Stories tagged Scientific Enterprise

Dec
06
2009

Finding better ways for computers to see

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Building biologically-inspired vision systems

Living organisms are very good at making sense out of what they see. Designing machines that can recognize objects when seen from an angle or at various distances is challenging. Facial or gesture recognition is becoming common in our computing devices.

Reverse engineering the visual cortex

In an attempt to improve upon current state of the art visual systems, scientists are attempting to reverse engineer biological visual systems.

Huge advances have been recently made in visualizing the structure of our visual cortex (hardware) but the inner workings of the neuronal systems (software) remain a mystery. Mimicking natural selection, scientists are testing thousands of software algorithms at a time.

Using processors from game playing computers

Using graphical processors from game playing computers (such as those found in the PlayStation 3 and high-end NVIDIA graphics cards), scientists have discovered better visual modeling systems.

"The best of these models, drawn from thousands of candidates, outperformed a variety of state-of-the-art vision systems across a range of object and face recognition tasks."

"GPUs are a real game-changer for scientific computing. We made a powerful parallel computing system from cheap, readily available off-the-shelf components, delivering over hundred-fold speed-ups relative to conventional methods,"

Sources
PLoS Computational Biology published research paper
PhysOrg.com
Visual Neuroscience Group @ The Rowland Institute at Harvard

Dec
06
2009

Eureka!: At last!  The world will be mine!
Eureka!: At last! The world will be mine!Courtesy Saperaud
Looking for a winter “project”? Why not invent something during your hibernation. You might make a million dollars! Or, in the case of an Amsterdam artist slash space engineer, who must enjoy a good laugh, you could invent a wacky mirror and convince the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences to give you 80,000 Euros for your amazing “scientific instrument”! Called the Cyclops Mirror, when you look through it, your right eye sees your left eye and vice versa. As you get closer your reflection turns into a single cycloptic eye. Cool. But 80,000 Euro cool? Haven’t I seen this at the House of Mirrors at the carnival?

For the more ambitious, you could invent something practical or even wacky and sell it online. For the environmentally friendly scientist, how about inventing a wooden cell phone? Too late. Check out this biodegradable wood phone that even has a camera. How about solar power technology? What soccer fan wouldn’t want a solar powered soccer ball shaped mini fan for those heated summer games. Or for those cold winter days, how about solar powered hat and mittens (I might have to get a set of these)!

Want to get rich quick in two ways? Invent some metal detector sandals and then go find some ancient treasures! Just strap on these groovy shoes and keep your hands free for carrying your treasure hoard. The detecting device strapped to your ankle is discretely hidden under your trousers so the neighbors don’t think you are on house arrest!
Treasure Island: If only Jim Hawkins had the handy new metal detector shoes, he wouldn't have ran into trouble with those pirates!
Treasure Island: If only Jim Hawkins had the handy new metal detector shoes, he wouldn't have ran into trouble with those pirates!Courtesy Wittkowsky

Check out these websites for more invention fun, get started on your next great creation and take over the world!

http://www.ideaconnection.com/new-inventions/
http://www.inventionreaction.com/
http://www.livescience.com/inventions/

Nov
23
2009

Reverse engineering the brain
Reverse engineering the brainCourtesy Thomas Schultz

Engineering computers that can think

Even simple brains, like those in a mouse, are amazing. A brain the size of a thimble that requires almost no energy, can navigate through mazes, survive in severe weather, or escape from a cat. Will we ever create a computer capable of such adaptable and creative "thinking"? One approach is to reverse engineer the brain of a mouse, rat, or cat.

Computer simulation achieves cat brain complexity

Dharmendra S. Modha is a team leader at IBM who is attempting to understand and build such a brain as cheaply as possible. Their latest achievement is a brain simulation with 1 billion spiking neurons and 10 trillion individual learning synapses.

Synapses are the key

Synapses are junctions between neurons and a key to how a brain learns. The strength of the chemical reactions within the synapses changes as the animal interacts with the environment These synaptic junctions are thought to encode our individual experience.

The problem with today's computers

Regular computer architecture has a separation between computation and memory.

“Surely there must be a less primitive way of making big changes in the store than by pushing vast numbers of words back and forth through the von Neumann bottleneck. Not only is this tube a literal bottleneck for the data traffic of a problem, but, more importantly, it is an intellectual bottleneck that has kept us tied to word-at-a-time thinking instead of encouraging us to think in terms of the larger conceptual units of the task at hand. Thus programming is basically planning and detailing the enormous traffic of words through the von Neumann bottleneck, and much of that traffic concerns not significant data itself, but where to find it.”

DARPA's SyNAPSE program

The goal of a DARPA program known as SyNAPSE (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics) is to create new electronics hardware and architecture that can understand, adapt and respond to a a changing environment.

What is cognitive computing?

Cognitive computing is the quest to engineer mind-like intelligent machines by reverse-engineering the computational function of the brain.

There is no definition or specification of the human mind. But, we understand it as a collection of processes of sensation, perception, action, cognition, emotion, and interaction. Yet, the mind seems to integrate sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell effortlessly into a coherent whole, and to act in a context-dependent way in a changing, uncertain environment. The mind effortless creates categories of time, space, and object, and interrelationships between these.

Learn more about cognitive computing

Nov
21
2009

Robots that "think for themselves"

Fly's eyes: Can the nerves, eyes, and brain function of a fly be modeled within a computer circuit?
Fly's eyes: Can the nerves, eyes, and brain function of a fly be modeled within a computer circuit?Courtesy NeilsPhotography
Engineers are trying to design machines that can "think for themselves" when on surveillance or search and rescue missions. Somehow the machines has to look at its environment and decide what to do.
Have you ever tried to catch a fly? They are pretty good at seeing your hand and knowing just how to escape your grasp.

If we can figure out how a fly can do it ...

Can we figure out how a fly is able see, and find food, and escape from our fly swatters? With today's super microscopes, I am sure that we can visualize and model every nerve connection, muscle fiber, and eye facet.

Computational biology

David O’Carroll, a computational neuroscientist who studies insect vision at Australia’s University of Adelaide has been studying the optical flight circuits of flies, measuring their cell-by-cell activity. In a paper published in Public Library of Science Computational Biology, O’Carroll and fellow University of Adelaide biologist Russell Brinkworth describe an

algorithm composed of a series of five equations through which data from cameras can be run. Each equation represents tricks used by fly circuits to handle changing levels of brightness, contrast and motion, and their parameters constantly shift in response to input.

The "fly brain" circuits are small and use only a fraction of a milliwatt

“It’s amazing work,” said Sean Humbert, who builds miniaturized, autonomous flying robots,

“For traditional navigational sensing, you need lots of payload to do the computation. But the payload on these robots is very small — a gram, a couple of Tic Tacs. You’re not going to stuff dual-core processors into a couple Tic Tacs.

Learn more - mathematical modeling of insect biology

Secret Math of Fly Eyes Could Overhaul Robot Vision Wired Science
Robust Models for Optic Flow Coding in Natural Scenes Inspired by Insect Biology Computational Biology

We have constructed a full model for motion processing in the insect visual pathway incorporating known or suspected elements in as much detail as possible. We have found that it is only once all elements are present that the system performs robustly, with reduction or removal of elements dramatically limiting performance. The implementation of this new algorithm could provide a very useful and robust velocity estimator for artificial navigation systems.

Sep
27
2009

Read my lips
Read my lipsCourtesy flickr-rickr

Machine accuracy - 80 %; Humans - 32%

More than half of people over 60 have a hearing loss (I am in that group). The demand for lip reading skills is driving technology. I foresee that we will soon have portable devices that will "read lips" and either show the words on a display or if the person is deaf and blind it could produce tactile symbols (braille) on a touch pad.

A research team from the School of Computing Sciences at UEA compared the performance of a machine-based lip-reading system with that of 19 human lip-readers. They found that the automated system significantly outperformed the human lip-readers – scoring a recognition rate of 80 per cent, compared with only 32 per cent for human viewers on the same task. Science Daily

Better virtual "talking heads", too

By analyzing results of computerized recognition of facial speech patterns, researchers hope to produce better visual speech synthesis. Computer generated "talking heads" are being evaluated to create the most intelligible and visually appealing system.

Sep
24
2009

The golden web of an orb-weaver: Little does this spider suspect that it is about to be captured and milked by the clinically insane.
The golden web of an orb-weaver: Little does this spider suspect that it is about to be captured and milked by the clinically insane.Courtesy Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve
After decades of frustration and failure, mankind’s dream of weaving a blanket entirely from the stuff of nightmares has become a reality.

For centuries, the very possibility of creating fabric from nightmares was considered little more than a fever dream, and the criminally insane resigned themselves to nightmare cloth substitutes, like hammered-flat baby rabbits, and prison toilet paper. Inventive though these are, like soymilk, they fooled no one.

Then, at the end of the 19th century, reports began to filter from Africa that a French missionary in Madagascar, exploring the dark peaks of his own madness, was creating fabrics of almost pure nightmare.

The missionary had supposedly created a spider-milking machine, into which he was placing massive Golden orb-weaver spiders, collected in their hundreds by local young girls. (Having little girls collect the spiders made the nightmare purer, but was not strictly necessary. Leave it to a missionary for such meticulous detail.)

The spiders were restrained in “a sort of stocks,” and then the beginnings of a strand of silk was coaxed from their abdomens and attached to a hand cranked wheel, at which point several hundred yards of the orb-weavers’ characteristically golden silk could be withdrawn from each spider. When the creatures could yield no more silk, they were released, apparently unharmed, back into the wild, where they would regenerate their webbing material after several days. The spooled spider silk could then be woven like any other material… but scarier.

Seemingly too “good” to be true, the missionary’s experiments were never replicated, and generations of madmen made do with sheets of dried bat saliva and mortuary blankets. Until now.

A “textile expert” and a visionary in what liberal arts colleges refer to as “insane studies,” Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley, recreated the missionary’s spider-milking machine, and after four years and one million spiders they have created an indestructible golden blanket, woven of pure nightmares.

The madmen discovered that while a single spider might produce a strand of silk up to 400 meters long, the material is, of course, exceptionally light. It took approximately 14,000 spiders to produce a single once of silk. The final 11 foot by 4 foot piece of fabric weighed about 2.4 pounds (~38 oz). So many, many spiders were involved, and lots of time. To help pass the long months of spider-milking, the artists whispered their secrets into mouse holes, and built razor blade houses.

The final intricately patterned textile has a rich, naturally golden color—the golden orb-weaver is named for the color of its silk, which attracts pollen-seeking insects in sunlight, and blends with background foliage in shadow. The spiders can adjust the exact tone of their webbing based on ambient light levels and color, so this textile has a unique shade based on how a million spiders perceived the room containing the tiny spider stocks.

The fabric is also exceptionally strong. Spider silk can stretch to 140% without breaking, and has tensile strength comparable to or exceeding that of modern fabrics like Kevlar, used for bullet-proof body armor. The complex protein structure that gives spider silk its strength has also makes it very difficult to reproduce artificially (that is, it hasn’t been done). Attempts have been made to insert the gene for spider silk protein production into goats, which then produce the protein in their milk, if not actual fibers. Unlike silk moths, spiders aren’t suited for mass production of silk, as they tend to kill and eat each other. And so it takes a madman, obsessed with drawing the secreted material for trapping prey from a hand-sized, venomous arachnid predator, to obtain enough spider silk to actually make something form it.

Despite civilization’s unwritten, yet long-standing rules against allowing madmen to have golden bulletproof cloaks, there is little to be done in this situation, seeing as how they made it themselves. Out of nightmares.

The textile is now on display at the American Museum of Natural History. (And, again, a photo of it can be seen here.

Sep
06
2009

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Single molecule, one million times smaller than a grain of sand, pictured for first time

Read more about this at MailOnline or read the IBM Zurich press release.

We demonstrate imaging of molecules with unprecedented atomic resolution by probing the short-range chemical forces with use of noncontact atomic force microscopy. The key step is functionalizing the microscope’s tip apex with suitable, atomically well-defined terminations, such as CO molecules. Science Magazine

Sep
03
2009

An electromagnetic gun: What's it for shooting? Disks, mostly.
An electromagnetic gun: What's it for shooting? Disks, mostly.Courtesy ScienceApe
Oh, you thought I forgot about the Geoengineering Extravaganza I promised, after just one entry? Did JGordon forget? Or is he just demonstrating a tremendous lack of respect for the Science Buzz audience?

Neither, respected friends, neither. First of all, I’ve never forgotten anything in my life. (This is in case anything I do eventually relates to someone else owing me money.) And I think I’ve demonstrated my respect for y’all over the years.

No, what happened was this: on Tuesday evening, my sock caught on a nail sticking out of my kitchen floor, and I went down like a redwood. Dried or decomposing pieces of food cushioned the fall for most of my body, but I’m afraid my face landed squarely in the mousetrap, which I had just baited with fresh poison. Luckily the trap pinned my lips shut before I ate too much of the poison, but I mix some potent poisons, and it only took a little to put me out.

My poisons are designed to remove a mouse from consciousness for anywhere from a week to several months, long enough for me to shave them, and ensure that they wake up somewhere frighteningly unfamiliar, like Thailand, or inside of someone recovering from major surgery.

At any rate, I was out for almost all of yesterday. It’s good that I woke up when I did, because I was covered with mice, but I’m afraid I just never found the opportunity to do another geoengineering post.

Until now.

So, let us continue with the “forget about the greenhouse gases, and just cool this place off, now!” theories. That is, those theories that could reduce the amount of absorbed heat (from the sun) rather than reduce what’s storing the heat (greenhouse gases). It’s called solar radiation management, and it includes a wide range of potential projects. And I shall now introduce you to several, starting with the most weaksauce of them, and moving on to something with giant space guns.

When I call something “weaksauce,” I don’t mean to imply that it’s a bad idea, only that it doesn’t involve huge guns, or giant sulfur-spewing zepellins. Sort of like how cool roofs are weaksauce. Cool roofs have come up on the Buzz before. The idea is that by simply having lighter-colored roofs, more sunlight and heat is reflected back away from the Earth. And, aside from the planet heating up a little less, your house heats up a little less too, so you don’t have to use as much energy on air conditioning, and the power companies don’t have to burn as much coal, etc. Pretty neat, huh?

Unfortunately, it’d be pretty tricky to get enough people to have reflective roofs for it to make much of a difference to global temperatures—otherwise the cooling would just be local, and who cares about that, right? Plus… no giant guns, or anything.

Not like the plans to build a sunshade in space. They have guns.

Remember that season finale episode of The Simpsons, where Mr. Burns built a giant metal shade to block the Sun from Springfield? I hope you do, because some scientists are actually proposing something like that, but on a larger scale, and in space. Like, massive mirrored satellites. Or there’s the plan mentioned in this Atlantic article (which I’ve linked to before)—A professor at the University of Arizona proposes building 20 giant electromagnetic guns (rail guns?), each more than a mile long, with the purpose of firing Frisbee-sized ceramic disks into space. Each gun would fire 180,000 disks a minute, 24 hours a day, for 10 years. At that point, there should be enough disks suspended “at the gravitational midpoint between the Earth and the Sun,” that sunlight headed toward Earth would be significantly scattered… lowering the planet’s temperature. Unfortunately, the technology for these guns doesn’t exist, it would be really expensive, and it would kind of last forever. Also, one gets the feeling that this professor is just trying to make a point. On the other hand… giant disk guns.

And then there are the middle ground plans, like cloud enhancement. The idea there is to make the clouds puffier and whiter by blasting seawater up into the air with special ships. These nice, white clouds would, again, reflect more sunlight away from the Earth, cooling things down. It shouldn’t last forever, and who doesn’t like puffy white clouds? Unfortunately, it ain’t cheap, and as with all most of the other solar radiation management plans, we don’t know exactly what all the repercussions would be. Clouds are just clouds, right? Yes, but clouds affect how much rain we get, and who gets it, and how much plants photosynthesize, and so forth and so forth. And the plan is slightly less gunny than the space-sunshade thing.

Next time we’ll move on to “carbon-removal projects.” But right now I have to get the taste of mouse blood out of my mouth. (It’s an ingredient in the poison.)

Sep
01
2009

A nice refreshing belch from Pinatubo: Repeat?
A nice refreshing belch from Pinatubo: Repeat?Courtesy D. Harlow
Ever want to change the world?

No, I’m not talking about the awesome drums and bass album you’re working on. And I’m not talking about your new theory of about time and mountains and stuff. And I’m not talking about your award winning bowel movements.

I’m talking about shaking the heavenly spheres until they throw up a little. I’m talking about jamming your boot into the nearest orifice until the planet cries uncle. I’m talking about pinning its arms and slapping its belly until it forgets its own name in frustration. I’m talking about changing the world.

Sure, it’s sort of supervillain territory. And it used to be that you’d need a bad childhood and some sort of superpower, or maybe a giant laser for this sort of thing. But these days… these days you don’t even need to be super-mega-rich to tear the planet a new one; you only need to be super rich. And it could be that the planet needs a new one torn.

We haven’t really talked much about geoengineering here on Buzz, which is weird, because it falls under both “quick fixes” and “things that might look awesome,” categories I very much appreciate. This is why I prefer to deal with hangnails by shooting them off, and why my dog has painted-on zebra stripes. (The “quick fix” there was spray paint being used to make him look less stupid.)

Geoengineering is engineering on the global scale; it’s changing the planet to solve some problem. What if we could, for instance, stop global warming without changing our energy-hungry lifestyles? What if it was as quick and cheap as spray-painting the dog?

The thing is, many geoengineering projects would be quick and easy (relative to, say, transitioning the planet to renewable energy). But, like spray-painting the dog, geoengineering comes with the potential for serious problems. If we’re spray-painting the dog instead of washing him, we have to keep spray-painting him forever, or else one day we’ll have an obviously incredibly unwashed dog on our hands. And what sort of health problems might a spray-painted dog unexpectedly develop? And can we get used to living with a dog that is spray-painted?

(Bryan Kennedy posted a link to an article about these issues this summer. Check it out.)

Consider these problems with me as we turn away from painted dogs, toward the wide world of geoengineering. In the coming days, if I remember to, and if I’m not feeling too lazy, we will meet some possible geoengineering scenarios. And, remember, these aren’t totally sci-fi—they’re very possible (for the most part). The question is, do we really want to do them?

And so, geoengineering day 1: A fart like you wouldn’t believe.

Y’all know what killed the last dinosaurs, right? Yes: loneliness. But how did they get so lonely? It was that, ah, meteorite thing, right? A big space rock smashed into the Earth, boom, no more dinosaurs. But it’s not like all the dinosaurs got smashed by that falling rock. Most of the trouble came after the impact. Vast quantities of dust were thrown way up into the atmosphere when the space rock hit the planet… and it stayed up there for a while. The affect all that dust had on climate is pretty complicated, but, if we boil it way down, it basically blocked sunlight, and made the world a shadier, colder place for a while. Lots of plants couldn’t live in colder, darker conditions, so they died. And the dinosaurs couldn’t live without those plants, and so they died. (Again, it’s more complicated than that, but…)

And now… now we have a situation where, in the coming decades, the world may be getting much hotter than a lot of organisms can survive for very long. We aren’t hoping for an asteroid or meteorite to smash into us, of course, but is there another way to fill the sky with sun-blocking particles?

Yes. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines exploded, blasting millions of tons of sulfur into the sky. All that sulfur, and other tiny particles from the eruption (called aerosols), reflected lots of energy from the Sun back into space. Because it’s solar energy that provides the heat for global warming (greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide just trap the heat here), the Pinatubo eruption is thought to be responsible for temporarily lowering global temperatures by about 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit). That might seem like only a small drop, but a few fractions of a degree change in temperature worldwide can have a big affect on climate, and when we think about how it was caused by just one eruption… We could do it too! We could change the world!

One of the major ideas in geoengineering is to essentially recreate the Pinatubo eruption. Over and over again. Factories on the ground could pump tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, where it would bond with water vapor and condense around floating dust, blocking solar radiation from heating the planet. (This article envisions zeppelins hovering 12 miles up, tethered to factories by SO2-carrying hoses.)

The project might cost only tens of billion dollars (small potatoes when talking about changing global climate), and it might actually work… but then what? What happens once the dog has been spray-painted?

Some scientists are concerned that all that SO2 in the atmosphere could damage the ozone layer, which protects us from UV radiation from the Sun. (After Pinatubo erupted, the ozone layer suffered temporary but significant depletion.) Others point out that the project would do nothing to remove greenhouse gases, so that once the sulfur settled back down to Earth, we’d face very sudden temperature rises again; we’d have to continue to block out the Sun until we could decrease our production of greenhouse gases. The main thing that could happen is, well, we don’t totally know what would happen. It’s unlikely that a solution like this would only lower global temperatures, but exactly how it would affect other aspects of the climate and life on the planet is unclear…

Is it worth it? Should we pump the skies full of sulfur gas, even if we don’t understand everything that could happen because of it? What if it was the only way to hold off a “tipping point”? (Many climate scientists are concerned that gradual global warming will lead to a “tipping point,” after which warming accelerates rapidly. Thawing frozen tundra, for instance, might release vast amounts of trapped methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.) Or do you think geoengineering would distract us from addressing the basic causes of climate change?

Any thooouuughts?

Aug
19
2009

See, when I look at magazines (often), I get all frustrated that, like, the stupid things won't just read themselves at me. Like how the TV reads itself at me.

I am a busy sort of guy, and I don't have time to interpret symbols into words and words into mental images. Let's cut out the middleman, I say. That's exactly why I was so thrilled to see this announcement on the internet for an announcement in a magazine. While the first announcement had to be read the old fashioned way, wasting valuable minutes and brainpower, the latter announcement, the magazine one, will actually be in video format. It will announce CBS's fall schedule, and it will announce how delicious Pepsi is and how you should buy it. (With money, and soon.)

The magazine video uses a 2.7 mm thick LCD screen with a tiny rechargeable battery. The screen has a 320 x 240 resolution, and the chip it's on can hold about 40 minutes of video.

I was kind of thinking that the wave of the future, as far as video-zines go (my term, so hands off), would employ OLED technology, seeing has OLED screens can be super thin and flexible. But OLED displays are still way expensive, and while CBS no doubt wants to impress the New York and LA subscribers to Entertainment Weekly with their extravagance, they don't want to impress them with that much extravagance. Not for Jenna Elfman.

Um... very briefly, I believe that LCD screens work by altering the shape of a layer of film in front of a light to change the color of light that passes through that film. When the film has lots of little cells, the cells can be altered individually to make the tiny dots that form a video image. OLED screens, on the other hand, are sort of like screens made up of thousands of the little LED lights you find all over the place, except the LEDs on the screen are very very small—they're actually made of organic compounds printed on the screen, and they're activated (made to emit light) by having electricity flow to specific spots on that screen. More or less. So, once again, add lots of these little bits of light up, and you have an image. And hopefully someday some brave and proud network will put OLEDs in a magazine, to make it easier for us to learn about season 14 of two and a half men. (At that point it will be 2.5 men because Charlie Sheen will be dead, and his character will be computer animated. A half man, if you will. Or maybe the kid will cross dress every other episode.)