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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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The classical view of a robot as a mechanical body with a central “brain” that controls its behavior could soon be on its way out. The authors of a recent article in Science Robotics argue that future robots will have intelligence distributed throughout their bodies.
The concept, and the emerging discipline behind it, are variously referred to as “material robotics” or “robotic materials” and are essentially a synthesis of ideas from robotics and materials science. Proponents say advances in both fields are making it possible to create composite materials capable of combining sensing, actuation, computation, and communication and operating independently of a central processing unit.
Much of the inspiration for the field comes from nature, with practitioners pointing to the adaptive camouflage of the cuttlefish’s skin, the ability of bird wings to morph in response to different maneuvers, or the banyan tree’s ability to grow roots above ground to support new branches.
Adaptive camouflage and morphing wings have clear applications in the defense and aerospace sector, but the authors say similar principles could be used to create everything from smart tires able to calculate the traction needed for specific surfaces to grippers that can tailor their force to the kind of object they are grasping.
“Material robotics represents an acknowledgment that materials can absorb some of the challenges of acting and reacting to an uncertain world,” the authors write. “Embedding distributed sensors and actuators directly into the material of the robot’s body engages computational capabilities and offloads the rigid information and computational requirements from the central processing system.”
The idea of making materials more adaptive is not new, and there are already a host of “smart materials” that can respond to stimuli like heat, mechanical stress, or magnetic fields by doing things like producing a voltage or changing shape. These properties can be carefully tuned to create materials capable of a wide variety of functions such as movement, self-repair, or sensing.
The authors say synthesizing these kinds of smart materials, alongside other advanced materials like biocompatible conductors or biodegradable elastomers, is foundational to material robotics. But the approach also involves integration of many different capabilities in the same material, careful mechanical design to make the most of mechanical capabilities, and closing the loop between sensing and control within the materials themselves.
While there are stand-alone applications for such materials in the near term, like smart fabrics or robotic grippers, the long-term promise of the field is to distribute decision-making in future advanced robots. As they are imbued with ever more senses and capabilities, these machines will be required to shuttle huge amounts of control and feedback data to and fro, placing a strain on both their communication and computation abilities.
Materials that can process sensor data at the source and either autonomously react to it or filter the most relevant information to be passed on to the central processing unit could significantly ease this bottleneck. In a press release related to an earlier study, Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder who is also an author of the current paper, pointed out this is a tactic used by the human body.
“The human sensory system automatically filters out things like the feeling of clothing rubbing on the skin,” he said. “An artificial skin with possibly thousands of sensors could do the same thing, and only report to a central ‘brain’ if it touches something new.”
There are still considerable challenges to realizing this vision, though, the authors say, noting that so far the young field has only produced proof of concepts. The biggest challenge remains manufacturing robotic materials in a way that combines all these capabilities in a small enough package at an affordable cost.
Luckily, the authors note, the field can draw on convergent advances in both materials science, such as the development of new bulk materials with inherent multifunctionality, and robotics, such as the ever tighter integration of components.
And they predict that doing away with the prevailing dichotomy of “brain versus body” could lay the foundations for the emergence of “robots with brains in their bodies—the foundation of inexpensive and ubiquitous robots that will step into the real world.”
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Cambridge, MA – Soft Robotics Inc, which has built a fundamentally new class of robotic grippers, announced the release of its expanded and upgraded Soft Robotics Development Kit; SRDK 2.0.
The Soft Robotics Development Kit 2.0 comes complete with:
Robot tool flange mounting plate
4, 5 and 6 position hub plates
Tool Center Point
Soft Robotics Control Unit G2
6 rail mounted, 4 accordion actuator modules
Custom pneumatic manifold
Mounting hardware and accessories
Where the SRDK 1.0 included 5 four accordion actuator modules and the opportunity to create a gripper containing two to five actuators, The SRDK 2.0 contains 6 four accordion actuator modules plus the addition of a six position hub allowing users the ability to configure six actuator test tools. This expands use of the Development Kit to larger product applications, such as: large bagged and pouched items, IV bags, bags of nuts, bread and other food items.
SRDK 2.0 also contains an upgraded Soft Robotics Control Unit (SRCU G2) – the proprietary system that controls all software and hardware with one turnkey pneumatic operation. The upgraded SRCU features new software with a cleaner, user friendly interface and an IP65 rating. Highly intuitive, the software is able to store up to eight grip profiles and allows for very precise adjustments to actuation and vacuum.
Also new with the release of SRDK 2.0, is the introduction of several accessory kits that will allow for an expanded number of configurations and product applications available for testing.
Accessory Kit 1 – For SRDK 1.0 users only – includes the six position hub and 4 accordion actuators now included in SRDK 2.0
Accessory Kit 2 – For SRDK 1.0 or 2.0 users – includes 2 accordion actuators
Accessory Kit 3 – For SRDK 1.0 or 2.0 users – includes 3 accordion actuators
The shorter 2 and 3 accordion actuators provide increased stability for high-speed applications, increased placement precision, higher grip force capabilities and are optimized for gripping small, shallow objects.
Designed to plug and play with any existing robot currently in the market, the Soft Robotics Development Kit 2.0 allows end-users and OEM Integrators the ability to customize, test and validate their ideal Soft Robotics solution, with their own equipment, in their own environment.
Once an ideal solution has been found, the Soft Robotics team will take those exact specifications and build a production-grade tool for implementation into the manufacturing line. And, it doesn’t end there. Created to be fully reusable, the process – configure, test, validate, build, production – can start over again as many times as needed.
See the new SRDK 2.0 on display for the first time at PACK EXPO Las Vegas, September 25 – 27, 2017 in Soft Robotics booth S-5925.
Learn more about the Soft Robotics Development Kit at www.softroboticsinc.com/srdk.
Photo Credit: Soft Robotics – www.softroboticsinc.com
About Soft Robotics
Soft Robotics designs and builds soft robotic gripping systems and automation solutions
that can grasp and manipulate items of varying size, shape and weight. Spun out of the
Whitesides Group at Harvard University, Soft Robotics is the only company to be
commercializing this groundbreaking and proprietary technology platform. Today, the
company is a global enterprise solving previously off-limits automation challenges for
customers in food & beverage, advanced manufacturing and ecommerce. Soft Robotics’
engineers are building an ecosystem of robots, control systems, data and machine
learning to enable the workplace of the future. For more information, please visit
The Kondracki Group, LLC
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Press Release by: HMK
As the trend of Industry 4.0 takes the world by storm, collaborative robots and smart factories are becoming the latest hot topic. At this year’s PPMA show, HMK will demonstrate the world’s first collaborative robot with built-in vision recognition from Techman Robot.
The new TM5 Cobot from HMK merges systems that usually function separately in conventional robots, the Cobot is the only collaborative robot to incorporate simple programming, a fully integrated vision system and the latest safety standards in a single unit.
With capabilities including direction identification, self-calibration of coordinates and visual task operation enabled by built-in vision, the TM5 can fine-tune in accordance with actual conditions at any time to accomplish complex processes that used to demand the integration of various equipment; it requires less manpower and time to recalibrate when objects or coordinates move and thus significantly improves flexibility as well as reducing maintenance cost.
Photo Credit: hmkdirect.com
Simple.Programming could not be easier. Using an easy to use flow chart program, TM-Flow will run on any tablet, PC or laptop over a wireless link to the TM control box, complex automation tasks can be realised in minutes. Clever teach functions and wizards also allow hand guided programming and easy incorporation of operation such as palletising, de-palletising and conveyor tracking.
SmartThe TM5 is the only cobot to feature a full colour vision package as standard mounted on the wrist of the robot, which in turn, is fully supported within TM-Flow. The result allows users to easily integrate the robot to the application, without complex tooling and the need for expensive add-on vision hardware and programming.
SafeThe recently CE marked TM5 now incorporates the new ISO/TS 15066 guidelines on safety in collaborative robots systems, which covers four types of collaborative operation:a) Safety-rated monitored stopb) Hand guidingc) Speed and separation monitoringd) Power and force limitingSafety hardware inputs also allow the Cobot to be integrated to wider safety systems.
When you add EtherCat and Modbus network connectivity and I/O expansion options, IoT ready network access and ex-stock delivery, the TM5 sets a new benchmark for this evolving robotics sector.
The TM5 is available with two payload options, 4Kg and 6Kg with a reach of 900mm and 700mm respectively, both with positioning capabilities to a repeatability of 0.05mm.
HMK will be showcasing the new TM5 Cobot at this year’s PPMA show at the NEC, visit stand F102 to get hands on the with the Cobot and experience the innovative and intuitive graphic HMI and hand-guiding features.
For more information contact HMK on 01260 279411, email email@example.com or visit www.hmkdirect.com
Photo Credit: hmkdirect.com
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