GLIMPSES OF THE FUTURE – FEBRUARY 2023

The Turing Test Has Been Passed – And Convincingly

 For more than 70 years, computer scientists have struggled to build technology that could pass the Turing test: the technological inflection point where we humans are no longer sure whether we are chatting with a machine or a person.

Chat bots have now already passed the test in particular situations, like negotiating Diplomacy moves or calling a restaurant for dinner reservations. ChatGPT, a bot released in November by OpenAI, a San Francisco lab, leaves people feeling as if they were chatting with another person, not a bot. The lab said more than a million people had used it.

Because ChatGPT can write just about anything, including term papers, universities are worried it will make a mockery of class work. When some people talk to these bots, they even describe them as sentient or conscious, believing that machines have somehow developed an awareness of the world around them.

Privately, OpenAI has built a system, GPT-4, that is even more powerful than ChatGPT. It may even generate images as well as words.

As the latest technologies emerge from research labs, it is now obvious — if it was not obvious before — that scientists must rethink and reshape how they track the progress of artificial intelligence. The Turing test is no longer up to the task.

 At Last!  A Wheelchair That Can Climb Stairs

 The ultimate in assistive mobility, Scewo’s Bro is claimed to be the only self-balancing wheelchair able to rise up and climb stairs. This two-wheeled personal electric vehicle is claimed to be delightfully intuitive to manoeuvre.

 Invented in Switzerland, the Scewo team of 30 has brought this smart power wheelchair – officially, the Bro Series One – to market in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, with plans to launch in the U.S. in 2025. (No price has been set for the American iteration, but the European version currently sells for roughly US$39,000.)

Apart from the sense of freedom this ingenious chair imparts, is most striking about it was how comfortable, fun and easy the use it is. The seat and seatback (among many settings) are both simple to angle and adjust. The app offers information about speed and the current mode, plus enabled control of the lights and the selection of such key settings as the joystick sensitivity.

With two large wheels, this torso-independent wheelchair can climb up to 30 steps per minute, each with a max height of 20 cm (7.9 in), at a gradient up to 36 degrees. At this point, it almost seems insulting to simply refer to this as a wheelchair. And it can overcome 5-cm (2-in) obstacles in the wild, in case you want to roll through a scenic forest or over other terrain with an uneven surface. If you’re at a store or in a social situation in which extra height would be handy or appropriate, the seat can rise from from 45 to 87 cm (17.7 to 34.2 in).

Legal Problems Loom Over Future Virgin Galactic Space Flights

 In a desert basin in New Mexico, Richard Branson hopes history will be made later this year with the launch of Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flights to the edge of space, with tickets costing about $450,000 (£370,000) each.

It is an ambitious schedule to launch the “world’s first commercial spaceliner” at Spaceport America, even though it is already more than a decade late.

But getting to lift-off will be one of the greatest challenges of Branson’s career. The company already faces criticism over the safety and effectiveness of its operations in a number of lawsuits in the United States.

Branson initially hoped that he would send 50,000 astronauts into space by 2019, but the project has been beset by mishaps, delays and disaster. A pilot was killed and another suffered injuries when Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo shuttle, VSS Enterprise, crashed in the Californian desert in October 2014.

The company’s active vehicles – the carrier aircraft VMS Eve and VSS Unity, the second SpaceShipTwo – have not flown since Branson’s trip to the edge of space in July 2021, while the share price has fallen from more than $55 at its peak to around $5.

Using AI Facial Pattern Recognition Allows Rentokil To Track Rats

You’re never more than 6ft away from a rat in a big city, according to the adage. Now, Rentokil, the world’s biggest pest control group is planning to annihilate the pesky rodents by using facial recognition to track their habits.

Rentokil said its surveillance service, which live streams video of the vermin to its “central command centre” for real-time analysis using artificial intelligence, can help decide where and how to hunt the fast-breeding undesirables. The UK-based group acquired the technology in a spree of hundreds of deals that has boosted its pest control capabilities.

Andy Ransom, chief executive, said the purchase in December of Israeli market leader Eitan Amichai had brought Rentokil “significant technology”, boosting a system being piloted by customers from food producers to offices. “With facial recognition technology you can see that rat number one behaved differently from rat number three,” Ransom said.

“And the technology will always identify which rat has come back, where are they feeding, where are they sleeping, who’s causing the damage, which part of the building are they coming from, where are they getting into the building from, whether it’s the same rodent that caused the problem last week.” Rentokil has been developing facial recognition for several years but Ransom said the Israeli acquisition “brings us the next generation of technology”.

Hydrogen-Powered Plane Takes To The Skies Over UK

 ZeroAvia’s 19-seat Dornier 228 has taken its first test flight in the UK. It’s a testbed for the company’s clean aviation technology, using a zero-emissions hydrogen-electric powertrain that’s slated for certification and commercial flights by 2025.

Announced in June 2021, the HyFlyer II program continues ZeroAvia’s aggressive push to prove hydrogen is the path forward in aviation. The original HyFlyer program put a six-seater in the air back in 2020, and it was the biggest hydrogen-powered plane ever to fly at the time. It has now completed more than 30 flights.

In 2021, the company made headlines when a two-seat test plane lost power and made a forced landing in a field, losing its left wing in a hedge before coming to an “abrupt stop” in a ditch. Thankfully, nobody was injured, and a subsequent AAIB investigation found the hydrogen powertrain was not responsible for the incident, but it was certainly a wake-up call and a cautionary tale for other companies hoping to take a fast-paced start-up mindset into the aviation world.

Now, one of the company’s two 19-seaters has entered the test flight phase for the first time – albeit with a more cautious implementation of the technology. ZeroAvia has left the standard Honeywell TPE-331 combustion engine on the right wing, while fitting the left wing with a 600-kW electric motor.

Microsoft Text-To-Speech System Can Copy And Voice In Three Seconds

Since the release of the first text-to-speech (TTS) model, researchers have been looking for ways to improve the way these systems generate speech. The latest model from Microsoft, VALL-E, is a significant step forward in this regard.

VALL-E is a transformer-based TTS model that can generate speech in any voice after only hearing a three-second sample of that voice. This is a significant improvement over previous models, which required a much longer training period in order to generate a new voice.

Additionally, the intonation, charisma, and style of the voice are all kept intact in the generated speech. This is an important step forward in making TTS systems sound more natural.

This model is transformer-based and has a Dale-1 appearance. Not to be confused with the diffusion-based Dalle-2.

Microsoft has released a few examples of the model in action, and it is clear that this is a major advance in TTS technology.

New Screen Technologies Will Change Our Experience Of The Virtual World.

 Computer users spend the majority of their waking hours looking at screens—and yet most of those screens, including the one you’re probably reading this on now, are based on the same LCD display tech that made its debut in the 1980s.

Soon, however, all that could change. A raft of new display technologies is on the way and promise a variety of benefits, from significantly extending the battery life of our wearables, mobile devices and laptops to making them slimmer, lighter and easier to read in full sunlight. At least one of these new types of displays could also enable future technologies that are impossible now, like lightweight augmented-reality smart glasses that project digital interfaces on top of what we see.

Between incremental improvements in existing display tech and these new developments, our devices’ visual interfaces could change as much in the next five years as they did in the past 30.

There’s an excellent analysis of new screen technologies here.

Bioengineered Houseplant Cleans The Air As Well As 30 Non-engineered Plants

We’ve all heard how it’s a good idea to have plants in your home, as they help purify the air. Well, the bioengineered Neo P1 is claimed to excel in that department, as it’s reportedly equivalent to up to 30 regular houseplants in terms of air purification.

Created by Paris-based biotech start-up Neoplants, the Neo P1 is actually a genetically engineered type of pothos, a plant which is already known to be good at removing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the air.

Humanity badly needs those metals as we try to steer the ocean liner of modern civilization away from fossil The Neo P1 has been specifically designed to capture large amounts of four of the most toxic VOCs, namely formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and xylene. Genes added to its DNA cause it to produce enzymes which convert those compounds into harmless substances that are used by the plant. More specifically, formaldehyde is converted into fructose, while benzene, toluene and xylene are converted into an amino acid.

That being said, the Neo P1 does get a bit of help.

It comes with its own special soil which contains biochar, a charcoal-like material that is produced by heating biomass in an oxygen-free environment. Among other things, the biochar provides a home for beneficial microorganisms which are added to the soil once a month, in supplements known as Power Drops.

These microbes receive life-sustaining nutrients from the plant while simultaneously boosting its air purification performance – they also do some VOC-capturing of their own, as air flows through the soil via slots in the supplied pot. We’re told that the plant-to-soil air purification ratio varies depending on the size of the plant, but that it should be about a 50:50 split once the Neo P1 reaches maturity.

New Robot Has “Locust Antenna” To Identify Smells

While we’ve heard about a number of “electronic noses,” the devices are rarely as sensitive as their natural counterparts. That’s why Israeli scientists have taken a new approach, by incorporating a locust antenna into an odour-identifying robot.

So first of all, yes, locusts do indeed detect smells via their antennae. In fact, they’re so good at doing so, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis previously explored the possibility of turning the insects into explosives-sniffing cyborgs.

For the new study, a team at Tel Aviv University took a single locust antenna and incorporated it into an electronic system on a wheeled robot.

“After the experiment was over, we continued to identify additional different and unusual smells, such as various types of Scotch whiskey,” said Prof. Yossi Yovel, who led the study along with Dr. Ben Maoz, Prof. Amir Ayali and doctoral student Neta Shvil. “A comparison with standard measuring devices showed that the sensitivity of the insect’s nose in our system is about 10,000 times higher than the devices that are in use today.”