Category: Innovation

02 Apr 2020

This Startup’s Computer Chips Are Powered by Human Neurons

Biological “hybrid computer chips” could drastically lower the amount of power required to run AI systems.

Australian startup Cortical Labs is building computer chips that use biological neurons extracted from mice and humans, Fortune reports.

The goal is to dramatically lower the amount of power current artificial intelligence systems need to operate by mimicking the way the human brain.

According to Cortical Labs’ announcement, the company is planning to “build technology that harnesses the power of synthetic biology and the full potential of the human brain” in order to create a “new class” of AI that could solve “society’s greatest challenges.”

The mouse neurons are extracted from embryos, according to Fortune, but the human ones are created by turning skin cells back into stem cells and then into neurons.

The idea of using biological neurons to power computers isn’t new. Cortical Labs’ announcement comes one week after a group of European researchers managed to turn on a working neural network that allows biological and silicon-based brain cells to communicate with each other over the internet.

Researchers at MIT have also attempted to use bacteria, not neurons, to build a computing system in 2016.

As of right now, Cortical’s mini-brains have less processing power than a dragonfly brain. The company is looking to get its mouse-neuron-powered chips to be capable of playing a game of “Pong,” as CEO Hon Weng Chong told Fortune, following the footsteps of AI company DeepMind, which used the game to test the power of its AI algorithms back in 2013.

“What we are trying to do is show we can shape the behavior of these neurons,” Chong told Fortune.


18 Mar 2020


Brief Jolt
A team of engineers has figured out how to take a single drop of rain and use it to generate a powerful flash of electricity.

The City University of Hong Kong researchers behind the device, which they’re calling a droplet-based electricity generator (DEG), say that a single rain droplet can briefly generate 140 volts. That was enough to briefly power 100 small lightbulbs and, while it’s not yet practical enough for everyday use, it’s a promising step toward a new form of renewable electricity.

Forming Bridges
The DEG uses a “field-effect transistor-style structure,” Engadget reports, which can turn rainfall into short bursts of power.

The material the device is made from contains a quasi-permanent electrical charge, and the rain is merely what triggers the flow of energy, according to research published last week in the journal Nature.

Early Tests
The real trick will be finding a way to turn this technology into something that might be viable for people’s homes — for now, it’s not reliable enough to deliver a continuous supply of power, as it needs to charge up before it can let out another burst.

In the meantime, Engadget suggests, it could serve as a small, temporary power source on futuristic water bottles or umbrellas.


15 Mar 2020

Scientists Discover “Peculiar” Teardrop-Shaped Star

“I’ve been looking for a star like this for nearly 40 years and now we have finally found one.”

A team of astronomers have discovered a strange star that oscillates in a rhythmic pattern — but only on one side, causing gravitational forces to distort it into a teardrop shape.

“We’ve known theoretically that stars like this should exist since the 1980s,” said professor Don Kurtz from the University of Central Lancashire and co-author of the paper published in Nature Astronomy on Monday, in a statement. “I’ve been looking for a star like this for nearly 40 years and now we have finally found one.”

The star, known as HD74423, is about 1.7 times the mass of the Sun and was spotted around 1,500 light years from Earth — still within the confines of the Milky Way — using public data from NASA’s planet-hunting TESS satellite.

“What first caught my attention was the fact it was a chemically peculiar star,” said co-author Simon Murphy from the Sydney Institute for Astronomy at the University of Sydney in the statement. “Stars like this are usually fairly rich with metals – but this is metal poor, making it a rare type of hot star.”

Stars have been found to oscillate at different rhythms and to different degrees — including our own Sun. Astronomers suspect they’re caused by convection and magnetic field forces inside the star.

While the exact causes of these pulsations vary, these oscillations have usually been observed on all sides of the star. HD74423, however, was found to pulsate on only one side because of its red dwarf companion with which it makes up a binary star system.

They were found to do such a close dance — an orbital period of just two days — that the larger star is being distorted into a teardrop shape.

The astronomers suspect it won’t be the last of its kind to be discovered.

“We expect to find many more hidden in the TESS data,” said co-author Saul Rappaport, a professor at MIT.


07 Mar 2020

How to Leverage AI to Upskill Employees

Artificial intelligence is the answer to polishing math skills and plugging our workforce pipeline.


One of the largest economic revolutions of our time is unfolding around us. Technology, innovation and automation are redrawing the career paths of millions of people. Most headlines focus on the negative, i.e. machines taking our jobs. But in reality, these developments are opening up a world of opportunity for people who can make the move to a STEM career or upskill in their current job. There’s also another part to this story: How AI can help boost the economy by improving how we learn.

In 2018, 2.4 million STEM jobs in the U.S. went unfilled. That’s almost equal to the entire population of Los Angeles or Chicago. It’s a gap causing problems for employers trying to recruit and retain workers, whether in startups, small businesses or major corporations. We just don’t have enough workers.

The Unspoken Barrier 

The barrier preventing new or existing employees from adding to their skill set and filling the unfulfilled jobs? Math. Calculus to be specific. It has become a frustrating impediment to many people seeking a STEM career. For college students, the material is so difficult that one-third of them in the U.S. fail the related course or drop it out of frustration. For adults, learning calculus is not always compulsory for the day to day of every STEM job, but learning its principles can help sharpen logic and reasoning. Plus, simply understanding how calculus relates to real-world scenarios is helpful in many STEM jobs. Unfortunately, for many people, the thought of tackling any level of math is enough to scare them away from a new opportunity.  We need to stop looking at math as a way to filter people out of the STEM pipeline. We need to start looking at it as a way to help more people, including professionals looking to pivot careers.

How AI Can Change How Employees Learn

How do we solve this hurdle and fill plug the pipeline? Artificial intelligence. We often discuss how AI can be used to help data efficiencies and process automation, but AI can also assist in personal tutoring to get people over the barriers of difficult math. The recently released Aida Calculus app uses AI to create a highly personalized learning experience and is the first of its kind to use a very complex combination of AI algorithms that provide step-by-step feedback on equations and then serve up custom content showing how calculus works in the real world.

While the product is important, the vision behind it is much bigger. This is a really impactful application of AI for good. It also shows that math skills can be developed in everyone and technology like AI can change the way people learn difficult subjects. The goal is to engage anyone, be it a student or working adult, who is curious about how to apply math in their daily lives. By making calculus relevant and relatable, we can begin to instill the confidence people need to take on STEM careers, even if those jobs don’t directly use calculus.

Leveraging AI Through Human Development

When people boost their complex math skills or even their general understanding of basic math concepts, there’s a world of opportunity waiting. STEM jobs outearn non-STEM jobs by up to 30 percent in some cases. A 2017 study commissioned by Qualcomm suggested that 5G will create 22 million jobs globally by 2035. The U.S. Labor Department says that IT fields will add half a million new jobs in the next eight years and that jobs in information security will grow by 30 percent. Job growth in STEM is outpacing overall U.S. job growth. At the same time, Pearson’s own Global Learners Survey said that 61 percent of Americans are likely to change careers entirely. It’s a good time for that 61 percent to consider STEM.

To equip themselves for this new economy, people will have to learn how learn. Whether it’s math or any other subject, they’ll likely need to study again, and that is hard. But we can use innovation and technology to make the tough subjects a little easier and make the whole learning experience more personalized, helping a whole generation of people take advantage of the opportunity to become the engineers, data analysts and scientists we need.


29 Feb 2020

Human Intelligence and AI for Oncology advancement

As the Vatican workshop on ethics in Artificial Intelligence ends, Dr. Alexandru Floares speaks on the possibilities of medical innovation through collaboration between AI and human intellect.

The increase in the number of cancer cases worldwide is a major cause for concern for the medical community.

Doctor Alexandru Floares, a speaker at a 3-day workshop organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life on Ethics and Artificial Intelligence (AI), spoke to Vatican Radio on the potential for larger strides in the field of oncology and medical research through the efficiency that AI provides.

Dr. Floares, a Neurologist, specialist in AI applications in Oncology, and President of Solutions of Artificial Intelligence Applications (SAIA), gave a presentation titled “AI in Oncology.”

In his interview with Vatican Radio, Dr. Floares spoke on issues bordering on access to data for medical research, solutions to the emerging issues surrounding the use of AI in healthcare, and the revolutionary role of AI in the field of medicine.

“The problems related to applying AI to medicine and oncology can be solved relatively easily,” he said. “This means that when a problem is clearly and pragmatically formulated, it can be solved in a matter of months or at most a year. The benefits of applying AI in medicine, when we put them in a balance, are very important.”

Poor man’s Approach

Speaking on steps towards eliminating bias in data collection, Dr. Floares noted that bias is predominantly the fault of human data input into the algorithm and not an inbuilt AI defect.

“We should not blame the AI for poor results if we do not put in the proper data to assist the AI’s predictive capabilities,” he said.

Giving the example of his experience while collecting data for his molecular diagnostic test for cancer diagnosis, he expressed his suspicion of already available data. He rather opted for what he refers to as the “poor man approach.”

“I found mine to be better because the data is less biased. It is better to have 1,000 patients from various studies and to integrate them instead of having one big study with 1,000 patients because the data is less biased and so the predictive model behind the test is more robust, generating better to (represent) different kinds of population that were not involved when the system was developed. So the poor man’s strategy became a good strategy for fighting against bias in data.”

Checking misuse of AI and data

On the issue of the possible misuse of AI, Dr. Floares is of the opinion that the different actors in the field of AI will help curb excesses. 

“Collecting data is a good idea. I am on the optimistic side. I am sure there will be opposition too and all these forces working in different directions will create equilibrium for humanity. Hopefully the best.”

He furthermore insisted on active involvement in reining in excesses.

“Test AI systems. That is the most pragmatic way to do things to see if it is good or not. Instead of debating and having few actions,” he said.

AI revolution at hand

“A revolution that started in 2012 and is just showing its first impressive results… I did not believe that AI will ever beat the human in dealing with images because our brain – the result of evolution is very well developed. I realize that this is possible and the strategy is for human intelligence to collaborate with artificial intelligence. This will be the greatest team we have ever seen,” he said.


02 Feb 2020

How you can get your business ready for AI

  • 90% of executives see promise in the use of artificial intelligence.
  • AI set to add $15.7 trillion to global economy.
  • Only 4% planning major deployment of technology in 2020.

They say you have to learn to walk before you can run. It turns out the same rule applies when it comes to the rollout of artificial intelligence.

A new report on AI suggests that companies need to get the basics of the technology right before scaling up its use. In a PwC survey, 90% of executives said AI offers more opportunities than risks, but only 4% plan to deploy it enterprise-wide in 2020, compared with 20% who said they intended to do so in 2019.

Slow and steady wins the race

By 2030, AI could add $15.7 trillion to the global economy. But its manageable implementation is a global challenge. The World Economic Forum is working with industry experts and business leaders to develop an AI toolkit that will help companies understand the power of AI to advance their business and to introduce the technology in a sustainable way.

Focusing on the fundamentals first will allow organizations to lay the groundwork for a future that brings them all the rewards of AI.

Here are five things PwC’s report suggests companies can do in 2020 to prepare.

1. Embrace the humdrum to get things done

One of the key benefits that company leaders expect from investment in AI is the streamlining of in-house processes. The automation of routine tasks, such as the extrication of information from tax forms and invoices, can help companies operate more efficiently and make significant savings.

AI can already be used to manage the threat of fraud and cybersecurity – something that 38% of executives see as a key capability of the technology. For example, AI can recognize unauthorized network entry and identify malicious behaviour in software.

2. Turn training into real-world opportunity

For companies to be ready for AI at scale, they need to do more than just offer training opportunities. Employees have to be able to use the new skills they have learned, in a way that continuously improves performance.

It’s also important to make teams ‘multilingual’, with both tech and non-tech skills integrated across the business, so that colleagues can not only collaborate on AI-related challenges, but also decide which problems AI can solve.

3. Tackle risks and act responsibly

Along with helping employees to see AI not as a threat to their jobs but as an opportunity to undertake higher-value work, companies must ensure they have the processes, tools and controls to maintain strong ethics and make AI easy to understand. In some cases, this might entail collaboration with customers, regulators, and industry peers.

As AI usage continues to grow, so do public fears about the technology in applications such as facial recognition. That means risk management is becoming more critical. Yet not all companies have centralized governance around AI, and that could increase cybersecurity threats, by making the technology harder to manage and secure.

4. AI, all the time

Developing AI models requires a ‘test and learn’ approach, in which the algorithms are continually learning and the data is being refined. That is very different from the way that software is developed, and a different set of tools are needed. Machines learn through the input of data, and more – and better quality – data is key to the rollout of AI.

Some of AI’s most valuable uses come when it works 24/7 as part of broader operational systems, such as marketing or finance. That’s why leaders in the field are employing it across multiple functions and business units, and fully integrating it with broader automation initiatives and data analytics.

5. A business model for the future

It’s worth remembering that despite AI’s growing importance, it is still just one weapon in the business armoury. Its benefit could come through its use as part of a broader automation or business strategy.

Weaving it successfully into a new business model includes a commitment to employee training and understanding return on investment. For now, that investment could be as simple as using robotic process automation to handle customer requests.

AI’s impact may be incremental at first, but its gradual integration into business operations means that game-changing disruption and innovation are not far away.


28 Jan 2020

Here’s what AI experts think will happen in 2020

But it’s time to let the past go and point our bows toward the future. It’s no  longer possible to estimate how much the machine learning and AI markets are worth, because the line between what’s an AI-based technology and what isn’t has become so blurred that Apple, Microsoft, and Google are all “AI companies” that also do other stuff.

Your local electricity provider uses AI and so does the person who takes those goofy real-estate agent pictures you see on park benches. Everything is AI — an axiom that’ll become even truer in 2020.

We solicited predictions for the AI industry over the next year from a panel of experts, here’s what they had to say:

Marianna Tessel, CTO at Intuit

AI and human will collaborate. AI will not “replace humans,” it will collaborate with humans and enhance how we do things. People will be able to provide higher level work and service, powered by AI. At Intuit, our platform allows experts to connect with customers to provide tax advice and help small businesses with their books in a more accurate and efficient way, using AI. It helps work get done faster and helps customers make smarter financial decisions. As experts use the product, the product gets smarter, in turn making the experts more productive. This is the decade where, through this collaboration, AI will enhance human abilities and allow us to take our skills and work to a new level.

AI will eat the world in ways we can’t imagine today: AI is often talked about as though it is a Sci-Fi concept, but it is and will continue to be all around us. We can already see how software and devices have become smarter in the past few years and AI has already been incorporated into many apps. AI enriched technology will continue to change our lives, every day, in what and how we operate. Personally, I am busy thinking about how AI will transform finances – I think it will be ubiquitous. Just the same way that we can’t imagine the world before the internet or mobile devices, our day-to-day will soon become different and unimaginable without AI all around us, making our lives today seem so “obsolete” and full of “unneeded tasks.”

We will see a surge of AI-first apps: As AI becomes part of every app, how we design and write apps will fundamentally change. Instead of writing apps the way we have during this decade and add AI, apps will be designed from the ground up, around AI and will be written differently. Just think of CUI and how it creates a new navigation paradigm in your app. Soon, a user will be able to ask any question from any place in the app, moving it outside of a regular flow. New tools, languages, practices and methods will also continue to emerge over the next decade.

Jesse Mouallek, Head of Operations for North America at Deepomatic

We believe 2020 to be the year that industries that aren’t traditionally known to be adopters of sophisticated technologies like AI, reverse course. We expect industries like waste management, oil and gas, insurance, telecommunications and other SMBs to take on projects similar to the ones usually developed by the tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft and IBM. As the enterprise benefits of AI become more well-known, the industries outside of Silicon Valley will look to integrate these technologies.

If companies don’t adapt to the current trends in AI, they could see tough times in the future. Increased productivity, operational efficiency gains, market share and revenue are some of the top line benefits that companies could either capitalize or miss out on in 2020, dependent on their implementation. We expect to see a large uptick in technology adoption and implementation from companies big and small as real-world AI applications, particularly within computer vision, become more widely available.

We don’t see 2020 as another year of shiny new technology developments. We believe it will be more about the general availability of established technologies, and that’s ok. We’d argue that, at times, true progress can be gauged by how widespread the availability of innovative technologies is, rather than the technologies themselves. With this in mind, we see technologies like neural networks, computer vision and 5G becoming more accessible as hardware continues to get smaller and more powerful, allowing edge deployment and unlocking new use cases for companies within these areas.

Hannah Barnhardt, VP of Product Strategy Marketing at Deluxe Entertainment

2020 is the year AI/ML capabilities will be truly operationalized, rather than companies pontificating about its abilities and potential ROI. We’ll see companies in the media and entertainment space deploy AI/ML to more effectively drive investment and priorities within the content supply chain and harness cloud technologies to expedite and streamline traditional services required for going to market with new offerings, whether that be original content or Direct to Consumer streaming experiences.

Leveraging AI toolsets to automate garnering insights into deep catalogs of content will increase efficiency for clients and partners, and help uphold the high-quality content that viewers demand. A greater number of studios and content creators will invest and leverage AI/ML to conform and localize premium and niche content, therefore reaching more diverse audiences in their native languages.

Tristan Greene, reporter for The Next Web

I’m not an industry insider or a machine learning developer, but I covered more artificial intelligence stories this year than I can count. And I think 2019 showed us some disturbing trends that will continue in 2020. Amazon and Palantir are poised to sink their claws into the government surveillance business during what could potentially turn out to be President Donald Trump’s final year in office. This will have significant ramifications for the AI industry.

The prospect of an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders taking office shakes the Facebooks and Microsofts of the world to their core, but companies who are already deeply invested in providing law enforcement agencies with AI systems that circumvent citizen privacy stand to lose even more. These AI companies could be inflated bubbles that pop in 2021, in the meantime they’ll look to entrench with law enforcement over the next 12 months in hopes of surviving a Democrat-lead government.

Look for marketing teams to get slicker as AI-washing stops being such a big deal and AI rinsing — disguising AI as something else — becomes more common (ie: Ring is just a doorbell that keeps your packages safe, not an AI-powered portal for police surveillance, wink-wink).

Here’s hoping your 2020 is fantastic. And, if we can venture a final prediction: stay tuned to TNW because we’re going to dive deeper into the world of artificial intelligence in 2020 than ever before. It’s going to be a great year for humans and machines.


11 Jan 2020

Mind-reading technology lets you control tech with your brain — and it actually works

  • CES featured several products that let you control apps, games and devices with your mind.
  • The technology holds a lot of promise for gaming, entertainment and even medicine.
  • NextMind and FocusOne were two of the companies that showed off mind-control technology at CES this year.


LAS VEGAS — It’s not the self-driving cars, flying cars or even the dish-washing robots that stick out as the most transformative innovation at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show: It’s the wearable gadgets that can read your mind.

There’s a growing category of companies focused on the “Brain-Computer Interface.” These devices can record brain signals from sensors on the scalp (or even devices implanted within the brain) and translate them into digital signals. This industry is expected to reach $1.5 billion this year, with the technology used for everything from education and prosthetics, to gaming and smart home control.


This isn’t science fiction. I tried a couple of wearables that track brain activity at CES this week, and was surprised to find they really work. NextMind has a headset that measures activity in your visual cortex with a sensor on the back of your head. It translates the user’s decision of where to focus his or her eyes into digital commands.

“You don’t see with your eyes, your eyes are just a medium,” Next Mind CEO Sid Kouider said. “Your vision is in your brain, and we analyze your vision in your brain and we can know what you want to act upon and then we can modify that to basically create a command.”

Kouider said that this is the first time there’s been a brain-computer interface outside the lab, and the first time you can theoretically control any device by focusing your thoughts on them.

Wearing a Next Mind headset, I could change the color of a lamp — red, blue and green — by focusing on boxes lit up with those colors. The headset also replaced a remote control. Staring at a TV screen, I could activate a menu by focusing on a triangle in a corner of the screen. From there, focusing my eyes, I could change the channel, mute or pause video, just by focusing on a triangle next to each command.

“We have several use cases, but we are also targeting entertainment and gaming because that’s where this technology is going to have its best use,” Kouider said. “The experience of playing or applying it on VR for instance or augmented reality is going to create some new experiences of acting on a virtual world.”


Next Mind’s technology isn’t available to consumers yet, but the company is selling a $399 developer kit with the hope that other companies to create new applications.

“I think it’s going to still take some time until we nail … the right use case,” Kouider said. “That’s the reason we are developing this technology, to have people use the platform and develop their own use cases.”

Another company focused on the brain-computer interface, BrainCo, has the FocusOne headband, with sensors on the forehead measuring the activity in your frontal cortex. The “wearable brainwave visualizer” is designed to measure focus, and its creators want it to be used in schools.

“FocusOne is detecting the subtle electrical signals that your brain is producing,” BrainCo President Max Newlon said. “When those electrical signals make their way to your scalp, our sensor picks them up, takes a look at them and determines, ‘Does it look like your brain is in a state of engagement? Or does it look like your brain is in a state of relaxation?’”

Wearing the headband, I tried a video game with a rocket ship. The harder I focused, the faster the rocket ship moved, increasing my score. I then tried to get the rocket ship to slow down by relaxing my mind. A light on the front of the headband turns red when your brain is intensely focused, yellow if you’re in a relaxed state and blue if you’re in a meditative state. The headbands are designed to help kids learn to focus their minds, and to enable teachers to understand when kids are zoning out. The headband costs $350 for schools and $500 for consumers. The headset comes with software and games to help users understand how to focus and meditate.

BrainCo also has a prosthetic arm coming to market later this year, which will cost $10,000 to $15,000, less than half the cost of an average prosthetic. BrainCo’s prosthetic detects muscle signals and feeds them through an algorithm that can help it operate better over time, Newlon said.

“The thing that sets this prosthetic apart, is after enough training, [a user] can control individual fingers and it doesn’t only rely on predetermined gestures. It’s actually like a free-play mode where the algorithm can learn from him, and he can control his hands just like we do,” Newlon said.

Source: CNBC

09 Jan 2020

Before we augment people with tech, we’ll need proper rules

New technologies – from artificial intelligence to synthetic biology – are set to alter the world, the human condition, and our very being in ways that are hard to imagine. The discussion of these developments limits itself as a rule to individual values. But it is also crucial to talk about the collective human values that we wish to guarantee in our intimate technological society. That brings an important political question at the table. How to develop and implement human enhancement technologies in a socially responsible way?

During the last few decades, the human being has become an increasingly acceptable object of study and technological intervention. We are an engineering project ourselves. An important engine behind this development is the combination of nano-, bio-, information, and cognitive technology. This so-called NBIC convergence is creating a new wave of applications, consisting in large part of intimate technologies capable of monitoring, analyzing, and influencing our bodies and behavior. In essence, the NBIC convergence means a steadily more profound interaction between the natural sciences (nano and info) and the life sciences (bio and cogno). This interaction leads to two megatrends: “Biology becomes technology” and “technology becomes biology.”

In the natural sciences, a revolution has occurred in the area of materials. If in the seventies we could research and manufacture materials on a micro-scale, we have now learned to do it on a nanoscale. A DNA strand, for example, is almost two nanometers (or two-millionths of a millimeter) thick. Nanotechnology laid the groundwork for the computer revolution. In turn, those computers make it possible to make better materials and machines. That way nanotechnology and information technology spur each other on. Digitization makes it possible to gather large amounts of data about the material, biological and social world, in order to analyze and apply it. Consider the self-driving car that makes use of digital maps and adds new information to those maps with every meter traveled. In this way, a cybernetic loop arises between the physical and digital worlds.

Living organisms, like the human body, are seen more and more as measurable, analyzable, and manufacturable

The above developments in the natural sciences stimulate the life sciences, such as genetics, medicine, and neuroscience. Modern equipment, from DNA chips to MRI scans, offers countless opportunities to investigate and intervene in body and brain. This leads to the statement that “biology is increasingly becoming technology.” That means that living organisms, like the human body, are seen more and more as measurable, analyzable, and manufacturable. Germline technology is a typical example of this trend. In the summer of 2017, an American research team succeeded for the first time in using CRISPR-Cas9 technology to repair a hereditary disorder in the DNA of a (viable) human embryo.

At their turn insights from the life sciences inspire the design of new types of devices: think of DNA computers and self-repairing materials. Simulation of the workings of the brain in hardware and software is, for instance, an important goal of the largescale European Human Brain Project, into which the European Commission has been investing a billion euros for ten years. This leads to the statement that “technology is increasingly becoming biology.” Engineers increasingly attempt to build qualities typical of living creatures, such as self-healing, reproduction, and intelligence, into technology. Examples of this second trend are artificial intelligence and android social robots.

The trends “biology becomes technology” and “technology becomes biology,” when applied to the human being, ensure that humans and technology are increasingly merging with each other. The Rathenau Insituut, therefore, speaks of an intimate technological revolution.

Consider technologies external to our bodies too

The trend “biology becomes technology” drives the debate over “human enhancement.” Traditionally, this debate focuses on invasive medical technologies that work inside the human body. Consider psycho-pharmaceuticals like methylphenidate (Ritalin), which are used to suppress powerful behavioral impulses and improve the storage capacity of our random-access memory, or modafinil, which can help make us more alert and thoughtful. But also neurotechnologies like deep brain stimulation and other brain implants, biotechnologies like synthetic blood substitutes, artificial retinas, gene therapy, and germline modification – all commonly cited examples in discussions about human enhancement.

What does it mean to be human in the 21st century? That question also pertains to the trend “technology becomes biology,” that is, technologies outside the body that have an impact on people’s physical, mental, and social achievements. One example is the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), an exoskeleton developed by the US Army to make soldiers stronger and less vulnerable to bullets. Besides that, consider persuasive technology: information technology designed to influence human behavior. Think for example of smartphone apps giving people advice on what (not) to eat, on their driving, and on how they should handle social relations or money. Or a smart bracelet that monitors perspiration and heartrate and vibrates if the wearer displays aggression. The wearer has learned by means of a role-playing game that aggressive behavior doesn’t pay off. Consequently, it is expected that he or she will avoid similar behavior in the real world. Through EEG neurofeedback, people can also get insight into their brain activity and learn to influence it in order to change their behavior.

Intimate technologies offer opportunities for human enhancement, but can also lead to essential changes in human skills and the way we communicate with one another.

The above technologies, working outside the body, raise questions about autonomy and informed consent: are people in “smart” environments really able to make informed decisions? When does the concept of technological paternalism become relevant? Can persuasive technology further weaken an already weak will? Is it morally permissible to influence people’s behavior – even for the better – without their knowledge? Just like invasive technologies, non-invasive technologies raise questions about privacy, as well as bodily and mental integrity. In the case of many persuasive technologies, you have to give away a lot of your data in order to improve yourself. Do users really remain in control of their own data? Do we have the right to remain anonymous, to opt-out of being measured, analyzed, and coached? And how could we, in a world full of sensors? The rise of facial and emotion recognition, in particular, makes this a pressing question.

People can voluntarily insert the above invasive and non-invasive technologies into their bodies and lives, for instance, to become stronger or more attractive. But technology can also have unintended side-effects. Through the increasingly intensive use of technology, our abilities begin to change. We develop new competencies (a phenomenon called “reskilling” or “upskilling”), such as all kinds of digital skills. Other competencies might be reduced (“deskilling”). There is, for example, a body of research appearing to indicate that our social skills, such as empathy, are crumbling through excessive computer use. Intimate technologies, then, offer opportunities for human enhancement, but can also lead to essential changes in human skills and the way we communicate with one another. Such changes in the human condition transcend the level of the individual. They touch upon collective questions and values and demand public debate and, where necessary, political consideration.

Paying attention to collective values

The current debate on human enhancement, though, largely limits itself to individual goals. Examples of classic questions are: is human enhancement an individual right? Can people decide for themselves whether they want technological enhancements? In The Techno-Human Condition, Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz argue that such an approach is inadequate. They suggest that the debate over the impact of human enhancement ought to be conducted on the following three levels of complexity:

  1. The direct impact of a single technology;
  2. The way in which technology influences a socio-technological system and the social and cultural patterns affected by the same;
  3. The impact of technology on a global level.

Take the car as an example. The car, in principle, gets you from A to B faster than a bike would (level 1 reasoning). But if many people drive cars, the bike can sometimes be a faster option in the city (level 2 reasoning). On a global scale, the rise of the car has led to a variety of important developments, such as the development of the oil economy, Fordism (the model of mass production and consumption), and climate change. Allenby and Sarewitz posit that the current debate over human development frequently remains on the instrumental level. It revolves especially around the question of whether people have the right, on the basis of free choice, to opt into technologies designed to enhance their bodies and minds. In opposition to what transhumanists often suppose, they show that – just as the car isn’t the faster choice than the bike under every circumstance – the use of human enhancement technology on an individual level doesn’t straightforwardly lead to a better individual quality of life, let alone to a better society. The application of human enhancement technology will frequently be driven by economic or military motives (level 2 reasoning). Such a scenario complicates the issue of individual free choice, because in that case, “The posthuman person is not a self-made man, but a person designed by others.”

The posthuman person is not a self-made man, but a person designed by others.

The mass deployment of human enhancement technology will also have effects – although hard to predict – on a global level. In Homo Deus, Harari sketches two (parallel) long-term scenarios: first, the arrival of the physically and mentally enhanced “superman” (Homo Deus) and a division between supermen and normal people (level 3 reasoning). According to Harari, in the long term, this could lead to the abandonment of the principle of equality that forms the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition to this “biology becomes technology” scenario, Harari presents a “technology becomes biology” scenario. He anticipates the rise of “dataism,” in which humanity embeds itself in an Internet-of-All-Things and allows itself to be guided purely by AI-generated advice dispensed by computers. In this scenario, humanity has given up all its privacy, autonomy, individuality, and consequently democracy, which is based on personal political choices. Although such scenarios are speculative, they show us which important issues are at stake and show that it is important to look (far) beyond the individual, instrumental level.

The Dutch discussion of germline technology shows that this often does not happen. So far collective interests play a negligible role in that debate. And that is in spite of the fact that CRISPR-applied modifications in the DNA of the embryo are irreversible and heritable by future generations. In the current debate, the pragmatic approach we know from the medical-ethical regime still dominates. In this debate, a lot of attention is paid to the international position of the Netherlands. The country doesn’t want to fall behind as a knowledge economy. Second, there is a special focus on the health benefits germline modification can deliver for the individual in question. A traditional risk-benefit analysis is central to this. Third, significant emphasis is placed on strengthening reproductive autonomy. It is about the opportunity germline modification offers to prospective parents with a hereditary condition: to have a genetically healthy child of their own.

But germline modification also raises questions that do not fit neatly within the framework of medical-ethical principles oriented towards safety, informed consent, and reproductive autonomy. In terms of collective values and international human rights, there should also be a place in the debate for the notion that the human genome is our common heritage, and thus our collective property.

Technological citizenship

New NBIC technologies are set to alter the world, the human condition, and our very being beyond our imagination. Above, we argued that in relation to human enhancement we must consider both invasive medical technologies (the trend “biology becomes technology”) and technologies outside the body that nevertheless have an impact on people’s bodily, mental, and social performance (the trend “technology becomes biology”). Futurist thinkers from Harari to Aldous Huxley and Raymond Kurzweil show us what is potentially at stake this century: radical improvement of human capacities and choices, division between “natural” and “enhanced” humans, the abolition of the individual and in its wake, democracy. This brings a crucial political question at the table: how can we develop and implement human enhancement technology in a societally responsible way?

Technological citizenship is the collection of rights and duties that makes it possible for citizens to profit from the blessings of technology and protects them against the attendant risks.

To give direction to that potentially radical transition, a democratic search for shared moral principles is necessary, principles that can set the fusion of human and technology off on the right track. An absolute condition for that collective search is a well-developed “technological citizenship” for all citizens. Technological citizenship is the collection of rights and duties that makes it possible for citizens to profit from the blessings of technology and protects them against the attendant risks. It means understanding how statistical results, (genetic) profiling and self-learning algorithms work, seeing how that affects us, and being prepared to defend against unwanted influences and choose (potentially non-technological) alternatives where necessary. Besides, it is important that citizens have the option of participating in the decision-making process regarding technology at every stage of development, from research to application. Technological citizenship emancipates the regular citizen in relation to the experts and developers of technology.

The role of institutions

Education plays a central role in the promotion of technological citizenship. And that begins with primary and secondary education. Here lies a clear role for the government. Meanwhile, in April 2017 the Dutch House of Representatives approved a curriculum revision prepared by Platform Onderwijs2032 (Education2032). It adds two new fields to the curriculum: digital literacy and citizenship. In 2018 development teams are getting started making those fields a reality. It would be good for the two development teams to work in close cooperation, taking into account the fact that citizenship in a technological culture only has meaning if we can engage in an informed discussion about the effect of technology on our private lives and our society.

But education is not enough. To make their citizenship a reality, people need institutions. Without suitable administrative institutions, technological citizenship is an empty shell. It must be possible for rights and duties to be democratically demanded, fixed, and implemented. Individuals, then, can only be considered true technological citizens if they know themselves to be protected by an optimally equipped system of governance. The following four components are crucial to this: 1) rights and compliance monitoring, 2) public debate, 3) political vision, and 4) socially responsible companies.

Robots should not replace human relationships but improve them, whether we are talking about care for the elderly or the upbringing of children

First, citizens must be able to appeal to fundamental human rights suitable to the time we live in. At the request of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the guardian of human rights in Europe, the Rathenau Instituut researched how robotization, artificial intelligence, and virtualization could challenge our current conception of human rights. The Rathenau Instituut proposed, among other things, two new human rights. First, the right not to be measured, analyzed or coached. People must have the right not to be surveilled or covertly influenced, and to evade continuous algorithmic analysis. Secondly, the right to meaningful human contact within caregiving. Robots should not replace human relationships but improve them, whether we are talking about care for the elderly or the upbringing of children. Already-existing rights and duties should be put into practice in everyday lifeso that technological citizens can count themselves truly protected. We wonder whether the current Dutch supervisory authorities are really able to carry out their missionand whether their mandate is truly adequate. The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights pays little attention to the question of how digitalization can place human rights under pressure. The Dutch Data Protection Authority is given little scope to look at collective values other than privacy.

Second, a social debate over the impact of new technologies is necessary. While civil society is strongly organized to address environmental problems, the Netherlands still has few established social organizations willing to enter into a critical discussion about the new intimate technology revolution, except in relation to privacy and security. Meanwhile, we ought to be asking questions regarding which collective human values we wish to guarantee in our intimately technological society. If we don’t debate these issues at this early stage, we effectively leave the course of technological advancement to the engineers, to the market, and to individual choice. Pessers warns for the collective effect of individual self-determination, which society stealthily confronts with a fait accompli, without any democratic debate. For example, in the case of prenatal diagnostics, the abortion of a number of children with Down syndrome doesn’t change society. But if that starts to happen on a mass scale, it raises the question of whether we really want a society entirely without people with Down syndrome.

If we don’t debate these issues at this early stage, we effectively leave the course of technological advancement to the engineers, to the market, and to individual choice.

Politics and government are called upon to take the lead in the debate and the administrative handling of the intimate technology revolution. Nevertheless, there is at this moment no broad political vision addressing the impact of technology on our being and the current political debate is driven largely by random incidents. For such a vision, further knowledge development is necessary. When it comes to our natural environment, the central concept is ecological sustainability. It required many years and the discovery of new knowledge to give qualitative and quantitative meaning to this concept. We think that in the debate over the relation between technology and humanity, the concept of “human sustainability” must play a central role. Human sustainability means the preservation of human individuality: what aspects of humanity and our being-human do we see as malleable, and which do we want to preserve? Think for example of the desire to keep our empathetic capacities working at a high level, or to have children born from a real mother, not an artificial womb. Concepts such as human dignity and human sustainability require much greater research and consideration.

Finally, citizens must be able to trust that user interests come first when businesses develop new technological products. The increasing fusion between people and technology forces us to keep in mind the values and norms that we design into products and computer coding. On the subject of privacy, academics have argued for years that organizations should pay attention to privacy measures and data minimization when developing information systems. Privacy by design has become a core principle of new European privacy regulations. Privacy-oriented technology is an example of the broader concept of value-sensitive design, which attempts to incorporate not only privacy but a broad range of relevant collective values, including basic human rights, into the development of technology.

This article is republished from NextNature by Ira van Keulen and Rinie van Est, Rathenau Instituut, under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. This essay has been previously published by the Hans van Mierlo Foundation, a scientific think tank related to the Dutch democratic liberal party (D66).


06 Jan 2020

Tech trends 2020: New spacecraft and bendy screens

If your ambition is to fly into space – and you’ve got plenty of spare cash – then 2020 could be an exciting year.

If space travel is not really your thing, but you would like a much bigger screen on your mobile phone, then 2020 might also have some tech for you.

But if you think there are already too many phones out there and the technology industry needs to be less wasteful, well some tech companies might catch up with your thinking.

Here’s a little taster of what might be coming in the next twelve months.

Crewed space missions

2020 is going to be a “pivotal year” for space travel, according to Guy Norris, a senior editor at Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Since Nasa retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, the US has relied on Russian spacecraft to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.

That could all change in 2020 when, if all goes to plan, two US-built spacecraft should start carrying crew.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, which can carry up to seven astronauts into orbit, is due for its first test flight today before the first manned flight, likely to be in 2020.

Meanwhile the SpaceX Dragon capsule will go through some final tests in early 2020, and if they all go well then it too would be ready for a crewed mission.

Other systems, designed to reach near-Earth space, could also reach milestones in 2020. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, could be ready to take tourists on its New Shepard suborbital rocket.

Virgin Galactic could also be ready in 2020 to take passengers into space, more than a decade later than founder Richard Branson originally hoped.

It’s reported that more than 600 people have put down deposits for a Virgin Galactic flight, with tickets costing $250,000 (£195,000).

“It’s finally delivery time for a lot of these long promised programmes and a chance for a whole range of technologies to really prove themselves for the first time,” says Mr Norris.

Technology and the environment

Protests by Extinction Rebellion have helped move climate change up the agenda for technology companies.

Among those that will be under pressure are mobile phone makers. It’s estimated there are 18 billion phones lying around unused worldwide. With around 1.3 billion phones sold in 2019, that number is growing all the time.

Mobile phone makers will be under pressure to make their production processes greener and their phones more easily repairable.

The same will go for the makers of other consumer goods including TVs, washing machines and vacuum cleaners.

Also watch the companies that provide mobile phone services. Vodafone has already promised that in the UK by 2023 its networks will all run on sustainable energy sources. Others are likely to follow suit.

Business travel is under pressure as well. Ben Wood, an analyst at CCS Insight says it will become “socially unacceptable” to fly around the world for meetings and firms will switch to virtual meetings.

There could also be green initiatives from the cloud computing industry as well. Their facilities which house thousands of computer servers use huge amounts of power.

Flexible displays

The launch of Samsung’s first foldable phone in April did not go smoothly. Several reviewers broke the screens and the company had to make some rapid improvements before it went on sale in September.

Motorola had a more successful launch of its new Razr, although some reviewers complained about the price. But this is unlikely to hold the market back. Samsung is expected to launch other devices with flexible displays next year – possibly a tablet.

TCL, the second biggest maker of TVs in China, has also promised to launch its first mobile foldable device in 2020 and then other products quickly after that.

It is betting big on the market, having invested $5.5bn in developing flexible displays.

Analysts say that screens will be incorporated into all sorts of surfaces. Smart speakers might have wrap-around displays, watch-like devices will have straps with displays and fridge doors might have large screens.

Super-fast mobile

We can expect the rollout of high-speed mobile phone networks to continue. By the end of 2019 around 40 networks in 22 countries were offering 5G service.

By the end of 2020 that number will have more than doubled to to around 125 operators, says Kester Mann at CCS Insight.

“There could be an interesting development in the way 5G contracts are priced. A 5G contract without a phone will cost around £30 a month and for that you’re likely to get unlimited amounts of data.”

But analysts say that next year we may see prices based on the speed of the service you want – a bit like the way home broadband is already priced.

Vodafone is already offering contracts based on speed in the UK. Also in the UK, the network 3 is likely to push its 5G offering as an alternative to broadband at home, analysts say. That might appeal to people who move around a lot – students for example – and don’t want a fixed line service.

Quantum computing

Will next year be another big one for quantum computing; the technology which exploits the baffling but powerful behaviour of tiny particles such as electrons and photons?

In October Google said that its quantum computer had performed a task in 200 seconds, that the fastest supercomputer would have taken 10,000 years to complete. There was some quibbling over its achievement, but experts say it was a big moment.

“It’s a fantastic milestone,” says Philipp Gerbert, a member of the deep tech group at consultancy firm BCG: “It’s clear they exceeded the classical computer, by what margin you can debate. They disproved some lingering doubts.”

Mr Gerbert thinks other leaders in the field – IBM, Rigetti and IonQ – could also clear that hurdle: “They all have excellent teams, one or two will reach a similar stage over the next year.”

Once the technology is proven, quantum computers could spur breakthroughs in chemistry, pharmaceuticals and engineering.

Google has also promised to make its quantum computer available for use by outsiders in 2020, but has not provided any details yet.

“Clearly people would love to get access to that,” Mr Gerbert says.

Source: BBC