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Scientists have linked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one across multiple countries into a fully-functional network. Using standard internet protocols, they established a chain of communication whereby an artificial neuron controls a living, biological one, and passes on the info to another artificial one.
We’ve talked plenty about brain-computer interfaces and novel computer chips that resemble the brain. We’ve covered how those “neuromorphic” chips could link up into tremendously powerful computing entities, using engineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.
As Moore’s law is dying, we even said that neuromorphic computing is one path towards the future of extremely powerful, low energy consumption artificial neural network-based computing—in hardware—that could in theory better link up with the brain. Because the chips “speak” the brain’s language, in theory they could become neuroprosthesis hubs far more advanced and “natural” than anything currently possible.
This month, an international team put all of those ingredients together, turning theory into reality.
The three labs, scattered across Padova, Italy, Zurich, Switzerland, and Southampton, England, collaborated to create a fully self-controlled, hybrid artificial-biological neural network that communicated using biological principles, but over the internet.
The three-neuron network, linked through artificial synapses that emulate the real thing, was able to reproduce a classic neuroscience experiment that’s considered the basis of learning and memory in the brain. In other words, artificial neuron and synapse “chips” have progressed to the point where they can actually use a biological neuron intermediary to form a circuit that, at least partially, behaves like the real thing.
That’s not to say cyborg brains are coming soon. The simulation only recreated a small network that supports excitatory transmission in the hippocampus—a critical region that supports memory—and most brain functions require enormous cross-talk between numerous neurons and circuits. Nevertheless, the study is a jaw-dropping demonstration of how far we’ve come in recreating biological neurons and synapses in artificial hardware.
And perhaps one day, the currently “experimental” neuromorphic hardware will be integrated into broken biological neural circuits as bridges to restore movement, memory, personality, and even a sense of self.
The Artificial Brain Boom
One important thing: this study relies heavily on a decade of research into neuromorphic computing, or the implementation of brain functions inside computer chips.
The best-known example is perhaps IBM’s TrueNorth, which leveraged the brain’s computational principles to build a completely different computer than what we have today. Today’s computers run on a von Neumann architecture, in which memory and processing modules are physically separate. In contrast, the brain’s computing and memory are simultaneously achieved at synapses, small “hubs” on individual neurons that talk to adjacent ones.
Because memory and processing occur on the same site, biological neurons don’t have to shuttle data back and forth between processing and storage compartments, massively reducing processing time and energy use. What’s more, a neuron’s history will also influence how it behaves in the future, increasing flexibility and adaptability compared to computers. With the rise of deep learning, which loosely mimics neural processing as the prima donna of AI, the need to reduce power while boosting speed and flexible learning is becoming ever more tantamount in the AI community.
Neuromorphic computing was partially born out of this need. Most chips utilize special ingredients that change their resistance (or other physical characteristics) to mimic how a neuron might adapt to stimulation. Some chips emulate a whole neuron, that is, how it responds to a history of stimulation—does it get easier or harder to fire? Others imitate synapses themselves, that is, how easily they will pass on the information to another neuron.
Although single neuromorphic chips have proven to be far more efficient and powerful than current computer chips running machine learning algorithms in toy problems, so far few people have tried putting the artificial components together with biological ones in the ultimate test.
That’s what this study did.
A Hybrid Network
Still with me? Let’s talk network.
It’s gonna sound complicated, but remember: learning is the formation of neural networks, and neurons that fire together wire together. To rephrase: when learning, neurons will spontaneously organize into networks so that future instances will re-trigger the entire network. To “wire” together, downstream neurons will become more responsive to their upstream neural partners, so that even a whisper will cause them to activate. In contrast, some types of stimulation will cause the downstream neuron to “chill out” so that only an upstream “shout” will trigger downstream activation.
Both these properties—easier or harder to activate downstream neurons—are essentially how the brain forms connections. The “amping up,” in neuroscience jargon, is long-term potentiation (LTP), whereas the down-tuning is LTD (long-term depression). These two phenomena were first discovered in the rodent hippocampus more than half a century ago, and ever since have been considered as the biological basis of how the brain learns and remembers, and implicated in neurological problems such as addition (seriously, you can’t pass Neuro 101 without learning about LTP and LTD!).
So it’s perhaps especially salient that one of the first artificial-brain hybrid networks recapitulated this classic result.
To visualize: the three-neuron network began in Switzerland, with an artificial neuron with the badass name of “silicon spiking neuron.” That neuron is linked to an artificial synapse, a “memristor” located in the UK, which is then linked to a biological rat neuron cultured in Italy. The rat neuron has a “smart” microelectrode, controlled by the artificial synapse, to stimulate it. This is the artificial-to-biological pathway.
Meanwhile, the rat neuron in Italy also has electrodes that listen in on its electrical signaling. This signaling is passed back to another artificial synapse in the UK, which is then used to control a second artificial neuron back in Switzerland. This is the biological-to-artificial pathway back. As a testimony in how far we’ve come in digitizing neural signaling, all of the biological neural responses are digitized and sent over the internet to control its far-out artificial partner.
Here’s the crux: to demonstrate a functional neural network, just having the biological neuron passively “pass on” electrical stimulation isn’t enough. It has to show the capacity to learn, that is, to be able to mimic the amping up and down-tuning that are LTP and LTD, respectively.
You’ve probably guessed the results: certain stimulation patterns to the first artificial neuron in Switzerland changed how the artificial synapse in the UK operated. This, in turn, changed the stimulation to the biological neuron, so that it either amped up or toned down depending on the input.
Similarly, the response of the biological neuron altered the second artificial synapse, which then controlled the output of the second artificial neuron. Altogether, the biological and artificial components seamlessly linked up, over thousands of miles, into a functional neural circuit.
So…I’m still picking my jaw up off the floor.
It’s utterly insane seeing a classic neuroscience learning experiment repeated with an integrated network with artificial components. That said, a three-neuron network is far from the thousands of synapses (if not more) needed to truly re-establish a broken neural circuit in the hippocampus, which DARPA has been aiming to do. And LTP/LTD has come under fire recently as the de facto brain mechanism for learning, though so far they remain cemented as neuroscience dogma.
However, this is one of the few studies where you see fields coming together. As Richard Feynman famously said, “What I cannot recreate, I cannot understand.” Even though neuromorphic chips were built on a high-level rather than molecular-level understanding of how neurons work, the study shows that artificial versions can still synapse with their biological counterparts. We’re not just on the right path towards understanding the brain, we’re recreating it, in hardware—if just a little.
While the study doesn’t have immediate use cases, practically it does boost both the neuromorphic computing and neuroprosthetic fields.
“We are very excited with this new development,” said study author Dr. Themis Prodromakis at the University of Southampton. “On one side it sets the basis for a novel scenario that was never encountered during natural evolution, where biological and artificial neurons are linked together and communicate across global networks; laying the foundations for the Internet of Neuro-electronics. On the other hand, it brings new prospects to neuroprosthetic technologies, paving the way towards research into replacing dysfunctional parts of the brain with AI chips.”
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There is a saying that has emerged among the tech set in recent years: AI is the new electricity. The platitude refers to the disruptive power of artificial intelligence for driving advances in everything from transportation to predicting the weather.
Of course, the computers and data centers that support AI’s complex algorithms are very much dependent on electricity. While that may seem pretty obvious, it may be surprising to learn that AI can be extremely power-hungry, especially when it comes to training the models that enable machines to recognize your face in a photo or for Alexa to understand a voice command.
The scale of the problem is difficult to measure, but there have been some attempts to put hard numbers on the environmental cost.
For instance, one paper published on the open-access repository arXiv claimed that the carbon emissions for training a basic natural language processing (NLP) model—algorithms that process and understand language-based data—are equal to the CO2 produced by the average American lifestyle over two years. A more robust model required the equivalent of about 17 years’ worth of emissions.
The authors noted that about a decade ago, NLP models could do the job on a regular commercial laptop. Today, much more sophisticated AI models use specialized hardware like graphics processing units, or GPUs, a chip technology popularized by Nvidia for gaming that also proved capable of supporting computing tasks for AI.
OpenAI, a nonprofit research organization co-founded by tech prophet and profiteer Elon Musk, said that the computing power “used in the largest AI training runs has been increasing exponentially with a 3.4-month doubling time” since 2012. That’s about the time that GPUs started making their way into AI computing systems.
Getting Smarter About AI Chip Design
While GPUs from Nvidia remain the gold standard in AI hardware today, a number of startups have emerged to challenge the company’s industry dominance. Many are building chipsets designed to work more like the human brain, an area that’s been dubbed neuromorphic computing.
One of the leading companies in this arena is Graphcore, a UK startup that has raised more than $450 million and boasts a valuation of $1.95 billion. The company’s version of the GPU is an IPU, which stands for intelligence processing unit.
To build a computer brain more akin to a human one, the big brains at Graphcore are bypassing the precise but time-consuming number-crunching typical of a conventional microprocessor with one that’s content to get by on less precise arithmetic.
The results are essentially the same, but IPUs get the job done much quicker. Graphcore claimed it was able to train the popular BERT NLP model in just 56 hours, while tripling throughput and reducing latency by 20 percent.
An article in Bloomberg compared the approach to the “human brain shifting from calculating the exact GPS coordinates of a restaurant to just remembering its name and neighborhood.”
Graphcore’s hardware architecture also features more built-in memory processing, boosting efficiency because there’s less need to send as much data back and forth between chips. That’s similar to an approach adopted by a team of researchers in Italy that recently published a paper about a new computing circuit.
The novel circuit uses a device called a memristor that can execute a mathematical function known as a regression in just one operation. The approach attempts to mimic the human brain by processing data directly within the memory.
Daniele Ielmini at Politecnico di Milano, co-author of the Science Advances paper, told Singularity Hub that the main advantage of in-memory computing is the lack of any data movement, which is the main bottleneck of conventional digital computers, as well as the parallel processing of data that enables the intimate interactions among various currents and voltages within the memory array.
Ielmini explained that in-memory computing can have a “tremendous impact on energy efficiency of AI, as it can accelerate very advanced tasks by physical computation within the memory circuit.” He added that such “radical ideas” in hardware design will be needed in order to make a quantum leap in energy efficiency and time.
It’s Not Just a Hardware Problem
The emphasis on designing more efficient chip architecture might suggest that AI’s power hunger is essentially a hardware problem. That’s not the case, Ielmini noted.
“We believe that significant progress could be made by similar breakthroughs at the algorithm and dataset levels,” he said.
He’s not the only one.
One of the key research areas at Qualcomm’s AI research lab is energy efficiency. Max Welling, vice president of Qualcomm Technology R&D division, has written about the need for more power-efficient algorithms. He has gone so far as to suggest that AI algorithms will be measured by the amount of intelligence they provide per joule.
One emerging area being studied, Welling wrote, is the use of Bayesian deep learning for deep neural networks.
It’s all pretty heady stuff and easily the subject of a PhD thesis. The main thing to understand in this context is that Bayesian deep learning is another attempt to mimic how the brain processes information by introducing random values into the neural network. A benefit of Bayesian deep learning is that it compresses and quantifies data in order to reduce the complexity of a neural network. In turn, that reduces the number of “steps” required to recognize a dog as a dog—and the energy required to get the right result.
A team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has previously demonstrated another way to improve AI energy efficiency by converting deep learning neural networks into what’s called a spiking neural network. The researchers spiked their deep spiking neural network (DSNN) by introducing a stochastic process that adds random values like Bayesian deep learning.
The DSNN actually imitates the way neurons interact with synapses, which send signals between brain cells. Individual “spikes” in the network indicate where to perform computations, lowering energy consumption because it disregards unnecessary computations.
The system is being used by cancer researchers to scan millions of clinical reports to unearth insights on causes and treatments of the disease.
Helping battle cancer is only one of many rewards we may reap from artificial intelligence in the future, as long as the benefits of those algorithms outweigh the costs of using them.
“Making AI more energy-efficient is an overarching objective that spans the fields of algorithms, systems, architecture, circuits, and devices,” Ielmini said.
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Small robots are appealing because they’re simple, cheap, and it’s easy to make a lot of them. Unfortunately, being simple and cheap means that each robot individually can’t do a whole lot. To make up for this, you can do what insects do—leverage that simplicity and low-cost to just make a huge swarm of simple robots, and together, they can cooperate to carry out relatively complex tasks.
Using insects as an example does set a bit of an unfair expectation for the poor robots, since insects are (let’s be honest) generally smarter and much more versatile than a robot on their scale could ever hope to be. Most robots with insect-like capabilities (like DASH and its family) are really too big and complex to be turned into swarms, because to make a vast amount of small robots, things like motors aren’t going to work because they’re too expensive.
The question, then, is to how to make a swarm of inexpensive small robots with insect-like mobility that don’t need motors to get around, and Jamie Paik’s Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at EPFL has an answer, inspired by trap-jaw ants.
Let’s talk about trap-jaw ants for just a second, because they’re insane. You can read this 2006 paper about them if you’re particularly interested in insane ants (and who isn’t!), but if you just want to hear the insane bit, it’s that trap-jaw ants can fire themselves into the air by biting the ground (!). In just 0.06 millisecond, their half-millimeter long mandibles can close at a top speed of 64 meters per second, which works out to an acceleration of about 100,000 g’s. Biting the ground causes the ant’s head to snap back with a force of 300 times the body weight of the ant itself, which launches the ant upwards. The ants can fly 8 centimeters vertically, and up to 15 cm horizontally—this is a lot, for an ant that’s just a few millimeters long.
Trap-jaw ants can fire themselves into the air by biting the ground, causing the ant’s head to snap back with a force of 300 times the body weight of the ant itself
EPFL’s robots, called Tribots, look nothing at all like trap-jaw ants, which personally I am fine with. They’re about 5 cm tall, weighing 10 grams each, and can be built on a flat sheet, and then folded into a tripod shape, origami-style. Or maybe it’s kirigami, because there’s some cutting involved. The Tribots are fully autonomous, meaning they have onboard power and control, including proximity sensors that allow them to detect objects and avoid them.
Photo: Marc Delachaux/EPFL
EPFL researchers Zhenishbek Zhakypov and Jamie Paik.
Avoiding objects is where the trap-jaw ants come in. Using two different shape-memory actuators (a spring and a latch, similar to how the ant’s jaw works), the Tribots can move around using a bunch of different techniques that can adapt to the terrain that they’re on, including:
Vertical jumping for height
Horizontal jumping for distance
Somersault jumping to clear obstacles
Walking on textured terrain with short hops (called “flic-flac” walking)
Crawling on flat surfaces
Here’s the robot in action:
Tribot’s maximum vertical jump is 14 cm (2.5 times its height), and horizontally it can jump about 23 cm (almost 4 times its length). Tribot is actually quite efficient in these movements, with a cost of transport much lower than similarly-sized robots, on par with insects themselves.
Working together, small groups of Tribots can complete tasks that a single robot couldn’t do alone. One example is pushing a heavy object a set distance. It turns out that you need five Tribots for this task—a leader robot, two worker robots, a monitor robot to measure the distance that the object has been pushed, and then a messenger robot to relay communications around the obstacle.
Five Tribots collaborate to move an object to a desired position, using coordination between a leader, two workers, a monitor, and a messenger robot. The leader orders the two worker robots to push the object while the monitor measures the relative position of the object. As the object blocks the two-way link between the leader and the monitor, the messenger maintains the communication link.
The researchers acknowledge that the current version of the hardware is limited in pretty much every way (mobility, sensing, and computation), but it does a reasonable job of demonstrating what’s possible with the concept. The plan going forward is to automate fabrication in order to “enable on-demand, ’push-button-manufactured’” robots.
“Designing minimal and scalable insect-inspired multi-locomotion millirobots,” by Zhenishbek Zhakypov, Kazuaki Mori, Koh Hosoda, and Jamie Paik from EPFL and Osaka University, is published in the current issue of Nature.
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