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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.
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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The key difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is entirely possible because of its grounding in scientific facts, while fantasy is not. This is where Black Mirror is both an entertaining and terrifying work of science fiction. Created by Charlie Brooker, the anthological series tells cautionary tales of emerging technology that could one day be an integral part of our everyday lives.
While watching the often alarming episodes, one can’t help but recognize the eerie similarities to some of the tech tools that are already abundant in our lives today. In fact, many previous Black Mirror predictions are already becoming reality.
The latest season of Black Mirror was arguably darker than ever. This time, Brooker seemed to focus on the ethical implications of one particular area: neurotechnology.
Warning: The remainder of this article may contain spoilers from Season 4 of Black Mirror.
Most of the storylines from season four revolve around neurotechnology and brain-machine interfaces. They are based in a world where people have the power to upload their consciousness onto machines, have fully immersive experiences in virtual reality, merge their minds with other minds, record others’ memories, and even track what others are thinking, feeling, and doing.
How can all this ever be possible? Well, these capabilities are already being developed by pioneers and researchers globally. Early last year, Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a neural lace. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing one brain to communicate with another. Various research teams have been able to develop mechanisms for “reading minds” or reconstructing memories of individuals via devices. The list goes on.
With many of the technologies we see in Black Mirror it’s not a question of if, but when. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to upload our consciousness onto the cloud via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” While other experts continue to challenge Kurzweil on the exact year we’ll accomplish this feat, with the current exponential growth of our technological capabilities, we’re on track to get there eventually.
As always, technology is only half the conversation. Equally fascinating are the many ethical and moral questions this topic raises.
For instance, with the increasing convergence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we have to ask ourselves if our morality from the physical world transfers equally into the virtual world. The first episode of season four, USS Calister, tells the story of a VR pioneer, Robert Daley, who creates breakthrough AI and VR to satisfy his personal frustrations and sexual urges. He uses the DNA of his coworkers (and their children) to re-create them digitally in his virtual world, to which he escapes to torture them, while they continue to be indifferent in the “real” world.
Audiences are left asking themselves: should what happens in the digital world be considered any less “real” than the physical world? How do we know if the individuals in the virtual world (who are ultimately based on algorithms) have true feelings or sentiments? Have they been developed to exhibit characteristics associated with suffering, or can they really feel suffering? Fascinatingly, these questions point to the hard problem of consciousness—the question of if, why, and how a given physical process generates the specific experience it does—which remains a major mystery in neuroscience.
Towards the end of USS Calister, the hostages of Daley’s virtual world attempt to escape through suicide, by committing an act that will delete the code that allows them to exist. This raises yet another mind-boggling ethical question: if we “delete” code that signifies a digital being, should that be considered murder (or suicide, in this case)? Why shouldn’t it? When we murder someone we are, in essence, taking away their capacity to live and to be, without their consent. By unplugging a self-aware AI, wouldn’t we be violating its basic right to live in the same why? Does AI, as code, even have rights?
Brain implants can also have a radical impact on our self-identity and how we define the word “I”. In the episode Black Museum, instead of witnessing just one horror, we get a series of scares in little segments. One of those segments tells the story of a father who attempts to reincarnate the mother of his child by uploading her consciousness into his mind and allowing her to live in his head (essentially giving him multiple personality disorder). In this way, she can experience special moments with their son.
With “no privacy for him, and no agency for her” the good intention slowly goes very wrong. This story raises a critical question: should we be allowed to upload consciousness into limited bodies? Even more, if we are to upload our minds into “the cloud,” at what point do we lose our individuality to become one collective being?
These questions can form the basis of hours of debate, but we’re just getting started. There are no right or wrong answers with many of these moral dilemmas, but we need to start having such discussions.
The Downside of Dystopian Sci-Fi
Like last season’s San Junipero, one episode of the series, Hang the DJ, had an uplifting ending. Yet the overwhelming majority of the stories in Black Mirror continue to focus on the darkest side of human nature, feeding into the pre-existing paranoia of the general public. There is certainly some value in this; it’s important to be aware of the dangers of technology. After all, what better way to explore these dangers before they occur than through speculative fiction?
A big takeaway from every tale told in the series is that the greatest threat to humanity does not come from technology, but from ourselves. Technology itself is not inherently good or evil; it all comes down to how we choose to use it as a society. So for those of you who are techno-paranoid, beware, for it’s not the technology you should fear, but the humans who get their hands on it.
While we can paint negative visions for the future, though, it is also important to paint positive ones. The kind of visions we set for ourselves have the power to inspire and motivate generations. Many people are inherently pessimistic when thinking about the future, and that pessimism in turn can shape their contributions to humanity.
While utopia may not exist, the future of our species could and should be one of solving global challenges, abundance, prosperity, liberation, and cosmic transcendence. Now that would be a thrilling episode to watch.
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You don’t have to dig too deeply into the archive of dystopian science fiction to uncover the horror that intelligent machines might unleash. The Matrix and The Terminator are probably the most well-known examples of self-replicating, intelligent machines attempting to enslave or destroy humanity in the process of building a brave new digital world.
The prospect of artificially intelligent machines creating other artificially intelligent machines took a big step forward in 2017. However, we’re far from the runaway technological singularity futurists are predicting by mid-century or earlier, let alone murderous cyborgs or AI avatar assassins.
The first big boost this year came from Google. The tech giant announced it was developing automated machine learning (AutoML), writing algorithms that can do some of the heavy lifting by identifying the right neural networks for a specific job. Now researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), using the most powerful supercomputer in the US, have developed an AI system that can generate neural networks as good if not better than any developed by a human in less than a day.
It can take months for the brainiest, best-paid data scientists to develop deep learning software, which sends data through a complex web of mathematical algorithms. The system is modeled after the human brain and known as an artificial neural network. Even Google’s AutoML took weeks to design a superior image recognition system, one of the more standard operations for AI systems today.
Of course, Google Brain project engineers only had access to 800 graphic processing units (GPUs), a type of computer hardware that works especially well for deep learning. Nvidia, which pioneered the development of GPUs, is considered the gold standard in today’s AI hardware architecture. Titan, the supercomputer at ORNL, boasts more than 18,000 GPUs.
The ORNL research team’s algorithm, called MENNDL for Multinode Evolutionary Neural Networks for Deep Learning, isn’t designed to create AI systems that cull cute cat photos from the internet. Instead, MENNDL is a tool for testing and training thousands of potential neural networks to work on unique science problems.
That requires a different approach from the Google and Facebook AI platforms of the world, notes Steven Young, a postdoctoral research associate at ORNL who is on the team that designed MENNDL.
“We’ve discovered that those [neural networks] are very often not the optimal network for a lot of our problems, because our data, while it can be thought of as images, is different,” he explains to Singularity Hub. “These images, and the problems, have very different characteristics from object detection.”
AI for Science
One application of the technology involved a particle physics experiment at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Fermilab researchers are interested in understanding neutrinos, high-energy subatomic particles that rarely interact with normal matter but could be a key to understanding the early formation of the universe. One Fermilab experiment involves taking a sort of “snapshot” of neutrino interactions.
The team wanted the help of an AI system that could analyze and classify Fermilab’s detector data. MENNDL evaluated 500,000 neural networks in 24 hours. Its final solution proved superior to custom models developed by human scientists.
In another case involving a collaboration with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, MENNDL improved the error rate of a human-designed algorithm for identifying mitochondria inside 3D electron microscopy images of brain tissue by 30 percent.
“We are able to do better than humans in a fraction of the time at designing networks for these sort of very different datasets that we’re interested in,” Young says.
What makes MENNDL particularly adept is its ability to define the best or most optimal hyperparameters—the key variables—to tackle a particular dataset.
“You don’t always need a big, huge deep network. Sometimes you just need a small network with the right hyperparameters,” Young says.
A Virtual Data Scientist
That’s not dissimilar to the approach of a company called H20.ai, a startup out of Silicon Valley that uses open source machine learning platforms to “democratize” AI. It applies machine learning to create business solutions for Fortune 500 companies, including some of the world’s biggest banks and healthcare companies.
“Our software is more [about] pattern detection, let’s say anti-money laundering or fraud detection or which customer is most likely to churn,” Dr. Arno Candel, chief technology officer at H2O.ai, tells Singularity Hub. “And that kind of insight-generating software is what we call AI here.”
The company’s latest product, Driverless AI, promises to deliver the data scientist equivalent of a chessmaster to its customers (the company claims several such grandmasters in its employ and advisory board). In other words, the system can analyze a raw dataset and, like MENNDL, automatically identify what features should be included in the computer model to make the most of the data based on the best “chess moves” of its grandmasters.
“So we’re using those algorithms, but we’re giving them the human insights from those data scientists, and we automate their thinking,” he explains. “So we created a virtual data scientist that is relentless at trying these ideas.”
Inside the Black Box
Not unlike how the human brain reaches a conclusion, it’s not always possible to understand how a machine, despite being designed by humans, reaches its own solutions. The lack of transparency is often referred to as the AI “black box.” Experts like Young say we can learn something about the evolutionary process of machine learning by generating millions of neural networks and seeing what works well and what doesn’t.
“You’re never going to be able to completely explain what happened, but maybe we can better explain it than we currently can today,” Young says.
Transparency is built into the “thought process” of each particular model generated by Driverless AI, according to Candel.
The computer even explains itself to the user in plain English at each decision point. There is also real-time feedback that allows users to prioritize features, or parameters, to see how the changes improve the accuracy of the model. For example, the system may include data from people in the same zip code as it creates a model to describe customer turnover.
“That’s one of the advantages of our automatic feature engineering: it’s basically mimicking human thinking,” Candel says. “It’s not just neural nets that magically come up with some kind of number, but we’re trying to make it statistically significant.”
Much digital ink has been spilled over the dearth of skilled data scientists, so automating certain design aspects for developing artificial neural networks makes sense. Experts agree that automation alone won’t solve that particular problem. However, it will free computer scientists to tackle more difficult issues, such as parsing the inherent biases that exist within the data used by machine learning today.
“I think the world has an opportunity to focus more on the meaning of things and not on the laborious tasks of just fitting a model and finding the best features to make that model,” Candel notes. “By automating, we are pushing the burden back for the data scientists to actually do something more meaningful, which is think about the problem and see how you can address it differently to make an even bigger impact.”
The team at ORNL expects it can also make bigger impacts beginning next year when the lab’s next supercomputer, Summit, comes online. While Summit will boast only 4,600 nodes, it will sport the latest and greatest GPU technology from Nvidia and CPUs from IBM. That means it will deliver more than five times the computational performance of Titan, the world’s fifth-most powerful supercomputer today.
“We’ll be able to look at much larger problems on Summit than we were able to with Titan and hopefully get to a solution much faster,” Young says.
It’s all in a day’s work.
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