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Efficiency Spells the Difference Between Biological Neurons and Their Artificial Counterparts

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Image by macrovector on Freepik

Machine learning has made great advances, but as this series has discussed, doesn’t have much in common with the way your brain works. Part 8 of the series explores a single facet of biological neurons which, so far, have kept them way ahead of their artificial counterparts: their efficiency.

 

Your brain contains about 86 billion neurons, which are crammed into a volume of somewhat over one liter. Although machine learning can do many things which the human brain cannot, the brain is able to perform continuous speech recognition, visual interpretation, and a host of other things, all while dissipating about 12 watts. In comparison, my laptop draws about 65 watts and my desktop machine draws over 200 watts, and neither of them is capable of running the huge ML networks which are in use today.

How does the brain achieve its remarkable efficiency? I attribute it to three essential factors:

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  1. The brain is physical and chemical rather than electronic.
  2. The neurons in the brain are really slow.
  3. Neurons only require energy when they emit spikes.

While we can use electronic instruments to measure voltages within neurons, their fundamental operation is chemical. Ions are migrating from one side of a membrane to another and ionic molecules are changing orientation. This is fundamentally different from a computer, where electrons are moved about and the charge they represent travels at the speed of light. Obviously, molecules in the brain don’t require any external energy at all when there are just sitting there and the amount of energy needed to get a Sodium ion (for example) to move from one side of a membrane to another is minute.

As I mentioned in a previous article in this series, neurons spike at a maximum frequency of 250Hz and neural signals travel at a leisurely 2m/s. If we slowed our CPUs down to a similar pace, they would dissipate a lot less energy too but never as little as their biological counterparts.

The real difference, though, is that neurons need negligible energy except when they fire. Further, they don’t fire very often. By taking the total energy of the brain and dividing it by the energy needed to fire as calculated via chemistry, it can be concluded that neurons fire on average once every two seconds. It’s obvious that continuous processes like vision and hearing must be running more or less constantly using more energy. So to get things to average out, we must conclude that vast portions of the brain’s neurons seldom fire at all. Thus, a neuron that represents a specific memory (your grandmother, for example) likely fires only when you think about your grandmother.

But there’s a further way to think about this. A CPU uses some amount of energy when it is running at speed (not idle or asleep), and it uses this amount of energy regardless of the data it is processing. Adding two numbers together, adding 0+0 for example, requires essentially the same energy as adding 12,345 + 67,890. Neurons are different.

This distinction has been the genesis of the Neuromorphic computing movement. In the Brain Simulator, the processing is only required for neurons that fire, so a desktop CPU can handle up to 2.5 billion synapses per second. Neuromorphic chips capitalize on this effect to produce AI results with radically less power than conventional machine learning processes.

While neuromorphic systems have moved in the direction of more brain-like architectures, they typically are still using the ML backpropagation algorithm which is not neuromorphic at all.

“The final article in this series will summarize the many reasons why Machine Learning isn’t like your brain — along with a few similarities.”

Charles Simon is a nationally recognized entrepreneur and software developer, and the CEO of FutureAI. Simon is the author of Will the Computers Revolt?: Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence, and the developer of Brain Simulator II, an AGI research software platform. For more information, visit here.

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A Quick Guide to Better CMM Maintenance

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CMM

A coordinate-measuring machine, also known as a CMM, is a specialized piece of equipment common in high-precision manufacturing. It uses coordinate technology to measure and replicate the dimensions of particular objects.

CMMs are a lot more accurate than regular measurement gauges. This characteristic makes them the equipment of choice for quality assurance in certain industries, like aerospace, defense, and medical manufacturing.

Despite being a powerful piece of equipment and the most versatile measuring tool in the metrology industry, CMMs can also be quite delicate. They require the right environment and proper maintenance practices to maintain accuracy and reliability.

The Importance of Proper CMM Maintenance

It’s essential to clean and inspect each part of your machine to ensure it stays efficient and accurate. Preventative maintenance ensures that your CMM remains accurate and performs at its best. It also improves your machine’s longevity.

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Without proper CMM maintenance, you could risk damaging your CMM. Repairs would involve operational delays and additional costs.

CMM Preventative Maintenance Tips

Preventative maintenance practices are ones your team could do by yourselves. It’s best to schedule regular maintenance checks for your CMM daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. These checks can alert you immediately to possible problems with your CMM.

Remove dust and dirt regularly

Clean and well-maintained air bearings ensure your CMM works as it should. These frictionless and stable bearings help ensure accuracy and efficiency. Dust and dirt can clog your machine’s air bearings, affecting its overall performance.

Aside from your machine’s air bearings, dust could also get into other surfaces and crevices. These tiny particles could affect your machine’s accuracy.

Handle Stylus Tips Properly

The stylus is the tip that makes contact with the object you want to measure with your CMM. Despite this significant role, the stylus can be fragile and require careful handling. Too much force could cause it to bend or break.

Clean your stylus with a cleaning agent and a lint-free cloth. Make sure to remove any residue from workplace materials.

Ensure Good Air Quality

Most CMMs use air bearings, and good air quality is essential to keep them running smoothly. Various air quality issues could affect machine performance and even burn out machine motors.

For air quality maintenance, ask and address the following questions:

  • Do the lines have condensation, oil, or other contaminants?
  • Is the airflow constant?
  • Are you using the proper pressure?

When To Call a Professional

Most preventative maintenance practices are simple enough to be performed internally. However, some issues require professional attention. You can also conduct regular professional maintenance checks to ensure you don’t miss anything.

Below are some procedures that require professional assistance. Many CMM suppliers also offer maintenance services alongside their machinery.

Conducting CMM Training

CMMs are highly specialized pieces of equipment. To handle them properly, your staff needs professional training.

Training courses allow you to get trained by CMM experts on the tools and knowledge necessary within your industry. Regular training sessions also help keep you updated on industry trends and standards.

Sensor Malfunctions

CMM sensors are critical to your machine’s speed and accuracy. They should be professionally inspected and calibrated annually.

Routine sensor maintenance can significantly improve the efficiency and accuracy of your machine. CMM sensors include the following:

  • Scanning probe
  • Single point laser
  • Line laser
  • Electronic touch trigger probe
  • Video camera

Faulty Bearings

Neglected air bearings could cause them to falter in their accuracy and stability. Properly maintained air bearings ensure a smooth, stable, and accurate measurement process.

A professional metrology company can thoroughly inspect your air bearings to prevent further machine damage.

A CMM is a significant investment for any business. Good maintenance practices help your machine last and perform at its best, thus making the most out of this investment.

 

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Nintendo’s discounted Switch game vouchers are back

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Nintendo’s Switch Online service has become a better deal over time, offering more perks than just the ability to play games online. On top of getting access to SNES and NES classics, and cloud save backups (for most games, save a couple dozen), Nintendo announced an even bigger perk yesterday: discounted game vouchers.

All subscribers can buy a two-pack of these vouchers for $99.98, and a huge range of first-party (in other words, typically discount-averse) Nintendo games are looped in. I encourage you to check out the full list, but some highlights include the brand-new Fire Emblem Engage, Kirby’s Return to Dream Land Deluxe, Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon, Metroid Dread, Splatoon 3, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. Important note: you both have to be a subscriber to buy and use these vouchers.

It’s great that this list is more expansive than Nintendo’s first swing at this deal in 2019. But this perk could actually turn Switch Online into a must-have service because it allows you to pre-purchase up to four sets of vouchers (totaling eight games), and keep them for 12 months from the date of purchase. With $20 in savings with each pair of vouchers, buying four bundles will save you up to $80, assuming that each title normally costs $59.99. If you buy a lot of games, this is a smart way to save a little bit of money on every forthcoming purchase.

I know what you might be thinking: “Can I use one on The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom?” Nintendo has not currently listed the deliriously anticipated sequel to Breath of the Wild, which is set to release on May 12th, 2023. Polygon has reached out to Nintendo to see if it’ll eventually become eligible, but did not hear back in time for publication.

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You can get a free seven-day trial for Switch Online here, and you can easily subscribe to the service directly from the Switch’s eShop (it costs $3.99 per month, $7.99 for three months, or $19.99 per year). However, you can purchase (or gift) a one-year subscription with a digital code via Best Buy for $19.99. With a family subscription that costs $34.99 per year, up to eight Switch accounts can reap the perks of Switch Online.

For players who want all the perks, access to Goldeneye 007 and other N64 and Sega Genesis games, and complimentary DLC for some Switch games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, you’ll need Nintendo’s Switch Online plus the Expansion Pack tier, which costs $49.99 per year for one account, or $79.99 per year for a family subscription.

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Canadian discovery could help batteries last longer

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A chance discovery in a Canadian laboratory could help extend the life of laptop, phone and electric car batteries.

According to scientists from Dalhousie University in Halifax, common adhesive tape in batteries may be the reason many devices lose some of their power while off or not being used, which is a phenomenon known as self-discharge.

“In our laboratory we do many highly complex experiments to improve batteries, but this time we discovered a very simple thing,” Michael Metzger, an assistant professor in Dalhousie University’s physics and atmospheric science department, said in a news release. “In commercial battery cells there is tape—like Scotch tape—that holds the electrodes together and there is a chemical decomposition of this tape, which creates a molecule that leads to the self-discharge.”

The solution is simple, too, Metzger says: replace the polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, plastic tape commonly used inside batteries with something more durable and stable.

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“It’s a commercially relevant discovery,” Metzger said. “It’s a small thing but it can definitely help improve battery cells.”

Metzger and his team have been trying to understand why lithium-ion battery cells in inactive devices tend to lose some of their power and self-discharge, something that has long frustrated consumers and manufacturers alike.

“Every manufacturer of lithium-ion cells in the world wants to make self-discharge as small as possible,” Metzger told CTVNews.ca in a joint statement with graduate student Anu Adamson. “In every battery there is a small rate of self-discharge that slowly drains the battery. This is very inconvenient for users and a big headache for industry.”

The electrodes that power batteries are separated by an electrolyte solution that is usually a form of lithium. After exposing several battery cells to different temperatures, researchers were surprised to see that electrolyte solution had turned bright red when it normally should be clear, which was something they had never encountered. The discovery was made by Adamson and two other students.

Chemical analysis of the red electrolyte solution revealed that at higher temperatures, a new molecule had been created inside the battery through the decomposition of common PET adhesive tape, which is often used to hold components together inside batteries. Strong and lightweight, PET is also frequently used for plastic packaging, drink bottles, clothing fibres and more.

Researchers realized that the red molecule, dimethyl terephthalate, was acting as a redox shuttle, meaning that it can transport electrons between a battery’s positive and negative electrodes, creating self-discharge and depleting power even when a battery is not in use. Ideally, the shuttling of electrons within a battery should only happen when a device is on.

“It’s a very simple thing—it is in every plastic bottle and no one would have thought that this has such a huge impact on how the lithium-ion cells degrade,” Metzger said in the news release. “It’s something we never expected because no one looks at these inactive components, these tapes and plastic foils in the battery cell, but it really needs to be considered if you want to limit side-reactions in the battery cell.”

The findings are outlined in a pair of studies published on Jan. 20 and Jan. 23 in the peer-reviewed Journal of The Electrochemical Society. The researchers are now testing PET tape substitutes.

“Since the PET in the tape is the culprit that creates the redox shuttle, we need to replace it with a polymer that is more stable and does not decompose in the harsh chemistry of a lithium-ion battery,” Metzger and Adamson told CTVNews.ca. “So far, the results look very promising, and we plan to publish a new research paper on improved polymers for lithium-ion battery tapes soon.”

According to the researchers, their work has been attracting interest from “some of the world’s largest computer hardware companies and electric vehicle manufacturers,” which are eager to reduce self-discharge and improve battery performance.

“We visited some of these companies and they are planning to implement more stable polymers in their battery cells,” Metzger said.

In the release, Metzger noted: “One of the engineers said, ‘I heard you guys found out something is wrong with PET tape.’ So, I explained to him that it’s causing this self-discharge and asked him, ‘What are you using in your cells?’ He said, ‘PET tape.'”

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