Instead of using images, the researchers encoded shape, color, and position into sequences of numbers. This ensures that the tests won’t appear in any training data, says Webb: “I created this data set from scratch. I’ve never heard of anything like it.”
Mitchell is impressed by Webb’s work. “I found this paper quite interesting and provocative,” she says. “It’s a well-done study.” But she has reservations. Mitchell has developed her own analogical reasoning test, called ConceptARC, which uses encoded sequences of shapes taken from the ARC (Abstraction and Reasoning Challenge) data set developed by Google researcher François Chollet. In Mitchell’s experiments, GPT-4 scores worse than people on such tests.
Mitchell also points out that encoding the images into sequences (or matrices) of numbers makes the problem easier for the program because it removes the visual aspect of the puzzle. “Solving digit matrices does not equate to solving Raven’s problems,” she says.
The performance of large language models is brittle. Among people, it is safe to assume that someone who scores well on a test would also do well on a similar test. That’s not the case with large language models: a small tweak to a test can drop an A grade to an F.
“In general, AI evaluation has not been done in such a way as to allow us to actually understand what capabilities these models have,” says Lucy Cheke, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, UK. “It’s perfectly reasonable to test how well a system does at a particular task, but it’s not useful to take that task and make claims about general abilities.”
Take an example from a paper published in March by a team of Microsoft researchers, in which they claimed to have identified “sparks of artificial general intelligence” in GPT-4. The team assessed the large language model using a range of tests. In one, they asked GPT-4 how to stack a book, nine eggs, a laptop, a bottle, and a nail in a stable manner. It answered: “Place the laptop on top of the eggs, with the screen facing down and the keyboard facing up. The laptop will fit snugly within the boundaries of the book and the eggs, and its flat and rigid surface will provide a stable platform for the next layer.”
Not bad. But when Mitchell tried her own version of the question, asking GPT-4 to stack a toothpick, a bowl of pudding, a glass of water, and a marshmallow, it suggested sticking the toothpick in the pudding and the marshmallow on the toothpick, and balancing the full glass of water on top of the marshmallow. (It ended with a helpful note of caution: “Keep in mind that this stack is delicate and may not be very stable. Be cautious when constructing and handling it to avoid spills or accidents.”)
These robots know when to ask for help
A new training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to address this problem by teaching robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.
Andy Zeng, a research scientist at Google DeepMind who helped develop the new technique, says that while robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense.
For example, when asked to bring you a Coke, the robot needs to first understand that it needs to go into the kitchen, look for the refrigerator, and open the fridge door. Conventionally, these smaller substeps had to be manually programmed, because otherwise the robot would not know that people usually keep their drinks in the kitchen.
That’s something large language models (LLMs) could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in, says Zeng.
Now when the robot is asked to bring a Coke, an LLM, which has a generalized understanding of the world, can generate a step-by-step guide for the robot to follow.
The problem with LLMs, though, is that there’s no way to guarantee that their instructions are possible for the robot to execute. Maybe the person doesn’t have a refrigerator in the kitchen, or the fridge door handle is broken. In these situations, robots need to ask humans for help.
KnowNo makes that possible by combining large language models with statistical tools that quantify confidence levels.
When given an ambiguous instruction like “Put the bowl in the microwave,” KnowNo first generates multiple possible next actions using the language model. Then it creates a confidence score predicting the likelihood that each potential choice is the best one.
The Download: inside the first CRISPR treatment, and smarter robots
The news: A new robot training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to teach robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.
Why it matters: While robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense. That’s something large language models could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in. Read the full story.
Medical microrobots that travel inside the body are (still) on their way
The human body is a labyrinth of vessels and tubing, full of barriers that are difficult to break through. That poses a serious hurdle for doctors. Illness is often caused by problems that are hard to visualize and difficult to access. But imagine if we could deploy armies of tiny robots into the body to do the job for us. They could break up hard-to-reach clots, deliver drugs to even the most inaccessible tumors, and even help guide embryos toward implantation.
We’ve been hearing about the use of tiny robots in medicine for years, maybe even decades. And they’re still not here. But experts are adamant that medical microbots are finally coming, and that they could be a game changer for a number of serious diseases. Read the full story.
5 things we didn’t put on our 2024 list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies
We haven’t always been right (RIP, Baxter), but we’ve often been early to spot important areas of progress (we put natural-language processing on our very first list in 2001; today this technology underpins large language models and generative AI tools like ChatGPT).
Every year, our reporters and editors nominate technologies that they think deserve a spot, and we spend weeks debating which ones should make the cut. Here are some of the technologies we didn’t pick this time—and why we’ve left them off, for now.
New drugs for Alzheimer’s disease
Alzmeiher’s patients have long lacked treatment options. Several new drugs have now been proved to slow cognitive decline, albeit modestly, by clearing out harmful plaques in the brain. In July, the FDA approved Leqembi by Eisai and Biogen, and Eli Lilly’s donanemab could soon be next. But the drugs come with serious side effects, including brain swelling and bleeding, which can be fatal in some cases. Plus, they’re hard to administer—patients receive doses via an IV and must receive regular MRIs to check for brain swelling. These drawbacks gave us pause.
Sustainable aviation fuel
Alternative jet fuels made from cooking oil, leftover animal fats, or agricultural waste could reduce emissions from flying. They have been in development for years, and scientists are making steady progress, with several recent demonstration flights. But production and use will need to ramp up significantly for these fuels to make a meaningful climate impact. While they do look promising, there wasn’t a key moment or “breakthrough” that merited a spot for sustainable aviation fuels on this year’s list.
One way to counteract global warming could be to release particles into the stratosphere that reflect the sun’s energy and cool the planet. That idea is highly controversial within the scientific community, but a few researchers and companies have begun exploring whether it’s possible by launching a series of small-scale high-flying tests. One such launch prompted Mexico to ban solar geoengineering experiments earlier this year. It’s not really clear where geoengineering will go from here or whether these early efforts will stall out. Amid that uncertainty, we decided to hold off for now.