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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
We Need to Start Modeling Alternative Futures
Andrew Marino | The Verge
“‘I’m going to be the first person to tell you if you gave me all the data in the world and all the computers in the world, at this moment in time I cannot tell you what things are going to look like in three months,’ [says quantitative futurist Amy Webb.] ‘And that’s fine because that tells us we still have some agency. …The good news is if you are willing to lean into uncertainty and to accept the fact that you can’t control everything, but also you are not helpless in whatever comes next.'”
The Dangers of Moving All of Democracy Online
Marion Fourcade and Henry Farrell | Wired
“As we try to protect democracy from coronavirus, we must see technology as a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. …If we’re very lucky, we’ll have restrained, targeted, and temporary measures that will be effective against the pandemic. If we’re not, we’ll create an open-ended, sweeping surveillance system that will undermine democratic freedoms without doing much to stop coronavirus.”
Why Does It Suddenly Feel Like 1999 on the Internet?
Tanya Basu and Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“You see it in the renewed willingness of people to form virtual relationships. …Now casually hanging out with randos (virtually, of course) is cool again. People are joining video calls with people they’ve never met for everything from happy hours to book clubs to late-night flirting. They’re sharing in collective moments of creativity on Google Sheets, looking for new pandemic pen pals, and sending softer, less pointed emails.”
Covid-19 Changed How the World Does Science, Together
Matt Apuzzo and David D. Kirkpatrick | The New York Times
“While political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history. Never before, researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency. Nearly all other research has ground to a halt.”
A Debate Between AI Experts Shows a Battle Over the Technology’s Future
Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“The disagreements [the two experts] expressed mirror many of the clashes within the field, highlighting how powerfully the technology has been shaped by a persistent battle of ideas and how little certainty there is about where it’s headed next.”
Meet the Xenobots, Virtual Creatures Brought to Life
Joshua Sokol | The New York Times
“If the last few decades of progress in artificial intelligence and in molecular biology hooked up, their love child—a class of life unlike anything that has ever lived—might resemble the dark specks doing lazy laps around a petri dish in a laboratory at Tufts University.”
Rivian Wants to Bring Electric Trucks to the Masses
Jon Gertner | Wired
“The pickup walks a careful line between Detroit traditionalism and EV iconoclasm. Where Tesla’s forthcoming Cybertruck looks like origami on wheels, the R1T, slim and limber, looks more like an F-150 on a gym-and-yoga regimen.”
The Promise and Peril of Nuclear Power
John R. Quain | Gizmodo
“To save us from the coming climate catastrophe, we need an energy hero, boasting limitless power and no greenhouse gas emissions (or nearly none). So it’s time, say some analysts, to resuscitate the nuclear energy industry. Doing so could provide carbon-free energy. But any plan to make nuclear power a big part of the energy mix also comes with serious financial risks as well as questions about if there’s enough time to enlist an army of nuclear power plants in the battle against the climate crisis.”
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Inside the Race to Build the Best Quantum Computer on Earth
Gideon Lichfield | MIT Technology Review
“Regardless of whether you agree with Google’s position [on ‘quantum supremacy’] or IBM’s, the next goal is clear, Oliver says: to build a quantum computer that can do something useful. …The trouble is that it’s nearly impossible to predict what the first useful task will be, or how big a computer will be needed to perform it.”
We’re Not Prepared for the End of Moore’s Law
David Rotman | MIT Technology Review
“Quantum computing, carbon nanotube transistors, even spintronics, are enticing possibilities—but none are obvious replacements for the promise that Gordon Moore first saw in a simple integrated circuit. We need the research investments now to find out, though. Because one prediction is pretty much certain to come true: we’re always going to want more computing power.”
Flippy the Burger-Flipping Robot Is Changing the Face of Fast Food as We Know It
Luke Dormehl | Digital Trends
“Flippy is the result of the Miso team’s robotics expertise, coupled with that industry-specific knowledge. It’s a burger-flipping robot arm that’s equipped with both thermal and regular vision, which grills burgers to order while also advising human collaborators in the kitchen when they need to add cheese or prep buns for serving.”
The Next Generation of Batteries Could Be Built by Viruses
Daniel Oberhaus | Wired
“[MIT bioengineering professor Angela Belcher has] made viruses that can work with over 150 different materials and demonstrated that her technique can be used to manufacture other materials like solar cells. Belcher’s dream of zipping around in a ‘virus-powered car’ still hasn’t come true, but after years of work she and her colleagues at MIT are on the cusp of taking the technology out of the lab and into the real world.”
Biggest Cosmic Explosion Ever Detected Left Huge Dent in Space
Hannah Devlin | The Guardian
“The biggest cosmic explosion on record has been detected—an event so powerful that it punched a dent the size of 15 Milky Ways in the surrounding space. The eruption is thought to have originated at a supermassive black hole in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, which is about 390 million light years from Earth.”
Star Trek’s Warp Speed Would Have Tragic Consequences
Cassidy Ward | SyFy
“The various crews of Trek‘s slate of television shows and movies can get from here to there without much fanfare. Seeking out new worlds and new civilizations is no more difficult than gassing up the car and packing a cooler full of junk food. And they don’t even need to do that! The replicators will crank out a bologna sandwich just like mom used to make. All that’s left is to go, but what happens then?”
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Penicillin, one of the greatest discoveries in the history of medicine, was a product of chance.
After returning from summer vacation in September 1928, bacteriologist Alexander Fleming found a colony of bacteria he’d left in his London lab had sprouted a fungus. Curiously, wherever the bacteria contacted the fungus, their cell walls broke down and they died. Fleming guessed the fungus was secreting something lethal to the bacteria—and the rest is history.
Fleming’s discovery of penicillin and its later isolation, synthesis, and scaling in the 1940s released a flood of antibiotic discoveries in the next few decades. Bacteria and fungi had been waging an ancient war against each other, and the weapons they’d evolved over eons turned out to be humanity’s best defense against bacterial infection and disease.
In recent decades, however, the flood of new antibiotics has slowed to a trickle.
Their development is uneconomical for drug companies, and the low-hanging fruit has long been picked. We’re now facing the emergence of strains of super bacteria resistant to one or more antibiotics and an aging arsenal to fight them with. Gone unchallenged, an estimated 700,000 deaths worldwide due to drug resistance could rise to as many as 10 million in 2050.
Increasingly, scientists warn the tide is turning, and we need a new strategy to keep pace with the remarkably quick and boundlessly creative tactics of bacterial evolution.
But where the golden age of antibiotics was sparked by serendipity, human intelligence, and natural molecular weapons, its sequel may lean on the uncanny eye of artificial intelligence to screen millions of compounds—and even design new ones—in search of the next penicillin.
Hal Discovers a Powerful Antibiotic
In a paper published this week in the journal, Cell, MIT researchers took a step in this direction. The team says their machine learning algorithm discovered a powerful new antibiotic.
Named for the AI in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the antibiotic, halicin, successfully wiped out dozens of bacterial strains, including some of the most dangerous drug-resistant bacteria on the World Health Organization’s most wanted list. The bacteria also failed to develop resistance to E. coli during a month of observation, in stark contrast to existing antibiotic ciprofloxacin.
“In terms of antibiotic discovery, this is absolutely a first,” Regina Barzilay, a senior author on the study and computer science professor at MIT, told The Guardian.
The algorithm that discovered halicin was trained on the molecular features of 2,500 compounds. Nearly half were FDA-approved drugs, and another 800 naturally occurring. The researchers specifically tuned the algorithm to look for molecules with antibiotic properties but whose structures would differ from existing antibiotics (as halicin’s does). Using another machine learning program, they screened the results for those likely to be safe for humans.
Early study suggests halicin attacks the bacteria’s cell membranes, disrupting their ability to produce energy. Protecting the cell membrane from halicin might take more than one or two genetic mutations, which could account for its impressive ability to prevent resistance.
“I think this is one of the more powerful antibiotics that has been discovered to date,” James Collins, an MIT professor of bioengineering and senior author told The Guardian. “It has remarkable activity against a broad range of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.”
Beyond tests in petri-dish bacterial colonies, the team also tested halicin in mice. The antibiotic cleared up infections of a strain of bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics in a day. The team plans further study in partnership with a pharmaceutical company or nonprofit, and they hope to eventually prove it safe and effective for use in humans.
This last bit remains the trickiest step, given the cost of getting a new drug approved. But Collins hopes algorithms like theirs will help. “We could dramatically reduce the cost required to get through clinical trials,” he told the Financial Times.
A Universe of Drugs Awaits
The bigger story may be what happens next.
How many novel antibiotics await discovery, and how far can AI screening take us? The initial 6,000 compounds scanned by Barzilay and Collins’s team is a drop in the bucket.
They’ve already begun digging deeper by setting the algorithm loose on 100 million molecules from an online library of 1.5 billion compounds called the ZINC15 database. This first search took three days and turned up 23 more candidates that, like halicin, differ structurally from existing antibiotics and may be safe for humans. Two of these—which the team will study further—appear to be especially powerful.
Even more ambitiously, Barzilay hopes the approach can find or even design novel antibiotics that kill bad bacteria with alacrity while sparing the good guys. In this way, a round of antibiotics would cure whatever ails you without taking out your whole gut microbiome in the process.
All this is part of a larger movement to use machine learning algorithms in the long, expensive process of drug discovery. Other players in the area are also training AI on the vast possibility space of drug-like compounds. Last fall, one of the leaders in the area, Insilico, was challenged by a partner to see just how fast their method could do the job. The company turned out a new a proof-of-concept drug candidate in only 46 days.
The field is still developing, however, and it has yet to be seen exactly how valuable these approaches will be in practice. Barzilay is optimistic though.
“There is still a question of whether machine-learning tools are really doing something intelligent in healthcare, and how we can develop them to be workhorses in the pharmaceuticals industry,” she said. “This shows how far you can adapt this tool.”
Image Credit: Halicin (top row) prevented the development of antibiotic resistance in E. coli, while ciprofloxacin (bottom row) did not. Collins Lab at MIT Continue reading