Category Archives: Artificial Intelligence

Be warned. If the rise of the robots comes to pass, the apocalypse may be a more squelchy affair than science fiction writers have prepared us for.

Scientists use stem cells from frogs to build first living robots

Researchers foresee myriad benefits for humanity, but also acknowledge ethical issues

Be warned. If the rise of the robots comes to pass, the apocalypse may be a more squelchy affair than science fiction writers have prepared us for.

Researchers in the US have created the first living machines by assembling cells from African clawed frogs into tiny robots that move around under their own steam.

One of the most successful creations has two stumpy legs that propel it along on its “chest”. Another has a hole in the middle that researchers turned into a pouch so it could shimmy around with miniature payloads.

“These are entirely new lifeforms. They have never before existed on Earth,” said Michael Levin, the director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. “They are living, programmable organisms.”

Roboticists tend to favour metal and plastic for their strength and durability, but Levin and his colleagues see benefits in making robots from biological tissues. When damaged, living robots can heal their wounds, and once their task is done they fall apart, just as natural organisms decay when they die.

Their unique features mean that future versions of the robots might be deployed to clean up microplastic pollution in the oceans, locate and digest toxic materials, deliver drugs in the body or remove plaque from artery walls, the scientists say.

“It’s impossible to know what the applications will be for any new technology, so we can really only guess,” said Joshua Bongard, a senior researcher on the team at the University of Vermont.

The robots, which are less than 1mm long, are designed by an “evolutionary algorithm” that runs on a supercomputer. The program starts by generating random 3D configurations of 500 to 1,000 skin and heart cells. Each design is then tested in a virtual environment, to see, for example, how far it moves when the heart cells are set beating. The best performers are used to spawn more designs, which themselves are then put through their paces.

Because heart cells spontaneously contract and relax, they behave like miniature engines that drive the robots along until their energy reserves run out. The cells have enough fuel inside them for the robots to survive for a week to 10 days before keeling over.

The scientists waited for the computer to churn out 100 generations before picking a handful of designs to build in the lab. They used tweezers and cauterising tools to sculpt early-stage skin and heart cells scraped from the embryos of African clawed frogs, Xenopus laevis. The source of the cells led the scientists to call their creations “xenobots”.

A xenobot with four limbs

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A xenobot with four ‘limbs’. Photograph: Douglas Blackiston

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers describe how they set the robots loose in dishes of water to keep the frog cells alive. Some crept along in straight lines, while others looped around in circles or teamed up with others as they moved around.

“These are very small, but ultimately the plan is to make them to scale,” said Levin. Xenobots might be built with blood vessels, nervous systems and sensory cells, to form rudimentary eyes. By building them out of mammalian cells, they could live on dry land.

Sam Kriegman, a PhD student on the team at the University of Vermont, acknowledged that the work raised ethical issues, particularly given that future variants could have nervous systems and be selected for cognitive capability, making them more active participants in the world. “What’s important to me is that this is public, so we can have a discussion as a society and policymakers can decide what is the best course of action.”

Traces left by xenobots as they move through a field of particulate matter

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Traces left by xenobots as they move through a field of particulate matter. Photograph: Douglas Blackiston

He was less concerned about xenobots posing any threat to humankind. “If you watch the video, it’s hard to fear that these things are taking over any time soon,” he said.

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But the work aims to achieve more than just the creation of squidgy robots. “The aim is to understand the software of life,” Levin said. “If you think about birth defects, cancer, age-related diseases, all of these things could be solved if we knew how to make biological structures, to have ultimate control over growth and form.”

The research is funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s lifelong learning machines programme, which aims to recreate biological learning processes in machines.

Thomas Douglas, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, said: “There are interesting ethical questions about the moral status of these xenobots. At what point would they become beings with interests that ought to be protected? I think they’d acquire moral significance only if they included neural tissue that enabled some kind of mental life, such as the ability to experience pain.

“But some are more liberal about moral status. They think that all living creatures have interests that should be given some moral consideration. For these people, difficult questions could arise about whether these xenobots should be classified as living creatures or machines.”

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Ban ‘Killer’ Robots "Before It Is Too Late": Activists Urge UN

India’s disarmament ambassador Amandeep Gill, who chairs the Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons talks, told reporters “good progress” had been made on Killer robot negotiations.

World | Agence France-Presse | Updated: August 28, 2018 02:20 IST

Ban 'Killer' Robots 'Before It Is Too Late': Activists Urge UN

Activists of the Campaign to Ban Killer Robots have urged the banning of so-called killer robots

Geneva:

Countries should quickly agree a treaty banning the use of so-called killer robots “before it is too late”, activists said Monday as talks on the issue resumed at the UN.

They say time is running out before weapons are deployed that use lethal force without a human making the final kill-order and have criticised the UN body hosting the talks — the Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) — for moving too slowly.

“Killer robots are no longer the stuff of science fiction,” Rasha Abdul Rahim, Amnesty International’s advisor on artificial intelligence and human rights, said in a statement.

“From artificially intelligent drones to automated guns that can choose their own targets, technological advances in weaponry are far outpacing international law,” she said.

“We are calling on states to take concrete steps to halt the spread of these dangerous weapons… before it is too late.”

Her comments came as a CCW group of governmental experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems began a week-long meeting in Geneva.

The world body hosted the first-ever killer robot negotiations last year and India’s disarmament ambassador Amandeep Gill, who chairs the CCW talks, told reporters “good progress” had been made since then.

Yet countries have yet to agree on which path to take in addressing such weapons.

The number of states calling for an outright killer robot ban has increased, with campaigners saying at least 26 are now onboard.

But the states believed to have the most advanced autonomous weapons, including the United States, France, Britain and Israel, have not committed to any form of binding mechanism restricting their use.

The way forward is expected to be determined this week or at a broader CCW conference in November, but the requirement to reach consensus could prove a stumbling block.

Activists are pushing nations to move on to formal negotiations on a binding treaty within the CCW.

Prevent ‘dystopian scenarios’

The Campaign to Ban Killer Robots stressed Monday that without clear progress in that direction, negotiations could also happen outside of the confines of the CCW convention.

“We are willing and able to take it outside of the UN if it is blocked by consensus,” campaign member Jody Williams, who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her work towards a treaty banning landmines, told journalists in Geneva.

Activists meanwhile took heart at growing awareness in the private sector and academia of the threat posed by weapons that entirely rely on machine intelligence in deciding what to kill.

“We have actually seen a lot of action… from the private sector,” Peter Asaro, of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, told reporters.

He pointed in particular to Google’s decision in June to fold to pressure from its own employees and retreat from a deal to help the US military use artificial intelligence to analyse drone video.

He said there was a growing realisation that “there needs to be human accountability. There needs to be human control.”

Amnesty’s Rahim meanwhile insisted that “it’s not too late to change course.”

COMMENT“A ban on fully autonomous weapons systems could prevent some truly dystopian scenarios.”

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Superbugs, Climate Chaos Have Bill Gates and the UN Worried

Jonathan Tirone / February 18, 2017, 11:41 AM CST February 18, 2017, 6:00 PM CST

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates joined the United Nations to warn world leaders about a new series of threats shaping up as megatrends, led by global warming, superbugs and artificial intelligence.

U.S. Vice President Michael Pence and trans-Atlantic military officials were on the receiving end of the warnings issued by Gates, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They all said that the world isn’t prepared to deal with the emerging risks.

“The next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus, or a super contagious and deadly strain of the flu,” said Gates, whose private foundation helps combat public health and global warming problems. “Getting ready for a global pandemic is every bit as important as nuclear deterrence and avoiding a climate catastrophe.”

Even as trans-Atlantic leaders focus on the immediate risks from refugee flows and military conflicts on their peripheries, they’re being forced to pay attention to accelerating climate and technological threats. Global interconnections — from trade and travel to communication technologies — could potentially amplify the risks. There is a “reasonable probability” catastrophe may cost tens of millions of lives in the next decade, Gates said in a speech.

“The problems of peace and security in the future will have new dimensions for which we must be prepared,” Guterres said. “It is important to understand the linkages of today’s global mega trends.”

Climate Chaos Rising

Source: World Meteorological Organization

While the UN’s top official named climate change and population growth as the top security threats, he also flagged the need for leaders to begin thinking about international regulations on genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

Huge Risks

“There are huge risks in security dimensions but also in ethical dimensions,” he said. There’s a “lack of knowledge in government, in international government about what these new areas represent.” He said the private sector is clearly ahead with scientific and technological breakthroughs that are “changing the nature of relations in our world.”

Merkel, who on Friday spoke privately with Guterres about refugees and climate policy before delivering a speech ahead of the new U.S. vice president, similarly discussed the new threats challenging her government.

“We have new conflicts that have arisen due to civil war, due to the growth of population, due to climate change and there is an increasing interconnectedness,” Merkel said.

Support Offered

Pence, who led a U.S. delegation to the Munich Security Conference that included secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, James Mattis and John Kelly, offered the allies support without talking about emerging threats from climate change or pathogens.

The reluctance to address looming climate and technology risks shouldn’t be too surprising, said Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer.

“With so many immediate crises at hand, it’s hard to talk about the bigger picture,” he said.

Gates, the world’s richest man, left Microsoft in 2014 to direct his time and $85.1 billion of accumulated wealth toward solving some of the world’s most intractable problems. His Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is active worldwide with grants to improve health and human development. 

In December, gates opened a $1 billion investment fund for clean energy and has tried to convince U.S. President Donald Trump to support green energy.

“The global good will evidenced at the historic Paris climate talks a year ago give us a chance to prevent the worst effects of climate change,” he said. “Innovation, cooperation and careful planning can dramatically mitigate the risks.”

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