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New advanced processors from IBM mimic the mammalian brain -- let's hope they're on our side

International Business Machines, Inc. (IBM) has been working on a project co-funded by both the U.S. military and various academic partners to develop a chip that "thinks" and "processes" perception like a fleshy life form.  IBM calls the project SyNAPSE (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics) after the structure in neurons that's used to signal the neurons they're associated with.

I. Meet the First Full-Fledge Neural Networks Dev Kit

IBM research fellow Dr. Dharmendra S. Modha has partnered with a colleague in academia -- Professor Rajit Manohar a VLSI expert at Cornell University -- and iniLabs, Ltd, a spinoff of the Universität Zürich's (Univ. of Zürich)'s Institute of Neuroinformatics to develop the "thinking" chip.

Fifty-three million dollars in grant money later, they have produced a complete neural networks development packages that aims to offer some abstraction and to ease the process of developing neuronal networks that can process and respond to sensor input.

The basic offering consists of:
  • Hardware Unit
  • SDK
    • Used to programmatic network of the fundamental units
    • Maps unit interactions
    • Maps I/O to network
  • Examples/Library
    • 150+ premade corelet examples
    • Real-time actuator and sensor examples are included
  • Simulator
    • Sort of like smartphone development "simulated hardware"
    • Uses software model of hardware unit to predict what your neural network code will do
    • Allows you to get network basically working before loading it onto actual hardware
    • Saves the cost of having to have the development hardware up front
  • Laboratory
    • Bundled package containing SDK, simulator, hardware support, and examples library
One example showcased by IBM shows a neural network using a retinal sensor, which mimics the human eye.  A real human brain translates over 1 terabyte of raw visual data a day into recognized shapes, tracked motions, depth perceptions, and self-tuning feedback to the sensors based on light conditions.  By comparison IBM's network is far simpler, accomplishing basic shape detection.

Retinal sensor
(left: retinal sensor "vision"; right: significant shape output)

Dr. Modha comments, "Architectures and programs are closely intertwined and a new architecture necessitates a new programming paradigm.  We are working to create a FORTRAN for synaptic computing chips. While complementing today’s computers, this will bring forth a fundamentally new technological capability in terms of programming and applying emerging learning systems."

II. Project Motivations -- Killer Drones, Self-Driving Cars, and Stock Picking

The project is funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  DARPA typically does not directly participate in the non-military projects it funds, but more often than not it funds projects that it considers of interest to the future technological progress of the U.S. military and intelligence community.

Neural networks in the future could be used to create fully autonomous attack drones and ground-based war robots.  Facial recognition neural networks could also sort through feeds of small ground based and high-flying high-resolution air based camera drones, as well as hacked cloud-connected cameras in the target state, to recognize targets slated for termination.  With the target's location in hand, the killing robots could then be dispatched using lightweight neural networks to perform target identification and aiming.

With both domestic armed drone use and federal camera surveillance of citizens on the rise, similar tactics could be applied domestically against individuals the ruling administration deems "terrorists."

Predator missile
Drones could use multi-sensor networks to locate targets, then employ lightweight neural networks to locate their target and aim the killing shot. [Image Source: Drone Wars UK]

Currentlty the project is in its third phase, which received $12M USD in additional funding.  IBM hosts details of the past rounds (Phase 0Phase 1, and Phase 2), for those interested.

IBM and its academic partners are more interested in the science and financial implications of the project than the warfare side.  Among the applications they're eyeing are:
  • predictive stock/currency trading
  • drug development
  • climate/environmental monitoring
  • autonomous cars
  • service robots
  • behavioral marketing
A graphical representation of IBM's neural network abstraction scheme

IBM describes the justification for this new computing paradigm commenting:

Although they are fast and precise “number crunchers,” computers of traditional design become constrained by power and size while operating at reduced effectiveness when applied to real-time processing of the noisy, analog, voluminous, Big Data produced by the world around us. In contrast, the brain—which operates comparatively slowly and at low precision—excels at tasks such as recognizing, interpreting, and acting upon patterns, while consuming the same amount of power as a 20 watt light bulb and occupying the volume of a two-liter bottle.
IBM’s long-term goal is to build a chip system with ten billion neurons and hundred trillion synapses, while consuming merely one kilowatt of power and occupying less than two liters of volume.

Neural networks are the most optimal design ever produced by nature for the purpose of survival by dramatic transformation of the environment in which a living organism lives.  Neural networks could one day help machines serve mankind performing menial tasks and helping to cure disease.  Alternatively, they could potentially be the most lethal combination of destructive power, obedience, and precision ever witnessed by mankind, potentially killing millions with the press of a single button.

In that regard neural networks and ubiquitous massively parallel sensor networks are perhaps the most promising yet deadly tool produced by mankind since the fateful splitting of the atom.

Source: IBM

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Run like hell
By half_duplex on 8/9/2013 3:28:43 PM , Rating: 2
Let's say that you are Edward Snowden, or someone else the ruling administration has deemed necessary to silence, and you're on the run.

The last 4 years of your cell phone GPS data is fed into one of these predictive/decision support networks, and a list of 10 possible residences is returned.

Of those, 5 are equipped with either Microsoft or Samsung always-on in home surveillance units. The other 5 are in close proximity to red light, speeding, light pole, toll booth, bank ATM and fast food drive through cameras. The facial and license plate data is fed into a network delivering 99% accuracy on facial matching.

At the time of matching, the network invokes the autonomous drones termination listener, passing it your parameters.

This is all done without the help of a single human.

Will it ever get this out of hand? Probably not, but I don't trust anyone with this type of power.

RE: Run like hell
By tng on 8/9/2013 6:50:03 PM , Rating: 2
This is all done without the help of a single human.
All of the subsequent finding and "termination" is done in your scenario without a human.

However as you said, someone has to take the time to type the name and SSN into the system for this to happen. You would hope that power is not hacked and is used responsibly.

If this does come to pass and people start exploding spontaneously there will be revolts. It is the same thing as the Stazi visits in the middle of the night to see your neighbor, he just disappears and is never seen again.

RE: Run like hell
By mik123 on 8/9/2013 10:21:17 PM , Rating: 3
"The ruling administration" is the real problem in your scenario, not any particular technology.

Or would you feel better if they "silenced" someone using old-fashioned methods?

RE: Run like hell
By deksman2 on 8/10/2013 7:43:16 AM , Rating: 2
Thank you.
Its not the technology that's the problem here.
It's the Humans that program/use it.

I find it very disheartening people apparently project 'scifi doomsday film' scenarios onto real life when those movies were made by artists who have a limited understanding of technology and science in the first place.

On the bright side, this could easily have numerous beneficial applications for far better and highly efficient system managing and problem solving.

Computers have already been put to various tasks where they invented a 'new internet' that's faster, more efficient, etc.
Tons of useful applications.

RE: Run like hell
By Bubbacub on 8/10/2013 2:20:00 PM , Rating: 2
yes and no,

for instance the desire of the nazi's to wipe out jewish populations in central and eastern europe was not unique, there is well a documented history of terrible periodic pogroms over the last two thousand years. what made the nazis different to every other anti-semitic group over the last few millenia is that with mechanised warfare and industrilisation, for the first time, they had the technology to realise their goal.

that doesnt mean to say that i'm against cars and factories!
i'm just saing that new enabling technologies can have a downside - if you think about them before widespread implementation it can probably mitigate some of the harm without hopefully impeding the benefits.

RE: Run like hell
By Shadowmaster625 on 8/12/2013 8:22:52 AM , Rating: 2
They use the cell tower logs. I dont think they have the same level of access to your GPS history, since GPS is one-way only.

RE: Run like hell
By Just Tom on 8/12/2013 10:28:33 AM , Rating: 2
Or, since they have access to the person's GPS data, they could just get a current GPS reading and send out a guy with a gun.

By samuel1c.handel on 8/10/13, Rating: 0
"Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment -- same piece of hardware -- paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that's a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be." -- Steve Ballmer

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