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#432165 Silicon Valley Is Winning the Race to ...

Henry Ford didn’t invent the motor car. The late 1800s saw a flurry of innovation by hundreds of companies battling to deliver on the promise of fast, efficient and reasonably-priced mechanical transportation. Ford later came to dominate the industry thanks to the development of the moving assembly line.

Today, the sector is poised for another breakthrough with the advent of cars that drive themselves. But unlike the original wave of automobile innovation, the race for supremacy in autonomous vehicles is concentrated among a few corporate giants. So who is set to dominate this time?

I’ve analyzed six companies we think are leading the race to build the first truly driverless car. Three of these—General Motors, Ford, and Volkswagen—come from the existing car industry and need to integrate self-driving technology into their existing fleet of mass-produced vehicles. The other three—Tesla, Uber, and Waymo (owned by the same company as Google)—are newcomers from the digital technology world of Silicon Valley and have to build a mass manufacturing capability.

While it’s impossible to know all the developments at any given time, we have tracked investments, strategic partnerships, and official press releases to learn more about what’s happening behind the scenes. The car industry typically rates self-driving technology on a scale from Level 0 (no automation) to Level 5 (full automation). We’ve assessed where each company is now and estimated how far they are from reaching the top level. Here’s how we think each player is performing.

Volkswagen
Volkswagen has invested in taxi-hailing app Gett and partnered with chip-maker Nvidia to develop an artificial intelligence co-pilot for its cars. In 2018, the VW Group is set to release the Audi A8, the first production vehicle that reaches Level 3 on the scale, “conditional driving automation.” This means the car’s computer will handle all driving functions, but a human has to be ready to take over if necessary.

Ford
Ford already sells cars with a Level 2 autopilot, “partial driving automation.” This means one or more aspects of driving are controlled by a computer based on information about the environment, for example combined cruise control and lane centering. Alongside other investments, the company has put $1 billion into Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company for self-driving vehicles. Following a trial to test pizza delivery using autonomous vehicles, Ford is now testing Level 4 cars on public roads. These feature “high automation,” where the car can drive entirely on its own but not in certain conditions such as when the road surface is poor or the weather is bad.

General Motors
GM also sells vehicles with Level 2 automation but, after buying Silicon Valley startup Cruise Automation in 2016, now plans to launch the first mass-production-ready Level 5 autonomy vehicle that drives completely on its own by 2019. The Cruise AV will have no steering wheel or pedals to allow a human to take over and be part of a large fleet of driverless taxis the company plans to operate in big cities. But crucially the company hasn’t yet secured permission to test the car on public roads.

Waymo (Google)

Waymo Level 5 testing. Image Credit: Waymo

Founded as a special project in 2009, Waymo separated from Google (though they’re both owned by the same parent firm, Alphabet) in 2016. Though it has never made, sold, or operated a car on a commercial basis, Waymo has created test vehicles that have clocked more than 4 million miles without human drivers as of November 2017. Waymo tested its Level 5 car, “Firefly,” between 2015 and 2017 but then decided to focus on hardware that could be installed in other manufacturers’ vehicles, starting with the Chrysler Pacifica.

Uber
The taxi-hailing app maker Uber has been testing autonomous cars on the streets of Pittsburgh since 2016, always with an employee behind the wheel ready to take over in case of a malfunction. After buying the self-driving truck company Otto in 2016 for a reported $680 million, Uber is now expanding its AI capabilities and plans to test NVIDIA’s latest chips in Otto’s vehicles. It has also partnered with Volvo to create a self-driving fleet of cars and with Toyota to co-create a ride-sharing autonomous vehicle.

Tesla
The first major car manufacturer to come from Silicon Valley, Tesla was also the first to introduce Level 2 autopilot back in 2015. The following year, it announced that all new Teslas would have the hardware for full autonomy, meaning once the software is finished it can be deployed on existing cars with an instant upgrade. Some experts have challenged this approach, arguing that the company has merely added surround cameras to its production cars that aren’t as capable as the laser-based sensing systems that most other carmakers are using.

But the company has collected data from hundreds of thousands of cars, driving millions of miles across all terrains. So, we shouldn’t dismiss the firm’s founder, Elon Musk, when he claims a Level 4 Tesla will drive from LA to New York without any human interference within the first half of 2018.

Winners

Who’s leading the race? Image Credit: IMD

At the moment, the disruptors like Tesla, Waymo, and Uber seem to have the upper hand. While the traditional automakers are focusing on bringing Level 3 and 4 partial automation to market, the new companies are leapfrogging them by moving more directly towards Level 5 full automation. Waymo may have the least experience of dealing with consumers in this sector, but it has already clocked up a huge amount of time testing some of the most advanced technology on public roads.

The incumbent carmakers are also focused on the difficult process of integrating new technology and business models into their existing manufacturing operations by buying up small companies. The challengers, on the other hand, are easily partnering with other big players including manufacturers to get the scale and expertise they need more quickly.

Tesla is building its own manufacturing capability but also collecting vast amounts of critical data that will enable it to more easily upgrade its cars when ready for full automation. In particular, Waymo’s experience, technology capability, and ability to secure solid partnerships puts it at the head of the pack.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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#432051 What Roboticists Are Learning From Early ...

You might not have heard of Hanson Robotics, but if you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen their work. They were the company behind Sophia, the lifelike humanoid avatar that’s made dozens of high-profile media appearances. Before that, they were the company behind that strange-looking robot that seemed a bit like Asimo with Albert Einstein’s head—or maybe you saw BINA48, who was interviewed for the New York Times in 2010 and featured in Jon Ronson’s books. For the sci-fi aficionados amongst you, they even made a replica of legendary author Philip K. Dick, best remembered for having books with titles like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? turned into films with titles like Blade Runner.

Hanson Robotics, in other words, with their proprietary brand of life-like humanoid robots, have been playing the same game for a while. Sometimes it can be a frustrating game to watch. Anyone who gives the robot the slightest bit of thought will realize that this is essentially a chat-bot, with all the limitations this implies. Indeed, even in that New York Times interview with BINA48, author Amy Harmon describes it as a frustrating experience—with “rare (but invariably thrilling) moments of coherence.” This sensation will be familiar to anyone who’s conversed with a chatbot that has a few clever responses.

The glossy surface belies the lack of real intelligence underneath; it seems, at first glance, like a much more advanced machine than it is. Peeling back that surface layer—at least for a Hanson robot—means you’re peeling back Frubber. This proprietary substance—short for “Flesh Rubber,” which is slightly nightmarish—is surprisingly complicated. Up to thirty motors are required just to control the face; they manipulate liquid cells in order to make the skin soft, malleable, and capable of a range of different emotional expressions.

A quick combinatorial glance at the 30+ motors suggests that there are millions of possible combinations; researchers identify 62 that they consider “human-like” in Sophia, although not everyone agrees with this assessment. Arguably, the technical expertise that went into reconstructing the range of human facial expressions far exceeds the more simplistic chat engine the robots use, although it’s the second one that allows it to inflate the punters’ expectations with a few pre-programmed questions in an interview.

Hanson Robotics’ belief is that, ultimately, a lot of how humans will eventually relate to robots is going to depend on their faces and voices, as well as on what they’re saying. “The perception of identity is so intimately bound up with the perception of the human form,” says David Hanson, company founder.

Yet anyone attempting to design a robot that won’t terrify people has to contend with the uncanny valley—that strange blend of concern and revulsion people react with when things appear to be creepily human. Between cartoonish humanoids and genuine humans lies what has often been a no-go zone in robotic aesthetics.

The uncanny valley concept originated with roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that roboticists should avoid trying to replicate humans exactly. Since anything that wasn’t perfect, but merely very good, would elicit an eerie feeling in humans, shirking the challenge entirely was the only way to avoid the uncanny valley. It’s probably a task made more difficult by endless streams of articles about AI taking over the world that inexplicably conflate AI with killer humanoid Terminators—which aren’t particularly likely to exist (although maybe it’s best not to push robots around too much).

The idea behind this realm of psychological horror is fairly simple, cognitively speaking.

We know how to categorize things that are unambiguously human or non-human. This is true even if they’re designed to interact with us. Consider the popularity of Aibo, Jibo, or even some robots that don’t try to resemble humans. Something that resembles a human, but isn’t quite right, is bound to evoke a fear response in the same way slightly distorted music or slightly rearranged furniture in your home will. The creature simply doesn’t fit.

You may well reject the idea of the uncanny valley entirely. David Hanson, naturally, is not a fan. In the paper Upending the Uncanny Valley, he argues that great art forms have often resembled humans, but the ultimate goal for humanoid roboticists is probably to create robots we can relate to as something closer to humans than works of art.

Meanwhile, Hanson and other scientists produce competing experiments to either demonstrate that the uncanny valley is overhyped, or to confirm it exists and probe its edges.

The classic experiment involves gradually morphing a cartoon face into a human face, via some robotic-seeming intermediaries—yet it’s in movement that the real horror of the almost-human often lies. Hanson has argued that incorporating cartoonish features may help—and, sometimes, that the uncanny valley is a generational thing which will melt away when new generations grow used to the quirks of robots. Although Hanson might dispute the severity of this effect, it’s clearly what he’s trying to avoid with each new iteration.

Hiroshi Ishiguro is the latest of the roboticists to have dived headlong into the valley.

Building on the work of pioneers like Hanson, those who study human-robot interaction are pushing at the boundaries of robotics—but also of social science. It’s usually difficult to simulate what you don’t understand, and there’s still an awful lot we don’t understand about how we interpret the constant streams of non-verbal information that flow when you interact with people in the flesh.

Ishiguro took this imitation of human forms to extreme levels. Not only did he monitor and log the physical movements people made on videotapes, but some of his robots are based on replicas of people; the Repliee series began with a ‘replicant’ of his daughter. This involved making a rubber replica—a silicone cast—of her entire body. Future experiments were focused on creating Geminoid, a replica of Ishiguro himself.

As Ishiguro aged, he realized that it would be more effective to resemble his replica through cosmetic surgery rather than by continually creating new casts of his face, each with more lines than the last. “I decided not to get old anymore,” Ishiguro said.

We love to throw around abstract concepts and ideas: humans being replaced by machines, cared for by machines, getting intimate with machines, or even merging themselves with machines. You can take an idea like that, hold it in your hand, and examine it—dispassionately, if not without interest. But there’s a gulf between thinking about it and living in a world where human-robot interaction is not a field of academic research, but a day-to-day reality.

As the scientists studying human-robot interaction develop their robots, their replicas, and their experiments, they are making some of the first forays into that world. We might all be living there someday. Understanding ourselves—decrypting the origins of empathy and love—may be the greatest challenge to face. That is, if you want to avoid the valley.

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#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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#432031 Why the Rise of Self-Driving Vehicles ...

It’s been a long time coming. For years Waymo (formerly known as Google Chauffeur) has been diligently developing, driving, testing and refining its fleets of various models of self-driving cars. Now Waymo is going big. The company recently placed an order for several thousand new Chrysler Pacifica minivans and next year plans to launch driverless taxis in a number of US cities.

This deal raises one of the biggest unanswered questions about autonomous vehicles: if fleets of driverless taxis make it cheap and easy for regular people to get around, what’s going to happen to car ownership?

One popular line of thought goes as follows: as autonomous ride-hailing services become ubiquitous, people will no longer need to buy their own cars. This notion has a certain logical appeal. It makes sense to assume that as driverless taxis become widely available, most of us will eagerly sell the family car and use on-demand taxis to get to work, run errands, or pick up the kids. After all, vehicle ownership is pricey and most cars spend the vast majority of their lives parked.

Even experts believe commercial availability of autonomous vehicles will cause car sales to drop.

Market research firm KPMG estimates that by 2030, midsize car sales in the US will decline from today’s 5.4 million units sold each year to nearly half that number, a measly 2.1 million units. Another market research firm, ReThinkX, offers an even more pessimistic estimate (or optimistic, depending on your opinion of cars), predicting that autonomous vehicles will reduce consumer demand for new vehicles by a whopping 70 percent.

The reality is that the impending death of private vehicle sales is greatly exaggerated. Despite the fact that autonomous taxis will be a beneficial and widely-embraced form of urban transportation, we will witness the opposite. Most people will still prefer to own their own autonomous vehicle. In fact, the total number of units of autonomous vehicles sold each year is going to increase rather than decrease.

When people predict the demise of car ownership, they are overlooking the reality that the new autonomous automotive industry is not going to be just a re-hash of today’s car industry with driverless vehicles. Instead, the automotive industry of the future will be selling what could be considered an entirely new product: a wide variety of intelligent, self-guiding transportation robots. When cars become a widely used type of transportation robot, they will be cheap, ubiquitous, and versatile.

Several unique characteristics of autonomous vehicles will ensure that people will continue to buy their own cars.

1. Cost: Thanks to simpler electric engines and lighter auto bodies, autonomous vehicles will be cheaper to buy and maintain than today’s human-driven vehicles. Some estimates bring the price to $10K per vehicle, a stark contrast with today’s average of $30K per vehicle.

2. Personal belongings: Consumers will be able to do much more in their driverless vehicles, including work, play, and rest. This means they will want to keep more personal items in their cars.

3. Frequent upgrades: The average (human-driven) car today is owned for 10 years. As driverless cars become software-driven devices, their price/performance ratio will track to Moore’s law. Their rapid improvement will increase the appeal and frequency of new vehicle purchases.

4. Instant accessibility: In a dense urban setting, a driverless taxi is able to show up within minutes of being summoned. But not so in rural areas, where people live miles apart. For many, delay and “loss of control” over their own mobility will increase the appeal of owning their own vehicle.

5. Diversity of form and function: Autonomous vehicles will be available in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Consumers will drive demand for custom-made, purpose-built autonomous vehicles whose form is adapted for a particular function.

Let’s explore each of these characteristics in more detail.

Autonomous vehicles will cost less for several reasons. For one, they will be powered by electric engines, which are cheaper to construct and maintain than gasoline-powered engines. Removing human drivers will also save consumers money. Autonomous vehicles will be much less likely to have accidents, hence they can be built out of lightweight, lower-cost materials and will be cheaper to insure. With the human interface no longer needed, autonomous vehicles won’t be burdened by the manufacturing costs of a complex dashboard, steering wheel, and foot pedals.

While hop-on, hop-off autonomous taxi-based mobility services may be ideal for some of the urban population, several sizeable customer segments will still want to own their own cars.

These include people who live in sparsely-populated rural areas who can’t afford to wait extended periods of time for a taxi to appear. Families with children will prefer to own their own driverless cars to house their childrens’ car seats and favorite toys and sippy cups. Another loyal car-buying segment will be die-hard gadget-hounds who will eagerly buy a sexy upgraded model every year or so, unable to resist the siren song of AI that is three times as safe, or a ride that is twice as smooth.

Finally, consider the allure of robotic diversity.

Commuters will invest in a home office on wheels, a sleek, traveling workspace resembling the first-class suite on an airplane. On the high end of the market, city-dwellers and country-dwellers alike will special-order custom-made autonomous vehicles whose shape and on-board gadgetry is adapted for a particular function or hobby. Privately-owned small businesses will buy their own autonomous delivery robot that could range in size from a knee-high, last-mile delivery pod, to a giant, long-haul shipping device.

As autonomous vehicles near commercial viability, Waymo’s procurement deal with Fiat Chrysler is just the beginning.

The exact value of this future automotive industry has yet to be defined, but research from Intel’s internal autonomous vehicle division estimates this new so-called “passenger economy” could be worth nearly $7 trillion a year. To position themselves to capture a chunk of this potential revenue, companies whose businesses used to lie in previously disparate fields such as robotics, software, ships, and entertainment (to name but a few) have begun to form a bewildering web of what they hope will be symbiotic partnerships. Car hailing and chip companies are collaborating with car rental companies, who in turn are befriending giant software firms, who are launching joint projects with all sizes of hardware companies, and so on.

Last year, car companies sold an estimated 80 million new cars worldwide. Over the course of nearly a century, car companies and their partners, global chains of suppliers and service providers, have become masters at mass-producing and maintaining sturdy and cost-effective human-driven vehicles. As autonomous vehicle technology becomes ready for mainstream use, traditional automotive companies are being forced to grapple with the painful realization that they must compete in a new playing field.

The challenge for traditional car-makers won’t be that people no longer want to own cars. Instead, the challenge will be learning to compete in a new and larger transportation industry where consumers will choose their product according to the appeal of its customized body and the quality of its intelligent software.

Melba Kurman and Hod Lipson are the authors of Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead and Fabricated: the New World of 3D Printing.

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#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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