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University disputes claim that research will lead to killer robots
Fifty-seven scientists from 29 countries have called for a boycott of a top South Korean university because of a new center aimed at using artificial intelligence (AI) to bolster national security. The AI scientists claim the university is developing autonomous weapons, or "killer robots," whereas university officials say the goal of the research is to improve existing defense systems.
On 20 February, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon, South Korea, celebrated its new Research Center for the Convergence of National Defense and Artificial Intelligence. A web page that has since been removed by the university said the center, to be operated jointly with South Korean defense company Hanwha Systems, would work on "AI-based command and decision systems, composite navigation algorithms for mega-scale unmanned undersea vehicles, AI-based smart aircraft training systems, and AI-based smart object tracking and recognition technology."
Toby Walsh, a computer scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, who organized the boycott, fears that the research will be applied to autonomous weapons, which can include unmanned flying drones or submarines, cruise missiles, autonomously operated sentry guns, or battlefield robots. "It is regrettable that a prestigious institution like KAIST looks to accelerate the arms race to develop such weapons," an open letter from the boycotters states. "We therefore publicly declare that we will boycott all collaborations with any part of KAIST until such time as the President of KAIST provides assurances, which we have sought but not received, that the Center will not develop autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control."
In response to a query from ScienceInsider, KAIST President Sung-Chul Shin prepared a statement ruling out such activities. "I am saddened to hear about the announcement on the boycott of KAIST for allegedly developing killer robots. I would like to reaffirm that KAIST does not have any intention to engage in development of lethal autonomous weapons systems and killer robots. KAIST is significantly aware of ethical concerns in the application of all technologies including artificial intelligence."
The boycott letter does not define "meaningful human control." But the phrase is often interpreted as putting the trigger in the hand of a person. Next week in Geneva, Switzerland, the United Nations Group of Government Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems will explore the elements of "meaningful human control" as part of an ongoing discussion of emerging technologies.
Walsh said he was heartened by Shin's statement. "It is good to see a public commitment by KAIST for the first time to ‘meaningful human control.' This will add weight to the UN discussions."
Boycotting an entire university because of the research that might take place in one lab seems "a bit extreme to me," says Ronald Arkin, a computer scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "Please tell me specifically what types of systems these people are planning on researching that warrant a boycott," says Arkin, who notes he's not against a ban but believes this one is premature. "That's a fair question, isn't it?"
It will cut down the period of evaluation and licensing of such medical devices to around three months.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety have recently disclosed their plan to revise some related regulations on medical devices.
According to a press statement, there have been requests to revise the rules around the application and approval of innovative medical devices to allow more AI-powered and digital technology devices to be immediately used in clinical settings.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT
The Health and Food and Drug Ministries seek to include and expedite the approval of devices based on AI/big data and digital wearable technologies as innovative medical devices.
Based on Article 2 of the country's Medical Device Industry Act, innovative medical devices include those medical devices in the fields of ICT, biotechnology, and robotics.
An integrated screening and designation system will be set up to simultaneously review the designation, verification, and evaluation of innovative medical devices, which were previously done sequentially.
This system will also combine the process of applying for designation, evaluation, and licensing of innovative medical devices and for medical care benefit or non-benefit assessment so these applications can be done within a month. These applications were previously filed with different agencies, including the MFDS, the Health Insurance and Review Assessment, and the National Evidence-based healthcare Collaborating Agency.
Moreover, the evaluation of innovative medical devices is also being simplified to shorten the approval period by MFDS, which could take up to 250 days. The deliberation process will be minimised to two steps from the previous four to five steps; the deliberation committee will also just focus on three medical aspects of a device instead of 14.
WHY IT MATTERS
Currently, it can take over a year for regulatory bodies in South Korea to evaluate and approve an application for the designation of an innovative medical device for use in hospitals and other medical areas.
With the proposed changes, it is expected that the period from application to the actual use of these innovative medical devices in care settings will now take up to 80 days. All these changes will also enable AI and digital technologies to become available for use in the medical field for three to five years as non-reimbursable or selective benefits devices.
Both MOHW and MFDS will soon develop and disseminate integrated guidelines for the application for the designation of an innovative medical device.
THE LARGER TREND
In August last year, a global guide for the use of AI in healthcare was released in South Korea. Developed by three organisations, the guide was intended to be a benchmark for the responsible usage of AI technologies and to promote clarity and high standards for technological applications in the healthcare sector.
The medical devices market in South Korea has seen consistent growth throughout the past years. Last year, it grew to 9.1 trillion won ($6.8 billion), increasing by 21% year on year. By 2026, the market is projected to reach 12.3 trillion won ($10.9 billion), according to Fitch Solutions.
ON THE RECORD
"We will resolve the situation where companies run around in sandbags, create a good working environment, and actively eliminate [cumbersome] regulations in the health and medical field to serve the public and the national interest," said Lee Ki-il, second vice minister of Health and Welfare.
"We expect that the improvement of regulations on innovative medical devices will lead to the revitalisation of the high-tech medical device industry using AI and digital technology and the expansion of patients' medical options," Oh Yoo-kyung, director of MFDS, also commented.
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