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Loon’s stratospheric balloons are now teaching themselves to fly better thanks to Google AI

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet’s Loon has been using algorithmic processes to optimize the flight of its stratospheric balloons for years now – and setting records for time spent aloft as a result. But the company is now deploying a new navigation system that has the potential to be much better, and it’s using true reinforcement learning AI to teach itself to optimize navigation better than humans ever could.

Loon developed the new reinforcement learning system, which it says is the first to be used in an actual product aerospace context, with its Alphabet colleagues at Google AI in Montreal over the past couple of years. Unlike its past algorithmic navigation software, this one is devised entirely by machine – a machine that’s able to calculate the optimal navigation path for the balloons much more quickly than the human-made system could, and with much more efficiency, meaning the balloons use much less power to travel the same or greater distances than before.

How does Loon know it’s better? They actually pitted the new AI navigation against their human algorithm-based prior system directly, with a 39 day test that flew over the Pacific Ocean. The reinforcement learning model kept the Loon balloon aloft over target areas for longer continuous periods, using less energy than the older system, and it even came up with some new navigational moves that the team has never seen or conceived of before.

After this and other tests proved such dramatic successes, Loon actually then went ahead and deployed across its entire production fleet, which is currently deployed across parts of Africa to serve commercial customers in Kenya.

This is one of few real-world examples of an AI system that employs reinforcement learning to actively teach itself to perform better being used in a real-life setting, to control the performance of real hardware operating in a production capacity and serving paying customers. It’s a remarkable achievement, and definitely one that will be watched closely by others in aerospace and beyond.

AI-tool maker Seldon raises £7.1M Series A from AlbionVC and Cambridge Innovation Capital

By Mike Butcher

Seldon is a UK startup that specializes in the rarified world of development tools to optimize Machine Learning. What does this mean? Well, dear reader, it means that the “AI” that companies are so fond of trumpeting, does actually end up working.

It’s now raised a £7.1M Series A round co-led by AlbionVC and Cambridge Innovation Capital . The round also includes significant participation from existing investors Amadeus Capital Partners and Global Brain, with follow-on investment from other existing shareholders. The £7.1M funding will be used to accelerate R&D and drive commercial expansion, take Seldon Deploy – a new enterprise solution – to market, and double the size of the team over the next 18 months.

More accurately, Seldon is a cloud-agnostic Machine Learning (ML) deployment specialist which works in partnership with industry leaders such as Google, Red Hat, IBM and Amazon Web Services.

Key to its success is that its open-source project Seldon Core has over 700,000 models deployed to date, drastically reducing friction for users deploying ML models. The startup says its customers are getting productivity gains of as much as 92% as a result of utilizing Seldon’s product portfolio.

Alex Housley, CEO and founder of Seldon said: Speaking to TechCrunch, Housley explained that companies are using machine learning across thousands of use cases today, “but the model actually only generates real value when it’s actually running inside a real-world application.”

“So what we’ve seen emerge over these last few years are companies that specialize in specific parts of the machine learning pipeline, such as training version control features. And in our case we’re focusing on deployment. So what this means is that organizations can now build a fully bespoke AI platform that suits their needs, so they can gain a competitive advantage,” he said.

In addition, he said Seldon’s Open Source model means that companies are not locked-in: “They want to avoid locking as well they want to use tools from various different vendors. So this kind of intersection between machine learning, DevOps and cloud-native tooling is really accelerating a lot of innovation across enterprise and also within startups and growth-stage companies.”

Nadine Torbey, Investor AlbionVC added: “Seldon is at the forefront of the next wave of tech innovation, and the leadership team are true visionaries. Seldon has been able to build an impressive open-source community and add immediate productivity value to some of the world’s leading companies.”

Vin Lingathoti, Partner at Cambridge Innovation Capital said: “Machine learning has rapidly shifted from a nice-to-have to a must-have for enterprises across all industries. Seldon’s open-source platform operationalizes ML model development and accelerates the time-to-market by eliminating the pain points involved in developing, deploying and monitoring Machine Learning models at scale.”

Deep Science: Robot perception, acoustic monitoring, using ML to detect arthritis

By Devin Coldewey

Research papers come out far too rapidly for anyone to read them all, especially in the field of machine learning, which now affects (and produces papers in) practically every industry and company. This column aims to collect the most relevant recent discoveries and papers — particularly in but not limited to artificial intelligence — and explain why they matter.

The topics in this week’s Deep Science column are a real grab bag that range from planetary science to whale tracking. There are also some interesting insights from tracking how social media is used and some work that attempts to shift computer vision systems closer to human perception (good luck with that).

ML model detects arthritis early

Image Credits: UC San Diego

One of machine learning’s most reliable use cases is training a model on a target pattern, say a particular shape or radio signal, and setting it loose on a huge body of noisy data to find possible hits that humans might struggle to perceive. This has proven useful in the medical field, where early indications of serious conditions can be spotted with enough confidence to recommend further testing.

This arthritis detection model looks at X-rays, same as doctors who do that kind of work. But by the time it’s visible to human perception, the damage is already done. A long-running project tracking thousands of people for seven years made for a great training set, making the nearly imperceptible early signs of osteoarthritis visible to the AI model, which predicted it with 78% accuracy three years out.

The bad news is that knowing early doesn’t necessarily mean it can be avoided, as there’s no effective treatment. But that knowledge can be put to other uses — for example, much more effective testing of potential treatments. “Instead of recruiting 10,000 people and following them for 10 years, we can just enroll 50 people who we know are going to be getting osteoarthritis … Then we can give them the experimental drug and see whether it stops the disease from developing,” said co-author Kenneth Urish. The study appeared in PNAS.

Using acoustic monitoring to preemptively save the whales

It’s amazing to think that ships still collide with and kill large whales on a regular basis, but it’s true. Voluntary speed reductions haven’t been much help, but a smart, multisource system called Whale Safe is being put in play in the Santa Barbara channel that could hopefully give everyone a better idea of where the creatures are in real-time.

Image Credits: UW/UC Santa Barbara

The system uses underwater acoustic monitoring, near-real-time forecasting of likely feeding areas, actual sightings and a dash of machine learning (to identify whale calls quickly) to produce a prediction for whale presence along a given course. Large container ships can then make small adjustments well-ahead of time instead of trying to avoid a pod at the last minute.

“Predictive models like this give us a clue for what lies ahead, much like a daily weather forecast,” said Briana Abrahms, who led the effort from the University of Washington. “We’re harnessing the best and most current data to understand what habitats whales use in the ocean, and therefore where whales are most likely to be as their habitats shift on a daily basis.”

Incidentally, Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne helped establish the UC Santa Barbara center that made this possible.

4 things to remember when adapting AI/ML learning models during a pandemic

By Walter Thompson
Pedro Alves Contributor
Pedro Alves is the founder and CEO of Ople.AI, a software startup that provides an automated machine learning platform to empower business users with predictive analytics.

The machine learning and AI-powered tools being deployed in response to COVID-19 arguably improve certain human activities and provide essential insights needed to make certain personal or professional decisions; however, they also highlight a few pervasive challenges faced by both machines and the humans that create them.

Nevertheless, the progress seen in AI/machine learning leading up to and during the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be ignored. This global economic and public health crisis brings with it a unique opportunity for updates and innovation in modeling, so long as certain underlying principles are followed.

Here are four industry truths (note: this is not an exhaustive list) my colleagues and I have found that matter in any design climate, but especially during a global pandemic climate.

Some success can be attributed to chance, rather than reasoning

When a big group of people is collectively working on a problem, success may become more likely. Looking at historic examples like the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, there were several analysts credited with predicting the crisis. This may seem miraculous to some until you consider that more than 200,000 people were working in Wall Street, each of them making their own predictions. It then becomes less of a miracle and more of a statistically probable outcome. With this many individuals simultaneously working on modeling and predictions, it was highly likely someone would get it right by chance.

Similarly, with COVID-19 there are a lot of people involved, from statistical modelers and data scientists to vaccine specialists, and there is also an overwhelming eagerness to find solutions and concrete data-based answers. Following appropriate statistical rigor, coupled with machine learning and AI, can improve these models and decrease the chances of false predictions that arrive from too many predictions being made.

Automation can help in maintaining productivity if used wisely

During a crisis, time-management is essential. Automation technology can be used not only as part of the crisis solution, but also as a tool for monitoring productivity and contributions of team members working on the solution. For modeling, automation can also greatly improve the speed of results. Every second a piece of software can perform automation for a model, it allows a data scientist (or even a medical scientist) to conduct other more important tasks. User-friendly platforms in the market now give more people, like business analysts, access to predictions from custom machine learning models.

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