In the spring of 2016, an artificial intelligence system called AlphaGo defeated a world champion Go player in a match at the Four Seasons hotel in Seoul. In the US, this momentous news required some unpacking. Most Americans were unfamiliar with Go, an ancient Asian game that involves placing black and white stones on a wooden board. And the technology that had emerged victorious was even more foreign: a form of AI called machine learning, which uses large data sets to train a computer to recognize patterns and make its own strategic choices. Still, the gist of the story was familiar enough.
The first time Stephanie Dinkins met Bina48, in 2014, she worried the thing was dead. "She was turned off," Dinkins says. Dinkins caught the robot's stare and knew she'd found her muse. Bina48 had been conceived several years earlier by Martine Rothblatt, the polymathic entrepreneur. Rothblatt fashioned the AI-powered bot in the likeness of her wife, Bina, training its speech patterns on a database of Bina-isms.
When turkeys strut, their leg muscles work as shock absorbers to boost energy efficiency. That gam action inspired a prosthetic exoskeleton for humans: The lightweight contraption is outfitted with a spring and clutch that take the impact off the user's calf muscle. In experiments, a person wearing the braces while walking expended 10 percent less energy. Neurons along the creature's spinal cord can act independently via signals called central pattern generators, or CPGs. A slithering machine inspired by the lamprey, the AmphiBot, has 10 body modules, each with its own onboard computer that mimics a CPG.
When Enrico Fermi decided to leave Benito Mussolini's Italy and emigrate to the United States, he changed the global balance of power. After arriving in the US, Fermi led the world's first self-sustaining nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago and played an indispensable role in the Manhattan Project, which led to the end of World War II in the Pacific and laid the groundwork for a new world order and America's prominent role. So it is not surprising that some Americans think the same should be true with AI. Emigrant AI researchers like Geoff Hinton, Yann LeCun, Yoshua Bengio, Andrew Ng, and Fei-Fei Li are the Enrico Fermis of AI and should secure an American (and Canadian) hegemony in AI. Indeed, the US and Canada have 100 percent of the top 10 AI researchers, and 68 percent of the world's best 1,000 or so researchers.
Infrared light flooded down invisibly as I eyed the pastries in Amazon's new convenience store in downtown San Francisco. It helped cameras mounted on the store's ceiling detect that I picked up a croissant, then put it back. My flirtation with a $3.19 morsel of flaky pastry was recorded during a preview of the Amazon Go store that opened in San Francisco's financial district this morning. As in the five other such stores in Seattle and Chicago, shoppers gain entry by scanning a QR code in the Amazon Go mobile app to open a subway-style entry gate. Hundreds of cameras on the ceiling, plus sensors in the shelves, then record what each person picks up, so they can walk out without having to visit a checkout.
On the one hand, it's a seemingly simple mechanism--those best fitted to their environment have more babies, while less fit individuals don't reproduce as much, and their genes filter out of the system. But on the other hand (or paw or claw or talon), it has given rise to an astounding array of organisms. Some animals fly with feathered wings, others with membranes stretched between fingers. Some run on two legs, others four. Each has adapted to its environment in its own way.
It has become commonplace--and somehow not at all weird--to ask your speaker for a weather report, or to command your television to switch on HBO. This is the new now, a place we've been ever since Alexa marched into our living rooms and Siri snuck into our pockets. And it's likely the future, as voice-controlled smart-home speakers and devices continue to proliferate like bunnies in the spring. The thing is, I'm not quite sure it's the future we asked for. Haven't we already decided the smartphone is the best tool for ambient internet tasks?
A few years after the Great Recession, you couldn't scroll through Google Reader without seeing the word "disrupt." TechCrunch named a conference after it, the New York Times named a column after it, investor Marc Andreessen warned that "software disruption" would eat the world; not long after, Peter Thiel, his fellow Facebook board member, called "disrupt" one of his favorite words. The term "disruptive innovation" was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in the mid-90's to describe a particular business phenomenon, whereby established companies focus on high-priced products for their existing customers, while disruptors develop simpler, cheaper innovations, introduce the products to a new audience, and eventually displace incumbents. PCs disrupted mainframes, discount stores disrupted department stores, cellphones disrupted landlines, you get the idea. In Silicon Valley's telling, however, "disruption" became shorthand for something closer to techno-darwinism.
It's been a week since we cracked open the champagne to celebrate our 25th birthday, along with our memory banks to take a look at our history of predicting the future. Now that we're back in the present and once again looking forward, it seems like we're not the only outfit reconsidering the road ahead. Chinese automaker NIO thinks it can make battery swapping work this time. Elon Musk reveals yet another Model 3 that costs more than $35,000. Uber and Lyft are defending against claims they make traffic worse--again--and we have yet more confirmation that systems like Tesla's Autopilot are confusing people.
As has become an unwelcome tradition, as Friday wound down and the weekend was so close we could nearly taste it, breaking news hit. The biggest Friday night bombshell came in the form of an indictment of a Russian national engaged in a massive conspiracy to influence the upcoming midterm elections. With millions of dollars at her disposal, she and her co-conspirators have allegedly been engaging in a coordinated effort to use Americans' weaknesses and divisions against us, to amp up racial discord, and generally sow chaos and discontent. Of course, it wasn't like the week had been drama free up until that point. The fun, if you can call it that, began last Saturday, when Robert Mueller expert Garrett Graff explained what he expected to see next from the investigation into Russia's attack on the 2016 election.