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When I lived in Beijing back in the 90s, a man walking his bike was nothing to look at. But today, I did a serious double-take at a video of a bike walking his man.
The bike itself looks overloaded but otherwise completely normal. Underneath its simplicity, however, is a hybrid computer chip that combines brain-inspired circuits with machine learning processes into a computing behemoth. Thanks to its smart chip, the bike self-balances as it gingerly rolls down a paved track before smoothly gaining speed into a jogging pace while navigating dexterously around obstacles. It can even respond to simple voice commands such as “speed up,” “left,” or “straight.”
Far from a circus trick, the bike is a real-world demo of the AI community’s latest attempt at fashioning specialized hardware to keep up with the challenges of machine learning algorithms. The Tianjic (天机*) chip isn’t just your standard neuromorphic chip. Rather, it has the architecture of a brain-like chip, but can also run deep learning algorithms—a match made in heaven that basically mashes together neuro-inspired hardware and software.
The study shows that China is readily nipping at the heels of Google, Facebook, NVIDIA, and other tech behemoths investing in developing new AI chip designs—hell, with billions in government investment it may have already had a head start. A sweeping AI plan from 2017 looks to catch up with the US on AI technology and application by 2020. By 2030, China’s aiming to be the global leader—and a champion for building general AI that matches humans in intellectual competence.
The country’s ambition is reflected in the team’s parting words.
“Our study is expected to stimulate AGI [artificial general intelligence] development by paving the way to more generalized hardware platforms,” said the authors, led by Dr. Luping Shi at Tsinghua University.
A Hardware Conundrum
Shi’s autonomous bike isn’t the first robotic two-wheeler. Back in 2015, the famed research nonprofit SRI International in Menlo Park, California teamed up with Yamaha to engineer MOTOBOT, a humanoid robot capable of driving a motorcycle. Powered by state-of-the-art robotic hardware and machine learning, MOTOBOT eventually raced MotoGPTM world champion Valentino Rossi in a nail-biting match-off.
However, the technological core of MOTOBOT and Shi’s bike vastly differ, and that difference reflects two pathways towards more powerful AI. One, exemplified by MOTOBOT, is software—developing brain-like algorithms with increasingly efficient architecture, efficacy, and speed. That sounds great, but deep neural nets demand so many computational resources that general-purpose chips can’t keep up.
As Shi told China Science Daily: “CPUs and other chips are driven by miniaturization technologies based on physics. Transistors might shrink to nanoscale-level in 10, 20 years. But what then?” As more transistors are squeezed onto these chips, efficient cooling becomes a limiting factor in computational speed. Tax them too much, and they melt.
For AI processes to continue, we need better hardware. An increasingly popular idea is to build neuromorphic chips, which resemble the brain from the ground up. IBM’s TrueNorth, for example, contains a massively parallel architecture nothing like the traditional Von Neumann structure of classic CPUs and GPUs. Similar to biological brains, TrueNorth’s memory is stored within “synapses” between physical “neurons” etched onto the chip, which dramatically cuts down on energy consumption.
But even these chips are limited. Because computation is tethered to hardware architecture, most chips resemble just one specific type of brain-inspired network called spiking neural networks (SNNs). Without doubt, neuromorphic chips are highly efficient setups with dynamics similar to biological networks. They also don’t play nicely with deep learning and other software-based AI.
Brain-AI Hybrid Core
Shi’s new Tianjic chip brought the two incompatibilities together onto a single piece of brainy hardware.
First was to bridge the deep learning and SNN divide. The two have very different computation philosophies and memory organizations, the team said. The biggest difference, however, is that artificial neural networks transform multidimensional data—image pixels, for example—into a single, continuous, multi-bit 0 and 1 stream. In contrast, neurons in SNNs activate using something called “binary spikes” that code for specific activation events in time.
Confused? Yeah, it’s hard to wrap my head around it too. That’s because SNNs act very similarly to our neural networks and nothing like computers. A particular neuron needs to generate an electrical signal (a “spike”) large enough to transfer down to the next one; little blips in signals don’t count. The way they transmit data also heavily depends on how they’re connected, or the network topology. The takeaway: SNNs work pretty differently than deep learning.
Shi’s team first recreated this firing quirk in the language of computers—0s and 1s—so that the coding mechanism would become compatible with deep learning algorithms. They then carefully aligned the step-by-step building blocks of the two models, which allowed them to tease out similarities into a common ground to further build on. “On the basis of this unified abstraction, we built a cross-paradigm neuron scheme,” they said.
In general, the design allowed both computational approaches to share the synapses, where neurons connect and store data, and the dendrites, the outgoing branches of the neurons. In contrast, the neuron body, where signals integrate, was left reconfigurable for each type of computation, as were the input branches. Each building block was combined into a single unified functional core (FCore), which acts like a deep learning/SNN converter depending on its specific setup. Translation: the chip can do both types of previously incompatible computation.
Using nanoscale fabrication, the team arranged 156 FCores, containing roughly 40,000 neurons and 10 million synapses, onto a chip less than a fifth of an inch in length and width. Initial tests showcased the chip’s versatility, in that it can run both SNNs and deep learning algorithms such as the popular convolutional neural network (CNNs) often used in machine vision.
Compared to IBM TrueNorth, the density of Tianjic’s cores increased by 20 percent, speeding up performance ten times and increasing bandwidth at least 100-fold, the team said. When pitted against GPUs, the current hardware darling of machine learning, the chip increased processing throughput up to 100 times, while using just a sliver (1/10,000) of energy.
Although these stats are great, real-life performance is even better as a demo. Here’s where the authors gave their Tianjic brain a body. The team combined one chip with multiple specialized networks to process vision, balance, voice commands, and decision-making in real time. Object detection and target tracking, for example, relied on a deep neural net CNN, whereas voice commands and balance data were recognized using an SNN. The inputs were then integrated inside a neural state machine, which churned out decisions to downstream output modules—for example, controlling the handle bar to turn left.
Thanks to the chip’s brain-like architecture and bilingual ability, Tianjic “allowed all of the neural network models to operate in parallel and realized seamless communication across the models,” the team said. The result is an autonomous bike that rolls after its human, balances across speed bumps, avoids crashing into roadblocks, and answers to voice commands.
“It’s a wonderful demonstration and quite impressive,” said the editorial team at Nature, which published the study on its cover last week.
However, they cautioned, when comparing Tianjic with state-of-the-art chips designed for a single problem toe-to-toe on that particular problem, Tianjic falls behind. But building these jack-of-all-trades hybrid chips is definitely worth the effort. Compared to today’s limited AI, what people really want is artificial general intelligence, which will require new architectures that aren’t designed to solve one particular problem.
Until people start to explore, innovate, and play around with different designs, it’s not clear how we can further progress in the pursuit of general AI. A self-driving bike might not be much to look at, but its hybrid brain is a pretty neat place to start.
*The name, in Chinese, means “heavenly machine,” “unknowable mystery of nature,” or “confidentiality.” Go figure.
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Microsoft Invests $1 Billion in OpenAI to Pursue Holy Grail of Artificial Intelligence
James Vincent | The Verge
“i‘The creation of AGI will be the most important technological development in human history, with the potential to shape the trajectory of humanity,’ said [OpenAI cofounder] Sam Altman. ‘Our mission is to ensure that AGI technology benefits all of humanity, and we’re working with Microsoft to build the supercomputing foundation on which we’ll build AGI.’i”
UPS Wants to Go Full-Scale With Its Drone Deliveries
Eric Adams | Wired
“If UPS gets its way, it’ll be known for vehicles other than its famous brown vans. The delivery giant is working to become the first commercial entity authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to use autonomous delivery drones without any of the current restrictions that have governed the aerial testing it has done to date.”
Scientists Can Finally Build Feedback Circuits in Cells
Megan Molteni | Wired
“Network a few LOCKR-bound molecules together, and you’ve got a circuit that can control a cell’s functions the same way a PID computer program automatically adjusts the pitch of a plane. With the right key, you can make cells glow or blow themselves apart. You can send things to the cell’s trash heap or zoom them to another cellular zip code.”
Carbon Nanotubes Could Increase Solar Efficiency to 80 Percent
David Grossman | Popular Mechanics
“Obviously, that sort of efficiency rating is unheard of in the world of solar panels. But even though a proof of concept is a long way from being used in the real world, any further developments in the nanotubes could bolster solar panels in ways we haven’t seen yet.”
What Technology Is Most Likely to Become Obsolete During Your Lifetime?
Daniel Kolitz | Gizmodo
“Old technology seldom just goes away. Whiteboards and LED screens join chalk blackboards, but don’t eliminate them. Landline phones get scarce, but not phones. …And the technologies that seem to be the most outclassed may come back as a the cult objects of aficionados—the vinyl record, for example. All this is to say that no one can tell us what will be obsolete in fifty years, but probably a lot less will be obsolete than we think.”
The Human Brain Project Hasn’t Lived Up to Its Promise
Ed Yong | The Atlantic
“The HBP, then, is in a very odd position, criticized for being simultaneously too grandiose and too narrow. None of the skeptics I spoke with was dismissing the idea of simulating parts of the brain, but all of them felt that such efforts should be driven by actual research questions. …Countless such projects could have been funded with the money channeled into the HBP, which explains much of the furor around the project.”
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Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes of all time. It’s a bit surprising given that one of the more common phobias is arachnophobia—a debilitating fear of spiders.
Perhaps more fantastical is that young Peter Parker, a brainy high school science nerd, seemingly developed overnight the famous web-shooters and the synthetic spider silk that he uses to swing across the cityscape like Tarzan through the jungle.
That’s because scientists have been trying for decades to replicate spider silk, a material that is five times stronger than steel, among its many superpowers. In recent years, researchers have been untangling the protein-based fiber’s structure down to the molecular level, leading to new insights and new potential for eventual commercial uses.
The applications for such a material seem near endless. There’s the more futuristic visions, like enabling robotic “muscles” for human-like movement or ensnaring real-life villains with a Spider-Man-like web. Near-term applications could include the biomedical industry, such as bandages and adhesives, and as a replacement textile for everything from rope to seat belts to parachutes.
Spinning Synthetic Spider Silk
Randy Lewis has been studying the properties of spider silk and developing methods for producing it synthetically for more than three decades. In the 1990s, his research team was behind cloning the first spider silk gene, as well as the first to identify and sequence the proteins that make up the six different silks that web slingers make. Each has different mechanical properties.
“So our thought process was that you could take that information and begin to to understand what made them strong and what makes them stretchy, and why some are are very stretchy and some are not stretchy at all, and some are stronger and some are weaker,” explained Lewis, a biology professor at Utah State University and director of the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab, in an interview with Singularity Hub.
Spiders are naturally territorial and cannibalistic, so any intention to farm silk naturally would likely end in an orgy of arachnid violence. Instead, Lewis and company have genetically modified different organisms to produce spider silk synthetically, including inserting a couple of web-making genes into the genetic code of goats. The goats’ milk contains spider silk proteins.
The lab also produces synthetic spider silk through a fermentation process not entirely dissimilar to brewing beer, but using genetically modified bacteria to make the desired spider silk proteins. A similar technique has been used for years to make a key enzyme in cheese production. More recently, companies are using transgenic bacteria to make meat and milk proteins, entirely bypassing animals in the process.
The same fermentation technology is used by a chic startup called Bolt Threads outside of San Francisco that has raised more than $200 million for fashionable fibers made out of synthetic spider silk it calls Microsilk. (The company is also developing a second leather-like material, Mylo, using the underground root structure of mushrooms known as mycelium.)
Lewis’ lab also uses transgenic silkworms to produce a kind of composite material made up of the domesticated insect’s own silk proteins and those of spider silk. “Those have some fairly impressive properties,” Lewis said.
The researchers are even experimenting with genetically modified alfalfa. One of the big advantages there is that once the spider silk protein has been extracted, the remaining protein could be sold as livestock feed. “That would bring the cost of spider silk protein production down significantly,” Lewis said.
Building a Better Web
Producing synthetic spider silk isn’t the problem, according to Lewis, but the ability to do it at scale commercially remains a sticking point.
Another challenge is “weaving” the synthetic spider silk into usable products that can take advantage of the material’s marvelous properties.
“It is possible to make silk proteins synthetically, but it is very hard to assemble the individual proteins into a fiber or other material forms,” said Markus Buehler, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, in an email to Singularity Hub. “The spider has a complex spinning duct in which silk proteins are exposed to physical forces, chemical gradients, the combination of which generates the assembly of molecules that leads to silk fibers.”
Buehler recently co-authored a paper in the journal Science Advances that found dragline spider silk exhibits different properties in response to changes in humidity that could eventually have applications in robotics.
Specifically, spider silk suddenly contracts and twists above a certain level of relative humidity, exerting enough force to “potentially be competitive with other materials being explored as actuators—devices that move to perform some activity such as controlling a valve,” according to a press release.
Studying Spider Silk Up Close
Recent studies at the molecular level are helping scientists learn more about the unique properties of spider silk, which may help researchers develop materials with extraordinary capabilities.
For example, scientists at Arizona State University used magnetic resonance tools and other instruments to image the abdomen of a black widow spider. They produced what they called the first molecular-level model of spider silk protein fiber formation, providing insights on the nanoparticle structure. The research was published last October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A cross section of the abdomen of a black widow (Latrodectus Hesperus) spider used in this study at Arizona State University. Image Credit: Samrat Amin.
Also in 2018, a study presented in Nature Communications described a sort of molecular clamp that binds the silk protein building blocks, which are called spidroins. The researchers observed for the first time that the clamp self-assembles in a two-step process, contributing to the extensibility, or stretchiness, of spider silk.
Another team put the spider silk of a brown recluse under an atomic force microscope, discovering that each strand, already 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, is made up of thousands of nanostrands. That helps explain its extraordinary tensile strength, though technique is also a factor, as the brown recluse uses a special looping method to reinforce its silk strands. The study also appeared last year in the journal ACS Macro Letters.
Making Spider Silk Stick
Buehler said his team is now trying to develop better and faster predictive methods to design silk proteins using artificial intelligence.
“These new methods allow us to generate new protein designs that do not naturally exist and which can be explored to optimize certain desirable properties like torsional actuation, strength, bioactivity—for example, tissue engineering—and others,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lewis’ lab has discovered a method that allows it to solubilize spider silk protein in what is essentially a water-based solution, eschewing acids or other toxic compounds that are normally used in the process.
That enables the researchers to develop materials beyond fiber, including adhesives that “are better than an awful lot of the current commercial adhesives,” Lewis said, as well as coatings that could be used to dampen vibrations, for example.
“We’re making gels for various kinds of of tissue regeneration, as well as drug delivery, and things like that,” he added. “So we’ve expanded the use profile from something beyond fibers to something that is a much more extensive portfolio of possible kinds of materials.”
And, yes, there’s even designs at the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab for developing a Spider-Man web-slinger material. The US Navy is interested in non-destructive ways of disabling an enemy vessel, such as fouling its propeller. The project also includes producing synthetic proteins from the hagfish, an eel-like critter that exudes a gelatinous slime when threatened.
Lewis said that while the potential for spider silk is certainly headline-grabbing, he cautioned that much of the hype is not focused on the unique mechanical properties that could lead to advances in healthcare and other industries.
“We want to see spider silk out there because it’s a unique material, not because it’s got marketing appeal,” he said.
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