How AI Is Taking Over Our Gadgets
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How AI Is Taking Over Our Gadgets

AI is moving from data centres to devices, impacting everything from phones to tractors.

By Christopher Mims
Wed, Jun 30, 2021 10:25amGrey Clock 5 min

If you think of AI as something futuristic and abstract, start thinking different.

We’re now witnessing a turning point for artificial intelligence, as more of it comes down from the clouds and into our smartphones and automobiles. While it’s fair to say that AI that lives on the “edge”—where you and I are—is still far less powerful than its datacentre-based counterpart, it’s potentially far more meaningful to our everyday lives.

One key example: This fall, Apple’s Siri assistant will start processing voice on iPhones. Right now, even your request to set a timer is sent as an audio recording to the cloud, where it is processed, triggering a response that’s sent back to the phone. By processing voice on the phone, says Apple, Siri will respond more quickly. This will only work on the iPhone XS and newer models, which have a compatible built-for-AI processor Apple calls a “neural engine.” People might also feel more secure knowing that their voice recordings aren’t being sent to unseen computers in faraway places.

Google actually led the way with on-phone processing: In 2019, it introduced a Pixel phone that could transcribe speech to text and perform other tasks without any connection to the cloud. One reason Google decided to build its own phones was that the company saw potential in creating custom hardware tailor-made to run AI, says Brian Rakowski, product manager of the Pixel group at Google.

These so-called edge devices can be pretty much anything with a microchip and some memory, but they tend to be the newest and most sophisticated of smartphones, automobiles, drones, home appliances, and industrial sensors and actuators. Edge AI has the potential to deliver on some of the long-delayed promises of AI, like more responsive smart assistants, better automotive safety systems, new kinds of robots, even autonomous military machines.

The challenges of making AI work at the edge—that is, making it reliable enough to do its job and then justifying the additional complexity and expense of putting it in our devices—are monumental. Existing AI can be inflexible, easily fooled, unreliable and biased. In the cloud, it can be trained on the fly to get better—think about how Alexa improves over time. When it’s in a device, it must come pre-trained, and be updated periodically. Yet the improvements in chip technology in recent years have made it possible for real breakthroughs in how we experience AI, and the commercial demand for this sort of functionality is high.

From swords to plowshares

Shield AI, a contractor for the Department of Defense, has put a great deal of AI into quadcopter-style drones which have already carried out—and continue to be used in—real-world combat missions. One mission is to help soldiers scan for enemy combatants in buildings that must be cleared. The DoD has been eager to use the company’s drones, says Shield AI’s co-founder, Brandon Tseng, because even if they fail, they can be used to reduce human casualties.

“In 2016 and early 2017, we had early prototypes with something like 75% reliability, something you would never take to market, and the DoD were saying, ‘We’ll take that overseas and use that in combat right now,’” Mr. Tseng says. When he protested that the system wasn’t ready, the response from within the military was that anything was better than soldiers going through a door and being shot.

In a combat zone, you can’t count on a fast, robust, wireless cloud connection, especially now that enemies often jam wireless communication and GPS signals. When on a mission, processing and image recognition must occur on the company’s drones themselves.

Shield AI uses a small, efficient computer made by Nvidia, designed for running AI on devices, to create a quadcopter drone no bigger than a typical camera-wielding consumer model. The Nova 2 can fly long enough to enter a building, and use AI to recognize and examine dozens of hallways, stairwells and rooms, cataloging objects and people it sees along its way.

Meanwhile, in the town of Salinas, Calif., birthplace of “Grapes of Wrath” author John Steinbeck and an agricultural center to this day, a robot the size of an SUV is spending this year’s growing season raking the earth with its 12 robotic arms. Made by FarmWise Labs Inc., the robot trundles along fields of celery as if it were any other tractor. Underneath its metal shroud, it uses computer vision and an edge AI system to decide, in less than a second, whether a plant is a food crop or a weed, and directs its plow-like claws to avoid or eradicate the plant accordingly.

FarmWise’s huge, diesel robo-weeder can generate its own electricity, enabling it to carry a veritable supercomputer’s worth of processing power—four GPUs and 16 CPUs which together draw 500 watts of electricity.

In our everyday lives, things like voice transcription that work whether or not we have a connection, or how good it is, could mean shifts in how we prefer to interact with our mobile devices. Getting always-available voice transcription to work on Google’s Pixel phone “required a lot of breakthroughs to run on the phone as well as it runs on a remote server,” says Mr. Rakowski.

Google has almost unlimited resources to experiment with AI in the cloud, but getting those same algorithms, for everything from voice transcription and power management to real-time translation and image processing, to work on phones required the introduction of custom microprocessors like the Pixel Neural Core, adds Mr. Rakowski.

Turning cats into pure math

What nearly all edge AI systems have in common is that, as pre-trained AI, they are only performing “inference,” says Dennis Laudick, vice president of marketing for AI and machine learning at Arm Holdings, which licenses chip designs and instructions to companies such as Apple, Samsung, Qualcomm, Nvidia and others.

Generally speaking, machine-learning AI consists of four phases:

  • Data is captured or collected: Say, for example, in the form of millions of cat pictures.
  • Humans label the data: Yes, these are cat photos.
  • AI is trained with the labelled data: This process selects for models that identify cats.
  • Then the resulting pile of code is turned into an algorithm and implemented in software: Here’s a camera app for cat lovers!

(Note: If this doesn’t exist yet, consider it your million-dollar idea of the day.)

The last bit of the process—something like that cat-identifying software—is the inference phase. The software on many smart surveillance cameras, for example, is performing inference, says Eric Goodness, a research vice president at technology-consulting firm Gartner. These systems can already identify how many patrons are in the restaurant, if any are engaging in undesirable behaviour, or if the fries have been in the fryer too long.

It’s all just mathematical functions, ones so complicated that it would take a monumental effort by humans to write them, but which machine-learning systems can create when trained on enough data.

Robot pratfalls

While all of this technology has enormous promise, making AI work on individual devices, whether or not they can connect to the cloud, comes with a daunting set of challenges, says Elisa Bertino, a professor of computer science at Purdue University.

Modern AI, which is primarily used to recognize patterns, can have difficulty coping with inputs outside of the data it was trained on. Operating in the real world only makes it tougher—just consider the classic example of a Tesla that brakes when it sees a stop sign on a billboard.

To make edge AI systems more competent, one edge device might gather some data but then pair with another, more powerful device, which can integrate data from a variety of sensors, says Dr. Bertino. If you’re wearing a smartwatch with a heart-rate monitor, you’re already witnessing this: The watch’s edge AI pre-processes the weak signal of your heart rate, then passes that data to your smartphone, which can further analyze that data—whether or not it’s connected to the internet.

The overwhelming majority of AI algorithms are still trained in the cloud. They can also be retrained using more or fresher data, which lets them continually improve. Down the road, says Mr. Goodness, edge AI systems will begin to learn on their own—that is, they’ll become powerful enough to move beyond inference and actually gather data and use it to train their own algorithms.

AI that can learn all by itself, without connection to a cloud superintelligence, might eventually raise legal and ethical challenges. How can a company certify an algorithm that’s been off evolving in the real world for years after its initial release, asks Dr. Bertino. And in future wars, who will be willing to let their robots decide when to pull the trigger? Whoever does might end up with an advantage—but also all the collateral damage that happens when, inevitably, AI makes mistakes.


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What We Fight About When We Fight About Money

New research tackles the source of financial conflict and what we can do about it

Mon, Nov 27, 2023 3 min

When couples argue over money, the real source of the conflict usually isn’t on their bank statement.

Financial disagreements tend to be stand-ins for deeper issues in our relationships, researchers and couples counsellors said, since the way we use money is a reflection of our values, character and beliefs. Persistent fights over spending and saving often doom romantic partnerships: Even if you fix the money problem, the underlying issues remain.

To understand what the fights are really about, new research from social scientists at Carleton University in Ottawa began with a unique data set: more than 1,000 posts culled from a relationship forum on the social-media platform Reddit. Money was a major thread in the posts, which largely broke down into complaints about one-sided decision-making, uneven contributions, a lack of shared values and perceived unfairness or irresponsibility.

By analysing and categorising the candid messages, then interviewing hundreds of couples, the researchers said they have isolated some of the recurring patterns behind financial conflicts.

The research found that when partners disagree about mundane expenses, such as grocery bills and shop receipts, they tend to have better relationships. Fights about fair contributions to household finances and perceived financial irresponsibility are particularly detrimental, however.

While there is no cure-all to resolve the disputes, the antidote in many cases is to talk about money more, not less, said Johanna Peetz, a professor of psychology at Carleton who co-authored the study.

“You should discuss finances more in relationships, because then small things won’t escalate into bigger problems,” she said.

A partner might insist on taking a vacation the other can’t afford. Another married couple might want to separate their previously combined finances. Couples might also realize they no longer share values they originally brought to the relationship.

Recognise patterns

Differentiating between your own viewpoint on the money fight from that of your partner is no easy feat, said Thomas Faupl, a marriage and family psychotherapist in San Francisco. Where one person sees an easily solvable problem—overspending on groceries—the other might see an irrevocable rift in the relationship.

Faupl, who specialises in helping couples work through financial difficulties, said many partners succeed in finding common ground that can keep them connected amid heated discussions. Identifying recurring themes in the most frequent conflicts also helps.

“There is something very visceral about money, and for a lot of people, it has to do with security and power,” he said. “There’s permutations on the theme, and that could be around responsibility, it could be around control, it could be around power, it could be around fairness.”

Barbara Krenzer and John Stone first began their relationship more than three decades ago. Early on in their conversations, the Syracuse, N.Y.-based couple opened up about what they both felt to be most important in life: spending quality time with family and investing in lifelong memories.

“We didn’t buy into the big lifestyle,” Krenzer said. “Time is so important and we both valued that.”

For Krenzer and Stone, committing to that shared value meant making sacrifices. Krenzer, a physician, reduced her work hours while raising their three children. Stone trained as an attorney, but once Krenzer went back to full-time work, he looked for a job that let him spend the mornings with the children.

“Compromise: That’s a word they don’t say enough with marriage,” Krenzer said. “You have to get beyond the love and say, ‘Do I want to compromise for them and find that middle ground?’”

Money talks

Talking about numbers behind a behaviour can help bring a couple out of a fight and back to earth, Faupl said. One partner might rue the other’s tightfistedness, but a discussion of the numbers reveals the supposed tightwad is diligently saving money for the couple’s shared future.

“I get under the hood with people so we can get black-and-white numbers on the table,” he said. “Are these conversations accurate, or are they somehow emotionally based?”

Couples might follow tenets of good financial management and build wealth together, but conflict is bound to arise if one partner feels the other isn’t honouring that shared commitment, Faupl said.

“If your partner helps with your savings goals, then that feels instrumental to your own goals, and that is a powerful drive for feeling close to the partner and valuing that relationship,” he said.

A sense of mission

When it comes to sticking out the hard times, “sharing values is important, even more so than sharing personality traits,” Peetz said. In her own research, Peetz found that romantic partners who disagreed about shared values could one day split up as a result.

“That is the crux of the conflict often: They each have a different definition,” she said of themes such as fairness and responsibility.

And sometimes, it is worth it to really dig into the potentially difficult conversations around big money decisions. When things are working well, coming together to achieve these common goals—such as saving for your own retirement or preparing for your children’s financial future—will create intimacy, not money strife.

“That is a powerful drive for feeling close to the partner and valuing that relationship,” she said.


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