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#433954 The Next Great Leap Forward? Combining ...

The Internet of Things is a popular vision of objects with internet connections sending information back and forth to make our lives easier and more comfortable. It’s emerging in our homes, through everything from voice-controlled speakers to smart temperature sensors. To improve our fitness, smart watches and Fitbits are telling online apps how much we’re moving around. And across entire cities, interconnected devices are doing everything from increasing the efficiency of transport to flood detection.

In parallel, robots are steadily moving outside the confines of factory lines. They’re starting to appear as guides in shopping malls and cruise ships, for instance. As prices fall and the artificial intelligence (AI) and mechanical technology continues to improve, we will get more and more used to them making independent decisions in our homes, streets and workplaces.

Here lies a major opportunity. Robots become considerably more capable with internet connections. There is a growing view that the next evolution of the Internet of Things will be to incorporate them into the network, opening up thrilling possibilities along the way.

Home Improvements
Even simple robots become useful when connected to the internet—getting updates about their environment from sensors, say, or learning about their users’ whereabouts and the status of appliances in the vicinity. This lets them lend their bodies, eyes, and ears to give an otherwise impersonal smart environment a user-friendly persona. This can be particularly helpful for people at home who are older or have disabilities.

We recently unveiled a futuristic apartment at Heriot-Watt University to work on such possibilities. One of a few such test sites around the EU, our whole focus is around people with special needs—and how robots can help them by interacting with connected devices in a smart home.

Suppose a doorbell rings that has smart video features. A robot could find the person in the home by accessing their location via sensors, then tell them who is at the door and why. Or it could help make video calls to family members or a professional carer—including allowing them to make virtual visits by acting as a telepresence platform.

Equally, it could offer protection. It could inform them the oven has been left on, for example—phones or tablets are less reliable for such tasks because they can be misplaced or not heard.

Similarly, the robot could raise the alarm if its user appears to be in difficulty.Of course, voice-assistant devices like Alexa or Google Home can offer some of the same services. But robots are far better at moving, sensing and interacting with their environment. They can also engage their users by pointing at objects or acting more naturally, using gestures or facial expressions. These “social abilities” create bonds which are crucially important for making users more accepting of the support and making it more effective.

To help incentivize the various EU test sites, our apartment also hosts the likes of the European Robotic League Service Robot Competition—a sort of Champions League for robots geared to special needs in the home. This brought academics from around Europe to our laboratory for the first time in January this year. Their robots were tested in tasks like welcoming visitors to the home, turning the oven off, and fetching objects for their users; and a German team from Koblenz University won with a robot called Lisa.

Robots Offshore
There are comparable opportunities in the business world. Oil and gas companies are looking at the Internet of Things, for example; experimenting with wireless sensors to collect information such as temperature, pressure, and corrosion levels to detect and possibly predict faults in their offshore equipment.

In the future, robots could be alerted to problem areas by sensors to go and check the integrity of pipes and wells, and to make sure they are operating as efficiently and safely as possible. Or they could place sensors in parts of offshore equipment that are hard to reach, or help to calibrate them or replace their batteries.

The likes of the ORCA Hub, a £36m project led by the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, bringing together leading experts and over 30 industry partners, is developing such systems. The aim is to reduce the costs and the risks of humans working in remote hazardous locations.

ORCA tests a drone robot. ORCA
Working underwater is particularly challenging, since radio waves don’t move well under the sea. Underwater autonomous vehicles and sensors usually communicate using acoustic waves, which are many times slower (1,500 meters a second vs. 300m meters a second for radio waves). Acoustic communication devices are also much more expensive than those used above the water.

This academic project is developing a new generation of low-cost acoustic communication devices, and trying to make underwater sensor networks more efficient. It should help sensors and underwater autonomous vehicles to do more together in future—repair and maintenance work similar to what is already possible above the water, plus other benefits such as helping vehicles to communicate with one another over longer distances and tracking their location.

Beyond oil and gas, there is similar potential in sector after sector. There are equivalents in nuclear power, for instance, and in cleaning and maintaining the likes of bridges and buildings. My colleagues and I are also looking at possibilities in areas such as farming, manufacturing, logistics, and waste.

First, however, the research sectors around the Internet of Things and robotics need to properly share their knowledge and expertise. They are often isolated from one another in different academic fields. There needs to be more effort to create a joint community, such as the dedicated workshops for such collaboration that we organized at the European Robotics Forum and the IoT Week in 2017.

To the same end, industry and universities need to look at setting up joint research projects. It is particularly important to address safety and security issues—hackers taking control of a robot and using it to spy or cause damage, for example. Such issues could make customers wary and ruin a market opportunity.

We also need systems that can work together, rather than in isolated applications. That way, new and more useful services can be quickly and effectively introduced with no disruption to existing ones. If we can solve such problems and unite robotics and the Internet of Things, it genuinely has the potential to change the world.

Mauro Dragone, Assistant Professor, Cognitive Robotics, Multiagent systems, Internet of Things, Heriot-Watt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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#433928 The Surprising Parallels Between ...

The human mind can be a confusing and overwhelming place. Despite incredible leaps in human progress, many of us still struggle to make our peace with our thoughts. The roots of this are complex and multifaceted. To find explanations for the global mental health epidemic, one can tap into neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, or simply observe the meaningless systems that dominate our modern-day world.

This is not only the context of our reality but also that of the critically-acclaimed Netflix series, Maniac. Psychological dark comedy meets science fiction, Maniac is a retro, futuristic, and hallucinatory trip that is filled with hidden symbols. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the series tells the story of two strangers who decide to participate in the final stage of a “groundbreaking” pharmaceutical trial—one that combines novel pharmaceuticals with artificial intelligence, and promises to make their emotional pain go away.

Naturally, things don’t go according to plan.

From exams used for testing defense mechanisms to techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy, the narrative infuses genuine psychological science. As perplexing as the series may be to some viewers, many of the tools depicted actually have a strong grounding in current technological advancements.

Catalysts for Alleviating Suffering
In the therapy of Maniac, participants undergo a three-day trial wherein they ingest three pills and appear to connect their consciousness to a superintelligent AI. Each participant is hurled into the traumatic experiences imprinted in their subconscious and forced to cope with them in a series of hallucinatory and dream-like experiences.

Perhaps the most recognizable parallel that can be drawn is with the latest advancements in psychedelic therapy. Psychedelics are a class of drugs that alter the experience of consciousness, and often cause radical changes in perception and cognitive processes.

Through a process known as transient hypofrontality, the executive “over-thinking” parts of our brains get a rest, and deeper areas become more active. This experience, combined with the breakdown of the ego, is often correlated with feelings of timelessness, peacefulness, presence, unity, and above all, transcendence.

Despite being not addictive and extremely difficult to overdose on, regulators looked down on the use of psychedelics for decades and many continue to dismiss them as “party drugs.” But in the last few years, all of this began to change.

Earlier this summer, the FDA granted breakthrough therapy designation to MDMA for the treatment of PTSD, after several phases of successful trails. Similar research has discovered that Psilocybin (also known as magic mushrooms) combined with therapy is far more effective than traditional forms of treatment to treat depression and anxiety. Today, there is a growing and overwhelming body of research that proves that not only are psychedelics such as LSD, MDMA, or Psylicybin effective catalysts to alleviate suffering and enhance the human condition, but they are potentially the most effective tools out there.

It’s important to realize that these substances are not solutions on their own, but rather catalysts for more effective therapy. They can be groundbreaking, but only in the right context and setting.

Brain-Machine Interfaces
In Maniac, the medication-assisted therapy is guided by what appears to be a super-intelligent form of artificial intelligence called the GRTA, nicknamed Gertie. Gertie, who is a “guide” in machine form, accesses the minds of the participants through what appears to be a futuristic brain-scanning technology and curates customized hallucinatory experiences with the goal of accelerating the healing process.

Such a powerful form of brain-scanning technology is not unheard of. Current levels of scanning technology are already allowing us to decipher dreams and connect three human brains, and are only growing exponentially. Though they are nowhere as advanced as Gertie (we have a long way to go before we get to this kind of general AI), we are also seeing early signs of AI therapy bots, chatbots that listen, think, and communicate with users like a therapist would.

The parallels between current advancements in mental health therapy and the methods in Maniac can be startling, and are a testament to how science fiction and the arts can be used to explore the existential implications of technology.

Not Necessarily a Dystopia
While there are many ingenious similarities between the technology in Maniac and the state of mental health therapy, it’s important to recognize the stark differences. Like many other blockbuster science fiction productions, Maniac tells a fundamentally dystopian tale.

The series tells the story of the 73rd iteration of a controversial drug trial, one that has experienced many failures and even led to various participants being braindead. The scientists appear to be evil, secretive, and driven by their own superficial agendas and deep unresolved emotional issues.

In contrast, clinicians and researchers are not only required to file an “investigational new drug application” with the FDA (and get approval) but also update the agency with safety and progress reports throughout the trial.

Furthermore, many of today’s researchers are driven by a strong desire to contribute to the well-being and progress of our species. Even more, the results of decades of research by organizations like MAPS have been exceptionally promising and aligned with positive values. While Maniac is entertaining and thought-provoking, viewers must not forget the positive potential of such advancements in mental health therapy.

Science, technology, and psychology aside, Maniac is a deep commentary on the human condition and the often disorienting states that pain us all. Within any human lifetime, suffering is inevitable. It is the disproportionate, debilitating, and unjust levels of suffering that we ought to tackle as a society. Ultimately, Maniac explores whether advancements in science and technology can help us live not a life devoid of suffering, but one where it is balanced with fulfillment.

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#433911 Thanksgiving Food for Thought: The Tech ...

With the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, it’s a great time to reflect on the future of food. Over the last few years, we have seen a dramatic rise in exponential technologies transforming the food industry from seed to plate. Food is important in many ways—too little or too much of it can kill us, and it is often at the heart of family, culture, our daily routines, and our biggest celebrations. The agriculture and food industries are also two of the world’s biggest employers. Let’s take a look to see what is in store for the future.

Robotic Farms
Over the last few years, we have seen a number of new companies emerge in the robotic farming industry. This includes new types of farming equipment used in arable fields, as well as indoor robotic vertical farms. In November 2017, Hands Free Hectare became the first in the world to remotely grow an arable crop. They used autonomous tractors to sow and spray crops, small rovers to take soil samples, drones to monitor crop growth, and an unmanned combine harvester to collect the crops. Since then, they’ve also grown and harvested a field of winter wheat, and have been adding additional technologies and capabilities to their arsenal of robotic farming equipment.

Indoor vertical farming is also rapidly expanding. As Engadget reported in October 2018, a number of startups are now growing crops like leafy greens, tomatoes, flowers, and herbs. These farms can grow food in urban areas, reducing transport, water, and fertilizer costs, and often don’t need pesticides since they are indoors. IronOx, which is using robots to grow plants with navigation technology used by self-driving cars, can grow 30 times more food per acre of land using 90 percent less water than traditional farmers. Vertical farming company Plenty was recently funded by Softbank’s Vision Fund, Jeff Bezos, and others to build 300 vertical farms in China.

These startups are not only succeeding in wealthy countries. Hello Tractor, an “uberized” tractor, has worked with 250,000 smallholder farms in Africa, creating both food security and tech-infused agriculture jobs. The World Food Progam’s Innovation Accelerator (an impact partner of Singularity University) works with hundreds of startups aimed at creating zero hunger. One project is focused on supporting refugees in developing “food computers” in refugee camps—computerized devices that grow food while also adjusting to the conditions around them. As exponential trends drive down the costs of robotics, sensors, software, and energy, we should see robotic farming scaling around the world and becoming the main way farming takes place.

Cultured Meat
Exponential technologies are not only revolutionizing how we grow vegetables and grains, but also how we generate protein and meat. The new cultured meat industry is rapidly expanding, led by startups such as Memphis Meats, Mosa Meats, JUST Meat, Inc. and Finless Foods, and backed by heavyweight investors including DFJ, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill, and Tyson Foods.

Cultured meat is grown in a bioreactor using cells from an animal, a scaffold, and a culture. The process is humane and, potentially, scientists can make the meat healthier by adding vitamins, removing fat, or customizing it to an individual’s diet and health concerns. Another benefit is that cultured meats, if grown at scale, would dramatically reduce environmental destruction, pollution, and climate change caused by the livestock and fishing industries. Similar to vertical farms, cultured meat is produced using technology and can be grown anywhere, on-demand and in a decentralized way.

Similar to robotic farming equipment, bioreactors will also follow exponential trends, rapidly falling in cost. In fact, the first cultured meat hamburger (created by Singularity University faculty Member Mark Post of Mosa Meats in 2013) cost $350,000 dollars. In 2018, Fast Company reported the cost was now about $11 per burger, and the Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies predicted they will produce beef at about $2 per pound in 2020, which will be competitive with existing prices. For those who have turkey on their mind, one can read about New Harvest’s work (one of the leading think tanks and research centers for the cultured meat and cellular agriculture industry) in funding efforts to generate a nugget of cultured turkey meat.

One outstanding question is whether cultured meat is safe to eat and how it will interact with the overall food supply chain. In the US, regulators like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are working out their roles in this process, with the FDA overseeing the cellular process and the FDA overseeing production and labeling.

Food Processing
Tech companies are also making great headway in streamlining food processing. Norwegian company Tomra Foods was an early leader in using imaging recognition, sensors, artificial intelligence, and analytics to more efficiently sort food based on shape, composition of fat, protein, and moisture, and other food safety and quality indicators. Their technologies have improved food yield by 5-10 percent, which is significant given they own 25 percent of their market.

These advances are also not limited to large food companies. In 2016 Google reported how a small family farm in Japan built a world-class cucumber sorting device using their open-source machine learning tool TensorFlow. SU startup Impact Vision uses hyper-spectral imaging to analyze food quality, which increases revenues and reduces food waste and product recalls from contamination.

These examples point to a question many have on their mind: will we live in a future where a few large companies use advanced technologies to grow the majority of food on the planet, or will the falling costs of these technologies allow family farms, startups, and smaller players to take part in creating a decentralized system? Currently, the future could flow either way, but it is important for smaller companies to take advantage of the most cutting-edge technology in order to stay competitive.

Food Purchasing and Delivery
In the last year, we have also seen a number of new developments in technology improving access to food. Amazon Go is opening grocery stores in Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago where customers use an app that allows them to pick up their products and pay without going through cashier lines. Sam’s Club is not far behind, with an app that also allows a customer to purchase goods in-store.

The market for food delivery is also growing. In 2017, Morgan Stanley estimated that the online food delivery market from restaurants could grow to $32 billion by 2021, from $12 billion in 2017. Companies like Zume are pioneering robot-powered pizza making and delivery. In addition to using robotics to create affordable high-end gourmet pizzas in their shop, they also have a pizza delivery truck that can assemble and cook pizzas while driving. Their system combines predictive analytics using past customer data to prepare pizzas for certain neighborhoods before the orders even come in. In early November 2018, the Wall Street Journal estimated that Zume is valued at up to $2.25 billion.

Looking Ahead
While each of these developments is promising on its own, it’s also important to note that since all these technologies are in some way digitized and connected to the internet, the various food tech players can collaborate. In theory, self-driving delivery restaurants could share data on what they are selling to their automated farm equipment, facilitating coordination of future crops. There is a tremendous opportunity to improve efficiency, lower costs, and create an abundance of healthy, sustainable food for all.

On the other hand, these technologies are also deeply disruptive. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, in 2010 about one billion people, or a third of the world’s workforce, worked in the farming and agricultural industries. We need to ensure these farmers are linked to new job opportunities, as well as facilitate collaboration between existing farming companies and technologists so that the industries can continue to grow and lead rather than be displaced.

Just as importantly, each of us might think about how these changes in the food industry might impact our own ways of life and culture. Thanksgiving celebrates community and sharing of food during a time of scarcity. Technology will help create an abundance of food and less need for communities to depend on one another. What are the ways that you will create community, sharing, and culture in this new world?

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#433907 How the Spatial Web Will Fix What’s ...

Converging exponential technologies will transform media, advertising and the retail world. The world we see, through our digitally-enhanced eyes, will multiply and explode with intelligence, personalization, and brilliance.

This is the age of Web 3.0.

Last week, I discussed the what and how of Web 3.0 (also known as the Spatial Web), walking through its architecture and the converging technologies that enable it.

To recap, while Web 1.0 consisted of static documents and read-only data, Web 2.0 introduced multimedia content, interactive web applications, and participatory social media, all of these mediated by two-dimensional screens—a flat web of sensorily confined information.

During the next two to five years, the convergence of 5G, AI, a trillion sensors, and VR/AR will enable us to both map our physical world into virtual space and superimpose a digital layer onto our physical environments.

Web 3.0 is about to transform everything—from the way we learn and educate, to the way we trade (smart) assets, to our interactions with real and virtual versions of each other.

And while users grow rightly concerned about data privacy and misuse, the Spatial Web’s use of blockchain in its data and governance layer will secure and validate our online identities, protecting everything from your virtual assets to personal files.

In this second installment of the Web 3.0 series, I’ll be discussing the Spatial Web’s vast implications for a handful of industries:

News & Media Coverage
Smart Advertising
Personalized Retail

Let’s dive in.

Transforming Network News with Web 3.0
News media is big business. In 2016, global news media (including print) generated 168 billion USD in circulation and advertising revenue.

The news we listen to impacts our mindset. Listen to dystopian news on violence, disaster, and evil, and you’ll more likely be searching for a cave to hide in, rather than technology for the launch of your next business.

Today, different news media present starkly different realities of everything from foreign conflict to domestic policy. And outcomes are consequential. What reporters and news corporations decide to show or omit of a given news story plays a tremendous role in shaping the beliefs and resulting values of entire populations and constituencies.

But what if we could have an objective benchmark for today’s news, whereby crowdsourced and sensor-collected evidence allows you to tour the site of journalistic coverage, determining for yourself the most salient aspects of a story?

Enter mesh networks, AI, public ledgers, and virtual reality.

While traditional networks rely on a limited set of wired access points (or wireless hotspots), a wireless mesh network can connect entire cities via hundreds of dispersed nodes that communicate with each other and share a network connection non-hierarchically.

In short, this means that individual mobile users can together establish a local mesh network using nothing but the computing power in their own devices.

Take this a step further, and a local population of strangers could collectively broadcast countless 360-degree feeds across a local mesh network.

Imagine a scenario in which protests break out across the country, each cluster of activists broadcasting an aggregate of 360-degree videos, all fed through photogrammetry AIs that build out a live hologram of the march in real time. Want to see and hear what the NYC-based crowds are advocating for? Throw on some VR goggles and explore the event with full access. Or cue into the southern Texan border to assess for yourself the handling of immigrant entry and border conflicts.

Take a front seat in the Capitol during tomorrow’s Senate hearing, assessing each Senator’s reactions, questions and arguments without a Fox News or CNN filter. Or if you’re short on time, switch on the holographic press conference and host 3D avatars of live-broadcasting politicians in your living room.

We often think of modern media as taking away consumer agency, feeding tailored and often partisan ideology to a complacent audience. But as wireless mesh networks and agnostic sensor data allow for immersive VR-accessible news sites, the average viewer will necessarily become an active participant in her own education of current events.

And with each of us interpreting the news according to our own values, I envision a much less polarized world. A world in which civic engagement, moderately reasoned dialogue, and shared assumptions will allow us to empathize and make compromises.

The future promises an era in which news is verified and balanced; wherein public ledgers, AI, and new web interfaces bring you into the action and respect your intelligence—not manipulate your ignorance.

Web 3.0 Reinventing Advertising
Bringing about the rise of ‘user-owned data’ and self-established permissions, Web 3.0 is poised to completely disrupt digital advertising—a global industry worth over 192 billion USD.

Currently, targeted advertising leverages tomes of personal data and online consumer behavior to subtly engage you with products you might not want, or sell you on falsely advertised services promising inaccurate results.

With a new Web 3.0 data and governance layer, however, distributed ledger technologies will require advertisers to engage in more direct interaction with consumers, validating claims and upping transparency.

And with a data layer that allows users to own and authorize third-party use of their data, blockchain also holds extraordinary promise to slash not only data breaches and identity theft, but covert advertiser bombardment without your authorization.

Accessing crowdsourced reviews and AI-driven fact-checking, users will be able to validate advertising claims more efficiently and accurately than ever before, potentially rating and filtering out advertisers in the process. And in such a streamlined system of verified claims, sellers will face increased pressure to compete more on product and rely less on marketing.

But perhaps most exciting is the convergence of artificial intelligence and augmented reality.

As Spatial Web networks begin to associate digital information with physical objects and locations, products will begin to “sell themselves.” Each with built-in smart properties, products will become hyper-personalized, communicating information directly to users through Web 3.0 interfaces.

Imagine stepping into a department store in pursuit of a new web-connected fridge. As soon as you enter, your AR goggles register your location and immediately grant you access to a populated register of store products.

As you move closer to a kitchen set that catches your eye, a virtual salesperson—whether by holographic video or avatar—pops into your field of view next to the fridge you’ve been examining and begins introducing you to its various functions and features. You quickly decide you’d rather disable the avatar and get textual input instead, and preferences are reset to list appliance properties visually.

After a virtual tour of several other fridges, you decide on the one you want and seamlessly execute a smart contract, carried out by your smart wallet and the fridge. The transaction takes place in seconds, and the fridge’s blockchain-recorded ownership record has been updated.

Better yet, you head over to a friend’s home for dinner after moving into the neighborhood. While catching up in the kitchen, your eyes fixate on the cabinets, which quickly populate your AR glasses with a price-point and selection of colors.

But what if you’d rather not get auto-populated product info in the first place? No problem!

Now empowered with self-sovereign identities, users might be able to turn off advertising preferences entirely, turning on smart recommendations only when they want to buy a given product or need new supplies.

And with user-centric data, consumers might even sell such information to advertisers directly. Now, instead of Facebook or Google profiting off your data, you might earn a passive income by giving advertisers permission to personalize and market their services. Buy more, and your personal data marketplace grows in value. Buy less, and a lower-valued advertising profile causes an ebb in advertiser input.

With user-controlled data, advertisers now work on your terms, putting increased pressure on product iteration and personalizing products for each user.

This brings us to the transformative future of retail.

Personalized Retail–Power of the Spatial Web
In a future of smart and hyper-personalized products, I might walk through a virtual game space or a digitally reconstructed Target, browsing specific categories of clothing I’ve predetermined prior to entry.

As I pick out my selection, my AI assistant hones its algorithm reflecting new fashion preferences, and personal shoppers—also visiting the store in VR—help me pair different pieces as I go.

Once my personal shopper has finished constructing various outfits, I then sit back and watch a fashion show of countless Peter avatars with style and color variations of my selection, each customizable.

After I’ve made my selection, I might choose to purchase physical versions of three outfits and virtual versions of two others for my digital avatar. Payments are made automatically as I leave the store, including a smart wallet transaction made with the personal shopper at a per-outfit rate (for only the pieces I buy).

Already, several big players have broken into the VR market. Just this year, Walmart has announced its foray into the VR space, shipping 17,000 Oculus Go VR headsets to Walmart locations across the US.

And just this past January, Walmart filed two VR shopping-related patents. In a new bid to disrupt a rapidly changing retail market, Walmart now describes a system in which users couple their VR headset with haptic gloves for an immersive in-store experience, whether at 3am in your living room or during a lunch break at the office.

But Walmart is not alone. Big e-commerce players from Amazon to Alibaba are leaping onto the scene with new software buildout to ride the impending headset revolution.

Beyond virtual reality, players like IKEA have even begun using mobile-based augmented reality to map digitally replicated furniture in your physical living room, true to dimension. And this is just the beginning….

As AR headset hardware undergoes breakneck advancements in the next two to five years, we might soon be able to project watches onto our wrists, swapping out colors, styles, brand, and price points.

Or let’s say I need a new coffee table in my office. Pulling up multiple models in AR, I can position each option using advanced hand-tracking technology and customize height and width according to my needs. Once the smart payment is triggered, the manufacturer prints my newly-customized piece, droning it to my doorstep. As soon as I need to assemble the pieces, overlaid digital prompts walk me through each step, and any user confusions are communicated to a company database.

Perhaps one of the ripest industries for Spatial Web disruption, retail presents one of the greatest opportunities for profit across virtual apparel, digital malls, AI fashion startups and beyond.

In our next series iteration, I’ll be looking at the tremendous opportunities created by Web 3.0 for the Future of Work and Entertainment.

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#433901 The SpiNNaker Supercomputer, Modeled ...

We’ve long used the brain as inspiration for computers, but the SpiNNaker supercomputer, switched on this month, is probably the closest we’ve come to recreating it in silicon. Now scientists hope to use the supercomputer to model the very thing that inspired its design.

The brain is the most complex machine in the known universe, but that complexity comes primarily from its architecture rather than the individual components that make it up. Its highly interconnected structure means that relatively simple messages exchanged between billions of individual neurons add up to carry out highly complex computations.

That’s the paradigm that has inspired the ‘Spiking Neural Network Architecture” (SpiNNaker) supercomputer at the University of Manchester in the UK. The project is the brainchild of Steve Furber, the designer of the original ARM processor. After a decade of development, a million-core version of the machine that will eventually be able to simulate up to a billion neurons was switched on earlier this month.

The idea of splitting computation into very small chunks and spreading them over many processors is already the leading approach to supercomputing. But even the most parallel systems require a lot of communication, and messages may have to pack in a lot of information, such as the task that needs to be completed or the data that needs to be processed.

In contrast, messages in the brain consist of simple electrochemical impulses, or spikes, passed between neurons, with information encoded primarily in the timing or rate of those spikes (which is more important is a topic of debate among neuroscientists). Each neuron is connected to thousands of others via synapses, and complex computation relies on how spikes cascade through these highly-connected networks.

The SpiNNaker machine attempts to replicate this using a model called Address Event Representation. Each of the million cores can simulate roughly a million synapses, so depending on the model, 1,000 neurons with 1,000 connections or 100 neurons with 10,000 connections. Information is encoded in the timing of spikes and the identity of the neuron sending them. When a neuron is activated it broadcasts a tiny packet of data that contains its address, and spike timing is implicitly conveyed.

By modeling their machine on the architecture of the brain, the researchers hope to be able to simulate more biological neurons in real time than any other machine on the planet. The project is funded by the European Human Brain Project, a ten-year science mega-project aimed at bringing together neuroscientists and computer scientists to understand the brain, and researchers will be able to apply for time on the machine to run their simulations.

Importantly, it’s possible to implement various different neuronal models on the machine. The operation of neurons involves a variety of complex biological processes, and it’s still unclear whether this complexity is an artefact of evolution or central to the brain’s ability to process information. The ability to simulate up to a billion simple neurons or millions of more complex ones on the same machine should help to slowly tease out the answer.

Even at a billion neurons, that still only represents about one percent of the human brain, so it’s still going to be limited to investigating isolated networks of neurons. But the previous 500,000-core machine has already been used to do useful simulations of the Basal Ganglia—an area affected in Parkinson’s disease—and an outer layer of the brain that processes sensory information.

The full-scale supercomputer will make it possible to study even larger networks previously out of reach, which could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of both the healthy and unhealthy functioning of the brain.

And while neurological simulation is the main goal for the machine, it could also provide a useful research tool for roboticists. Previous research has already shown a small board of SpiNNaker chips can be used to control a simple wheeled robot, but Furber thinks the SpiNNaker supercomputer could also be used to run large-scale networks that can process sensory input and generate motor output in real time and at low power.

That low power operation is of particular promise for robotics. The brain is dramatically more power-efficient than conventional supercomputers, and by borrowing from its principles SpiNNaker has managed to capture some of that efficiency. That could be important for running mobile robotic platforms that need to carry their own juice around.

This ability to run complex neural networks at low power has been one of the main commercial drivers for so-called neuromorphic computing devices that are physically modeled on the brain, such as IBM’s TrueNorth chip and Intel’s Loihi. The hope is that complex artificial intelligence applications normally run in massive data centers could be run on edge devices like smartphones, cars, and robots.

But these devices, including SpiNNaker, operate very differently from the leading AI approaches, and its not clear how easy it would be to transfer between the two. The need to adopt an entirely new programming paradigm is likely to limit widespread adoption, and the lack of commercial traction for the aforementioned devices seems to back that up.

At the same time, though, this new paradigm could potentially lead to dramatic breakthroughs in massively parallel computing. SpiNNaker overturns many of the foundational principles of how supercomputers work that make it much more flexible and error-tolerant.

For now, the machine is likely to be firmly focused on accelerating our understanding of how the brain works. But its designers also hope those findings could in turn point the way to more efficient and powerful approaches to computing.

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