Tag Archives: engineering

#437345 Moore’s Law Lives: Intel Says Chips ...

If you weren’t already convinced the digital world is taking over, you probably are now.

To keep the economy on life support as people stay home to stem the viral tide, we’ve been forced to digitize interactions at scale (for better and worse). Work, school, events, shopping, food, politics. The companies at the center of the digital universe are now powerhouses of the modern era—worth trillions and nearly impossible to avoid in daily life.

Six decades ago, this world didn’t exist.

A humble microchip in the early 1960s would have boasted a handful of transistors. Now, your laptop or smartphone runs on a chip with billions of transistors. As first described by Moore’s Law, this is possible because the number of transistors on a chip doubled with extreme predictability every two years for decades.

But now progress is faltering as the size of transistors approaches physical limits, and the money and time it takes to squeeze a few more onto a chip are growing. There’ve been many predictions that Moore’s Law is, finally, ending. But, perhaps also predictably, the company whose founder coined Moore’s Law begs to differ.

In a keynote presentation at this year’s Hot Chips conference, Intel’s chief architect, Raja Koduri, laid out a roadmap to increase transistor density—that is, the number of transistors you can fit on a chip—by a factor of 50.

“We firmly believe there is a lot more transistor density to come,” Koduri said. “The vision will play out over time—maybe a decade or more—but it will play out.”

Why the optimism?

Calling the end of Moore’s Law is a bit of a tradition. As Peter Lee, vice president at Microsoft Research, quipped to The Economist a few years ago, “The number of people predicting the death of Moore’s Law doubles every two years.” To date, prophets of doom have been premature, and though the pace is slowing, the industry continues to dodge death with creative engineering.

Koduri believes the trend will continue this decade and outlined the upcoming chip innovations Intel thinks can drive more gains in computing power.

Keeping It Traditional
First, engineers can further shrink today’s transistors. Fin field effect transistors (or FinFET) first hit the scene in the 2010s and have since pushed chip features past 14 and 10 nanometers (or nodes, as such size checkpoints are called). Korduri said FinFET will again triple chip density before it’s exhausted.

The Next Generation
FinFET will hand the torch off to nanowire transistors (also known as gate-all-around transistors).

Here’s how they’ll work. A transistor is made up of three basic components: the source, where current is introduced, the gate and channel, where current selectively flows, and the drain. The gate is like a light switch. It controls how much current flows through the channel. A transistor is “on” when the gate allows current to flow, and it’s off when no current flows. The smaller transistors get, the harder it is to control that current.

FinFET maintained fine control of current by surrounding the channel with a gate on three sides. Nanowire designs kick that up a notch by surrounding the channel with a gate on four sides (hence, gate-all-around). They’ve been in the works for years and are expected around 2025. Koduri said first-generation nanowire transistors will be followed by stacked nanowire transistors, and together, they’ll quadruple transistor density.

Building Up
Growing transistor density won’t only be about shrinking transistors, but also going 3D.

This is akin to how skyscrapers increase a city’s population density by adding more usable space on the same patch of land. Along those lines, Intel recently launched its Foveros chip design. Instead of laying a chip’s various “neighborhoods” next to each other in a 2D silicon sprawl, they’ve stacked them on top of each other like a layer cake. Chip stacking isn’t entirely new, but it’s advancing and being applied to general purpose CPUs, like the chips in your phone and laptop.

Koduri said 3D chip stacking will quadruple transistor density.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The technologies Koduri outlines are an evolution of the same general technology in use today. That is, we don’t need quantum computing or nanotube transistors to augment or replace silicon chips yet. Rather, as it’s done many times over the years, the chip industry will get creative with the design of its core product to realize gains for another decade.

Last year, veteran chip engineer Jim Keller, who at the time was Intel’s head of silicon engineering but has since left the company, told MIT Technology Review there are over a 100 variables driving Moore’s Law (including 3D architectures and new transistor designs). From the standpoint of pure performance, it’s also about how efficiently software uses all those transistors. Keller suggested that with some clever software tweaks “we could get chips that are a hundred times faster in 10 years.”

But whether Intel’s vision pans out as planned is far from certain.

Intel’s faced challenges recently, taking five years instead of two to move its chips from 14 nanometers to 10 nanometers. After a delay of six months for its 7-nanometer chips, it’s now a year behind schedule and lagging other makers who already offer 7-nanometer chips. This is a key point. Yes, chipmakers continue making progress, but it’s getting harder, more expensive, and timelines are stretching.

The question isn’t if Intel and competitors can cram more transistors onto a chip—which, Intel rival TSMC agrees is clearly possible—it’s how long will it take and at what cost?

That said, demand for more computing power isn’t going anywhere.

Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet, Apple, and Facebook now make up a whopping 20 percent of the stock market’s total value. By that metric, tech is the most dominant industry in at least 70 years. And new technologies—from artificial intelligence and virtual reality to a proliferation of Internet of Things devices and self-driving cars—will demand better chips.

There’s ample motivation to push computing to its bitter limits and beyond. As is often said, Moore’s Law is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and likely whatever comes after it will be too.

Image credit: Laura Ockel / Unsplash Continue reading

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#437282 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

OpenAI’s Latest Breakthrough Is Astonishingly Powerful, But Still Fighting Its Flaws
James Vincent | The Verge
“What makes GPT-3 amazing, they say, is not that it can tell you that the capital of Paraguay is Asunción (it is) or that 466 times 23.5 is 10,987 (it’s not), but that it’s capable of answering both questions and many more beside simply because it was trained on more data for longer than other programs. If there’s one thing we know that the world is creating more and more of, it’s data and computing power, which means GPT-3’s descendants are only going to get more clever.”

I Tried to Live Without the Tech Giants. It Was Impossible.
Kashmir Hill | The New York Times
“Critics of the big tech companies are often told, ‘If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.’ My takeaway from the experiment was that it’s not possible to do that. It’s not just the products and services branded with the big tech giant’s name. It’s that these companies control a thicket of more obscure products and services that are hard to untangle from tools we rely on for everything we do, from work to getting from point A to point B.”

Meet the Engineer Who Let a Robot Barber Shave Him With a Straight Razor
Luke Dormehl | Digital Trends
“No, it’s not some kind of lockdown-induced barber startup or a Jackass-style stunt. Instead, Whitney, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern University School of Engineering, was interested in straight-razor shaving as a microcosm for some of the big challenges that robots have faced in the past (such as their jerky, robotic movement) and how they can now be solved.”

Can Trees Live Forever? New Kindling in an Immortal Debate
Cara Giaimo | The New York Times
“Even if a scientist dedicated her whole career to very old trees, she would be able to follow her research subjects for only a small percentage of their lives. And a long enough multigenerational study might see its own methods go obsolete. For these reasons, Dr. Munné-Bosch thinks we will never prove’ whether long-lived trees experience senescence…”

There’s No Such Thing as Family Secrets in the Age of 23andMe
Caitlin Harrington | Wired
“…technology has a way of creating new consequences for old decisions. Today, some 30 million people have taken consumer DNA tests, a threshold experts have called a tipping point. People conceived through donor insemination are matching with half-siblings, tracking down their donors, forming networks and advocacy organizations.”

The Problems AI Has Today Go Back Centuries
Karen Hao | MIT Techology Review
“In 2018, just as the AI field was beginning to reckon with problems like algorithmic discrimination, [Shakir Mohamed, a South African AI researcher at DeepMind], penned a blog post with his initial thoughts. In it he called on researchers to ‘decolonise artificial intelligence’—to reorient the field’s work away from Western hubs like Silicon Valley and engage new voices, cultures, and ideas for guiding the technology’s development.”

AI-Generated Text Is the Scariest Deepfake of All
Renee DiResta | Wired
“In the future, deepfake videos and audiofakes may well be used to create distinct, sensational moments that commandeer a press cycle, or to distract from some other, more organic scandal. But undetectable textfakes—masked as regular chatter on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and the like—have the potential to be far more subtle, far more prevalent, and far more sinister.”

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#437202 Scientists Used Dopamine to Seamlessly ...

In just half a decade, neuromorphic devices—or brain-inspired computing—already seem quaint. The current darling? Artificial-biological hybrid computing, uniting both man-made computer chips and biological neurons seamlessly into semi-living circuits.

It sounds crazy, but a new study in Nature Materials shows that it’s possible to get an artificial neuron to communicate directly with a biological one using not just electricity, but dopamine—a chemical the brain naturally uses to change how neural circuits behave, most known for signaling reward.

Because these chemicals, known as “neurotransmitters,” are how biological neurons functionally link up in the brain, the study is a dramatic demonstration that it’s possible to connect artificial components with biological brain cells into a functional circuit.

The team isn’t the first to pursue hybrid neural circuits. Previously, a different team hooked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one into a circuit using electrical protocols alone. Although a powerful demonstration of hybrid computing, the study relied on only one-half of the brain’s computational ability: electrical computing.

The new study now tackles the other half: chemical computing. It adds a layer of compatibility that lays the groundwork not just for brain-inspired computers, but also for brain-machine interfaces and—perhaps—a sort of “cyborg” future. After all, if your brain can’t tell the difference between an artificial neuron and your own, could you? And even if you did, would you care?

Of course, that scenario is far in the future—if ever. For now, the team, led by Dr. Alberto Salleo, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, collectively breathed a sigh of relief that the hybrid circuit worked.

“It’s a demonstration that this communication melding chemistry and electricity is possible,” said Salleo. “You could say it’s a first step toward a brain-machine interface, but it’s a tiny, tiny very first step.”

Neuromorphic Computing
The study grew from years of work into neuromorphic computing, or data processing inspired by the brain.

The blue-sky idea was inspired by the brain’s massive parallel computing capabilities, along with vast energy savings. By mimicking these properties, scientists reasoned, we could potentially turbo-charge computing. Neuromorphic devices basically embody artificial neural networks in physical form—wouldn’t hardware that mimics how the brain processes information be even more efficient and powerful?

These explorations led to novel neuromorphic chips, or artificial neurons that “fire” like biological ones. Additional work found that it’s possible to link these chips up into powerful circuits that run deep learning with ease, with bioengineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.

As a potential computing hardware replacement, these systems have proven to be incredibly promising. Yet scientists soon wondered: given their similarity to biological brains, can we use them as “replacement parts” for brains that suffer from traumatic injuries, aging, or degeneration? Can we hook up neuromorphic components to the brain to restore its capabilities?

Buzz & Chemistry
Theoretically, the answer’s yes.

But there’s a huge problem: current brain-machine interfaces only use electrical signals to mimic neural computation. The brain, in contrast, has two tricks up its sleeve: electricity and chemicals, or electrochemical.

Within a neuron, electricity travels up its incoming branches, through the bulbous body, then down the output branches. When electrical signals reach the neuron’s outgoing “piers,” dotted along the output branch, however, they hit a snag. A small gap exists between neurons, so to get to the other side, the electrical signals generally need to be converted into little bubble ships, packed with chemicals, and set sail to the other neuronal shore.

In other words, without chemical signals, the brain can’t function normally. These neurotransmitters don’t just passively carry information. Dopamine, for example, can dramatically change how a neural circuit functions. For an artificial-biological hybrid neural system, the absence of chemistry is like nixing international cargo vessels and only sticking with land-based trains and highways.

“To emulate biological synaptic behavior, the connectivity of the neuromorphic device must be dynamically regulated by the local neurotransmitter activity,” the team said.

Let’s Get Electro-Chemical
The new study started with two neurons: the upstream, an immortalized biological cell that releases dopamine; and the downstream, an artificial neuron that the team previously introduced in 2017, made of a mix of biocompatible and electrical-conducting materials.

Rather than the classic neuron shape, picture more of a sandwich with a chunk bitten out in the middle (yup, I’m totally serious). Each of the remaining parts of the sandwich is a soft electrode, made of biological polymers. The “bitten out” part has a conductive solution that can pass on electrical signals.

The biological cell sits close to the first electrode. When activated, it dumps out boats of dopamine, which drift to the electrode and chemically react with it—mimicking the process of dopamine docking onto a biological neuron. This, in turn, generates a current that’s passed on to the second electrode through the conductive solution channel. When this current reaches the second electrode, it changes the electrode’s conductance—that is, how well it can pass on electrical information. This second step is analogous to docked dopamine “ships” changing how likely it is that a biological neuron will fire in the future.

In other words, dopamine release from the biological neuron interacts with the artificial one, so that the chemicals change how the downstream neuron behaves in a somewhat lasting way—a loose mimic of what happens inside the brain during learning.

But that’s not all. Chemical signaling is especially powerful in the brain because it’s flexible. Dopamine, for example, only grabs onto the downstream neurons for a bit before it returns back to its upstream neuron—that is, recycled or destroyed. This means that its effect is temporary, giving the neural circuit breathing room to readjust its activity.

The Stanford team also tried reconstructing this quirk in their hybrid circuit. They crafted a microfluidic channel that shuttles both dopamine and its byproduct away from the artificial neurons after they’ve done their job for recycling.

Putting It All Together
After confirming that biological cells can survive happily on top of the artificial one, the team performed a few tests to see if the hybrid circuit could “learn.”

They used electrical methods to first activate the biological dopamine neuron, and watched the artificial one. Before the experiment, the team wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Theoretically, it made sense that dopamine would change the artificial neuron’s conductance, similar to learning. But “it was hard to know whether we’d achieve the outcome we predicted on paper until we saw it happen in the lab,” said study author Scott Keene.

On the first try, however, the team found that the burst of chemical signaling was able to change the artificial neuron’s conductance long-term, similar to the neuroscience dogma “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Activating the upstream biological neuron with chemicals also changed the artificial neuron’s conductance in a way that mimicked learning.

“That’s when we realized the potential this has for emulating the long-term learning process of a synapse,” said Keene.

Visualizing under an electron microscope, the team found that, similar to its biological counterpart, the hybrid synapse was able to efficiently recycle dopamine with timescales similar to the brain after some calibration. By playing with how much dopamine accumulates at the artificial neuron, the team found that they loosely mimic a learning rule called spike learning—a darling of machine learning inspired by the brain’s computation.

A Hybrid Future?
Unfortunately for cyborg enthusiasts, the work is still in its infancy.

For one, the artificial neurons are still rather bulky compared to biological ones. This means that they can’t capture and translate information from a single “boat” of dopamine. It’s also unclear if, and how, a hybrid synapse can work inside a living brain. Given the billions of synapses firing away in our heads, it’ll be a challenge to find-and-replace those that need replacement, and be able to control our memories and behaviors similar to natural ones.

That said, we’re inching ever closer to full-capability artificial-biological hybrid circuits.

“The neurotransmitter-mediated neuromorphic device presented in this work constitutes a fundamental building block for artificial neural networks that can be directly modulated based on biological feedback from live neurons,” the authors concluded. “[It] is a crucial first step in realizing next-generation adaptive biohybrid interfaces.”

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#437182 MIT’s Tiny New Brain Chip Aims for AI ...

The human brain operates on roughly 20 watts of power (a third of a 60-watt light bulb) in a space the size of, well, a human head. The biggest machine learning algorithms use closer to a nuclear power plant’s worth of electricity and racks of chips to learn.

That’s not to slander machine learning, but nature may have a tip or two to improve the situation. Luckily, there’s a branch of computer chip design heeding that call. By mimicking the brain, super-efficient neuromorphic chips aim to take AI off the cloud and put it in your pocket.

The latest such chip is smaller than a piece of confetti and has tens of thousands of artificial synapses made out of memristors—chip components that can mimic their natural counterparts in the brain.

In a recent paper in Nature Nanotechnology, a team of MIT scientists say their tiny new neuromorphic chip was used to store, retrieve, and manipulate images of Captain America’s Shield and MIT’s Killian Court. Whereas images stored with existing methods tended to lose fidelity over time, the new chip’s images remained crystal clear.

“So far, artificial synapse networks exist as software. We’re trying to build real neural network hardware for portable artificial intelligence systems,” Jeehwan Kim, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT said in a press release. “Imagine connecting a neuromorphic device to a camera on your car, and having it recognize lights and objects and make a decision immediately, without having to connect to the internet. We hope to use energy-efficient memristors to do those tasks on-site, in real-time.”

A Brain in Your Pocket
Whereas the computers in our phones and laptops use separate digital components for processing and memory—and therefore need to shuttle information between the two—the MIT chip uses analog components called memristors that process and store information in the same place. This is similar to the way the brain works and makes memristors far more efficient. To date, however, they’ve struggled with reliability and scalability.

To overcome these challenges, the MIT team designed a new kind of silicon-based, alloyed memristor. Ions flowing in memristors made from unalloyed materials tend to scatter as the components get smaller, meaning the signal loses fidelity and the resulting computations are less reliable. The team found an alloy of silver and copper helped stabilize the flow of silver ions between electrodes, allowing them to scale the number of memristors on the chip without sacrificing functionality.

While MIT’s new chip is promising, there’s likely a ways to go before memristor-based neuromorphic chips go mainstream. Between now and then, engineers like Kim have their work cut out for them to further scale and demonstrate their designs. But if successful, they could make for smarter smartphones and other even smaller devices.

“We would like to develop this technology further to have larger-scale arrays to do image recognition tasks,” Kim said. “And some day, you might be able to carry around artificial brains to do these kinds of tasks, without connecting to supercomputers, the internet, or the cloud.”

Special Chips for AI
The MIT work is part of a larger trend in computing and machine learning. As progress in classical chips has flagged in recent years, there’s been an increasing focus on more efficient software and specialized chips to continue pushing the pace.

Neuromorphic chips, for example, aren’t new. IBM and Intel are developing their own designs. So far, their chips have been based on groups of standard computing components, such as transistors (as opposed to memristors), arranged to imitate neurons in the brain. These chips are, however, still in the research phase.

Graphics processing units (GPUs)—chips originally developed for graphics-heavy work like video games—are the best practical example of specialized hardware for AI and were heavily used in this generation of machine learning early on. In the years since, Google, NVIDIA, and others have developed even more specialized chips that cater more specifically to machine learning.

The gains from such specialized chips are already being felt.

In a recent cost analysis of machine learning, research and investment firm ARK Invest said cost declines have far outpaced Moore’s Law. In a particular example, they found the cost to train an image recognition algorithm (ResNet-50) went from around $1,000 in 2017 to roughly $10 in 2019. The fall in cost to actually run such an algorithm was even more dramatic. It took $10,000 to classify a billion images in 2017 and just $0.03 in 2019.

Some of these declines can be traced to better software, but according to ARK, specialized chips have improved performance by nearly 16 times in the last three years.

As neuromorphic chips—and other tailored designs—advance further in the years to come, these trends in cost and performance may continue. Eventually, if all goes to plan, we might all carry a pocket brain that can do the work of today’s best AI.

Image credit: Peng Lin Continue reading

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#437165 A smarter way of building with mobile ...

Researchers are working with a mobile robotic platform called Husky A200 that could be used for autonomous logistic tasks on construction sites. This mobile robot is one of many projects pursued by the Fraunhofer Italia Innovation Engineering Center to advance the cause of digitalization in construction and bridge the gap between robotics and the building industry. Researchers at this center based in Bolzano, Italy, are developing a software interface that will enable mobile robots to find their way around in construction sites. Continue reading

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