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#437282 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

OpenAI’s Latest Breakthrough Is Astonishingly Powerful, But Still Fighting Its Flaws
James Vincent | The Verge
“What makes GPT-3 amazing, they say, is not that it can tell you that the capital of Paraguay is Asunción (it is) or that 466 times 23.5 is 10,987 (it’s not), but that it’s capable of answering both questions and many more beside simply because it was trained on more data for longer than other programs. If there’s one thing we know that the world is creating more and more of, it’s data and computing power, which means GPT-3’s descendants are only going to get more clever.”

I Tried to Live Without the Tech Giants. It Was Impossible.
Kashmir Hill | The New York Times
“Critics of the big tech companies are often told, ‘If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.’ My takeaway from the experiment was that it’s not possible to do that. It’s not just the products and services branded with the big tech giant’s name. It’s that these companies control a thicket of more obscure products and services that are hard to untangle from tools we rely on for everything we do, from work to getting from point A to point B.”

Meet the Engineer Who Let a Robot Barber Shave Him With a Straight Razor
Luke Dormehl | Digital Trends
“No, it’s not some kind of lockdown-induced barber startup or a Jackass-style stunt. Instead, Whitney, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern University School of Engineering, was interested in straight-razor shaving as a microcosm for some of the big challenges that robots have faced in the past (such as their jerky, robotic movement) and how they can now be solved.”

Can Trees Live Forever? New Kindling in an Immortal Debate
Cara Giaimo | The New York Times
“Even if a scientist dedicated her whole career to very old trees, she would be able to follow her research subjects for only a small percentage of their lives. And a long enough multigenerational study might see its own methods go obsolete. For these reasons, Dr. Munné-Bosch thinks we will never prove’ whether long-lived trees experience senescence…”

There’s No Such Thing as Family Secrets in the Age of 23andMe
Caitlin Harrington | Wired
“…technology has a way of creating new consequences for old decisions. Today, some 30 million people have taken consumer DNA tests, a threshold experts have called a tipping point. People conceived through donor insemination are matching with half-siblings, tracking down their donors, forming networks and advocacy organizations.”

The Problems AI Has Today Go Back Centuries
Karen Hao | MIT Techology Review
“In 2018, just as the AI field was beginning to reckon with problems like algorithmic discrimination, [Shakir Mohamed, a South African AI researcher at DeepMind], penned a blog post with his initial thoughts. In it he called on researchers to ‘decolonise artificial intelligence’—to reorient the field’s work away from Western hubs like Silicon Valley and engage new voices, cultures, and ideas for guiding the technology’s development.”

AI-Generated Text Is the Scariest Deepfake of All
Renee DiResta | Wired
“In the future, deepfake videos and audiofakes may well be used to create distinct, sensational moments that commandeer a press cycle, or to distract from some other, more organic scandal. But undetectable textfakes—masked as regular chatter on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and the like—have the potential to be far more subtle, far more prevalent, and far more sinister.”

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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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#437202 Scientists Used Dopamine to Seamlessly ...

In just half a decade, neuromorphic devices—or brain-inspired computing—already seem quaint. The current darling? Artificial-biological hybrid computing, uniting both man-made computer chips and biological neurons seamlessly into semi-living circuits.

It sounds crazy, but a new study in Nature Materials shows that it’s possible to get an artificial neuron to communicate directly with a biological one using not just electricity, but dopamine—a chemical the brain naturally uses to change how neural circuits behave, most known for signaling reward.

Because these chemicals, known as “neurotransmitters,” are how biological neurons functionally link up in the brain, the study is a dramatic demonstration that it’s possible to connect artificial components with biological brain cells into a functional circuit.

The team isn’t the first to pursue hybrid neural circuits. Previously, a different team hooked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one into a circuit using electrical protocols alone. Although a powerful demonstration of hybrid computing, the study relied on only one-half of the brain’s computational ability: electrical computing.

The new study now tackles the other half: chemical computing. It adds a layer of compatibility that lays the groundwork not just for brain-inspired computers, but also for brain-machine interfaces and—perhaps—a sort of “cyborg” future. After all, if your brain can’t tell the difference between an artificial neuron and your own, could you? And even if you did, would you care?

Of course, that scenario is far in the future—if ever. For now, the team, led by Dr. Alberto Salleo, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, collectively breathed a sigh of relief that the hybrid circuit worked.

“It’s a demonstration that this communication melding chemistry and electricity is possible,” said Salleo. “You could say it’s a first step toward a brain-machine interface, but it’s a tiny, tiny very first step.”

Neuromorphic Computing
The study grew from years of work into neuromorphic computing, or data processing inspired by the brain.

The blue-sky idea was inspired by the brain’s massive parallel computing capabilities, along with vast energy savings. By mimicking these properties, scientists reasoned, we could potentially turbo-charge computing. Neuromorphic devices basically embody artificial neural networks in physical form—wouldn’t hardware that mimics how the brain processes information be even more efficient and powerful?

These explorations led to novel neuromorphic chips, or artificial neurons that “fire” like biological ones. Additional work found that it’s possible to link these chips up into powerful circuits that run deep learning with ease, with bioengineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.

As a potential computing hardware replacement, these systems have proven to be incredibly promising. Yet scientists soon wondered: given their similarity to biological brains, can we use them as “replacement parts” for brains that suffer from traumatic injuries, aging, or degeneration? Can we hook up neuromorphic components to the brain to restore its capabilities?

Buzz & Chemistry
Theoretically, the answer’s yes.

But there’s a huge problem: current brain-machine interfaces only use electrical signals to mimic neural computation. The brain, in contrast, has two tricks up its sleeve: electricity and chemicals, or electrochemical.

Within a neuron, electricity travels up its incoming branches, through the bulbous body, then down the output branches. When electrical signals reach the neuron’s outgoing “piers,” dotted along the output branch, however, they hit a snag. A small gap exists between neurons, so to get to the other side, the electrical signals generally need to be converted into little bubble ships, packed with chemicals, and set sail to the other neuronal shore.

In other words, without chemical signals, the brain can’t function normally. These neurotransmitters don’t just passively carry information. Dopamine, for example, can dramatically change how a neural circuit functions. For an artificial-biological hybrid neural system, the absence of chemistry is like nixing international cargo vessels and only sticking with land-based trains and highways.

“To emulate biological synaptic behavior, the connectivity of the neuromorphic device must be dynamically regulated by the local neurotransmitter activity,” the team said.

Let’s Get Electro-Chemical
The new study started with two neurons: the upstream, an immortalized biological cell that releases dopamine; and the downstream, an artificial neuron that the team previously introduced in 2017, made of a mix of biocompatible and electrical-conducting materials.

Rather than the classic neuron shape, picture more of a sandwich with a chunk bitten out in the middle (yup, I’m totally serious). Each of the remaining parts of the sandwich is a soft electrode, made of biological polymers. The “bitten out” part has a conductive solution that can pass on electrical signals.

The biological cell sits close to the first electrode. When activated, it dumps out boats of dopamine, which drift to the electrode and chemically react with it—mimicking the process of dopamine docking onto a biological neuron. This, in turn, generates a current that’s passed on to the second electrode through the conductive solution channel. When this current reaches the second electrode, it changes the electrode’s conductance—that is, how well it can pass on electrical information. This second step is analogous to docked dopamine “ships” changing how likely it is that a biological neuron will fire in the future.

In other words, dopamine release from the biological neuron interacts with the artificial one, so that the chemicals change how the downstream neuron behaves in a somewhat lasting way—a loose mimic of what happens inside the brain during learning.

But that’s not all. Chemical signaling is especially powerful in the brain because it’s flexible. Dopamine, for example, only grabs onto the downstream neurons for a bit before it returns back to its upstream neuron—that is, recycled or destroyed. This means that its effect is temporary, giving the neural circuit breathing room to readjust its activity.

The Stanford team also tried reconstructing this quirk in their hybrid circuit. They crafted a microfluidic channel that shuttles both dopamine and its byproduct away from the artificial neurons after they’ve done their job for recycling.

Putting It All Together
After confirming that biological cells can survive happily on top of the artificial one, the team performed a few tests to see if the hybrid circuit could “learn.”

They used electrical methods to first activate the biological dopamine neuron, and watched the artificial one. Before the experiment, the team wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Theoretically, it made sense that dopamine would change the artificial neuron’s conductance, similar to learning. But “it was hard to know whether we’d achieve the outcome we predicted on paper until we saw it happen in the lab,” said study author Scott Keene.

On the first try, however, the team found that the burst of chemical signaling was able to change the artificial neuron’s conductance long-term, similar to the neuroscience dogma “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Activating the upstream biological neuron with chemicals also changed the artificial neuron’s conductance in a way that mimicked learning.

“That’s when we realized the potential this has for emulating the long-term learning process of a synapse,” said Keene.

Visualizing under an electron microscope, the team found that, similar to its biological counterpart, the hybrid synapse was able to efficiently recycle dopamine with timescales similar to the brain after some calibration. By playing with how much dopamine accumulates at the artificial neuron, the team found that they loosely mimic a learning rule called spike learning—a darling of machine learning inspired by the brain’s computation.

A Hybrid Future?
Unfortunately for cyborg enthusiasts, the work is still in its infancy.

For one, the artificial neurons are still rather bulky compared to biological ones. This means that they can’t capture and translate information from a single “boat” of dopamine. It’s also unclear if, and how, a hybrid synapse can work inside a living brain. Given the billions of synapses firing away in our heads, it’ll be a challenge to find-and-replace those that need replacement, and be able to control our memories and behaviors similar to natural ones.

That said, we’re inching ever closer to full-capability artificial-biological hybrid circuits.

“The neurotransmitter-mediated neuromorphic device presented in this work constitutes a fundamental building block for artificial neural networks that can be directly modulated based on biological feedback from live neurons,” the authors concluded. “[It] is a crucial first step in realizing next-generation adaptive biohybrid interfaces.”

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#437171 Scientists Tap the World’s Most ...

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, the haughty supercomputer Deep Thought is asked whether it can find the answer to the ultimate question concerning life, the universe, and everything. It replies that, yes, it can do it, but it’s tricky and it’ll have to think about it. When asked how long it will take it replies, “Seven-and-a-half million years. I told you I’d have to think about it.”

Real-life supercomputers are being asked somewhat less expansive questions but tricky ones nonetheless: how to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. They’re being used in many facets of responding to the disease, including to predict the spread of the virus, to optimize contact tracing, to allocate resources and provide decisions for physicians, to design vaccines and rapid testing tools, and to understand sneezes. And the answers are needed in a rather shorter time frame than Deep Thought was proposing.

The largest number of Covid-19 supercomputing projects involves designing drugs. It’s likely to take several effective drugs to treat the disease. Supercomputers allow researchers to take a rational approach and aim to selectively muzzle proteins that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, needs for its life cycle.

The viral genome encodes proteins needed by the virus to infect humans and to replicate. Among these are the infamous spike protein that sniffs out and penetrates its human cellular target, but there are also enzymes and molecular machines that the virus forces its human subjects to produce for it. Finding drugs that can bind to these proteins and stop them from working is a logical way to go.

The Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a peak performance of 200,000 trillion calculations per second—equivalent to about a million laptops. Image credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy, CC BY

I am a molecular biophysicist. My lab, at the Center for Molecular Biophysics at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, uses a supercomputer to discover drugs. We build three-dimensional virtual models of biological molecules like the proteins used by cells and viruses, and simulate how various chemical compounds interact with those proteins. We test thousands of compounds to find the ones that “dock” with a target protein. Those compounds that fit, lock-and-key style, with the protein are potential therapies.

The top-ranked candidates are then tested experimentally to see if they indeed do bind to their targets and, in the case of Covid-19, stop the virus from infecting human cells. The compounds are first tested in cells, then animals, and finally humans. Computational drug discovery with high-performance computing has been important in finding antiviral drugs in the past, such as the anti-HIV drugs that revolutionized AIDS treatment in the 1990s.

World’s Most Powerful Computer
Since the 1990s the power of supercomputers has increased by a factor of a million or so. Summit at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is presently the world’s most powerful supercomputer, and has the combined power of roughly a million laptops. A laptop today has roughly the same power as a supercomputer had 20-30 years ago.

However, in order to gin up speed, supercomputer architectures have become more complicated. They used to consist of single, very powerful chips on which programs would simply run faster. Now they consist of thousands of processors performing massively parallel processing in which many calculations, such as testing the potential of drugs to dock with a pathogen or cell’s proteins, are performed at the same time. Persuading those processors to work together harmoniously is a pain in the neck but means we can quickly try out a lot of chemicals virtually.

Further, researchers use supercomputers to figure out by simulation the different shapes formed by the target binding sites and then virtually dock compounds to each shape. In my lab, that procedure has produced experimentally validated hits—chemicals that work—for each of 16 protein targets that physician-scientists and biochemists have discovered over the past few years. These targets were selected because finding compounds that dock with them could result in drugs for treating different diseases, including chronic kidney disease, prostate cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, thrombosis and bacterial infections.

Scientists are using supercomputers to find ways to disable the various proteins—including the infamous spike protein (green protrusions)—produced by SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19. Image credit: Thomas Splettstoesser scistyle.com, CC BY-ND

Billions of Possibilities
So which chemicals are being tested for Covid-19? A first approach is trying out drugs that already exist for other indications and that we have a pretty good idea are reasonably safe. That’s called “repurposing,” and if it works, regulatory approval will be quick.

But repurposing isn’t necessarily being done in the most rational way. One idea researchers are considering is that drugs that work against protein targets of some other virus, such as the flu, hepatitis or Ebola, will automatically work against Covid-19, even when the SARS-CoV-2 protein targets don’t have the same shape.

Our own work has now expanded to about 10 targets on SARS-CoV-2, and we’re also looking at human protein targets for disrupting the virus’s attack on human cells. Top-ranked compounds from our calculations are being tested experimentally for activity against the live virus. Several of these have already been found to be active.The best approach is to check if repurposed compounds will actually bind to their intended target. To that end, my lab published a preliminary report of a supercomputer-driven docking study of a repurposing compound database in mid-February. The study ranked 8,000 compounds in order of how well they bind to the viral spike protein. This paper triggered the establishment of a high-performance computing consortium against our viral enemy, announced by President Trump in March. Several of our top-ranked compounds are now in clinical trials.

Also, we and others are venturing out into the wild world of new drug discovery for Covid-19—looking for compounds that have never been tried as drugs before. Databases of billions of these compounds exist, all of which could probably be synthesized in principle but most of which have never been made. Billion-compound docking is a tailor-made task for massively parallel supercomputing.

Dawn of the Exascale Era
Work will be helped by the arrival of the next big machine at Oak Ridge, called Frontier, planned for next year. Frontier should be about 10 times more powerful than Summit. Frontier will herald the “exascale” supercomputing era, meaning machines capable of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second.

Although some fear supercomputers will take over the world, for the time being, at least, they are humanity’s servants, which means that they do what we tell them to. Different scientists have different ideas about how to calculate which drugs work best—some prefer artificial intelligence, for example—so there’s quite a lot of arguing going on.

Hopefully, scientists armed with the most powerful computers in the world will, sooner rather than later, find the drugs needed to tackle Covid-19. If they do, then their answers will be of more immediate benefit, if less philosophically tantalizing, than the answer to the ultimate question provided by Deep Thought, which was, maddeningly, simply 42.

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

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#436988 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

We Need to Start Modeling Alternative Futures
Andrew Marino | The Verge
“‘I’m going to be the first person to tell you if you gave me all the data in the world and all the computers in the world, at this moment in time I cannot tell you what things are going to look like in three months,’ [says quantitative futurist Amy Webb.] ‘And that’s fine because that tells us we still have some agency. …The good news is if you are willing to lean into uncertainty and to accept the fact that you can’t control everything, but also you are not helpless in whatever comes next.'”

The Dangers of Moving All of Democracy Online
Marion Fourcade and Henry Farrell | Wired
“As we try to protect democracy from coronavirus, we must see technology as a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. …If we’re very lucky, we’ll have restrained, targeted, and temporary measures that will be effective against the pandemic. If we’re not, we’ll create an open-ended, sweeping surveillance system that will undermine democratic freedoms without doing much to stop coronavirus.”

Why Does It Suddenly Feel Like 1999 on the Internet?
Tanya Basu and Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“You see it in the renewed willingness of people to form virtual relationships. …Now casually hanging out with randos (virtually, of course) is cool again. People are joining video calls with people they’ve never met for everything from happy hours to book clubs to late-night flirting. They’re sharing in collective moments of creativity on Google Sheets, looking for new pandemic pen pals, and sending softer, less pointed emails.”

Covid-19 Changed How the World Does Science, Together
Matt Apuzzo and David D. Kirkpatrick | The New York Times
“While political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history. Never before, researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency. Nearly all other research has ground to a halt.”

A Debate Between AI Experts Shows a Battle Over the Technology’s Future
Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“The disagreements [the two experts] expressed mirror many of the clashes within the field, highlighting how powerfully the technology has been shaped by a persistent battle of ideas and how little certainty there is about where it’s headed next.”

Meet the Xenobots, Virtual Creatures Brought to Life
Joshua Sokol | The New York Times
“If the last few decades of progress in artificial intelligence and in molecular biology hooked up, their love child—a class of life unlike anything that has ever lived—might resemble the dark specks doing lazy laps around a petri dish in a laboratory at Tufts University.”

Rivian Wants to Bring Electric Trucks to the Masses
Jon Gertner | Wired
“The pickup walks a careful line between Detroit traditionalism and EV iconoclasm. Where Tesla’s forthcoming Cybertruck looks like origami on wheels, the R1T, slim and limber, looks more like an F-150 on a gym-and-yoga regimen.”

The Promise and Peril of Nuclear Power
John R. Quain | Gizmodo
“To save us from the coming climate catastrophe, we need an energy hero, boasting limitless power and no greenhouse gas emissions (or nearly none). So it’s time, say some analysts, to resuscitate the nuclear energy industry. Doing so could provide carbon-free energy. But any plan to make nuclear power a big part of the energy mix also comes with serious financial risks as well as questions about if there’s enough time to enlist an army of nuclear power plants in the battle against the climate crisis.”

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