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#437357 Algorithms Workers Can’t See Are ...

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” HAL’s cold, if polite, refusal to open the pod bay doors in 2001: A Space Odyssey has become a defining warning about putting too much trust in artificial intelligence, particularly if you work in space.

In the movies, when a machine decides to be the boss (or humans let it) things go wrong. Yet despite myriad dystopian warnings, control by machines is fast becoming our reality.

Algorithms—sets of instructions to solve a problem or complete a task—now drive everything from browser search results to better medical care.

They are helping design buildings. They are speeding up trading on financial markets, making and losing fortunes in micro-seconds. They are calculating the most efficient routes for delivery drivers.

In the workplace, self-learning algorithmic computer systems are being introduced by companies to assist in areas such as hiring, setting tasks, measuring productivity, evaluating performance, and even terminating employment: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid you are being made redundant.”

Giving self‐learning algorithms the responsibility to make and execute decisions affecting workers is called “algorithmic management.” It carries a host of risks in depersonalizing management systems and entrenching pre-existing biases.

At an even deeper level, perhaps, algorithmic management entrenches a power imbalance between management and worker. Algorithms are closely guarded secrets. Their decision-making processes are hidden. It’s a black-box: perhaps you have some understanding of the data that went in, and you see the result that comes out, but you have no idea of what goes on in between.

Algorithms at Work
Here are a few examples of algorithms already at work.

At Amazon’s fulfillment center in south-east Melbourne, they set the pace for “pickers,” who have timers on their scanners showing how long they have to find the next item. As soon as they scan that item, the timer resets for the next. All at a “not quite walking, not quite running” speed.

Or how about AI determining your success in a job interview? More than 700 companies have trialed such technology. US developer HireVue says its software speeds up the hiring process by 90 percent by having applicants answer identical questions and then scoring them according to language, tone, and facial expressions.

Granted, human assessments during job interviews are notoriously flawed. Algorithms,however, can also be biased. The classic example is the COMPAS software used by US judges, probation, and parole officers to rate a person’s risk of re-offending. In 2016 a ProPublica investigation showed the algorithm was heavily discriminatory, incorrectly classifying black subjects as higher risk 45 percent of the time, compared with 23 percent for white subjects.

How Gig Workers Cope
Algorithms do what their code tells them to do. The problem is this code is rarely available. This makes them difficult to scrutinize, or even understand.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the gig economy. Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo, and other platforms could not exist without algorithms allocating, monitoring, evaluating, and rewarding work.

Over the past year Uber Eats’ bicycle couriers and drivers, for instance, have blamed unexplained changes to the algorithm for slashing their jobs, and incomes.

Rider’s can’t be 100 percent sure it was all down to the algorithm. But that’s part of the problem. The fact those who depend on the algorithm don’t know one way or the other has a powerful influence on them.

This is a key result from our interviews with 58 food-delivery couriers. Most knew their jobs were allocated by an algorithm (via an app). They knew the app collected data. What they didn’t know was how data was used to award them work.

In response, they developed a range of strategies (or guessed how) to “win” more jobs, such as accepting gigs as quickly as possible and waiting in “magic” locations. Ironically, these attempts to please the algorithm often meant losing the very flexibility that was one of the attractions of gig work.

The information asymmetry created by algorithmic management has two profound effects. First, it threatens to entrench systemic biases, the type of discrimination hidden within the COMPAS algorithm for years. Second, it compounds the power imbalance between management and worker.

Our data also confirmed others’ findings that it is almost impossible to complain about the decisions of the algorithm. Workers often do not know the exact basis of those decisions, and there’s no one to complain to anyway. When Uber Eats bicycle couriers asked for reasons about their plummeting income, for example, responses from the company advised them “we have no manual control over how many deliveries you receive.”

Broader Lessons
When algorithmic management operates as a “black box” one of the consequences is that it is can become an indirect control mechanism. Thus far under-appreciated by Australian regulators, this control mechanism has enabled platforms to mobilize a reliable and scalable workforce while avoiding employer responsibilities.

“The absence of concrete evidence about how the algorithms operate”, the Victorian government’s inquiry into the “on-demand” workforce notes in its report, “makes it hard for a driver or rider to complain if they feel disadvantaged by one.”

The report, published in June, also found it is “hard to confirm if concern over algorithm transparency is real.”

But it is precisely the fact it is hard to confirm that’s the problem. How can we start to even identify, let alone resolve, issues like algorithmic management?

Fair conduct standards to ensure transparency and accountability are a start. One example is the Fair Work initiative, led by the Oxford Internet Institute. The initiative is bringing together researchers with platforms, workers, unions, and regulators to develop global principles for work in the platform economy. This includes “fair management,” which focuses on how transparent the results and outcomes of algorithms are for workers.

Understandings about impact of algorithms on all forms of work is still in its infancy. It demands greater scrutiny and research. Without human oversight based on agreed principles we risk inviting HAL into our workplaces.

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

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#437267 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
OpenAI’s New Language Generator GPT-3 Is Shockingly Good—and Completely Mindless
Will Douglas Heaven | MIT Technology Review
“‘Playing with GPT-3 feels like seeing the future,’ Arram Sabeti, a San Francisco–based developer and artist, tweeted last week. That pretty much sums up the response on social media in the last few days to OpenAI’s latest language-generating AI.”

ROBOTICS
The Star of This $70 Million Sci-Fi Film Is a Robot
Sarah Bahr | The New York Times
“Erica was created by Hiroshi Ishiguro, a roboticist at Osaka University in Japan, to be ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’—he modeled her after images of Miss Universe pageant finalists—and the most humanlike robot in existence. But she’s more than just a pretty face: Though ‘b’ is still in preproduction, when she makes her debut, producers believe it will be the first time a film has relied on a fully autonomous artificially intelligent actor.”

VIRTUAL REALITY
My Glitchy, Glorious Day at a Conference for Virtual Beings
Emma Grey Ellis | Wired
“Spectators spent much of the time debating who was real and who was fake. …[Lars Buttler’s] eyes seemed awake and alive in a way that the faces of the other participants in the Zoom call—venture capitalist, a tech founder, and an activist, all of them puppeted by artificial intelligence—were not. ‘Pretty sure Lars is human,’ a (real-person) spectator typed in the in-meeting chat room. ‘I’m starting to think Lars is AI,’ wrote another.”

FUTURE OF FOOD
KFC Is Working With a Russian 3D Bioprinting Firm to Try to Make Lab-Produced Chicken Nuggets
Kim Lyons | The Verge
“The chicken restaurant chain will work with Russian company 3D Bioprinting Solutions to develop bioprinting technology that will ‘print’ chicken meat, using chicken cells and plant material. KFC plans to provide the bioprinting firm with ingredients like breading and spices ‘to achieve the signature KFC taste’ and will seek to replicate the taste and texture of genuine chicken.”

BIOTECH
A CRISPR Cow Is Born. It’s Definitely a Boy
Megan Molteni | Wired
“After nearly five years of research, at least half a million dollars, dozens of failed pregnancies, and countless scientific setbacks, Van Eenennaam’s pioneering attempt to create a line of Crispr’d cattle tailored to the needs of the beef industry all came down to this one calf. Who, as luck seemed sure to have it, was about to enter the world in the middle of a global pandemic.”

GOVERNANCE
Is the Pandemic Finally the Moment for a Universal Basic Income?
Brooks Rainwater and Clay Dillow | Fast Company
“Since February, governments around the globe—including in the US—have intervened in their citizens’ individual financial lives, distributing direct cash payments to backstop workers sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are considering keeping such direct assistance in place indefinitely, or at least until the economic shocks subside.”

SCIENCE
How Gödel’s Proof Works
Natalie Wolchover | Wired
“In 1931, the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel pulled off arguably one of the most stunning intellectual achievements in history. Mathematicians of the era sought a solid foundation for mathematics: a set of basic mathematical facts, or axioms, that was both consistent—never leading to contradictions—and complete, serving as the building blocks of all mathematical truths. But Gödel’s shocking incompleteness theorems, published when he was just 25, crushed that dream.”

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#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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#436977 The Top 100 AI Startups Out There Now, ...

New drug therapies for a range of chronic diseases. Defenses against various cyber attacks. Technologies to make cities work smarter. Weather and wildfire forecasts that boost safety and reduce risk. And commercial efforts to monetize so-called deepfakes.

What do all these disparate efforts have in common? They’re some of the solutions that the world’s most promising artificial intelligence startups are pursuing.

Data research firm CB Insights released its much-anticipated fourth annual list of the top 100 AI startups earlier this month. The New York-based company has become one of the go-to sources for emerging technology trends, especially in the startup scene.

About 10 years ago, it developed its own algorithm to assess the health of private companies using publicly-available information and non-traditional signals (think social media sentiment, for example) thanks to more than $1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation.

It uses that algorithm-generated data from what it calls a company’s Mosaic score—pulling together information on market trends, money, and momentum—along with other details ranging from patent activity to the latest news analysis to identify the best of the best.

“Our final list of companies is a mix of startups at various stages of R&D and product commercialization,” said Deepashri Varadharajanis, a lead analyst at CB Insights, during a recent presentation on the most prominent trends among the 2020 AI 100 startups.

About 10 companies on the list are among the world’s most valuable AI startups. For instance, there’s San Francisco-based Faire, which has raised at least $266 million since it was founded just three years ago. The company offers a wholesale marketplace that uses machine learning to match local retailers with goods that are predicted to sell well in their specific location.

Image courtesy of CB Insights
Funding for AI in Healthcare
Another startup valued at more than $1 billion, referred to as a unicorn in venture capital speak, is Butterfly Network, a company on the East Coast that has figured out a way to turn a smartphone phone into an ultrasound machine. Backed by $350 million in private investments, Butterfly Network uses AI to power the platform’s diagnostics. A more modestly funded San Francisco startup called Eko is doing something similar for stethoscopes.

In fact, there are more than a dozen AI healthcare startups on this year’s AI 100 list, representing the most companies of any industry on the list. In total, investors poured about $4 billion into AI healthcare startups last year, according to CB Insights, out of a record $26.6 billion raised by all private AI companies in 2019. Since 2014, more than 4,300 AI startups in 80 countries have raised about $83 billion.

One of the most intensive areas remains drug discovery, where companies unleash algorithms to screen potential drug candidates at an unprecedented speed and breadth that was impossible just a few years ago. It has led to the discovery of a new antibiotic to fight superbugs. There’s even a chance AI could help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

There are several AI drug discovery startups among the AI 100: San Francisco-based Atomwise claims its deep convolutional neural network, AtomNet, screens more than 100 million compounds each day. Cyclica is an AI drug discovery company in Toronto that just announced it would apply its platform to identify and develop novel cannabinoid-inspired drugs for neuropsychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder and anxiety.

And then there’s OWKIN out of New York City, a startup that uses a type of machine learning called federated learning. Backed by Google, the company’s AI platform helps train algorithms without sharing the necessary patient data required to provide the sort of valuable insights researchers need for designing new drugs or even selecting the right populations for clinical trials.

Keeping Cyber Networks Healthy
Privacy and data security are the focus of a number of AI cybersecurity startups, as hackers attempt to leverage artificial intelligence to launch sophisticated attacks while also trying to fool the AI-powered systems rapidly coming online.

“I think this is an interesting field because it’s a bit of a cat and mouse game,” noted Varadharajanis. “As your cyber defenses get smarter, your cyber attacks get even smarter, and so it’s a constant game of who’s going to match the other in terms of tech capabilities.”

Few AI cybersecurity startups match Silicon Valley-based SentinelOne in terms of private capital. The company has raised more than $400 million, with a valuation of $1.1 billion following a $200 million Series E earlier this year. The company’s platform automates what’s called endpoint security, referring to laptops, phones, and other devices at the “end” of a centralized network.

Fellow AI 100 cybersecurity companies include Blue Hexagon, which protects the “edge” of the network against malware, and Abnormal Security, which stops targeted email attacks, both out of San Francisco. Just down the coast in Los Angeles is Obsidian Security, a startup offering cybersecurity for cloud services.

Deepfakes Get a Friendly Makeover
Deepfakes of videos and other types of AI-manipulated media where faces or voices are synthesized in order to fool viewers or listeners has been a different type of ongoing cybersecurity risk. However, some firms are swapping malicious intent for benign marketing and entertainment purposes.

Now anyone can be a supermodel thanks to Superpersonal, a London-based AI startup that has figured out a way to seamlessly swap a user’s face onto a fashionista modeling the latest threads on the catwalk. The most obvious use case is for shoppers to see how they will look in a particular outfit before taking the plunge on a plunging neckline.

Another British company called Synthesia helps users create videos where a talking head will deliver a customized speech or even talk in a different language. The startup’s claim to fame was releasing a campaign video for the NGO Malaria Must Die showing soccer star David Becham speak in nine different languages.

There’s also a Seattle-based company, Wellsaid Labs, which uses AI to produce voice-over narration where users can choose from a library of digital voices with human pitch, emphasis, and intonation. Because every narrator sounds just a little bit smarter with a British accent.

AI Helps Make Smart Cities Smarter
Speaking of smarter: A handful of AI 100 startups are helping create the smart city of the future, where a digital web of sensors, devices, and cloud-based analytics ensure that nobody is ever stuck in traffic again or without an umbrella at the wrong time. At least that’s the dream.

A couple of them are directly connected to Google subsidiary Sidewalk Labs, which focuses on tech solutions to improve urban design. A company called Replica was spun out just last year. It’s sort of SimCity for urban planning. The San Francisco startup uses location data from mobile phones to understand how people behave and travel throughout a typical day in the city. Those insights can then help city governments, for example, make better decisions about infrastructure development.

Denver-area startup AMP Robotics gets into the nitty gritty details of recycling by training robots on how to recycle trash, since humans have largely failed to do the job. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only about 30 percent of waste is recycled.

Some people might complain that weather forecasters don’t even do that well when trying to predict the weather. An Israeli AI startup, ClimaCell, claims it can forecast rain block by block. While the company taps the usual satellite and ground-based sources to create weather models, it has developed algorithms to analyze how precipitation and other conditions affect signals in cellular networks. By analyzing changes in microwave signals between cellular towers, the platform can predict the type and intensity of the precipitation down to street level.

And those are just some of the highlights of what some of the world’s most promising AI startups are doing.

“You have companies optimizing mining operations, warehouse logistics, insurance, workflows, and even working on bringing AI solutions to designing printed circuit boards,” Varadharajanis said. “So a lot of creative ways in which companies are applying AI to solve different issues in different industries.”

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#436911 Scientists Linked Artificial and ...

Scientists have linked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one across multiple countries into a fully-functional network. Using standard internet protocols, they established a chain of communication whereby an artificial neuron controls a living, biological one, and passes on the info to another artificial one.

Whoa.

We’ve talked plenty about brain-computer interfaces and novel computer chips that resemble the brain. We’ve covered how those “neuromorphic” chips could link up into tremendously powerful computing entities, using engineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.

As Moore’s law is dying, we even said that neuromorphic computing is one path towards the future of extremely powerful, low energy consumption artificial neural network-based computing—in hardware—that could in theory better link up with the brain. Because the chips “speak” the brain’s language, in theory they could become neuroprosthesis hubs far more advanced and “natural” than anything currently possible.

This month, an international team put all of those ingredients together, turning theory into reality.

The three labs, scattered across Padova, Italy, Zurich, Switzerland, and Southampton, England, collaborated to create a fully self-controlled, hybrid artificial-biological neural network that communicated using biological principles, but over the internet.

The three-neuron network, linked through artificial synapses that emulate the real thing, was able to reproduce a classic neuroscience experiment that’s considered the basis of learning and memory in the brain. In other words, artificial neuron and synapse “chips” have progressed to the point where they can actually use a biological neuron intermediary to form a circuit that, at least partially, behaves like the real thing.

That’s not to say cyborg brains are coming soon. The simulation only recreated a small network that supports excitatory transmission in the hippocampus—a critical region that supports memory—and most brain functions require enormous cross-talk between numerous neurons and circuits. Nevertheless, the study is a jaw-dropping demonstration of how far we’ve come in recreating biological neurons and synapses in artificial hardware.

And perhaps one day, the currently “experimental” neuromorphic hardware will be integrated into broken biological neural circuits as bridges to restore movement, memory, personality, and even a sense of self.

The Artificial Brain Boom
One important thing: this study relies heavily on a decade of research into neuromorphic computing, or the implementation of brain functions inside computer chips.

The best-known example is perhaps IBM’s TrueNorth, which leveraged the brain’s computational principles to build a completely different computer than what we have today. Today’s computers run on a von Neumann architecture, in which memory and processing modules are physically separate. In contrast, the brain’s computing and memory are simultaneously achieved at synapses, small “hubs” on individual neurons that talk to adjacent ones.

Because memory and processing occur on the same site, biological neurons don’t have to shuttle data back and forth between processing and storage compartments, massively reducing processing time and energy use. What’s more, a neuron’s history will also influence how it behaves in the future, increasing flexibility and adaptability compared to computers. With the rise of deep learning, which loosely mimics neural processing as the prima donna of AI, the need to reduce power while boosting speed and flexible learning is becoming ever more tantamount in the AI community.

Neuromorphic computing was partially born out of this need. Most chips utilize special ingredients that change their resistance (or other physical characteristics) to mimic how a neuron might adapt to stimulation. Some chips emulate a whole neuron, that is, how it responds to a history of stimulation—does it get easier or harder to fire? Others imitate synapses themselves, that is, how easily they will pass on the information to another neuron.

Although single neuromorphic chips have proven to be far more efficient and powerful than current computer chips running machine learning algorithms in toy problems, so far few people have tried putting the artificial components together with biological ones in the ultimate test.

That’s what this study did.

A Hybrid Network
Still with me? Let’s talk network.

It’s gonna sound complicated, but remember: learning is the formation of neural networks, and neurons that fire together wire together. To rephrase: when learning, neurons will spontaneously organize into networks so that future instances will re-trigger the entire network. To “wire” together, downstream neurons will become more responsive to their upstream neural partners, so that even a whisper will cause them to activate. In contrast, some types of stimulation will cause the downstream neuron to “chill out” so that only an upstream “shout” will trigger downstream activation.

Both these properties—easier or harder to activate downstream neurons—are essentially how the brain forms connections. The “amping up,” in neuroscience jargon, is long-term potentiation (LTP), whereas the down-tuning is LTD (long-term depression). These two phenomena were first discovered in the rodent hippocampus more than half a century ago, and ever since have been considered as the biological basis of how the brain learns and remembers, and implicated in neurological problems such as addition (seriously, you can’t pass Neuro 101 without learning about LTP and LTD!).

So it’s perhaps especially salient that one of the first artificial-brain hybrid networks recapitulated this classic result.

To visualize: the three-neuron network began in Switzerland, with an artificial neuron with the badass name of “silicon spiking neuron.” That neuron is linked to an artificial synapse, a “memristor” located in the UK, which is then linked to a biological rat neuron cultured in Italy. The rat neuron has a “smart” microelectrode, controlled by the artificial synapse, to stimulate it. This is the artificial-to-biological pathway.

Meanwhile, the rat neuron in Italy also has electrodes that listen in on its electrical signaling. This signaling is passed back to another artificial synapse in the UK, which is then used to control a second artificial neuron back in Switzerland. This is the biological-to-artificial pathway back. As a testimony in how far we’ve come in digitizing neural signaling, all of the biological neural responses are digitized and sent over the internet to control its far-out artificial partner.

Here’s the crux: to demonstrate a functional neural network, just having the biological neuron passively “pass on” electrical stimulation isn’t enough. It has to show the capacity to learn, that is, to be able to mimic the amping up and down-tuning that are LTP and LTD, respectively.

You’ve probably guessed the results: certain stimulation patterns to the first artificial neuron in Switzerland changed how the artificial synapse in the UK operated. This, in turn, changed the stimulation to the biological neuron, so that it either amped up or toned down depending on the input.

Similarly, the response of the biological neuron altered the second artificial synapse, which then controlled the output of the second artificial neuron. Altogether, the biological and artificial components seamlessly linked up, over thousands of miles, into a functional neural circuit.

Cyborg Mind-Meld
So…I’m still picking my jaw up off the floor.

It’s utterly insane seeing a classic neuroscience learning experiment repeated with an integrated network with artificial components. That said, a three-neuron network is far from the thousands of synapses (if not more) needed to truly re-establish a broken neural circuit in the hippocampus, which DARPA has been aiming to do. And LTP/LTD has come under fire recently as the de facto brain mechanism for learning, though so far they remain cemented as neuroscience dogma.

However, this is one of the few studies where you see fields coming together. As Richard Feynman famously said, “What I cannot recreate, I cannot understand.” Even though neuromorphic chips were built on a high-level rather than molecular-level understanding of how neurons work, the study shows that artificial versions can still synapse with their biological counterparts. We’re not just on the right path towards understanding the brain, we’re recreating it, in hardware—if just a little.

While the study doesn’t have immediate use cases, practically it does boost both the neuromorphic computing and neuroprosthetic fields.

“We are very excited with this new development,” said study author Dr. Themis Prodromakis at the University of Southampton. “On one side it sets the basis for a novel scenario that was never encountered during natural evolution, where biological and artificial neurons are linked together and communicate across global networks; laying the foundations for the Internet of Neuro-electronics. On the other hand, it brings new prospects to neuroprosthetic technologies, paving the way towards research into replacing dysfunctional parts of the brain with AI chips.”

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