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BlackSky will track COVID-19 impact for Air Force

BlackSky, a satellite data venture with offices in Seattle, says it’s won a U.S. Air Force contract to track the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on military interests worldwide.

The contract calls for BlackSky to monitor U.S. military bases overseas and assess the status of supply chains, using its AI-enabled Spectra geospatial data analysis platform.

Spectra can analyze satellite data as well as news feeds and social media postings to identify anomalies worth following up on with additional imagery or investigation. The data inputs include imagery from BlackSky’s own satellite constellation as well as from other sources.

BlackSky has benefited from Pentagon contracts for years, but this latest project focuses on impacts related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The approach was demonstrated for GeekWire back in May, when BlackSky executives showed how satellite images could be compared to detect an unusual rise or fall in, say, the number of cars parked in a lot outside a given installation. That could point to places where social distancing is decreasing or increasing.

Spectra can also analyze activity at airports, loading docks, maintenance facilities, fuel storage depots and other key installations to assess how supply chains might be affected by pandemic-related bottlenecks.

Such analyses can be compared with reported infection numbers coming from local governments, and integrated into computer models to predict the risk to deployed Air Force personnel and the surrounding communities.

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How BlackSky uses AI to analyze satellite views

Color-coded satellite view
A color-coded satellite map of an area in northern Virginia shows that parking lots around Dulles Town Center are relatively open, as noted by the oval-shaped patchwork of green blocks just above the center of the image. But other parking lots, noted in shades of orange and red, are relatively busy. Such geospatial information can serve as a measure of economic activity and traffic congestion. (BlackSky Image)

How do you know when a region’s economy has recovered from the coronavirus pandemic? You could wait for the verdict from the unemployment figures, gather reports from individual businesses and scan news reports about business reopeniings. You could count how many cars show up in the parking lots of factories and shopping centers. Or you could just let Spectra do all of that.

Seattle-based BlackSky’s Spectra geospatial data platform can combine satellite imagery and other data inputs to generate insights that are greater than the sum of their parts. It’ll even use AI-enabled image recognition to count the cars.

As the COVID-19 crisis progresses, Spectra is learning how to recognize the early signs of recovery, or the telltale signs of a rebound.

“That’s what BlackSky is really all about: How can we inform you that something is happening, or something is going to happen, before you hear it from anywhere else?” said Patrick O’Neil, director of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

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Boeing rolls out first ‘Loyal Wingman’ AI drone

A Boeing-led team has presented the Royal Australian Air Force with its first “Loyal Wingman” aircraft, an AI-equipped drone that’s designed to fly in coordination with crewed military airplanes.

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Software tools for COVID-19 research go viral

COVID-19 study connections
This graph charts the connections that link dozens of research studies about coronavirus and related subjects. (Covidgraph.org)

One month after the debut of the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, or CORD-19, the database of coronavirus-related research papers has doubled in size – and has given rise to more than a dozen software tools to channel the hundreds of studies that are being published every day about the pandemic.

In a roundup published on the ArXiv preprint server this week, researchers from Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Microsoft Research and other partners in the project say CORD-19’s collection has risen from about 28,000 papers to more than 52,000. Every day, several hundred more papers are being published, in peer-reviewed journals and on preprint servers such as BioRxiv and MedRxiv.

CORD-19 aims to make sense of them all, using the Semantic Scholar academic search engine developed by the Allen Institute for AI, also known as AI2.

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White House enlists AI for war on coronavirus

CORD-19 logo
The logo for the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, or CORD-19, is a stylized coronavirus. (CORD-19 Graphic)

A consortium of tech leaders — including Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Microsoft and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s charity — today unveiled an AI-enabled database that’s meant to give researchers quicker, surer access to resources relating to coronavirus and how to stop it.

The COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, or CORD-19, was created in response to a request from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. It takes advantage of AI tools to organize more than 24,000 articles about the COVID-19 disease and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes it.

“We think that AI has an important part to play in solving this problem,” said Doug Raymond, general manager for the Semantic Scholar academic search engine at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, also known as AI2.

AI2’s CEO, Oren Etzioni, said his team leapt at the opportunity to participate in CORD-19. “We hesitated all of negative-two seconds,” he joked.

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Advisers ask for virus research to be open for AI

CDC Emergency Operations Center
Staff members at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support the COVID-19 response in the CDC’s Emergency Operations Center. (CDC Photo)

Science advisers for the White House and 11 other national governments are asking publishers around the world to provide free and open access to all research relating to coronaviruses.

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White House’s top techie touts AI trends

Michael Kratsios
White House chief technology officer Michael Kratsios speaks at last year’s Web Summit in Portugal. (Web Summit via YouTube)

One year after the White House kicked off the American AI Initiative, its effects on research and development in the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence are just beginning to sink in.

And Michael Kratsios, the White House’s chief technology officer, says those effects are sure to be felt in Seattle — where industry leaders including Amazon and Microsoft, and leading research institutions including the University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, are expanding the AI frontier.

This month, funding for AI emerged as one of the bright spots in a budget proposal that would reduce R&D spending on other fronts. Kratsios said the White House conducted a “cross-cut” analysis of non-defense spending on AI research, and found that it amounted to nearly $1 billion.

“We made the big step of announcing, a couple of weeks ago, a doubling of AI R&D over two years,” he told me this week in an interview marking the anniversary of the American AI Initiative.

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Microsoft’s Eric Horvitz sees AI-human synergy

Eric Horvitz
Eric Horvitz, the director of Microsoft Research Labs, discusses trends in artificial intelligence during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Artificial intelligence is often portrayed as a rising competitor for human intelligence, in settings ranging from human-vs.-machine card games to the “Terminator” movie series. But according to Eric Horvitz, the director of Microsoft Research Labs, the hottest trends in AI have more to do with creating synergies between the humans and the machines.

Mastering human-AI collaboration is something “we don’t hear enough about in the open press,” Horvitz said Feb. 15 during a lecture at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

He ticked off several examples where humans and AI agents can create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

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Bill Gates touts AI and gene editing for global health

Margaret Hamburg and Bill Gates
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates makes a point during a Q&A with Margaret Hamburg, board chair for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has been working to improve the state of global health through his nonprofit foundation for 20 years, and today he told the nation’s premier scientific gathering that advances in artificial intelligence and gene editing could accelerate those improvements exponentially in the years ahead.

“We have an opportunity with the advance of tools like artificial intelligence and gene-based editing technologies to build this new generation of health solutions so that they are available to everyone on the planet. And I’m very excited about this,” Gates said in Seattle during a keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Such tools promise to have a dramatic impact on several of the biggest challenges on the agenda for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, created by the tech guru and his wife in 2000.

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AI2 sets up robo-challenge in virtual and real rooms

RoboTHOR Challenge
The RoboTHOR 2020 Challenge will test how well computer models for visual identification and navigation translate into real-world robotic performance. (AI2 Illustration / Winson Han)

Computer vision and navigation have improved by leaps and bounds, thanks to artificial intelligence, but how well do the computer models work in the real world?

That’s the challenge that Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence is setting for AI researchers over the next few months, with geek fame and glory as the prize.

AI2’s RoboTHOR Challenge, which kicks off today, capitalizes on years of work that’s been done to train AI agents in synthetic environments.

Ani Kembhavi, a research scientist at AI2, says RoboTHOR focuses on the next step. “If you can train a deep-learning, computer vision model to do something in an embodied environment … how well would this model work when deployed in an actual robot?” he told GeekWire.

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