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Recently, in a Berkeley lab, a robot called Cassie taught itself to walk, a little like a toddler might. Through trial and error, it learned to move in a simulated world. Then its handlers sent it strolling through a minefield of real-world tests to see how it’d fare.
And, as it turns out, it fared pretty damn well. With no further fine-tuning, the robot—which is basically just a pair of legs—was able to walk in all directions, squat down while walking, right itself when pushed off balance, and adjust to different kinds of surfaces.
It’s the first time a machine learning approach known as reinforcement learning has been so successfully applied in two-legged robots.
This likely isn’t the first robot video you’ve seen, nor the most polished.
For years, the internet has been enthralled by videos of robots doing far more than walking and regaining their balance. All that is table stakes these days. Boston Dynamics, the heavyweight champ of robot videos, regularly releases mind-blowing footage of robots doing parkour, back flips, and complex dance routines. At times, it can seem the world of iRobot is just around the corner.
This sense of awe is well-earned. Boston Dynamics is one of the world’s top makers of advanced robots.
But they still have to meticulously hand program and choreograph the movements of the robots in their videos. This is a powerful approach, and the Boston Dynamics team has done incredible things with it.
In real-world situations, however, robots need to be robust and resilient. They need to regularly deal with the unexpected, and no amount of choreography will do. Which is how, it’s hoped, machine learning can help.
Reinforcement learning has been most famously exploited by Alphabet’s DeepMind to train algorithms that thrash humans at some the most difficult games. Simplistically, it’s modeled on the way we learn. Touch the stove, get burned, don’t touch the damn thing again; say please, get a jelly bean, politely ask for another.
In Cassie’s case, the Berkeley team used reinforcement learning to train an algorithm to walk in a simulation. It’s not the first AI to learn to walk in this manner. But going from simulation to the real world doesn’t always translate.
Subtle differences between the two can (literally) trip up a fledgling robot as it tries out its sim skills for the first time.
To overcome this challenge, the researchers used two simulations instead of one. The first simulation, an open source training environment called MuJoCo, was where the algorithm drew upon a large library of possible movements and, through trial and error, learned to apply them. The second simulation, called Matlab SimMechanics, served as a low-stakes testing ground that more precisely matched real-world conditions.
Once the algorithm was good enough, it graduated to Cassie.
And amazingly, it didn’t need further polishing. Said another way, when it was born into the physical world—it knew how to walk just fine. In addition, it was also quite robust. The researchers write that two motors in Cassie’s knee malfunctioned during the experiment, but the robot was able to adjust and keep on trucking.
Other labs have been hard at work applying machine learning to robotics.
Last year Google used reinforcement learning to train a (simpler) four-legged robot. And OpenAI has used it with robotic arms. Boston Dynamics, too, will likely explore ways to augment their robots with machine learning. New approaches—like this one aimed at training multi-skilled robots or this one offering continuous learning beyond training—may also move the dial. It’s early yet, however, and there’s no telling when machine learning will exceed more traditional methods.
And in the meantime, Boston Dynamics bots are testing the commercial waters.
Still, robotics researchers, who were not part of the Berkeley team, think the approach is promising. Edward Johns, head of Imperial College London’s Robot Learning Lab, told MIT Technology Review, “This is one of the most successful examples I have seen.”
The Berkeley team hopes to build on that success by trying out “more dynamic and agile behaviors.” So, might a self-taught parkour-Cassie be headed our way? We’ll see.
Image Credit: University of California Berkeley Hybrid Robotics via YouTube Continue reading
The little pigs bouncing around the lab looked exceedingly normal. Yet their adorable exterior hid a remarkable secret: each piglet carried two different sets of genes. For now, both sets came from their own species. But one day, one of those sets may be human.
The piglets are chimeras—creatures with intermingled sets of genes, as if multiple entities were seamlessly mashed together. Named after the Greek lion-goat-serpent monsters, chimeras may hold the key to an endless supply of human organs and tissues for transplant. The crux is growing these human parts in another animal—one close enough in size and function to our own.
Last week, a team from the University of Minnesota unveiled two mind-bending chimeras. One was joyous little piglets, each propelled by muscles grown from a different pig. Another was pig embryos, transplanted into surrogate pigs, that developed human muscles for more than 20 days.
The study, led by Drs. Mary and Daniel Garry at the University of Minnesota, had a therapeutic point: engineering a brilliant way to replace muscle loss, especially for the muscles around our skeletons that allow us to move and navigate the world. Trauma and injury, such as from firearm wounds or car crashes, can damage muscle tissue beyond the point of repair. Unfortunately, muscles are also stubborn in that donor tissue from cadavers doesn’t usually “take” at the injury site. For now, there are no effective treatments for severe muscle death, called volumetric muscle loss.
The new human-pig hybrids are designed to tackle this problem. Muscle wasting aside, the study also points to a clever “hack” that increases the amount of human tissue inside a growing pig embryo.
If further improved, the technology could “provide an unlimited supply of organs for transplantation,” said Dr. Mary Garry to Inverse. What’s more, because the human tissue can be sourced from patients themselves, the risk of rejection by the immune system is relatively low—even when grown inside a pig.
“The shortage of organs for heart transplantation, vascular grafting, and skeletal muscle is staggering,” said Garry. Human-animal chimeras could have a “seismic impact” that transforms organ transplantation and helps solve the organ shortage crisis.
That is, if society accepts the idea of a semi-humanoid pig.
The new study took a page from previous chimera recipes.
The main ingredients and steps go like this: first, you need an embryo that lacks the ability to develop a tissue or organ. This leaves an “empty slot” of sorts that you can fill with another set of genes—pig, human, or even monkey.
Second, you need to fine-tune the recipe so that the embryos “take” the new genes, incorporating them into their bodies as if they were their own. Third, the new genes activate to instruct the growing embryo to make the necessary tissue or organs without harming the overall animal. Finally, the foreign genes need to stay put, without cells migrating to another body part—say, the brain.
Not exactly straightforward, eh? The piglets are technological wonders that mix cutting-edge gene editing with cloning technologies.
The team went for two chimeras: one with two sets of pig genes, the other with a pig and human mix. Both started with a pig embryo that can’t make its own skeletal muscles (those are the muscles surrounding your bones). Using CRISPR, the gene-editing Swiss Army Knife, they snipped out three genes that are absolutely necessary for those muscles to develop. Like hitting a bullseye with three arrows simultaneously, it’s already a technological feat.
Here’s the really clever part: the muscles around your bones have a slightly different genetic makeup than the ones that line your blood vessels or the ones that pump your heart. While the resulting pig embryos had severe muscle deformities as they developed, their hearts beat as normal. This means the gene editing cut only impacted skeletal muscles.
Then came step two: replacing the missing genes. Using a microneedle, the team injected a fertilized and slightly developed pig egg—called a blastomere—into the embryo. If left on its natural course, a blastomere eventually develops into another embryo. This step “smashes” the two sets of genes together, with the newcomer filling the muscle void. The hybrid embryo was then placed into a surrogate, and roughly four months later, chimeric piglets were born.
Equipped with foreign DNA, the little guys nevertheless seemed totally normal, nosing around the lab and running everywhere without obvious clumsy stumbles. Under the microscope, their “xenomorph” muscles were indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill average muscle tissue—no signs of damage or inflammation, and as stretchy and tough as muscles usually are. What’s more, the foreign DNA seemed to have only developed into muscles, even though they were prevalent across the body. Extensive fishing experiments found no trace of the injected set of genes inside blood vessels or the brain.
A Better Human-Pig Hybrid
Confident in their recipe, the team next repeated the experiment with human cells, with a twist. Instead of using controversial human embryonic stem cells, which are obtained from aborted fetuses, they relied on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are skin cells that have been reverted back into a stem cell state.
Unlike previous attempts at making human chimeras, the team then scoured the genetic landscape of how pig and human embryos develop to find any genetic “brakes” that could derail the process. One gene, TP53, stood out, which was then promptly eliminated with CRISPR.
This approach provides a way for future studies to similarly increase the efficiency of interspecies chimeras, the team said.
The human-pig embryos were then carefully grown inside surrogate pigs for less than a month, and extensively analyzed. By day 20, the hybrids had already grown detectable human skeletal muscle. Similar to the pig-pig chimeras, the team didn’t detect any signs that the human genes had sprouted cells that would eventually become neurons or other non-muscle cells.
For now, human-animal chimeras are not allowed to grow to term, in part to stem the theoretical possibility of engineering humanoid hybrid animals (shudder). However, a sentient human-pig chimera is something that the team specifically addressed. Through multiple experiments, they found no trace of human genes in the embryos’ brain stem cells 20 and 27 days into development. Similarly, human donor genes were absent in cells that would become the hybrid embryos’ reproductive cells.
Despite bioethical quandaries and legal restrictions, human-animal chimeras have taken off, both as a source of insight into human brain development and a well of personalized organs and tissues for transplant. In 2019, Japan lifted its ban on developing human brain cells inside animal embryos, as well as the term limit—to global controversy. There’s also the question of animal welfare, given that hybrid clones will essentially become involuntary organ donors.
As the debates rage on, scientists are nevertheless pushing the limits of human-animal chimeras, while treading as carefully as possible.
“Our data…support the feasibility of the generation of these interspecies chimeras, which will serve as a model for translational research or, one day, as a source for xenotransplantation,” the team said.
Image Credit: Christopher Carson on Unsplash Continue reading
In a store in the center of an unnamed city, humanoid robots are displayed alongside housewares and magazines. They watch the fast-moving world outside the window, anxiously awaiting the arrival of customers who might buy them and take them home. Among them is Klara, a particularly astute robot who loves the sun and wants to learn as much as possible about humans and the world they live in.
So begins Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun, published earlier this month. The book, told from Klara’s perspective, portrays an eerie future society in which intelligent machines and other advanced technologies have been integrated into daily life, but not everyone is happy about it.
Technological unemployment, the progress of artificial intelligence, inequality, the safety and ethics of gene editing, increasing loneliness and isolation—all of which we’re grappling with today—show up in Ishiguro’s world. It’s like he hit a fast-forward button, mirroring back to us how things might play out if we don’t approach these technologies with caution and foresight.
The wealthy genetically edit or “lift” their children to set them up for success, while the poor have to make do with the regular old brains and bodies bequeathed them by evolution. Lifted and unlifted kids generally don’t mix, and this is just one of many sinister delineations between a new breed of haves and have-nots.
There’s anger about robots’ steady infiltration into everyday life, and questions about how similar their rights should be to those of humans. “First they take the jobs. Then they take the seats at the theater?” one woman fumes.
References to “changes” and “substitutions” allude to an economy where automation has eliminated millions of jobs. While “post-employed” people squat in abandoned buildings and fringe communities arm themselves in preparation for conflict, those whose livelihoods haven’t been destroyed can afford to have live-in housekeepers and buy Artificial Friends (or AFs) for their lonely children.
“The old traditional model that we still live with now—where most of us can get some kind of paid work in exchange for our services or the goods we make—has broken down,” Ishiguro said in a podcast discussion of the novel. “We’re not talking just about the difference between rich and poor getting bigger. We’re talking about a gap appearing between people who participate in society in an obvious way and people who do not.”
He has a point; as much as techno-optimists claim that the economic changes brought by automation and AI will give us all more free time, let us work less, and devote time to our passion projects, how would that actually play out? What would millions of “post-employed” people receiving basic income actually do with their time and energy?
In the novel, we don’t get much of a glimpse of this side of the equation, but we do see how the wealthy live. After a long wait, just as the store manager seems ready to give up on selling her, Klara is chosen by a 14-year-old girl named Josie, the daughter of a woman who wears “high-rank clothes” and lives in a large, sunny home outside the city. Cheerful and kind, Josie suffers from an unspecified illness that periodically flares up and leaves her confined to her bed for days at a time.
Her life seems somewhat bleak, the need for an AF clear. In this future world, the children of the wealthy no longer go to school together, instead studying alone at home on their digital devices. “Interaction meetings” are set up for them to learn to socialize, their parents carefully eavesdropping from the next room and trying not to intervene when there’s conflict or hurt feelings.
Klara does her best to be a friend, aide, and confidante to Josie while continuing to learn about the world around her and decode the mysteries of human behavior. We surmise that she was programmed with a basic ability to understand emotions, which evolves along with her other types of intelligence. “I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me,” she explains to one character.
Ishiguro does an excellent job of representing Klara’s mind: a blend of pre-determined programming, observation, and continuous learning. Her narration has qualities both robotic and human; we can tell when something has been programmed in—she “Gives Privacy” to the humans around her when that’s appropriate, for example—and when she’s figured something out for herself.
But the author maintains some mystery around Klara’s inner emotional life. “Does she actually understand human emotions, or is she just observing human emotions and simulating them within herself?” he said. “I suppose the question comes back to, what are our emotions as human beings? What do they amount to?”
Klara is particularly attuned to human loneliness, since she essentially was made to help prevent it. It is, in her view, peoples’ biggest fear, and something they’ll go to great lengths to avoid, yet can never fully escape. “Perhaps all humans are lonely,” she says.
Warding off loneliness through technology isn’t a futuristic idea, it’s something we’ve been doing for a long time, with the technologies at hand growing more and more sophisticated. Products like AFs already exist. There’s XiaoIce, a chatbot that uses “sentiment analysis” to keep its 660 million users engaged, and Azuma Hikari, a character-based AI designed to “bring comfort” to users whose lives lack emotional connection with other humans.
The mere existence of these tools would be sinister if it wasn’t for their widespread adoption; when millions of people use AIs to fill a void in their lives, it raises deeper questions about our ability to connect with each other and whether technology is building it up or tearing it down.
This isn’t the only big question the novel tackles. An overarching theme is one we’ve been increasingly contemplating as computers start to acquire more complex capabilities, like the beginnings of creativity or emotional awareness: What is it that truly makes us human?
“Do you believe in the human heart?” one character asks. “I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?”
The alternative, at least in the story, is that people don’t have a unique essence, but rather we’re all a blend of traits and personalities that can be reduced to strings of code. Our understanding of the brain is still elementary, but at some level, doesn’t all human experience boil down to the firing of billions of neurons between our ears? Will we one day—in a future beyond that painted by Ishiguro, but certainly foreshadowed by it—be able to “decode” our humanity to the point that there’s nothing mysterious left about it? “A human heart is bound to be complex,” Klara says. “But it must be limited.”
Whether or not you agree, Klara and the Sun is worth the read. It’s both a marvelous, engaging story about what it means to love and be human, and a prescient warning to approach technological change with caution and nuance. We’re already living in a world where AI keeps us company, influences our behavior, and is wreaking various forms of havoc. Ishiguro’s novel is a snapshot of one of our possible futures, told through the eyes of a robot who keeps you rooting for her to the end.
Image Credit: Marion Wellmann from Pixabay Continue reading
The race to build the first practical quantum computers looks like a two-horse contest between machines built from superconducting qubits and those that use trapped ions. But new research suggests a third contender—machines based on optical technology—could sneak up on the inside.
The most advanced quantum computers today are the ones built by Google and IBM, which rely on superconducting circuits to generate the qubits that form the basis of quantum calculations. They are now able to string together tens of qubits, and while controversial, Google claims its machines have achieved quantum supremacy—the ability to carry out a computation beyond normal computers.
Recently this approach has been challenged by a wave of companies looking to use trapped ion qubits, which are more stable and less error-prone than superconducting ones. While these devices are less developed, engineering giant Honeywell has already released a machine with 10 qubits, which it says is more powerful than a machine made of a greater number of superconducting qubits.
But despite this progress, both of these approaches have some major drawbacks. They require specialized fabrication methods, incredibly precise control mechanisms, and they need to be cooled to close to absolute zero to protect the qubits from any outside interference.
That’s why researchers at Canadian quantum computing hardware and software startup Xanadu are backing an alternative quantum computing approach based on optics, which was long discounted as impractical. In a paper published last week in Nature, they unveiled the first fully programmable and scalable optical chip that can run quantum algorithms. Not only does the system run at room temperature, but the company says it could scale to millions of qubits.
The idea isn’t exactly new. As Chris Lee notes in Ars Technica, people have been experimenting with optical approaches to quantum computing for decades, because encoding information in photons’ quantum states and manipulating those states is relatively easy. The biggest problem was that optical circuits were very large and not readily programmable, which meant you had to build a new computer for every new problem you wanted to solve.
That started to change thanks to the growing maturity of photonic integrated circuits. While early experiments with optical computing involved complex table-top arrangements of lasers, lenses, and detectors, today it’s possible to buy silicon chips not dissimilar to electronic ones that feature hundreds of tiny optical components.
In recent years, the reliability and performance of these devices has improved dramatically, and they’re now regularly used by the telecommunications industry. Some companies believe they could be the future of artificial intelligence too.
This allowed the Xanadu researchers to design a silicon chip that implements a complex optical network made up of beam splitters, waveguides, and devices called interferometers that cause light sources to interact with each other.
The chip can generate and manipulate up to eight qubits, but unlike conventional qubits, which can simultaneously be in two states, these qubits can be in any configuration of three states, which means they can carry more information.
Once the light has travelled through the network, it is then fed out to cutting-edge photon-counting detectors that provide the result. This is one of the potential limitations of the system, because currently these detectors need to be cryogenically cooled, although the rest of the chip does not.
But most importantly, the chip is easily re-programmable, which allows it to tackle a variety of problems. The computation can be controlled by adjusting the settings of these interferometers, but the researchers have also developed a software platform that hides the physical complexity from users and allows them to program it using fairly conventional code.
The company announced that its chips were available on the cloud in September of 2020, but the Nature paper is the first peer-reviewed test of their system. The researchers verified that the computations being done were genuinely quantum mechanical in nature, but they also implemented two more practical algorithms: one for simulating molecules and the other for judging how similar two graphs are, which has applications in a variety of pattern recognition problems.
In an accompanying opinion piece, Ulrik Andersen from the Technical University of Denmark says the quality of the qubits needs to be improved considerably and photon losses reduced if the technology is ever to scale to practical problems. But, he says, this breakthrough suggests optical approaches “could turn out to be the dark horse of quantum computing.”
Image Credit: Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash Continue reading