelter, as well as a good education, access to healthcare, and personal freedom.
This might seem unimaginable, especially if you tend to think the world is only getting worse. But given how much progress we’ve already made in the last few hundred years, coupled with the recent explosion of information sharing and new, powerful technologies, abundance for all is not as out of reach as you might believe.
Throughout history, we’ve seen that in the hands of smart and driven innovators, science and technology take things which were once scarce and make them abundant and accessible to all.
Napoleon III
In Abundance, Diamandis and Kotler tell the story of how aluminum went from being one of the rarest metals on the planet to being one of the most abundant…
In the 1800s, aluminum was more valuable than silver and gold because it was rarer. So when Napoleon III entertained the King of Siam, the king and his guests were honored by being given aluminum utensils, while the rest of the dinner party ate with gold.
But aluminum is not really rare.
In fact, aluminum is the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, making up 8.3% of the weight of our planet. But it wasn’t until chemists Charles Martin Hall and Paul Héroult discovered how to use electrolysis to cheaply separate aluminum from surrounding materials that the element became suddenly abundant.
The problems keeping us from achieving a world where everyone’s basic needs are met may seem like resource problems — when in reality, many are accessibility problems.
The Engine Driving Us Toward Abundance: Exponential Technology
History is full of examples like the aluminum story. The most powerful one of the last few decades is information technology. Think about all the things that computers and the internet made abundant that were previously far less accessible because of cost or availability … Here are just a few examples:

Easy access to the world’s information
Ability to share information freely with anyone and everyone
Free/cheap long-distance communication
Buying and selling goods/services regardless of location

Less than two decades ago, when someone reached a certain level of economic stability, they could spend somewhere around $10K on stereos, cameras, entertainment systems, etc — today, we have all that equipment in the palm of our hand.
Now, there is a new generation of technologies heavily dependant on information technology and, therefore, similarly riding the wave of exponential growth. When put to the right use, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, digital manufacturing, nano-materials and digital biology make it possible for us to drastically raise the standard of living for every person on the planet.

These are just some of the innovations which are unlocking currently scarce resources:

IBM’s Watson Health is being trained and used in medical facilities like the Cleveland Clinic to help doctors diagnose disease. In the future, it’s likely we’ll trust AI just as much, if not more than humans to diagnose disease, allowing people all over the world to have access to great diagnostic tools regardless of whether there is a well-trained doctor near them.

Solar power is now cheaper than fossil fuels in some parts of the world, and with advances in new materials and storage, the cost may decrease further. This could eventually lead to nearly-free, clean energy for people across the world.

Google’s GMNT network can now translate languages as well as a human, unlocking the ability for people to communicate globally as we never have before.

Self-driving cars are already on the roads of several American cities and will be coming to a road near you in the next couple years. Considering the average American spends nearly two hours driving every day, not having to drive would free up an increasingly scarce resource: time.

The Change-Makers
Today’s innovators can create enormous change because they have these incredible tools—which would have once been available only to big organizations—at their fingertips. And, as a result of our hyper-connected world, there is an unprecedented ability for people across the planet to work together to create solutions to some of our most pressing problems today.
“In today’s hyperlinked world, solving problems anywhere, solves problems everywhere.” –Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance
According to Diamandis and Kotler, there are three groups of people accelerating positive change.

DIY InnovatorsIn the 1970s and 1980s, the Homebrew Computer Club was a meeting place of “do-it-yourself” computer enthusiasts who shared ideas and spare parts. By the 1990s and 2000s, that little club became known as an inception point for the personal computer industry — dozens of companies, including Apple Computer, can directly trace their origins back to Homebrew. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of the social entrepreneur, the Maker Movement and the DIY Bio movement, which have similar ambitions to democratize social reform, manufacturing, and biology, the way Homebrew democratized computers. These are the people who look for new opportunities and aren’t afraid to take risks to create something new that will change the status-quo.
Techno-PhilanthropistsUnlike the robber barons of the 19th and early 20th centuries, today’s “techno-philanthropists” are not just giving away some of their wealth for a new museum, they are using their wealth to solve global problems and investing in social entrepreneurs aiming to do the same. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given away at least $28 billion, with a strong focus on ending diseases like polio, malaria, and measles for good. Jeff Skoll, after cashing out of eBay with $2 billion in 1998, went on to create the Skoll Foundation, which funds social entrepreneurs across the world. And last year, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan pledged to give away 99% of their $46 billion in Facebook stock during their lifetimes.
The Rising BillionCisco estimates that by 2020, there will be 4.1 billion people connected to the internet, up from 3 billion in 2015. This number might even be higher, given the efforts of companies like Facebook, Google, Virgin Group, and SpaceX to bring internet access to the world. That’s a billion new people in the next several years who will be connected to the global conversation, looking to learn, create and better their own lives and communities.In his book, Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, C.K. Pahalad writes that finding co-creative ways to serve this rising market can help lift people out of poverty while creating viable businesses for inventive companies.

The Path to Abundance
Eager to create change, innovators armed with powerful technologies can accomplish incredible feats. Kotler and Diamandis imagine that the path to abundance occurs in three tiers:

Basic Needs (food, water, shelter)
Tools of Growth (energy, education, access to information)
Ideal Health and Freedom

Of course, progress doesn’t always happen in a straight, logical way, but having a framework to visualize the needs is helpful.
Many people don’t believe it’s possible to end the persistent global problems we’re facing. However, looking at history, we can see many examples where technological tools have unlocked resources that previously seemed scarce.
Technological solutions are not always the answer, and we need social change and policy solutions as much as we need technology solutions. But we have seen time and time again, that powerful tools in the hands of innovative, driven change-makers can make the seemingly impossible happen.

You can download the full “Path to Abundance” infographic here. It was created under a CC BY-NC-ND license. If you share, please attribute to Singularity University.
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#431653 9 Robot Animals Built From Nature’s ...

Millions of years of evolution have allowed animals to develop some elegant and highly efficient solutions to problems like locomotion, flight, and dexterity. As Boston Dynamics unveils its latest mechanical animals, here’s a rundown of nine recent robots that borrow from nature and why.
SpotMini – Boston Dynamics

Starting with BigDog in 2005, the US company has built a whole stable of four-legged robots in recent years. Their first product was designed to be a robotic packhorse for soldiers that borrowed the quadrupedal locomotion of animals to travel over terrain too rough for conventional vehicles.
The US Army ultimately rejected the robot for being too noisy, according to the Guardian, but since then the company has scaled down its design, first to the Spot, then a first edition of the SpotMini that came out last year.
The latter came with a robotic arm where its head should be and was touted as a domestic helper, but a sleeker second edition without the arm was released earlier this month. There’s little detail on what the new robot is designed for, but the more polished design suggests a more consumer-focused purpose.
OctopusGripper – Festo

Festo has released a long line of animal-inspired machines over the years, from a mechanical kangaroo to robotic butterflies. Its latest creation isn’t a full animal—instead it’s a gripper based on an octopus tentacle that can be attached to the end of a robotic arm.
The pneumatically-powered device is made of soft silicone and features two rows of suction cups on its inner edge. By applying compressed air the tentacle can wrap around a wide variety of differently shaped objects, just like its natural counterpart, and a vacuum can be applied to the larger suction cups to grip the object securely. Because it’s soft, it holds promise for robots required to operate safely in collaboration with humans.
CRAM – University of California, Berkeley

Cockroaches are renowned for their hardiness and ability to disappear down cracks that seem far too small for them. Researchers at UC Berkeley decided these capabilities could be useful for search and rescue missions and so set about experimenting on the insects to find out their secrets.
They found the bugs can squeeze into gaps a fifth of their normal standing height by splaying their legs out to the side without significantly slowing themselves down. So they built a palm-sized robot with a jointed plastic shell that could do the same to squeeze into crevices half its normal height.
Snake Robot – Carnegie Mellon University

Search and rescue missions are a common theme for animal-inspired robots, but the snake robot built by CMU researchers is one of the first to be tested in a real disaster.
A team of roboticists from the university helped Mexican Red Cross workers search collapsed buildings for survivors after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City in September. The snake design provides a small diameter and the ability to move in almost any direction, which makes the robot ideal for accessing tight spaces, though the team was unable to locate any survivors.
The snake currently features a camera on the front, but researchers told IEEE Spectrum that the experience helped them realize they should also add a microphone to listen for people trapped under the rubble.
Bio-Hybrid Stingray – Harvard University

Taking more than just inspiration from the animal kingdom, a group from Harvard built a robotic stingray out of silicone and rat heart muscle cells.
The robot uses the same synchronized undulations along the edge of its fins to propel itself as a ray does. But while a ray has two sets of muscles to pull the fins up and down, the new device has only one that pulls them down, with a springy gold skeleton that pulls them back up again. The cells are also genetically modified to be activated by flashes of light.
The project’s leader eventually hopes to engineer a human heart, and both his stingray and an earlier jellyfish bio-robot are primarily aimed at better understanding how that organ works.
Bat Bot – Caltech

Most recent advances in drone technology have come from quadcopters, but Caltech engineers think rigid devices with rapidly spinning propellers are probably not ideal for use in close quarters with humans.
That’s why they turned to soft-winged bats for inspiration. That’s no easy feat, though, considering bats use more than 40 joints with each flap of their wings, so the team had to optimize down to nine joints to avoid it becoming too bulky. The simplified bat can’t ascend yet, but its onboard computer and sensors let it autonomously carry out glides, turns, and dives.
Salto – UC Berkeley

While even the most advanced robots tend to plod around, tree-dwelling animals have the ability to spring from branch to branch to clear obstacles and climb quickly. This could prove invaluable for search and rescue robots by allowing them to quickly traverse disordered rubble.
UC Berkeley engineers turned to the Senegal bush baby for inspiration after determining it scored highest in “vertical jumping agility”—a combination of how high and how frequently an animal can jump. They recreated its ability to get into a super-low crouch that stores energy in its tendons to create a robot that could carry out parkour-style double jumps off walls to quickly gain height.
Pleurobot – École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Normally robots are masters of air, land, or sea, but the robotic salamander built by researchers at EPFL can both walk and swim.
Its designers used X-ray videos to carefully study how the amphibians move before using this to build a true-to-life robotic version using 3D printed bones, motorized joints, and a synthetic nervous system made up of electronic circuitry.
The robot’s low center of mass and segmented legs make it great at navigating rough terrain without losing balance, and the ability to swim gives added versatility. They also hope it will help paleontologists gain a better understanding of the movements of the first tetrapods to transition from water to land, which salamanders are the best living analog of.
Eelume – Eelume

A snakelike body isn’t only useful on land—eels are living proof it’s an efficient way to travel underwater, too. Norwegian robotics company Eelume has borrowed these principles to build a robot capable of sub-sea inspection, maintenance, and repair.
The modular design allows operators to put together their own favored configuration of joints and payloads such as sensors and tools. And while an early version of the robot used the same method of locomotion as an eel, the latest version undergoing sea trials has added a variety of thrusters for greater speeds and more maneuverability.
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