Tag Archives: chemical

#437202 Scientists Used Dopamine to Seamlessly ...

In just half a decade, neuromorphic devices—or brain-inspired computing—already seem quaint. The current darling? Artificial-biological hybrid computing, uniting both man-made computer chips and biological neurons seamlessly into semi-living circuits.

It sounds crazy, but a new study in Nature Materials shows that it’s possible to get an artificial neuron to communicate directly with a biological one using not just electricity, but dopamine—a chemical the brain naturally uses to change how neural circuits behave, most known for signaling reward.

Because these chemicals, known as “neurotransmitters,” are how biological neurons functionally link up in the brain, the study is a dramatic demonstration that it’s possible to connect artificial components with biological brain cells into a functional circuit.

The team isn’t the first to pursue hybrid neural circuits. Previously, a different team hooked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one into a circuit using electrical protocols alone. Although a powerful demonstration of hybrid computing, the study relied on only one-half of the brain’s computational ability: electrical computing.

The new study now tackles the other half: chemical computing. It adds a layer of compatibility that lays the groundwork not just for brain-inspired computers, but also for brain-machine interfaces and—perhaps—a sort of “cyborg” future. After all, if your brain can’t tell the difference between an artificial neuron and your own, could you? And even if you did, would you care?

Of course, that scenario is far in the future—if ever. For now, the team, led by Dr. Alberto Salleo, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, collectively breathed a sigh of relief that the hybrid circuit worked.

“It’s a demonstration that this communication melding chemistry and electricity is possible,” said Salleo. “You could say it’s a first step toward a brain-machine interface, but it’s a tiny, tiny very first step.”

Neuromorphic Computing
The study grew from years of work into neuromorphic computing, or data processing inspired by the brain.

The blue-sky idea was inspired by the brain’s massive parallel computing capabilities, along with vast energy savings. By mimicking these properties, scientists reasoned, we could potentially turbo-charge computing. Neuromorphic devices basically embody artificial neural networks in physical form—wouldn’t hardware that mimics how the brain processes information be even more efficient and powerful?

These explorations led to novel neuromorphic chips, or artificial neurons that “fire” like biological ones. Additional work found that it’s possible to link these chips up into powerful circuits that run deep learning with ease, with bioengineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.

As a potential computing hardware replacement, these systems have proven to be incredibly promising. Yet scientists soon wondered: given their similarity to biological brains, can we use them as “replacement parts” for brains that suffer from traumatic injuries, aging, or degeneration? Can we hook up neuromorphic components to the brain to restore its capabilities?

Buzz & Chemistry
Theoretically, the answer’s yes.

But there’s a huge problem: current brain-machine interfaces only use electrical signals to mimic neural computation. The brain, in contrast, has two tricks up its sleeve: electricity and chemicals, or electrochemical.

Within a neuron, electricity travels up its incoming branches, through the bulbous body, then down the output branches. When electrical signals reach the neuron’s outgoing “piers,” dotted along the output branch, however, they hit a snag. A small gap exists between neurons, so to get to the other side, the electrical signals generally need to be converted into little bubble ships, packed with chemicals, and set sail to the other neuronal shore.

In other words, without chemical signals, the brain can’t function normally. These neurotransmitters don’t just passively carry information. Dopamine, for example, can dramatically change how a neural circuit functions. For an artificial-biological hybrid neural system, the absence of chemistry is like nixing international cargo vessels and only sticking with land-based trains and highways.

“To emulate biological synaptic behavior, the connectivity of the neuromorphic device must be dynamically regulated by the local neurotransmitter activity,” the team said.

Let’s Get Electro-Chemical
The new study started with two neurons: the upstream, an immortalized biological cell that releases dopamine; and the downstream, an artificial neuron that the team previously introduced in 2017, made of a mix of biocompatible and electrical-conducting materials.

Rather than the classic neuron shape, picture more of a sandwich with a chunk bitten out in the middle (yup, I’m totally serious). Each of the remaining parts of the sandwich is a soft electrode, made of biological polymers. The “bitten out” part has a conductive solution that can pass on electrical signals.

The biological cell sits close to the first electrode. When activated, it dumps out boats of dopamine, which drift to the electrode and chemically react with it—mimicking the process of dopamine docking onto a biological neuron. This, in turn, generates a current that’s passed on to the second electrode through the conductive solution channel. When this current reaches the second electrode, it changes the electrode’s conductance—that is, how well it can pass on electrical information. This second step is analogous to docked dopamine “ships” changing how likely it is that a biological neuron will fire in the future.

In other words, dopamine release from the biological neuron interacts with the artificial one, so that the chemicals change how the downstream neuron behaves in a somewhat lasting way—a loose mimic of what happens inside the brain during learning.

But that’s not all. Chemical signaling is especially powerful in the brain because it’s flexible. Dopamine, for example, only grabs onto the downstream neurons for a bit before it returns back to its upstream neuron—that is, recycled or destroyed. This means that its effect is temporary, giving the neural circuit breathing room to readjust its activity.

The Stanford team also tried reconstructing this quirk in their hybrid circuit. They crafted a microfluidic channel that shuttles both dopamine and its byproduct away from the artificial neurons after they’ve done their job for recycling.

Putting It All Together
After confirming that biological cells can survive happily on top of the artificial one, the team performed a few tests to see if the hybrid circuit could “learn.”

They used electrical methods to first activate the biological dopamine neuron, and watched the artificial one. Before the experiment, the team wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Theoretically, it made sense that dopamine would change the artificial neuron’s conductance, similar to learning. But “it was hard to know whether we’d achieve the outcome we predicted on paper until we saw it happen in the lab,” said study author Scott Keene.

On the first try, however, the team found that the burst of chemical signaling was able to change the artificial neuron’s conductance long-term, similar to the neuroscience dogma “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Activating the upstream biological neuron with chemicals also changed the artificial neuron’s conductance in a way that mimicked learning.

“That’s when we realized the potential this has for emulating the long-term learning process of a synapse,” said Keene.

Visualizing under an electron microscope, the team found that, similar to its biological counterpart, the hybrid synapse was able to efficiently recycle dopamine with timescales similar to the brain after some calibration. By playing with how much dopamine accumulates at the artificial neuron, the team found that they loosely mimic a learning rule called spike learning—a darling of machine learning inspired by the brain’s computation.

A Hybrid Future?
Unfortunately for cyborg enthusiasts, the work is still in its infancy.

For one, the artificial neurons are still rather bulky compared to biological ones. This means that they can’t capture and translate information from a single “boat” of dopamine. It’s also unclear if, and how, a hybrid synapse can work inside a living brain. Given the billions of synapses firing away in our heads, it’ll be a challenge to find-and-replace those that need replacement, and be able to control our memories and behaviors similar to natural ones.

That said, we’re inching ever closer to full-capability artificial-biological hybrid circuits.

“The neurotransmitter-mediated neuromorphic device presented in this work constitutes a fundamental building block for artificial neural networks that can be directly modulated based on biological feedback from live neurons,” the authors concluded. “[It] is a crucial first step in realizing next-generation adaptive biohybrid interfaces.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#437171 Scientists Tap the World’s Most ...

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, the haughty supercomputer Deep Thought is asked whether it can find the answer to the ultimate question concerning life, the universe, and everything. It replies that, yes, it can do it, but it’s tricky and it’ll have to think about it. When asked how long it will take it replies, “Seven-and-a-half million years. I told you I’d have to think about it.”

Real-life supercomputers are being asked somewhat less expansive questions but tricky ones nonetheless: how to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. They’re being used in many facets of responding to the disease, including to predict the spread of the virus, to optimize contact tracing, to allocate resources and provide decisions for physicians, to design vaccines and rapid testing tools, and to understand sneezes. And the answers are needed in a rather shorter time frame than Deep Thought was proposing.

The largest number of Covid-19 supercomputing projects involves designing drugs. It’s likely to take several effective drugs to treat the disease. Supercomputers allow researchers to take a rational approach and aim to selectively muzzle proteins that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, needs for its life cycle.

The viral genome encodes proteins needed by the virus to infect humans and to replicate. Among these are the infamous spike protein that sniffs out and penetrates its human cellular target, but there are also enzymes and molecular machines that the virus forces its human subjects to produce for it. Finding drugs that can bind to these proteins and stop them from working is a logical way to go.

The Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a peak performance of 200,000 trillion calculations per second—equivalent to about a million laptops. Image credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy, CC BY

I am a molecular biophysicist. My lab, at the Center for Molecular Biophysics at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, uses a supercomputer to discover drugs. We build three-dimensional virtual models of biological molecules like the proteins used by cells and viruses, and simulate how various chemical compounds interact with those proteins. We test thousands of compounds to find the ones that “dock” with a target protein. Those compounds that fit, lock-and-key style, with the protein are potential therapies.

The top-ranked candidates are then tested experimentally to see if they indeed do bind to their targets and, in the case of Covid-19, stop the virus from infecting human cells. The compounds are first tested in cells, then animals, and finally humans. Computational drug discovery with high-performance computing has been important in finding antiviral drugs in the past, such as the anti-HIV drugs that revolutionized AIDS treatment in the 1990s.

World’s Most Powerful Computer
Since the 1990s the power of supercomputers has increased by a factor of a million or so. Summit at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is presently the world’s most powerful supercomputer, and has the combined power of roughly a million laptops. A laptop today has roughly the same power as a supercomputer had 20-30 years ago.

However, in order to gin up speed, supercomputer architectures have become more complicated. They used to consist of single, very powerful chips on which programs would simply run faster. Now they consist of thousands of processors performing massively parallel processing in which many calculations, such as testing the potential of drugs to dock with a pathogen or cell’s proteins, are performed at the same time. Persuading those processors to work together harmoniously is a pain in the neck but means we can quickly try out a lot of chemicals virtually.

Further, researchers use supercomputers to figure out by simulation the different shapes formed by the target binding sites and then virtually dock compounds to each shape. In my lab, that procedure has produced experimentally validated hits—chemicals that work—for each of 16 protein targets that physician-scientists and biochemists have discovered over the past few years. These targets were selected because finding compounds that dock with them could result in drugs for treating different diseases, including chronic kidney disease, prostate cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, thrombosis and bacterial infections.

Scientists are using supercomputers to find ways to disable the various proteins—including the infamous spike protein (green protrusions)—produced by SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19. Image credit: Thomas Splettstoesser scistyle.com, CC BY-ND

Billions of Possibilities
So which chemicals are being tested for Covid-19? A first approach is trying out drugs that already exist for other indications and that we have a pretty good idea are reasonably safe. That’s called “repurposing,” and if it works, regulatory approval will be quick.

But repurposing isn’t necessarily being done in the most rational way. One idea researchers are considering is that drugs that work against protein targets of some other virus, such as the flu, hepatitis or Ebola, will automatically work against Covid-19, even when the SARS-CoV-2 protein targets don’t have the same shape.

Our own work has now expanded to about 10 targets on SARS-CoV-2, and we’re also looking at human protein targets for disrupting the virus’s attack on human cells. Top-ranked compounds from our calculations are being tested experimentally for activity against the live virus. Several of these have already been found to be active.The best approach is to check if repurposed compounds will actually bind to their intended target. To that end, my lab published a preliminary report of a supercomputer-driven docking study of a repurposing compound database in mid-February. The study ranked 8,000 compounds in order of how well they bind to the viral spike protein. This paper triggered the establishment of a high-performance computing consortium against our viral enemy, announced by President Trump in March. Several of our top-ranked compounds are now in clinical trials.

Also, we and others are venturing out into the wild world of new drug discovery for Covid-19—looking for compounds that have never been tried as drugs before. Databases of billions of these compounds exist, all of which could probably be synthesized in principle but most of which have never been made. Billion-compound docking is a tailor-made task for massively parallel supercomputing.

Dawn of the Exascale Era
Work will be helped by the arrival of the next big machine at Oak Ridge, called Frontier, planned for next year. Frontier should be about 10 times more powerful than Summit. Frontier will herald the “exascale” supercomputing era, meaning machines capable of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second.

Although some fear supercomputers will take over the world, for the time being, at least, they are humanity’s servants, which means that they do what we tell them to. Different scientists have different ideas about how to calculate which drugs work best—some prefer artificial intelligence, for example—so there’s quite a lot of arguing going on.

Hopefully, scientists armed with the most powerful computers in the world will, sooner rather than later, find the drugs needed to tackle Covid-19. If they do, then their answers will be of more immediate benefit, if less philosophically tantalizing, than the answer to the ultimate question provided by Deep Thought, which was, maddeningly, simply 42.

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

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Posted in Human Robots

#437120 The New Indiana Jones? AI. Here’s How ...

Archaeologists have uncovered scores of long-abandoned settlements along coastal Madagascar that reveal environmental connections to modern-day communities. They have detected the nearly indiscernible bumps of earthen mounds left behind by prehistoric North American cultures. Still other researchers have mapped Bronze Age river systems in the Indus Valley, one of the cradles of civilization.

All of these recent discoveries are examples of landscape archaeology. They’re also examples of how artificial intelligence is helping scientists hunt for new archaeological digs on a scale and at a pace unimaginable even a decade ago.

“AI in archaeology has been increasing substantially over the past few years,” said Dylan Davis, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Penn State University. “One of the major uses of AI in archaeology is for the detection of new archaeological sites.”

The near-ubiquitous availability of satellite data and other types of aerial imagery for many parts of the world has been both a boon and a bane to archaeologists. They can cover far more ground, but the job of manually mowing their way across digitized landscapes is still time-consuming and laborious. Machine learning algorithms offer a way to parse through complex data far more quickly.

AI Gives Archaeologists a Bird’s Eye View
Davis developed an automated algorithm for identifying large earthen and shell mounds built by native populations long before Europeans arrived with far-off visions of skyscrapers and superhighways in their eyes. The sites still hidden in places like the South Carolina wilderness contain a wealth of information about how people lived, even what they ate, and the ways they interacted with the local environment and other cultures.

In this particular case, the imagery comes from LiDAR, which uses light pulses that can penetrate tree canopies to map forest floors. The team taught the computer the shape, size, and texture characteristics of the mounds so it could identify potential sites from the digital 3D datasets that it analyzed.

“The process resulted in several thousand possible features that my colleagues and I checked by hand,” Davis told Singularity Hub. “While not entirely automated, this saved the equivalent of years of manual labor that would have been required for analyzing the whole LiDAR image by hand.”

In Madagascar—where Davis is studying human settlement history across the world’s fourth largest island over a timescale of millennia—he developed a predictive algorithm to help locate archaeological sites using freely available satellite imagery. His team was able to survey and identify more than 70 new archaeological sites—and potentially hundreds more—across an area of more than 1,000 square kilometers during the course of about a year.

Machines Learning From the Past Prepare Us for the Future
One impetus behind the rapid identification of archaeological sites is that many are under threat from climate change, such as coastal erosion from sea level rise, or other human impacts. Meanwhile, traditional archaeological approaches are expensive and laborious—serious handicaps in a race against time.

“It is imperative to record as many archaeological sites as we can in a short period of time. That is why AI and machine learning are useful for my research,” Davis said.

Studying the rise and fall of past civilizations can also teach modern humans a thing or two about how to grapple with these current challenges.

Researchers at the Institut Català d’Arqueologia Clàssica (ICAC) turned to machine-learning algorithms to reconstruct more than 20,000 kilometers of paleo-rivers along the Indus Valley civilization of what is now part of modern Pakistan and India. Such AI-powered mapping techniques wouldn’t be possible using satellite images alone.

That effort helped locate many previously unknown archaeological sites and unlocked new insights into those Bronze Age cultures. However, the analytics can also assist governments with important water resource management today, according to Hèctor A. Orengo Romeu, co-director of the Landscape Archaeology Research Group at ICAC.

“Our analyses can contribute to the forecasts of the evolution of aquifers in the area and provide valuable information on aspects such as the variability of agricultural productivity or the influence of climate change on the expansion of the Thar desert, in addition to providing cultural management tools to the government,” he said.

Leveraging AI for Language and Lots More
While landscape archaeology is one major application of AI in archaeology, it’s far from the only one. In 2000, only about a half-dozen scientific papers referred to the use of AI, according to the Web of Science, reputedly the world’s largest global citation database. Last year, more than 65 papers were published concerning the use of machine intelligence technologies in archaeology, with a significant uptick beginning in 2015.

AI methods, for instance, are being used to understand the chemical makeup of artifacts like pottery and ceramics, according to Davis. “This can help identify where these materials were made and how far they were transported. It can also help us to understand the extent of past trading networks.”

Linguistic anthropologists have also used machine intelligence methods to trace the evolution of different languages, Davis said. “Using AI, we can learn when and where languages emerged around the world.”

In other cases, AI has helped reconstruct or decipher ancient texts. Last year, researchers at Google’s DeepMind used a deep neural network called PYTHIA to recreate missing inscriptions in ancient Greek from damaged surfaces of objects made of stone or ceramics.

Named after the Oracle at Delphi, PYTHIA “takes a sequence of damaged text as input, and is trained to predict character sequences comprising hypothesised restorations of ancient Greek inscriptions,” the researchers reported.

In a similar fashion, Chinese scientists applied a convolutional neural network (CNN) to untangle another ancient tongue once found on turtle shells and ox bones. The CNN managed to classify oracle bone morphology in order to piece together fragments of these divination objects, some with inscriptions that represent the earliest evidence of China’s recorded history.

“Differentiating the materials of oracle bones is one of the most basic steps for oracle bone morphology—we need to first make sure we don’t assemble pieces of ox bones with tortoise shells,” lead author of the study, associate professor Shanxiong Chen at China’s Southwest University, told Synced, an online tech publication in China.

AI Helps Archaeologists Get the Scoop…
And then there are applications of AI in archaeology that are simply … interesting. Just last month, researchers published a paper about a machine learning method trained to differentiate between human and canine paleofeces.

The algorithm, dubbed CoproID, compares the gut microbiome DNA found in the ancient material with DNA found in modern feces, enabling it to get the scoop on the origin of the poop.

Also known as coprolites, paleo-feces from humans and dogs are often found in the same archaeological sites. Scientists need to know which is which if they’re trying to understand something like past diets or disease.

“CoproID is the first line of identification in coprolite analysis to confirm that what we’re looking for is actually human, or a dog if we’re interested in dogs,” Maxime Borry, a bioinformatics PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, told Vice.

…But Machine Intelligence Is Just Another Tool
There is obviously quite a bit of work that can be automated through AI. But there’s no reason for archaeologists to hit the unemployment line any time soon. There are also plenty of instances where machines can’t yet match humans in identifying objects or patterns. At other times, it’s just faster doing the analysis yourself, Davis noted.

“For ‘big data’ tasks like detecting archaeological materials over a continental scale, AI is useful,” he said. “But for some tasks, it is sometimes more time-consuming to train an entire computer algorithm to complete a task that you can do on your own in an hour.”

Still, there’s no telling what the future will hold for studying the past using artificial intelligence.

“We have already started to see real improvements in the accuracy and reliability of these approaches, but there is a lot more to do,” Davis said. “Hopefully, we start to see these methods being directly applied to a variety of interesting questions around the world, as these methods can produce datasets that would have been impossible a few decades ago.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#436507 The Weird, the Wacky, the Just Plain ...

As you know if you’ve ever been to, heard of, or read about the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, there’s no shortage of tech in any form: gadgets, gizmos, and concepts abound. You probably couldn’t see them all in a month even if you spent all day every day trying.

Given the sheer scale of the show, the number of exhibitors, and the inherent subjectivity of bestowing superlatives, it’s hard to pick out the coolest tech from CES. But I’m going to do it anyway; in no particular order, here are some of the products and concepts that I personally found most intriguing at this year’s event.

e-Novia’s Haptic Gloves
Italian startup e-Novia’s Weart glove uses a ‘sensing core’ to record tactile sensations and an ‘actuation core’ to reproduce those sensations onto the wearer’s skin. Haptic gloves will bring touch to VR and AR experiences, making them that much more life-like. The tech could also be applied to digitization of materials and in gaming and entertainment.

e-Novia’s modular haptic glove
I expected a full glove, but in fact there were two rings that attached to my fingers. Weart co-founder Giovanni Spagnoletti explained that they’re taking a modular approach, so as to better tailor the technology to different experiences. He then walked me through a virtual reality experience that was a sort of simulated science experiment: I had to lift a glass beaker, place it on a stove, pour in an ingredient, open a safe to access some dry ice, add that, and so on. As I went through the steps, I felt the beaker heat up and cool off at the expected times, and felt the liquid moving inside, as well as the pressure of my fingertips against the numbered buttons on the safe.

A virtual (but tactile) science experiment
There was a slight delay between my taking an action and feeling the corresponding tactile sensation, but on the whole, the haptic glove definitely made the experience more realistic—and more fun. Slightly less fun but definitely more significant, Spagnoletti told me Weart is working with a medical group to bring tactile sensations to VR training for surgeons.

Sarcos Robotics’ Exoskeleton
That tire may as well be a feather
Sarcos Robotics unveiled its Guardian XO full-body exoskeleton, which it says can safely lift up to 200 pounds across an extended work session. What’s cool about this particular exoskeleton is that it’s not just a prototype; the company announced a partnership with Delta airlines, which will be trialing the technology for aircraft maintenance, engine repair, and luggage handling. In a demo, I watched a petite female volunteer strap into the exoskeleton and easily lift a 50-pound weight with one hand, and a Sarcos employee lift and attach a heavy component of a propeller; she explained that the strength-augmenting function of the exoskeleton can easily be switched on or off—and the wearer’s hands released—to facilitate multi-step tasks.

Hyundai’s Flying Taxi
Where to?
Hyundai and Uber partnered to unveil an air taxi concept. With a 49-foot wingspan, 4 lift rotors, and 4 tilt rotors, the aircraft would be manned by a pilot and could carry 4 passengers at speeds up to 180 miles per hour. The companies say you’ll be able to ride across your city in one of these by 2030—we’ll see if the regulatory environment, public opinion, and other factors outside of technological capability let that happen.

Mercedes’ Avatar Concept Car
Welcome to the future
As evident from its name, Mercedes’ sweet new Vision AVTR concept car was inspired by the movie Avatar; director James Cameron helped design it. The all-electric car has no steering wheel, transparent doors, seats made of vegan leather, and 33 reptilian-scale-like flaps on the back; its design is meant to connect the driver with both the car and the surrounding environment in a natural, seamless way.

Next-generation scrolling
Offered the chance to ‘drive’ the car, I jumped on it. Placing my hand on the center console started the engine, and within seconds it had synced to my heartbeat, which reverberated through the car. The whole dashboard, from driver door to passenger door, is one big LED display. It showed a virtual landscape I could select by holding up my hand: as I moved my hand from left to right, different images were projected onto my open palm. Closing my hand on an image selected it, and suddenly it looked like I was in the middle of a lush green mountain range. Applying slight forward pressure on the center console made the car advance in the virtual landscape; it was essentially like playing a really cool video game.

Mercedes is aiming to have a carbon-neutral production fleet by 2039, and to reduce the amount of energy it uses during production by 40 percent by 2030. It’s unclear when—or whether—the man-machine-nature connecting features of the Vision AVTR will start showing up in production, but I for one will be on the lookout.

Waverly Labs’ In-Ear Translator
Waverly Labs unveiled its Ambassador translator earlier this year and has it on display at the show. It’s worn on the ear and uses a far-field microphone array with speech recognition to translate real-time conversations in 20 different languages. Besides in-ear audio, translations can also appear as text on an app or be broadcast live in a conference environment.

It’s kind of like a giant talking earring
I stopped by the booth and tested out the translator with Waverly senior software engineer Georgiy Konovalov. We each hooked on an earpiece, and first, he spoke to me in Russian. After a delay of a couple seconds, I heard his words in—slightly robotic, but fully comprehensible—English. Then we switched: I spoke to him in Spanish, my words popped up on his phone screen in Cyrillic, and he translated them back to English for me out loud.

On the whole, the demo was pretty cool. If you’ve ever been lost in a foreign country whose language you don’t speak, imagine how handy a gadget like this would come in. Let’s just hope that once they’re more widespread, these products don’t end up discouraging people from learning languages.

Not to be outdone, Google also announced updates to its Translate product, which is being deployed at information desks in JFK airport’s international terminal, in sports stadiums in Qatar, and by some large hotel chains.

Stratuscent’s Digital Nose
AI is making steady progress towards achieving human-like vision and hearing—but there’s been less work done on mimicking our sense of smell (maybe because it’s less useful in everyday applications). Stratuscent’s digital nose, which it says is based on NASA patents, uses chemical receptors and AI to identify both simple chemicals and complex scents. The company is aiming to create the world’s first comprehensive database of everyday scents, which it says it will use to make “intelligent decisions” for customers. What kind of decisions remains to be seen—and smelled.

Banner Image Credit: The Mercedes Vision AVTR concept car. Photo by Vanessa Bates Ramirez Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436123 A Path Towards Reasonable Autonomous ...

Editor’s Note: The debate on autonomous weapons systems has been escalating over the past several years as the underlying technologies evolve to the point where their deployment in a military context seems inevitable. IEEE Spectrum has published a variety of perspectives on this issue. In summary, while there is a compelling argument to be made that autonomous weapons are inherently unethical and should be banned, there is also a compelling argument to be made that autonomous weapons could potentially make conflicts less harmful, especially to non-combatants. Despite an increasing amount of international attention (including from the United Nations), progress towards consensus, much less regulatory action, has been slow. The following workshop paper on autonomous weapons systems policy is remarkable because it was authored by a group of experts with very different (and in some cases divergent) views on the issue. Even so, they were able to reach consensus on a roadmap that all agreed was worth considering. It’s collaborations like this that could be the best way to establish a reasonable path forward on such a contentious issue, and with the permission of the authors, we’re excited to be able to share this paper (originally posted on Georgia Tech’s Mobile Robot Lab website) with you in its entirety.

Autonomous Weapon Systems: A Roadmapping Exercise
Over the past several years, there has been growing awareness and discussion surrounding the possibility of future lethal autonomous weapon systems that could fundamentally alter humanity’s relationship with violence in war. Lethal autonomous weapons present a host of legal, ethical, moral, and strategic challenges. At the same time, artificial intelligence (AI) technology could be used in ways that improve compliance with the laws of war and reduce non-combatant harm. Since 2014, states have come together annually at the United Nations to discuss lethal autonomous weapons systems1. Additionally, a growing number of individuals and non-governmental organizations have become active in discussions surrounding autonomous weapons, contributing to a rapidly expanding intellectual field working to better understand these issues. While a wide range of regulatory options have been proposed for dealing with the challenge of lethal autonomous weapons, ranging from a preemptive, legally binding international treaty to reinforcing compliance with existing laws of war, there is as yet no international consensus on a way forward.

The lack of an international policy consensus, whether codified in a formal document or otherwise, poses real risks. States could fall victim to a security dilemma in which they deploy untested or unsafe weapons that pose risks to civilians or international stability. Widespread proliferation could enable illicit uses by terrorists, criminals, or rogue states. Alternatively, a lack of guidance on which uses of autonomy are acceptable could stifle valuable research that could reduce the risk of non-combatant harm.

International debate thus far has predominantly centered around whether or not states should adopt a preemptive, legally-binding treaty that would ban lethal autonomous weapons before they can be built. Some of the authors of this document have called for such a treaty and would heartily support it, if states were to adopt it. Other authors of this document have argued an overly expansive treaty would foreclose the possibility of using AI to mitigate civilian harm. Options for international action are not binary, however, and there are a range of policy options that states should consider between adopting a comprehensive treaty or doing nothing.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the possibility of a middle road. If a roadmap could garner sufficient stakeholder support to have significant beneficial impact, then what elements could it contain? The exercise whose results are presented below was not to identify recommendations that the authors each prefer individually (the authors hold a broad spectrum of views), but instead to identify those components of a roadmap that the authors are all willing to entertain2. We, the authors, invite policymakers to consider these components as they weigh possible actions to address concerns surrounding autonomous weapons3.

Summary of Issues Surrounding Autonomous Weapons

There are a variety of issues that autonomous weapons raise, which might lend themselves to different approaches. A non-exhaustive list of issues includes:

The potential for beneficial uses of AI and autonomy that could improve precision and reliability in the use of force and reduce non-combatant harm.
Uncertainty about the path of future technology and the likelihood of autonomous weapons being used in compliance with the laws of war, or international humanitarian law (IHL), in different settings and on various timelines.
A desire for some degree of human involvement in the use of force. This has been expressed repeatedly in UN discussions on lethal autonomous weapon systems in different ways.
Particular risks surrounding lethal autonomous weapons specifically targeting personnel as opposed to vehicles or materiel.
Risks regarding international stability.
Risk of proliferation to terrorists, criminals, or rogue states.
Risk that autonomous systems that have been verified to be acceptable can be made unacceptable through software changes.
The potential for autonomous weapons to be used as scalable weapons enabling a small number of individuals to inflict very large-scale casualties at low cost, either intentionally or accidentally.

Summary of Components

A time-limited moratorium on the development, deployment, transfer, and use of anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapon systems4. Such a moratorium could include exceptions for certain classes of weapons.
Define guiding principles for human involvement in the use of force.
Develop protocols and/or technological means to mitigate the risk of unintentional escalation due to autonomous systems.
Develop strategies for preventing proliferation to illicit uses, such as by criminals, terrorists, or rogue states.
Conduct research to improve technologies and human-machine systems to reduce non-combatant harm and ensure IHL compliance in the use of future weapons.

Component 1:

States should consider adopting a five-year, renewable moratorium on the development, deployment, transfer, and use of anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapon systems. Anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapon systems are defined as weapons systems that, once activated, can select and engage dismounted human targets without further intervention by a human operator, possibly excluding systems such as:

Fixed-point defensive systems with human supervisory control to defend human-occupied bases or installations
Limited, proportional, automated counter-fire systems that return fire in order to provide immediate, local defense of humans
Time-limited pursuit deterrent munitions or systems
Autonomous weapon systems with size above a specified explosive weight limit that select as targets hand-held weapons, such as rifles, machine guns, anti-tank weapons, or man-portable air defense systems, provided there is adequate protection for non-combatants and ensuring IHL compliance5

The moratorium would not apply to:

Anti-vehicle or anti-materiel weapons
Non-lethal anti-personnel weapons
Research on ways of improving autonomous weapon technology to reduce non-combatant harm in future anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapon systems
Weapons that find, track, and engage specific individuals whom a human has decided should be engaged within a limited predetermined period of time and geographic region


This moratorium would pause development and deployment of anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapons systems to allow states to better understand the systemic risks of their use and to perform research that improves their safety, understandability, and effectiveness. Particular objectives could be to:

ensure that, prior to deployment, anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapons can be used in ways that are equal to or outperform humans in their compliance with IHL (other conditions may also apply prior to deployment being acceptable);
lay the groundwork for a potentially legally binding diplomatic instrument; and
decrease the geopolitical pressure on countries to deploy anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapons before they are reliable and well-understood.

Compliance Verification:

As part of a moratorium, states could consider various approaches to compliance verification. Potential approaches include:

Developing an industry cooperation regime analogous to that mandated under the Chemical Weapons Convention, whereby manufacturers must know their customers and report suspicious purchases of significant quantities of items such as fixed-wing drones, quadcopters, and other weaponizable robots.
Encouraging states to declare inventories of autonomous weapons for the purposes of transparency and confidence-building.
Facilitating scientific exchanges and military-to-military contacts to increase trust, transparency, and mutual understanding on topics such as compliance verification and safe operation of autonomous systems.
Designing control systems to require operator identity authentication and unalterable records of operation; enabling post-hoc compliance checks in case of plausible evidence of non-compliant autonomous weapon attacks.
Relating the quantity of weapons to corresponding capacities for human-in-the-loop operation of those weapons.
Designing weapons with air-gapped firing authorization circuits that are connected to the remote human operator but not to the on-board automated control system.
More generally, avoiding weapon designs that enable conversion from compliant to non-compliant categories or missions solely by software updates.
Designing weapons with formal proofs of relevant properties—e.g., the property that the weapon is unable to initiate an attack without human authorization. Proofs can, in principle, be provided using cryptographic techniques that allow the proofs to be checked by a third party without revealing any details of the underlying software.
Facilitate access to (non-classified) AI resources (software, data, methods for ensuring safe operation) to all states that remain in compliance and participate in transparency activities.

Component 2:

Define and universalize guiding principles for human involvement in the use of force.

Humans, not machines, are legal and moral agents in military operations.
It is a human responsibility to ensure that any attack, including one involving autonomous weapons, complies with the laws of war.
Humans responsible for initiating an attack must have sufficient understanding of the weapons, the targets, the environment and the context for use to determine whether that particular attack is lawful.
The attack must be bounded in space, time, target class, and means of attack in order for the determination about the lawfulness of that attack to be meaningful.
Militaries must invest in training, education, doctrine, policies, system design, and human-machine interfaces to ensure that humans remain responsible for attacks.

Component 3:

Develop protocols and/or technological means to mitigate the risk of unintentional escalation due to autonomous systems.

Specific potential measures include:

Developing safe rules for autonomous system behavior when in proximity to adversarial forces to avoid unintentional escalation or signaling. Examples include:

No-first-fire policy, so that autonomous weapons do not initiate hostilities without explicit human authorization.
A human must always be responsible for providing the mission for an autonomous system.
Taking steps to clearly distinguish exercises, patrols, reconnaissance, or other peacetime military operations from attacks in order to limit the possibility of reactions from adversary autonomous systems, such as autonomous air or coastal defenses.

Developing resilient communications links to ensure recallability of autonomous systems. Additionally, militaries should refrain from jamming others’ ability to recall their autonomous systems in order to afford the possibility of human correction in the event of unauthorized behavior.

Component 4:

Develop strategies for preventing proliferation to illicit uses, such as by criminals, terrorists, or rogue states:

Targeted multilateral controls to prevent large-scale sale and transfer of weaponizable robots and related military-specific components for illicit use.
Employ measures to render weaponizable robots less harmful (e.g., geofencing; hard-wired kill switch; onboard control systems largely implemented in unalterable, non-reprogrammable hardware such as application-specific integrated circuits).

Component 5:

Conduct research to improve technologies and human-machine systems to reduce non-combatant harm and ensure IHL-compliance in the use of future weapons, including:

Strategies to promote human moral engagement in decisions about the use of force
Risk assessment for autonomous weapon systems, including the potential for large-scale effects, geopolitical destabilization, accidental escalation, increased instability due to uncertainty about the relative military balance of power, and lowering thresholds to initiating conflict and for violence within conflict
Methodologies for ensuring the reliability and security of autonomous weapon systems
New techniques for verification, validation, explainability, characterization of failure conditions, and behavioral specifications.

About the Authors (in alphabetical order)

Ronald Arkin directs the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Georgia Tech.

Leslie Kaelbling is co-director of the Learning and Intelligent Systems Group at MIT.

Stuart Russell is a professor of computer science and engineering at UC Berkeley.

Dorsa Sadigh is an assistant professor of computer science and of electrical engineering at Stanford.

Paul Scharre directs the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

Bart Selman is a professor of computer science at Cornell.

Toby Walsh is a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney.

The authors would like to thank Max Tegmark for organizing the three-day meeting from which this document was produced.

1 Autonomous Weapons System (AWS): A weapon system that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator. BACK TO TEXT↑

2 There is no implication that some authors would not personally support stronger recommendations. BACK TO TEXT↑

3 For ease of use, this working paper will frequently shorten “autonomous weapon system” to “autonomous weapon.” The terms should be treated as synonymous, with the understanding that “weapon” refers to the entire system: sensor, decision-making element, and munition. BACK TO TEXT↑

4 Anti-personnel lethal autonomous weapon system: A weapon system that, once activated, can select and engage dismounted human targets with lethal force and without further intervention by a human operator. BACK TO TEXT↑

5 The authors are not unanimous about this item because of concerns about ease of repurposing for mass-casualty missions targeting unarmed humans. The purpose of the lower limit on explosive payload weight would be to minimize the risk of such repurposing. There is precedent for using explosive weight limit as a mechanism of delineating between anti-personnel and anti-materiel weapons, such as the 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration Renouncing the Use, in Time of War, of Explosive Projectiles Under 400 Grammes Weight. BACK TO TEXT↑ Continue reading

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