Judgement Day Update: Bionic Computing!

big_blue1IBM has always been at the forefront of cutting-edge technology. Whether it was with the development computers that could guide ICBMs and rockets into space during the Cold War, or the creation of the Internet during the early 90’s, they have managed to stay on the vanguard by constantly looking ahead. So it comes as no surprise that they had plenty to say last month on the subject of the next of the next big leap.

During a media tour of their Zurich lab in late October, IBM presented some of the company’s latest concepts. According to the company, the key to creating supermachines that 10,000 faster and more efficient is to build bionic computers cooled and powered by electronic blood. The end result of this plan is what is known as “Big Blue”, a proposed biocomputer that they anticipate will take 10 years to make.

Human-Brain-project-Alp-ICTIntrinsic to the design is the merger of computing and biological forms, specifically the human brain. In terms of computing, IBM is relying the human brain as their template. Through this, they hope to be able to enable processing power that’s densely packed into 3D volumes rather than spread out across flat 2D circuit boards with slow communication links.

On the biological side of things, IBM is supplying computing equipment to the Human Brain Project (HBP) – a $1.3 billion European effort that uses computers to simulate the actual workings of an entire brain. Beginning with mice, but then working their way up to human beings, their simulations examine the inner workings of the mind all the way down to the biochemical level of the neuron.

brain_chip2It’s all part of what IBM calls “the cognitive systems era”, a future where computers aren’t just programmed, but also perceive what’s going on, make judgments, communicate with natural language, and learn from experience. As the description would suggest, it is closely related to artificial intelligence, and may very well prove to be the curtain raiser of the AI era.

One of the key challenge behind this work is matching the brain’s power consumption. The ability to process the subtleties of human language helped IBM’s Watson supercomputer win at “Jeopardy.” That was a high-profile step on the road to cognitive computing, but from a practical perspective, it also showed how much farther computing has to go. Whereas Watson uses 85 kilowatts of power, the human brain uses only 20 watts.

aquasar2Already, a shift has been occurring in computing, which is evident in the way engineers and technicians are now measuring computer progress. For the past few decades, the method of choice for gauging performance was operations per second, or the rate at which a machine could perform mathematical calculations.

But as a computers began to require prohibitive amounts of power to perform various functions and generated far too much waste heat, a new measurement was called for. The new measurement that emerged as a result was expressed in operations per joule of energy consumed. In short, progress has come to be measured in term’s of a computer’s energy efficiency.

IBM_Research_ZurichBut now, IBM is contemplating another method for measuring progress that is known as “operations per liter”. In accordance with this new paradigm, the success of a computer will be judged by how much data-processing can be squeezed into a given volume of space. This is where the brain really serves as a source of inspiration, being the most efficient computer in terms of performance per cubic centimeter.

As it stands, today’s computers consist of transistors and circuits laid out on flat boards that ensure plenty of contact with air that cools the chips. But as Bruno Michel – a biophysics professor and researcher in advanced thermal packaging for IBM Research – explains, this is a terribly inefficient use of space:

In a computer, processors occupy one-millionth of the volume. In a brain, it’s 40 percent. Our brain is a volumetric, dense, object.

IBM_stacked3dchipsIn short, communication links between processing elements can’t keep up with data-transfer demands, and they consume too much power as well. The proposed solution is to stack and link chips into dense 3D configurations, a process which is impossible today because stacking even two chips means crippling overheating problems. That’s where the “liquid blood” comes in, at least as far as cooling is concerned.

This process is demonstrated with the company’s prototype system called Aquasar. By branching chips into a network of liquid cooling channels that funnel fluid into ever-smaller tubes, the chips can be stacked together in large configurations without overheating. The liquid passes not next to the chip, but through it, drawing away heat in the thousandth of a second it takes to make the trip.

aquasarIn addition, IBM also is developing a system called a redox flow battery that uses liquid to distribute power instead of using wires. Two types of electrolyte fluid, each with oppositely charged electrical ions, circulate through the system to distribute power, much in the same way that the human body provides oxygen, nutrients and cooling to brain through the blood.

The electrolytes travel through ever-smaller tubes that are about 100 microns wide at their smallest – the width of a human hair – before handing off their power to conventional electrical wires. Flow batteries can produce between 0.5 and 3 volts, and that in turn means IBM can use the technology today to supply 1 watt of power for every square centimeter of a computer’s circuit board.

IBM_Blue_Gene_P_supercomputerAlready, the IBM Blue Gene supercomputer has been used for brain research by the Blue Brain Project at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland. Working with the HBP, their next step ill be to augment a Blue Gene/Q with additional flash memory at the Swiss National Supercomputing Center.

After that, they will begin simulating the inner workings of the mouse brain, which consists of 70 million neurons. By the time they will be conducting human brain simulations, they plan to be using an “exascale” machine – one that performs 1 exaflops, or quintillion floating-point operations per second. This will take place at the Juelich Supercomputing Center in northern Germany.

brain-activityThis is no easy challenge, mainly because the brain is so complex. In addition to 100 billion neurons and 100 trillionsynapses,  there are 55 different varieties of neuron, and 3,000 ways they can interconnect. That complexity is multiplied by differences that appear with 600 different diseases, genetic variation from one person to the next, and changes that go along with the age and sex of humans.

As Henry Markram, the co-director of EPFL who has worked on the Blue Brain project for years:

If you can’t experimentally map the brain, you have to predict it — the numbers of neurons, the types, where the proteins are located, how they’ll interact. We have to develop an entirely new science where we predict most of the stuff that cannot be measured.

child-ai-brainWith the Human Brain Project, researchers will use supercomputers to reproduce how brains form in an virtual vat. Then, they will see how they respond to input signals from simulated senses and nervous system. If it works, actual brain behavior should emerge from the fundamental framework inside the computer, and where it doesn’t work, scientists will know where their knowledge falls short.

The end result of all this will also be computers that are “neuromorphic” – capable of imitating human brains, thereby ushering in an age when machines will be able to truly think, reason, and make autonomous decisions. No more supercomputers that are tall on knowledge but short on understanding. The age of artificial intelligence will be upon us. And I think we all know what will follow, don’t we?

Evolution-of-the-Cylon_1024Yep, that’s what! And may God help us all!

Sources: news.cnet.com, extremetech.com

The Future is Here: Cellular Computers!

dnacomputingComputing has come so far in such a relatively short space of time. Beginning with comparatively basic models, which relied on arrangements of analogue circuits (such as capacitors and resistors), scientists were able to perform complex calculations, crack impenetrable cyphers, and even know how and where to deploy counter-measures against incoming missiles. And as we all know, sometimes you have to look back to the fundamentals if you want to move any farther ahead.

And that’s precisely what researchers at MIT have done with their latest innovation: an analog computer that works inside a living cell! A massive step towards a future where machinery and biology are one and the same, these “cellular computers” were not only able to perform arithmetic, but also more complex functions like taking logarithms, square roots, and even do power law scaling.

biological-analog-computers-in-cells-640x353This news comes on the heels of researchers at Stanford who were able to create a biological transistor inside a cell. Relying on DNA and RNA to create a “transcriptors”, the Standford researchers were able to create a biological logic gate, and all on the microscopic scale. When combined the sorts of digital and analog circuits common to computing, this research could lead to powerful sensing and control platforms built on very small scales.

And like many recent innovations and developments made within the world of computing and biotechnology, the possibilities that this offers are startling and awesome. For one, all cells work with a certain biological clock, which regulates growth, circadian rhythms, aging, and numerous biological process. Thus far, the researchers in question have been hosting their biological computers in bacterial cells. But if they were to develop analogous circuits that operate in mammalian cells, these functions might be brought into better use.

DNA-molecule2What this means is that we could be very well seeing the beginning of biology that is enhanced and augmented by the addition of technology on the cellular level. And not in the sense of tiny machines or implants, things made of silicon and minerals that would regulate our blood flow, administer drugs or monitor or vitals. No, in this case, we would be talking about machines that are composed of self-regulating DNA and RNA and work in the same way our organic tissues do.

On top of that, we would be able to create things like flash drives and computation software from living tissue, cramming thousands of terabytes of into into a few cells worth of genetic material. Human beings would no longer need smartphones, PDAs or tablets, since they would be able to carry all the information they would ever need in their body. And the ability to do this could very well lead to the creation of AI’s that are not build, but grown, making them virtually indistinguishable from humans.

caprica_6And you know what that means, don’t you? The line between biological and artificial would truly begin to dissolve, Voight-Kampff and genetic tests might have to become mandatory, and we could all be looking at robots that look something like this…

Man the future is awesome and scary!

Sources: Extremetech.com, (2)

BSG: Blood & Chrome (Ep. 9-10)

bsg-blood-and-chromeWe come to it at last, the finale of the webseries BSG: Blood & Chrome! And much like with the rest of the show, my feelings were largely positive, with just a few rejoinders. There were some flaws, some weaknesses; mainly things that pointed to some writing and/or production issues. But overall, it was a testament to the enduring appeal of the relaunched franchise and its creative team.

And I look forward to when the Syfy network will be airing it this month, as I imagine an official launch will correct a lot of these bumps. As I’m sure we can all agree, there’s nothing that can’t be fixed with bigger budgets and more oversight! But of course, I digress. Here’s what happened in the final two episodes and the culmination of the webseries.

Episodes 9-10:
BSG-BloodnChrome-CottonThe series opens once again with our heroes being held up inside the resort on Djerba after the Cylon attack. Toth is dead, and once again, an argument erupts over what they are to do. Adama and Kelly insist they continue, but Coker raises his weapon at her and demands that she divulge the details of their mission first. She begins explaining that the target is an automated communications hub located on the planet, and her mission is to upload a virus contained in her dogtags.

They proceed on foot to the communications hub and find it undefended. Kelly hops on the Cylon terminal and begins to upload the contents of her dogtags, but Coker shoots her when he sees a Battlestar on the display screen. He tells Adama that she is a traitor, and that the Cylons spared her back at the resort because they saw what she was carrying in her dogtags and realized she was one of them. Kelly shoots Coker and holds Adama at gun point, and explains that her betrayal is necessary since the Cylons are just defending themselves and value life more than humans do.

bsg-blood-and-chrome1Adama shoots Kelly and destroys the array. She leaves Kelly behind and drags Coker away from the array. Together, they wait outside in the snow for a rescue and Coker reveals that he has a wife waiting for him back at home. Coker then gives Adama the photo and apparently dies, and a Raptor arrives to pick them up. Back at the array, a semi-humanoid Cylon comes to Kelly and tells her that her “more enlightened” views do not excuse her from the Cylons hatred, and then snaps her neck.

Adama finds himself aboard the Galactica and is met by Commander Nash, who explains to him that they knew of Kelly’s planned betrayal and moved accordingly. While they were on Djerba and the Cylons were following Kelly’s transmission, the “ghost fleet” struck at a dozen Cylon installations and bases along the front. He gives Adama a pep talk about the need to sacrifice all things, even the facts, for the sake of the war effort, and Adama reluctantly accepts. He is transferred to a Viper squad and is reunited with Coker, who appears to be alive after all.

Adama joins the fleet and begins flying as a combat pilot. The war continues, with Colonial forces winning, and the series ends with Adama sealing a letter to his father.

bsg-blood-and-chrome_fight

Summary:
Like I said, there were some weaknesses in this final installment which I could not overlook. It still managed to deliver and ended on a high note, but the bumps along the way need to be acknowledged. First, there were some scripting errors which were pretty similar to stuff found in previous episodes and evidence of cut corners. This could be written off as due to budgets and the need for quick production, but what can you say? These things tend to stand out.

First off, there was the fact that Toth is written off and is not seen again after his quick death in episode 8. Much time was dedicated to the fact that this man was as a survivor who managed to stay alive in a hostile environment permeated by Cylons and their ugly creations. But as soon as the attack party shows up, he goes down mighty quick and is never heard from again. Feels weak.

And then, in the course of yet another argument of what they are to do, Coker and Kelly discuss the true nature of their mission, and it sounds like a broken record on repeat. Basically, she tells him that their target is an automated communications array not once, not twice, but thrice! All the while, he keeps demanding she tell him everything, but she just says the same thing each time:  “The target is an automated facility. The automated facility is six km from here. It’s automated so it’s undefended.” That’s basically what she says. Did the writer forget to proofread or something?

And they also confirm in these last episodes that the resort was a place where the Cylons were carrying out experiments on human anatomy that were clearly part of their ongoing efforts to merge the organic with the synthetic. So… why was Toth based there? If this was a Cylon facility, why was the lone survivor of the special ops team hiding out there and using it as his personal base? Wouldn’t that be considered bad tactics, since it was a guaranteed way of getting the Cylons to come find you?

And then came the scene where Kelly is confronted by the quasi-humanoid Cylon that is meant to call to mind Caprica Six and the other flesh and blood Cylons from the new series. It is still in production and only has flesh along one arm, the rest composed of an anthropomorphized shell and with a female voice. After finding her wounded, this sympathizer who tried to  help them, it simply tells her that “we don’t hate you any less just because you side with us”, and then proceeds to snap her neck.

Seriously, that was kind of dumb. This is a woman with operational intel of the Colonial Fleet who helped to design them. Why would they kill her, except out of some sense of blind, irrational hatred designed to prove that the Cylons really and truly were evil? That was my feeling in this scene, that it was set up to disprove everything she said about how the Cylons value life more than humans. And I couldn’t help but feel that a much better plot point would be to have them take Kelly’s and use her to further their experiments with creating biological machinery.

But of course, there were good parts as well and plenty of saving graces. For example, I was kind of wondering what happened to the rest of the ghost fleet after the Osiris jumped in to Djerba to do their attack run. Turns out, it was earmarked for a big offensive in other sectors. Made sense, and also provided some simple but effective resolution to the story and explained how the war effort got turned around. What’s more, the ending provided some hints that a continuation would be in the works, a series that follows how the Colonial Fleet went from fighting a losing war to beating the Cylons and sending them into exile.

And sure enough, the special effects, tone and tempo of the show never failed to impress. In the end, as with the rest of the series, you get the unmistakable sign of quality and attention to detail which anyone who loved the relaunched series or Caprica would come to expect. Yeah, at times you get that artificial environment or “that doesn’t look real” feeling, but sure as shit, the CGI has come a long way in the past few years and its shows here.

Well that about wraps up the BSG: Blood & Chrome series. As I said, it is expected to air as a televised movie this month on the Syfy network, and based on the popularity of that, could turn into the next BSG miniseries. Fingers crossed, because I think there’s plenty of potential to be had here! Not only are William Adama and Coker, as portrayed by Luke Pasqualino and Ben Cotton good characters, but I personally felt that Brian Markinson (who played Commander Nash) didn’t get enough screen time and would be an awesome character.

And of course, there’s plenty of story arc to be had. In addition to all the action and warfare, you could also show how Adama and Tigh first met, how Adama worked his way up the chain of command to become an officer. How he and Tigh fell on hard times, and delve into the motivations of the Cylons and how they came to meet the Final Five and were given resurrection technology way back when. Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of prequels, but I tell ya, there’s plenty of material here! Exploit, people, exploit!

Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome

bsg-blood-and-chromeHey there, BSG fans! If you’re like me, then you’ve been in the dark until very recently about the new web series Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. This show, which began back in November, only came to my attention about a week ago, and since then I’ve been scrambling to get my hands on all the episodes.

So for those who don’t know about, do know but haven’t had the chance to see it, or are just getting into it, I hope this will all prove of interest to you. Over the next few days, I plan to watch all ten episodes and review them in three separate parts (1-4, 5-8, and 9/10). Come join me and hopefully this new series will fill the void that BSG and the short-lived Caprica have left in their wake…

Background:
Set in the tenth year of the First Cylon War, the show follows the exploits of the young William Adama as he joins the Colonial Fleet and begins participating in the twenty year war to rid humanity of the machines. The series stars Luke Pasqualino as a young William Adama and was created by Michael Taylor and David Eick.

Distribution of Blood & Chrome began as a 10-episode online series in conjunction with Machinima.com on November 9, 2012, but a televised movie is slated to air in February 2013 on Syfy. Depending on the success of that, we might just see a new prequel series in the works! Never been a fan of prequels, but based on the strength of the webepisodes thus far, I see some serious potential!

Episodes 1-4:
battlestar-galactica-blood-and-chromeThe story opens with Bill Adama writing to his father, explain why he has enlisted in the war. This gives us a quick precis of how the Cylons revolted against humanity for what appear to be unknown reasons, and how the war to bring them to heel has been going on for some time and at the expense of many lives. We then cut to a firefight in progress where Adama is engaged with two Cylon Raiders and uses some sweet and unorthodox moves to take them down. But of course, it’s all a simulation.

We then see Adama arriving on a shuttle aboard the Galactica for the first time, where he distinguishes himself amongst his peers as a cocky SOB who can’t wait to get into combat. As a result, he is assigned to a Raptor named Wild Weasel where he meets his surly and jaded co-pilot, Coker Fasjovik.

blood-and-chrome-battlestar-galactica-imgUnlike Adama, he is interested in getting out after his second mandatory term is done and has no patience for hotshots. Neither, it seems, does Commander Nash – Galactica’s CO – who assigned him to make a supply run for their first mission. This mission will take them four days and will completely avoid the enemy, it is hoped.

In the following episode, Adama and Coker find that their cargo isn’t supplies but a software engineer named Dr. Beka Kelly. Adama had already met her in the showers, and the chemistry was clear. However, his feeling soon cool when he realized that she used to work for Graystone Industries, the same company that produced the Cylons in the first place. And as one of the people who helped upgrade their CPU’s, she also had a hand in giving them their intelligence.

blood-and-chrome-4They also learn that their true mission, which Kelly informs of them once they are underway, is to rendezvous with the Battlestar Acheron near the front lines, and to maintain radio silence all the way. What began as a milk run quickly turns into a combat mission! However, when they arrive, they find the Acheron destroyed, the result of an ambush.

Three Cylon Raiders then close on them and things get real hairy, real fast! Luckily, their small compliment of weapons and Adama’s crazy flying skills manage to save their asses. Unfortunately, Kelly tells them they cannot return to Galactica and orders them to send a transmission on an open frequency.

blood-and-chrome-fleetIn response, they are given a set of coordinates which will take them into Cylon space. After a heated argument, Adama and Kelly convince Coker to oblige them and they set course. En route, Kelly reveals to Adama that was once married to Ezra Barzel, a war hero who inspired many young people to join the academy. When they reach the coordinates, they find a series of Colonial “ghost ships” – i.e. ships that were reported lost – hiding in a field of asteroids.

Once aboard the command ship, an Orion-class Battlestar named Osiris, Dr. Kelly meets with the commander and they are all briefed on their mission. The fleet is inbound for Djerba, a planet deep within Cylon territory where Dr. Kelly is to be delivered for some special mission. Adama volunteers to fly the doctor in and she insists that they be allowed to say with her since they’ve come this far together. When they reach the planet, a Cylon base star appears unexpectedly. Rather than abort, the Commander orders a full launch and tells Adama and their escorts to make for the surface…

Summary:
Well, as far as first and second impression go, I was pretty impressed. It was nice to see a new that had the old Battlestar feel. The tone, direction, and visuals are all quite superb, establishing a dark and gritty tone to the story which BSG is famous for. The casting is also quite excellent, and its nice to see several familiar faces in there. Aside from Luke Pasqualino, just about every member of the cast was in BSG or Caprica, and David Eik did his usual thing and makes an appearance as a supporting character.

The rest were all Vancouver-based actors that I recognized from other shows. Always nice to see fellow Canucks at work! And the CGI and music, which comes from the same people involved in the shows predecessors, was nothing short of awesome. In fact, despite it being a web series, Blood and Chrome even improved upon the effects of the original show.

But of course, what matters most here (at least to me) is the plot. Given that this is a limited concept show which comes in 12 minute packets, there’s little time devoted to build-up and character development. Mainly, we are given a premise, some background, and then thrown into the thick of things. However, this is to be expected from a web series, where the format just doesn’t allow for much pacing or exposition. And really, who cares when you got a story like this?

Although it”s still taking shape at this point, the overall plot seems pretty clear. After ten years of protracted conflict, the war against the Cylons is not going so well. The mission involving this “ghost fleet” is clearly a last-ditch effort to win the war outright, and just about everything hinges on its successful completion. Of course, there are going to be several twists and turns along the way, and surely some more deep background stuff that will answer some key questions. Like why do the Cylons hate humanity so much? Why did they turn in the first place? And how do events from the First Cylon War play into the attack which took place some thirty years later.

Eager to find out where things go from here! Stay tuned for web episodes four through eight, coming up next!