Materials science rescues civilization, again

Read a bunch of articles this past week from MIT Technology Review, How materials science will determine the future of human civilization, from Stanford University, New ultra thin semiconductor materials…, and Wired, This battery breakthrough could change everything.

The message varied a bit between articles but there was an underlying theme to all of them. Materials science was taking off, unlike it ever has before. Let’s take them on, one by one, last in first out.

New battery materials

I have not reported on new battery structures or materials in the past but it seems that every week or so I run across another article or two on the latest battery technology that will change everything. Yet this one just might do that.

I am no material scientist but Bill Joy has been investing in a company, Ionic Materials, for a while now (both in his job as a VC partner and as in independent invested) that has been working on a solid battery material that could be used to create rechargeable batteries.

The problems with Li(thium)-Ion batteries today are that they are a safety risk (lithium is a highly flammable liquid) and they use an awful lot of a relatively scarce mineral (lithium is mined in Chile, Argentina, Australia, China and other countries with little mined in USA). Electric cars would not be possible today with Li-On batteries.

Ionic Materials claim to have designed a solid polymer electrolyte that can combine the properties of familiar, ultra-safe alkaline batteries we use everyday and the recharge ability of  Li-Ion batteries used in phones and cars today. This would make a cheap, safe rechargeable battery that could work anywhere. The polymer just happens to also be fire retardant.

The historic problems with alkaline, essentially zinc and manganese dioxide is that they can’t be recharged too many times before they short out. But with the new polymer these batteries could essentially be recharged for as many times as Li-Ion today.

Currently, the new material doesn’t have as many recharge cycles as they want but they are working on it. Joy calls the material ional.

New semiconductor materials

Moore’s law will eventually cease. It’s only a question of time and materials.

Silicon is increasingly looking old in the tooth. As researchers shrink silicon devices down to atomic scales, they start to breakdown and stop functioning.

The advantages of silicon are that it is extremely scaleable (shrinkable) and easy to rust. Silicon rust or silicon dioxide was very important because it is used as an insulator. As an insulating layer, it could be patterned just like the silicon circuits themselves. That way everything (circuits, gates, switches and insulators) could all use the same, elemental material.

A couple of Stanford researchers, Eric Pop and Michal Mleczko, a electrical engineering professor and a post doc researcher, have discovered two new materials that may just take Moore’s law into a couple of more chip generations. They wrote about these new materials in their paper in Science Advances.

The new materials: hafnium diselenide and zirconium diselenide have many similar properties to silicon. One is that they can be easily made to scale. But devices made with the new materials still function at smaller geometries, at just three atoms thick (0.67nm) and also consume happen less power.

That’s good but they also rust better. When the new materials rust, they form a high-K insulating material. With silicon, high-K insulators required additional materials/processing and more than just simple silicon rust anymore. And the new materials also match Silicon’s band gap.

Apparently the next step with these new materials is to create electrical contacts. And I am sure as any new material, introduced to chip fabrication will take quite awhile to solver all the technical hurdles. But it’s comforting to know that Moore’s law will be around another decade or two to keep us humming away.

New multiferric materials

But just maybe the endgame in chip fabrication materials and possibly many other domains seems to be new materials coming out of ETH Zurich Switzerland.

There a researcher, Nicola Saldi,n has described a new sort of material that has both ferro-electric and ferro-magnetic properties.

Spaldin starts her paper off by discussing how civilization evolved mainly due to materials science.

Way in the past, fibers and rosin allowed humans to attach stone blades and other material to poles/arrows/axhandles to hunt  and farm better. Later, the discovery of smelting and basic metallurgy led to the casting of bronze in the bronze age and later iron, that could also be hammered, led to the iron age.  The discovery of the electron led to the vacuum tube. Pure silicon came out during World War II and led to silicon transistors and the chip fabrication technology we have today

Spaldin talks about the other major problem with silicon, it consumes lots of energy. At current trends, almost half of all worldwide energy production will be used to power silicon electronics in a couple of decades.

Spaldin’s solution to the  energy consumption problem is multiferric materials. These materials offer both ferro-electric and ferro-magnetic properties in the same materials.

Historically, materials were either ferro-electric or ferro-magnetic but never both. However, Spaldin discovered there was nothing in nature prohibiting the two from co-existing in the same material. Then she and her compatriots designed new multiferric materials that could do just that.

As I understand it, ferro-electric material allow electrons to form chemical structures which create electrical dipoles or electronic fields. Similarly, ferro-magnetic materials allow chemical structures to create magnetic dipoles or magnetic fields.

That is multiferric materials can be used to create both magnetic and electronic fields. And the surprising part was that the boundaries between multiferric magnetic fields (domains) form nano-scale, conducting channels which can be moved around using electrical fields.

Seems to me that if this were all possible and one could fabricate a substrate using multi-ferrics and write (program) any electronic circuit  you want just by creating a precise magnetic and electrical field ontop of it. And with todays disk and tape devices, precise magnetic fields are readily available for circular and linear materials. And it would seem just as easy to use multi multiferric material for persistent data storage.

Spaldin goes on to say that replacing magnetic fields in todays magnetism centric information/storage industry with electrical fields should lead to  reduced energy consumption.

Welcome to the Multiferric age.

Photo Credit(s): Battery Recycling by Heather Kennedy;

AMD Quad Core backside by Don Scansen;  and

Magnetic Field – 14 by Windell Oskay

New chip architecture with CPU, storage & sensors in one package

Read an article the other day in MIT news, (3D chip combines computing and data storage) about a new 3D chip out of Stanford and MIT research, which includes CPU, RRAM (resistive RAM) storage class memories and sensors in one single package. Such a chip architecture vastly minimizes the off chip bottleneck to access storage and sensors.

Chip componentry

The chip’s sensors are based on carbon nanotubes. Aside from a layer of silicon at the bottom, all the rest of transistors used in the chip are also based off of carbon nanotube FET (field effect transistors).

The RRAM storage class memory is a based on a dielectric material which uses electrical resistance to store non-volatile data.

The bottom layer is a silicon based CPU. On top of the silicon is a carbon nanotube layer. Next comes the RRAM and the top layer is more carbon nanotubes making up the sensor array.

Architectural benefits

One obvious benefit is having data storage directly accessible to the CPU is that there’s no longer a need to go off chip to access data. The 2nd major advantage to the chip architecture is that the sensor array can write directly to RRAM storage, so there’s no off chip delay to provide sensor readout and storage.

Another advantage to using carbon nanotube FET’s is that they can be an order of magnitude more energy efficient than silicon transistors. Moreover, RRAM has the potential to be much denser than DRAM.

Finally, another major advantage is that this can all be built in one 3D chip because carbon nanotube and RRAM fabrication can be done at relatively cooler temperatures (~200C) vs. silicon fabrication which requires relatively high temperatures (1000C). Silicon cannot be readily fabricated in multiple layers because of the high temperatures required which will harm lower layers. But you could fabricate the lowest layer in silicon and then the rest as either carbon nanotube FETs or RRAM without harming the silicon layer.

Transistor/RRAM counts

The chip as fabricated has a million RRAM cells (bits?) and 2 million nanotube FETs. In contrast, in 2014, Intel’s 15-core Xeon Ivy Bridge EX had 4.3B transistors and current DRAM chips offer 64Gb. So there’s a ways to go before carbon nanotube and RRAM densities can get to a level available from silicon today.

However, as they have a bottom layer of silicon they can have all the CPU complexity of an Intel processor and still build RRAM and carbon nanotubes FETs on top of that. Which makes this chip architecture compatible with current CMOS fabrication techniques and a very interesting addition to current CPU architectures.

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Unclear to me why they stopped at 4 layers (1-silicon FET, 1 carbon nanotubes FET, 1 RRAM and 1 carbon nanotubes FET [sensor array]). If they can do 4 why not do 5 or more. That way they could pack in even more RRAM storage and perhaps more sensor layers.

Also, not sure what the bottom most layer of carbon nanotubes is doing. If I had to hazard a guess, it’s being used for RRAM control logic. But I could be wrong.

I could see how these chips could be used for very specialized sensor applications, with a limited need for data storage. The researchers claim many types of sensors can be created using carbon nanotubes. If that’s the case, maybe we might see these sorts of chips showing up all over the place.

Comments?

Photo Credit(s): Three dimensional integration of nanotechnologies for computing and data storage on a single chip, Nature magazine. 

Zipline delivers blood 7X24 using fixed wing drones in Rwanda

Read an article the other day in MIT Tech Review (Zipline’s ambitious medical drone delivery in Africa) about a startup in Silicon Valley, Zipline, that has started delivering blood by drones to remote medical centers in Rwanda.

We’ve talked about drones before (see my Drones as a leapfrog technology post) and how they could be another leapfrog 3rd world countries into the 21st century. Similar, to cell phones, drones could be used to advance infrastructure without having to go replicate the same paths as 1st world countries such as building roads/hiways, trains and other transport infrastructure.

The country

Rwanda is a very hilly but small (10.2K SqMi/26.3 SqKm) and populous (pop. 11.3m) country in east-central Africa, just a few degrees south of the Equator. Rwanda’s economy is based on subsistence agriculture with a growing eco-tourism segment.

Nonetheless, with all
its hills and poverty roads in Rwanda are not the best. In the past delivering blood supplies to remote health centers could often take hours or more. But with the new Zipline drone delivery service technicians can order up blood products with an app on a smart phone and have it delivered via parachute to their center within 20 minutes.

Drone delivery operations

In the nest, a center for drone operations, there is a tent housing the blood supplies, and logistics for the drone force. Beside the tent are a steel runway/catapults that can launch drones and on the other side of the tent are brown inflatable pillows  used to land the drones.

The drones take a pre-planned path to the remote health centers and drop their cargo via parachute to within a five meter diameter circle.

Operators fly the drones using an iPad and each drone has an internal navigation system. Drones fly a pre-planned flightaugmented with realtime kinematic satellite navigation. Drone travel is integrated within Rwanda’s controlled air space. Routes are pre-mapped using detailed ground surveys.

Drone delivery works

Zipline drone blood deliveries have been taking place since late 2016. Deliveries started M-F, during daylight only. But by April, they were delivering 7 days a week, day and night.

Zipline currently only operates in Rwanda and only delivers blood but they have plans to extend deliveries to other medical products and to expand beyond Rwanda.

On their website they stated that before Zipline, delivering blood to one health center would take four hours by truck which can now be done in 17 minutes. Their Muhanga drone center serves 21 medical centers throughout western Rwanda.

Photo Credits: Flyzipline.com

Quantum computing at our doorsteps

Read an article the other day in MIT’s Technical Review, Google’s new chip is a stepping stone to quantum computing… about Google’s latest endeavor to create quantum computers. Although, digital logic or classical electronic computation has been around since mid last century, quantum logic does things differently and there are many problems that are easier to compute with quantum computing that take much longer to solve with digital computing.

Qubits are weird

Classical or digital electronic computation follows the more physical mechanistic view of the world (for the most part) and quantum computing follows the quantum mechanical view of the world. Quantum computing uses quantum bits or Qubits and the device that Google demonstrated has a 2X3 matrix of qubits, 6 in total.

Unlike a bit, which (theoretically)is a two state system that can only take on the values of 0 and 1, a qubit is a two level system but it can take on an infinitely many number of different states in reality. In practice, with a qubit, there are always two states that are distinguishable from one another but they can be any two states of the infinitely many states they can take on.

Also, reading out the state value of a qubit can be a probabilistic endeavor and can impact the “value” of the qubit that is read out afterwards.

There’s more to quantum computing and I am certainly no expert. So if your interested, I suggest starting with this Arxiv article.

Faster quantum algorithms

In any case some difficult and time consuming arenas of classical computation seem to be easier and faster with quantum computation. For example,

  • Factoring large numbers – in classical computation this process takes an amount of time that is exponential to the number of bits in the “large number”, where “B” is number of bits and “E” epsilon is a constant >0, the best current algorithms take O([1+E]**B) time. But Shor’s quantum factorization algorithm takes only O(B**3) time, which is considerably faster for large numbers. This is important because RSA cryptography and most key exchange algorithms in use today, base their security on the difficulty of factoring large numbers. (See Wikipedia article on Integer Factorization for more information.
  • Searching an unstructured list – in classical computation for a list of N items, it takes on the O(N). But Grover’s quantum search algorithm only takes O(sort[N]) which is considerably faster for large lists. (See Arxiv paper for more information.)

Using the Shor factorization algorithm, they were able to factor the number 15 with 7 qubits.

There are many quantum algorithms available today (see the Quantum Algorithm Zoo at NIST) with more showing up all the time.  Suffice it to say that quantum computing will be a more time efficient and thus, more effective approach to certain problems than classical computing.

Quantum computers starting to scale

Now back to the chip. According to the article the new Googl chip implements a 2X3 matrix of qubits.

For those old enough to remember, this was called an Octal or 3-bit number, ranging from 0 to 7, and two octals can range from 0..64. Octals were used for a long time to represent digital information for some (mostly mini-computers) computers. This is in contrast to most computing nowadays ,which uses Hexadecimal numbers or 4-bit numbers ranging from 0..15, and with two hexadecimal numbers ranging from 0..255.

Why are octals important? Well if quantum computing can scale up multiple octal numbers, then they can start representing really large numbers. According to the article Google chose 2X3 qubit structure because it’s more easy to scale.

I assume all the piping surrounding the chip package in the above photo are cooling ports. It seems that quantum computing only works at very cold temperatures. And if this is a two octals computer, scaling these up to multiple octals is going to take lots of space.

How quickly will it scale?

For some history, Intel introduced their 4004 (4-bit) computing chip in 1971 (Wikipedia), their 8-bit Intel 8008 in 1972 (Wikipedia), their 16-bit Intel 8086 between 1976-78. So in 7 years we went from a 4-bit computer to a 16 bit computer whose (x86) architecture continues on today and rules the world.

Now the Intel 4004 had 16 4-bit registers, had a data/instruction bus that could address 4096 4-bit words, 3-level subroutine stack and was a full fledged 4 bit computer. It’s unclear what’s in Google’s chip. But if we consider that this 2×3-qubit computer, which has multiple 2×3 qubit registers, a qubit storage bus, multi-level qubit subroutine (register) stack, etc. Then we are well on our way to quantum computing being added to the worlds computational capabilities in less than 10 years.

And of course, Googles not the only large organization working on quantum computing.

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So there you have it, Google and others are in the process of making your cryptography obsolete, rapidly speeding up unstructured searching and doing multiple other computations lots faster than today.

Photo Credit(s): from the MIT Technical Review article.

 

Crowdsourced vision for visually impaired

Read an article the other day in Christian Science Monitor (CSM) on the Be My Eyes App. The app is from BeMyEyes.com and is available for the iPhone and Android smart phones.

Essentially there are two groups of people that use the app:

  • Visually helpful volunteers – these people signup for the app and when a visually impaired person needs help they provide visual aid by speaking to the person on the other end.
  • Visually impaired individuals – these people signup for the app and when they are having problems understanding what they are (or are not) looking at they can turn on their camera take video with their phone and it will be sent to a volunteer, they can then ask the volunteer for help in deciding what they are looking at.

So, the visually impaired ask questions about the scenes they are shooting with their phone camera and volunteers will provide an answer.

It’s easy to register as Sighted and I assume Blind. I downloaded the app, registered and tried a test call in minutes. You have to enable notifications, microphone access and camera access on your phone to use the app. The camera access is required to display the scene/video on your phone.

According to the app there are 492K sighted individuals, 34.1K blind individuals and they have been helped 214K times.

Sounds like an easy way to help the world.

There was no requests to identify a language to use, so it may only work for English speakers. And there was no way to disable/enable it for a period of time when you don’t want to be disturbed. But maybe you would just close the app.

But other than that it was simple to use and seemed effective.

Now if there were only an app that would provide the same service for the hearing impaired to supply captions or a “filtered” audio feed to ear buds.

The world need more apps like this…

Comments

Ethereum enters the enterprise

Read an article the other day on NYT (Business Giants Announce Creation of … Ethereum).

In case you don’t know Ethereum is a open source, block chain solution that’s different than the software behind Bitcoin and IBM’s Hyperledger (for more on Hyperledger see our Blockchains at IBM post or our GreyBeardsOnStorage podcast with Donna Dillinger, IBM Fellow).

Blockchains are a software based, permanent ledger which can be used to record anything. Bitcoin, Ethereum and Hyperledger are all based on blockchains that provide similar digital information services with varying security, programability, consensus characteristics, etc.

Earth globe within a locked cageBlockchains represent an entirely new way of doing business in the digital world and have the potential to take over many financial services  and other contracting activities that are done today between organizations.

Blockchain services provide the decentralized recording of transactions into an immutable ledger.  The decentralized nature of blockchains makes it difficult (if not impossible) to game the system to record an invalid transaction.

Miners

Ethereum supports an Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) application which offers customers and users a more programmable blockchain. That is rather than just updating accounts with monetary transactions like Bitcoin does, one can implement specialized transaction processing for updating the immutable ledger. It’s this programability that allows for the creation of “smart contracts” which can be programmatically verified and executed.

MinerEthereum miner nodes are responsible for validating transactions and the state transition(s) that update the ledger. Transactions are grouped in blocks by miners.

Miners are responsible for validating the transaction block and performing a hard mathematical computation or proof of work (PoW) which goes along used to validate the block of transactions. Once the PoW computation is complete, the block is packaged up and the miner node updates its database (ledger) and communicates its result to all the other nodes on the network which updates their transaction ledgers as well. This constitutes one state transition of the Ethereum ledger.

Miners that validate Ethereum transactions get paid in Ethers, which are a form of currency throughout the Ethereum ecosystem.

Blockchain consensus

Ethereum ledger consensus is based on the miner nodes executing the PoW algorithm properly. The current Ethereal PoW algorithm is Ethash, which is an “ASIC resistant” algorithm. What this means is that standard GPUs and (less so) CPUs are already very well optimized to perform this algorithm and any potential ASIC designer, if they could do better, would make more money selling their design to GPU and CPU designers, than trying to game the system.

One problem with Bitcoin is that its PoW is more ASIC friendly, which has led some organizations to developing special purpose ASICs in an attempt to dominate Bitcoin mining. If they can dominate Bitcoin mining, this can  be used to game the Bitcoin consensus system and potentially implement invalid transactions.

Ethereum Accounts

Ethereum has two types of accounts:

  • Contract accounts that are controlled by the EVM application code, or
  • Externally owned accounts (EOA) that are controlled by a set of private keys and represent external agents (miner nodes, people, transaction generating entities)

Contract accounts really are code and data which constitute the EVM bytecode (application). Contract account bytecode is also stored on the Ethereum ledger (when deployed?) and are associated with an EOA that initiates the Contract account.

Contract functionality is written in Solidity, Serpent, Lisp Like Language (LLL) or other languages that can be compiled into EVM bytecode. Smart contracts use Ethereum Contract accounts to validate and execute contract actions.

Ethereum gas pricing

As EVMs contract accounts can consume arbitrary amounts of computation, bandwidth and storage to process transactions,   Ethereum uses a concept called “gas” to pay for their resource consumption.

When a contract account transaction is initiated, it identifies a gas price (in Ethers) and a maximum gas amount that it is willing to consume to process the transaction.

When a contract transaction takes place:

  • If the maximum gas amount is less than what the transaction consumes, then the transaction is executed and is applied to the ledger. Any left over or remaining gas Ethers is credited back to the EOA.
  • If the maximum gas amount is not enough to execute the transaction, then the transaction fails and no update occurs.

Enterprise Ethereum Alliance

What’s new to Ethereum is that Accenture, Bank of New York Mellon, BP, CreditSuisse, Intel, Microsoft, JP Morgan, UBS and many others have joined together to form the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance. The alliance intends to work to create a standard version of the Ethereum software that enterprise companies can use to manage smart contracts.

Microsoft has had a Azure Blockchain-as-a-Service online since 2015.  This was based on an earlier version of Ethereum called Project Bletchley.

Ethereum seems to be an alternative to IBM Hyperledger, which offers another enterprise class block chain for smart contracts. As enterprise class blockchains look like they will transform the way companies do business in the future, having multiple enterprise class blockchain solutions seems smart to many companies.

Comments?

Photo Credit(s): Miner by Mark Callahan; Gas prices by Corpsman.com; File: Ether pharmecie.jpg by Wikimedia

 

Mixed progress on self-driving cars

Read an article the other day on the progress in self-driving cars in NewsAtlas (DMV reports self-driving cars are learning — fast). More details are available from their source (CA [California] DMV [Dept. of Motor Vehicles] report).

The article reported on what’s called disengagement events that occurred on CA roads. This is where a driver has to take over from the self-driving automation to deal with a potential mis-queue, mistake, or accident.

Waymo (Google) way out ahead

It appears as if Waymo, Google’s self-driving car spin out, is way ahead of the pack. It reported only 124 disengages for 636K mi (~1M km) or ~1 disengage every ~5.1K mi (~8K km). This is ~4.3X better rate than last year, 1 disengage for every ~1.2K mi (1.9K km).

Competition far behind

Below I list some comparative statistics (from the DMV/CA report, noted above), sorted from best to worst:

  • BMW: 1 disengage 638 mi (1027 km)
  • Ford: 3 disengages for 590 mi (~950 km) or 1 disengage every ~197 mi (~317 km);
  • Nissan: 23 disengages for 3.3K mi (3.5K km) or 1 disengage every ~151 mi (~243 km)
  • Cruise (GM) automation: had 181 disengagements for ~9.8K mi (~15.8K km) or 1 disengage every ~54 mi (~87 km)
  • Delphi: 149 disengages for ~3.1K mi (~5.0K km) or 1 disengage every ~21 mi (~34 km);

There was no information on previous years activities so no data on how competitors had improved over the last year.

Please note: the report only applies to travel on California (CA) roads. Other competitors are operating in other countries and other states (AZ, PA, & TX to name just a few). However, these rankings may hold up fairly well when combined with other state/country data. Thousand(s) of kilometers should be adequate to assess self-driving cars disengagement rates.

Waymo moving up the (supply chain) stack

In addition, according to a Recode, (The Google car was supposed to disrupt the car industry) article, Waymo is moving from a (self-driving automation) software supplier to a hardware and software supplier to the car industry.

Apparently, Google has figured out how to reduce their sensor (hardware) costs by a factor of 10X, bringing the sensor package down from $75K to $7.5K, (most probably due to a cheaper way to produce Lidar sensors – my guess).

So now Waymo is doing about ~65 to ~1000 X more (CA road) miles than any competitor, has a much (~8 to ~243 X) better disengage rate and is  moving to become a major auto supplier in both hardware and software.

It’s going to be an interesting century.

If the 20th century was defined by the emergence of the automobile, the 21st will probably be defined by dominance of autonomous operations.

Comments?

Photo credits: Substance E′TS; and Waymo on the road