Tag Archives: engineers

#437395 Microsoft Had a Crazy Idea to Put ...

A little over two years ago, a shipping container-sized cylinder bearing Microsoft’s name and logo was lowered onto the ocean floor off the northern coast of Scotland. Inside were 864 servers, and their submersion was part of the second phase of the software giant’s Project Natick. Launched in 2015, the project’s purpose is to determine the feasibility of underwater data centers powered by offshore renewable energy.

A couple months ago, the deep-sea servers were brought back up to the surface so engineers could inspect them and evaluate how they’d performed while under water.

But wait—why were they there in the first place?

As bizarre as it seems to sink hundreds of servers into the ocean, there are actually several very good reasons to do so. According to the UN, about 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of an ocean. As internet connectivity expands to cover most of the globe in the next few years, millions more people will come online, and a lot more servers will be needed to manage the increased demand and data they’ll generate.

In densely-populated cities real estate is expensive and can be hard to find. But know where there’s lots of cheap, empty space? At the bottom of the ocean. This locale also carries the added benefit of being really cold (depending where we’re talking, that is; if you’re looking off the coast of, say, Mumbai or Abu Dhabi, the waters are warmer).

Servers generate a lot of heat, and datacenters use most of their electricity for cooling. Keeping not just the temperature but also the humidity level constant is important for optimal functioning of the servers; neither of these vary much 100 feet under water.

Finally, installing data centers on the ocean floor is, surprisingly, much faster than building them on land. Microsoft claims its server-holding cylinders will take less than 90 days to go from factory ship to operation, as compared to the average two years it takes to get a terrestrial data center up and running.

Microsoft’s Special Projects team operated the underwater data center for two years, and it took a full day to dredge it up and bring it to the surface. One of the first things researchers did was to insert test tubes into the container to take samples of the air inside; they’ll use it to try to determine how gases released from the equipment may have impacted the servers’ operating environment.

The container was filled with dry nitrogen upon deployment, which seems to have made for a much better environment than the oxygen that land-bound servers are normally surrounded by; the failure rate of the servers in the water was just one-eighth that of Microsoft’s typical rate for its servers on land. The team thinks the nitrogen atmosphere was helpful because it’s less corrosive than oxygen. The fact that no humans entered the container for the entirety of its operations helped, too (no moving around of components or having to turn on lights or adjust the temperature).

Ben Cutler, a project manager in Microsoft’s Special Projects research group who leads Project Natick, believes the results of this phase of the project are sufficient to show that underwater data centers are worth pursuing. “We are now at the point of trying to harness what we have done as opposed to feeling the need to go and prove out some more,” he said.

Cutler envisions putting underwater datacenters near offshore wind farms to power them sustainably. The data centers of the future will require less human involvement, instead being managed and run primarily by technologies like robotics and AI. In this kind of “lights-out” datacenter, the servers would be swapped out about once every five years, with any that fail before then being taken offline.

The final step in this phase of Project Natick is to recycle all the components used for the underwater data center, including the steel pressure vessel, heat exchangers, and the servers themselves—and restoring the sea bed where the cylinder rested back to its original condition.

If Cutler’s optimism is a portent of things to come, it may not be long before the ocean floor is dotted with sustainable datacenters to feed our ever-increasing reliance on our phones and the internet.

Image Credit: Microsoft Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#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

Posted in Human Robots

#437269 DeepMind’s Newest AI Programs Itself ...

When Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, it may have seemed artificial intelligence had finally arrived. A computer had just taken down one of the top chess players of all time. But it wasn’t to be.

Though Deep Blue was meticulously programmed top-to-bottom to play chess, the approach was too labor-intensive, too dependent on clear rules and bounded possibilities to succeed at more complex games, let alone in the real world. The next revolution would take a decade and a half, when vastly more computing power and data revived machine learning, an old idea in artificial intelligence just waiting for the world to catch up.

Today, machine learning dominates, mostly by way of a family of algorithms called deep learning, while symbolic AI, the dominant approach in Deep Blue’s day, has faded into the background.

Key to deep learning’s success is the fact the algorithms basically write themselves. Given some high-level programming and a dataset, they learn from experience. No engineer anticipates every possibility in code. The algorithms just figure it.

Now, Alphabet’s DeepMind is taking this automation further by developing deep learning algorithms that can handle programming tasks which have been, to date, the sole domain of the world’s top computer scientists (and take them years to write).

In a paper recently published on the pre-print server arXiv, a database for research papers that haven’t been peer reviewed yet, the DeepMind team described a new deep reinforcement learning algorithm that was able to discover its own value function—a critical programming rule in deep reinforcement learning—from scratch.

Surprisingly, the algorithm was also effective beyond the simple environments it trained in, going on to play Atari games—a different, more complicated task—at a level that was, at times, competitive with human-designed algorithms and achieving superhuman levels of play in 14 games.

DeepMind says the approach could accelerate the development of reinforcement learning algorithms and even lead to a shift in focus, where instead of spending years writing the algorithms themselves, researchers work to perfect the environments in which they train.

Pavlov’s Digital Dog
First, a little background.

Three main deep learning approaches are supervised, unsupervised, and reinforcement learning.

The first two consume huge amounts of data (like images or articles), look for patterns in the data, and use those patterns to inform actions (like identifying an image of a cat). To us, this is a pretty alien way to learn about the world. Not only would it be mind-numbingly dull to review millions of cat images, it’d take us years or more to do what these programs do in hours or days. And of course, we can learn what a cat looks like from just a few examples. So why bother?

While supervised and unsupervised deep learning emphasize the machine in machine learning, reinforcement learning is a bit more biological. It actually is the way we learn. Confronted with several possible actions, we predict which will be most rewarding based on experience—weighing the pleasure of eating a chocolate chip cookie against avoiding a cavity and trip to the dentist.

In deep reinforcement learning, algorithms go through a similar process as they take action. In the Atari game Breakout, for instance, a player guides a paddle to bounce a ball at a ceiling of bricks, trying to break as many as possible. When playing Breakout, should an algorithm move the paddle left or right? To decide, it runs a projection—this is the value function—of which direction will maximize the total points, or rewards, it can earn.

Move by move, game by game, an algorithm combines experience and value function to learn which actions bring greater rewards and improves its play, until eventually, it becomes an uncanny Breakout player.

Learning to Learn (Very Meta)
So, a key to deep reinforcement learning is developing a good value function. And that’s difficult. According to the DeepMind team, it takes years of manual research to write the rules guiding algorithmic actions—which is why automating the process is so alluring. Their new Learned Policy Gradient (LPG) algorithm makes solid progress in that direction.

LPG trained in a number of toy environments. Most of these were “gridworlds”—literally two-dimensional grids with objects in some squares. The AI moves square to square and earns points or punishments as it encounters objects. The grids vary in size, and the distribution of objects is either set or random. The training environments offer opportunities to learn fundamental lessons for reinforcement learning algorithms.

Only in LPG’s case, it had no value function to guide that learning.

Instead, LPG has what DeepMind calls a “meta-learner.” You might think of this as an algorithm within an algorithm that, by interacting with its environment, discovers both “what to predict,” thereby forming its version of a value function, and “how to learn from it,” applying its newly discovered value function to each decision it makes in the future.

Prior work in the area has had some success, but according to DeepMind, LPG is the first algorithm to discover reinforcement learning rules from scratch and to generalize beyond training. The latter was particularly surprising because Atari games are so different from the simple worlds LPG trained in—that is, it had never seen anything like an Atari game.

Time to Hand Over the Reins? Not Just Yet
LPG is still behind advanced human-designed algorithms, the researchers said. But it outperformed a human-designed benchmark in training and even some Atari games, which suggests it isn’t strictly worse, just that it specializes in some environments.

This is where there’s room for improvement and more research.

The more environments LPG saw, the more it could successfully generalize. Intriguingly, the researchers speculate that with enough well-designed training environments, the approach might yield a general-purpose reinforcement learning algorithm.

At the least, though, they say further automation of algorithm discovery—that is, algorithms learning to learn—will accelerate the field. In the near term, it can help researchers more quickly develop hand-designed algorithms. Further out, as self-discovered algorithms like LPG improve, engineers may shift from manually developing the algorithms themselves to building the environments where they learn.

Deep learning long ago left Deep Blue in the dust at games. Perhaps algorithms learning to learn will be a winning strategy in the real world too.

Image credit: Mike Szczepanski / Unsplash Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437253 Powerful human-like hands create safer ...

Need a robot with a soft touch? A team of Michigan State University engineers has designed and developed a novel humanoid hand that may be able to help. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#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

Posted in Human Robots