The Future is Here: The Li-Fi Network

lifi_internet1Scientists have been looking at optics for some time as a means of enhancing the usual means of data processing. In terms of computing, it means that using optical components – which use photons rather than electrons to transmit information – could lead to computers that can run exponentially faster than those that use traditional electronics. But a group of German scientists have taken that a step farther, proposing an internet that runs on the same principles.

Using conventional LED bulbs in a laboratory setting, researchers at the Fraunhofer Henrich Hertz Institute (HHI) in Germany successfully transmitted data at 3Gbps using conventional. In a real-world setting, the same system was capable of transmitting data at rate of 500Mbps, roughly a dozen to hundreds of times what a conventional WiFi network is capable of transmitting.

optical_computer1The concept of visible light communications (VLC), or LiFi as it is sometimes known, has received a lot of attention in recent years, mostly due to the growing prevalence of LED technology. Much like other solid-state electronics, LEDs can be controlled as any other electronic component can. By extension, a VLC network can be created along the same lines as a WiFi one, using terahertz radiation (light) instead of microwaves and an LED bulb instead of an oscillating a WiFi transmitter, and photodetectors instead of antennas.

Compared to WiFi, the LiFi concept comes with a slew of advantages. First of all, it can turn any LED lamp into a network connection, and since it operates at such high frequencies, is well beyond the range of the current regulatory licensing framework. For the same reason, LiFi can be used in areas where extensive RF (radio-frequency) interference is common, such as on airplanes, in airports and hospitals. The Fraunhofer researchers even claim that VLC improves privacy, since the signal is directed from one box to another and not made up waves that can be easily picked up on by a third party.

Optical_ComputerBut of course, there is still much research and development that needs to be done. As it stands, the Fraunhoer research is limited in terms of how much information can be sent and how much distance it can travel. In order to compete with conventional WiFi, a system that uses optics to transmit information will have to be able to demonstrate the ability to pack a significant amount of bandwidth into a signal that can reach in excess of 100 m.

Nevertheless, there are numerous startups that are making headway, and many more researchers who are adapting optical components for computers as we speak. As a result, it shouldn’t be long before signs like this are appearing everywhere in your neighborhood…

lifi-internet

Source: Extremetech.com

The Future of Computing

digital_sentienceLook what you started, Nicolla 😉 After talking, at length, about the history of computing a few days ago, I got to thinking about the one aspect of the whole issue that I happened to leave out. Namely, the future of computing, with all the cool developments that we are likely to see in the next few decades or centuries.

Much of that came up in the course of my research, but unfortunately, after thirteen or so examples about the history of computing, I was far too tired and burnt to get into the future of it as well. And so, I carry on today, with a brief (I promise!) list of developments that we are likely to see before the century is out… give or take. Here they are:

Chemical Computer:
Here we have a rather novel idea for the future of hardware. Otherwise known as a reaction-diffusion or “gooware” computer, this concept calls for the creation of a semi-solid chemical “soup” where data is represented by varying concentrations of chemicals and computations are performed by naturally occurring chemical reactions.

Based on the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, a chemical experiment which demonstrated that wave phenomena can indeed take place in chemical reactions, contradicting the theory of thermodynamics which states that entropy will only increase in a closed system. By contrast, the BZ experiments showed that cyclic effects can take place without breaking the laws of nature.

Amongst theoretical models, it remains a top contender for future use for the simple reason that it is far less limiting that current microprocessors. Whereas the latter only allows the flow of data in one direction at a time, a chemical computer theoretically allows for the movement of data in all directions, all dimensions, both away and against each other.

For obvious reasons, the concept is still very much in the experimental stage and no working models have been proposed at this time.

DNA Computing:
Yet another example of an unconventional computer design, one which uses biochemistry and molecular biology, rather than silicon-based hardware, in order to conduct computations. Originally proposed by Leonard Adleman of the University of Southern Calfornia in 1994, Adleman was able to demonstrate how DNA could be used to conduct multiple calculations at once.

Much like chemical computing, the potential here is to be able to build a machine that is not restricted as conventional machines are. In addition to being able to compute in multiple dimensions and directions, the DNA basis of the machine means it could be merged with other organic technology, possibly even a fully-organic AI (a la the 12 Cylon models).

While progress in this area remains modest thus far, Turing complete models have been constructed, the most notable of which is the model crated by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel in 2002. Here, researchers unveiled a programmable molecular computing machine composed of enzymes and DNA molecules instead of silicon microchips which would theoretically be capable of diagnosing cancer in a cell and releasing anti-cancer drugs.

Nanocomputers:
In keeping with the tradition of making computers smaller and smaller, scientists have proposed that the next generation of computers should measure only a few nanometers in size. That’s 1×10-9 meters for those who mathematically inclined. As part of the growing field of nanotechnology, the application is still largely theoretical and dependent on further advancements. Nevertheless, the process is a highly feasible one with many potential benefits.

Here, as with many of these other concepts, the plan is simple. By further miniaturizing the components, a computer could be shrunk to the size of a chip and implanted anywhere on a human body (i.e. “Wetware” or silicate implants). This will ensure maximum portability, and coupled with a wireless interface device (see Google Glasses or VR Contact Lenses) could be accessed at any time in any place.

Optical Computers:
Compared to the previous two examples, this proposed computer is quite straightforward, even if it radically advanced. While today’s computer rely on the movement of electrons in and out of transistors to do logic, an optical computer relies on the movement of photons.

The immediate advantage of this is clear; given that photons are much faster than electrons, computers equipped with optical components would be able to process information of significantly greater speeds. In addition, researchers contend that this can be done with less energy, making optical computing a potential green technology.

Currently, creating optical computers is just a matter of replacing electronic components with optical ones, which requires an optical transistor, which are composed of non-linear crystals. Such materials exist and experiments are already underway. However, there remains controversy as to whether the proposed benefits will pay off, or be comparable to other technologies (such as semiconductors). Only time will tell…

Quantum Computers:
And last, and perhaps most revolutionary of all, is the concept of quantum computing – a device which will rely on the use of quantum mechanical phenomena to performs operations. Unlike digital computers, which require that data to be encoded into binary digits (aka. bits), quantum computation utilizes quantum properties to represent data and perform calculations.

The field of quantum computing was first introduced by Richard Feynman in 1982 and represented the latest advancements in field theory. Much like chemical and DNA-based computer designs, the theoretical quantum computer also has the ability to conduct multiple computations at the same time, mainly because it would have the ability to be in more than one state simultaneously.

The concept remains highly theoretical, but a number of experiments have been conducted in which quantum computational operations were executed on a very small number of qubits (quantum bits). Both practical and theoretical research continues, and many national government and military funding agencies support quantum computing research to develop quantum computers for both civilian and national security purposes, such as cryptanalysis.

Wearable Computers:
Last, and most feasible, is the wearable computer, which has already been developed for commercial use. Essentially, these are a class of miniature electronic devices that are worn on the bearer’s person, either under or on top of clothing. A popular version of this concept is the wrist mounted option, where the computer is worn like a watch.

The purposes and advantages of this type of computer are obvious, especially where applications that require more complex computational support than hardware coded logics can provide. Another advantage is the constant interactions between user and computer, as it is augmented into all other functions of the user’s daily life. In many ways, it acts as a prosthesis, being an extension of the users mind and body.

Pretty cool, huh? And to think that these and possibly other concepts could be feasible within our own lifetimes. Given the current rate of progress in all thing’s high-tech, we could be looking at fully-integrated computer implants, biological computers and AI’s with biomechanical brains. Wouldn’t that be both amazing and potentially frightening!

Of Mechanical Minds

A few weeks back, a friend of mine, Nicola Higgins, directed me to an article about Google’s new neural net. Not only did she provide me with a damn interesting read, she also challenged me to write an article about the different types of robot brains. Well, Nicola, as Barny Stintson would say “Challenge Accepted!”And I got to say, it was a fun topic to get into.

After much research and plugging away at the lovely thing known as the internet (which was predicted by Vannevar Bush with his proposed Memor-Index system (aka. Memex) 50 years ago, btw) I managed to compile a list of the most historically relevant examples of mechanical minds, culminating in the development of Google’s Neural Net. Here we go..

Earliest Examples:
Even in ancient times, the concept of automata and arithmetic machinery can be found in certain cultures. In the Near East, the Arab World, and as far East as China, historians have found examples of primitive machinery that was designed to perform one task or another. And even though few specimens survive, there are even examples of machines that could perform complex mathematical calculations…

Antikythera mechanism:
Invented in ancient Greece, and recovered in 1901 on the ship that bears the same name, the Antikythera is the world’s oldest known analog calculator, invented to calculate the positions of the heavens for ancient astronomers. However, it was not until a century later that its true complexity and significance would be fully understood. Having been built in the 1st century BCE, it would not be until the 14th century CE that machines of its complexity would be built again.

Although it is widely theorized that this “clock of the heavens” must have had several predecessors during the Hellenistic Period, it remains the oldest surviving analog computer in existence. After collecting all the surviving pieces, scientists were able to reconstruct the design (pictured at right), which essentially amounted to a large box of interconnecting gears.

Pascaline:
Otherwise known as the Arithmetic Machine and Pascale Calculator, this device was invented by French mathematician Blaise Pascal in 1642 and is the first known example of a mechanized mathematical calculator. Apparently, Pascale invented this device to help his father reorganize the tax revenues of the French province of Haute-Normandie, and went on to create 50 prototypes before he was satisfied.

Of those 50, nine survive and are currently on display in various European museums. In addition to giving his father a helping hand, its introduction launched the development of mechanical calculators all over Europe and then the world. It’s invention is also directly linked to the development of the microprocessing circuit roughly three centuries later, which in turn is what led to the development of PC’s and embedded systems.

The Industrial Revolution:
With the rise of machine production, computational technology would see a number of developments. Key to all of this was the emergence of the concept of automation and the rationalization of society. Between the 18th and late 19th centuries, as every aspect of western society came to be organized and regimented based on the idea of regular production, machines needed to be developed that could handle this task of crunching numbers and storing the results.

Jacquard Loom:
Invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard, a French weaver and merchant, in 1801, the Loom that bears his name is the first programmable machine in history, which relied on punch cards to input orders and turn out textiles of various patterns. Thought it was based on earlier inventions by Basile Bouchon (1725), Jean Baptiste Falcon (1728) and Jacques Vaucanson (1740), it remains the most well-known example of a programmable loom and the earliest machine that was controlled through punch cards.

Though the Loom was did not perform computations, the design was nevertheless an important step in the development of computer hardware. Charles Babbage would use many of its features to design his Analytical Engine (see next example) and the use of punch cards would remain a stable in the computing industry well into the 20th century until the development of the microprocessor.

Analytical Engine:
Also known as the “Difference Engine”, this concept was originally proposed by English Mathematician Charles Babbage. Beginning in 1822 Babbage began contemplating designs for a machine that would be capable of automating the process of creating error free tables, which arose out of difficulties encountered by teams of mathematicians who were attempting to do it by hand.

Though he was never able to complete construction of a finished product, due to apparent difficulties with the chief engineer and funding shortages, his proposed engine incorporated an arithmetical unit, control flow in the form of conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory, making it the first Turing-complete design for a general-purpose computer. His various trial models (like that featured at left) are currently on display in the Science Museum in London, England.

The Birth of Modern Computing:
The early 20th century saw the rise of several new developments, many of which would play a key role in the development of modern computers. The use of electricity for industrial applications was foremost, with all computers from this point forward being powered by Alternating and/or Direct Current and even using it to store information. At the same time, older ideas would be remain in use but become refined, most notably the use of punch cards and tape to read instructions and store results.

Tabulating Machine:
The next development in computation came roughly 70 years later when Herman Hollerith, an American statistician, developed a “tabulator” to help him process information from the 1890 US Census. In addition to being the first electronic computational device designed to assist in summarizing information (and later, accounting), it also went on to spawn the entire data processing industry.

Six years after the 1890 Census, Hollerith formed his own company known as the Tabulating Machine Company that was responsible for creating machines that could tabulate info based on punch cards. In 1924, after several mergers and consolidations, Hollerith’c company was renamed International Business Machines (IBM), which would go on to build the first “supercomputer” for Columbia University in 1931.

Atanasoff–Berry Computer:
Next, we have the ABC, the first electronic digital computing device in the world. Conceived in 1937, the ABC shares several characteristics with its predecessors, not the least of which is the fact that it is electrically powered and relied on punch cards to store data. However, unlike its predecessors, it was the first machine to use digital symbols to compute and was the first computer to use vacuum tube technology

These additions allowed the ABC to acheive computational speeds that were previously thought impossible for a mechanical computer. However, the machine was limited in that it could only solve systems of linear equations, and its punch card system of storage was deemed unreliable. Work on the machine also stopped when it’s inventor John Vincent Atanasoff was called off to assist in World War II cryptographic assignments. Nevertheless, the machine remains an important milestone in the development of modern computers.

Colossus:
There’s something to be said about war being the engine of innovation. The Colossus is certainly no stranger to this rule, the machine used to break German codes in the Second World War. Due to the secrecy surrounding it, it would not have much of an influence on computing and would not be rediscovered until the 1990’s. Still, it represents a step in the development of computing, as it relied on vacuum tube technology and punch tape in order to perform calculations, and proved most adept at solving complex mathematical computations.

Originally conceived by Max Newman, the British mathematician who was chiefly responsible fore breaking German codes in Bletchley Park during the war, the machine was a proposed means of combatting the German Lorenz machine, which the Nazis used to encode all of their wireless transmissions. With the first model built in 1943, ten variants of the machine for the Allies before war’s end and were intrinsic in bringing down the Nazi war machine.

Harvard Mark I:
Also known as the “IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC)”, the Mark I was an electro-mechanical computer that was devised by Howard H. Aiken, built by IBM, and officially presented to Harvard University in 1944. Due to its success at performing long, complex calculations, it inspired several successors, most of which were used by the US Navy and Air Force for the purpose of running computations.

According to IBM’s own archives, the Mark I was the first computer that could execute long computations automatically. Built within a steel frame 51 feet (16 m) long and eight feet high, and using 500 miles (800 km) of wire with three million connections, it was the industry’s largest electromechanical calculator and the largest computer of its day.

Manchester SSEM:
Nicknamed “Baby”, the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) was developed in 1948 and was the world’s first computer to incorporate stored-program architecture.Whereas previous computers relied on punch tape or cards to store calculations and results, “Baby” was able to do this electronically.

Although its abilities were still modest – with a 32-bit word length, a memory of 32 words, and only capable of performing subtraction and negation without additional software – it was still revolutionary for its time. In addition, the SSEM also had the distinction of being the result of Alan Turing’s own work – another British crytographer who’s theories on the “Turing Machine” and development of the algorithm would form the basis of modern computer technology.

The Nuclear Age to the Digital Age:
With the end of World War II and the birth of the Nuclear Age, technology once again took several explosive leaps forward. This could be seen in the realm of computer technology as well, where wartime developments and commercial applications grew by leaps and bounds. In addition to processor speeds and stored memory multiplying expontentially every few years, the overall size of computers got smaller and smaller. This, some theorized would lead to the development of computers that were perfectly portable and smart enough to pass the “Turing Test”. Imagine!

IBM 7090:
The 7090 model which was released in 1959, is often referred to as a third generation computer because, unlike its predecessors which were either electormechanical  or used vacuum tubes, this machine relied transistors to conduct its computations. In addition, it was an improvement on earlier models in that it used a 36-bit word length and could store up to 32K (32,768) words, a modest increase in processing over the SSEM, but a ten thousand-fold increase in terms of storage capacity.

And of course, these improvements were mirrored in the fact the 7090 series were also significantly smaller than previous versions, being about the size of a desk rather than an entire room. They were also cheaper and were quite popular with NASA, Caltech and MIT.

PDP-8:
In keeping with the trend towards miniaturization, 1965 saw the development of the first commercial minicomputer by the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Though large by modern standards (about the size of a minibar) the PDP-8, also known as the “Straight-8”, was a major improvement over previous models, and therefore a commercial success.

In addition, later models also incorporated advanced concepts like the Real-Time Operating System and preemptive multitasking. Unfortunately, early models still relied on paper tape in order to process information. It was not until later that the computer was upgraded to take advantage of controlling language  such as FORTRAN, BASIC, and DIBOL.

Intel 4004:
Founded in California in 1968, the Intel Corporation quickly moved to the forefront of computational hardware development with the creation of the 4004, the worlds first Central Processing Unit, in 1971. Continuing the trend towards smaller computers, the development of this internal processor paved the way for personal computers, desktops, and laptops.

Incorporating the then-new silicon gate technology, Intel was able to create a processor that allowed for a higher number of transistors and therefore a faster processing speed than ever possible before. On top of all that, they were able to pack in into a much smaller frame, which ensured that computers built with the new CPU would be smaller, cheaper and more ergonomic. Thereafter, Intel would be a leading designer of integrated circuits and processors, supplanting even giants like IBM.

Apple I:
The 60’s and 70’s seemed to be a time for the birthing of future giants. Less than a decade after the first CPU was created, another upstart came along with an equally significant development. Named Apple and started by three men in 1976 – Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne – the first product to be marketed was a “personal computer” (PC) which Wozniak built himself.

One of the most distinctive features of the Apple I was the fact that it had a built-in keyboard. Competing models of the day, such as the Altair 8800, required a hardware extension to allow connection to a computer terminal or a teletypewriter machine. The company quickly took off and began introducing an upgraded version (the Apple II) just a year later. As a result, Apple I’s remain a scarce commodity and very valuable collector’s item.

The Future:
The last two decades of the 20th century also saw far more than its fair of developments. From the CPU and the PC came desktop computers, laptop computers, PDA’s, tablet PC’s, and networked computers. This last creation, aka. the Internet, was the greatest leap by far, allowing computers from all over the world to be networked together and share information. And with the exponential increase in information sharing that occurred as a result, many believe that it’s only a matter of time before wearable computers, fully portable computers, and artificial intelligences are possible. Ah, which brings me to the last entry in this list…

The Google Neural Network:
googleneuralnetworkFrom mechanical dials to vacuum tubes, from CPU’s to PC’s and laptops, computer’s have come a hell of a long way since the days of Ancient Greece. Hell, even within the last century, the growth in this one area of technology has been explosive, leading some to conclude that it was just a matter of time before we created a machine that was capable of thinking all on its own.

Well, my friends, that day appears to have dawned. Already, Nicola and myself blogged about this development, so I shan’t waste time going over it again. Suffice it to say, this new program, which thus far has been able to identify pictures of cats at random, contains the necessary neural capacity to acheive 1/1000th of what the human brain is capable of. Sounds small, but given the exponential growth in computing, it won’t be long before that gap is narrowed substantially.

Who knows what else the future will hold?  Optical computers that use not electrons but photons to move information about? Quantum computers, capable of connecting machines not only across space, but also time? Biocomputers that can be encoded directly into our bodies through our mitochondrial DNA? Oh, the possibilities…

Creating machines in the likeness of the human mind. Oh Brave New World that hath such machinery in it. Cool… yet scary!