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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.
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If you had to guess how long it takes for a drug to go from an idea to your pharmacy, what would you guess? Three years? Five years? How about the cost? $30 million? $100 million?
Well, here’s the sobering truth: 90 percent of all drug possibilities fail. The few that do succeed take an average of 10 years to reach the market and cost anywhere from $2.5 billion to $12 billion to get there.
But what if we could generate novel molecules to target any disease, overnight, ready for clinical trials? Imagine leveraging machine learning to accomplish with 50 people what the pharmaceutical industry can barely do with an army of 5,000.
Welcome to the future of AI and low-cost, ultra-fast, and personalized drug discovery. Let’s dive in.
GANs & Drugs
Around 2012, computer scientist-turned-biophysicist Alex Zhavoronkov started to notice that artificial intelligence was getting increasingly good at image, voice, and text recognition. He knew that all three tasks shared a critical commonality. In each, massive datasets were available, making it easy to train up an AI.
But similar datasets were present in pharmacology. So, back in 2014, Zhavoronkov started wondering if he could use these datasets and AI to significantly speed up the drug discovery process. He’d heard about a new technique in artificial intelligence known as generative adversarial networks (or GANs). By pitting two neural nets against one another (adversarial), the system can start with minimal instructions and produce novel outcomes (generative). At the time, researchers had been using GANs to do things like design new objects or create one-of-a-kind, fake human faces, but Zhavoronkov wanted to apply them to pharmacology.
He figured GANs would allow researchers to verbally describe drug attributes: “The compound should inhibit protein X at concentration Y with minimal side effects in humans,” and then the AI could construct the molecule from scratch. To turn his idea into reality, Zhavoronkov set up Insilico Medicine on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and rolled up his sleeves.
Instead of beginning their process in some exotic locale, Insilico’s “drug discovery engine” sifts millions of data samples to determine the signature biological characteristics of specific diseases. The engine then identifies the most promising treatment targets and—using GANs—generates molecules (that is, baby drugs) perfectly suited for them. “The result is an explosion in potential drug targets and a much more efficient testing process,” says Zhavoronkov. “AI allows us to do with fifty people what a typical drug company does with five thousand.”
The results have turned what was once a decade-long war into a month-long skirmish.
In late 2018, for example, Insilico was generating novel molecules in fewer than 46 days, and this included not just the initial discovery, but also the synthesis of the drug and its experimental validation in computer simulations.
Right now, they’re using the system to hunt down new drugs for cancer, aging, fibrosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, diabetes, and many others. The first drug to result from this work, a treatment for hair loss, is slated to start Phase I trials by the end of 2020.
They’re also in the early stages of using AI to predict the outcomes of clinical trials in advance of the trial. If successful, this technique will enable researchers to strip a bundle of time and money out of the traditional testing process.
Beyond inventing new drugs, AI is also being used by other scientists to identify new drug targets—that is, the place to which a drug binds in the body and another key part of the drug discovery process.
Between 1980 and 2006, despite an annual investment of $30 billion, researchers only managed to find about five new drug targets a year. The trouble is complexity. Most potential drug targets are proteins, and a protein’s structure—meaning the way a 2D sequence of amino acids folds into a 3D protein—determines its function.
But a protein with merely a hundred amino acids (a rather small protein) can produce a googol-cubed worth of potential shapes—that’s a one followed by three hundred zeroes. This is also why protein-folding has long been considered an intractably hard problem for even the most powerful of supercomputers.
Back in 1994, to monitor supercomputers’ progress in protein-folding, a biannual competition was created. Until 2018, success was fairly rare. But then the creators of DeepMind turned their neural networks loose on the problem. They created an AI that mines enormous datasets to determine the most likely distance between a protein’s base pairs and the angles of their chemical bonds—aka, the basics of protein-folding. They called it AlphaFold.
On its first foray into the competition, contestant AIs were given 43 protein-folding problems to solve. AlphaFold got 25 right. The second-place team managed a meager three. By predicting the elusive ways in which various proteins fold on the basis of their amino acid sequences, AlphaFold may soon have a tremendous impact in aiding drug discovery and fighting some of today’s most intractable diseases.
Another theater of war for improved drugs is the realm of drug delivery. Even here, converging exponential technologies are paving the way for massive implications in both human health and industry shifts.
One key contender is CRISPR, the fast-advancing gene-editing technology that stands to revolutionize synthetic biology and treatment of genetically linked diseases. And researchers have now demonstrated how this tool can be applied to create materials that shape-shift on command. Think: materials that dissolve instantaneously when faced with a programmed stimulus, releasing a specified drug at a highly targeted location.
Yet another potential boon for targeted drug delivery is nanotechnology, whereby medical nanorobots have now been used to fight incidences of cancer. In a recent review of medical micro- and nanorobotics, lead authors (from the University of Texas at Austin and University of California, San Diego) found numerous successful tests of in vivo operation of medical micro- and nanorobots.
Drugs From the Future
Covid-19 is uniting the global scientific community with its urgency, prompting scientists to cast aside nation-specific territorialism, research secrecy, and academic publishing politics in favor of expedited therapeutic and vaccine development efforts. And in the wake of rapid acceleration across healthcare technologies, Big Pharma is an area worth watching right now, no matter your industry. Converging technologies will soon enable extraordinary strides in longevity and disease prevention, with companies like Insilico leading the charge.
Riding the convergence of massive datasets, skyrocketing computational power, quantum computing, cognitive surplus capabilities, and remarkable innovations in AI, we are not far from a world in which personalized drugs, delivered directly to specified targets, will graduate from science fiction to the standard of care.
Rejuvenational biotechnology will be commercially available sooner than you think. When I asked Alex for his own projection, he set the timeline at “maybe 20 years—that’s a reasonable horizon for tangible rejuvenational biotechnology.”
How might you use an extra 20 or more healthy years in your life? What impact would you be able to make?
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This article originally appeared on diamandis.com. Read the original article here.
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Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing
Ed Yong | The Atlantic
“…beyond its vast scope and sui generis nature, there are other reasons the pandemic continues to be so befuddling—a slew of forces scientific and societal, epidemiological and epistemological. What follows is an analysis of those forces, and a guide to making sense of a problem that is now too big for any one person to fully comprehend.”
Common Sense Comes Closer to Computers
John Pavlus | Quanta Magazine
“The problem of common-sense reasoning has plagued the field of artificial intelligence for over 50 years. Now a new approach, borrowing from two disparate lines of thinking, has made important progress.”
Scientists Create Glowing Plants Using Bioluminescent Mushroom DNA
George Dvorsky | Gizmodo
“New research published today in Nature Biotechnology describes a new technique, in which the DNA from bioluminescent mushrooms was used to create plants that glow 10 times brighter than their bacteria-powered precursors. Botanists could eventually use this technique to study the inner workings of plants, but it also introduces the possibility of glowing ornamental plants for our homes.”
Old Drugs May Find a New Purpose: Fighting the Coronavirus
Carl Zimmer | The New York Times
“Driven by the pandemic’s spread, research teams have been screening thousands of drugs to see if they have this unexpected potential to fight the coronavirus. They’ve tested the drugs on dishes of cells, and a few dozen candidates have made the first cut.”
OpenAI’s New Experiments in Music Generation Create an Uncanny Valley Elvis
Devin Coldewey | TechCrunch
“AI-generated music is a fascinating new field, and deep-pocketed research outfit OpenAI has hit new heights in it, creating recreations of songs in the style of Elvis, 2Pac and others. The results are convincing, but fall squarely in the unnerving ‘uncanny valley’ of audio, sounding rather like good, but drunk, karaoke heard through a haze of drugs.”
Neural Net-Generated Memes Are One of the Best Uses of AI on the Internet
Jay Peters | The Verge
“I’ve spent a good chunk of my workday so far creating memes thanks to this amazing website from Imgflip that automatically generates captions for memes using a neural network. …You can pick from 48 classic meme templates, including distracted boyfriend, Drake in ‘Hotline Bling,’ mocking Spongebob, surprised Pikachu, and Oprah giving things away.”
Can Genetic Engineering Bring Back the American Chestnut?
Gabriel Popkin | The New York Times Magazine
“The geneticists’ research forces conservationists to confront, in a new and sometimes discomfiting way, the prospect that repairing the natural world does not necessarily mean returning to an unblemished Eden. It may instead mean embracing a role that we’ve already assumed: engineers of everything, including nature.”
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