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#433400 A Model for the Future of Education, and ...

As kids worldwide head back to school, I’d like to share my thoughts on the future of education.

Bottom line, how we educate our kids needs to radically change given the massive potential of exponential tech (e.g. artificial intelligence and virtual reality).

Without question, the number one driver for education is inspiration. As such, if you have a kid age 8–18, you’ll want to get your hands on an incredibly inspirational novel written by my dear friend Ray Kurzweil called Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine.

Danielle offers boys and girls a role model of a young woman who uses smart technologies and super-intelligence to partner with her friends to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. It’s perfect to inspire anyone to pursue their moonshot.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the future of educating kids, and a summary of my white paper thoughts….

Just last year, edtech (education technology) investments surpassed a record high of 9.5 billion USD—up 30 percent from the year before.

Already valued at over half a billion USD, the AI in education market is set to surpass 6 billion USD by 2024.

And we’re now seeing countless new players enter the classroom, from a Soul Machines AI teacher specializing in energy use and sustainability to smart “lab schools” with personalized curricula.

As my two boys enter 1st grade, I continue asking myself, given the fact that most elementary schools haven’t changed in many decades (perhaps a century), what do I want my kids to learn? How do I think about elementary school during an exponential era?

This post covers five subjects related to elementary school education:

Five Issues with Today’s Elementary Schools
Five Guiding Principles for Future Education
An Elementary School Curriculum for the Future
Exponential Technologies in our Classroom
Mindsets for the 21st Century

Excuse the length of this post, but if you have kids, the details might be meaningful. If you don’t, then next week’s post will return to normal length and another fun subject.

Also, if you’d like to see my detailed education “white paper,” you can view or download it here.

Let’s dive in…

Five Issues With Today’s Elementary Schools
There are probably lots of issues with today’s traditional elementary schools, but I’ll just choose a few that bother me most.

Grading: In the traditional education system, you start at an “A,” and every time you get something wrong, your score gets lower and lower. At best it’s demotivating, and at worst it has nothing to do with the world you occupy as an adult. In the gaming world (e.g. Angry Birds), it’s just the opposite. You start with zero and every time you come up with something right, your score gets higher and higher.
Sage on the Stage: Most classrooms have a teacher up in front of class lecturing to a classroom of students, half of whom are bored and half of whom are lost. The one-teacher-fits-all model comes from an era of scarcity where great teachers and schools were rare.
Relevance: When I think back to elementary and secondary school, I realize how much of what I learned was never actually useful later in life, and how many of my critical lessons for success I had to pick up on my own (I don’t know about you, but I haven’t ever actually had to factor a polynomial in my adult life).
Imagination, Coloring inside the Lines: Probably of greatest concern to me is the factory-worker, industrial-era origin of today’s schools. Programs are so structured with rote memorization that it squashes the originality from most children. I’m reminded that “the day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.” Where do we pursue crazy ideas in our schools? Where do we foster imagination?
Boring: If learning in school is a chore, boring, or emotionless, then the most important driver of human learning, passion, is disengaged. Having our children memorize facts and figures, sit passively in class, and take mundane standardized tests completely defeats the purpose.

An average of 7,200 students drop out of high school each day, totaling 1.3 million each year. This means only 69 percent of students who start high school finish four years later. And over 50 percent of these high school dropouts name boredom as the number one reason they left.

Five Guiding Principles for Future Education
I imagine a relatively near-term future in which robotics and artificial intelligence will allow any of us, from ages 8 to 108, to easily and quickly find answers, create products, or accomplish tasks, all simply by expressing our desires.

From ‘mind to manufactured in moments.’ In short, we’ll be able to do and create almost whatever we want.

In this future, what attributes will be most critical for our children to learn to become successful in their adult lives? What’s most important for educating our children today?

For me it’s about passion, curiosity, imagination, critical thinking, and grit.

Passion: You’d be amazed at how many people don’t have a mission in life… A calling… something to jolt them out of bed every morning. The most valuable resource for humanity is the persistent and passionate human mind, so creating a future of passionate kids is so very important. For my 7-year-old boys, I want to support them in finding their passion or purpose… something that is uniquely theirs. In the same way that the Apollo program and Star Trek drove my early love for all things space, and that passion drove me to learn and do.
Curiosity: Curiosity is something innate in kids, yet something lost by most adults during the course of their life. Why? In a world of Google, robots, and AI, raising a kid that is constantly asking questions and running “what if” experiments can be extremely valuable. In an age of machine learning, massive data, and a trillion sensors, it will be the quality of your questions that will be most important.
Imagination: Entrepreneurs and visionaries imagine the world (and the future) they want to live in, and then they create it. Kids happen to be some of the most imaginative humans around… it’s critical that they know how important and liberating imagination can be.
Critical Thinking: In a world flooded with often-conflicting ideas, baseless claims, misleading headlines, negative news, and misinformation, learning the skill of critical thinking helps find the signal in the noise. This principle is perhaps the most difficult to teach kids.
Grit/Persistence: Grit is defined as “passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals,” and it has recently been widely acknowledged as one of the most important predictors of and contributors to success.

Teaching your kids not to give up, to keep trying, and to keep trying new ideas for something that they are truly passionate about achieving is extremely critical. Much of my personal success has come from such stubbornness. I joke that both XPRIZE and the Zero Gravity Corporation were “overnight successes after 10 years of hard work.”

So given those five basic principles, what would an elementary school curriculum look like? Let’s take a look…

An Elementary School Curriculum for the Future
Over the last 30 years, I’ve had the pleasure of starting two universities, International Space University (1987) and Singularity University (2007). My favorite part of co-founding both institutions was designing and implementing the curriculum. Along those lines, the following is my first shot at the type of curriculum I’d love my own boys to be learning.

I’d love your thoughts, I’ll be looking for them here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/DDRWZ8R

For the purpose of illustration, I’ll speak about ‘courses’ or ‘modules,’ but in reality these are just elements that would ultimately be woven together throughout the course of K-6 education.

Module 1: Storytelling/Communications

When I think about the skill that has served me best in life, it’s been my ability to present my ideas in the most compelling fashion possible, to get others onboard, and support birth and growth in an innovative direction. In my adult life, as an entrepreneur and a CEO, it’s been my ability to communicate clearly and tell compelling stories that has allowed me to create the future. I don’t think this lesson can start too early in life. So imagine a module, year after year, where our kids learn the art and practice of formulating and pitching their ideas. The best of oration and storytelling. Perhaps children in this class would watch TED presentations, or maybe they’d put together their own TEDx for kids. Ultimately, it’s about practice and getting comfortable with putting yourself and your ideas out there and overcoming any fears of public speaking.

Module 2: Passions

A modern school should help our children find and explore their passion(s). Passion is the greatest gift of self-discovery. It is a source of interest and excitement, and is unique to each child.

The key to finding passion is exposure. Allowing kids to experience as many adventures, careers, and passionate adults as possible. Historically, this was limited by the reality of geography and cost, implemented by having local moms and dads presenting in class about their careers. “Hi, I’m Alan, Billy’s dad, and I’m an accountant. Accountants are people who…”

But in a world of YouTube and virtual reality, the ability for our children to explore 500 different possible careers or passions during their K-6 education becomes not only possible but compelling. I imagine a module where children share their newest passion each month, sharing videos (or VR experiences) and explaining what they love and what they’ve learned.

Module 3: Curiosity & Experimentation

Einstein famously said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” Curiosity is innate in children, and many times lost later in life. Arguably, it can be said that curiosity is responsible for all major scientific and technological advances; it’s the desire of an individual to know the truth.

Coupled with curiosity is the process of experimentation and discovery. The process of asking questions, creating and testing a hypothesis, and repeated experimentation until the truth is found. As I’ve studied the most successful entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial companies, from Google and Amazon to Uber, their success is significantly due to their relentless use of experimentation to define their products and services.

Here I imagine a module which instills in children the importance of curiosity and gives them permission to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out.”

Further, a monthly module that teaches children how to design and execute valid and meaningful experiments. Imagine children who learn the skill of asking a question, proposing a hypothesis, designing an experiment, gathering the data, and then reaching a conclusion.

Module 4: Persistence/Grit

Doing anything big, bold, and significant in life is hard work. You can’t just give up when the going gets rough. The mindset of persistence, of grit, is a learned behavior I believe can be taught at an early age, especially when it’s tied to pursuing a child’s passion.

I imagine a curriculum that, each week, studies the career of a great entrepreneur and highlights their story of persistence. It would highlight the individuals and companies that stuck with it, iterated, and ultimately succeeded.

Further, I imagine a module that combines persistence and experimentation in gameplay, such as that found in Dean Kamen’s FIRST LEGO league, where 4th graders (and up) research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling, energy, and so on, and are challenged to develop a solution. They also must design, build, and program a robot using LEGO MINDSTORMS®, then compete on a tabletop playing field.

Module 5: Technology Exposure

In a world of rapidly accelerating technology, understanding how technologies work, what they do, and their potential for benefiting society is, in my humble opinion, critical to a child’s future. Technology and coding (more on this below) are the new “lingua franca” of tomorrow.

In this module, I imagine teaching (age appropriate) kids through play and demonstration. Giving them an overview of exponential technologies such as computation, sensors, networks, artificial intelligence, digital manufacturing, genetic engineering, augmented/virtual reality, and robotics, to name a few. This module is not about making a child an expert in any technology, it’s more about giving them the language of these new tools, and conceptually an overview of how they might use such a technology in the future. The goal here is to get them excited, give them demonstrations that make the concepts stick, and then to let their imaginations run.

Module 6: Empathy

Empathy, defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” has been recognized as one of the most critical skills for our children today. And while there has been much written, and great practices for instilling this at home and in school, today’s new tools accelerate this.

Virtual reality isn’t just about video games anymore. Artists, activists, and journalists now see the technology’s potential to be an empathy engine, one that can shine spotlights on everything from the Ebola epidemic to what it’s like to live in Gaza. And Jeremy Bailenson has been at the vanguard of investigating VR’s power for good.

For more than a decade, Bailenson’s lab at Stanford has been studying how VR can make us better people. Through the power of VR, volunteers at the lab have felt what it is like to be Superman (to see if it makes them more helpful), a cow (to reduce meat consumption), and even a coral (to learn about ocean acidification).

Silly as they might seem, these sorts of VR scenarios could be more effective than the traditional public service ad at making people behave. Afterwards, they waste less paper. They save more money for retirement. They’re nicer to the people around them. And this could have consequences in terms of how we teach and train everyone from cliquey teenagers to high court judges.

Module 7: Ethics/Moral Dilemmas

Related to empathy, and equally important, is the goal of infusing kids with a moral compass. Over a year ago, I toured a special school created by Elon Musk (the Ad Astra school) for his five boys (age 9 to 14). One element that is persistent in that small school of under 40 kids is the conversation about ethics and morals, a conversation manifested by debating real-world scenarios that our kids may one day face.

Here’s an example of the sort of gameplay/roleplay that I heard about at Ad Astra, that might be implemented in a module on morals and ethics. Imagine a small town on a lake, in which the majority of the town is employed by a single factory. But that factory has been polluting the lake and killing all the life. What do you do? It’s posed that shutting down the factory would mean that everyone loses their jobs. On the other hand, keeping the factory open means the lake is destroyed and the lake dies. This kind of regular and routine conversation/gameplay allows the children to see the world in a critically important fashion.

Module 8: The 3R Basics (Reading, wRiting & aRithmetic)

There’s no question that young children entering kindergarten need the basics of reading, writing, and math. The only question is what’s the best way for them to get it? We all grew up in the classic mode of a teacher at the chalkboard, books, and homework at night. But I would argue that such teaching approaches are long outdated, now replaced with apps, gameplay, and the concept of the flip classroom.

Pioneered by high school teachers Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams in 2007, the flipped classroom reverses the sequence of events from that of the traditional classroom.

Students view lecture materials, usually in the form of video lectures, as homework prior to coming to class. In-class time is reserved for activities such as interactive discussions or collaborative work, all performed under the guidance of the teacher.

The benefits are clear:

Students can consume lectures at their own pace, viewing the video again and again until they get the concept, or fast-forwarding if the information is obvious.
The teacher is present while students apply new knowledge. Doing the homework into class time gives teachers insight into which concepts, if any, that their students are struggling with and helps them adjust the class accordingly.
The flipped classroom produces tangible results: 71 percent of teachers who flipped their classes noticed improved grades, and 80 percent reported improved student attitudes as a result.

Module 9: Creative Expression & Improvisation

Every single one of us is creative. It’s human nature to be creative… the thing is that we each might have different ways of expressing our creativity.

We must encourage kids to discover and to develop their creative outlets early. In this module, imagine showing kids the many different ways creativity is expressed, from art to engineering to music to math, and then guiding them as they choose the area (or areas) they are most interested in. Critically, teachers (or parents) can then develop unique lessons for each child based on their interests, thanks to open education resources like YouTube and the Khan Academy. If my child is interested in painting and robots, a teacher or AI could scour the web and put together a custom lesson set from videos/articles where the best painters and roboticists in the world share their skills.

Adapting to change is critical for success, especially in our constantly changing world today. Improvisation is a skill that can be learned, and we need to be teaching it early.

In most collegiate “improv” classes, the core of great improvisation is the “Yes, and…” mindset. When acting out a scene, one actor might introduce a new character or idea, completely changing the context of the scene. It’s critical that the other actors in the scene say “Yes, and…” accept the new reality, then add something new of their own.

Imagine playing similar role-play games in elementary schools, where a teacher gives the students a scene/context and constantly changes variables, forcing them to adapt and play.

Module 10: Coding

Computer science opens more doors for students than any other discipline in today’s world. Learning even the basics will help students in virtually any career, from architecture to zoology.

Coding is an important tool for computer science, in the way that arithmetic is a tool for doing mathematics and words are a tool for English. Coding creates software, but computer science is a broad field encompassing deep concepts that go well beyond coding.

Every 21st century student should also have a chance to learn about algorithms, how to make an app, or how the internet works. Computational thinking allows preschoolers to grasp concepts like algorithms, recursion and heuristics. Even if they don’t understand the terms, they’ll learn the basic concepts.

There are more than 500,000 open jobs in computing right now, representing the number one source of new wages in the US, and these jobs are projected to grow at twice the rate of all other jobs.

Coding is fun! Beyond the practical reasons for learning how to code, there’s the fact that creating a game or animation can be really fun for kids.

Module 11: Entrepreneurship & Sales

At its core, entrepreneurship is about identifying a problem (an opportunity), developing a vision on how to solve it, and working with a team to turn that vision into reality. I mentioned Elon’s school, Ad Astra: here, again, entrepreneurship is a core discipline where students create and actually sell products and services to each other and the school community.

You could recreate this basic exercise with a group of kids in lots of fun ways to teach them the basic lessons of entrepreneurship.

Related to entrepreneurship is sales. In my opinion, we need to be teaching sales to every child at an early age. Being able to “sell” an idea (again related to storytelling) has been a critical skill in my career, and it is a competency that many people simply never learned.

The lemonade stand has been a classic, though somewhat meager, lesson in sales from past generations, where a child sits on a street corner and tries to sell homemade lemonade for $0.50 to people passing by. I’d suggest we step the game up and take a more active approach in gamifying sales, and maybe having the classroom create a Kickstarter, Indiegogo or GoFundMe campaign. The experience of creating a product or service and successfully selling it will create an indelible memory and give students the tools to change the world.

Module 12: Language

A little over a year ago, I spent a week in China meeting with parents whose focus on kids’ education is extraordinary. One of the areas I found fascinating is how some of the most advanced parents are teaching their kids new languages: through games. On the tablet, the kids are allowed to play games, but only in French. A child’s desire to win fully engages them and drives their learning rapidly.

Beyond games, there’s virtual reality. We know that full immersion is what it takes to become fluent (at least later in life). A semester abroad in France or Italy, and you’ve got a great handle on the language and the culture. But what about for an eight-year-old?

Imagine a module where for an hour each day, the children spend their time walking around Italy in a VR world, hanging out with AI-driven game characters who teach them, engage them, and share the culture and the language in the most personalized and compelling fashion possible.

Exponential Technologies for Our Classrooms
If you’ve attended Abundance 360 or Singularity University, or followed my blogs, you’ll probably agree with me that the way our children will learn is going to fundamentally transform over the next decade.

Here’s an overview of the top five technologies that will reshape the future of education:

Tech 1: Virtual Reality (VR) can make learning truly immersive. Research has shown that we remember 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see, and up to 90 percent of what we do or simulate. Virtual reality yields the latter scenario impeccably. VR enables students to simulate flying through the bloodstream while learning about different cells they encounter, or travel to Mars to inspect the surface for life.

To make this a reality, Google Cardboard just launched its Pioneer Expeditions product. Under this program, thousands of schools around the world have gotten a kit containing everything a teacher needs to take his or her class on a virtual trip. While data on VR use in K-12 schools and colleges have yet to be gathered, the steady growth of the market is reflected in the surge of companies (including zSpace, Alchemy VR and Immersive VR Education) solely dedicated to providing schools with packaged education curriculum and content.

Add to VR a related technology called augmented reality (AR), and experiential education really comes alive. Imagine wearing an AR headset that is able to superimpose educational lessons on top of real-world experiences. Interested in botany? As you walk through a garden, the AR headset superimposes the name and details of every plant you see.

Tech 2: 3D Printing is allowing students to bring their ideas to life. Never mind the computer on every desktop (or a tablet for every student), that’s a given. In the near future, teachers and students will want or have a 3D printer on the desk to help them learn core science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) principles. Bre Pettis, of MakerBot Industries, in a grand but practical vision, sees a 3D printer on every school desk in America. “Imagine if you had a 3D printer instead of a LEGO set when you were a kid; what would life be like now?” asks Mr. Pettis. You could print your own mini-figures, your own blocks, and you could iterate on new designs as quickly as your imagination would allow. MakerBots are now in over 5,000 K-12 schools across the US.

Taking this one step further, you could imagine having a 3D file for most entries in Wikipedia, allowing you to print out and study an object you can only read about or visualize in VR.

Tech 3: Sensors & Networks. An explosion of sensors and networks are going to connect everyone at gigabit speeds, making access to rich video available at all times. At the same time, sensors continue to miniaturize and reduce in power, becoming embedded in everything. One benefit will be the connection of sensor data with machine learning and AI (below), such that knowledge of a child’s attention drifting, or confusion, can be easily measured and communicated. The result would be a representation of the information through an alternate modality or at a different speed.

Tech 4: Machine Learning is making learning adaptive and personalized. No two students are identical—they have different modes of learning (by reading, seeing, hearing, doing), come from different educational backgrounds, and have different intellectual capabilities and attention spans. Advances in machine learning and the surging adaptive learning movement are seeking to solve this problem. Companies like Knewton and Dreambox have over 15 million students on their respective adaptive learning platforms. Soon, every education application will be adaptive, learning how to personalize the lesson for a specific student. There will be adaptive quizzing apps, flashcard apps, textbook apps, simulation apps and many more.

Tech 5: Artificial Intelligence or “An AI Teaching Companion.” Neil Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age presents a fascinating piece of educational technology called “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.”

As described by Beat Schwendimann, “The primer is an interactive book that can answer a learner’s questions (spoken in natural language), teach through allegories that incorporate elements of the learner’s environment, and presents contextual just-in-time information.

“The primer includes sensors that monitor the learner’s actions and provide feedback. The learner is in a cognitive apprenticeship with the book: The primer models a certain skill (through allegorical fairy tale characters), which the learner then imitates in real life.

“The primer follows a learning progression with increasingly more complex tasks. The educational goals of the primer are humanist: To support the learner to become a strong and independently thinking person.”

The primer, an individualized AI teaching companion is the result of technological convergence and is beautifully described by YouTuber CGP Grey in his video: Digital Aristotle: Thoughts on the Future of Education.

Your AI companion will have unlimited access to information on the cloud and will deliver it at the optimal speed to each student in an engaging, fun way. This AI will demonetize and democratize education, be available to everyone for free (just like Google), and offering the best education to the wealthiest and poorest children on the planet equally.

This AI companion is not a tutor who spouts facts, figures and answers, but a player on the side of the student, there to help him or her learn, and in so doing, learn how to learn better. The AI is always alert, watching for signs of frustration and boredom that may precede quitting, for signs of curiosity or interest that tend to indicate active exploration, and for signs of enjoyment and mastery, which might indicate a successful learning experience.

Ultimately, we’re heading towards a vastly more educated world. We are truly living during the most exciting time to be alive.

Mindsets for the 21st Century
Finally, it’s important for me to discuss mindsets. How we think about the future colors how we learn and what we do. I’ve written extensively about the importance of an abundance and exponential mindset for entrepreneurs and CEOs. I also think that attention to mindset in our elementary schools, when a child is shaping the mental “operating system” for the rest of their life, is even more important.

As such, I would recommend that a school adopt a set of principles that teach and promote a number of mindsets in the fabric of their programs.

Many “mindsets” are important to promote. Here are a couple to consider:

Nurturing Optimism & An Abundance Mindset:
We live in a competitive world, and kids experience a significant amount of pressure to perform. When they fall short, they feel deflated. We all fail at times; that’s part of life. If we want to raise “can-do” kids who can work through failure and come out stronger for it, it’s wise to nurture optimism. Optimistic kids are more willing to take healthy risks, are better problem-solvers, and experience positive relationships. You can nurture optimism in your school by starting each day by focusing on gratitude (what each child is grateful for), or a “positive focus” in which each student takes 30 seconds to talk about what they are most excited about, or what recent event was positively impactful to them. (NOTE: I start every meeting inside my Strike Force team with a positive focus.)

Finally, helping students understand (through data and graphs) that the world is in fact getting better (see my first book: Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think) will help them counter the continuous flow of negative news flowing through our news media.

When kids feel confident in their abilities and excited about the world, they are willing to work harder and be more creative.

Tolerance for Failure:
Tolerating failure is a difficult lesson to learn and a difficult lesson to teach. But it is critically important to succeeding in life.

Astro Teller, who runs Google’s innovation branch “X,” talks a lot about encouraging failure. At X, they regularly try to “kill” their ideas. If they are successful in killing an idea, and thus “failing,” they save lots of time, money and resources. The ideas they can’t kill survive and develop into billion-dollar businesses. The key is that each time an idea is killed, Astro rewards the team, literally, with cash bonuses. Their failure is celebrated and they become a hero.

This should be reproduced in the classroom: kids should try to be critical of their best ideas (learn critical thinking), then they should be celebrated for ‘successfully failing,’ perhaps with cake, balloons, confetti, and lots of Silly String.

Join Me & Get Involved!
Abundance Digital Online Community: I have created a Digital/Online community of bold, abundance-minded entrepreneurs called Abundance Digital. This is my ‘onramp’ for exponential entrepreneurs – those who want to get involved and play at a higher level. Click here to learn more.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432671 Stuff 3.0: The Era of Programmable ...

It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.

In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?

This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”

In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.

Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.

Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.

Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.

Such are the dreams, anyway.

But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”

Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.

For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.

One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.

Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.

Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.

In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.

You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).

Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.

Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.

Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?

We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432036 The Power to Upgrade Our Own Biology Is ...

Upgrading our biology may sound like science fiction, but attempts to improve humanity actually date back thousands of years. Every day, we enhance ourselves through seemingly mundane activities such as exercising, meditating, or consuming performance-enhancing drugs, such as caffeine or adderall. However, the tools with which we upgrade our biology are improving at an accelerating rate and becoming increasingly invasive.

In recent decades, we have developed a wide array of powerful methods, such as genetic engineering and brain-machine interfaces, that are redefining our humanity. In the short run, such enhancement technologies have medical applications and may be used to treat many diseases and disabilities. Additionally, in the coming decades, they could allow us to boost our physical abilities or even digitize human consciousness.

What’s New?
Many futurists argue that our devices, such as our smartphones, are already an extension of our cortex and in many ways an abstract form of enhancement. According to philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ theory of extended mind, we use technology to expand the boundaries of the human mind beyond our skulls.

One can argue that having access to a smartphone enhances one’s cognitive capacities and abilities and is an indirect form of enhancement of its own. It can be considered an abstract form of brain-machine interface. Beyond that, wearable devices and computers are already accessible in the market, and people like athletes use them to boost their progress.

However, these interfaces are becoming less abstract.

Not long ago, Elon Musk announced a new company, Neuralink, with the goal of merging the human mind with AI. The past few years have seen remarkable developments in both the hardware and software of brain-machine interfaces. Experts are designing more intricate electrodes while programming better algorithms to interpret neural signals. Scientists have already succeeded in enabling paralyzed patients to type with their minds, and are even allowing brains to communicate with one another purely through brainwaves.

Ethical Challenges of Enhancement
There are many social and ethical implications of such advancements.

One of the most fundamental issues with cognitive and physical enhancement techniques is that they contradict the very definition of merit and success that society has relied on for millennia. Many forms of performance-enhancing drugs have been considered “cheating” for the longest time.

But perhaps we ought to revisit some of our fundamental assumptions as a society.

For example, we like to credit hard work and talent in a fair manner, where “fair” generally implies that an individual has acted in a way that has served him to merit his rewards. If you are talented and successful, it is considered to be because you chose to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities available to you. But by these standards, how much of our accomplishments can we truly be credited for?

For instance, the genetic lottery can have an enormous impact on an individual’s predisposition and personality, which can in turn affect factors such as motivation, reasoning skills, and other mental abilities. Many people are born with a natural ability or a physique that gives them an advantage in a particular area or predisposes them to learn faster. But is it justified to reward someone for excellence if their genes had a pivotal role in their path to success?

Beyond that, there are already many ways in which we take “shortcuts” to better mental performance. Seemingly mundane activities like drinking coffee, meditating, exercising, or sleeping well can boost one’s performance in any given area and are tolerated by society. Even the use of language can have positive physical and psychological effects on the human brain, which can be liberating to the individual and immensely beneficial to society at large. And let’s not forget the fact that some of us are born into more access to developing literacy than others.

Given all these reasons, one could argue that cognitive abilities and talents are currently derived more from uncontrollable factors and luck than we like to admit. If anything, technologies like brain-machine interfaces can enhance individual autonomy and allow one a choice of how capable they become.

As Karim Jebari points out (pdf), if a certain characteristic or trait is required to perform a particular role and an individual lacks this trait, would it be wrong to implement the trait through brain-machine interfaces or genetic engineering? How is this different from any conventional form of learning or acquiring a skill? If anything, this would be removing limitations on individuals that result from factors outside their control, such as biological predisposition (or even traits induced from traumatic experiences) to act or perform in a certain way.

Another major ethical concern is equality. As with any other emerging technology, there are valid concerns that cognitive enhancement tech will benefit only the wealthy, thus exacerbating current inequalities. This is where public policy and regulations can play a pivotal role in the impact of technology on society.

Enhancement technologies can either contribute to inequality or allow us to solve it. Educating and empowering the under-privileged can happen at a much more rapid rate, helping the overall rate of human progress accelerate. The “normal range” for human capacity and intelligence, however it is defined, could shift dramatically towards more positive trends.

Many have also raised concerns over the negative applications of government-led biological enhancement, including eugenics-like movements and super-soldiers. Naturally, there are also issues of safety, security, and well-being, especially within the early stages of experimentation with enhancement techniques.

Brain-machine interfaces, for instance, could have implications on autonomy. The interface involves using information extracted from the brain to stimulate or modify systems in order to accomplish a goal. This part of the process can be enhanced by implementing an artificial intelligence system onto the interface—one that exposes the possibility of a third party potentially manipulating individual’s personalities, emotions, and desires by manipulating the interface.

A Tool For Transcendence
It’s important to discuss these risks, not so that we begin to fear and avoid such technologies, but so that we continue to advance in a way that minimizes harm and allows us to optimize the benefits.

Stephen Hawking notes that “with genetic engineering, we will be able to increase the complexity of our DNA, and improve the human race.” Indeed, the potential advantages of modifying biology are revolutionary. Doctors would gain access to a powerful tool to tackle disease, allowing us to live longer and healthier lives. We might be able to extend our lifespan and tackle aging, perhaps a critical step to becoming a space-faring species. We may begin to modify the brain’s building blocks to become more intelligent and capable of solving grand challenges.

In their book Evolving Ourselves, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans describe a world where evolution is no longer driven by natural processes. Instead, it is driven by human choices, through what they call unnatural selection and non-random mutation. Human enhancement is bringing us closer to such a world—it could allow us to take control of our evolution and truly shape the future of our species.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432021 Unleashing Some of the Most Ambitious ...

At Singularity University, we are unleashing a generation of women who are smashing through barriers and starting some of the most ambitious technology companies on the planet.

Singularity University was founded in 2008 to empower leaders to use exponential technologies to solve our world’s biggest challenges. Our flagship program, the Global Solutions Program, has historically brought 80 entrepreneurs from around the world to Silicon Valley for 10 weeks to learn about exponential technologies and create moonshot startups that improve the lives of a billion people within a decade.

After nearly 10 years of running this program, we can say that about 70 percent of our successful startups have been founded or co-founded by female entrepreneurs (see below for inspiring examples of their work). This is in sharp contrast to the typical 10–20 percent of venture-backed tech companies that have a female founder, as reported by TechCrunch.

How are we so dramatically changing the game? While 100 percent of the credit goes to these courageous women, as both an alumna of the Global Solutions Program and our current vice chair of Global Grand Challenges, I want to share my reflections on what has worked.

At the most basic level, it is essential to deeply believe in the inherent worth, intellectual genius, and profound entrepreneurial caliber of women. While this may seem obvious, this is not the way our world currently thinks—we live in a world that sees women’s ideas, contributions, work, and existence as inherently less valuable than men’s.

For example, a 2017 Harvard Business Review article noted that even when women engage in the same behaviors and work as men, their work is considered less valuable simply because a woman did the job. An additional 2017 Harvard Business Review article showed that venture capitalists are significantly less likely to invest in female entrepreneurs and are more likely to ask men questions about the potential success of their companies while grilling women about the potential downfalls of their companies.

This doubt and lack of recognition of the genius and caliber of women is also why women are still paid less than men for completing identical work. Further, it’s why women’s work often gets buried in “number two” support roles of men in leadership roles and why women are expected to take on second shifts at home managing tedious household chores in addition to their careers. I would also argue these views as well as the rampant sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women that exists today stems from stubborn, historical, patriarchal views of women as living for the benefit of men, rather than for their own sovereignty and inherent value.

As with any other business, Singularity University has not been immune to these biases but is resolutely focused on helping women achieve intellectual genius and global entrepreneurial caliber by harnessing powerful exponential technologies.

We create an environment where women can physically and intellectually thrive free of harassment to reach their full potential, and we are building a broader ecosystem of alumni and partners around the world who not only support our female entrepreneurs throughout their entrepreneurial journeys, but who are also sparking and leading systemic change in their own countries and communities.

Respecting the Intellectual Genius and Entrepreneurial Caliber of Women
The entrepreneurial legends of our time—Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin—are men who have all built their empires using exponential technologies. Exponential technologies helped these men succeed faster and with greater impact due to Moore’s Law and the Law of Accelerating Returns which states that any digital technology (such as computing, software, artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, biotechnology, nanotechnology, etc.) will become more sophisticated while dramatically falling in price, enabling rapid scaling.

Knowing this, an entrepreneur can plot her way to an ambitious global solution over time, releasing new applications just as the technology and market are ready. Furthermore, these rapidly advancing technologies often converge to create new tools and opportunities for innovators to come up with novel solutions to challenges that were previously impossible to solve in the past.

For various reasons, women have not pursued exponential technologies as aggressively as men (or were prevented or discouraged from doing so).

While more women are founding firms at a higher rate than ever in wealthy countries like the United States, the majority are small businesses in linear industries that have been around for hundreds of years, such as social assistance, health, education, administrative, or consulting services. In lower-income countries, international aid agencies and nonprofits often encourage women to pursue careers in traditional handicrafts, micro-enterprise, and micro-finance. While these jobs have historically helped women escape poverty and gain financial independence, they have done little to help women realize the enormous power, influence, wealth, and ability to transform the world for the better that comes from building companies, nonprofits, and solutions grounded in exponential technologies.

We need women to be working with exponential technologies today in order to be powerful leaders in the future.

Participants who enroll in our Global Solutions Program spend the first few weeks of the program learning about exponential technologies from the world’s experts and the final weeks launching new companies or nonprofits in their area of interest. We require that women (as well as men) utilize exponential technologies as a condition of the program.

In this sense, at Singularity University women start their endeavors with all of us believing and behaving in a way that assumes they can achieve global impact at the level of our world’s most legendary entrepreneurs.

Creating an Environment Where Woman Can Thrive
While challenging women to embrace exponential technologies is essential, it is also important to create an environment where women can thrive. In particular, this means ensuring women feel at home on our campus by ensuring gender diversity, aggressively addressing sexual harassment, and flipping the traditional culture from one that penalizes women, to one that values and supports them.

While women were initially only a small minority of our Global Solutions Program, in 2014, we achieved around 50% female attendance—a statistic that has since held over the years.

This is not due to a quota—every year we turn away extremely qualified women from our program (and are working on reformulating the program to allow more people to participate in the future.) While part of our recruiting success is due to the efforts of our marketing team, we also benefited from the efforts of some of our early female founders, staff, faculty, and alumnae including Susan Fonseca, Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, Kathryn Myronuk, Lajuanda Asemota, Chiara Giovenzana, and Barbara Silva Tronseca.

As early champions of Singularity University these women not only launched diversity initiatives and personally reached out to women, but were crucial role models holding leadership roles in our community. In addition, Fonseca and Silva also both created multiple organizations and initiatives outside of (or in conjunction with) the university that produced additional pipelines of female candidates. In particular, Fonseca founded Women@TheFrontier as well as other organizations focusing on women, technology and innovation, and Silva founded BestInnovation (a woman’s accelerator in Latin America), as well as led Singularity University’s Chilean Chapter and founded the first SingularityU Summit in Latin America.

These women’s efforts in globally scaling Singularity University have been critical in ensuring woman around the world now see Singularity University as a place where they can lead and shape the future.

Also, thanks to Google (Alphabet) and many of our alumni and partners, we were able to provide full scholarships to any woman (or man) to attend our program regardless of their economic status. Google committed significant funding for full scholarships while our partners around the world also hosted numerous Global Impact Competitions, where entrepreneurs pitched their solutions to their local communities with the winners earning a full scholarship funded by our partners to attend the Global Solution Program as their prize.

Google and our partners’ support helped individuals attend our program and created a wider buzz around exponential technology and social change around the world in local communities. It led to the founding of 110 SU chapters in 55 countries.

Another vital aspect of our work in supporting women has been trying to create a harassment-free environment. Throughout the Silicon Valley, more than 60% of women convey that while they are trying to build their companies or get their work done, they are also dealing with physical and sexual harassment while being demeaned and excluded in other ways in the workplace. We have taken actions to educate and train our staff on how to deal with situations should they occur. All staff receives training on harassment when they join Singularity University, and all Global Solutions Program participants attend mandatory trainings on sexual harassment when they first arrive on campus. We also have male and female wellness counselors available that can offer support to both individuals and teams of entrepreneurs throughout the entire program.

While at a minimum our campus must be physically safe for women, we also strive to create a culture that values women and supports them in the additional challenges and expectations they face. For example, one of our 2016 female participants, Van Duesterberg, was pregnant during the program and said that instead of having people doubt her commitment to her startup or make her prove she could handle having a child and running a start-up at the same time, people went out of their way to help her.

“I was the epitome of a person not supposed to be doing a startup,” she said. “I was pregnant and would need to take care of my child. But Singularity University was supportive and encouraging. They made me feel super-included and that it was possible to do both. I continue to come back to campus even though the program is over because the network welcomes me and supports me rather than shuts me out because of my physical limitations. Rather than making me feel I had to prove myself, everyone just understood me and supported me, whether it was bringing me healthy food or recommending funders.”

Another strength that we have in supporting women is that after the Global Solutions Program, entrepreneurs have access to a much larger ecosystem.

Many entrepreneurs partake in SU Ventures, which can provide further support to startups as they develop, and we now have a larger community of over 200,000 people in almost every country. These members have often attended other Singularity University programs, events and are committed to our vision of the future. These women and men consist of business executives, Fortune 500 companies, investors, nonprofit and government leaders, technologists, members of the media, and other movers and shakers in the world. They have made introductions for our founders, collaborated with them on business ventures, invested in them and showcased their work at high profile events around the world.

Building for the Future
While our Global Solutions Program is making great strides in supporting female entrepreneurs, there is always more work to do. We are now focused on achieving the same degree of female participation across all of our programs and actively working to recruit and feature more female faculty and speakers on stage. As our community grows and scales around the world, we are also intent at how to best uphold our values and policies around sexual harassment across diverse locations and cultures. And like all businesses everywhere, we are focused on recruiting more women to serve at senior leadership levels within SU. As we make our way forward, we hope that you will join us in boldly leading this change and recognizing the genius and power of female entrepreneurs.

Meet Some of Our Female Moonshots
While we have many remarkable female entrepreneurs in the Singularity University community, the list below features a few of the women who have founded or co-founded companies at the Global Solutions Program that have launched new industries and are on their way to changing the way our world works for millions if not billions of people.

Jessica Scorpio co-founded Getaround in 2009. Getaround was one of the first car-sharing service platforms allowing anyone to rent out their car using a smartphone app. GetAround was a revolutionary idea in 2009, not only because smartphones and apps were still in their infancy, but because it was unthinkable that a technology startup could disrupt the major entrenched car, transport, and logistics companies. Scorpio’s early insights and pioneering entrepreneurial work brought to life new ways that humans relate to car sharing and the future self-driving car industry. Scorpio and Getaround have won numerous awards, and Getaround now serves over 200,000 members.

Paola Santana co-founded Matternet in 2011, which pioneered the commercial drone transport industry. In 2011, only military, hobbyists or the film industry used drones. Matternet demonstrated that drones could be used for commercial transport in short point-to-point deliveries for high-value goods laying the groundwork for drone transport around the world as well as some of the early thinking behind the future flying car industry. Santana was also instrumental in shaping regulations for the use of commercial drones around the world, making the industry possible.

Sara Naseri co-founded Qurasense in 2014, a life sciences start-up that analyzes women’s health through menstrual blood allowing women to track their health every month. Naseri is shifting our understanding of women’s menstrual blood as a waste product and something “not to be talked about,” to a rich, non-invasive, abundant source of information about women’s health.

Abi Ramanan co-founded ImpactVision in 2015, a software company that rapidly analyzes the quality and characteristics of food through hyperspectral images. Her long-term vision is to digitize food supply chains to reduce waste and fraud, given that one-third of all food is currently wasted before it reaches our plates. Ramanan is also helping the world understand that hyperspectral technology can be used in many industries to help us “see the unseen” and augment our ability to sense and understand what is happening around us in a much more sophisticated way.

Anita Schjøll Brede and Maria Ritola co-founded Iris AI in 2015, an artificial intelligence company that is building an AI research assistant that drastically improves the efficiency of R&D research and breaks down silos between different industries. Their long-term vision is for Iris AI to become smart enough that she will become a scientist herself. Fast Company named Iris AI one of the 10 most innovative artificial intelligence companies for 2017.

Hla Hla Win co-founded 360ed in 2016, a startup that conducts teacher training and student education through virtual reality and augmented reality in Myanmar. They have already connected teachers from 128 private schools in Myanmar with schools teaching 21st-century skills in Silicon Valley and around the world. Their moonshot is to build a platform where any teacher in the world can share best practices in teachers’ training. As they succeed, millions of children in some of the poorest parts of the world will have access to a 21st-century education.

Min FitzGerald and Van Duesterberg cofounded Nutrigene in 2017, a startup that ships freshly formulated, tailor-made supplement elixirs directly to consumers. Their long-term vision is to help people optimize their health using actionable data insights, so people can take a guided, tailored approaching to thriving into longevity.

Anna Skaya co-founded Basepaws in 2016, which created the first genetic test for cats and is building a community of citizen scientist pet owners. They are creating personalized pet products such as supplements, therapeutics, treats, and toys while also developing a database of genetic data for future research that will help both humans and pets over the long term.

Olivia Ramos co-founded Deep Blocks in 2016, a startup using artificial intelligence to integrate and streamline the processes of architecture, pre-construction, and real estate. As digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and robotics advance, it no longer makes sense for these industries to exist separately. Ramos recognized the tremendous value and efficiency that it is now possible to unlock with exponential technologies and creating an integrated industry in the future.

Please also visit our website to learn more about other female entrepreneurs, staff and faculty who are pioneering the future through exponential technologies. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#431999 Brain-Like Chips Now Beat the Human ...

Move over, deep learning. Neuromorphic computing—the next big thing in artificial intelligence—is on fire.

Just last week, two studies individually unveiled computer chips modeled after information processing in the human brain.

The first, published in Nature Materials, found a perfect solution to deal with unpredictability at synapses—the gap between two neurons that transmit and store information. The second, published in Science Advances, further amped up the system’s computational power, filling synapses with nanoclusters of supermagnetic material to bolster information encoding.

The result? Brain-like hardware systems that compute faster—and more efficiently—than the human brain.

“Ultimately we want a chip as big as a fingernail to replace one big supercomputer,” said Dr. Jeehwan Kim, who led the first study at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Experts are hopeful.

“The field’s full of hype, and it’s nice to see quality work presented in an objective way,” said Dr. Carver Mead, an engineer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena not involved in the work.

Software to Hardware
The human brain is the ultimate computational wizard. With roughly 100 billion neurons densely packed into the size of a small football, the brain can deftly handle complex computation at lightning speed using very little energy.

AI experts have taken note. The past few years saw brain-inspired algorithms that can identify faces, falsify voices, and play a variety of games at—and often above—human capability.

But software is only part of the equation. Our current computers, with their transistors and binary digital systems, aren’t equipped to run these powerful algorithms.

That’s where neuromorphic computing comes in. The idea is simple: fabricate a computer chip that mimics the brain at the hardware level. Here, data is both processed and stored within the chip in an analog manner. Each artificial synapse can accumulate and integrate small bits of information from multiple sources and fire only when it reaches a threshold—much like its biological counterpart.

Experts believe the speed and efficiency gains will be enormous.

For one, the chips will no longer have to transfer data between the central processing unit (CPU) and storage blocks, which wastes both time and energy. For another, like biological neural networks, neuromorphic devices can support neurons that run millions of streams of parallel computation.

A “Brain-on-a-chip”
Optimism aside, reproducing the biological synapse in hardware form hasn’t been as easy as anticipated.

Neuromorphic chips exist in many forms, but often look like a nanoscale metal sandwich. The “bread” pieces are generally made of conductive plates surrounding a switching medium—a conductive material of sorts that acts like the gap in a biological synapse.

When a voltage is applied, as in the case of data input, ions move within the switching medium, which then creates conductive streams to stimulate the downstream plate. This change in conductivity mimics the way biological neurons change their “weight,” or the strength of connectivity between two adjacent neurons.

But so far, neuromorphic synapses have been rather unpredictable. According to Kim, that’s because the switching medium is often comprised of material that can’t channel ions to exact locations on the downstream plate.

“Once you apply some voltage to represent some data with your artificial neuron, you have to erase and be able to write it again in the exact same way,” explains Kim. “But in an amorphous solid, when you write again, the ions go in different directions because there are lots of defects.”

In his new study, Kim and colleagues swapped the jelly-like switching medium for silicon, a material with only a single line of defects that acts like a channel to guide ions.

The chip starts with a thin wafer of silicon etched with a honeycomb-like pattern. On top is a layer of silicon germanium—something often present in transistors—in the same pattern. This creates a funnel-like dislocation, a kind of Grand Canal that perfectly shuttles ions across the artificial synapse.

The researchers then made a neuromorphic chip containing these synapses and shot an electrical zap through them. Incredibly, the synapses’ response varied by only four percent—much higher than any neuromorphic device made with an amorphous switching medium.

In a computer simulation, the team built a multi-layer artificial neural network using parameters measured from their device. After tens of thousands of training examples, their neural network correctly recognized samples 95 percent of the time, just 2 percent lower than state-of-the-art software algorithms.

The upside? The neuromorphic chip requires much less space than the hardware that runs deep learning algorithms. Forget supercomputers—these chips could one day run complex computations right on our handheld devices.

A Magnetic Boost
Meanwhile, in Boulder, Colorado, Dr. Michael Schneider at the National Institute of Standards and Technology also realized that the standard switching medium had to go.

“There must be a better way to do this, because nature has figured out a better way to do this,” he says.

His solution? Nanoclusters of magnetic manganese.

Schneider’s chip contained two slices of superconducting electrodes made out of niobium, which channel electricity with no resistance. When researchers applied different magnetic fields to the synapse, they could control the alignment of the manganese “filling.”

The switch gave the chip a double boost. For one, by aligning the switching medium, the team could predict the ion flow and boost uniformity. For another, the magnetic manganese itself adds computational power. The chip can now encode data in both the level of electrical input and the direction of the magnetisms without bulking up the synapse.

It seriously worked. At one billion times per second, the chips fired several orders of magnitude faster than human neurons. Plus, the chips required just one ten-thousandth of the energy used by their biological counterparts, all the while synthesizing input from nine different sources in an analog manner.

The Road Ahead
These studies show that we may be nearing a benchmark where artificial synapses match—or even outperform—their human inspiration.

But to Dr. Steven Furber, an expert in neuromorphic computing, we still have a ways before the chips go mainstream.

Many of the special materials used in these chips require specific temperatures, he says. Magnetic manganese chips, for example, require temperatures around absolute zero to operate, meaning they come with the need for giant cooling tanks filled with liquid helium—obviously not practical for everyday use.

Another is scalability. Millions of synapses are necessary before a neuromorphic device can be used to tackle everyday problems such as facial recognition. So far, no deal.

But these problems may in fact be a driving force for the entire field. Intense competition could push teams into exploring different ideas and solutions to similar problems, much like these two studies.

If so, future chips may come in diverse flavors. Similar to our vast array of deep learning algorithms and operating systems, the computer chips of the future may also vary depending on specific requirements and needs.

It is worth developing as many different technological approaches as possible, says Furber, especially as neuroscientists increasingly understand what makes our biological synapses—the ultimate inspiration—so amazingly efficient.

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Posted in Human Robots