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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.
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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When? This is probably the question that futurists, AI experts, and even people with a keen interest in technology dread the most. It has proved famously difficult to predict when new developments in AI will take place. The scientists at the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence in 1956 thought that perhaps two months would be enough to make “significant advances” in a whole range of complex problems, including computers that can understand language, improve themselves, and even understand abstract concepts.
Sixty years later, and these problems are not yet solved. The AI Index, from Stanford, is an attempt to measure how much progress has been made in artificial intelligence.
The index adopts a unique approach, and tries to aggregate data across many regimes. It contains Volume of Activity metrics, which measure things like venture capital investment, attendance at academic conferences, published papers, and so on. The results are what you might expect: tenfold increases in academic activity since 1996, an explosive growth in startups focused around AI, and corresponding venture capital investment. The issue with this metric is that it measures AI hype as much as AI progress. The two might be correlated, but then again, they may not.
The index also scrapes data from the popular coding website Github, which hosts more source code than anyone in the world. They can track the amount of AI-related software people are creating, as well as the interest levels in popular machine learning packages like Tensorflow and Keras. The index also keeps track of the sentiment of news articles that mention AI: surprisingly, given concerns about the apocalypse and an employment crisis, those considered “positive” outweigh the “negative” by three to one.
But again, this could all just be a measure of AI enthusiasm in general.
No one would dispute the fact that we’re in an age of considerable AI hype, but the progress of AI is littered by booms and busts in hype, growth spurts that alternate with AI winters. So the AI Index attempts to track the progress of algorithms against a series of tasks. How well does computer vision perform at the Large Scale Visual Recognition challenge? (Superhuman at annotating images since 2015, but they still can’t answer questions about images very well, combining natural language processing and image recognition). Speech recognition on phone calls is almost at parity.
In other narrow fields, AIs are still catching up to humans. Translation might be good enough that you can usually get the gist of what’s being said, but still scores poorly on the BLEU metric for translation accuracy. The AI index even keeps track of how well the programs can do on the SAT test, so if you took it, you can compare your score to an AI’s.
Measuring the performance of state-of-the-art AI systems on narrow tasks is useful and fairly easy to do. You can define a metric that’s simple to calculate, or devise a competition with a scoring system, and compare new software with old in a standardized way. Academics can always debate about the best method of assessing translation or natural language understanding. The Loebner prize, a simplified question-and-answer Turing Test, recently adopted Winograd Schema type questions, which rely on contextual understanding. AI has more difficulty with these.
Where the assessment really becomes difficult, though, is in trying to map these narrow-task performances onto general intelligence. This is hard because of a lack of understanding of our own intelligence. Computers are superhuman at chess, and now even a more complex game like Go. The braver predictors who came up with timelines thought AlphaGo’s success was faster than expected, but does this necessarily mean we’re closer to general intelligence than they thought?
Here is where it’s harder to track progress.
We can note the specialized performance of algorithms on tasks previously reserved for humans—for example, the index cites a Nature paper that shows AI can now predict skin cancer with more accuracy than dermatologists. We could even try to track one specific approach to general AI; for example, how many regions of the brain have been successfully simulated by a computer? Alternatively, we could simply keep track of the number of professions and professional tasks that can now be performed to an acceptable standard by AI.
“We are running a race, but we don’t know how to get to the endpoint, or how far we have to go.”
Progress in AI over the next few years is far more likely to resemble a gradual rising tide—as more and more tasks can be turned into algorithms and accomplished by software—rather than the tsunami of a sudden intelligence explosion or general intelligence breakthrough. Perhaps measuring the ability of an AI system to learn and adapt to the work routines of humans in office-based tasks could be possible.
The AI index doesn’t attempt to offer a timeline for general intelligence, as this is still too nebulous and confused a concept.
Michael Woodridge, head of Computer Science at the University of Oxford, notes, “The main reason general AI is not captured in the report is that neither I nor anyone else would know how to measure progress.” He is concerned about another AI winter, and overhyped “charlatans and snake-oil salesmen” exaggerating the progress that has been made.
A key concern that all the experts bring up is the ethics of artificial intelligence.
Of course, you don’t need general intelligence to have an impact on society; algorithms are already transforming our lives and the world around us. After all, why are Amazon, Google, and Facebook worth any money? The experts agree on the need for an index to measure the benefits of AI, the interactions between humans and AIs, and our ability to program values, ethics, and oversight into these systems.
Barbra Grosz of Harvard champions this view, saying, “It is important to take on the challenge of identifying success measures for AI systems by their impact on people’s lives.”
For those concerned about the AI employment apocalypse, tracking the use of AI in the fields considered most vulnerable (say, self-driving cars replacing taxi drivers) would be a good idea. Society’s flexibility for adapting to AI trends should be measured, too; are we providing people with enough educational opportunities to retrain? How about teaching them to work alongside the algorithms, treating them as tools rather than replacements? The experts also note that the data suffers from being US-centric.
We are running a race, but we don’t know how to get to the endpoint, or how far we have to go. We are judging by the scenery, and how far we’ve run already. For this reason, measuring progress is a daunting task that starts with defining progress. But the AI index, as an annual collection of relevant information, is a good start.
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You don’t have to dig too deeply into the archive of dystopian science fiction to uncover the horror that intelligent machines might unleash. The Matrix and The Terminator are probably the most well-known examples of self-replicating, intelligent machines attempting to enslave or destroy humanity in the process of building a brave new digital world.
The prospect of artificially intelligent machines creating other artificially intelligent machines took a big step forward in 2017. However, we’re far from the runaway technological singularity futurists are predicting by mid-century or earlier, let alone murderous cyborgs or AI avatar assassins.
The first big boost this year came from Google. The tech giant announced it was developing automated machine learning (AutoML), writing algorithms that can do some of the heavy lifting by identifying the right neural networks for a specific job. Now researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), using the most powerful supercomputer in the US, have developed an AI system that can generate neural networks as good if not better than any developed by a human in less than a day.
It can take months for the brainiest, best-paid data scientists to develop deep learning software, which sends data through a complex web of mathematical algorithms. The system is modeled after the human brain and known as an artificial neural network. Even Google’s AutoML took weeks to design a superior image recognition system, one of the more standard operations for AI systems today.
Of course, Google Brain project engineers only had access to 800 graphic processing units (GPUs), a type of computer hardware that works especially well for deep learning. Nvidia, which pioneered the development of GPUs, is considered the gold standard in today’s AI hardware architecture. Titan, the supercomputer at ORNL, boasts more than 18,000 GPUs.
The ORNL research team’s algorithm, called MENNDL for Multinode Evolutionary Neural Networks for Deep Learning, isn’t designed to create AI systems that cull cute cat photos from the internet. Instead, MENNDL is a tool for testing and training thousands of potential neural networks to work on unique science problems.
That requires a different approach from the Google and Facebook AI platforms of the world, notes Steven Young, a postdoctoral research associate at ORNL who is on the team that designed MENNDL.
“We’ve discovered that those [neural networks] are very often not the optimal network for a lot of our problems, because our data, while it can be thought of as images, is different,” he explains to Singularity Hub. “These images, and the problems, have very different characteristics from object detection.”
AI for Science
One application of the technology involved a particle physics experiment at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Fermilab researchers are interested in understanding neutrinos, high-energy subatomic particles that rarely interact with normal matter but could be a key to understanding the early formation of the universe. One Fermilab experiment involves taking a sort of “snapshot” of neutrino interactions.
The team wanted the help of an AI system that could analyze and classify Fermilab’s detector data. MENNDL evaluated 500,000 neural networks in 24 hours. Its final solution proved superior to custom models developed by human scientists.
In another case involving a collaboration with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, MENNDL improved the error rate of a human-designed algorithm for identifying mitochondria inside 3D electron microscopy images of brain tissue by 30 percent.
“We are able to do better than humans in a fraction of the time at designing networks for these sort of very different datasets that we’re interested in,” Young says.
What makes MENNDL particularly adept is its ability to define the best or most optimal hyperparameters—the key variables—to tackle a particular dataset.
“You don’t always need a big, huge deep network. Sometimes you just need a small network with the right hyperparameters,” Young says.
A Virtual Data Scientist
That’s not dissimilar to the approach of a company called H20.ai, a startup out of Silicon Valley that uses open source machine learning platforms to “democratize” AI. It applies machine learning to create business solutions for Fortune 500 companies, including some of the world’s biggest banks and healthcare companies.
“Our software is more [about] pattern detection, let’s say anti-money laundering or fraud detection or which customer is most likely to churn,” Dr. Arno Candel, chief technology officer at H2O.ai, tells Singularity Hub. “And that kind of insight-generating software is what we call AI here.”
The company’s latest product, Driverless AI, promises to deliver the data scientist equivalent of a chessmaster to its customers (the company claims several such grandmasters in its employ and advisory board). In other words, the system can analyze a raw dataset and, like MENNDL, automatically identify what features should be included in the computer model to make the most of the data based on the best “chess moves” of its grandmasters.
“So we’re using those algorithms, but we’re giving them the human insights from those data scientists, and we automate their thinking,” he explains. “So we created a virtual data scientist that is relentless at trying these ideas.”
Inside the Black Box
Not unlike how the human brain reaches a conclusion, it’s not always possible to understand how a machine, despite being designed by humans, reaches its own solutions. The lack of transparency is often referred to as the AI “black box.” Experts like Young say we can learn something about the evolutionary process of machine learning by generating millions of neural networks and seeing what works well and what doesn’t.
“You’re never going to be able to completely explain what happened, but maybe we can better explain it than we currently can today,” Young says.
Transparency is built into the “thought process” of each particular model generated by Driverless AI, according to Candel.
The computer even explains itself to the user in plain English at each decision point. There is also real-time feedback that allows users to prioritize features, or parameters, to see how the changes improve the accuracy of the model. For example, the system may include data from people in the same zip code as it creates a model to describe customer turnover.
“That’s one of the advantages of our automatic feature engineering: it’s basically mimicking human thinking,” Candel says. “It’s not just neural nets that magically come up with some kind of number, but we’re trying to make it statistically significant.”
Much digital ink has been spilled over the dearth of skilled data scientists, so automating certain design aspects for developing artificial neural networks makes sense. Experts agree that automation alone won’t solve that particular problem. However, it will free computer scientists to tackle more difficult issues, such as parsing the inherent biases that exist within the data used by machine learning today.
“I think the world has an opportunity to focus more on the meaning of things and not on the laborious tasks of just fitting a model and finding the best features to make that model,” Candel notes. “By automating, we are pushing the burden back for the data scientists to actually do something more meaningful, which is think about the problem and see how you can address it differently to make an even bigger impact.”
The team at ORNL expects it can also make bigger impacts beginning next year when the lab’s next supercomputer, Summit, comes online. While Summit will boast only 4,600 nodes, it will sport the latest and greatest GPU technology from Nvidia and CPUs from IBM. That means it will deliver more than five times the computational performance of Titan, the world’s fifth-most powerful supercomputer today.
“We’ll be able to look at much larger problems on Summit than we were able to with Titan and hopefully get to a solution much faster,” Young says.
It’s all in a day’s work.
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The field of artificial intelligence goes back a long way, but many consider it was officially born when a group of scientists at Dartmouth College got together for a summer, back in 1956. Computers had, over the last few decades, come on in incredible leaps and bounds; they could now perform calculations far faster than humans. Optimism, given the incredible progress that had been made, was rational. Genius computer scientist Alan Turing had already mooted the idea of thinking machines just a few years before. The scientists had a fairly simple idea: intelligence is, after all, just a mathematical process. The human brain was a type of machine. Pick apart that process, and you can make a machine simulate it.
The problem didn’t seem too hard: the Dartmouth scientists wrote, “We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.” This research proposal, by the way, contains one of the earliest uses of the term artificial intelligence. They had a number of ideas—maybe simulating the human brain’s pattern of neurons could work and teaching machines the abstract rules of human language would be important.
The scientists were optimistic, and their efforts were rewarded. Before too long, they had computer programs that seemed to understand human language and could solve algebra problems. People were confidently predicting there would be a human-level intelligent machine built within, oh, let’s say, the next twenty years.
It’s fitting that the industry of predicting when we’d have human-level intelligent AI was born at around the same time as the AI industry itself. In fact, it goes all the way back to Turing’s first paper on “thinking machines,” where he predicted that the Turing Test—machines that could convince humans they were human—would be passed in 50 years, by 2000. Nowadays, of course, people are still predicting it will happen within the next 20 years, perhaps most famously Ray Kurzweil. There are so many different surveys of experts and analyses that you almost wonder if AI researchers aren’t tempted to come up with an auto reply: “I’ve already predicted what your question will be, and no, I can’t really predict that.”
The issue with trying to predict the exact date of human-level AI is that we don’t know how far is left to go. This is unlike Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law, the doubling of processing power roughly every couple of years, makes a very concrete prediction about a very specific phenomenon. We understand roughly how to get there—improved engineering of silicon wafers—and we know we’re not at the fundamental limits of our current approach (at least, not until you’re trying to work on chips at the atomic scale). You cannot say the same about artificial intelligence.
Stuart Armstrong’s survey looked for trends in these predictions. Specifically, there were two major cognitive biases he was looking for. The first was the idea that AI experts predict true AI will arrive (and make them immortal) conveniently just before they’d be due to die. This is the “Rapture of the Nerds” criticism people have leveled at Kurzweil—his predictions are motivated by fear of death, desire for immortality, and are fundamentally irrational. The ability to create a superintelligence is taken as an article of faith. There are also criticisms by people working in the AI field who know first-hand the frustrations and limitations of today’s AI.
The second was the idea that people always pick a time span of 15 to 20 years. That’s enough to convince people they’re working on something that could prove revolutionary very soon (people are less impressed by efforts that will lead to tangible results centuries down the line), but not enough for you to be embarrassingly proved wrong. Of the two, Armstrong found more evidence for the second one—people were perfectly happy to predict AI after they died, although most didn’t, but there was a clear bias towards “15–20 years from now” in predictions throughout history.
Armstrong points out that, if you want to assess the validity of a specific prediction, there are plenty of parameters you can look at. For example, the idea that human-level intelligence will be developed by simulating the human brain does at least give you a clear pathway that allows you to assess progress. Every time we get a more detailed map of the brain, or successfully simulate another part of it, we can tell that we are progressing towards this eventual goal, which will presumably end in human-level AI. We may not be 20 years away on that path, but at least you can scientifically evaluate the progress.
Compare this to those that say AI, or else consciousness, will “emerge” if a network is sufficiently complex, given enough processing power. This might be how we imagine human intelligence and consciousness emerged during evolution—although evolution had billions of years, not just decades. The issue with this is that we have no empirical evidence: we have never seen consciousness manifest itself out of a complex network. Not only do we not know if this is possible, we cannot know how far away we are from reaching this, as we can’t even measure progress along the way.
There is an immense difficulty in understanding which tasks are hard, which has continued from the birth of AI to the present day. Just look at that original research proposal, where understanding human language, randomness and creativity, and self-improvement are all mentioned in the same breath. We have great natural language processing, but do our computers understand what they’re processing? We have AI that can randomly vary to be “creative,” but is it creative? Exponential self-improvement of the kind the singularity often relies on seems far away.
We also struggle to understand what’s meant by intelligence. For example, AI experts consistently underestimated the ability of AI to play Go. Many thought, in 2015, it would take until 2027. In the end, it took two years, not twelve. But does that mean AI is any closer to being able to write the Great American Novel, say? Does it mean it’s any closer to conceptually understanding the world around it? Does it mean that it’s any closer to human-level intelligence? That’s not necessarily clear.
Not Human, But Smarter Than Humans
But perhaps we’ve been looking at the wrong problem. For example, the Turing test has not yet been passed in the sense that AI cannot convince people it’s human in conversation; but of course the calculating ability, and perhaps soon the ability to perform other tasks like pattern recognition and driving cars, far exceed human levels. As “weak” AI algorithms make more decisions, and Internet of Things evangelists and tech optimists seek to find more ways to feed more data into more algorithms, the impact on society from this “artificial intelligence” can only grow.
It may be that we don’t yet have the mechanism for human-level intelligence, but it’s also true that we don’t know how far we can go with the current generation of algorithms. Those scary surveys that state automation will disrupt society and change it in fundamental ways don’t rely on nearly as many assumptions about some nebulous superintelligence.
Then there are those that point out we should be worried about AI for other reasons. Just because we can’t say for sure if human-level AI will arrive this century, or never, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare for the possibility that the optimistic predictors could be correct. We need to ensure that human values are programmed into these algorithms, so that they understand the value of human life and can act in “moral, responsible” ways.
Phil Torres, at the Project for Future Human Flourishing, expressed it well in an interview with me. He points out that if we suddenly decided, as a society, that we had to solve the problem of morality—determine what was right and wrong and feed it into a machine—in the next twenty years…would we even be able to do it?
So, we should take predictions with a grain of salt. Remember, it turned out the problems the AI pioneers foresaw were far more complicated than they anticipated. The same could be true today. At the same time, we cannot be unprepared. We should understand the risks and take our precautions. When those scientists met in Dartmouth in 1956, they had no idea of the vast, foggy terrain before them. Sixty years later, we still don’t know how much further there is to go, or how far we can go. But we’re going somewhere.
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