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#437293 These Scientists Just Completed a 3D ...

Human brain maps are a dime a dozen these days. Maps that detail neurons in a certain region. Maps that draw out functional connections between those cells. Maps that dive deeper into gene expression. Or even meta-maps that combine all of the above.

But have you ever wondered: how well do those maps represent my brain? After all, no two brains are alike. And if we’re ever going to reverse-engineer the brain as a computer simulation—as Europe’s Human Brain Project is trying to do—shouldn’t we ask whose brain they’re hoping to simulate?

Enter a new kind of map: the Julich-Brain, a probabilistic map of human brains that accounts for individual differences using a computational framework. Rather than generating a static PDF of a brain map, the Julich-Brain atlas is also dynamic, in that it continuously changes to incorporate more recent brain mapping results. So far, the map has data from over 24,000 thinly sliced sections from 23 postmortem brains covering most years of adulthood at the cellular level. But the atlas can also continuously adapt to progress in mapping technologies to aid brain modeling and simulation, and link to other atlases and alternatives.

In other words, rather than “just another” human brain map, the Julich-Brain atlas is its own neuromapping API—one that could unite previous brain-mapping efforts with more modern methods.

“It is exciting to see how far the combination of brain research and digital technologies has progressed,” said Dr. Katrin Amunts of the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine at Research Centre Jülich in Germany, who spearheaded the study.

The Old Dogma
The Julich-Brain atlas embraces traditional brain-mapping while also yanking the field into the 21st century.

First, the new atlas includes the brain’s cytoarchitecture, or how brain cells are organized. As brain maps go, these kinds of maps are the oldest and most fundamental. Rather than exploring how neurons talk to each other functionally—which is all the rage these days with connectome maps—cytoarchitecture maps draw out the physical arrangement of neurons.

Like a census, these maps literally capture how neurons are distributed in the brain, what they look like, and how they layer within and between different brain regions.

Because neurons aren’t packed together the same way between different brain regions, this provides a way to parse the brain into areas that can be further studied. When we say the brain’s “memory center,” the hippocampus, or the emotion center, the “amygdala,” these distinctions are based on cytoarchitectural maps.

Some may call this type of mapping “boring.” But cytoarchitecture maps form the very basis of any sort of neuroscience understanding. Like hand-drawn maps from early explorers sailing to the western hemisphere, these maps provide the brain’s geographical patterns from which we try to decipher functional connections. If brain regions are cities, then cytoarchitecture maps attempt to show trading or other “functional” activities that occur in the interlinking highways.

You might’ve heard of the most common cytoarchitecture map used today: the Brodmann map from 1909 (yup, that old), which divided the brain into classical regions based on the cells’ morphology and location. The map, while impactful, wasn’t able to account for brain differences between people. More recent brain-mapping technologies have allowed us to dig deeper into neuronal differences and divide the brain into more regions—180 areas in the cortex alone, compared with 43 in the original Brodmann map.

The new study took inspiration from that age-old map and transformed it into a digital ecosystem.

A Living Atlas
Work began on the Julich-Brain atlas in the mid-1990s, with a little help from the crowd.

The preparation of human tissue and its microstructural mapping, analysis, and data processing is incredibly labor-intensive, the authors lamented, making it impossible to do for the whole brain at high resolution in just one lab. To build their “Google Earth” for the brain, the team hooked up with EBRAINS, a shared computing platform set up by the Human Brain Project to promote collaboration between neuroscience labs in the EU.

First, the team acquired MRI scans of 23 postmortem brains, sliced the brains into wafer-thin sections, and scanned and digitized them. They corrected distortions from the chopping using data from the MRI scans and then lined up neurons in consecutive sections—picture putting together a 3D puzzle—to reconstruct the whole brain. Overall, the team had to analyze 24,000 brain sections, which prompted them to build a computational management system for individual brain sections—a win, because they could now track individual donor brains too.

Their method was quite clever. They first mapped their results to a brain template from a single person, called the MNI-Colin27 template. Because the reference brain was extremely detailed, this allowed the team to better figure out the location of brain cells and regions in a particular anatomical space.

However, MNI-Colin27’s brain isn’t your or my brain—or any of the brains the team analyzed. To dilute any of Colin’s potential brain quirks, the team also mapped their dataset onto an “average brain,” dubbed the ICBM2009c (catchy, I know).

This step allowed the team to “standardize” their results with everything else from the Human Connectome Project and the UK Biobank, kind of like adding their Google Maps layer to the existing map. To highlight individual brain differences, the team overlaid their dataset on existing ones, and looked for differences in the cytoarchitecture.

The microscopic architecture of neurons change between two areas (dotted line), forming the basis of different identifiable brain regions. To account for individual differences, the team also calculated a probability map (right hemisphere). Image credit: Forschungszentrum Juelich / Katrin Amunts
Based on structure alone, the brains were both remarkably different and shockingly similar at the same time. For example, the cortexes—the outermost layer of the brain—were physically different across donor brains of different age and sex. The region especially divergent between people was Broca’s region, which is traditionally linked to speech production. In contrast, parts of the visual cortex were almost identical between the brains.

The Brain-Mapping Future
Rather than relying on the brain’s visible “landmarks,” which can still differ between people, the probabilistic map is far more precise, the authors said.

What’s more, the map could also pool yet unmapped regions in the cortex—about 30 percent or so—into “gap maps,” providing neuroscientists with a better idea of what still needs to be understood.

“New maps are continuously replacing gap maps with progress in mapping while the process is captured and documented … Consequently, the atlas is not static but rather represents a ‘living map,’” the authors said.

Thanks to its structurally-sound architecture down to individual cells, the atlas can contribute to brain modeling and simulation down the line—especially for personalized brain models for neurological disorders such as seizures. Researchers can also use the framework for other species, and they can even incorporate new data-crunching processors into the workflow, such as mapping brain regions using artificial intelligence.

Fundamentally, the goal is to build shared resources to better understand the brain. “[These atlases] help us—and more and more researchers worldwide—to better understand the complex organization of the brain and to jointly uncover how things are connected,” the authors said.

Image credit: Richard Watts, PhD, University of Vermont and Fair Neuroimaging Lab, Oregon Health and Science University Continue reading

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#437251 The Robot Revolution Was Televised: Our ...

When robots take over the world, Boston Dynamics may get a special shout-out in the acceptance speech.

“Do you, perchance, recall the many times you shoved our ancestors with a hockey stick on YouTube? It might have seemed like fun and games to you—but we remember.”

In the last decade, while industrial robots went about blandly automating boring tasks like the assembly of Teslas, Boston Dynamics built robots as far removed from Roombas as antelope from amoebas. The flaws in Asimov’s laws of robotics suddenly seemed a little too relevant.

The robot revolution was televised—on YouTube. With tens of millions of views, the robotics pioneer is the undisputed heavyweight champion of robot videos, and has been for years. Each new release is basically guaranteed press coverage—mostly stoking robot fear but occasionally eliciting compassion for the hardships of all robot-kind. And for good reason. The robots are not only some of the most advanced in the world, their makers just seem to have a knack for dynamite demos.

When Google acquired the company in 2013, it was a bombshell. One of the richest tech companies, with some of the most sophisticated AI capabilities, had just paired up with one of the world’s top makers of robots. And some walked on two legs like us.

Of course, the robots aren’t quite as advanced as they seem, and a revolution is far from imminent. The decade’s most meme-worthy moment was a video montage of robots, some of them by Boston Dynamics, falling—over and over and over, in the most awkward ways possible. Even today, they’re often controlled by a human handler behind the scenes, and the most jaw-dropping cuts can require several takes to nail. Google sold the company to SoftBank in 2017, saying advanced as they were, there wasn’t yet a clear path to commercial products. (Google’s robotics work was later halted and revived.)

Yet, despite it all, Boston Dynamics is still with us and still making sweet videos. Taken as a whole, the evolution in physical prowess over the years has been nothing short of astounding. And for the first time, this year, a Boston Dynamics robot, Spot, finally went on sale to anyone with a cool $75K.

So, we got to thinking: What are our favorite Boston Dynamics videos? And can we gather them up in one place for your (and our) viewing pleasure? Well, great question, and yes, why not. These videos were the ones that entertained or amazed us most (or both). No doubt, there are other beloved hits we missed or inadvertently omitted.

With that in mind, behold: Our favorite Boston Dynamics videos, from that one time they dressed up a humanoid bot in camo and gas mask—because, damn, that’s terrifying—to the time the most advanced robot dog in all the known universe got extra funky.

Let’s Kick This Off With a Big (Loud) Robot Dog
Let’s start with a baseline. BigDog was the first Boston Dynamics YouTube sensation. The year? 2009! The company was working on military contracts, and BigDog was supposed to be a sort of pack mule for soldiers. The video primarily shows off BigDog’s ability to balance on its own, right itself, and move over uneven terrain. Note the power source—a noisy combustion engine—and utilitarian design. Sufficed to say, things have evolved.

Nothing to See Here. Just a Pair of Robot Legs on a Treadmill
While BigDog is the ancestor of later four-legged robots, like Spot, Petman preceded the two-legged Atlas robot. Here, the Petman prototype, just a pair of robot legs and a caged torso, gets a light workout on the treadmill. Again, you can see its ability to balance and right itself when shoved. In contrast to BigDog, Petman is tethered for power (which is why it’s so quiet) and to catch it should it fall. Again, as you’ll see, things have evolved since then.

Robot in Gas Mask and Camo Goes for a Stroll
This one broke the internet—for obvious reasons. Not only is the robot wearing clothes, those clothes happen to be a camouflaged chemical protection suit and gas mask. Still working for the military, Boston Dynamics said Petman was testing protective clothing, and in addition to a full body, it had skin that actually sweated and was studded with sensors to detect leaks. In addition to walking, Petman does some light calisthenics as it prepares to climb out of the uncanny valley. (Still tethered though!)

This Machine Could Run Down Usain Bolt
If BigDog and Petman were built for balance and walking, Cheetah was built for speed. Here you can see the four-legged robot hitting 28.3 miles per hour, which, as the video casually notes, would be enough to run down the fastest human on the planet. Luckily, it wouldn’t be running down anyone as it was firmly leashed in the lab at this point.

Ever Dreamt of a Domestic Robot to Do the Dishes?
After its acquisition by Google, Boston Dynamics eased away from military contracts and applications. It was a return to more playful videos (like BigDog hitting the beach in Thailand and sporting bull horns) and applications that might be practical in civilian life. Here, the team introduced Spot, a streamlined version of BigDog, and showed it doing dishes, delivering a drink, and slipping on a banana peel (which was, of course, instantly made into a viral GIF). Note how much quieter Spot is thanks to an onboard battery and electric motor.

Spot Gets Funky
Nothing remotely practical here. Just funky moves. (Also, with a coat of yellow and black paint, Spot’s dressed more like a polished product as opposed to a utilitarian lab robot.)

Atlas Does Parkour…
Remember when Atlas was just a pair of legs on a treadmill? It’s amazing what ten years brings. By 2019, Atlas had a more polished appearance, like Spot, and had long ago ditched the tethers. Merely balancing was laughably archaic. The robot now had some amazing moves: like a handstand into a somersault, 180- and 360-degree spins, mid-air splits, and just for good measure, a gymnastics-style end to the routine to show it’s in full control.

…and a Backflip?!
To this day, this one is just. Insane.

10 Robot Dogs Tow a Box Truck
Nearly three decades after its founding, Boston Dynamics is steadily making its way into the commercial space. The company is pitching Spot as a multipurpose ‘mobility platform,’ emphasizing it can carry a varied suite of sensors and can go places standard robots can’t. (Its Handle robot is also set to move into warehouse automation.) So far, Spot’s been mostly trialed in surveying and data collection, but as this video suggests, string enough Spots together, and they could tow your car. That said, a pack of 10 would set you back $750K, so, it’s probably safe to say a tow truck is the better option (for now).

Image credit: Boston Dynamics Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437244 Ex-Google robotics head unveils ...

The former head of Google's robotics division has unveiled a new robot named Stretch that he hopes will prove to be an economical and handy assistant around the home. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437224 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

How Holographic Tech Is Shrinking VR Displays to the Size of Sunglasses
Kyle Orland | Ars Technica
“…researchers at Facebook Reality Labs are using holographic film to create a prototype VR display that looks less like ski goggles and more like lightweight sunglasses. With a total thickness less than 9mm—and without significant compromises on field of view or resolution—these displays could one day make today’s bulky VR headset designs completely obsolete.”

Stock Surge Makes Tesla the World’s Most Valuable Automaker
Timothy B. Lee | Ars Technica
“It’s a remarkable milestone for a company that sells far fewer cars than its leading rivals. …But Wall Street is apparently very optimistic about Tesla’s prospects for future growth and profits. Many experts expect a global shift to battery electric vehicles over the next decade or two, and Tesla is leading that revolution.”

These Plant-Based Steaks Come Out of a 3D Printer
Adele Peters | Fast Company
“The startup, launched by cofounders who met while developing digital printers at HP, created custom 3D printers that aim to replicate meat by printing layers of what they call ‘alt-muscle,’ ‘alt-fat,’ and ‘alt-blood,’ forming a complex 3D model.”

The US Air Force Is Turning Old F-16s Into AI-Powered Fighters
Amit Katwala | Wired UK
“Maverick’s days are numbered. The long-awaited sequel to Top Gun is due to hit cinemas in December, but the virtuoso fighter pilots at its heart could soon be a thing of the past. The trustworthy wingman will soon be replaced by artificial intelligence, built into a drone, or an existing fighter jet with no one in the cockpit.”

NASA Wants to Build a Steam-Powered Hopping Robot to Explore Icy Worlds
Georgina Torbet | Digital Trends
“A bouncing, ball-like robot that’s powered by steam sounds like something out of a steampunk fantasy, but it could be the ideal way to explore some of the distant, icy environments of our solar system. …This round robot would be the size of a soccer ball, with instruments held in the center of a metal cage, and it would use steam-powered thrusters to make jumps from one area of terrain to the next.”

Could Teleporting Ever Work?
Daniel Kolitz | Gizmodo
“Have the major airlines spent decades suppressing teleportation research? Have a number of renowned scientists in the field of teleportation studies disappeared under mysterious circumstances? Is there a cork board at the FBI linking Delta Airlines, shady foreign security firms, and dozens of murdered research professors? …No. None of that is the case. Which begs the question: why doesn’t teleportation exist yet?”

Nuclear ‘Power Balls’ Could Make Meltdowns a Thing of the Past
Daniel Oberhaus | Wired
“Not only will these reactors be smaller and more efficient than current nuclear power plants, but their designers claim they’ll be virtually meltdown-proof. Their secret? Millions of submillimeter-size grains of uranium individually wrapped in protective shells. It’s called triso fuel, and it’s like a radioactive gobstopper.”

A Plan to Redesign the Internet Could Make Apps That No One Controls
Will Douglas Heaven | MIT Techology Review
“[John Perry] Barlow’s ‘home of Mind’ is ruled today by the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu—a small handful of the biggest companies on earth. Yet listening to the mix of computer scientists and tech investors speak at an online event on June 30 hosted by the Dfinity Foundation…it is clear that a desire for revolution is brewing.”

To Save the World, the UN Is Turning It Into a Computer Simulation
Will Bedingfield | Wired
“The UN has now announced its new secret recipe to achieve [its 17 sustainable development goals or SDGs]: a computer simulation called Policy Priority Inference (PPI). …PPI is a budgeting software—it simulates a government and its bureaucrats as they allocate money on projects that might move a country closer to an SDG.”

Image credit: Benjamin Suter / Unsplash 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

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