New Week Same Humans #63
The world's first living robots have taught themselves how to reproduce. Disney seek to conquer the uncanny valley with ultra-realistic virtual humans. Plus more news and analysis from this week.
Welcome to the mid-week update from New World Same Humans, a newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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This week, Harvard scientists watch the world’s first living robots learn how to reproduce.
Also, Disney take us into the uncanny valley via new research on artificial human faces. And a wave of retail bots try to steal Christmas.
🔬 March of the Xenobots
Xenobots are microscopic living machines, made by scientists who stack stem cells together ‘like lego blocks’ to create an entirely new organic entity.
These tiny cellular blobs are an entirely new kind of living being: a Frankenstein’s monster of our own making. We already knew that they can move on their own, work together in groups, and self-heal. But now scientists have watched them self-replicate.
A particular kind of Xenobot is able to swoosh around a petri dish, swallow stem cells, and expel them a few days later as a new, fully-formed Xenobot baby. This, say the team, is a new kind of reproduction; one never before seen in plant or animal.
The team behind all this say Xenobots could eventually perform a range of useful functions, from sweeping microplastics from the oceans to making repairs inside the human body.
⚡ NWSH Take: The underlying point here? Xenobots are just one sign of the coming Great Acceleration, which NWSH reader and innovation expert Michael Bhaskar wrote about in a guest post in September. And a sign, too, of the primary force driving all this: AI. // To create Xenobots back in 2020, AI supercomputers were used to ‘simulate a billion year’s worth of evolution in just a few days’. And AI is also behind this announcement on reproduction; when scientists saw that a few Xenobots were able to reproduce on occasion, they asked the supercomputer to design a new Xenobot that could do so reliably. // In the decades ahead AI will make possible entirely new IRL interventions. See also DeepMind’s work on protein folding, or the way AI is advancing us towards elusive dream that is controlled nuclear fusion. This coming wave of innovation – one focused on atoms rather than bits – has the power to reshape our lives. But, just as with the digital revolution, there will be unintended and unforeseen consequences.
🚀 New Year Same Humans
Just under two weeks to go until our end of year event: New Year Same Humans: Five Trends to Supercharge You!
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Over 150 professionals have already claimed their place. Check it out, and I hope to see you there!
🎭 Face the truth
This week, Disney take us deep into the uncanny valley via new research on photo-realistic virtual humans.
The challenge Disney researchers set out to tackle is one familiar to any observant movie-goer. Cutting-edge CGI techniques make it possible to render artificial human faces on screen, but they are terrible at the eyes, hair, and inner mouth (yes, it turns out the inner mouth is important). The result is an uncanny, almost right appearance; see fan dissatisfaction over the infamous CGI recreation of late British actor Peter Cushing in the Star Wars film Rogue One.
Disney’s answer? In a new research paper, they say the challenge can be addressed by combining traditional CGI approaches with the kind of neural rendering that fuels deepfakes.
This hybrid approach lets neural rendering handle the eyes et al, while CGI renders the skin.
The outputs are ultra-realistic artificial human faces; either those intended to simulate that of a real person, or entirely new faces generated ‘from the ground up’ via training data.
⚡ NWSH Take: The deeper trend, here? I’ve written before on how AI and virtual humans will make possible a new kind of ghostly afterlife for artists and performers. Remember back in February when South Korean broadcaster SBS used an AI to recreate the voice of the legendary folk singer Kim Kwang-seok? See also the Whitney Houston hologram tour, or this TikTok star, who uses deepfake technology to reimagine himself as a 21st-century Elvis Presley. We’re going to see an explosion of new forms of entertainment featuring stars who are long dead, or who never existed. It’s a whole new hall of mirrors. // Meanwhile, these kinds of virtual faces won’t remain the preserve of the media industry for long. Inside an embodied internet – yes, we’re talking the metaverse – we’ll all be represented by avatars. It’s easy to imagine a photorealistic simulation of your face becoming yet another essentially non-optional tool, in the way that smartphones have become over the last few years.
🤖 The bot that stole Christmas
Online scammers are using bots to bulk buy popular Christmas toys and resell them at elevated prices. This week, US Democrats sponsored a bill intended to stop them.
Earlier this year a wave of bots targeted the new Nvidia 3080 graphics card; now, so-called Grinch Bots are being trained on the PlayStation 5, X Box Series X, and even popular soft toys. The bots constantly scour the internet and auto-buy target products seconds after they’re put on sale, leaving shoppers without a chance.
There’s even evidence that parents – terrified that little Noah and Olivia will be disappointed come December 25th – are turning to bots of their own to fight back.
Now, a group of Democratic legislators in the US have drawn up a bill that seeks to ban the use of bots to bulk purchase retail goods. The Stopping Grinch Bots Act would build on similar legislation passed in 2016, which outlaws the use of bots to bulk buy concert tickets.
⚡ NWSH Take: An anti-Grinch bill: the optics were clearly too good to resist for these Democratic senators. But underlying all this is a powerful emerging trend towards automated commerce. // Online scalpers have grabbed most of the headlines so far, but it’s the fight back from parents that really signals what is ahead. Smart retail bots will proliferate, and millions will outsource ever-more of their consumption to them. See, for example, the AI-fuelled chatbot DoNotPay, which started out as a handy tool to challenge parking tickets in London; it’s evolved into an all-round assistant that will hunt down discounts, auto-apply for refunds, and auto-check in to flights. // In short, Grinch Bots aren’t just this season’s latest scamming tool; they’re a part of the future of consumerism.
🗓️ Also this week
🚕 Chinese tech giant Baidu received approval to run driverless taxis in Beijing. Baidu say 67 self-driving cars will operate in the suburban district of Yizhuang, and passengers will be charged a premium rate to travel in them.
💸 Digital payments company Square changed its name to Block. Yes, Jack Dorsey – who remains CEO of Block – had a busy week. Block is now the parent company that contains sub-brands including the Square payment service and the TIDAL music streaming platform.
👺 The Australian government is planning new legislation that will force social media platforms to unmask anonymous trolls. The new laws would require platforms to collect the personal information of new and current users.
👨🚀 Elon Musk emailed employees at SpaceX to tell them that the company is at risk of bankruptcy. If production issues with the Raptor engine line can’t be solved, said Musk, SpaceX may go under. He urged staff to work over the weekend to find a solution.
🌧️ A new paper in Nature suggests rainfall may outstrip snowfall in the Arctic decades sooner than expected. Professor James Screen from the University of Exeter led the research; he says the shift will have knock-on effects on Arctic wildlife and the region’s 4 million human inhabitants.
👩⚕️ Pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline says it will start human clinical trials of a potential HIV cure next year. According to the UN around 37 million people were living with HIV in 2020.
🪐 NASA published a postcard from Mars, taken by the Curiosity rover. Scientists at NASA loved one of the rover’s images so much, they added some colours for artistic effect and released it to the world.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,910,518,187
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.79794264507
💉 Global population vaccinated: 54.5%
🗓️ 2021 progress bar: 92% complete
📖 On this day: On 1 December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, African-American seamstress Rosa Parks refuses to give her seat on a bus to a white man, and is arrested for violating the city's racial segregation laws.
Thanks for reading this week.
The coming Great Acceleration will see emerging technologies put in the service of age-old human needs, with a host of unpredictable results. New world, same humans.
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I’ll be back this Sunday. Until then, be well,
P.S Huge thanks to Nikki Ritmeijer for the illustration at the top of this email. And to Monique van Dusseldorp for additional research and analysis.