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Long before coronavirus appeared and shattered our pre-existing “normal,” the future of work was a widely discussed and debated topic. We’ve watched automation slowly but surely expand its capabilities and take over more jobs, and we’ve wondered what artificial intelligence will eventually be capable of.
The pandemic swiftly turned the working world on its head, putting millions of people out of a job and forcing millions more to work remotely. But essential questions remain largely unchanged: we still want to make sure we’re not replaced, we want to add value, and we want an equitable society where different types of work are valued fairly.
To address these issues—as well as how the pandemic has impacted them—this week Singularity University held a digital summit on the future of work. Forty-three speakers from multiple backgrounds, countries, and sectors of the economy shared their expertise on everything from work in developing markets to why we shouldn’t want to go back to the old normal.
Gary Bolles, SU’s chair for the Future of Work, kicked off the discussion with his thoughts on a future of work that’s human-centric, including why it matters and how to build it.
What Is Work?
“Work” seems like a straightforward concept to define, but since it’s constantly shifting shape over time, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Bolles defined work, very basically, as human skills applied to problems.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a dirty floor or a complex market entry strategy or a major challenge in the world,” he said. “We as humans create value by applying our skills to solve problems in the world.” You can think of the problems that need solving as the demand and human skills as the supply, and the two are in constant oscillation, including, every few decades or centuries, a massive shift.
We’re in the midst of one of those shifts right now (and we already were, long before the pandemic). Skills that have long been in demand are declining. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs report listed things like manual dexterity, management of financial and material resources, and quality control and safety awareness as declining skills. Meanwhile, skills the next generation will need include analytical thinking and innovation, emotional intelligence, creativity, and systems analysis.
Along Came a Pandemic
With the outbreak of coronavirus and its spread around the world, the demand side of work shrunk; all the problems that needed solving gave way to the much bigger, more immediate problem of keeping people alive. But as a result, tens of millions of people around the world are out of work—and those are just the ones that are being counted, and they’re a fraction of the true total. There are additional millions in seasonal or gig jobs or who work in informal economies now without work, too.
“This is our opportunity to focus,” Bolles said. “How do we help people re-engage with work? And make it better work, a better economy, and a better set of design heuristics for a world that we all want?”
Bolles posed five key questions—some spurred by impact of the pandemic—on which future of work conversations should focus to make sure it’s a human-centric future.
1. What does an inclusive world of work look like? Rather than seeing our current systems of work as immutable, we need to actually understand those systems and how we want to change them.
2. How can we increase the value of human work? We know that robots and software are going to be fine in the future—but for humans to be fine, we need to design for that very intentionally.
3. How can entrepreneurship help create a better world of work? In many economies the new value that’s created often comes from younger companies; how do we nurture entrepreneurship?
4. What will the intersection of workplace and geography look like? A large percentage of the global workforce is now working from home; what could some of the outcomes of that be? How does gig work fit in?
5. How can we ensure a healthy evolution of work and life? The health and the protection of those at risk is why we shut down our economies, but we need to find a balance that allows people to work while keeping them safe.
Problem-Solving Doesn’t End
The end result these questions are driving towards, and our overarching goal, is maximizing human potential. “If we come up with ways we can continue to do that, we’ll have a much more beneficial future of work,” Bolles said. “We should all be talking about where we can have an impact.”
One small silver lining? We had plenty of problems to solve in the world before ever hearing about coronavirus, and now we have even more. Is the pace of automation accelerating due to the virus? Yes. Are companies finding more ways to automate their processes in order to keep people from getting sick? They are.
But we have a slew of new problems on our hands, and we’re not going to stop needing human skills to solve them (not to mention the new problems that will surely emerge as second- and third-order effects of the shutdowns). If Bolles’ definition of work holds up, we’ve got ours cut out for us.
In an article from April titled The Great Reset, Bolles outlined three phases of the unemployment slump (we’re currently still in the first phase) and what we should be doing to minimize the damage. “The evolution of work is not about what will happen 10 to 20 years from now,” he said. “It’s about what we could be doing differently today.”
Watch Bolles’ talk and those of dozens of other experts for more insights into building a human-centric future of work here.
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Electricity plays a surprisingly powerful role in our bodies. While most people are aware that it plays a crucial role in carrying signals to and from our nerves, our bodies produce electric fields that can do everything from helping heal wounds to triggering the release of hormones.
Electric fields can influence a host of important cellular behavior, like directional migration, proliferation, division, or even differentiation into different cell types. The work of Michael Levin at Tufts University even suggests that electrical fields may play a crucial role in the way our bodies organize themselves.
This has prompted considerable interest in exploiting our body’s receptiveness to electrical stimulation for therapeutic means, but given the diffuse nature of electrical fields a key challenge is finding a way to localize these effects. Conductive polymers have proven a useful tool in this regard thanks to their good electrical properties and biocompatibility, and have been used in everything from neural implants to biosensors.
But now, a team at Stanford University has developed a way to genetically engineer neurons to build the materials into their own cell membranes. The approach could make it possible to target highly specific groups of cells, providing unprecedented control over the body’s response to electrical stimulation.
In a paper in Science, the team explained how they used re-engineered viruses to deliver DNA that hijacks cells’ biosynthesis machinery to create an enzyme that assembles electroactive polymers onto their membranes. This changes the electrical properties of the cells, which the team demonstrated could be used to control their behavior.
They used the approach to modulate neuronal firing in cultures of rat hippocampal neurons, mouse brain slices, and even human cortical spheroids. Most impressively, they showed that they could coax the neurons of living C. elegans worms to produce the polymers in large enough quantities to alter their behavior without impairing the cells’ natural function.
Translating the idea to humans poses major challenges, not least because the viruses used to deliver the genetic changes are still a long way from being approved for clinical use. But the ability to precisely target specific cells using a genetic approach holds enormous promise for bioelectronic medicine, Kevin Otto and Christine Schmidt from the University of Florida say in an accompanying perspective.
Interest is booming in therapies that use electrical stimulation of neural circuits as an alternative to drugs for diseases as varied as arthritis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, and hundreds of clinical trials are currently underway.
At present these approaches rely on electrodes that can provide some level of localization, but because different kinds of nerve cells are often packed closely together it’s proven hard to stimulate exactly the right nerves, say Otto and Schmidt. This new approach makes it possible to boost the conductivity of specific cell types, which could make these kinds of interventions dramatically more targeted.
Besides disease-focused bioelectronic interventions, Otto and Schmidt say the approach could prove invaluable for helping to interface advanced prosthetics with patients’ nervous systems by making it possible to excite sensory neurons without accidentally triggering motor neurons, or vice versa.
More speculatively, the approach could one day help create far more efficient bridges between our minds and machines. One of the major challenges for brain-machine interfaces is recording from specific neurons, something that a genetically targeted approach might be able to help greatly with.
If the researchers can replicate the ability to build electronic-tissue “composites” in humans, we may be well on our way to the cyborg future predicted by science fiction.
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Coronavirus has been all over the news for the last couple weeks. A dedicated hospital sprang up in just eight days, the stock market took a hit, Chinese New Year celebrations were spoiled, and travel restrictions are in effect.
But let’s rewind a bit; some crucial events took place before we got to this point.
A little under two weeks before the World Health Organization (WHO) alerted the public of the coronavirus outbreak, a Canadian artificial intelligence company was already sounding the alarm. BlueDot uses AI-powered algorithms to analyze information from a multitude of sources to identify disease outbreaks and forecast how they may spread. On December 31st 2019, the company sent out a warning to its customers to avoid Wuhan, where the virus originated. The WHO didn’t send out a similar public notice until January 9th, 2020.
The story of BlueDot’s early warning is the latest example of how AI can improve our identification of and response to new virus outbreaks.
Predictions Are Bad News
Global pandemic or relatively minor scare? The jury is still out on the coronavirus. However, the math points to signs that the worst is yet to come.
Scientists are still working to determine how infectious the virus is. Initial analysis suggests it may be somewhere between influenza and polio on the virus reproduction number scale, which indicates how many new cases one case leads to.
UK and US-based researchers have published a preliminary paper estimating that the confirmed infected people in Wuhan only represent five percent of those who are actually infected. If the models are correct, 190,000 people in Wuhan will be infected by now, major Chinese cities are on the cusp of large-scale outbreaks, and the virus will continue to spread to other countries.
Finding the Start
The spread of a given virus is partly linked to how long it remains undetected. Identifying a new virus is the first step towards mobilizing a response and, in time, creating a vaccine. Warning at-risk populations as quickly as possible also helps with limiting the spread.
These are among the reasons why BlueDot’s achievement is important in and of itself. Furthermore, it illustrates how AIs can sift through vast troves of data to identify ongoing virus outbreaks.
BlueDot uses natural language processing and machine learning to scour a variety of information sources, including chomping through 100,000 news reports in 65 languages a day. Data is compared with flight records to help predict virus outbreak patterns. Once the automated data sifting is completed, epidemiologists check that the findings make sense from a scientific standpoint, and reports are sent to BlueDot’s customers, which include governments, businesses, and public health organizations.
AI for Virus Detection and Prevention
Other companies, such as Metabiota, are also using data-driven approaches to track the spread of the likes of the coronavirus.
Researchers have trained neural networks to predict the spread of infectious diseases in real time. Others are using AI algorithms to identify how preventive measures can have the greatest effect. AI is also being used to create new drugs, which we may well see repeated for the coronavirus.
If the work of scientists Barbara Han and David Redding comes to fruition, AI and machine learning may even help us predict where virus outbreaks are likely to strike—before they do.
The Uncertainty Factor
One of AI’s core strengths when working on identifying and limiting the effects of virus outbreaks is its incredibly insistent nature. AIs never tire, can sift through enormous amounts of data, and identify possible correlations and causations that humans can’t.
However, there are limits to AI’s ability to both identify virus outbreaks and predict how they will spread. Perhaps the best-known example comes from the neighboring field of big data analytics. At its launch, Google Flu Trends was heralded as a great leap forward in relation to identifying and estimating the spread of the flu—until it underestimated the 2013 flu season by a whopping 140 percent and was quietly put to rest.
Poor data quality was identified as one of the main reasons Google Flu Trends failed. Unreliable or faulty data can wreak havoc on the prediction power of AIs.
In our increasingly interconnected world, tracking the movements of potentially infected individuals (by car, trains, buses, or planes) is just one vector surrounded by a lot of uncertainty.
The fact that BlueDot was able to correctly identify the coronavirus, in part due to its AI technology, illustrates that smart computer systems can be incredibly useful in helping us navigate these uncertainties.
Importantly, though, this isn’t the same as AI being at a point where it unerringly does so on its own—which is why BlueDot employs human experts to validate the AI’s findings.
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Will getting full bars on your 5G connection mean getting caught out by sudden weather changes?
The question may strike you as hypothetical, nonsensical even, but it is at the core of ongoing disputes between meteorologists and telecommunications companies. Everyone else, including you and I, are caught in the middle, wanting both 5G’s faster connection speeds and precise information about our increasingly unpredictable weather. So why can’t we have both?
Perhaps we can, but because of the way 5G networks function, it may take some special technology—specifically, artificial intelligence.
The Bandwidth Worries
Around the world, the first 5G networks are already being rolled out. The networks use a variety of frequencies to transmit data to and from devices at speeds up to 100 times faster than existing 4G networks.
One of the bandwidths used is between 24.25 and 24.45 gigahertz (GHz). In a recent FCC auction, telecommunications companies paid a combined $2 billion for the 5G usage rights for this spectrum in the US.
However, meteorologists are concerned that transmissions near the lower end of that range can interfere with their ability to accurately measure water vapor in the atmosphere. Wired reported that acting chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Neil Jacobs, told the US House Subcommittee on the Environment that 5G interference could substantially cut the amount of weather data satellites can gather. As a result, forecast accuracy could drop by as much as 30 percent.
Among the consequences could be less time to prepare for hurricanes, and it may become harder to predict storms’ paths. Due to the interconnectedness of weather patterns, measurement issues in one location can affect other areas too. Lack of accurate atmospheric data from the US could, for example, lead to less accurate forecasts for weather patterns over Europe.
The Numbers Game
Water vapor emits a faint signal at 23.8 GHz. Weather satellites measure the signals, and the data is used to gauge atmospheric humidity levels. Meteorologists have expressed concern that 5G signals in the same range can disturb those readings. The issue is that it would be nigh on impossible to tell whether a signal is water vapor or an errant 5G signal.
Furthermore, 5G disturbances in other frequency bands could make forecasting even more difficult. Rain and snow emit frequencies around 36-37 GHz. 50.2-50.4 GHz is used to measure atmospheric temperatures, and 86-92 GHz clouds and ice. All of the above are under consideration for international 5G signals. Some have warned that the wider consequences could set weather forecasts back to the 1980s.
Telecommunications companies and interest organizations have argued back, saying that weather sensors aren’t as susceptible to interference as meteorologists fear. Furthermore, 5G devices and signals will produce much less interference with weather forecasts than organizations like NOAA predict. Since very little scientific research has been carried out to examine the claims of either party, we seem stuck in a ‘wait and see’ situation.
To offset some of the possible effects, the two groups have tried to reach a consensus on a noise buffer between the 5G transmissions and water-vapor signals. It could be likened to limiting the noise from busy roads or loud sound systems to avoid bothering neighboring buildings.
The World Meteorological Organization was looking to establish a -55 decibel watts buffer. In Europe, regulators are locked in on a -42 decibel watts buffer for 5G base stations. For comparison, the US Federal Communications Commission has advocated for a -20 decibel watts buffer, which would, in reality, allow more than 150 times more noise than the European proposal.
How AI Could Help
Much of the conversation about 5G’s possible influence on future weather predictions is centered around mobile phones. However, the phones are far from the only systems that will be receiving and transmitting signals on 5G. Self-driving cars and the Internet of Things are two other technologies that could soon be heavily reliant on faster wireless signals.
Densely populated areas are likely going to be the biggest emitters of 5G signals, leading to a suggestion to only gather water-vapor data over oceans.
Another option is to develop artificial intelligence (AI) approaches to clean or process weather data. AI is playing an increasing role in weather forecasting. For example, in 2016 IBM bought The Weather Company for $2 billion. The goal was to combine the two companies’ models and data in IBM’s Watson to create more accurate forecasts. AI would also be able to predict increases or drops in business revenues due to weather changes. Monsanto has also been investing in AI for forecasting, in this case to provide agriculturally-related weather predictions.
Smartphones may also provide a piece of the weather forecasting puzzle. Studies have shown how data from thousands of smartphones can help to increase the accuracy of storm predictions, as well as the force of storms.
“Weather stations cost a lot of money,” Cliff Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, told Inside Science, adding, “If there are already 20 million smartphones, you might as well take advantage of the observation system that’s already in place.”
Smartphones may not be the solution when it comes to finding new ways of gathering the atmospheric data on water vapor that 5G could disrupt. But it does go to show that some technologies open new doors, while at the same time, others shut them.
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