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‘Three Little Pigs’ demonstrate Neuralink’s brain implant

With grudging assistance from a trio of pigs, Neuralink co-founder Elon Musk showed off the startup’s state-of-the-art neuron-reading brain implant and announced that the system has received the Food and Drug Administration’s preliminary blessing as an experimental medical device.

During today’s demonstration at Neuralink’s headquarters in Fremont, Calif., it took a few minutes for wranglers to get the swine into their proper positions for what Musk called his “Three Little Pigs demonstration.”

One of the pigs was in her natural state, and roamed unremarkably around her straw-covered pen. Musk said the second pig had been given a brain implant that was later removed, showing that the operation could be reversed safely.

After some difficulty, a third pig named Gertrude was brought into her pen. As she rooted around in the straw, a sequence of jazzy electronic beeps played through the sound system. Musk said the tones were sounded whenever nerves in the pig’s snout triggered electrical impulses that were picked up by her brain implant.

“The beeps you’re hearing are real-time signals from the Neuralink in Gertrude’s head,” he said.

Eventually, Neuralink’s team plans to place the implants in people, initially to see if those who have become paralyzed due to spinal cord injuries can regain motor functions through thought alone.

Musk said the implant received a Breakthrough Device designation from the FDA last month. That doesn’t yet clear the way for human clinical trials, but it does put Neuralink on the fast track for consultation with the FDA’s experts during preparations for such trials.

Neuralink has received more than $150 million in funding, with roughly two-thirds of that support coming from Musk himself. Today he said the venture had about 100 employees. He expects that number to grow. “Over time, there might be 10,000 or more people at Neuralink,” he said.

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DARPA lets robots take over nuclear plant

DARPA Subterranean Challenge
 CSIRO Data61’s Brett Wood, checks the team’s Titan robot and piggyback drone just before a robot run in the Urban Circuit of DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

SATSOP, Wash. — Amid the ruins of what was meant to be a nuclear power plant, a robot catches a whiff of carbon dioxide — and hundreds of feet away, its master perks up his ears.

“I think I’ve got gas sensing,” Fletcher Talbot, the designated human operator for Team CSIRO Data61 in DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge, told teammates who were bunkered with him in the bowels of the Satsop nuclear reactor site near Elma.

Moments after Talbot fed the coordinates into a computer, a point appeared on the video scoreboard mounted on a wall of the bunker. “Hey, nice,” one member of the team said, and the whole squad broke into a short burst of applause.

Then it was back to the hunt.

The robot’s discovery marked one small step in the Subterranean Challenge, a multimillion-dollar competition aimed at promoting the development of autonomous robots to seek out and identify victims amid the rubble of an urban disaster area, or hazards hidden in the alleys of a hostile cityscape.

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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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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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Amazon patents ‘Doctor Who’ delivery robots

Storage compartment vehicle
A diagram from Amazon’s patent application shows a customer issuing a command to open up one of the doors on a storage compartment vehicle. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Amazon is already testing robots that deliver packages, but a newly issued patent covers a far more ambitious scheme, involving storage compartment vehicles that can roam the sidewalks to make multiple deliveries along their routes.

As described in the patent application published today, Amazon’s proposed SCVs could pick up items for return as well.

If the plan is fully implemented, it could address the “last mile” or “final 50 feet” challenge for delivery systems by having customers come out to the sidewalk, tap the required security code on their smartphones, and open up the right doors to grab the items they’ve ordered.

There’s no guarantee that we’ll see treaded SCVs roaming the street anytime soon. Amazon says its patent applications explore the full possibilities of new technologies — but those inventions don’t always get turned into new products and services as described in the applications. Sometimes the inventions never see the light of day. (Just ask Jeff Bezos about the airbag-cushioned smartphone he invented.)

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ANA Avatar XPRIZE teams go to the next level

Avatar at work
The ANA Avatar XPRIZE aims to encourage the development of devices that will allow travelers to experience remote locales virtually. (ANA Avatar XPRIZE via YouTube)

Seventy-seven teams from 19 countries around the globe have qualified to participate in the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition, which aims to promote the development of robotic systems that let travelers connect with far-flung locales virtually.

The roster of competitors includes 27 teams from the United States, ranging from Boston University’s Robotics and Ambient Intelligence Labs to Virtual Vegas.

There are teams from international robotic hot spots such as Japan and South Korea as well as from emerging tech frontiers such as Brazil and Jordan.

“The incredible geographical diversity represented by the 77 teams moving forward will provide the unique perspectives necessary to develop transformative avatar technology capable of transcending physical limitations and expanding the capacity of humankind itself,” David Locke, prize director at the Los Angeles-based XPRIZE founation, said today in a news release.

With Japan’s All Nippon Airways as the title sponsor, the ANA Avatar XPRIZE will challenge teams to come up with physical, non-autonomous robotic avatar systems that enable a human operator to see, hear and interact with a remote environment in real time.

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Study: AI takes aim at high-paying jobs

Job exposure map
A map by the Brookings Institution uses shades of pink and red to indicate which cities are expected to be hard-hit by job disruption related to AI. (Brookings Graphic / Source: Brookings Analysis of Webb, 2019)

When experts talk about the disruptive effects of artificial intelligence, they tend to focus on low-paid laborers — but a newly published study suggests higher-paid, more highly educated workers will be increasingly exposed to job challenges.

The study puts Seattle toward the top of the list for AI-related job disruption.

The analysis, which draws on work by researchers at Stanford University and the Brookings Institution, makes use of a novel technique that connects AI-related patents with the job descriptions for different professions.

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PNNL plays role in new AI research center

Roberto Gioiosa
Roberto Gioiosa, a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, will lead a new research center focusing on challenges in artificial intelligence. (PNNL Photo)

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is joining forces with two other research powerhouses to pioneer a new $5.5 million research center created by the U.S. Department of Energy to focus on the biggest challenges in artificial intelligence.

The Center for Artificial Intelligence-Focused Architectures and Algorithms, or ARIAA, will promote collaborative projects for scientists at PNNL in Richland, Wash., at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, and at Georgia Tech. PNNL and Sandia are part of the Energy Department’s network of research labs.

ARIAA will be headed by Roberto Gioiosa, a senior research scientist at PNNL. As center director, he’ll be in charge of ARIAA’s overall vision, strategy and research direction. He’ll be assisted by two deputy directors, Sandia’s Rajamanickam and Georgia Tech Professor Tushar Krishna.

The creation of the new center is in line with the White House’s efforts to encourage partnerships in AI research. Last month, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced the establishment of the DOE Artificial Intelligence and Technology Office to serve as a coordinating hub for all the work that’s being done in his department.

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SonoSite and AI2 add AI to ultrasound imaging

Ultrasound imaging
Air Force Staff Sgt. Christine Blanco performs an ultrasound examination on a patient in Afghanistan. (Air Force Photo / Justyn M. Freeman)

A new collaboration between Fujifilm SonoSite and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence aims to use AI to generate better interpretations of ultrasound images, opening the way for new applications and enhanced accuracy.

The collaboration demonstrates how Pacific Northwest connections can pay off: Fujifilm SonoSite, a subsidiary of Japan’s Fujifilm that’s headquartered in Bothell, Wash., reached out to the startup incubator at the Seattle-based institute, known as AI2, for advice on improving their compact ultrasound imaging systems.

“The AI2 Incubator was a perfect place to look for help in creating breakthrough technology,” Rich Fabian, SonoSite’s president and chief operating officer, said in a news release. “They have the type of talent that is hard to recruit, combined with the hunger of a startup. We look forward to collaborating more.”

Ultrasound imaging is significantly more affordable and portable than X-ray imaging, CT scans or PET scans, with none of the downside associated with radiation exposure. “Ultrasound’s comparative disadvantage is its lower image quality, which we aim to address with the use of deep learning,” Vu Ha, technical director at the AI2 Incubator, told GeekWire in an email.

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