News from Space: Mysterious Radio Waves Detected…

auriga_nebulaAccording to a story published on July 10 in The Astrophysical Journal, a radio burst was detected that may have originated outside of our galaxy. Apparently, these split-second radio bursts have heard before, but always with the same telescope – Parkes Observatory in Australia. Given that only this observatory was detecting these signals, there was debate about whether they were coming from inside our galaxy, or even from Earth itself.

However, this time the radio signals were detected by a different telescope – the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – which concluded that the bursts are coming from outside the galaxy. This is also the first time one of these bursts have been found in the northern hemisphere of the sky. Exactly what may be causing such radio bursts represents a major new enigma for astrophysicists.

Victoria Kaspi, an astrophysics researcher at McGill University who participated in the research, explained:

Our result is important because it eliminates any doubt that these radio bursts are truly of cosmic origin. The radio waves show every sign of having come from far outside our galaxy – a really exciting prospect.

arecibo_arrayFast radio bursts are a flurry of radio waves that last a few thousandths of a second, and at any given minute there are only seven of these in the sky on average, according to the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. Their cause is unknown, and the possibilities range from black holes, to neutron stars coming together, to the magnetic field of pulsars (a type of neutron star) flaring up.

The pulse was detected on Nov. 2, 2012, at the Arecibo Observatory – a National Science Foundation-sponsored facility that has the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. While fast radio bursts last just a few thousandths of a second and have rarely been detected, the international team of scientists reporting the Arecibo finding estimate that these bursts occur roughly 10,000 times a day over the whole sky.

MaxPlanckIns_radiowavepulseThis astonishingly large number is inferred by calculating how much sky was observed, and for how long, in order to make the few detections that have so far been reported. Laura Spitler, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany and the lead author of the new paper, was also the first person to note the event. As she explained:

The brightness and duration of this event, and the inferred rate at which these bursts occur, are all consistent with the properties of the bursts previously detected by the Parkes telescope in Australia.

The bursts appear to be coming from beyond the Milky Way, based on measurement of an effect known as plasma dispersion. Pulses that travel through the cosmos are distinguished from man-made ones by the effect of interstellar electrons, which cause radio waves to travel more slowly at lower radio frequencies. The burst detected by the Arecibo telescope has three times the maximum dispersion measure that would be expected from a local source.

Four_antennas_ALMAEfforts are now under way to detect radio bursts using radio telescopes that can observe broad swaths of the sky to help identify them. Telescopes under construction in Australia and South Africa as well as the CHIME telescope in Canada have the potential to detect fast radio bursts. Astronomers say these and other new facilities could pave the way for many more discoveries and a better understanding of this mysterious cosmic phenomenon.

For those hoping this was a possible resolution to the Fermi Paradox – i.e. that the radio bursts might have been extra-terrestrial in origin – this news is a little disappointing. But in truth, its yet another example of the deeper mysteries of the universe at work. Much like our ongoing research into the world of elementary particles, every answer gives rise to new questions.


The Future of Computing: Brain-Like Computers

neuronsIt’s no secret that computer scientists and engineers are looking to the human brain as means of achieving the next great leap in computer evolution. Already, machines are being developed that rely on machine blood, can continue working despite being damaged, and recognize images and speech. And soon, a computer chip that is capable of learning from its mistakes will also be available.

The new computing approach, already in use by some large technology companies, is based on the biological nervous system – specifically on how neurons react to stimuli and connect with other neurons to interpret information. It allows computers to absorb new information while carrying out a task, and adjust what they do based on the changing signals.

brain_chip2The first commercial version of the new kind of computer chip is scheduled to be released in 2014, and was the result of a collaborative effort between I.B.M. and Qualcomm, as well as a Stanford research team. This “neuromorphic processor” can not only automate tasks that once required painstaking programming, but can also sidestep and even tolerate errors, potentially making the term “computer crash” obsolete.

In coming years, the approach will make possible a new generation of artificial intelligence systems that will perform some functions that humans do with ease: see, speak, listen, navigate, manipulate and control. That can hold enormous consequences for tasks like facial and speech recognition, navigation and planning, which are still in elementary stages and rely heavily on human programming.

googleneuralnetworkFor example, computer vision systems only “recognize” objects that can be identified by the statistics-oriented algorithms programmed into them. An algorithm is like a recipe, a set of step-by-step instructions to perform a calculation. But last year, Google researchers were able to get a machine-learning algorithm, known as a “Google Neural Network”, to perform an identification task (involving cats) without supervision.

And this past June, the company said it had used those neural network techniques to develop a new search service to help customers find specific photos more accurately. And this past November, researchers at Standford University came up with a new algorithm that could give computers the power to more reliably interpret language. It’s known as the Neural Analysis of Sentiment (NaSent).

deep_learning_laptopA similar concept known as Deep Leaning is also looking to endow software with a measure of common sense. Google is using this technique with their voice recognition technology to aid in performing searches. In addition, the social media giant Facebook is looking to use deep learning to help them improve Graph Search, an engine that allows users to search activity on their network.

Until now, the design of computers was dictated by ideas originated by the mathematician John von Neumann about 65 years ago. Microprocessors perform operations at lightning speed, following instructions programmed using long strings of binary code (0s and 1s). The information is stored separately in what is known as memory, either in the processor itself, in adjacent storage chips or in higher capacity magnetic disk drives.

neural-networksBy contrast, the new processors consist of electronic components that can be connected by wires that mimic biological synapses. Because they are based on large groups of neuron-like elements, they are known as neuromorphic processors, a term credited to the California Institute of Technology physicist Carver Mead, who pioneered the concept in the late 1980s.

These processors are not “programmed”, in the conventional sense. Instead, the connections between the circuits are “weighted” according to correlations in data that the processor has already “learned.” Those weights are then altered as data flows in to the chip, causing them to change their values and to “spike.” This, in turn, strengthens some connections and weakens others, reacting much the same way the human brain does.

Neuromorphic-chip-640x353In the words of Dharmendra Modha, an I.B.M. computer scientist who leads the company’s cognitive computing research effort:

Instead of bringing data to computation as we do today, we can now bring computation to data. Sensors become the computer, and it opens up a new way to use computer chips that can be everywhere.

One great advantage of the new approach is its ability to tolerate glitches, whereas traditional computers are cannot work around the failure of even a single transistor. With the biological designs, the algorithms are ever changing, allowing the system to continuously adapt and work around failures to complete tasks. Another benefit is energy efficiency, another inspiration drawn from the human brain.

IBM_stacked3dchipsThe new computers, which are still based on silicon chips, will not replace today’s computers, but augment them; at least for the foreseeable future. Many computer designers see them as coprocessors, meaning they can work in tandem with other circuits that can be embedded in smartphones and the centralized computers that run computing clouds.

However, the new approach is still limited, thanks to the fact that scientists still do not fully understand how the human brain functions. As Kwabena Boahen, a computer scientist who leads Stanford’s Brains in Silicon research program, put it:

We have no clue. I’m an engineer, and I build things. There are these highfalutin theories, but give me one that will let me build something.

calit2PhotoLuckily, there are efforts underway that are designed to remedy this, with the specific intention of directing that knowledge towards the creation of better computers and AIs. One such effort comes from the National Science Foundation financed the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines, a new research center based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with Harvard and Cornell.

Another is the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (aka. Calit2) – a center dedicated to innovation in nanotechnology, life sciences, information technology, and telecommunications. As
Larry Smarr, an astrophysicist and director of Institute, put it:

We’re moving from engineering computing systems to something that has many of the characteristics of biological computing.

Human-Brain-project-Alp-ICTAnd last, but certainly not least, is the Human Brain Project, an international group of 200 scientists from 80 different research institutions and based in Lausanne, Switzerland. Having secured the $1.6 billion they need to fund their efforts, these researchers will spend the next ten years conducting research that cuts across multiple disciplines.

This initiative, which has been compared to the Large Hadron Collider, will attempt to reconstruct the human brain piece-by-piece and gradually bring these cognitive components into an overarching supercomputer. The expected result of this research will be new platforms for “neuromorphic computing” and “neurorobotics,” allowing for the creation of computing and robotic architectures that mimic the functions of the human brain.

neuromorphic_revolutionWhen future generations look back on this decade, no doubt they will refer to it as the birth of the neuromophic computing revolution. Or maybe just Neuromorphic Revolution for short, but that sort of depends on the outcome. With so many technological revolutions well underway, it is difficult to imagine how the future will look back and characterize this time.

Perhaps, as Charles Stross suggest, it will simply be known as “the teens”, that time in pre-Singularity history where it was all starting to come together, but was yet to explode and violently change everything we know. I for one am looking forward to being around to witness it all!


3D Printer Uses Drag and Drop DNA for Cancer Drugs

brain-scan_530It seems that Parabon NanoLabs may have opened up a new front in the ongoing war against the terrible disease known as glioblastoma multiforme – aka. Brain Cancer. And the culprit in this new offensive is 3D printing technology, which is being used to print a new brand of medication, molecule for molecule, using a DNA self-assembly technique. But what is even more impressive is the fact that the DNA itself was custom designed with a drag-and-drop computer program.

The new technology, which was in part funded by the National Science Foundation, is called the Parabon Essemblix Drug Development Platform, and it combines computer-aided design (CAD) software with nanoscale fabrication technology. In an official release made by the National Science Foundation, lead investigator Steven Armentrout stated: “What differentiates our nanotechnology from others is our ability to rapidly, and precisely, specify the placement of every atom in a compound that we design.”

dna_selfassemblyIn essence, this breakthrough will not only drastically reduce the time it takes to both create and test medications, it will also open the door to completely new drug designs. The computer software used allowed the scientists to design molecular pieces with specific, functional components, and to optimize their designs using a cloud supercomputing platform called the Parabon Computation Grid that searches for sets of DNA sequences.

And to hasten the drug production process, the researches took their new sequences and chemically synthesized trillions of identical copies of the designed molecules. So, in a matter of weeks — and in some cases, days — the developers were able to produce their drugs. The technique is considerably faster than traditional drug discovery techniques, many of which simply utilize trial-and-error screening.

As for what lies ahead, Parabon is hoping to use the same technique to develop synthetic vaccines and gene therapies that can target a person’s genetic diseases. In addition, the technology could be used beyond the field of medicine, embracing nanotechnology, biotechnology and even computing. As always, exciting developments in one field are likely to trigger movements in others.