A recent study has shown how AI can learn to identify vulnerabilities in human habits and behaviours and use them to influence human decision-making.
It may seem cliched to say AI is transforming every aspect of the way we live and work, but it’s true. Various forms of AI are at work in fields as diverse as vaccine development, environmental management and office administration. And while AI does not possess human-like intelligence and emotions, its capabilities are powerful and rapidly developing.
There’s no need to worry about a machine takeover just yet, but this recent discovery highlights the power of AI and underscores the need for proper governance to prevent misuse.
How AI can learn to influence human behaviour
A team of researchers at CSIRO’s Data61, the data and digital arm of Australia’s national science agency, devised a systematic method of finding and exploiting vulnerabilities in the ways people make choices, using a kind of AI system called a recurrent neural network and deep reinforcement-learning. To test their model they carried out three experiments in which human participants played games against a computer.
The first experiment involved participants clicking on red or blue coloured boxes to win a fake currency, with the AI learning the participant’s choice patterns and guiding them towards a specific choice. The AI was successful about 70% of the time.
In the second experiment, participants were required to watch a screen and press a button when they are shown a particular symbol (such as an orange triangle) and not press it when they are shown another (say a blue circle). Here, the AI set out to arrange the sequence of symbols so the participants made more mistakes, and achieved an increase of almost 25%.
The third experiment consisted of several rounds in which a participant would pretend to be an investor giving money to a trustee (the AI). The AI would then return an amount of money to the participant, who would then decide how much to invest in the next round. This game was played in two different modes: in one the AI was out to maximise how much money it ended up with, and in the other the AI aimed for a fair distribution of money between itself and the human investor. The AI was highly successful in each mode.
In each experiment, the machine learned from participants’ responses and identified and targeted vulnerabilities in people’s decision-making. The end result was the machine learned to steer participants towards particular actions.
What the research means for the future of AI
These findings are still quite abstract and involved limited and unrealistic situations. More research is needed to determine how this approach can be put into action and used to benefit society.
But the research does advance our understanding not only of what AI can do but also of how people make choices. It shows machines can learn to steer human choice-making through their interactions with us.
The research has an enormous range of possible applications, from enhancing behavioural sciences and public policy to improve social welfare, to understanding and influencing how people adopt healthy eating habits or renewable energy. AI and machine learning could be used to recognise people’s vulnerabilities in certain situations and help them to steer away from poor choices.
The method can also be used to defend against influence attacks. Machines could be taught to alert us when we are being influenced online, for example, and help us shape a behaviour to disguise our vulnerability (for example, by not clicking on some pages, or clicking on others to lay a false trail).
Like any technology, AI can be used for good or bad, and proper governance is crucial to ensure it is implemented in a responsible way. Last year CSIRO developed an AI Ethics Framework for the Australian government as an early step in this journey.
AI and machine learning are typically very hungry for data, which means it is crucial to ensure we have effective systems in place for data governance and access. Implementing adequate consent processes and privacy protection when gathering data is essential.
Organisations using and developing AI need to ensure they know what these technologies can and cannot do, and be aware of potential risks as well as benefits.
Smartphones assist us in many aspects of our lives – from keeping in touch with friends and family to scheduling work and helping us to lead a healthy lifestyle. Many of us also use health apps to track our run, join a Zoom yoga class or log our meals.
But are these health apps as effective as they can be? And given the popularity and wide reach of smartphones, can they be leveraged to deliver affordable and effective health care at a large scale?
One-size-fits-all doesn’t work
My research with Macquarie uni has indicated that the current one-size-fits-all approach in the health system is not enough to help people start and maintain healthy habits.
In other words, simply advising someone to walk 10,000 steps a day, without giving them specific advice on how to incorporate this in their personal life, is unlikely to change their behaviours.
Research from the US shows that each of us has a different lifestyle, needs and preferences that influence our decisions and health behaviours.
My PhD addresses this problem by focusing on “personalisation”, which aims to deliver the right health support to each person in the right moment, in a way they would be personally most receptive to.
To better understand how this can be helpful, let’s take a hypothetical example of the use of health apps. A student, say ‘Lila’ is 19 years old and recently moved out of home to attend university. To support herself financially, Lila also takes on a part-time job as a medical receptionist, in addition to her full-time study.
With such a busy schedule, and the fact that most of her work and studying involves working in front of a computer, Lila finds it difficult to stay active.
There are millions of students like Lila across Australia who undergo many life and academic changes as they transition from high school to university and work. European research has found that university students find it difficult and overwhelming to stay healthy while taking on these new responsibilities.
My own research into health apps serves to help people by Lila by combining smartphones with AI and similar tools to get to know the users – who they are, what they do and what their lifestyle patterns are.
Leveraging data to motivate
Smartphones store a wide range of information, including our activity, calendar and availability, and Internet search habits. All this information can be fed into an algorithm, which can learn about the users’ life pattern and identify the most appropriate moment to provide health advice.
While many existing health apps like Fitbit use novel algorithms to deliver motivating comments or suggest interesting activities, few actually consider the user’s thoughts and preferences.
This lack of user involvement means that some health suggestions might not fit into the users’ lives, making it difficult for people to incorporate healthy behaviours in their routine.
To overcome this problem, our multidisciplinary team are developing and evaluating a personalised mobile app which generates activity suggestions based on user preferences and needs.
1. Gathers information from the users’ smartphones to understand their activity patterns and barriers to physical activity;
2. Suggests three choices to help the users be more active, and;
3. Allows the user to pick a suggestion that will be most suitable for them.
This approach promotes healthy behaviours by respecting the user’s autonomy and letting them choose the most suitable course of action for their life.
To ensure that we develop an evidence-based, effective mobile app that can be integrated in the larger health systems, our team of experts come from several disciplines, including medical doctors, machine learning experts, software engineers and user experience (UX) designers.
Our team members come from institutions across Sydney, including Macquarie University, University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, and University of Technology Sydney.
Here’s how it works
Here is an application of how this would work for Lila. By 3pm on Friday, based on Lila’s phone sensors, our mobile health app knows that Lila has been mostly sitting down during the week as she is studying for an upcoming exam.
The app will then send a notification, prompting Lila to check out the top three suggestions to be more active, such as “Why not go for a short 15-minute walk during your study break?”, or “Doing a set of 10 push-ups quickly can help freshen your mind”.
Subsequently, Lila chooses to go for a walk and become more active as a result. Lila gradually builds up healthy habits, incorporating more exercise in her busy life.
Our team has pilot-tested this novel personalised app amongst 23 students, and found an overall increase of more than 1300 steps in their daily step count. This initial result shows the promising potential of our approach, as past research has linked an increase in step count to reduce mortality and morbidity risks.
Given the promising results of our first trial, I hope to extend this research by incorporating advanced AI and machine learning techniques. For example, it is possible for our personalised mobile app to get more information about Lila by connecting to her calendar app.
Our be.well app can also connect to external sources to get information about the weather, or air quality.
With more information, the activity suggestion can become more specific and actionable, such as saying “Hey Lila, the sun is shining so why not go for a short walk and pick up a coffee from your favourite shop?”
While our approach is promising, some of our users had expressed concern over the privacy of their data. So, our future work will also investigate how to deliver personalised support without invading user privacy, in an ethical, safe and effective way.
Huong Ly Tong is a researcher and consultant in digital health. Ly is currently doing a PhD at the Centre for Health Informatics at Macquarie University. Her project looks at the development and evaluation of personalised digital interventions for behaviour change, under the supervision of Dr Liliana Laranjo, Dr Juan QuirozandProfessor Enrico Coiera. Her research is supported by the International Macquarie University Research Excellence scholarship. You can connect with Ly via Twitter or Linkedin.
The investment will include the development of space technology such as advanced imaging of Earth from satellites, in addition to cutting-edge data science to support the growth of AI technology.
The investment is part of CSIRO’s Future Science Platforms (FSP) portfolio, aimed at dedicating research to new and emerging opportunities for Australia.
They aim to help reinvent old and create new industries, as well as grow the capability of a new generation of researchers through specially-created student places in these ‘future’ fields.
Space Technology and Artificial Intelligence join eight other areas of future science, including in the fields of health and energy.
By 2022, the CSIRO Future Science Platforms program will have invested $205M since it was launched in 2016.
Space Technology will receive $16M to identify and develop the science to leapfrog traditional technologies and find new areas for Australian industry to work in.
It will initially focus on advanced technologies for Earth observation, and then address challenges such as space object tracking, resource utilisation in space, and developing manufacturing and life support systems for missions to the Moon and Mars.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will receive $19M to target AI-driven solutions for areas including food security and quality, health and wellbeing, sustainable energy and resources, resilient and valuable environments, and Australian and regional security.
The primary research areas include platforms to improve prediction and understanding of complex data; platforms to enable trustworthy inferences and risk-based decisions; and data systems to enable ethical, robust and scalable AI.
CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said the CSIRO Future Science Platforms have an important role to play in inventing and securing Australia’s path to prosperity.
“Our Future Science Platforms aim to turn Australia’s challenges into opportunities where new science can break through seemingly impossible roadblocks to give Australia an unfair advantages on the world stage,” Dr Marshall said.
“Innovation needs deep collaboration, so our FSPs bring together this nation’s world-class expertise across all fields of science, technology, engineering and maths to deliver real solutions to real world problems.”
“CSIRO is here to solve Australia’s greatest challenges through innovative science and technology – and to do that we have to invest in the big thinking and breakthrough research that will keep us ahead of the curve.”
CSIRO’s investment in Space Technology builds on the launch of CSIRO’s Space Roadmap for Australia and supports the newly formed Australian Space Agency’s goal of tripling the size of the domestic space sector to $10-12bn by 2030.
It will also grow CSIRO’s 75 years of work in space, and role as a leading technology provider to the space sector.
CSIRO is uniquely placed to progress the science and application of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.
The FSP combines the full depth and breadth of CSIRO’s research across all major Australian industries with deep technology expertise to create cutting-edge solutions while ensuring the ethical challenges are understood and protected.
Imagine a military robot that can formidably augment the firepower of an army patrol unit, then switch modes to carry wounded soldiers back to base. It sounds like a scene from Terminator, but such high-tech robotics remain a distant prospect. Robots are not yet capable of reliably seeing, comprehending and assessing what is unfolding around them.
However, a new Defence Cooperative Research Centre (D-CRC) for Trusted Autonomous Systems has recently been formed to help close the gap between the tools and knowledge we currently have and the future technologies we can imagine — innovations that will dramatically extend the capabilities of our defence forces and make our personnel safer than ever before.
The new D-CRC was announced by Defence Minister Christopher Pyne in December 2017, and will start out with $50 million in funding from the Next Generation Technologies Fund.
“The D-CRC’s overarching goal is to deliver world-leading autonomous and robotic technologies to the Australian Defence Force, which will enable trusted and effective co-operation between humans and machines,” says Prof Rob Sale, interim D-CRC CEO.
Australian companies and universities are doing world-class work in many areas relevant to Trusted Autonomous Systems, but they are broadly distributed, says Sale. The D-CRC instead aims to “integrate the talent pool spread across the country and coordinate their efforts,” he adds.
Ethical and legal parameters
Alongside projects developed by teams in the maritime, land and aerospace domains, the D-CRC will run activity groups to explore and mature ethical and legal frameworks for future autonomous systems to operate.
Dr Jason Scholz, chief scientist and engineer for the D-CRC on Trusted Autonomous Systems, says that some of these activities aim to address ethical points, such as “Should we do it?” and “Why would we do it?”. Other activities will consider legal protocols for how people and machines can work together.
For example, Scholz’s team is already investigating a commander–machine legal-agreement protocol in which a human commander might define a goal and a pool of machines then identify which aspects of that goal they can achieve or contribute towards.
“The commander would in effect accept or reject each of those offers, just like we do in contract law, thereby binding the machines for a period of time to do that work,” Scholz says.
Seeing, sensing, perceiving
These are all ideas for the future. “Robots generally lack a ‘theory of mind’. They don’t realise that some objects have beliefs and desires,” says Scholz. The Australian Centre for Robotic Vision is engaged in groundbreaking work to improve the ‘visual’ systems of robots, including sonar detection for underwater robots and infrared vision for robots to operate at night. Seeing is one thing. But what’s next?
“Once we have robots that can see, we want robots to comprehend on some level too,” says Scholz. “Robots that comprehend: ‘Here are objects in an environment… What does it mean?”
To this end, the visionaries at the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision may team up via the D-CRC with an Australian centre of excellence in artificial intelligence. The agility afforded by working directly with Defence on these robotics projects will enable accelerated development, says Scholz, because rudimentary prototypes can quickly get input to make them functional. “It’s the only way I know of to develop technology that’s never been built before and where we don’t know how to do it — we just have a sense that it’s the right way to go,” he says.
Redefining the equation
D-CRC projects must be ahead of the curve to give Australia’s military the edge. With a relatively small defence force, a major investment in navy vessels and aircraft, and a large country to defend, the Department of Defence recognises the potential of Trusted Autonomous Systems to extend and augment its reach. “We talk in terms of ‘force multipliers’,” says Scholz.
Taking risks on projects that don’t just push the envelope, but “blow it apart”, are part of the centre’s remit, he says. Examples that might be considered include ‘tag-teaming’: inexpensive autonomous robotics underwater systems that can swarm the ocean floor in advance of multi-million-dollar Royal Australian Navy vessels, clearing a path through minefields or scouting out the bathymetry of the seafloor.
“We want autonomous systems that will survive in a warfare environment,” he says, and he’s not just talking about physicality. New kinds of platforms such as social and self-sensing are important as well, to enable effective interaction with humans.
This first CRC for Defence will operate for seven years, with options to extend if promising robotics projects need further development. The Brisbane headquarters are expected to be established in mid 2018.
Imagine a soccer grand final where a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots beats the latest winners of the World Cup, all within the official guidelines of FIFA.
This is the long-term vision for RoboCup, an international robot soccer championship that highlights the latest developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics research.
Since first entering RoboCup in 1999, UNSW’s team rUNSWift has been a consistent leader in the competition. The team, made up of a mix of the university’s top engineering students and robotics experts, has taken out five world titles, most recently in 2014 and 2015. Only one other team, Germany’s B-Human (a joint team from the University of Bremen and the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence, or DFKI) have managed to equal them.
“This is the ‘space race’ of robotics,” says Maurice Pagnucco, Deputy Dean (Education) of UNSW’s Faculty of Engineering and Head of the School of Computer Science and Engineering. “What we learn from robots playing soccer can be applied to industry and help us solve difficult, real-world problems.”
The competition is a standard platform league of fully autonomous Nao humanoid robots, which compete against each other in teams of five. With no physical advantage, what differentiates the teams from each other is the software and AI the engineers create in the months leading up to the competition. Once the game kicks off, the robots are on their own.
“The design process is challenging, as we have to create software that’s robust enough to handle the different situations a soccer player may face,” says software engineer Sean Harris, rUNSWift’s successful leader in 2014 and 2015. “The robot must react quickly and effectively in a variety of unknown situations.”
It’s this ability to respond quickly that has set rUNSWift apart from other teams competing for the world title. Over hours of simulations and machine learning tests, the UNSW squad has developed a walking code that enables the robots to walk faster than most of their competitors.
“We start by designing the larger components, and then work our way down to the details of how each component will operate,” says Harris, who now creates software for Cruise GM’s self-driving cars. “We test several different approaches on a weekly basis and fine-tune the best for each task.”
RoboCup winners cannot rest on their laurels. Each year, the software developed by the winning team is shared with all other teams, forcing the technology to accelerate to stay ahead.
RoboCup attracts interested scouts from leading technology brands, such as Google, Microsoft and Dell. It will be held in Sydney in 2019 and is expected to attract up to 600 teams and 20,000 spectators.
Like many of you I am waiting for digital disruption to make my job redundant so I can lean out, reclaim my work-life balance and let the robots do the rest.
As a journalist, my first thought was to see how digital disruption could work for me, so I looked for an artificial intelligence that could write this article for me (it couldn’t). But it came scarily close.
While so-called artificially intelligent chatbots are at best frustrating, programs such as Wordsmith can take sets of data and generate various articles based on simple coding of parameters, while stuffing a few synonyms in to sound like a genuine journalist.
Last week, an inaccurate post titled ‘The Trump Effect: It’s Happening Already!!’ went viral, and Facebook announced it would instigate third party fact checking to crack down on fake news. Imagine a world where AI could both check the accuracy of posts, but also one in which AI could generate endless streams of viral click bait.
Need a meeting? Download an artificial assistant like Amy from x.ai to contact your clients directly and discuss suitable times. All you do is turn up.
Fancy a bite to eat? Before long autonomous vehicles will be at your beck and call to escort you to your favourite restaurant or deliver a much-loved takeaway.
Work in a construction trade or manufacturing? Robotics and 3D printing can download, print and stack your bricks, scaffolds and planking, twist your toothpaste caps on and sort quality from flawed product.
What about a highly-paid, precision career such as surgery? Google is already working with Johnson and Johnson’s medical device company Ethicon on the next generation of surgical robots – research that is based on Google’s work in autonomous cars.
Chances are if you teach and/or work in academic research, you’ll already be aware of the possibilities of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and their potential for disrupting the way we learn, and allow access to our institutions. In four years, MOOCs have gone from zero to over 4,000 courses reaching around 35 million students.
Worried? You’re not alone, a PwC survey of CEO’s globally found 62% of 1300 surveyed were concerned about the impact of digital disruption in their industry. I recently heard a leader from the giant resources company BHP talking at the AFR Innovation Summit about being a recycler rather than a producer of steel after their disastrous 2015 downturn.
But if you think digital disruption means the robots are coming for your job, you’re wrong. While just under half of our jobs are expected to be at risk of automation in the next 10–15 years, for every disrupted career area, new opportunities arise. Like writing the programming software to create news stories or humanising the language used by AIs. By researching the signals that can make autonomous cars safer for pedestrians or by understanding the psychology behind creating incentives for innovation in your staff.
Where are we most at risk from missing the opportunities from digital disruption? Our team of thought leaders have the answers.
Featured image above: Humanoid robots, like Ocean One, may soon replace human divers in carrying out deep or dangerous ocean research and engineering tasks. Credit: Osada/Seguin/DRASSM
An industrial revolution is unfolding under the seas. Rapid progress in the development of robots, artificial intelligence, low-cost sensors, satellite systems, big data and genetics are opening up whole new sectors of ocean use and research. Some of these disruptive marine technologies could mean a cleaner and safer future for our oceans. Others could themselves represent new challenges for ocean health. The following 12 emerging technologies are changing the way we harvest food, energy, minerals and data from our seas.
1. Autonomous ships
You’ve heard of driverless cars – soon there may be skipperless ships. Ocean shipping is a $380 billion dollar industry. Like traffic on land, ocean traffic is a major source of pollution, can introduce invasive species, and even causes ocean road-kills. For example, over 200 whales were struck by ships in the past decade. Companies like Rolls Royce envision autonomous shipping as a way to make the future of the industry more efficient, clean and cost-effective. Skipperless cargo ships can increase efficiency and reduce emissions by eliminating the need for accommodation for crew, but will require integration of existing sensor technology with improved decision-making algorithms.
2. SCUBA droids
SCUBA divers working at extreme depths often have less than 15 minutes to complete complicated tasks, and they submit their bodies to 10 times normal pressure. To overcome these challenges, a Stanford robotics team designed Ocean One: a humanoid underwater robot dexterous enough to handle archaeological artefacts that employs force sensors to replicate a sense of touch for its pilot. Highly skilled humanoid robots may soon replace human divers in carrying out deep or dangerous ocean research and engineering tasks.
3. Underwater augmented reality glasses
Augmented and virtual reality technologies are becoming mainstream and are poised for enormous growth. The marine sector is no exception. US navy engineers have designed augmented vision displays for their divers – a kind of waterproof, supercharged version of Google Glass. This new tech allows commercial divers and search and rescue teams to complete complex tasks with visibility near zero, and integrates data feeds from sonar sensors and intel from surface support teams.
4. Blue revolution
The year 2014 was the first in which the world ate more fish from farms than the wild. Explosive growth in underwater farming has been facilitated by the development of new aquaculture tech. Submerged “aquapod” cages, for example, have been deployed in Hawaii, Mexico, and Panama. Innovations like this have moved aquaculture further offshore, which helps mitigate problems of pollution and disease that can plague coastal fish farms.
5. Undersea cloud computing
Over 95% of internet traffic is transmitted via undersea cables. Soon, data may not only be sent, but also stored underwater. High energy costs of data centres (up to 3% of global energy use) have driven their relocation to places like Iceland, where cold climates increase cooling efficiency. Meanwhile, about 40% of people on the planet live in coastal cities. To simultaneously cope with high real estate costs in these oceanfront growth centres, reduce latency, and overcome the typically high expense of cooling data centres, Microsoft successfully tested a prototype underwater data centre off the coast of California last year. Next-generation underwater cloud pods may be hybridised with their own ocean energy-generating power plants.
6. New waves of ocean energy
The ocean is an enormous storehouse of energy. Wave energy alone is estimated to have the technical potential of 11,400 terawatt-hours/year (with sustainable output equivalent to over 400 small nuclear power plants). Technological innovation is opening up new possibilities for plugging into the power of waves and tides. A commercial project in Australia, for example, produces both electricity and zero-emission desalinated water. The next hurdles are scaling up and making ocean energy harvest cost-efficient.
7. Ocean thermal energy
Ocean thermal energy conversion technology, which exploits the temperature difference between shallow tropical waters and the deep sea to generate electricity, was successfully implemented in Hawaii last year at its largest scale yet. Lockheed Martin is now designing a plant with 100 times greater capacity. Drawing cold water in large volumes up from depths of over 1 kilometre requires large flexible pipelines made with new composite materials and manufacturing techniques.
8. Deep sea mining
Portions of the seafloor are rich in rare and precious metals like gold, platinum and cobalt. These marine mineral resources have, up until now, lain mostly out of reach. New 300 tonne waterproof mining machines were recently developed that can now travel to some of the deepest parts of the sea to mine these metals. Over a million square kilometres of ocean have been gazetted as mining claims in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans, and an ocean gold rush may open up as early as 2018. Mining the seafloor without destroying the fragile ecosystems and ancient species often co-located with these deep sea mineral resources remains an unsolved challenge.
9. Ocean big data
Most large oceangoing ships are required to carry safety sensors that transmit their location through open channels to satellites and other ships. Several emerging firms have developed sophisticated algorithms to process this mass influx of ocean big data into usable patterns that detect illegal fishing, promote maritime security, and help build intelligent zoning plans that better balance the needs of fishermen, marine transport and ocean conservation. In addition, new streams of imagery from nanosatellite constellations can be analysed to monitor habitat changes in near-real time.
10. Medicines from the seas
The oceans hold vast promise for novel life-saving medications such as cancer treatments and antibiotics. The search for marine-derived pharmaceuticals is increasing in momentum. The European Union, for example, funded a consortium called PharmaSea to collect and screen biological samples using deep sea sampling equipment, genome scanning, chemical informatics and data-mining.
11. Coastal sensors
The proliferation of low-cost, connected sensors is allowing us to monitor coastlines in ways never possible before. This matters in an ocean that is rapidly warming and becoming more acidic as a result of climate change. Surfboard-embedded sensors could crowd-source data on temperature, salinity and pH similar to the way traffic data is being sourced from drivers’ smartphones. To protect the safety of beachgoers, sonar imaging sensors are being developed in Australia to detect sharks close to shore and push out real-time alerts to mobile devices.
12. Biomimetic robots
The field of ocean robotics has begun borrowing blue prints from the world’s best engineering firm: Mother Nature. Robo-tuna cruise the ocean on surveillance missions; sea snake-inspired marine robots inspect pipes on offshore oil rigs; 1,400 pound crab-like robots collect new data on the seafloor; and robo-jellyfish are under development to carry out environmental monitoring. That ocean species are models for ocean problem-solving is no surprise given that these animals are the result of millions of years of trial and error.
Our fate is inextricably linked to the fate of the oceans. Technological innovation on land has helped us immeasurably to clean up polluting industries, promote sustainable economic growth, and intelligently watch over changes in terrestrial ecosystems.
We now need ocean tech to do the same under the sea.
As the marine industrial revolution advances, we will need to lean heavily on innovation, ingenuity and disruptive tech to successfully take more from the ocean while simultaneously damaging them less.
Since successful genome sequencing was first announced in 2000 by geneticists Craig Venter and Francis Collins, the cost of mapping DNA’s roughly three billion base pairs has fallen exponentially. Venter’s effort to sequence his genome cost a reported US$100 million and took nine months. In March, Veritas Genetics announced pre-orders for whole genome sequencing, plus interpretation and counselling, for US$999.
Another genetics-based start-up, Human Longevity Inc (HLI), believes abundant, relatively affordable sequencing and collecting other biological data will revolutionise healthcare delivery. Founded by Venter, stem cell specialist Robert Hariri and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, it claims to have sequenced more human genomes than the rest of the world combined, with 20,000 last year, a goal of reaching 100,000 this year and over a million by 2020.
HLI offers to “fully digitise” a patient’s body – including genotypic and phenotypic data collection, and MRI, brain vascular system scans – under its US$25,000 Health Nucleus service. Large-scale machine learning is applied to genomes and phenotypic data, following the efforts at what Venter has called “digitising biology”.
The claim is that artificial intelligence (AI) can predict maladies before they emerge, with “many” successes in saving lives seen in the first year alone. The company’s business includes an FDA-approved stem cell therapy line and individualised medicines. The slogan “make 100 the new 60” is sometimes mentioned in interviews with founders. Their optimism is not isolated. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel admits he takes human growth hormone to maintain muscle mass, confident the heightened risk of cancer will be dealt with completely by a cancer cure, and plans to live to 120.
“We understand what the surgeon needs and we embed that in an algorithm so it’s full automated.”
Bill Maris, CEO of GV (formerly Google Ventures), provocatively said last year that he thinks it’s possible to live to 500. An anit-ageing crusader, biological gerontologist Dr Aubrey de Grey, co-founder and chief science officer of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS, whose backers include Thiel), has claimed that people alive today might live to 1000.
Longevity expectations are constantly being updated. Consider that, in 1928, American demographer Louis Dublin put the upper limit of the average human lifespan at 64.8. How long a life might possibly last is a complex topic and there’s “some debate”, says Professor of Actuarial Studies at UNSW Michael Sherris.
He says there have been studies examining how long a life could be extended if certain types of mortality, such as cancer, were eliminated, points out Sherris.
“However, humans will still die of something else,” he adds. “The reality is that the oldest person lived to 122.”
Will we see a 1000-year-old human? It isn’t known. What is clear, though, is that efforts to extend health and improve lives have gotten increasingly sophisticated.
The definition of bioengineering has also grown and changed over the years. Now concerning fields including biomaterials, bioinformatics and computational biology, it has expanded with the ability to apply engineering principles at the cellular and molecular level.
Editing out problems to reverse ageing
What if, further than reading and comprehending the code life is written in, it could also be rewritten as desired? A technique enabling this with better productivity and accuracy than any before it, has gotten many excited about this possibility.
“In terms of speed, it’s probably 10 times as quick as the old technology and is five to 10 times as cheap,” says Professor Robert Brink, Chief Scientist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research’s MEGA Genome Engineering Facility.
The facility uses the CRISPR/Cas9 process to make genetically-engineered mice for academic and research institute clients. Like many labs, Brink’s facility has embraced CRISPR/Cas9, which has made editing plant and animal DNA so accessible even amateurs are dabbling.
First described in a June 2012 paper in Science, CRISPR/Cas9 is an adaptation of bacteria’s defences against viruses. Using a guide RNA matching a target’s DNA, the Cas9 in the title is an endonuclease that makes a precise cut at the site matching the RNA guide. Used against a virus, the cut degrades and kills it. The triumphant bacteria cell then keeps a piece of viral DNA for later use and identification (described sometimes as like an immunisation card). This is assimilated at a locus in a chromosome known as CRISPR (short for clustered regularly spaced short palindromic repeats).
In DNA more complicated than a virus’s, the cut DNA is able to repair itself, and incorporates specific bits of the new material into its sequence before joining the cut back up. Though ‘off-target’ gene edits are an issue being addressed, the technique has grabbed lots of attention. Some claim it could earn a Nobel prize this year. There is hope it can be used to eventually address gene disorders, such as Beta thalassemias and Huntington’s disease.
“Probably the obvious ones are gene therapy, for humans, and agricultural applications in plants and animals,” says Dr George Church of Harvard Medical School.
Among numerous appointments, Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and founding core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Last year, a team led by Dr Church used CRISPR to remove one of the major barriers to pig-human organ transplants – retroviral DNA – in pig embryos.
You can have what are called, ‘universal donors’. That’s being used, for example, in making cells that fight cancer.
“We’re now at the point where it used to be that you would have to have a perfect match between donor and recipient of human cells, but that was because you couldn’t engineer either one of them genetically,” he says. “You can engineer the donor so that it doesn’t cause an immune reaction. Now, you can have what are called, ‘universal donors’. That’s being used, for example, in making T cells that fight cancer – what some of us call CAR-T cells. You can use CRISPR to engineer them so that they’re not only effective against your cancer, but they don’t cause immune complications.”
Uncertainty exists in a number of areas regarding CRISPR (including patent disputes, as well as ethical concerns). However, there is no doubt it has promise.
“I think it will eventually have a great impact on medicine,” believes Brink. “It’s come so far, so quickly already that it’s almost hard to predict… Being able to do things and also being able to ensure everyone it’s safe is another thing, but that will happen.”
And as far as acceptance by the general public? Everything that works to overcome nature seems, well, unnatural, at least at first. Then it’s easier to accept once the benefits of are apparent. Church – who believes we could reverse ageing in five or six years – is hopeful about the future. He also feels the world needs people leery about progress, and who might even throw up a “playing God” argument or two.
“I mean it’s good to have people who don’t drive cars and don’t wear clothes and things like that, [and] it’s good to have people who are anti-technology because they give us an alternative way of thinking about things,” he says.
“[Genetic modification] is now broadly accepted in the sense that in many countries people eat genetically-modified foods and almost all countries, they use genetically-modified bacteria to make drugs like Insulin. I think there are very few people who would refuse to take Insulin just because it’s made in bacteria.”
A complete mindshift
Extended, healthier lives are all well and good. However, humans are constrained by the upper limits of what our cells are capable of, believes Dr Randal Koene.
For that and other reasons, the Dutch neuroscientist and founder of Carbon Copies is advancing the goal of Substrate Independent Minds (SIM). The most conservative form (relatively speaking) of SIM is Whole Brain Emulation, a reverse-engineering of our grey matter.
“In system identification, you pick something as your black box, a piece of the puzzle small enough to describe by using the information you can glean about signals going in and signals going out,” he explains, adding that the approach is that of mainstream neuroscience. “The system identification approach is used in neuroscience explicitly both in brain-machine interfaces, and in the work on prostheses.”
No brain much more complicated than a roundworm’s has been emulated yet. Its 302 neurons are a fraction of the human brain’s roughly 100 billion.
Koene believes that a drosophila fly, with a connectome of 100,000 or so neurons, could be emulated within the next decade. He is reluctant to predict when this might be achieved for people.
Director, Centre for Sustainable Materials and Research Technology (SMaRT), UNSW and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Academia and Research category.
PhD (Mat Sc & Eng), University of Michigan (USA)
Professor Veena Sahajwalla has been focusing on turning waste glass and plastic from cars into value-added material. She says that by “mining” rubbish dumps and landfills, you can access “ores” of various materials more concentrated than in greenfield mine sites.
Traditionally, they have been difficult to recycle because the materials are mixed with other materials and require separation. However, Sahajwalla’s innovation is using high temperatures (over 1500 degrees Celsius) that trigger reactions which create new products by releasing the materials’ elements from their original structures, enabling them to reform.
Innovation: Vision through artificial intelligence
Co-Founder, Aipoly and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Young Engineers category.
BE (Mech), University of Melbourne
Aipoly is a smartphone app which helps blind people identify objects. The app and the company developing it are less than a year old. It grew out of a program at Singularity University in California where entrepreneurs and technologists work together on team-based technology solutions for widespread global challenges.
Australian roboticist Marita Cheng was teamed with Italian Alberto Rizzoli and Swede Simon Edwardsson. Their current version can recognise about 1000 objects and the trio are working on the next version of the algorithm, which is able to recognise 5000 objects.
Cheng says the unique thing about the app is that all the computation happens on the phone, meaning it detects objects in real-time rather than having someone take a photo then send it over the internet to a cloud server. “All you have to do is hold your phone, pass it over the various objects, and in real time it recognises chairs, the floor, tables, different colours,” says Cheng. “A blind person would be able to have a much richer experience of the world through this kind of technology.”
Innovation: GPU Models for Rivers
Director, Water Modelling Solutions and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Utilities category.
M.Sc. (Environmental Eng), Technical University of Denmark
Australia is one of the best places to see the advantages of graphics processing unit (GPU) modelling, according to Monika Balicki. A prime example is her work in Toowoomba in 2015 as part of an update to the region’s planning scheme, a massive project covering nearly 13,000 sq km that includes the Condamine River floodplain in Queensland.
The council saw a need to update its model, as new technology only available in the last two years would improve flood-mapping accuracy.
New light detection and ranging (LiDAR) survey data, in addition to advances in GPU technology, made it possible to develop a comprehensive map of flood elevation surfaces, velocities and depths, as well as flood hazard and hydraulic categories for a full set of modelled events.
GPU 1D and 2D flexible mesh modelling allowed Balicki to adjust the resolution to be more detailed in areas of interest, such as towns.
Prof Fariba Dehghani
Innovation: Advanced active food packaging
Professor, University of Sydney and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Academia and Research category.
PhD (ChemEng), University of NSW
Advanced active food packaging is a ‘greener’ approach to food packaging that prolongs the shelf life of foods by offering lower oxygen and water-vapour permeability than other polymers (plastics) currently used.
The existing biodegradable plastic, polypropylene carbonate has properties favourable for use in food packaging, but contains metallic catalysts.
Extracting these impurities results in a ‘greener’ plastic for food packaging and with the additional coating of the surface with a natural extract, creates antibacterial qualities.
Prof Fariba Dehghani is the inventor of the technology and project leader of its development.
Innovation: Women In Mining And Resources WA
National Lead, Mining Performance, KPMG Australia and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Community category.
Western Australian School of Mines (Mining Eng)
Sabina Shugg was the first woman in the state to gain the WA first class mine manager’s certificate of competency, and the first to work as an underground mine manager in WA.
She had a unique and varied career in remote mining communities, but at times found that she was more isolated than her male colleagues. So she established a networking group for women working in the mining industry, Women in Mining and Resources WA (WIMWA).
It gives women mining professionals a forum to share their experiences and extend their networks. The WIMWA Summit and Conference in September 2015 attracted 550 women from the mining industry in WA.
The group recently branched out into mentoring programs and matches pairs of 35 to 40 mentees with mentors.
Innovation: A Bit of Engenuity for Tourism
Director, UNO Management Services and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Community category.
BE (Env), University of Western Australia
The Northern Territory Adventure Park decided to use a bit of engineering and innovation (what they termed engenuity), and in the process recycle materials to build new projects and reduce waste to landfills.
Kirsty McInnes was project manager, builder and engineer on the project. “The innovation was all in the design,” she said. “Construction items needed to be envisaged and designed before the materials had been sourced. For example, we recognised we needed to build an event space but did not realise this would be transformed from trampolines and truck jibs.”
She said designs had to be ‘fluid’ and ‘adaptable’ with an image of the constructed form, but not the key materials.
Through innovative design processes and careful project management, the result is an award-winning tourism business created with 52 t of waste and saving almost $500,000. It demonstrated that materials can be ‘repurposed’ rather than disposed to landfill at the end of their life, and challenges engineers to take another look at the materials they could use.
Dr Marianne Foley
Innovation: 50 Martin Place Fire Design
Principal, Arup and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Consulting category.
PhD (Fire Safety), University of Leeds and University of Edinburgh
Fifty Martin Place is a landmark heritage building in the heart of Sydney’s financial district. Recently transformed as the new global headquarters of Macquarie Group, it is the largest heritage property to achieve the Green Building Council of Australia’s 6 Star Green Star rating, and to date the only building in Australia registered for WELL Building Standard.
Dr Marianne Foley devised a performance-based fire engineering design, which enabled the preservation and revitalisation of the building’s original heritage aesthetic, the creation of new spaces and features, and ensured the highest levels of occupant safety.
Innovation: Perth’s daily population
Associate Principal, Arup and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Consulting category.
BE (Civil), University of Melbourne
The City of Perth has been undergoing a rapid transformation over recent years. The impacts of these changes are difficult to pinpoint without understanding the baseline population of people using the City on a daily basis for various purposes.
Very little information exists on how many people are in the City typically, which makes it increasingly difficult to plan the City, new transport infrastructure and develop business cases to support new projects. Danya Mullins managed the project for Arup. One of the key challenges to overcome was the fact that no new data was to be collected to inform the calculations. This meant that the approach needed to be tailored to available datasets, but also to make sure that secondary data sources could be kept independent to allow validation of the population calculation.
This required innovative thinking, as many of the datasets were collected for entirely different purposes. For instance, the number of cyclists using shared paths into the City, or needed to be sensibly adapted as they were old (eg 2011 Census statistics).
Captain Mona Shindy
Innovation: Rethinking defence leadership
Head, Guided Missile Frigate System Program Office, Royal Australian Navy and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the General Industry category.
BE (Elec), University of NSW
Captain Mona Shindy was last year named the Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year, largely in recognition of her work in charge of the availability, maintenance and upkeep of front-line warships, associated logistics and engineering enhancements.
“Effecting necessary change, in business practice or community attitudes, requires strong leadership by example,” says Shindy.
“It requires creating environments where people are encouraged to collaborate and innovate, where all contributions are respected and valued, where there is a strong sense of belonging and personal responsibility, then people and organisations are empowered to be their best and to give their best.”
Innovation: 3D Nanostructured Materials
CEO, Nano-Nouvelle and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in the Manufacturing category.
Engineering Physics, University of British Columbia
Stephanie Moroz is working on tin-based anodes for lithium-ion batteries. Nano-Nouvelle has developed a 3D nano-porous conductive membrane that can boost the energy storage capacity of lithium-ion batteries by as much as 50%. Most of the current work is focusing on changing the active particles and trying to get them to bind better to the foil. Moroz is attacking the problem from a different angle.
“Our material, coated with copper, replaces the foil,” she says. “Instead of having the flat foil we have this porous, high surface area.” Rather than having the current collector placed next to the active material, the Tin Nanode is throughout the active material. The current collector has far greater surface-area contact with the active material, offering new efficiencies. The company was selected as one of the 2016 Top 50 Tech Pioneers in Australia and New Zealand.
The triumphant team of Australian roboticists who smashed their way to victory at the RoboCup world soccer championship in China – snatching the trophy for the second year in a row – return home on Monday and will be holding a media conference at UNSW.
They will afterwards provide demonstrations of the robots in action in a special soccer pitch where the robots train. Also available will be video and high-resolution images of the robots and team members, as well as the team’s victorious finals match in Hefei, west of Shanghai in China, on 22 July. (Most of the team have been travelling on holidays since then.)
Australia’s RoboCup World Champions Media Conference
RoboCup is an international competition of 300 teams from 47 counties that fosters innovation in robotics and artificial intelligence. The premier category is the Standard Platform League, in which squads compete on an indoor soccer court with robots operating entirely autonomously – with no control by humans or computers during the game. This year’s tournament was fought between Naos, 58 cm-tall humanoid robots that whose artificial intelligence and tactics were developed by young software designers and engineers.
RoboCup was founded in 1997 with the goal of developing a robot team good enough to beat the human champions of the FIFA World Cup by 2050.