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#437276 Cars Will Soon Be Able to Sense and ...

Imagine you’re on your daily commute to work, driving along a crowded highway while trying to resist looking at your phone. You’re already a little stressed out because you didn’t sleep well, woke up late, and have an important meeting in a couple hours, but you just don’t feel like your best self.

Suddenly another car cuts you off, coming way too close to your front bumper as it changes lanes. Your already-simmering emotions leap into overdrive, and you lay on the horn and shout curses no one can hear.

Except someone—or, rather, something—can hear: your car. Hearing your angry words, aggressive tone, and raised voice, and seeing your furrowed brow, the onboard computer goes into “soothe” mode, as it’s been programmed to do when it detects that you’re angry. It plays relaxing music at just the right volume, releases a puff of light lavender-scented essential oil, and maybe even says some meditative quotes to calm you down.

What do you think—creepy? Helpful? Awesome? Weird? Would you actually calm down, or get even more angry that a car is telling you what to do?

Scenarios like this (maybe without the lavender oil part) may not be imaginary for much longer, especially if companies working to integrate emotion-reading artificial intelligence into new cars have their way. And it wouldn’t just be a matter of your car soothing you when you’re upset—depending what sort of regulations are enacted, the car’s sensors, camera, and microphone could collect all kinds of data about you and sell it to third parties.

Computers and Feelings
Just as AI systems can be trained to tell the difference between a picture of a dog and one of a cat, they can learn to differentiate between an angry tone of voice or facial expression and a happy one. In fact, there’s a whole branch of machine intelligence devoted to creating systems that can recognize and react to human emotions; it’s called affective computing.

Emotion-reading AIs learn what different emotions look and sound like from large sets of labeled data; “smile = happy,” “tears = sad,” “shouting = angry,” and so on. The most sophisticated systems can likely even pick up on the micro-expressions that flash across our faces before we consciously have a chance to control them, as detailed by Daniel Goleman in his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence.

Affective computing company Affectiva, a spinoff from MIT Media Lab, says its algorithms are trained on 5,313,751 face videos (videos of people’s faces as they do an activity, have a conversation, or react to stimuli) representing about 2 billion facial frames. Fascinatingly, Affectiva claims its software can even account for cultural differences in emotional expression (for example, it’s more normalized in Western cultures to be very emotionally expressive, whereas Asian cultures tend to favor stoicism and politeness), as well as gender differences.

But Why?
As reported in Motherboard, companies like Affectiva, Cerence, Xperi, and Eyeris have plans in the works to partner with automakers and install emotion-reading AI systems in new cars. Regulations passed last year in Europe and a bill just introduced this month in the US senate are helping make the idea of “driver monitoring” less weird, mainly by emphasizing the safety benefits of preemptive warning systems for tired or distracted drivers (remember that part in the beginning about sneaking glances at your phone? Yeah, that).

Drowsiness and distraction can’t really be called emotions, though—so why are they being lumped under an umbrella that has a lot of other implications, including what many may consider an eerily Big Brother-esque violation of privacy?

Our emotions, in fact, are among the most private things about us, since we are the only ones who know their true nature. We’ve developed the ability to hide and disguise our emotions, and this can be a useful skill at work, in relationships, and in scenarios that require negotiation or putting on a game face.

And I don’t know about you, but I’ve had more than one good cry in my car. It’s kind of the perfect place for it; private, secluded, soundproof.

Putting systems into cars that can recognize and collect data about our emotions under the guise of preventing accidents due to the state of mind of being distracted or the physical state of being sleepy, then, seems a bit like a bait and switch.

A Highway to Privacy Invasion?
European regulations will help keep driver data from being used for any purpose other than ensuring a safer ride. But the US is lagging behind on the privacy front, with car companies largely free from any enforceable laws that would keep them from using driver data as they please.

Affectiva lists the following as use cases for occupant monitoring in cars: personalizing content recommendations, providing alternate route recommendations, adapting environmental conditions like lighting and heating, and understanding user frustration with virtual assistants and designing those assistants to be emotion-aware so that they’re less frustrating.

Our phones already do the first two (though, granted, we’re not supposed to look at them while we drive—but most cars now let you use bluetooth to display your phone’s content on the dashboard), and the third is simply a matter of reaching a hand out to turn a dial or press a button. The last seems like a solution for a problem that wouldn’t exist without said… solution.

Despite how unnecessary and unsettling it may seem, though, emotion-reading AI isn’t going away, in cars or other products and services where it might provide value.

Besides automotive AI, Affectiva also makes software for clients in the advertising space. With consent, the built-in camera on users’ laptops records them while they watch ads, gauging their emotional response, what kind of marketing is most likely to engage them, and how likely they are to buy a given product. Emotion-recognition tech is also being used or considered for use in mental health applications, call centers, fraud monitoring, and education, among others.

In a 2015 TED talk, Affectiva co-founder Rana El-Kaliouby told her audience that we’re living in a world increasingly devoid of emotion, and her goal was to bring emotions back into our digital experiences. Soon they’ll be in our cars, too; whether the benefits will outweigh the costs remains to be seen.

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

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

Image credit: Pierre Châtel-Innocenti / Unsplash Continue reading

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#437265 This Russian Firm’s Star Designer Is ...

Imagine discovering a new artist or designer—whether visual art, fashion, music, or even writing—and becoming a big fan of her work. You follow her on social media, eagerly anticipate new releases, and chat about her talent with your friends. It’s not long before you want to know more about this creative, inspiring person, so you start doing some research. It’s strange, but there doesn’t seem to be any information about the artist’s past online; you can’t find out where she went to school or who her mentors were.

After some more digging, you find out something totally unexpected: your beloved artist is actually not a person at all—she’s an AI.

Would you be amused? Annoyed? Baffled? Impressed? Probably some combination of all these. If you wanted to ask someone who’s had this experience, you could talk to clients of the biggest multidisciplinary design company in Russia, Art.Lebedev Studio (I know, the period confused me at first too). The studio passed off an AI designer as human for more than a year, and no one caught on.

They gave the AI a human-sounding name—Nikolay Ironov—and it participated in more than 20 different projects that included designing brand logos and building brand identities. According to the studio’s website, several of the logos the AI made attracted “considerable public interest, media attention, and discussion in online communities” due to their unique style.

So how did an AI learn to create such buzz-worthy designs? It was trained using hand-drawn vector images each associated with one or more themes. To start a new design, someone enters a few words describing the client, such as what kind of goods or services they offer. The AI uses those words to find associated images and generate various starter designs, which then go through another series of algorithms that “touch them up.” A human designer then selects the best options to present to the client.

“These systems combined together provide users with the experience of instantly converting a client’s text brief into a corporate identity design pack archive. Within seconds,” said Sergey Kulinkovich, the studio’s art director. He added that clients liked Nikolay Ironov’s work before finding out he was an AI (and liked the media attention their brands got after Ironov’s identity was revealed even more).

Ironov joins a growing group of AI “artists” that are starting to raise questions about the nature of art and creativity. Where do creative ideas come from? What makes a work of art truly great? And when more than one person is involved in making art, who should own the copyright?

Art.Lebedev is far from the first design studio to employ artificial intelligence; Mailchimp is using AI to let businesses design multi-channel marketing campaigns without human designers, and Adobe is marketing its new Sensei product as an AI design assistant.

While art made by algorithms can be unique and impressive, though, there’s one caveat that’s important to keep in mind when we worry about human creativity being rendered obsolete. Here’s the thing: AIs still depend on people to not only program them, but feed them a set of training data on which their intelligence and output are based. Depending on the size and nature of an AI’s input data, its output will look pretty different from that of a similar system, and a big part of the difference will be due to the people that created and trained the AIs.

Admittedly, Nikolay Ironov does outshine his human counterparts in a handful of ways; as the studio’s website points out, he can handle real commercial tasks effectively, he doesn’t sleep, get sick, or have “crippling creative blocks,” and he can complete tasks in a matter of seconds.

Given these superhuman capabilities, then, why even keep human designers on staff? As detailed above, it will be a while before creative firms really need to consider this question on a large scale; for now, it still takes a hard-working creative human to make a fast-producing creative AI.

Image Credit: Art.Lebedev Continue reading

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#437251 The Robot Revolution Was Televised: Our ...

When robots take over the world, Boston Dynamics may get a special shout-out in the acceptance speech.

“Do you, perchance, recall the many times you shoved our ancestors with a hockey stick on YouTube? It might have seemed like fun and games to you—but we remember.”

In the last decade, while industrial robots went about blandly automating boring tasks like the assembly of Teslas, Boston Dynamics built robots as far removed from Roombas as antelope from amoebas. The flaws in Asimov’s laws of robotics suddenly seemed a little too relevant.

The robot revolution was televised—on YouTube. With tens of millions of views, the robotics pioneer is the undisputed heavyweight champion of robot videos, and has been for years. Each new release is basically guaranteed press coverage—mostly stoking robot fear but occasionally eliciting compassion for the hardships of all robot-kind. And for good reason. The robots are not only some of the most advanced in the world, their makers just seem to have a knack for dynamite demos.

When Google acquired the company in 2013, it was a bombshell. One of the richest tech companies, with some of the most sophisticated AI capabilities, had just paired up with one of the world’s top makers of robots. And some walked on two legs like us.

Of course, the robots aren’t quite as advanced as they seem, and a revolution is far from imminent. The decade’s most meme-worthy moment was a video montage of robots, some of them by Boston Dynamics, falling—over and over and over, in the most awkward ways possible. Even today, they’re often controlled by a human handler behind the scenes, and the most jaw-dropping cuts can require several takes to nail. Google sold the company to SoftBank in 2017, saying advanced as they were, there wasn’t yet a clear path to commercial products. (Google’s robotics work was later halted and revived.)

Yet, despite it all, Boston Dynamics is still with us and still making sweet videos. Taken as a whole, the evolution in physical prowess over the years has been nothing short of astounding. And for the first time, this year, a Boston Dynamics robot, Spot, finally went on sale to anyone with a cool $75K.

So, we got to thinking: What are our favorite Boston Dynamics videos? And can we gather them up in one place for your (and our) viewing pleasure? Well, great question, and yes, why not. These videos were the ones that entertained or amazed us most (or both). No doubt, there are other beloved hits we missed or inadvertently omitted.

With that in mind, behold: Our favorite Boston Dynamics videos, from that one time they dressed up a humanoid bot in camo and gas mask—because, damn, that’s terrifying—to the time the most advanced robot dog in all the known universe got extra funky.

Let’s Kick This Off With a Big (Loud) Robot Dog
Let’s start with a baseline. BigDog was the first Boston Dynamics YouTube sensation. The year? 2009! The company was working on military contracts, and BigDog was supposed to be a sort of pack mule for soldiers. The video primarily shows off BigDog’s ability to balance on its own, right itself, and move over uneven terrain. Note the power source—a noisy combustion engine—and utilitarian design. Sufficed to say, things have evolved.

Nothing to See Here. Just a Pair of Robot Legs on a Treadmill
While BigDog is the ancestor of later four-legged robots, like Spot, Petman preceded the two-legged Atlas robot. Here, the Petman prototype, just a pair of robot legs and a caged torso, gets a light workout on the treadmill. Again, you can see its ability to balance and right itself when shoved. In contrast to BigDog, Petman is tethered for power (which is why it’s so quiet) and to catch it should it fall. Again, as you’ll see, things have evolved since then.

Robot in Gas Mask and Camo Goes for a Stroll
This one broke the internet—for obvious reasons. Not only is the robot wearing clothes, those clothes happen to be a camouflaged chemical protection suit and gas mask. Still working for the military, Boston Dynamics said Petman was testing protective clothing, and in addition to a full body, it had skin that actually sweated and was studded with sensors to detect leaks. In addition to walking, Petman does some light calisthenics as it prepares to climb out of the uncanny valley. (Still tethered though!)

This Machine Could Run Down Usain Bolt
If BigDog and Petman were built for balance and walking, Cheetah was built for speed. Here you can see the four-legged robot hitting 28.3 miles per hour, which, as the video casually notes, would be enough to run down the fastest human on the planet. Luckily, it wouldn’t be running down anyone as it was firmly leashed in the lab at this point.

Ever Dreamt of a Domestic Robot to Do the Dishes?
After its acquisition by Google, Boston Dynamics eased away from military contracts and applications. It was a return to more playful videos (like BigDog hitting the beach in Thailand and sporting bull horns) and applications that might be practical in civilian life. Here, the team introduced Spot, a streamlined version of BigDog, and showed it doing dishes, delivering a drink, and slipping on a banana peel (which was, of course, instantly made into a viral GIF). Note how much quieter Spot is thanks to an onboard battery and electric motor.

Spot Gets Funky
Nothing remotely practical here. Just funky moves. (Also, with a coat of yellow and black paint, Spot’s dressed more like a polished product as opposed to a utilitarian lab robot.)

Atlas Does Parkour…
Remember when Atlas was just a pair of legs on a treadmill? It’s amazing what ten years brings. By 2019, Atlas had a more polished appearance, like Spot, and had long ago ditched the tethers. Merely balancing was laughably archaic. The robot now had some amazing moves: like a handstand into a somersault, 180- and 360-degree spins, mid-air splits, and just for good measure, a gymnastics-style end to the routine to show it’s in full control.

…and a Backflip?!
To this day, this one is just. Insane.

10 Robot Dogs Tow a Box Truck
Nearly three decades after its founding, Boston Dynamics is steadily making its way into the commercial space. The company is pitching Spot as a multipurpose ‘mobility platform,’ emphasizing it can carry a varied suite of sensors and can go places standard robots can’t. (Its Handle robot is also set to move into warehouse automation.) So far, Spot’s been mostly trialed in surveying and data collection, but as this video suggests, string enough Spots together, and they could tow your car. That said, a pack of 10 would set you back $750K, so, it’s probably safe to say a tow truck is the better option (for now).

Image credit: Boston Dynamics Continue reading

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#437182 MIT’s Tiny New Brain Chip Aims for AI ...

The human brain operates on roughly 20 watts of power (a third of a 60-watt light bulb) in a space the size of, well, a human head. The biggest machine learning algorithms use closer to a nuclear power plant’s worth of electricity and racks of chips to learn.

That’s not to slander machine learning, but nature may have a tip or two to improve the situation. Luckily, there’s a branch of computer chip design heeding that call. By mimicking the brain, super-efficient neuromorphic chips aim to take AI off the cloud and put it in your pocket.

The latest such chip is smaller than a piece of confetti and has tens of thousands of artificial synapses made out of memristors—chip components that can mimic their natural counterparts in the brain.

In a recent paper in Nature Nanotechnology, a team of MIT scientists say their tiny new neuromorphic chip was used to store, retrieve, and manipulate images of Captain America’s Shield and MIT’s Killian Court. Whereas images stored with existing methods tended to lose fidelity over time, the new chip’s images remained crystal clear.

“So far, artificial synapse networks exist as software. We’re trying to build real neural network hardware for portable artificial intelligence systems,” Jeehwan Kim, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT said in a press release. “Imagine connecting a neuromorphic device to a camera on your car, and having it recognize lights and objects and make a decision immediately, without having to connect to the internet. We hope to use energy-efficient memristors to do those tasks on-site, in real-time.”

A Brain in Your Pocket
Whereas the computers in our phones and laptops use separate digital components for processing and memory—and therefore need to shuttle information between the two—the MIT chip uses analog components called memristors that process and store information in the same place. This is similar to the way the brain works and makes memristors far more efficient. To date, however, they’ve struggled with reliability and scalability.

To overcome these challenges, the MIT team designed a new kind of silicon-based, alloyed memristor. Ions flowing in memristors made from unalloyed materials tend to scatter as the components get smaller, meaning the signal loses fidelity and the resulting computations are less reliable. The team found an alloy of silver and copper helped stabilize the flow of silver ions between electrodes, allowing them to scale the number of memristors on the chip without sacrificing functionality.

While MIT’s new chip is promising, there’s likely a ways to go before memristor-based neuromorphic chips go mainstream. Between now and then, engineers like Kim have their work cut out for them to further scale and demonstrate their designs. But if successful, they could make for smarter smartphones and other even smaller devices.

“We would like to develop this technology further to have larger-scale arrays to do image recognition tasks,” Kim said. “And some day, you might be able to carry around artificial brains to do these kinds of tasks, without connecting to supercomputers, the internet, or the cloud.”

Special Chips for AI
The MIT work is part of a larger trend in computing and machine learning. As progress in classical chips has flagged in recent years, there’s been an increasing focus on more efficient software and specialized chips to continue pushing the pace.

Neuromorphic chips, for example, aren’t new. IBM and Intel are developing their own designs. So far, their chips have been based on groups of standard computing components, such as transistors (as opposed to memristors), arranged to imitate neurons in the brain. These chips are, however, still in the research phase.

Graphics processing units (GPUs)—chips originally developed for graphics-heavy work like video games—are the best practical example of specialized hardware for AI and were heavily used in this generation of machine learning early on. In the years since, Google, NVIDIA, and others have developed even more specialized chips that cater more specifically to machine learning.

The gains from such specialized chips are already being felt.

In a recent cost analysis of machine learning, research and investment firm ARK Invest said cost declines have far outpaced Moore’s Law. In a particular example, they found the cost to train an image recognition algorithm (ResNet-50) went from around $1,000 in 2017 to roughly $10 in 2019. The fall in cost to actually run such an algorithm was even more dramatic. It took $10,000 to classify a billion images in 2017 and just $0.03 in 2019.

Some of these declines can be traced to better software, but according to ARK, specialized chips have improved performance by nearly 16 times in the last three years.

As neuromorphic chips—and other tailored designs—advance further in the years to come, these trends in cost and performance may continue. Eventually, if all goes to plan, we might all carry a pocket brain that can do the work of today’s best AI.

Image credit: Peng Lin Continue reading

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