AI Weekly: AI is changing the way we study the stars, grow food, and create art


Too often, technologists become wrapped up in doom-and-gloom predictions about job-stealing, prejudicial, and potentially murderous AI. Fear sells, the saying goes, and that seems doubly true when it comes to emerging tech.

But focusing on AI’s negatives blinds us to its positives. As my colleague Khari Johnson and I have written countless times, artificial intelligence promises to transform entire verticals for the better, from health care and education to business intelligence and cybersecurity. More excitingly, it’s laying the groundwork for new industries and pursuits of which we haven’t yet conceived.

This week, MIT graduate student and postdoctoral fellow with Event Horizon Telescope Katie Bouman created an algorithm — Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors, or CHIRP for short — that combined data from eight radio telescopes from around the globe to generate the first image ever of a black hole. CHIRP — a three-year collaborative effort among MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the MIT Haystack Observatory — reconstructs images while accounting for variations in signal strength, such that delays caused by atmospheric noise cancel each other out.

In equally uplifting news, the University of California, Berkeley on Monday unveiled a humanoid robot with a depth-sensing camera and motorized arms, all of which can be controlled with virtual reality handsets and trained to manipulate objects using AI. Pieter Abbeel, a professor and director of the Robot Learning Lab at UC Berkeley and the roboticist leading the project, told The Verge that recent advances in machine learning made possible the new design, which has a bill of materials substantially lower than most comparable alternatives (around $5,000 versus tens of thousands of dollars).

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“The fact that AI is becoming more capable gave us an opportunity to rethink how to [build] a robot,” he said, adding that he expects robots of the future will be “reactive and dynamic.”

“There’s still a lot of challenges ahead, and it’s not like we think this specific robot is going in a home. [But] this is a design paradigm that takes us in a new direction,” Abbeel said.

AI isn’t just setting the stage for new robots and astronomical visualizations — it’s enabling scientists to grow more flavorful herbs, too. In a study published in the journal PLOS One earlier this month, scientists describe basil raised in climatic conditions that were optimized to increase the concentration of compounds responsible for its taste. A machine learning algorithm trained on data collected via mass spectrometry and gas chromatography yielded surprising insights, like that plants lit 24 hours a day taste superior to those which experience extended darkness.

Algorithms are transforming food in other ways. In February, IBM announced that it was teaming up with McCormick & Company to create new flavors and foods with machine learning. New York startup Analytical Flavor Systems’ platform taps sensory data and AI to suss out products’ flavor profiles and identify ways they might be improved. Meanwhile, companies like Los Angeles-based Halla are using AI to generate Netflix-like recommendations for grocery, restaurant, and food delivery apps and websites, in part by tapping databases of restaurant dish, recipe, ingredient, and grocery item taste and flavor attributes.

And in the art and science realms, AI is obviating mundane and repetitive tasks that take time away from the creative process. Disney Research recently detailed an algorithm that generates storyboards from scripts, letting creators visualize scenes before committing hours to animating them. Meanwhile, other researchers are experimenting with systems that can hallucinate foundational sketches of cats, fire trucks, mosquitos, and yoga poses, and companies like Promethean AI are employing machine learning to help human artists create art for video games. Yet another novel use case comes from academic publisher Springer Nature, which this week published a hefty research tome containing quotations, links, and references collated by AI.

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That’s all to say that, for the many fears surrounding AI, there’s much good it can do — and already is doing. It’s important to keep that in mind in light of ongoing controversies.

For AI coverage, send news tips to Khari Johnson and Kyle Wiggers — and be sure to subscribe to the AI Weekly newsletter and bookmark our AI Channel.

Thanks for reading,

Kyle Wiggers

AI Staff Writer





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