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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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There is a saying that has emerged among the tech set in recent years: AI is the new electricity. The platitude refers to the disruptive power of artificial intelligence for driving advances in everything from transportation to predicting the weather.
Of course, the computers and data centers that support AI’s complex algorithms are very much dependent on electricity. While that may seem pretty obvious, it may be surprising to learn that AI can be extremely power-hungry, especially when it comes to training the models that enable machines to recognize your face in a photo or for Alexa to understand a voice command.
The scale of the problem is difficult to measure, but there have been some attempts to put hard numbers on the environmental cost.
For instance, one paper published on the open-access repository arXiv claimed that the carbon emissions for training a basic natural language processing (NLP) model—algorithms that process and understand language-based data—are equal to the CO2 produced by the average American lifestyle over two years. A more robust model required the equivalent of about 17 years’ worth of emissions.
The authors noted that about a decade ago, NLP models could do the job on a regular commercial laptop. Today, much more sophisticated AI models use specialized hardware like graphics processing units, or GPUs, a chip technology popularized by Nvidia for gaming that also proved capable of supporting computing tasks for AI.
OpenAI, a nonprofit research organization co-founded by tech prophet and profiteer Elon Musk, said that the computing power “used in the largest AI training runs has been increasing exponentially with a 3.4-month doubling time” since 2012. That’s about the time that GPUs started making their way into AI computing systems.
Getting Smarter About AI Chip Design
While GPUs from Nvidia remain the gold standard in AI hardware today, a number of startups have emerged to challenge the company’s industry dominance. Many are building chipsets designed to work more like the human brain, an area that’s been dubbed neuromorphic computing.
One of the leading companies in this arena is Graphcore, a UK startup that has raised more than $450 million and boasts a valuation of $1.95 billion. The company’s version of the GPU is an IPU, which stands for intelligence processing unit.
To build a computer brain more akin to a human one, the big brains at Graphcore are bypassing the precise but time-consuming number-crunching typical of a conventional microprocessor with one that’s content to get by on less precise arithmetic.
The results are essentially the same, but IPUs get the job done much quicker. Graphcore claimed it was able to train the popular BERT NLP model in just 56 hours, while tripling throughput and reducing latency by 20 percent.
An article in Bloomberg compared the approach to the “human brain shifting from calculating the exact GPS coordinates of a restaurant to just remembering its name and neighborhood.”
Graphcore’s hardware architecture also features more built-in memory processing, boosting efficiency because there’s less need to send as much data back and forth between chips. That’s similar to an approach adopted by a team of researchers in Italy that recently published a paper about a new computing circuit.
The novel circuit uses a device called a memristor that can execute a mathematical function known as a regression in just one operation. The approach attempts to mimic the human brain by processing data directly within the memory.
Daniele Ielmini at Politecnico di Milano, co-author of the Science Advances paper, told Singularity Hub that the main advantage of in-memory computing is the lack of any data movement, which is the main bottleneck of conventional digital computers, as well as the parallel processing of data that enables the intimate interactions among various currents and voltages within the memory array.
Ielmini explained that in-memory computing can have a “tremendous impact on energy efficiency of AI, as it can accelerate very advanced tasks by physical computation within the memory circuit.” He added that such “radical ideas” in hardware design will be needed in order to make a quantum leap in energy efficiency and time.
It’s Not Just a Hardware Problem
The emphasis on designing more efficient chip architecture might suggest that AI’s power hunger is essentially a hardware problem. That’s not the case, Ielmini noted.
“We believe that significant progress could be made by similar breakthroughs at the algorithm and dataset levels,” he said.
He’s not the only one.
One of the key research areas at Qualcomm’s AI research lab is energy efficiency. Max Welling, vice president of Qualcomm Technology R&D division, has written about the need for more power-efficient algorithms. He has gone so far as to suggest that AI algorithms will be measured by the amount of intelligence they provide per joule.
One emerging area being studied, Welling wrote, is the use of Bayesian deep learning for deep neural networks.
It’s all pretty heady stuff and easily the subject of a PhD thesis. The main thing to understand in this context is that Bayesian deep learning is another attempt to mimic how the brain processes information by introducing random values into the neural network. A benefit of Bayesian deep learning is that it compresses and quantifies data in order to reduce the complexity of a neural network. In turn, that reduces the number of “steps” required to recognize a dog as a dog—and the energy required to get the right result.
A team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has previously demonstrated another way to improve AI energy efficiency by converting deep learning neural networks into what’s called a spiking neural network. The researchers spiked their deep spiking neural network (DSNN) by introducing a stochastic process that adds random values like Bayesian deep learning.
The DSNN actually imitates the way neurons interact with synapses, which send signals between brain cells. Individual “spikes” in the network indicate where to perform computations, lowering energy consumption because it disregards unnecessary computations.
The system is being used by cancer researchers to scan millions of clinical reports to unearth insights on causes and treatments of the disease.
Helping battle cancer is only one of many rewards we may reap from artificial intelligence in the future, as long as the benefits of those algorithms outweigh the costs of using them.
“Making AI more energy-efficient is an overarching objective that spans the fields of algorithms, systems, architecture, circuits, and devices,” Ielmini said.
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Penicillin, one of the greatest discoveries in the history of medicine, was a product of chance.
After returning from summer vacation in September 1928, bacteriologist Alexander Fleming found a colony of bacteria he’d left in his London lab had sprouted a fungus. Curiously, wherever the bacteria contacted the fungus, their cell walls broke down and they died. Fleming guessed the fungus was secreting something lethal to the bacteria—and the rest is history.
Fleming’s discovery of penicillin and its later isolation, synthesis, and scaling in the 1940s released a flood of antibiotic discoveries in the next few decades. Bacteria and fungi had been waging an ancient war against each other, and the weapons they’d evolved over eons turned out to be humanity’s best defense against bacterial infection and disease.
In recent decades, however, the flood of new antibiotics has slowed to a trickle.
Their development is uneconomical for drug companies, and the low-hanging fruit has long been picked. We’re now facing the emergence of strains of super bacteria resistant to one or more antibiotics and an aging arsenal to fight them with. Gone unchallenged, an estimated 700,000 deaths worldwide due to drug resistance could rise to as many as 10 million in 2050.
Increasingly, scientists warn the tide is turning, and we need a new strategy to keep pace with the remarkably quick and boundlessly creative tactics of bacterial evolution.
But where the golden age of antibiotics was sparked by serendipity, human intelligence, and natural molecular weapons, its sequel may lean on the uncanny eye of artificial intelligence to screen millions of compounds—and even design new ones—in search of the next penicillin.
Hal Discovers a Powerful Antibiotic
In a paper published this week in the journal, Cell, MIT researchers took a step in this direction. The team says their machine learning algorithm discovered a powerful new antibiotic.
Named for the AI in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the antibiotic, halicin, successfully wiped out dozens of bacterial strains, including some of the most dangerous drug-resistant bacteria on the World Health Organization’s most wanted list. The bacteria also failed to develop resistance to E. coli during a month of observation, in stark contrast to existing antibiotic ciprofloxacin.
“In terms of antibiotic discovery, this is absolutely a first,” Regina Barzilay, a senior author on the study and computer science professor at MIT, told The Guardian.
The algorithm that discovered halicin was trained on the molecular features of 2,500 compounds. Nearly half were FDA-approved drugs, and another 800 naturally occurring. The researchers specifically tuned the algorithm to look for molecules with antibiotic properties but whose structures would differ from existing antibiotics (as halicin’s does). Using another machine learning program, they screened the results for those likely to be safe for humans.
Early study suggests halicin attacks the bacteria’s cell membranes, disrupting their ability to produce energy. Protecting the cell membrane from halicin might take more than one or two genetic mutations, which could account for its impressive ability to prevent resistance.
“I think this is one of the more powerful antibiotics that has been discovered to date,” James Collins, an MIT professor of bioengineering and senior author told The Guardian. “It has remarkable activity against a broad range of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.”
Beyond tests in petri-dish bacterial colonies, the team also tested halicin in mice. The antibiotic cleared up infections of a strain of bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics in a day. The team plans further study in partnership with a pharmaceutical company or nonprofit, and they hope to eventually prove it safe and effective for use in humans.
This last bit remains the trickiest step, given the cost of getting a new drug approved. But Collins hopes algorithms like theirs will help. “We could dramatically reduce the cost required to get through clinical trials,” he told the Financial Times.
A Universe of Drugs Awaits
The bigger story may be what happens next.
How many novel antibiotics await discovery, and how far can AI screening take us? The initial 6,000 compounds scanned by Barzilay and Collins’s team is a drop in the bucket.
They’ve already begun digging deeper by setting the algorithm loose on 100 million molecules from an online library of 1.5 billion compounds called the ZINC15 database. This first search took three days and turned up 23 more candidates that, like halicin, differ structurally from existing antibiotics and may be safe for humans. Two of these—which the team will study further—appear to be especially powerful.
Even more ambitiously, Barzilay hopes the approach can find or even design novel antibiotics that kill bad bacteria with alacrity while sparing the good guys. In this way, a round of antibiotics would cure whatever ails you without taking out your whole gut microbiome in the process.
All this is part of a larger movement to use machine learning algorithms in the long, expensive process of drug discovery. Other players in the area are also training AI on the vast possibility space of drug-like compounds. Last fall, one of the leaders in the area, Insilico, was challenged by a partner to see just how fast their method could do the job. The company turned out a new a proof-of-concept drug candidate in only 46 days.
The field is still developing, however, and it has yet to be seen exactly how valuable these approaches will be in practice. Barzilay is optimistic though.
“There is still a question of whether machine-learning tools are really doing something intelligent in healthcare, and how we can develop them to be workhorses in the pharmaceuticals industry,” she said. “This shows how far you can adapt this tool.”
Image Credit: Halicin (top row) prevented the development of antibiotic resistance in E. coli, while ciprofloxacin (bottom row) did not. Collins Lab at MIT Continue reading