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In the fictional worlds of film and TV, artificial intelligence has been depicted as so advanced that it is indistinguishable from humans. But what if we’re actually getting closer to a world where AI is capable of thinking and feeling?
Tech company UneeQ is embarking on that journey with its “digital humans.” These avatars act as visual interfaces for customer service chatbots, virtual assistants, and other applications. UneeQ’s digital humans appear lifelike not only in terms of language and tone of voice, but also because of facial movements: raised eyebrows, a tilt of the head, a smile, even a wink. They transform a transaction into an interaction: creepy yet astonishing, human, but not quite.
What lies beneath UneeQ’s digital humans? Their 3D faces are modeled on actual human features. Speech recognition enables the avatar to understand what a person is saying, and natural language processing is used to craft a response. Before the avatar utters a word, specific emotions and facial expressions are encoded within the response.
UneeQ may be part of a larger trend towards humanizing computing. ObEN’s digital avatars serve as virtual identities for celebrities, influencers, gaming characters, and other entities in the media and entertainment industry. Meanwhile, Soul Machines is taking a more biological approach, with a “digital brain” that simulates aspects of the human brain to modulate the emotions “felt” and “expressed” by its “digital people.” Amelia is employing a similar methodology in building its “digital employees.” It emulates parts of the brain involved with memory to respond to queries and, with each interaction, learns to deliver more engaging and personalized experiences.
Shiwali Mohan, an AI systems scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center, is skeptical of these digital beings. “They’re humanlike in their looks and the way they sound, but that in itself is not being human,” she says. “Being human is also how you think, how you approach problems, and how you break them down; and that takes a lot of algorithmic design. Designing for human-level intelligence is a different endeavor than designing graphics that behave like humans. If you think about the problems we’re trying to design these avatars for, we might not need something that looks like a human—it may not even be the right solution path.”
And even if these avatars appear near-human, they still evoke an uncanny valley feeling. “If something looks like a human, we have high expectations of them, but they might behave differently in ways that humans just instinctively know how other humans react. These differences give rise to the uncanny valley feeling,” says Mohan.
Yet the demand is there, with Amelia seeing high adoption of its digital employees across the financial, health care, and retail sectors. “We find that banks and insurance companies, which are so risk-averse, are leading the adoption of such disruptive technologies because they understand that the risk of non-adoption is much greater than the risk of early adoption,” says Chetan Dube, Amelia’s CEO. “Unless they innovate their business models and make them much more efficient digitally, they might be left behind.” Dube adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated adoption of digital employees in health care and retail as well.
Amelia, Soul Machines, and UneeQ are taking their digital beings a step further, enabling organizations to create avatars themselves using low-code or no-code platforms: Digital Employee Builder for Amelia, Creator for UneeQ, and Digital DNA Studio for Soul Machines. Unreal Engine, a game engine developed by Epic Games, is doing the same with MetaHuman Creator, a tool that allows anyone to create photorealistic digital humans. “The biggest motivation for Digital Employee Builder is to democratize AI,” Dube says.
Mohan is cautious about this approach. “AI has problems with bias creeping in from data sets and into the way it speaks. The AI community is still trying to figure out how to measure and counter that bias,” she says. “[Companies] have to have an AI expert on board that can recommend the right things to build for.”
Despite being wary of the technology, Mohan supports the purpose behind these virtual beings and is optimistic about where they’re headed. “We do need these tools that support humans in different kinds of things. I think the vision is the pro, and I’m behind that vision,” she says. “As we develop more sophisticated AI technology, we would then have to implement novel ways of interacting with that technology. Hopefully, all of that is designed to support humans in their goals.” Continue reading
No doubt about it, the pandemic has changed the way we eat. Never before have so many people who hated cooking been forced to learn how to prepare a basic meal for themselves. With sit-down restaurants limiting their capacity or shutting down altogether, consumption of fast food and fast-casual food has skyrocketed. Don’t feel like slaving over a hot stove? Just hit the drive through and grab a sandwich and some fries (the health implications of increased fast food consumption are another matter…).
Given our sudden immense need for paper-wrapped burgers and cardboard cartons of fries, fast food workers are now counted as essential. But what about their safety, both from a virus standpoint and from the usual risks of working in a busy kitchen (like getting burned by the stove or the hot oil from the fryer, cut by a slicer, etc.)? And how many orders of burgers and fries can humans possibly churn out in an hour?
Enter the robot. Three and a half years ago, a burger-flipping robot aptly named Flippy, made by Miso Robotics, made its debut at a fast food restaurant in California called CaliBurger. Now Flippy is on the market for anyone who wishes to purchase their own, with a price tag of $30,000 and a range of new capabilities—this burger bot has progressed far beyond just flipping burgers.
Flippy’s first iteration was already pretty impressive. It used machine learning software to locate and identify objects in front of it (rather than needing to have objects lined up in specific spots), and was able to learn from experience to improve its accuracy. Sensors on its grill-facing side took in thermal and 3D data to gauge the cooking process for multiple patties at a time, and cameras allowed the robot to ‘see’ its surroundings.
A system that digitally sent tickets to the kitchen from the restaurant’s front counter kept Flippy on top of how many burgers it should be cooking at any given time. Its key tasks were pulling raw patties from a stack and placing them on the grill, tracking each burger’s cook time and temperature, and transferring cooked burgers to a plate.
The new and improved Flippy can do all this and more. It can cook 19 different foods, including chicken wings, onion rings, french fries, and even the Impossible Burger (which, as you may know, isn’t actually made of meat, and that means it’s a little trickier to grill it to perfection).
Flippy’s handiwork. Image Credit: Miso Robotics
And instead of its body sitting on a cart on wheels (which took up a lot of space and meant the robot’s arm could get in the way of human employees), it’s now attached to a rail along the stove’s hood, and can move along the rail to access both the grill and the fryer (provided they’re next to each other, which in many fast food restaurants they are). In fact, Flippy has a new acronym attached to its name: ROAR, which stands for Robot on a Rail.
Flippy ROAR in action, artist rendering. Image Credit: Miso Robotics
Sensors equipped with laser make it safer for human employees to work near Flippy. The bot can automatically switch between different tools, such as a spatula for flipping patties and tongs for gripping the handle of a fryer basket. Its AI software will enable it to learn new skills over time.
Flippy’s interface. Image Credit: Miso Robotics
The first big restaurant chain to go all-in on Flippy was White Castle, which in July announced plans to pilot Flippy ROAR before year’s end. And just last month, Miso made the bot commercially available. The current cost is $30,000 (plus a monthly fee of $1,500 for use of the software), but the company hopes to bring the price down to $20,000 within the next year.
According to Business Insider, demand for the fast food robot is through the roof, probably given a significant boost by the pandemic—thanks, Covid-19. The pace of automation has picked up across multiple sectors, and will likely continue to accelerate as companies look to insure themselves against additional losses.
So for the immediate future, it seems that no matter what happens, we don’t have to worry about the supply of burgers, fries, onion rings, chicken wings, and the like running out.
Now if only Flippy had a cousin—perhaps named Leafy—who could chop vegetables and greens and put together fresh-made salads…
Maybe that can be Miso Robotics’ next project.
Image Credit: Miso Robotics Continue reading
The upcoming US presidential election seems set to be something of a mess—to put it lightly. Covid-19 will likely deter millions from voting in person, and mail-in voting isn’t shaping up to be much more promising. This all comes at a time when political tensions are running higher than they have in decades, issues that shouldn’t be political (like mask-wearing) have become highly politicized, and Americans are dramatically divided along party lines.
So the last thing we need right now is yet another wrench in the spokes of democracy, in the form of disinformation; we all saw how that played out in 2016, and it wasn’t pretty. For the record, disinformation purposely misleads people, while misinformation is simply inaccurate, but without malicious intent. While there’s not a ton tech can do to make people feel safe at crowded polling stations or up the Postal Service’s budget, tech can help with disinformation, and Microsoft is trying to do so.
On Tuesday the company released two new tools designed to combat disinformation, described in a blog post by VP of Customer Security and Trust Tom Burt and Chief Scientific Officer Eric Horvitz.
The first is Microsoft Video Authenticator, which is made to detect deepfakes. In case you’re not familiar with this wicked byproduct of AI progress, “deepfakes” refers to audio or visual files made using artificial intelligence that can manipulate peoples’ voices or likenesses to make it look like they said things they didn’t. Editing a video to string together words and form a sentence someone didn’t say doesn’t count as a deepfake; though there’s manipulation involved, you don’t need a neural network and you’re not generating any original content or footage.
The Authenticator analyzes videos or images and tells users the percentage chance that they’ve been artificially manipulated. For videos, the tool can even analyze individual frames in real time.
Deepfake videos are made by feeding hundreds of hours of video of someone into a neural network, “teaching” the network the minutiae of the person’s voice, pronunciation, mannerisms, gestures, etc. It’s like when you do an imitation of your annoying coworker from accounting, complete with mimicking the way he makes every sentence sound like a question and his eyes widen when he talks about complex spreadsheets. You’ve spent hours—no, months—in his presence and have his personality quirks down pat. An AI algorithm that produces deepfakes needs to learn those same quirks, and more, about whoever the creator’s target is.
Given enough real information and examples, the algorithm can then generate its own fake footage, with deepfake creators using computer graphics and manually tweaking the output to make it as realistic as possible.
The scariest part? To make a deepfake, you don’t need a fancy computer or even a ton of knowledge about software. There are open-source programs people can access for free online, and as far as finding video footage of famous people—well, we’ve got YouTube to thank for how easy that is.
Microsoft’s Video Authenticator can detect the blending boundary of a deepfake and subtle fading or greyscale elements that the human eye may not be able to see.
In the blog post, Burt and Horvitz point out that as time goes by, deepfakes are only going to get better and become harder to detect; after all, they’re generated by neural networks that are continuously learning from and improving themselves.
Microsoft’s counter-tactic is to come in from the opposite angle, that is, being able to confirm beyond doubt that a video, image, or piece of news is real (I mean, can McDonald’s fries cure baldness? Did a seal slap a kayaker in the face with an octopus? Never has it been so imperative that the world know the truth).
A tool built into Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud computing service, lets content producers add digital hashes and certificates to their content, and a reader (which can be used as a browser extension) checks the certificates and matches the hashes to indicate the content is authentic.
Finally, Microsoft also launched an interactive “Spot the Deepfake” quiz it developed in collaboration with the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, deepfake detection company Sensity, and USA Today. The quiz is intended to help people “learn about synthetic media, develop critical media literacy skills, and gain awareness of the impact of synthetic media on democracy.”
The impact Microsoft’s new tools will have remains to be seen—but hey, we’re glad they’re trying. And they’re not alone; Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all taken steps to ban and remove deepfakes from their sites. The AI Foundation’s Reality Defender uses synthetic media detection algorithms to identify fake content. There’s even a coalition of big tech companies teaming up to try to fight election interference.
One thing is for sure: between a global pandemic, widespread protests and riots, mass unemployment, a hobbled economy, and the disinformation that’s remained rife through it all, we’re going to need all the help we can get to make it through not just the election, but the rest of the conga-line-of-catastrophes year that is 2020.
Image Credit: Darius Bashar on Unsplash Continue reading
Artificial intelligence is going to overhaul the way we live and work. But will the changes it brings be for the better? As the technology slowly develops (let’s remember that right now, we’re still very much in the narrow AI space and nowhere near an artificial general intelligence), whether it will end up doing us more harm than good is a question at the top of everyone’s mind.
What kind of response might we get if we posed this question to an AI itself?
Last week at the Cambridge Union in England, IBM did just that. Its Project Debater (an AI that narrowly lost a debate to human debating champion Harish Natarajan in February) gave the opening arguments in a debate about the promise and peril of artificial intelligence.
Critical thinking, linking different lines of thought, and anticipating counter-arguments are all valuable debating skills that humans can practice and refine. While these skills are tougher for an AI to get good at since they often require deeper contextual understanding, AI does have a major edge over humans in absorbing and analyzing information. In the February debate, Project Debater used IBM’s cloud computing infrastructure to read hundreds of millions of documents and extract relevant details to construct an argument.
This time around, Debater looked through 1,100 arguments for or against AI. The arguments were submitted to IBM by the public during the week prior to the debate, through a website set up for that purpose. Of the 1,100 submissions, the AI classified 570 as anti-AI, or of the opinion that the technology will bring more harm to humanity than good. 511 arguments were found to be pro-AI, and the rest were irrelevant to the topic at hand.
Debater grouped the arguments into five themes; the technology’s ability to take over dangerous or monotonous jobs was a pro-AI theme, and on the flip side was its potential to perpetuate the biases of its creators. “AI companies still have too little expertise on how to properly assess datasets and filter out bias,” the tall black box that houses Project Debater said. “AI will take human bias and will fixate it for generations.”
After Project Debater kicked off the debate by giving opening arguments for both sides, two teams of people took over, elaborating on its points and coming up with their own counter-arguments.
In the end, an audience poll voted in favor of the pro-AI side, but just barely; 51.2 percent of voters felt convinced that AI can help us more than it can hurt us.
The software’s natural language processing was able to identify racist, obscene, or otherwise inappropriate comments and weed them out as being irrelevant to the debate. But it also repeated the same arguments multiple times, and mixed up a statement about bias as being pro-AI rather than anti-AI.
IBM has been working on Project Debater for over six years, and though it aims to iron out small glitches like these, the system’s goal isn’t to ultimately outwit and defeat humans. On the contrary, the AI is meant to support our decision-making by taking in and processing huge amounts of information in a nuanced way, more quickly than we ever could.
IBM engineer Noam Slonim envisions Project Debater’s tech being used, for example, by a government seeking citizens’ feedback about a new policy. “This technology can help to establish an interesting and effective communication channel between the decision maker and the people that are going to be impacted by the decision,” he said.
As for the question of whether AI will do more good or harm, perhaps Sylvie Delacroix put it best. A professor of law and ethics at the University of Birmingham who argued on the pro-AI side of the debate, she pointed out that the impact AI will have depends on the way we design it, saying “AI is only as good as the data it has been fed.”
She’s right; rather than asking what sort of impact AI will have on humanity, we should start by asking what sort of impact we want it to have. The people working on AI—not AIs themselves—are ultimately responsible for how much good or harm will be done.
Image Credit: IBM Project Debater at Cambridge Union Society, photo courtesy of IBM Research Continue reading