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#432036 The Power to Upgrade Our Own Biology Is ...

Upgrading our biology may sound like science fiction, but attempts to improve humanity actually date back thousands of years. Every day, we enhance ourselves through seemingly mundane activities such as exercising, meditating, or consuming performance-enhancing drugs, such as caffeine or adderall. However, the tools with which we upgrade our biology are improving at an accelerating rate and becoming increasingly invasive.

In recent decades, we have developed a wide array of powerful methods, such as genetic engineering and brain-machine interfaces, that are redefining our humanity. In the short run, such enhancement technologies have medical applications and may be used to treat many diseases and disabilities. Additionally, in the coming decades, they could allow us to boost our physical abilities or even digitize human consciousness.

What’s New?
Many futurists argue that our devices, such as our smartphones, are already an extension of our cortex and in many ways an abstract form of enhancement. According to philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ theory of extended mind, we use technology to expand the boundaries of the human mind beyond our skulls.

One can argue that having access to a smartphone enhances one’s cognitive capacities and abilities and is an indirect form of enhancement of its own. It can be considered an abstract form of brain-machine interface. Beyond that, wearable devices and computers are already accessible in the market, and people like athletes use them to boost their progress.

However, these interfaces are becoming less abstract.

Not long ago, Elon Musk announced a new company, Neuralink, with the goal of merging the human mind with AI. The past few years have seen remarkable developments in both the hardware and software of brain-machine interfaces. Experts are designing more intricate electrodes while programming better algorithms to interpret neural signals. Scientists have already succeeded in enabling paralyzed patients to type with their minds, and are even allowing brains to communicate with one another purely through brainwaves.

Ethical Challenges of Enhancement
There are many social and ethical implications of such advancements.

One of the most fundamental issues with cognitive and physical enhancement techniques is that they contradict the very definition of merit and success that society has relied on for millennia. Many forms of performance-enhancing drugs have been considered “cheating” for the longest time.

But perhaps we ought to revisit some of our fundamental assumptions as a society.

For example, we like to credit hard work and talent in a fair manner, where “fair” generally implies that an individual has acted in a way that has served him to merit his rewards. If you are talented and successful, it is considered to be because you chose to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities available to you. But by these standards, how much of our accomplishments can we truly be credited for?

For instance, the genetic lottery can have an enormous impact on an individual’s predisposition and personality, which can in turn affect factors such as motivation, reasoning skills, and other mental abilities. Many people are born with a natural ability or a physique that gives them an advantage in a particular area or predisposes them to learn faster. But is it justified to reward someone for excellence if their genes had a pivotal role in their path to success?

Beyond that, there are already many ways in which we take “shortcuts” to better mental performance. Seemingly mundane activities like drinking coffee, meditating, exercising, or sleeping well can boost one’s performance in any given area and are tolerated by society. Even the use of language can have positive physical and psychological effects on the human brain, which can be liberating to the individual and immensely beneficial to society at large. And let’s not forget the fact that some of us are born into more access to developing literacy than others.

Given all these reasons, one could argue that cognitive abilities and talents are currently derived more from uncontrollable factors and luck than we like to admit. If anything, technologies like brain-machine interfaces can enhance individual autonomy and allow one a choice of how capable they become.

As Karim Jebari points out (pdf), if a certain characteristic or trait is required to perform a particular role and an individual lacks this trait, would it be wrong to implement the trait through brain-machine interfaces or genetic engineering? How is this different from any conventional form of learning or acquiring a skill? If anything, this would be removing limitations on individuals that result from factors outside their control, such as biological predisposition (or even traits induced from traumatic experiences) to act or perform in a certain way.

Another major ethical concern is equality. As with any other emerging technology, there are valid concerns that cognitive enhancement tech will benefit only the wealthy, thus exacerbating current inequalities. This is where public policy and regulations can play a pivotal role in the impact of technology on society.

Enhancement technologies can either contribute to inequality or allow us to solve it. Educating and empowering the under-privileged can happen at a much more rapid rate, helping the overall rate of human progress accelerate. The “normal range” for human capacity and intelligence, however it is defined, could shift dramatically towards more positive trends.

Many have also raised concerns over the negative applications of government-led biological enhancement, including eugenics-like movements and super-soldiers. Naturally, there are also issues of safety, security, and well-being, especially within the early stages of experimentation with enhancement techniques.

Brain-machine interfaces, for instance, could have implications on autonomy. The interface involves using information extracted from the brain to stimulate or modify systems in order to accomplish a goal. This part of the process can be enhanced by implementing an artificial intelligence system onto the interface—one that exposes the possibility of a third party potentially manipulating individual’s personalities, emotions, and desires by manipulating the interface.

A Tool For Transcendence
It’s important to discuss these risks, not so that we begin to fear and avoid such technologies, but so that we continue to advance in a way that minimizes harm and allows us to optimize the benefits.

Stephen Hawking notes that “with genetic engineering, we will be able to increase the complexity of our DNA, and improve the human race.” Indeed, the potential advantages of modifying biology are revolutionary. Doctors would gain access to a powerful tool to tackle disease, allowing us to live longer and healthier lives. We might be able to extend our lifespan and tackle aging, perhaps a critical step to becoming a space-faring species. We may begin to modify the brain’s building blocks to become more intelligent and capable of solving grand challenges.

In their book Evolving Ourselves, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans describe a world where evolution is no longer driven by natural processes. Instead, it is driven by human choices, through what they call unnatural selection and non-random mutation. Human enhancement is bringing us closer to such a world—it could allow us to take control of our evolution and truly shape the future of our species.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, consider the allure of robotic diversity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#432027 We Read This 800-Page Report on the ...

The longevity field is bustling but still fragmented, and the “silver tsunami” is coming.

That is the takeaway of The Science of Longevity, the behemoth first volume of a four-part series offering a bird’s-eye view of the longevity industry in 2017. The report, a joint production of the Biogerontology Research Foundation, Deep Knowledge Life Science, Aging Analytics Agency, and Longevity.International, synthesizes the growing array of academic and industry ventures related to aging, healthspan, and everything in between.

This is huge, not only in scale but also in ambition. The report, totally worth a read here, will be followed by four additional volumes in 2018, covering topics ranging from the business side of longevity ventures to financial systems to potential tensions between life extension and religion.

And that’s just the first step. The team hopes to publish updated versions of the report annually, giving scientists, investors, and regulatory agencies an easy way to keep their finger on the longevity pulse.

“In 2018, ‘aging’ remains an unnamed adversary in an undeclared war. For all intents and purposes it is mere abstraction in the eyes of regulatory authorities worldwide,” the authors write.

That needs to change.

People often arrive at the field of aging from disparate areas with wildly diverse opinions and strengths. The report compiles these individual efforts at cracking aging into a systematic resource—a “periodic table” for longevity that clearly lays out emerging trends and promising interventions.

The ultimate goal? A global framework serving as a road map to guide the burgeoning industry. With such a framework in hand, academics and industry alike are finally poised to petition the kind of large-scale investments and regulatory changes needed to tackle aging with a unified front.

Infographic depicting many of the key research hubs and non-profits within the field of geroscience.
Image Credit: Longevity.International
The Aging Globe
The global population is rapidly aging. And our medical and social systems aren’t ready to handle this oncoming “silver tsunami.”

Take the medical field. Many age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s lack effective treatment options. Others, including high blood pressure, stroke, lung or heart problems, require continuous medication and monitoring, placing enormous strain on medical resources.

What’s more, because disease risk rises exponentially with age, medical care for the elderly becomes a game of whack-a-mole: curing any individual disease such as cancer only increases healthy lifespan by two to three years before another one hits.

That’s why in recent years there’s been increasing support for turning the focus to the root of the problem: aging. Rather than tackling individual diseases, geroscience aims to add healthy years to our lifespan—extending “healthspan,” so to speak.

Despite this relative consensus, the field still faces a roadblock. The US FDA does not yet recognize aging as a bona fide disease. Without such a designation, scientists are banned from testing potential interventions for aging in clinical trials (that said, many have used alternate measures such as age-related biomarkers or Alzheimer’s symptoms as a proxy).

Luckily, the FDA’s stance is set to change. The promising anti-aging drug metformin, for example, is already in clinical trials, examining its effect on a variety of age-related symptoms and diseases. This report, and others to follow, may help push progress along.

“It is critical for investors, policymakers, scientists, NGOs, and influential entities to prioritize the amelioration of the geriatric world scenario and recognize aging as a critical matter of global economic security,” the authors say.

Biomedical Gerontology
The causes of aging are complex, stubborn, and not all clear.

But the report lays out two main streams of intervention with already promising results.

The first is to understand the root causes of aging and stop them before damage accumulates. It’s like meddling with cogs and other inner workings of a clock to slow it down, the authors say.

The report lays out several treatments to keep an eye on.

Geroprotective drugs is a big one. Often repurposed from drugs already on the market, these traditional small molecule drugs target a wide variety of metabolic pathways that play a role in aging. Think anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory, and drugs that mimic caloric restriction, a proven way to extend healthspan in animal models.

More exciting are the emerging technologies. One is nanotechnology. Nanoparticles of carbon, “bucky-balls,” for example, have already been shown to fight viral infections and dangerous ion particles, as well as stimulate the immune system and extend lifespan in mice (though others question the validity of the results).

Blood is another promising, if surprising, fountain of youth: recent studies found that molecules in the blood of the young rejuvenate the heart, brain, and muscles of aged rodents, though many of these findings have yet to be replicated.

Rejuvenation Biotechnology
The second approach is repair and maintenance.

Rather than meddling with inner clockwork, here we force back the hands of a clock to set it back. The main example? Stem cell therapy.

This type of approach would especially benefit the brain, which harbors small, scattered numbers of stem cells that deplete with age. For neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, in which neurons progressively die off, stem cell therapy could in theory replace those lost cells and mend those broken circuits.

Once a blue-sky idea, the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), where scientists can turn skin and other mature cells back into a stem-like state, hugely propelled the field into near reality. But to date, stem cells haven’t been widely adopted in clinics.

It’s “a toolkit of highly innovative, highly invasive technologies with clinical trials still a great many years off,” the authors say.

But there is a silver lining. The boom in 3D tissue printing offers an alternative approach to stem cells in replacing aging organs. Recent investment from the Methuselah Foundation and other institutions suggests interest remains high despite still being a ways from mainstream use.

A Disruptive Future
“We are finally beginning to see an industry emerge from mankind’s attempts to make sense of the biological chaos,” the authors conclude.

Looking through the trends, they identified several technologies rapidly gaining steam.

One is artificial intelligence, which is already used to bolster drug discovery. Machine learning may also help identify new longevity genes or bring personalized medicine to the clinic based on a patient’s records or biomarkers.

Another is senolytics, a class of drugs that kill off “zombie cells.” Over 10 prospective candidates are already in the pipeline, with some expected to enter the market in less than a decade, the authors say.

Finally, there’s the big gun—gene therapy. The treatment, unlike others mentioned, can directly target the root of any pathology. With a snip (or a swap), genetic tools can turn off damaging genes or switch on ones that promote a youthful profile. It is the most preventative technology at our disposal.

There have already been some success stories in animal models. Using gene therapy, rodents given a boost in telomerase activity, which lengthens the protective caps of DNA strands, live healthier for longer.

“Although it is the prospect farthest from widespread implementation, it may ultimately prove the most influential,” the authors say.

Ultimately, can we stop the silver tsunami before it strikes?

Perhaps not, the authors say. But we do have defenses: the technologies outlined in the report, though still immature, could one day stop the oncoming tidal wave in its tracks.

Now we just have to bring them out of the lab and into the real world. To push the transition along, the team launched Longevity.International, an online meeting ground that unites various stakeholders in the industry.

By providing scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, and policy-makers a platform for learning and discussion, the authors say, we may finally generate enough drive to implement our defenses against aging. The war has begun.

Read the report in full here, and watch out for others coming soon here. The second part of the report profiles 650 (!!!) longevity-focused research hubs, non-profits, scientists, conferences, and literature. It’s an enormously helpful resource—totally worth keeping it in your back pocket for future reference.

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#432009 How Swarm Intelligence Is Making Simple ...

As a group, simple creatures following simple rules can display a surprising amount of complexity, efficiency, and even creativity. Known as swarm intelligence, this trait is found throughout nature, but researchers have recently begun using it to transform various fields such as robotics, data mining, medicine, and blockchains.

Ants, for example, can only perform a limited range of functions, but an ant colony can build bridges, create superhighways of food and information, wage war, and enslave other ant species—all of which are beyond the comprehension of any single ant. Likewise, schools of fish, flocks of birds, beehives, and other species exhibit behavior indicative of planning by a higher intelligence that doesn’t actually exist.

It happens by a process called stigmergy. Simply put, a small change by a group member causes other members to behave differently, leading to a new pattern of behavior.

When an ant finds a food source, it marks the path with pheromones. This attracts other ants to that path, leads them to the food source, and prompts them to mark the same path with more pheromones. Over time, the most efficient route will become the superhighway, as the faster and easier a path is, the more ants will reach the food and the more pheromones will be on the path. Thus, it looks as if a more intelligent being chose the best path, but it emerged from the tiny, simple changes made by individuals.

So what does this mean for humans? Well, a lot. In the past few decades, researchers have developed numerous algorithms and metaheuristics, such as ant colony optimization and particle swarm optimization, and they are rapidly being adopted.

Swarm Robotics
A swarm of robots would work on the same principles as an ant colony: each member has a simple set of rules to follow, leading to self-organization and self-sufficiency.

For example, researchers at Georgia Robotics and InTelligent Systems (GRITS) created a small swarm of simple robots that can spell and play piano. The robots cannot communicate, but based solely on the position of surrounding robots, they are able to use their specially-created algorithm to determine the optimal path to complete their task.

This is also immensely useful for drone swarms.

Last February, Ehang, an aviation company out of China, created a swarm of a thousand drones that not only lit the sky with colorful, intricate displays, but demonstrated the ability to improvise and troubleshoot errors entirely autonomously.

Further, just recently, the University of Cambridge and Koc University unveiled their idea for what they call the Energy Neutral Internet of Drones. Amazingly, this drone swarm would take initiative to share information or energy with other drones that did not receive a communication or are running low on energy.

Militaries all of the world are utilizing this as well.

Last year, the US Department of Defense announced it had successfully tested a swarm of miniature drones that could carry out complex missions cheaper and more efficiently. They claimed, “The micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.”

Some experts estimate at least 30 nations are actively developing drone swarms—and even submersible drones—for military missions, including intelligence gathering, missile defense, precision missile strikes, and enhanced communication.

NASA also plans on deploying swarms of tiny spacecraft for space exploration, and the medical community is looking into using swarms of nanobots for precision delivery of drugs, microsurgery, targeting toxins, and biological sensors.

What If Humans Are the Ants?
The strength of any blockchain comes from the size and diversity of the community supporting it. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Litecoin are driven by the people using, investing in, and, most importantly, mining them so their blockchains can function. Without an active community, or swarm, their blockchains wither away.

When viewed from a great height, a blockchain performs eerily like an ant colony in that it will naturally find the most efficient way to move vast amounts of information.

Miners compete with each other to perform the complex calculations necessary to add another block, for which the winner is rewarded with the blockchain’s native currency and agreed-upon fees. Of course, the miner with the more powerful computers is more likely to win the reward, thereby empowering the winner’s ability to mine and receive even more rewards. Over time, fewer and fewer miners are going to exist, as the winners are able to more efficiently shoulder more of the workload, in much the same way that ants build superhighways.

Further, a company called Unanimous AI has developed algorithms that allow humans to collectively make predictions. So far, the AI algorithms and their human participants have made some astoundingly accurate predictions, such as the first four winning horses of the Kentucky Derby, the Oscar winners, the Stanley Cup winners, and others. The more people involved in the swarm, the greater their predictive power will be.

To be clear, this is not a prediction based on group consensus. Rather, the swarm of humans uses software to input their opinions in real time, thus making micro-changes to the rest of the swarm and the inputs of other members.

Studies show that swarm intelligence consistently outperforms individuals and crowds working without the algorithms. While this is only the tip of the iceberg, some have suggested swarm intelligence can revolutionize how doctors diagnose a patient or how products are marketed to consumers. It might even be an essential step in truly creating AI.

While swarm intelligence is an essential part of many species’ success, it’s only a matter of time before humans harness its effectiveness as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experts are hopeful.

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

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

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

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

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

Experts believe the speed and efficiency gains will be enormous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His solution? Nanoclusters of magnetic manganese.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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