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#432303 What If the AI Revolution Is Neither ...

Why does everyone assume that the AI revolution will either lead to a fiery apocalypse or a glorious utopia, and not something in between? Of course, part of this is down to the fact that you get more attention by saying “The end is nigh!” or “Utopia is coming!”

But part of it is down to how humans think about change, especially unprecedented change. Millenarianism doesn’t have anything to do with being a “millennial,” being born in the 90s and remembering Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is a way of thinking about the future that involves a deeply ingrained sense of destiny. A definition might be: “Millenarianism is the expectation that the world as it is will be destroyed and replaced with a perfect world, that a redeemer will come to cast down the evil and raise up the righteous.”

Millenarian beliefs, then, intimately link together the ideas of destruction and creation. They involve the idea of a huge, apocalyptic, seismic shift that will destroy the fabric of the old world and create something entirely new. Similar belief systems exist in many of the world’s major religions, and also the unspoken religion of some atheists and agnostics, which is a belief in technology.

Look at some futurist beliefs around the technological Singularity. In Ray Kurzweil’s vision, the Singularity is the establishment of paradise. Everyone is rendered immortal by biotechnology that can cure our ills; our brains can be uploaded to the cloud; inequality and suffering wash away under the wave of these technologies. The “destruction of the world” is replaced by a Silicon Valley buzzword favorite: disruption. And, as with many millenarian beliefs, your mileage varies on whether this destruction paves the way for a new utopia—or simply ends the world.

There are good reasons to be skeptical and interrogative towards this way of thinking. The most compelling reason is probably that millenarian beliefs seem to be a default mode of how humans think about change; just look at how many variants of this belief have cropped up all over the world.

These beliefs are present in aspects of Christian theology, although they only really became mainstream in their modern form in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ideas like the Tribulations—many years of hardship and suffering—before the Rapture, when the righteous will be raised up and the evil punished. After this destruction, the world will be made anew, or humans will ascend to paradise.

Despite being dogmatically atheist, Marxism has many of the same beliefs. It is all about a deterministic view of history that builds to a crescendo. In the same way as Rapture-believers look for signs that prophecies are beginning to be fulfilled, so Marxists look for evidence that we’re in the late stages of capitalism. They believe that, inevitably, society will degrade and degenerate to a breaking point—just as some millenarian Christians do.

In Marxism, this is when the exploitation of the working class by the rich becomes unsustainable, and the working class bands together and overthrows the oppressors. The “tribulation” is replaced by a “revolution.” Sometimes revolutionary figures, like Lenin, or Marx himself, are heralded as messiahs who accelerate the onset of the Millennium; and their rhetoric involves utterly smashing the old system such that a new world can be built. Of course, there is judgment, when the righteous workers take what’s theirs and the evil bourgeoisie are destroyed.

Even Norse mythology has an element of this, as James Hughes points out in his essay in Nick Bostrom’s book Global Catastrophic Risks. Ragnarok involves men and gods being defeated in a final, apocalyptic battle—but because that was a little bleak, they add in the idea that a new earth will arise where the survivors will live in harmony.

Judgement day is a cultural trope, too. Take the ancient Egyptians and their beliefs around the afterlife; the Lord of the underworld, Osiris, weighs the mortal’s heart against a feather. “Should the heart of the deceased prove to be heavy with wrongdoing, it would be eaten by a demon, and the hope of an afterlife vanished.”

Perhaps in the Singularity, something similar goes on. As our technology and hence our power improve, a final reckoning approaches: our hearts, as humans, will be weighed against a feather. If they prove too heavy with wrongdoing—with misguided stupidity, with arrogance and hubris, with evil—then we will fail the test, and we will destroy ourselves. But if we pass, and emerge from the Singularity and all of its threats and promises unscathed, then we will have paradise. And, like the other belief systems, there’s no room for non-believers; all of society is going to be radically altered, whether you want it to be or not, whether it benefits you or leaves you behind. A technological rapture.

It almost seems like every major development provokes this response. Nuclear weapons did, too. Either this would prove the final straw and we’d destroy ourselves, or the nuclear energy could be harnessed to build a better world. People talked at the dawn of the nuclear age about electricity that was “too cheap to meter.” The scientists who worked on the bomb often thought that with such destructive power in human hands, we’d be forced to cooperate and work together as a species.

When we see the same response over and over again to different circumstances, cropping up in different areas, whether it’s science, religion, or politics, we need to consider human biases. We like millenarian beliefs; and so when the idea of artificial intelligence outstripping human intelligence emerges, these beliefs spring up around it.

We don’t love facts. We don’t love information. We aren’t as rational as we’d like to think. We are creatures of narrative. Physicists observe the world and we weave our observations into narrative theories, stories about little billiard balls whizzing around and hitting each other, or space and time that bend and curve and expand. Historians try to make sense of an endless stream of events. We rely on stories: stories that make sense of the past, justify the present, and prepare us for the future.

And as stories go, the millenarian narrative is a brilliant and compelling one. It can lead you towards social change, as in the case of the Communists, or the Buddhist uprisings in China. It can justify your present-day suffering, if you’re in the tribulation. It gives you hope that your life is important and has meaning. It gives you a sense that things are evolving in a specific direction, according to rules—not just randomly sprawling outwards in a chaotic way. It promises that the righteous will be saved and the wrongdoers will be punished, even if there is suffering along the way. And, ultimately, a lot of the time, the millenarian narrative promises paradise.

We need to be wary of the millenarian narrative when we’re considering technological developments and the Singularity and existential risks in general. Maybe this time is different, but we’ve cried wolf many times before. There is a more likely, less appealing story. Something along the lines of: there are many possibilities, none of them are inevitable, and lots of the outcomes are less extreme than you might think—or they might take far longer than you think to arrive. On the surface, it’s not satisfying. It’s so much easier to think of things as either signaling the end of the world or the dawn of a utopia—or possibly both at once. It’s a narrative we can get behind, a good story, and maybe, a nice dream.

But dig a little below the surface, and you’ll find that the millenarian beliefs aren’t always the most promising ones, because they remove human agency from the equation. If you think that, say, the malicious use of algorithms, or the control of superintelligent AI, are serious and urgent problems that are worth solving, you can’t be wedded to a belief system that insists utopia or dystopia are inevitable. You have to believe in the shades of grey—and in your own ability to influence where we might end up. As we move into an uncertain technological future, we need to be aware of the power—and the limitations—of dreams.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432271 Your Shopping Experience Is on the Verge ...

Exponential technologies (AI, VR, 3D printing, and networks) are radically reshaping traditional retail.

E-commerce giants (Amazon, Walmart, Alibaba) are digitizing the retail industry, riding the exponential growth of computation.

Many brick-and-mortar stores have already gone bankrupt, or migrated their operations online.

Massive change is occurring in this arena.

For those “real-life stores” that survive, an evolution is taking place from a product-centric mentality to an experience-based business model by leveraging AI, VR/AR, and 3D printing.

Let’s dive in.

E-Commerce Trends
Last year, 3.8 billion people were connected online. By 2024, thanks to 5G, stratospheric and space-based satellites, we will grow to 8 billion people online, each with megabit to gigabit connection speeds.

These 4.2 billion new digital consumers will begin buying things online, a potential bonanza for the e-commerce world.

At the same time, entrepreneurs seeking to service these four-billion-plus new consumers can now skip the costly steps of procuring retail space and hiring sales clerks.

Today, thanks to global connectivity, contract production, and turnkey pack-and-ship logistics, an entrepreneur can go from an idea to building and scaling a multimillion-dollar business from anywhere in the world in record time.

And while e-commerce sales have been exploding (growing from $34 billion in Q1 2009 to $115 billion in Q3 2017), e-commerce only accounted for about 10 percent of total retail sales in 2017.

In 2016, global online sales totaled $1.8 trillion. Remarkably, this $1.8 trillion was spent by only 1.5 billion people — a mere 20 percent of Earth’s global population that year.

There’s plenty more room for digital disruption.

AI and the Retail Experience
For the business owner, AI will demonetize e-commerce operations with automated customer service, ultra-accurate supply chain modeling, marketing content generation, and advertising.

In the case of customer service, imagine an AI that is trained by every customer interaction, learns how to answer any consumer question perfectly, and offers feedback to product designers and company owners as a result.

Facebook’s handover protocol allows live customer service representatives and language-learning bots to work within the same Facebook Messenger conversation.

Taking it one step further, imagine an AI that is empathic to a consumer’s frustration, that can take any amount of abuse and come back with a smile every time. As one example, meet Ava. “Ava is a virtual customer service agent, to bring a whole new level of personalization and brand experience to that customer experience on a day-to-day basis,” says Greg Cross, CEO of Ava’s creator, an Austrian company called Soul Machines.

Predictive modeling and machine learning are also optimizing product ordering and the supply chain process. For example, Skubana, a platform for online sellers, leverages data analytics to provide entrepreneurs constant product performance feedback and maintain optimal warehouse stock levels.

Blockchain is set to follow suit in the retail space. ShipChain and Ambrosus plan to introduce transparency and trust into shipping and production, further reducing costs for entrepreneurs and consumers.

Meanwhile, for consumers, personal shopping assistants are shifting the psychology of the standard shopping experience.

Amazon’s Alexa marks an important user interface moment in this regard.

Alexa is in her infancy with voice search and vocal controls for smart homes. Already, Amazon’s Alexa users, on average, spent more on Amazon.com when purchasing than standard Amazon Prime customers — $1,700 versus $1,400.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the future combination of virtual reality shopping, coupled with a personalized, AI-enabled fashion advisor will make finding, selecting, and ordering products fast and painless for consumers.

But let’s take it one step further.

Imagine a future in which your personal AI shopper knows your desires better than you do. Possible? I think so. After all, our future AIs will follow us, watch us, and observe our interactions — including how long we glance at objects, our facial expressions, and much more.

In this future, shopping might be as easy as saying, “Buy me a new outfit for Saturday night’s dinner party,” followed by a surprise-and-delight moment in which the outfit that arrives is perfect.

In this future world of AI-enabled shopping, one of the most disruptive implications is that advertising is now dead.

In a world where an AI is buying my stuff, and I’m no longer in the decision loop, why would a big brand ever waste money on a Super Bowl advertisement?

The dematerialization, demonetization, and democratization of personalized shopping has only just begun.

The In-Store Experience: Experiential Retailing
In 2017, over 6,700 brick-and-mortar retail stores closed their doors, surpassing the former record year for store closures set in 2008 during the financial crisis. Regardless, business is still booming.

As shoppers seek the convenience of online shopping, brick-and-mortar stores are tapping into the power of the experience economy.

Rather than focusing on the practicality of the products they buy, consumers are instead seeking out the experience of going shopping.

The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and computation are exponentially improving the in-person consumer experience.

As AI dominates curated online shopping, AI and data analytics tools are also empowering real-life store owners to optimize staffing, marketing strategies, customer relationship management, and inventory logistics.

In the short term,retail store locations will serve as the next big user interface for production 3D printing (custom 3D printed clothes at the Ministry of Supply), virtual and augmented reality (DIY skills clinics), and the Internet of Things (checkout-less shopping).

In the long term,we’ll see how our desire for enhanced productivity and seamless consumption balances with our preference for enjoyable real-life consumer experiences — all of which will be driven by exponential technologies.

One thing is certain: the nominal shopping experience is on the verge of a major transformation.

The convergence of exponential technologies has already revamped how and where we shop, how we use our time, and how much we pay.

Twenty years ago, Amazon showed us how the web could offer each of us the long tail of available reading material, and since then, the world of e-commerce has exploded.

And yet we still haven’t experienced the cost savings coming our way from drone delivery, the Internet of Things, tokenized ecosystems, the impact of truly powerful AI, or even the other major applications for 3D printing and AR/VR.

Perhaps nothing will be more transformed than today’s $20 trillion retail sector.

Hold on, stay tuned, and get your AI-enabled cryptocurrency ready.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432249 New Malicious AI Report Outlines Biggest ...

Everyone’s talking about deep fakes: audio-visual imitations of people, generated by increasingly powerful neural networks, that will soon be indistinguishable from the real thing. Politicians are regularly laid low by scandals that arise from audio-visual recordings. Try watching the footage that could be created of Barack Obama from his speeches, and the Lyrebird impersonations. You could easily, today or in the very near future, create a forgery that might be indistinguishable from the real thing. What would that do to politics?

Once the internet is flooded with plausible-seeming tapes and recordings of this sort, how are we going to decide what’s real and what isn’t? Democracy, and our ability to counteract threats, is already threatened by a lack of agreement on the facts. Once you can’t believe the evidence of your senses anymore, we’re in serious trouble. Ultimately, you can dream up all kinds of utterly terrifying possibilities for these deep fakes, from fake news to blackmail.

How to solve the problem? Some have suggested that media websites like Facebook or Twitter should carry software that probes every video to see if it’s a deep fake or not and labels the fakes. But this will prove computationally intensive. Plus, imagine a case where we have such a system, and a fake is “verified as real” by news media algorithms that have been fooled by clever hackers.

The other alternative is even more dystopian: you can prove something isn’t true simply by always having an alibi. Lawfare describes a “solution” where those concerned about deep fakes have all of their movements and interactions recorded. So to avoid being blackmailed or having your reputation ruined, you just consent to some company engaging in 24/7 surveillance of everything you say or do and having total power over that information. What could possibly go wrong?

The point is, in the same way that you don’t need human-level, general AI or humanoid robotics to create systems that can cause disruption in the world of work, you also don’t need a general intelligence to threaten security and wreak havoc on society. Andrew Ng, AI researcher, says that worrying about the risks from superintelligent AI is like “worrying about overpopulation on Mars.” There are clearly risks that arise even from the simple algorithms we have today.

The looming issue of deep fakes is just one of the threats considered by the new malicious AI report, which has co-authors from the Future of Humanity Institute and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (among other organizations.) They limit their focus to the technologies of the next five years.

Some of the concerns the report explores are enhancements to familiar threats.

Automated hacking can get better, smarter, and algorithms can adapt to changing security protocols. “Phishing emails,” where people are scammed by impersonating someone they trust or an official organization, could be generated en masse and made more realistic by scraping data from social media. Standard phishing works by sending such a great volume of emails that even a very low success rate can be profitable. Spear phishing aims at specific targets by impersonating family members, but can be labor intensive. If AI algorithms enable every phishing scam to become sharper in this way, more people are going to get gouged.

Then there are novel threats that come from our own increasing use of and dependence on artificial intelligence to make decisions.

These algorithms may be smart in some ways, but as any human knows, computers are utterly lacking in common sense; they can be fooled. A rather scary application is adversarial examples. Machine learning algorithms are often used for image recognition. But it’s possible, if you know a little about how the algorithm is structured, to construct the perfect level of noise to add to an image, and fool the machine. Two images can be almost completely indistinguishable to the human eye. But by adding some cleverly-calculated noise, the hackers can fool the algorithm into thinking an image of a panda is really an image of a gibbon (in the OpenAI example). Research conducted by OpenAI demonstrates that you can fool algorithms even by printing out examples on stickers.

Now imagine that instead of tricking a computer into thinking that a panda is actually a gibbon, you fool it into thinking that a stop sign isn’t there, or that the back of someone’s car is really a nice open stretch of road. In the adversarial example case, the images are almost indistinguishable to humans. By the time anyone notices the road sign has been “hacked,” it could already be too late.

As the OpenAI foundation freely admits, worrying about whether we’d be able to tame a superintelligent AI is a hard problem. It looks all the more difficult when you realize some of our best algorithms can be fooled by stickers; even “modern simple algorithms can behave in ways we do not intend.”

There are ways around this approach.

Adversarial training can generate lots of adversarial examples and explicitly train the algorithm not to be fooled by them—but it’s costly in terms of time and computation, and puts you in an arms race with hackers. Many strategies for defending against adversarial examples haven’t proved adaptive enough; correcting against vulnerabilities one at a time is too slow. Moreover, it demonstrates a point that can be lost in the AI hype: algorithms can be fooled in ways we didn’t anticipate. If we don’t learn about these vulnerabilities until the algorithms are everywhere, serious disruption can occur. And no matter how careful you are, some vulnerabilities are likely to remain to be exploited, even if it takes years to find them.

Just look at the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities, which weren’t widely known about for more than 20 years but could enable hackers to steal personal information. Ultimately, the more blind faith we put into algorithms and computers—without understanding the opaque inner mechanics of how they work—the more vulnerable we will be to these forms of attack. And, as China dreams of using AI to predict crimes and enhance the police force, the potential for unjust arrests can only increase.

This is before you get into the truly nightmarish territory of “killer robots”—not the Terminator, but instead autonomous or consumer drones which could potentially be weaponized by bad actors and used to conduct attacks remotely. Some reports have indicated that terrorist organizations are already trying to do this.

As with any form of technology, new powers for humanity come with new risks. And, as with any form of technology, closing Pandora’s box will prove very difficult.

Somewhere between the excessively hyped prospects of AI that will do everything for us and AI that will destroy the world lies reality: a complex, ever-changing set of risks and rewards. The writers of the malicious AI report note that one of their key motivations is ensuring that the benefits of new technology can be delivered to people as quickly, but as safely, as possible. In the rush to exploit the potential for algorithms and create 21st-century infrastructure, we must ensure we’re not building in new dangers.

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Posted in Human Robots

#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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Posted in Human Robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experts are hopeful.

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

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

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

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

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

Experts believe the speed and efficiency gains will be enormous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His solution? Nanoclusters of magnetic manganese.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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