AI Is Helping Us To Understand Animal Communication
Artificial intelligence has already enabled humans to chat with robots like Alexa and Siri that were inspired by science fiction. Some of its newest creations take a page from a hero of children’s literature: Doctor Dolittle.
Researchers are using AI to parse the “speech” of animals, enabling scientists to create systems that, for example, detect and monitor whale songs to alert nearby ships so they can avoid collisions. It may not yet quite be able to talk to the animals the way the century-old children’s-book character could, but this application of what is known as “deep learning” is helping conservationists protect animals, as well as potentially bridging the gap between human and nonhuman intelligences.
Scientists pursuing this line of inquiry are asking a fundamental question: Is the best way to probe one alien intelligence to use another?
Even asking this question raises all kinds of issues for those who build artificial intelligence, many of whom are eager to point out that what we now call AI isn’t intelligent by any definition recognizable to a layperson. It also raises issues for the scientists studying animals and their habitats, who are by trade and tradition wary of making claims for animal intelligence that liken it to our own.
That said, both groups are enthusiastic about the enormous potential of applying AI to animal communication, both as a way to learn about our finned, furry and flying friends, and as a way to sharpen the tools of artificial intelligence itself. Honing cutting-edge AI on a problem as rich and challenging as what animals are thinking, and whether or not they “talk,” challenges researchers to pursue goals with such systems that go beyond simply using them to understand languages humans can already speak.
It’s Time For Mini-Nuclear Reactors
Nuclear power has never quite lived up to its promise. Reactors have proved much more expensive than hoped. Accidents and leaks have given it a reputation for being risky despite its zero-carbon credentials. (Attempts to point out that coal-fired power kills far more people than the nuclear variety have failed to convince many voters.) Nuclear’s share of the world’s electricity production fell from 17.5% in 1996 to 10.1% in 2020.
But governments committed to ambitious climate-change targets have been giving the technology a second glance. In January, the European Union added nuclear power to a list of projects eligible for green finance. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, has sent fossil-fuel prices soaring, and put energy security at the top of the political agenda in Europe, which currently relies heavily on Russian natural gas. The nuclear industry reckons it has just the answer: a new generation of small modular reactors (smrs), designed to be cheaper, quicker and less financially risky to build.
In 2019 Russia connected the Akademik Lomonosov—an experimental ship-borne smr—to its power grid. China, which has more big reactors under construction than anywhere else, hopes to have its first commercial smr operating in Hainan by 2026. Last year Britain’s government said it would accelerate plans to build 16 smrs designed by Rolls-Royce. NuScale Power, an American firm, hopes its first smr, to be built at Idaho National Laboratory, will be providing power by 2029. The International Atomic Energy Agency reckons “about 50” smr designs are being worked on around the world.
The Electric Train That Never Needs Its Batteries Recharged
Australian mining company Fortescue is working to clean up its own operations by 2030, while developing green solutions it can sell to others. It’s forking out into green tech through a subsidiary called Fortescue Future Industries, which has recently acquired Williams Advanced Engineering. Today, the two companies announced their first project together: an electric “infinity train” designed to move loads of iron ore without ever needing to be charged.
The Infinity Train has the capacity to be the world’s most efficient battery electric locomotive,” said Fortescue CEO Elizabeth Gaines. “The regeneration of electricity on the downhill loaded sections will remove the need for the installation of renewable energy generation and recharging infrastructure, making it a capital efficient solution for eliminating diesel and emissions from our rail operations.”
So essentially, while details are scant at this point, it seems what’s happening here is that for one or more of Fortescue’s mining sites, the team has calculated that there’s enough downhill slope and braking opportunities in the loaded direction to charge up the battery regeneratively, and the train is so much lighter when it’s unloaded that the battery can take it all the way back to the mine and start the journey again without needing a charge.
Dopamine Enables You To Initiate Movement
Every time you reach for your coffee mug, a neuroscientific mystery takes shape. Moments before you voluntarily extend your arm, thousands of neurons in the motor regions of your brain erupt in a pattern of electrical activity that travels to the spinal cord and then to the muscles that power the reach. But just prior to this massively synchronized activity, the motor regions in your brain are relatively quiet. For self-driven movements like reaching for your coffee, the “go” signal that tells the neurons precisely when to act — instead of the moment just before or after — has yet to be found.
In a recent paper in eLife, a group of neuroscientists led by John Assad at Harvard Medical School finally reveals a key piece of the signal. It comes in the form of the brain chemical known as dopamine, whose slow ramping up in a region lodged deep below the cortex closely predicted the moment that mice would begin a movement — seconds into the future.
Dopamine is commonly known as one of the brain’s neurotransmitters, the fast-acting chemical messengers that are shuttled between neurons. But in the new work, dopamine is acting as a neuromodulator. It’s a term for chemical messengers that slightly alter neurons to cause longer-lasting effects, including making a neuron more or less likely to electrically communicate with other neurons.
This neuromodulatory tuning mechanism is perfect for helping to coordinate the activity of large populations of neurons, as dopamine is likely doing to help the motor system decide precisely when to make a movement.
An Under-Water Scooter For Those Too Lazy To Swim
There are now several companies making underwater scooters, so in order for one of the things to stand out, it really has to be special. The Subnado is claimed to fit that bill, as it’s reportedly the world’s smallest and lightest such device.
Soon to be the subject of a Kickstarter campaign, the Subnado is manufactured by Waydoo. That Chinese company is currently best known for another type of watercraft, namely the electric foil board.
The Subnado features a 380-mm-long (14.9-in) cylindrical aluminium body that measures 60 mm wide (2.4 in) for the most part, widening to 70 mm (2.8 in) at the propeller guard. It’s said to tip the scales at just 1.4 kg (3 lb).
Its 100W electric motor provides up to 6.5 kg (14 lb) of thrust, allowing a 65-kg (143-lb) user to travel at a maximum speed of 1.4 meters (4.6 ft) per second. One USB charge of its airline-approved 98-Wh lithium-ion battery should be good for up to 56 minutes of use. That battery can also be utilized to charge other devices, such as smartphones or actioncams.
A Robotic “Worm” To Treat Lung Cancer
The innovative use of magnetic fields has opened up some exciting possibilities in cancer treatment, with scientists demonstrating how they can be used to steer tumour-killing particles into cancer tissue or wires into veins in search of blood cancers, to list a couple of examples. A thin new robot developed at the University of Leeds follows in these footsteps, taking the shape of a tentacle that can be guided into the depths of the lungs to inspect suspicious lesions or deliver drugs.
The tentacle-inspired robot was conceived to expand the reach of what’s known as a bronchoscope, a tube-like medical instrument used to examine the lungs and airways. Doctors will feed this through the nose and mouth into the bronchial passages, and then send a finer 2-mm catheter through the inside of it and deeper into the respiratory tract.
But this approach has limitations in its manoeuvrability which leaves some spots out of reach, so the University of Leeds scientists set out to design a more pliable device that could be more finely controlled once inside the body. The result is a robot consisting of linked cylindrical segments made from a soft elastomeric and embedded with tiny magnetic particles.
This means that when subjected to a magnetic field the individual segments can move independently, making the robot highly flexible and able to worm its way through the twists and turns of the lungs. In a clinical setting, pre-operative scans would allow doctors to map out the route through the patient’s unique lung structures, which would then be programmed into a robotic system mounted with magnets to automate control of the magnetic field.
Why AI Tools Failed To Help With The Covid Pandemic
When covid-19 struck Europe in March 2020, hospitals were plunged into a health crisis that was still badly understood. “Doctors really didn’t have a clue how to manage these patients,” says Laure Wynants, an epidemiologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who studies predictive tools.
But there was data coming out of China, which had a start in the race to beat the pandemic. If machine-learning algorithms could be trained on that data to help doctors understand what they were seeing and make decisions, it just might save lives. “I thought, ‘If there’s any time that AI could prove its usefulness, it’s now,’” says Wynants. “I had my hopes up.”
It never happened—but not for lack of effort. Research teams around the world stepped up to help. The AI community, in particular, rushed to develop software that many believed would allow hospitals to diagnose or triage patients faster, bringing much-needed support to the front lines—in theory.
In the end, many hundreds of predictive tools were developed. None of them made a real difference, and some were potentially harmful.
That’s the damning conclusion of multiple studies published in the last few months. In June, the Turing Institute, the UK’s national centre for data science and AI, put out a report summing up discussions at a series of workshops it held in late 2020. The clear consensus was that AI tools had made little, if any, impact in the fight against covid.
Tesla Working On A Manganese Battery
Elon Musk has announced that Tesla sees potential in battery chemistry with a manganese-based cathode. The CEO reiterated that the industry needs to focus more on the battery supply chain down to the minerals.
During a speech to Tesla Gigafactory Berlin employees following the delivery of the first Model Y made at the factory, Musk was asked about graphene-based batteries.
Like many others in the industry, Musk said he was sceptical due to the complexity of making graphene, but he did say that Tesla was working on making batteries out of more materials.
The CEO reiterated that for the foreseeable future Tesla, like the rest of the industry, will focus on nickel-based chemistries for longer-range vehicles and iron-phosphate for shorter-range vehicles.
Several research groups have published papers on promising manganese-rich cathode batteries that could offer interesting options with a higher energy density than iron-phosphate and potentially lower price than nickel-rich batteries. Manganese is already used by Tesla in some battery chemistries, but it is not the prominent component of any of them.
For example, NMC chemistry used a lot of manganese, and Tesla has used the chemistry for its Powerwall before. Nissan also has used a manganese-rich cathode in the original battery of the Leaf.
The CEO reiterated the need to focus on battery mineral supply to accelerate the transition to electric transport and renewable energy.