Teaching robots to evolve autonomously / Humans + Tech - #66

+ Ultrasound blasts 'jumpstarted' the brains of 2 people in coma-like state + AI applied to tax systems can help discover shelters, support equality + Other interesting articles from around the web


The articles this week gave me a lot to think about. Read them below and then come back to these questions:

  1. What if all biological life on Earth was designed by another lifeform to come to Earth to evolve on our own and explore the planet on their behalf? If so, we’ve not been successful, as it looks like we are destroying the planet instead.

  2. If we only model robots to evolve as humans do, can we ever transcend an evolutionary model? Wouldn’t we only keep creating different lifeforms built on the same basic principles (similar to the movie, Matrix Revolutions)?

  3. If/when robots are capable of prayer, the religion that they follow will most likely be controlled by the groups were involved in their development. How will this influence our societies, ethics, morals, and beliefs?

Let me know your thoughts. I’m interested in gaining different perspectives on these topics.

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We're teaching robots to evolve autonomously—so they can adapt to life alone on distant planets

The Autonomous Robot Evolution (ARE) project is a collaboration between scientists and engineers from four universities to develop robots that can evolve on their own—both in software and hardware. The ultimate goal is to send robots to explore other planets and allow them to evolve on their own to survive in different unpredictable environments [Emma Hart, The Conversation].

We use a new kind of hybrid hardware-software evolutionary architecture for design. That means that every physical robot has a digital clone. Physical robots are performance-tested in real-world environments, while their digital clones enter a software programme, where they undergo rapid simulated evolution. This hybrid system introduces a novel type of evolution: new generations can be produced from a union of the most successful traits from a virtual “mother” and a physical “father”.

As well as being rendered in our simulator, “child” robots produced via our hybrid evolution are also 3D-printed and introduced into a real-world, creche-like environment. The most successful individuals within this physical training centre make their “genetic code” available for reproduction and for the improvement of future generations, while less “fit” robots can simply be hoisted away and recycled into new ones as part of an ongoing evolutionary cycle.

They have even developed a brain that is refined by a learning algorithm based on the sensory information from the environment and how a new robot moves, to account for mismatches between its new body and its inherited brain.

They could also be used on earth for tasks that are too dangerous for humans, such as cleaning up waste in a nuclear reactor.

Ultrasound blasts 'jumpstarted' the brains of 2 people in coma-like state

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, have been successful in using ultrasound to reawaken certain functions of the brain in patients who are in a “minimally conscious state” (MCS) [David Nield, Science Alert].

The method uses ultrasound stimulation to excite the neurons in the thalamus, a processing hub for the whole brain, and a region that's known to be weaker after a coma. Two 10-minute treatment sessions were given to three MCS patients, with a week between each session.

While one patient showed no response, researchers observed significant improvements in the other two patients. The research builds on similar findings from 2016, involving one patient who was recovering from surgery and a medically induced coma. In the new study, the coma-like states had lasted much longer.

One patient, a 56-year-old man, who had been in MCS for over 14 months, could look towards photos of relatives upon hearing their names and drop and grasp a ball on demand. Another 50-year-old woman, in MCS for over two-and-a-half years, was able to understand speech and recognise basic objects after the treatment.

Although one of the three patients did not respond to the treatment, having a potential route to improvement that can help some people is still very positive.

AI applied to tax systems can help discover shelters, support equality

Countries worldwide are employing AI tools to identify tax evasion, smuggling, undeclared income, and money laundering [AI Trends].

Denmark has implemented AI tools that detect 85 out of every 100 cases of tax evasion.

France uses AI tools to analyse social media to detect signs of tax evasion, smuggling, and undeclared income.

India is using an AI tool to identify bogus firms and tax evasion.

Tax practitioners are also using AI to identify areas for tax savings.

“The complexity of tax rules make it a challenge for any organization to stay compliant, much less reduce their tax liabilities. Therefore, artificial intelligence is well suited for tasks that require a deep analysis of the tax codes,” stated Luís Aires, independent VAT consultant and tax advisor, based in Lisbon, Portugal, writing recently in VATupdate. “Using years of previous tax documentation as a foundation for learning, the AI application can provide an in-depth understanding of the tax codes and stays on top of yearly changes. As a result, it’s easier for tax practitioners to identify key areas for possible savings.”  

Aries notes that as tax authorities increase their use of AI tools to identify tax evaders, there needs to be some thought and dialogue around handling algorithmic bias and accountability when machines make decisions, as well as privacy.

Meanwhile, AI researchers at Salesforce are studying if AI can make tax policy fairer. They’ve developed a tool called AI Economist designed to optimise for equality, productivity, or sustainability.

Other interesting articles from around the web

🛐 Machine in the Ghost [Ed Simon, Aeon]

A deeply thoughtful article that contemplates what will happen to our definition of the soul, our religious beliefs, and our ideas about free will and providence, if/when AI transcends human intelligence.

Often grouped with other transhumanists who optimistically predict a coming millennium of digital transcendence, Kurzweil is a believer in what’s often called the ‘Singularity’, the moment at which humanity’s collective computing capabilities supersede our ability to understand the machines that we’ve created, and presumably some sort of artificial consciousness develops. While bracketing out the details, let’s assume that Kurzweil is broadly correct that, at some point in this century, an AI will develop that outstrips all past digital intelligences. If it’s true that automata can then be as funny, romantic, loving and sexy as the best of us, it could also be assumed that they’d be capable of piety, reverence and faith. When it’s possible to make not just a wind-up clock monk, but a computer that’s actually capable of prayer, how then will faith respond?

This, I contend, will be the central cultural conflict for religion in this century. 

🧠 Scientists are weaving human brain cells into microchips [Dan Robitzski, Futurism]

The human brain is still the most sophisticated computing processor. Researchers are trying to harness this power by integrating brain stem cells into AI microchips.

“Our aim is to harness the unrivaled computing power of the human brain to dramatically increase the ability of computers to help us solve complex problems,” Aston University mathematician David Saad said in the release. “We believe this project has the potential to break through current limitations of processing power and energy consumption to bring about a paradigm shift in machine learning technology.”

💗 Artificial intelligence must not be allowed to replace the imperfection of human empathy [Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, The Conversation]

One thing to be cheerful about is the likelihood that AI will never be a substitute for human philosophy and intellectuality. To be a philosopher, after all, requires empathy, an understanding of humanity, and our innate emotions and motives. If we can programme our machines to understand such ethical standards, then AI research has the capacity to improve our lives which should be the ultimate aim of any technological advance. 

But if AI research yields a new ideology centred around the notion of perfectionism and maximum productivity, then it will be a destructive force that will lead to more wars, more famines and more social and economic distress, especially for the poor. At this juncture of global history, this choice is still ours.

Quote of the week

“Artificial intelligence is at the heart of the epochal change we are experiencing. Robotics can make a better world possible if it is joined to the common good. Indeed, if technological progress increases inequalities, it is not true progress. Future advances should be oriented towards respecting the dignity of the person and of Creation.”

—Pope Francis, Nov 5, 2020