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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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As Dorothy famously said in The Wizard of Oz, there’s no place like home. Home is where we go to rest and recharge. It’s familiar, comfortable, and our own. We take care of our homes by cleaning and maintaining them, and fixing things that break or go wrong.
What if our homes, on top of giving us shelter, could also take care of us in return?
According to Chris Arkenberg, this could be the case in the not-so-distant future. As part of Singularity University’s Experts On Air series, Arkenberg gave a talk called “How the Intelligent Home of The Future Will Care For You.”
Arkenberg is a research and strategy lead at Orange Silicon Valley, and was previously a research fellow at the Deloitte Center for the Edge and a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Future.
Arkenberg told the audience that there’s an evolution going on: homes are going from being smart to being connected, and will ultimately become intelligent.
Intelligent home technologies are just now budding, but broader trends point to huge potential for their growth. We as consumers already expect continuous connectivity wherever we go—what do you mean my phone won’t get reception in the middle of Yosemite? What do you mean the smart TV is down and I can’t stream Game of Thrones?
As connectivity has evolved from a privilege to a basic expectation, Arkenberg said, we’re also starting to have a better sense of what it means to give up our data in exchange for services and conveniences. It’s so easy to click a few buttons on Amazon and have stuff show up at your front door a few days later—never mind that data about your purchases gets recorded and aggregated.
“Right now we have single devices that are connected,” Arkenberg said. “Companies are still trying to show what the true value is and how durable it is beyond the hype.”
Connectivity is the basis of an intelligent home. To take a dumb object and make it smart, you get it online. Belkin’s Wemo, for example, lets users control lights and appliances wirelessly and remotely, and can be paired with Amazon Echo or Google Home for voice-activated control.
Speaking of voice-activated control, Arkenberg pointed out that physical interfaces are evolving, too, to the point that we’re actually getting rid of interfaces entirely, or transitioning to ‘soft’ interfaces like voice or gesture.
Drivers of change
Consumers are open to smart home tech and companies are working to provide it. But what are the drivers making this tech practical and affordable? Arkenberg said there are three big ones:
Computation: Computers have gotten exponentially more powerful over the past few decades. If it wasn’t for processors that could handle massive quantities of information, nothing resembling an Echo or Alexa would even be possible. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are powering these devices, and they hinge on computing power too.
Sensors: “There are more things connected now than there are people on the planet,” Arkenberg said. Market research firm Gartner estimates there are 8.4 billion connected things currently in use. Wherever digital can replace hardware, it’s doing so. Cheaper sensors mean we can connect more things, which can then connect to each other.
Data: “Data is the new oil,” Arkenberg said. “The top companies on the planet are all data-driven giants. If data is your business, though, then you need to keep finding new ways to get more and more data.” Home assistants are essentially data collection systems that sit in your living room and collect data about your life. That data in turn sets up the potential of machine learning.
Colonizing the Living Room
Alexa and Echo can turn lights on and off, and Nest can help you be energy-efficient. But beyond these, what does an intelligent home really look like?
Arkenberg’s vision of an intelligent home uses sensing, data, connectivity, and modeling to manage resource efficiency, security, productivity, and wellness.
Autonomous vehicles provide an interesting comparison: they’re surrounded by sensors that are constantly mapping the world to build dynamic models to understand the change around itself, and thereby predict things. Might we want this to become a model for our homes, too? By making them smart and connecting them, Arkenberg said, they’d become “more biological.”
There are already several products on the market that fit this description. RainMachine uses weather forecasts to adjust home landscape watering schedules. Neurio monitors energy usage, identifies areas where waste is happening, and makes recommendations for improvement.
These are small steps in connecting our homes with knowledge systems and giving them the ability to understand and act on that knowledge.
He sees the homes of the future being equipped with digital ears (in the form of home assistants, sensors, and monitoring devices) and digital eyes (in the form of facial recognition technology and machine vision to recognize who’s in the home). “These systems are increasingly able to interrogate emotions and understand how people are feeling,” he said. “When you push more of this active intelligence into things, the need for us to directly interface with them becomes less relevant.”
Could our homes use these same tools to benefit our health and wellness? FREDsense uses bacteria to create electrochemical sensors that can be applied to home water systems to detect contaminants. If that’s not personal enough for you, get a load of this: ClinicAI can be installed in your toilet bowl to monitor and evaluate your biowaste. What’s the point, you ask? Early detection of colon cancer and other diseases.
What if one day, your toilet’s biowaste analysis system could link up with your fridge, so that when you opened it it would tell you what to eat, and how much, and at what time of day?
Roadblocks to intelligence
“The connected and intelligent home is still a young category trying to establish value, but the technological requirements are now in place,” Arkenberg said. We’re already used to living in a world of ubiquitous computation and connectivity, and we have entrained expectations about things being connected. For the intelligent home to become a widespread reality, its value needs to be established and its challenges overcome.
One of the biggest challenges will be getting used to the idea of continuous surveillance. We’ll get convenience and functionality if we give up our data, but how far are we willing to go? Establishing security and trust is going to be a big challenge moving forward,” Arkenberg said.
There’s also cost and reliability, interoperability and fragmentation of devices, or conversely, what Arkenberg called ‘platform lock-on,’ where you’d end up relying on only one provider’s system and be unable to integrate devices from other brands.
Ultimately, Arkenberg sees homes being able to learn about us, manage our scheduling and transit, watch our moods and our preferences, and optimize our resource footprint while predicting and anticipating change.
“This is the really fascinating provocation of the intelligent home,” Arkenberg said. “And I think we’re going to start to see this play out over the next few years.”
Sounds like a home Dorothy wouldn’t recognize, in Kansas or anywhere else.
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