Do they really need the human touch?
- In Pinduoduo's Smart Agriculture Competition, four technology teams competed with traditional farmers over four months to grow strawberries.
- Data analysis, intelligent sensors and greenhouse automation helped the scientists win.
- Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as AI are forecast to deliver huge productivity gains – but need the right governance, according to the Global Technology Governance Report 2021.
Strawberries can be easy to grow – especially, it seems, if you're an algorithm.
When farmers in China competed to grow the fruit with technology including machine learning and artificial intelligence, the machines won, by some margin.
Data scientists produced 196% more strawberries by weight on average compared with traditional farmers.
The technologists also outperformed farmers in terms of return on investment by an average of 75.5%
The inaugural Smart Agriculture Competition was co-organized by Pinduoduo, China's largest agri-focused technology platform, and the China Agricultural University, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as a technical adviser.
Teams of data scientists competed over four months to grow strawberries remotely using Internet of Things technology coupled with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning-driven algorithms.
In the competition, the technology teams had the advantage of being able to control temperature and humidity through greenhouse automation, the organizers said. Using technology such as intelligent sensors, they were also more precise at controlling the use of water and nutrients. The traditional farmers had to achieve the same tasks by hand and experience.
One of the teams, Zhi Duo Mei, set up a company to provide its technology to farming cooperatives after it generated a lot of interest during the competition.
The contest helped the traditional farmers and the data scientists better understand each other's work and how they could collaborate to everyone's advantage, the leader of the Zhi Duo Mei team, Cheng Biao, said.
Numerous studies show the potential for Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies like AI to boost economic growth and productivity.
By 2035, labour productivity in developed countries could rise by 40% due to the influence of AI, according to analysis from Accenture and Frontier Economics.
Sweden, the US and Japan are expected to see the highest productivity increases.
In its Future of Jobs Report 2020, the World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms.
Emerging technologies including AI and drones will also play a vital role in helping the world recover from COVID-19, according to a separate Forum report compiled with professional services firm Deloitte.
The Global Technology Governance Report 2021 considers some of the most important applications for these technologies – and the governance challenges that should be addressed for these technologies to reach their full potential.
Robot developers adapt the behavior of worm "blobs".
- Researchers at Georgia Tech adapt the behavior of worm "blobs" to robotic swarms.
- The goal is to utilize useful aspects of living systems in human-created ones.
- When part of a "blob," worms tend to survive better and have more capabilities than individually.
A new study looked at how California black worms work together to form "worm blobs" in order to model their behavior in moving swarms of simple robots. The "blob" formation, which can range in size from 10 to 50,000 worms, serves to protect the creatures from drying out and withstanding threats like strong heat.
The researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology focused on how thousands of the worms (Lumbriculus variegatus), about a centimeter in length each, can intertwine into an "active matter," which behaves as one. This self-organized shape-shifting blob allows the worms to achieve much more complex outcomes together than they would without getting hitched up.
The work promises to help engineers working on swarm robots to understand and adapt the mechanics of how such blobs behave.
Saad Bhamla, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech's School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, highlighted that being in a group is beneficial to the worms' survival:
"We were curious about why these worms would form these living blobs," said Bhamla. "We have now shown through mathematical models and biological experiments that forming the blobs confers a kind of collective decision-making that enables worms in a larger blob to survive longer against desiccation."
The scientists also showed that the worms in a blob can move together, exhibiting unique collective behavior. The capabilities of the blob are much more than anything the individuals can do on their own. Studying these blobs helps researchers who are looking to transfer the key traits of living systems to ones designed by humans. Swarm robots, in particular, are built around the idea that individual robots must collaborate to be able to engage in complex actions.
Collective worm and robot "blobs" protect individuals, swarm together
The worms were studied closely by the research associate Yasemin Ozkan-Aydi, whose experiments included testing the blob's responsiveness to temperature and light changes and creating a "worm gymnasium", which allowed her to gauge the strength of the worms. To create a worm blob, she took the worms out of water. When they couldn't find the water, they came together in a ball-like blob. The worms would trade off on who would be on the outside of the blob, where most evaporation took place. This allowed the collective to suffer less of an effect from the lack of liquid. The researchers concluded that being in a blob helped the worms survive 10 times longer when being out of water, compared to individual worms.
Georgia Tech research associate Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin holds a smarticle blob as Georgia Tech Assistant Professor Saad Bhamla holds a worm blob.
Credit: Christopher Moore, Georgia Tech
Professor Daniel Goldman, in whose lab these experiments were carried out, pointed to the unexpected smartness of what the worms did.
"They would certainly want to reduce desiccation, but the way in which they would do this is not obvious and points to a kind of collective intelligence in the system," explained Goldman. "They are not just surface-minimizing machines. They are looking to exploit good conditions and resources."
This intelligence of the worms was also on display in heat experiments, where the cooperation between the worms in the blob allowed them to slink away from hot spots, dramatically improving their survival chances. Moving as a blob, 95% of the worms made it to the cold side.
Ozkan-Aydin incorporated the observations of worm behavior into small robotic blobs made of "smart active particles" or "smarticles." She pinned six 3D-printed robots which featured two arms and two light sensors in a mesh, essentially entangling them similarly to the worms. She then programmed and tested different movements the robots could perform, finding that the robot swarms "generate emergent behavior that is similar to what we saw in the worms."
You can check out the new study "Collective dynamics in entangled worm and robot blobs" published in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The new tool may someday be used in work that needs a light touch.
- A team of engineers has developed a shape shifting tool that can grasp strangely shaped objects.
- Unlike robots based on claws, this device can wrap around objects for a better grip.
- It could be commercially available in as little as a year.
Dr. Thanh Nho Do, the UNSW Medical Robotics Lab director, and Ph.D. candidate Trung Thien Hoang were the senior and lead authors of a study published in Advanced Materials Technologies this month describing the device.
Most grippers used by individuals, professionals, or industrial machines are based on the human hand or a claw. While there are advantages to this design, it is not ideal for grabbing oddly shaped objects or ones that are much larger or smaller than the grabber itself. They can also be challenging to use with fragile items.
This is where this new design stands out.
As a long and flat object, it can take advantage of having a larger surface area than a hand or claw. This increases the holding force without needing to apply more pressure, a principle that would be known to anyone who has tried to hold something with their fingernails rather than their palm. The coiling motion is made possible by the "manufacturing process involving computerised apparel engineering and applied newly designed, highly sensitive liquid metal-based tactile sensors for detecting the grip force required," according to study co-author Professor Nigel Lovell.
It also features a very precise force sensor, which allows it to detect how much grip is needed and to prevent it from breaking the object. The grabber's ability to change shape is considered a further advantage, as it allows it to enter into small spaces to collect items, as seen in the demonstration with a pencil in a tube.
A prototype gripper used during testing weighed a mere 8.2 grams and lifted an object of 1.8 kilograms (almost 4 pounds) – that's more than 220 times the gripper's mass. Another one that was 11.8 inches long wrapped around an item with a diameter of 1.2 inches. The production methods for the device are scaleable, and variations of the design can be made much larger.
The researchers suggest that the tool could find wide application in fields where fragile objects are handled, such as agriculture, the exploration industries, rescue operations, assistant services, and other areas where claw or hand-shaped grippers are impractical or sub-optimal.
Dr. Do has also stated, "We are also working on combining the gripper with our recently announced wearable haptic glove device, which would enable the user to remotely control the gripper while experiencing what an object feels like at the same time."
He also suggested that the gripper could be mass-produced for commercial use within a year if a manufacturing partner can be found.
Researchers design microdevices that can gradually deliver medicine by latching on to intestines.
- A research team from Johns Hopkins University designs microdevices that can deliver medicine.
- The tiny robots are based on parasite hookworms.
- The machines can latch on to the intestines and gradually release pain-relieving drugs.
Researchers created tiny devices that can deliver drugs to the body by attaching themselves to a person's intestines.
The research team was led by engineering professor David Gracias and gastroenterologist Florin M. Selaru from Johns Hopkins University. The scientists took inspiration from the hookworm – parasitic worm that is known to dig its sharp teeth into the intestines of the host. The scientists created shape-shifting microdevices called "theragrippers" that can mimic the worm and latch on to the intestinal mucosa of a patient.
The six-pointed devices, each as large as a dust speck, are made of metal and thin film that can allow them to change shapes. They are covered by a heat-sensitive paraffin wax and have the potential to release a drug gradually into the body. This method improves upon other extended-release drugs that tend to go all the way through the gastrointestinal tract before fully dispensing all medicine.
"Normal constriction and relaxation of GI tract muscles make it impossible for extended-release drugs to stay in the intestine long enough for the patient to receive the full dose," explained Selaru." We've been working to solve this problem by designing these small drug carriers that can autonomously latch onto the intestinal mucosa and keep the drug load inside the GI tract for a desired duration of time."
The scientists say that thousands such devices can be let loose in a GI tract. As the wax coating on tiny robots matches the body's inside temperature, theraggrippers automatically close and latch on to the wall of the colon. As they do so and dig into the mucosa, they start slowly releasing the stored medicine. In time, the devices lose their grip on the intestine tissue and leave the organ through usual gastrointestinal function.
March of the microscopic robots
The very small robots don't rely on electricity or wireless signals, and don't have room for batteries, antennas, or any external controls, explained Gracias. Instead, the grippers work like "small, compressed springs with a temperature-triggered coating" which releases the stored energy.
In the trial, the researchers managed to fit about 6,000 such devices on a 3-inch silicon wafer. Experiments on rats showed a successful dispersion of pain-relieving drugs into the bloodstreams.
Check out the new study published in Science Advances.
The pandemic has given us an early glimpse at how truly disruptive the fourth industrial revolution may be, and the measures we'll need to support human dignity.
- The coronavirus crisis has acted as a catalyst for two powerful transformative forces: automation and universal basic income.
- These two intertwined forces will undoubtedly gain steam, writes Frederick Kuo, and the pandemic will hasten the acceptance of them from a scale of decades to years or mere months.
- This crisis has ushered in a glimpse of what a dystopian future could look like as a rapidly advancing fourth industrial revolution inevitably causes severe disruption in our economy and labor structure.
The coronavirus pandemic has sent the global economy into a tailspin posing a twisted choice to humankind between economic survival or our very health. Markets are crashing, numbers of infected people and deaths soaring by the day and a massive part of the global economy forced into a standstill as people shelter in place. Looking out the window, the world still looks the same. The sun is still shining, the leaves still rustle in the wind and birds still chirp merrily as if nothing was amiss. However there is no mistaking a collective sense of mourning that the world is feeling as normal daily routines and freedoms we took for granted have come to a sudden halt. Amidst the constant barrage of gloomy news however, this crisis shall inevitably pass. But the world post-COVID-19 will not be the same; the crisis has acted as a catalyst for powerful transformative forces such as automation and the need for universal basic income, two intertwined forces that will undoubtedly gain steam.
COVID-19 will expedite automation
As the mobility of human beings grinds to a halt due to public health directives and fears of infection, our need for food, resources and social connection has forced us to increasingly rely on technology to fill urgent gaps. In the United States, Amazon is seizing this opportunity to further entrench its domination, while in China, robots are being deployed to serve those in quarantine. In a world where fear of contact with other humans has become pervasive, businesses that can adapt quickly and significantly automate their supply lines and cut points of human contact stand to thrive in this new market.
Whereas before this crisis, the need for automation was mainly driven by the desire for increased profits and improved efficiency, the momentous shift in public consciousness today regarding simple human contact may make automation almost a necessity for many businesses to survive. When humans trust a robot to handle or deliver their food or goods more than they trust another human, or when crowded workplaces present public health hazards, jobs for humans will be unceremoniously eliminated. Given existing technologies, experts have estimated 36 million jobs may be vulnerable, ranging from trucking and delivery to food service and repetitive white collar jobs, the labor market may face a significant restructure driven by new technology and a radically altered market for those technologies. In a recent survey conducted by auditing firm Ernst & Young, more than half of company bosses throughout 45 countries had begun implementing existing plans to fast track automation.
This crisis has compacted the timeline of a gradual acceptance of an automated future from years into months.
The crisis of unemployment has become real for tens of millions locked down around the world. Although this phase is likely to be temporary with normality expected to return by the third quarter, the process of entrenching automation in our daily lives will be radically pushed forward. This crisis has compacted the timeline of a gradual acceptance of an automated future from years into months. In Seattle, Amazon has pioneered Amazon Go, a small grocery that relies on cameras and sensors to charge customers for what they buy instead of a checkout line. With Amazon already in control of a major grocery chain, Whole Foods, one could imagine that this little, fully automated store could serve as a template for a nationwide expansion of this technology, thus reducing the once-vital role of the cashier nearly overnight. Similar rollouts of automation models will likely follow in the coming years, affecting warehouse employees, delivery people, food service personnel and more.
Mainstream acceptance of UBI
In early 2019, Andrew Yang began gaining news coverage regarding the central theme of his presidential campaign: $1,000 a month in universal basic income (UBI) dispersed to every American. His primary argument for the necessity of this safety net rested on the belief that the coming age of automation was about to inundate vast scores of our current jobs with a shrinking percentage of elite tech corporations gobbling up more and more of the profit. When Yang first introduced his vision, it seemed to belong to a remote dystopian future with little relevance to the booming economy and low unemployment figures that was the reality until only weeks ago. On the right, he was lambasted as a communist seeking to turn American citizens into dependents to the state. On the left, his ideas were dismissed as other Democratic hopefuls touted the Green New Deal and job programs.
Fast forward to today and Andrew Yang's UBI theory has moved straight into the forefront. Trump, perhaps cognizant that the "Yang Gang" pulled a great deal of support from his own supporters, quickly recognized the popularity of his ideas and the need to provide supplemental income to Americans as shelter-in-place directives began to take hold throughout the country. The massive $2 trillion coronavirus emergency stimulus will provide every American earning $75,000 or less, regardless of current employment, a check of $1,200 per person and $500 per child for the duration of the crisis. There has been little debate over the necessity of this measure because it has proven to be widely popular to the public, regardless of political standing. It lifts some of the immediate and pressing need to work and helps take some of the edge off from isolating at home, thus contributing to a quicker resolution of this health crisis by sending fewer people out into the streets.
Although the pandemic and the stimulus check is temporary, this crisis has ushered in a glimpse of what a dystopian future would look like as a rapidly advancing fourth industrial revolution inevitably causes severe disruption in our economy and labor structure.
Although the stimulus package is a stopgap measure to deal with this crisis, its absolute necessity during this crisis has validated Yang's prophetic vision of a dystopian future where work no longer becomes possible for huge swathes of the American people. The reality is that the after effects of this crisis will be felt for at least months after the pandemic ends. There is little security for either the business owners or employees of food service businesses, bars, hair and nail salons and essentially any business that requires large crowds of people to gather and interact. To the initial detractors of UBI who argued that the program would breed laziness and a welfare state, the reality is that for most workers thrown into the sea of uncertainty, receiving a stimulus check will provide a small lifeline but will ultimately be of little solace to individuals who are accustomed to earning far more and who derive a sense of pride and satisfaction from their jobs. For most of those impacted by loss of employment, supplemental income in the form of a UBI helps take the edge off but it is ultimately no replacement for having a job or business.
Although the pandemic and the stimulus check is temporary, this crisis has ushered in a glimpse of what a dystopian future would look like as a rapidly advancing fourth industrial revolution inevitably causes severe disruption in our economy and labor structure. Automation and artificial intelligence are coming and will significantly alter the way we work, shop, eat and socialize. As society experiences the disruptive force of technology and draws on our collective experiences fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, UBI may become a permanent fixture of our political economy as well.