For AGI, is reward enough – part 4

Last May, an article came out of DeepMind research titled Reward is enough. It was published in an artificial intelligence journal but PDFs of it are available free of charge.

The article points out that according to DeepMind researchers, using reinforcement learning and an appropriate reward signal is sufficient to attain AGI (artificial general intelligence). We have written about the perils and pitfalls of AGI before (see Existential event risks [-part-0]NVIDIA Triton GMI, a step to far[-part-1]The Myth of AGI [-part-2], and Towards a better AGI – part 3ish. (Sorry, I only started numbering them after part 3ish).

My last post on AGI inclined towards the belief that AGI was not possible without combining deduction, induction and abduction (probabilistic reasoning) together and that any such AGI was a distant dream at best.

Then I read the Reward is Enough article and it implied that they saw a realistic roadmap towards achieving AGI based solely on reward signals and Reinforcement Learning (wikipedia article on Reinforcement Learning ). To read the article was disheartening at best. After the article came out, I made it a hobby to understand everything I could about Reinforcement Learning to understand whether what they are talking is feasible or not.

Reinforcement learning, explained

Let’s just say that the text book, Reinforcement Learning, is not the easiest read I’ve seen. But I gave it a shot and although I’m no where near finished, (lost somewhere in chapter 4), I’ve come away with a better appreciation of reinforcement learning.

The premise of Reinforcement Learning, as I understand it, is to construct a program that performs a sequence of steps based on state or environment the program is working on, records that sequence and tags or values that sequence with a reward signal (i.e., +1 for good job, -1 for bad, etc.). Depending on whether the steps are finite, i.,e, always ends or infinite, never ends, the reward tagging could be cumulative (finite steps) or discounted (infinite steps).

The record of the program’s sequence of steps would include the state or the environment and the next step that was taken. Doing this until the program completes the task or if, infinite, whenever the discounted reward signal is minuscule enough to not matter anymore.

Once you have a log or record of the state, the step taken in that state and the reward for that step you have a policy used to take better steps. Over time, with sufficient state-step-reward sequences, one can build a policy that would work’s very well for the problem at hand.

Reinforcement learning, a chess playing example

Let’s say you want to create a chess playing program using reinforcement learning. If a sequence of moves ends the game, you can tag each move in that sequence with a reward (say +1 for wins, 0 for draws and -1 for losing), perhaps discounted by the number of moves it took to win. The “sequence of steps” would include the game board and the move chosen by the program for that board position.

Figure 2: Comparison with specialized programs. (A) Tournament evaluation of AlphaZero in chess, shogi, and Go in matches against respectively Stockfish, Elmo, and the previously published version of AlphaGo Zero (AG0) that was trained for 3 days. In the top bar, AlphaZero plays white; in the bottom bar AlphaZero plays black. Each bar shows the results from AlphaZero’s perspective: win (‘W’, green), draw (‘D’, grey), loss (‘L’, red). (B) Scalability of AlphaZero with thinking time, compared to Stockfish and Elmo. Stockfish and Elmo always receive full time (3 hours per game plus 15 seconds per move), time for AlphaZero is scaled down as indicated. (C) Extra evaluations of AlphaZero in chess against the most recent version of Stockfish at the time of writing, and against Stockfish with a strong opening book. Extra evaluations of AlphaZero in shogi were carried out against another strong shogi program Aperyqhapaq at full time controls and against Elmo under 2017 CSA world championship time controls (10 minutes per game plus 10 seconds per move). (D) Average result of chess matches starting from different opening positions: either common human positions, or the 2016 TCEC world championship opening positions . Average result of shogi matches starting from common human positions . CSA world
championship games start from the initial board position.

If your policy incorporates enough winning chess move sequences and the program encounters one of these in a game and if move recorded won, select that move, if lost, select another valid move at random. If the program runs across a board position its never seen before, choose a valid move at random.

Do this enough times and you can build a winning white playing chess policy. Doing something similar for black playing program would build a winning black playing chess policy.

The researchers at DeepMind explain their AlphaZero program which plays chess, shogi, and Go in another research article, A general reinforcement learning algorithm that masters chess, shogi and Go through self-play.

Reinforcement learning and AGI

So now what does all that have to do with creating AGI. The premise of the paper is that by using rewards and reinforcement learning, one could program a policy for any domain that one encounters in the world.

For example, using the above chart, if we were to construct reinforcement learning programs that mimicked perception (object classification/detection) abilities, memory ((image/verbal/emotional/?) abilities, motor control abilities, etc. Each subsystem could be trained to solve the arena needed. And over time, if we built up enough of these subsystems one could somehow construct an AGI system of subsystems, that would match human levels of intelligence.

The paper’s main hypothesis is “(Reward is enough) Intelligence, and its associated abilities, can be understood as subserving the maximization of reward by an agent acting in its environment.”

Given where I am today, I agree with the hypothesis. But the crux of the problem is in the details. Yes, for a game of multiple players and where a reward signal of some type can be computed, a reinforcement learning program can be crafted that plays better than any human but this is only because one can create programs that can play that game, one can create programs that understand whether the game is won or lost and use all this to improve the game playing policy over time and game iterations.

Does rewards and reinforcement learning provide a roadmap to AGI

To use reinforcement learning to achieve AGI implies that

  • One can identify all the arenas required for (human) intelligence
  • One can compute a proper reward signal for each arena involved in (human) intelligence,
  • One can programmatically compute appropriate steps to take to solve that arena’s activity,
  • One can save a sequence of state-steps taken to solve that arena’s problem, and
  • One can run sequences of steps enough times to produce a good policy for that arena.

There are a number of potential difficulties in the above. For instance, what’s the state the program operates in.

For a human, which has 500K(?) pressure, pain, cold, & heat sensors throughout the exterior and interior of the body, two eyes, ears, & nostrils, one tongue, two balance sensors, tired, anxious, hunger, sadness, happiness, and pleasure signals, and 600 muscles actuating the position of five fingers/hand, toes/foot, two eyes ears, feet, legs, hands, and arms, one head and torso. Such a “body state, becomes quite complex. Any state that records all this would be quite large. Ok it’s just data, just throw more storage at the problem – my kind of problem.

The compute power to create good policies for each subsystem would also be substantial and in the end determining the correct reward signal would be non-trivial for each and every subsystem. Yet, all it takes is money, time and effort and all this could be accomplished.

So, yes, given all the above creating an AGI, that matches human levels of intelligence, using reinforcement learning techniques and rewards is certainly possible. But given all the state information, action possibilities and reward signals inherent in a human interacting in the world today, any human level AGI, would seem unfeasible in the next year or so.

One item of interest, recent DeepMind researchers have create MuZero which learns how to play Go, Chess, Shogi and Atari games without any pre-programmed knowledge of the games (that is how to play the game, how to determine if the game is won or lost, etc.). It managed to come up with it’s own internal reward signal for each game and determined what the proper moves were for each game. This seemed to combine a deep learning neural network together with reinforcement learning techniques to craft a rewards signal and valid move policies.

Alternatives to full AGI

But who says you need AGI, for something that might be a useful to us. Let’s say you just want to construct an intelligent oracle that understood all human generated knowledge and science and could answer any question posed to it. With the only response capabilities being audio, video, images and text.

Even an intelligent oracle such as the above would need an extremely large state. Such a state would include all human and machine generated information at some point in time. And any reward signal needed to generate a good oracle policy would need to be very sophisticated, it would need to determine whether the oracle’s answer; was good or not. And of course the steps to take to answer a query are uncountable, 1st there’s understanding the query, next searching out and examining every piece of information in the state space for relevance, and finally using all that information to answer to the question.

I’m probably missing a few steps in the above, and it almost makes creating a human level AGI seem easier.

Perhaps the MuZero techniques might have an answer to some or all of the above.

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Yes, reinforcement learning is a valid roadmap to achieving AGI, but can it be done today – no. Tomorrow, perhaps.

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Towards a better AGI – part 3(ish)

Read an article this past week in Nature about the need for Cooperative AI (Cooperative AI: machines must learn to find common ground) which supplies the best view I’ve seen as to a direction research needs to go to develop a more beneficial and benign AI-AGI.

Not sure why, but this past month or so, I’ve been on an AGI fueled frenzy (at leastihere). I didn’t realize this was going to be a multi-part journey otherwise, I would have lableled them AGI part-1 & -2 ( please see: Existential event risks [part-0], NVIDIA Triton GMI, a step to far [part-1] and The Myth of AGI [part-2] to learn more).

But first please take our new poll:

The Nature article puts into perspective what we all want from future AI (or AGI). That is,

  • AI-AI cooperation: AI systems that cooperate with one another while at the same time understand that not all activities are zero sum competitions (like chess, go, Atari games) but rather most activities, within the human sphere, are cooperative activities where one agent has a set of goals and a different agent has another set of goals, some of which overlap while others are in conflict. Sport games like soccer lacrosse come to mind. But there are other card and (Risk & Diplomacy) board games that use cooperating parties, with diverse goals to achieve common ends.
  • AI-Human cooperation: AI systems that cooperate with humans to achieve common goals. Here too, most humans have their own sets of goals, some of which may be in conflict with the AI systems goals. However, all humans have a shared set of goals, preservation of life comes to mind. It’s in this arena where the challenges are most acute for AI systems. Divining human and their own system underlying goals and motivations is not simple. And of course giving priority to the “right” goals when they compete or are in conflict will be an increasingly difficult task to accomplish, given todays human diversity.
  • Human-Human cooperation: Here it gets pretty interesting, but the paper seems to say that any future AI system should be designed to enhance human-human interaction, not deter or interfere with it. One can see the challenge of disinformation today and how wonderful it would be to have some AI agent that could filter all this and present a proper picture of our world. But, humans have different goals and trying to figure out what they are and which are common and thereby something to be enhanced will be an ongoing challenge.

The problem with today’s AI research is that its all about improving specific activities (image recognition, language understanding, recommendation engines, etc) but all are point solutions and none (if any) are focused on cooperation.

Tit for tat wins the award

To that end, the authors of the paper call for a new direction one that attempts to imbue AI systems with social intelligence and cooperative intelligence to work well in the broader, human dominated world that lies ahead.

In the Nature article they mentioned a 1984 book by Richard Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation. Perhaps, the last great research on cooperation that was ever produced.

In this book it talked about a world full of simulated prisoner dilemma actors that interacted, one with another, at random.

The experimenters programmed some agents to always do the proper thing for their current partner, some to always do the wrong thing to their partner, others to do right once than wrong from that point forward, etc. The experimenters tried every sort of cooperation policy they could think of.

Each agent in an interaction would get some number of points for an interaction. For example, if both did the right thing they would each get 3 points, if one did wrong, the sucker would get 1 and the bad actor would get 4, both did wrong each got 1 point, etc.

The agents that had the best score during a run (of 1000s of random pairings/interactions) would multiply for the the next run and the agents that did worse would disappear over time in the population of agents in simulated worlds.

The optimal strategy that emerged from these experiments was

  1. Do the right thing once with every new partner, and
  2. From that point forward tit for tat (if the other party did right the last time, then you do right thing the next time you interact with them, if they did wrong the last time, then you do wrong the next time you interact with them).

It was mind boggling at the time to realize that such a simple strategy could be so effective/sustainable in simulation and perhaps in the real world. It turns out that in a (simulated) world of bad agents, there would be this group of Tit for Tat agents that would build up, defend itself and expand over time to succeed.

That was the state of the art in cooperation research back then (1984). I’ve not seen anything similar to this since.

I haven’t seen anything like this that discusses how to implement algorithms in support of social intelligence.

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The authors of the Nature article believe it’s once again time to start researching cooperation techniques and start researching social intelligence so we can instill proper cooperation and social intelligence technology into future AI (AGI) systems .

Perhaps if we can do this, we may create a better AI (or AGI) so that both it and we can live better in our world, galaxy and universe.

Comments?

Tattoos that light up

Read an article the other day, titled Light-emitting tattoo engineered in ScienceDaily. Which was reporting on research done by University College London and Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology) (Ultrathin, ultra-comfortable and free-standing, tattooable LEDs – behind paywall).

The new technology out of their research can construct OLEDs, found in TVs, phones, and other displays, and apply them as temporary tattoos. The tattoos will eventually degrade, wash off but while present on the skin they can light up and display information.

According to the Nanowerk news article reporting on the research, (see Light emitting tattoos engineered for the 1st time), the OLEDs are printed onto paper which can then be transferred to skin by the application of water. The picture above shows a number of the OLED tattoos ready for application.

The vision is that OLED tattoos along with other flexible electronics could provide wearable sensors of bio-chemical activity of a person. Such sensors could be used in hospitals and in the home to display dehydration, glucose status, oxygenation, etc. as well as be able to display heart and breath rates. But in order to get to that vision there’s a few steps that are needed.

Flexible, stretchable electronics

There have been a number of articles about creating flexible electronics, (e.g., see A design to improve the resilience and electrical performance thin metal film based electrodes). This article was reporting on research done at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana reported in Nature (behind paywall) but one of the researchers blogged about in NaturePortfolio Devices & Materials (see: An atom-thick interlayer enables the electrical ductility of thin-film metal electrodes).

Flexible electronics can be constructed by creating a thin metal film with the electronics embedded in it placed on top of a flexible substrate. However, when that flexible substrate starts to deform or stretch it induces cracks in the thin metal films which lead to loss of conductivity, or loss of electronics function.

The research cited in the article above showed videos of cracking that takes place during deformation and stretching which would lead to loss of conductivity.

But the researchers at UofI found out that if you place a thin layer of graphene or other 2D sheet of material between the electronic thin film and the flexible substrate, the cracks that eventually happen are much less harmful to electronic conduction or functioning or provide electronic ductability. To add ductablity to an electronic circuit using LEDs the team applied an atomically thin (<1nm), 2D layer of graphene between it and the flexible substrate.

Somehow the graphene provided a mechanical buffer between the flexible substrate and the thin film electronics that allowed the circuits to have much more ductility. It appears that this mechanical buffer changed the type of cracking that occurs on the thin metal film such that they are shorter and more varied in direction rather than straight across and this helped them retain functioning longer than without the

The researchers at U of I actually created a led display that could be bent without failure. See a video of them comparing the thin film vs thin film with 2D substrate.

Skin sensors

Moreover, there have been a number of articles discussing new wearable technologies that could be used to sense a persons bio-chemical state. For example, research reported on recently (see Do Sweat It! Wearable Microfluidic Sensor to Measure Lactate Concentration in Real Time) done at the Tokyo University of Science, published in Electochimica Acta (behind paywall) talks about a sweat sensor that can be applied to skin to determine when athletes or others are getting dehydrated.

This sensor uses a micro-fluidics device which printed with electronic ink. Such a device could be manufactured in volume and be readily printed onto surfaces, that could be applied to the skin, anywhere sweat was being produced.

Future tattoos

Wearable sensors already surround us. We have watches that can tell our heart rates, walk/running speed/rates, step counts, etc. It doesn’t take much to imagine that most if not all of these could be fabricated on a thin film and with the proper 2D substrate layer be applied as a tattoo to a person while in the hospital but all these sensors have lacked a read out or display up until now. With OLED readouts wearable sensors now have a reasonable display capability.

The sweat sensor above uses microfluidics to do a lactate assay of sweat. The motion sensors in my watch uses MEMs and onboard IMU/GPS to determine speed and direction of movement. Electronic temperature sensors use thermoelectric effects. Blood oxygen sensors use LEDs and light sensors. None of these appears unable to be fabricated, miniaturized and printed on thin films. Adding OLEDs and why do we need a watch anymore?

What seems to be the most glaring omission is gas sensors (although the lactate micro-fluidic sensor is close). If we could somehow miniaturize gas sensors with enough sensitivity to glucose levels, immunological load, specific diseases (COVID19), then maybe there’d be a mass market for such devices, outside of a hospital or smart watch users.

Then with OLED and electronics that can be temporarily tattooed onto a person skin., why couldn’t this be a fashion accessory. I can imagine lot’s of people would have interest in lighting up messages, iconography or other data on their arms, hands, or other areas of a person’s body. I wonder if it could be used to display hair on the top of my head :)?

And of course these OLED-electronics based tattoos are temporary. But if they are all made from electronic ink, it seems to me that such tattoos could be permanently printed (implanted?) onto a persons skin.

Maybe at some future point a permanent OLED-electronics based tattoo could provide an electronic display and input device that could be used in conjunction with a phone or a smart-watch. All it would take would be blue-tooth.

Comments?

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A tale of two countries and how they controlled the Coronavirus

Read an article in IEEE Spectrum last week about Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 (see: Big data helps Taiwan fight Coronavirus) which was reporting on an article in JAMA (see Response to COVID-19 in Taiwan) about Taiwan’s success in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak in their country.

I originally intended this post to be solely about Taiwan’s response to the virus but then thought that it more instructive to compare and contrast Taiwan and South Korea responses to the virus, who both seem to have it under control now (18 Mar 2020).

But first a little about the two countries (source wikipedia: South Korea and Taiwan articles):

Taiwan (TWN) and South Korea (ROK) both enjoy close proximity, trade and travel between their two countries and China

  • South Korea (ROK) has a population of ~50.8M, an area of 38.6K SqMi (100.0K SqKm) and extends about 680 Mi (1100 Km) away from the Asian mainland (China).
  • Taiwan (TWN ) has a population of ~23.4M, an area of 13.8K SqMi (35.8K Sq Km) and is about 110 Mi (180 Km) away from the Asian mainland (China).

COVID-19 disease progression & response in TWN and ROK

There’s lots of information about TWN’s response (see articles mentioned above) to the virus but less so on ROK’s response.

Nonetheless, here’s some highlights of the progression of the pandemic and how they each reacted (source for disease/case progression from : wikipedia Coronavirus timeline Nov’19 to Jan’20, and Coronavirus timeline Feb’20; source for TWN response to virus JAMA article supplement and ROK response to virus Timeline: What the world can learn from South Korea’s COVID-19 response ).

  • Dec. 31, 2019: China Wuhan municipal health announced “urgent notice on the treatment of pneumonia of unknown cause”. Taiwan immediately tightened inbound screening processes. ==> TWN: officials board and inspect passengers for fever or pneumonia symptoms on direct flights from Wuhan
  • Jan. 8, 2020: ROK identifies 1st possible case of the disease in a women who recently returned from China Wuhan province
  • Jan 20: ROK reports 1st laboratory confirmed case ==> TWN: Central Epidemic Command Center activated, activates Level 2 travel alert for Wuhan; ROK CDC starts daily press briefings on disease progress in the nation
  • Jan. 21: TWN identifies 1st laboratory confirmed case ==> TWN: activates Level 3 travel alert for Wuhan
  • Jan 22: ==> TWN: cancels entry permits for 459 tourists from Wuhan set to arrive later in Jan
  • Jan 23: ==> TWN: bans residents from Wuhan, travelers from China required to make online health declaration before entering
  • Jan. 24 ROK reports 2nd laboratory confirmed case ==> TWN bans export of facemasks; ROK, sometime around now the gov’t started tracking confirmed cases using credit card and CCTV data to understand where patients contacted the disease
  • Jan. 25: ==> TWN: tours to china are suspended until Jan 31, activates level 3 travel alert for Hubei Province and Level 2 for rest of China, enacts export ban on surgical masks until Feb 23
  • Jan 26: ==> TWN: all tour groups from Wuhan have to leave,
  • Jan. 27: TWN reports 1st domestic transmission of the disease ==>TWN NHIA and NIA (National health and immigration authorities) integrate (adds all hospital) patients past 14-day travel history to NHIA database, all tour groups from Hubei Province have to leave
  • Jan 28: ==> TWN: activates Level 3 travel alert for all of China except Hong Kong and Macau; ROK requests inspection of all people who have traveled from Wuhan in the past 14 days
  • Jan 29: ==> TWN: institutes electronic monitoring of all quarantined patients via gov’t issued cell phones; ROK about now requests production of massive numbers of WHO approved test kits for the Coronavirus
  • Jan. 30: ROK reports 2 more (4 total) confirmed cases of the disease ==> TWN: tours to or transiting China suspended until Feb 29;
  • Jan 31: ==> TWN: all remaining tour groups from China asked to leave
  • Feb 2 ==> TWN extended school break from Feb 15 to Feb 25,gov’t facilities available for quarantine, soldiers mobilized to man facemask production lines, 60 additional machines installed daily facemask output to reach 10M facemasks a day.
  • Feb 3: ==> TWN: enacts name based rationing system for facemasks, develops mobile phone app to allow public to see pharmacy mask stocks, Wenzhou city Level 2 travel alert; ROK CDC releases enhanced quarantine guidelines to manage the disease outbreak, as of today ROK CDC starts making 2-3 press releases a day on the progress of the disease
  • Feb 5: ==> TWN: Zheijanp province Level 2 travel alert, all cruise ships with suspected cases in past 28 days banned, any cruise ship with previous dockings in China, Hong Kong, or Macau in past 14 days are banned
  • Feb 6:==> TWN: Tours to Hong Kong & Macau suspended until Feb 29, all Chinese nationals banned, all international cruise ship are banned, all contacts from Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers who disembarked on Jan 31 are traced
  • Feb 7: ==> TWN: All foriegn nationals with travel to China, Hong Kong or Macau in the past 14 days are banned, all Foreigners must see an immigration officer,
  • Feb 14:==> TWN: Entry quarantine system launched fill out electronic health declaration for faster entry
  • Feb 16: ==> TWN: NHIA database expanded to cover 30 day travel history for travelers form or transited through China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Thailand.
  • Feb 18 ==> TWN: all hospitals, clinics and pharmacies have access to patients travel history; ROK most institutions postpone the re-start of school after spring break
  • Feb 19 ==> TWN establishes gov’t policies to disinfect schools and school areas, school buses, high speed rail, railways, tour busses and taxis
  • Feb 20 ==> ROK Daegu requests all individuals to stay home
  • Feb 21 ==> TWN establishes school suspension guidelines based on cases diagnosed in school; ROK Seoul closes all public gatherings and protests
  • Feb 24 ==> TWN, travelers with history of travel to china, from countries with level 1 or 2 travel alerts, and all foreign nationals subject to 14 day quarantine (By this time many countries are in level 1-2-3 travel alert status in TWN)
  • Feb 26 ==> ROK opens drive-thru testing clinics, patients are informed via text messages (3 days later) the results of their tests
  • Mar 3? ==> ROK starts selling facemasks at post offices
  • Mar 5 ==> ROK bans the export of face masks

As of Mar 16, (as reported in Wikipedia), TWN had 67 cases and 1 death; and ROK had 8,326 cases and 75 deaths. As of Mar 13 (as reported is Our world in data article), TWN had tested 16,089 and ROK had tested 248,647 people.

Summary of TWN and ROK responses to the virus

For starters, both TWN and ROK learned valuable lessons from the last infections from China SARS-H1N1 and used those lessons to deal better with COVID-19. Also neither country had any problem accessing credit information, mobile phone location data, CCTV camera or any other electronic information to trace infected people in their respective countries.

If I had to characterize the responses to the virus from the two countries:

  1. TWN was seemingly focused early on reducing infections from outside, controlling & providing face masks to all, and identifying gov’t policies (ceasing public gathering, quarantine and disinfectant procedure) to reduce transmission of the disease. They augmented and promoted the use of public NHIA databases to track recent travel activity and used any information available to monitor the infected and track down anyone they may have contacted. Although TWN has increased testing over time, they did not seem to have much of an emphasis on broad testing. At this point, TWN seems to have the virus under control.
  2. ROK was all about public communications, policies (quarantine and openness), aggressively testing their population and quarantining those that were infected. ROK also tracked the goings on and contacts of anyone that was infected. ROK started early on broadly testing anyone that wanted to be tested. Using test results, infected individuals were asked to quarantine. A reporter I saw talking about ROK mentions 3 T’s: Target, Test, & Trace At this point, ROK seems to have the virus under control.

In addition, Asian countries in general are more prone to use face masks when traveling, which may be somewhat restrict Coronavirus transmission. Although it seems to primarily reduce transmission, most of the public in these countries (now) routinely wear face masks when out and about. And previously they routinely wore face masks when traveling to reduce disease transmission.

Also both countries took the news out of Wuhan China about the extent of the infections, deaths and ease of disease transmission as truthful and acted on this before any significant infections were detected in their respective countries

What the rest of the world can learn from these two countries

What we need to take from TWN a& ROK is that

  1. Face masks and surgical masks are a critical resource during any pandemic. National production needs to be boosted immediately with pricing and distribution controls so that they are not hoarded, nor subject to price gouging. In the USA we have had nothing on this front other than requests to the public to stop hoarding them and the lack of availability to support healthcare workers).
  2. Test kits are also a critical resource during any pandemic. Selection of the test kit, validation and boosting production of test kits needs to be an early and high priority. The USA seems to have fallen down on this job.
  3. Travel restrictions, control and quarantines need to be instituted early on from infected countries. USA did take action to restrict travel and have instituted quarantines on cruise ship passengers and any repatriated nationals from China.
  4. Limited testing can help control the virus as long as it’s properly targeted. Mass, or rather less, targeted testing can also help control the virus as well. In the USA given the lack of test kits, we are limited to targeted testing.
  5. Open, rapid and constant communications can be an important adjunct to help control virus spread. The USA seems to be still working on this. Many states seem to have set up special communications channels to discuss the latest information. But there doesn’t seem to be any ongoing, every day communications effort on behalf of the USA CDC to communicate pandemic status.
  6. When one country reports infections, death and ease of transmission of a disease start to take serious precautions immediately. Disease transmission in our travel intensive world is much too easy and rapid to stop once it takes hold in a nation. Any nation today that starts to encounter and infectious agent with high death rates and seemingly easy transmission must be taken seriously as the start of something much bigger.

Stay safe, be well.

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Comments?

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Clouds an existential threat – part 2

Recall that in part 1, we discussed most of the threats posed by clouds to both hardware and software IT vendors. In that post we talked about some of the more common ways that vendors are trying to head off this threat (for now).

In this post we want to talk about some uncommon ways to deal with the coming cloud apocalypse.

But first just to put the cloud threat in perspective, the IT TAM is estimated, by one major consulting firm, to be a ~$3.8T in 2019 with a growth rate of 3.7% Y/Y. The same number for public cloud spending, is ~$214B in 2019, growing by 17.5% Y/Y. If both growth rates continue (a BIG if), public cloud services spend will constitute all (~98.7%) of IT TAM in ~24 years from now. No nobody would predict those growth rates will continue but it’s pretty evident the growth trends are going the wrong way for (non-public cloud) IT vendors.

There are probably an infinite number of ways to deal with the cloud. But outside of the common ones we discussed in part 1, only a dozen or so seem feasible to me and even less are fairly viable for present IT vendors.

  • Move to the edge and IoT.
  • Make data center as easy and cheap to use as the cloud
  • Focus on low-latency, high data throughput, and high performing work and applications
  • Move 100% into services
  • Move into robotics

The edge has legs

Probably the first one we should point out would be to start selling hardware and software to support the edge. Speaking in financial terms, the IoT/Edge market is estimated to be $754B in 2019, and growing by over a 15.4% CAGR ).

So we are talking about serious money. At the moment the edge is a very diverse environment from cameras, sensors and moveable devices. And everybody seems to be in the act, big industrial firms, small startups and everyone in between. Given this diversity it’s hard to see that IT vendors could make a decent return here. But given its great diversity, one could say it’s ripe for consolidation.

And the edge could use some reference architectures where there are devices at the extreme edge, concentrators at the edge, more higher concentrators at nodes and more at the core, etc. So there’s a look and feel to it that seems like Ro/Bo – central core hub and spoke architectures, only on steroids with leaf proliferation that can’t be stopped. And all that data coming in has to be classified, acted upon and understood.

There are plenty of other big industrial suppliers in this IoT/edge field but none seem to have the IT end of the market that Hitachi Vantara can claim to. Some sort of combination of a large IT vendor and a large industrial firm could potentially do the same

However, Hitachi Vantara seems to be focusing on the software side of the edge. This may be an artifact of Hitachi family of companies dynamics. But it seems to be leaving some potential sales on the table.

Hitachi Vantara has the advantage of being into industrial technology in a big way so the products they create operate in factories, rail yards, ship yards and other industrial sites around the world already. So, adding IoT and edge capabilities to their portfolio is a natural extension of this expertise.

There are a few vendors going into the Edge/IoT in a small way, but no one vendor personifies this approach more than Hitachi Vantara. The Hitachi family of companies has a long and varied history in OT (operational technology) or industrial technology. And over the last many years, HDS and now Hitachi Vantara, have been pivoting their organization to focus more on IoT and edge solutions and seem to have made IOT, OT and the edge, a central part of their overall strategy.

So there’s plenty of money to be made with IoT/Edge hardware and software, one just has to go after it in a big way and there’s lots of competition. But all the competition seems to be on the same playing field (unlike the public cloud playing field).

Getting to “data center as a cloud”

There are a number of reasons why customers migrate work to the cloud, ease of use, ease of storage, ease of scale, access to myriad applications, access to multi-regional data centers, CAPex financial model, to name just a few.

There’s nothing that says much of this couldn’t be provided at the data center. It’s mostly just a lot of open source software and a lot of common hardware. IT vendors can do this sort of work if they put their vast resources to go after it.

From the pure software side, there are a couple of companies trying to do this namely VMware and Nutanix but (IBM) RedHat, (Dell) Pivotal, HPE Simplivity and others are also going after this approach.

Hardware wise CI and HCI, seem to be rudimentary steps towards common hardware that’s easy to deploy, operate and support. But these baby steps aren’t enough. And delivery to deployment in weeks is never going to get them there. If Amazon can deliver books, mattresses, bicycles, etc in a couple of days. IT vendors should be able to do the same with some select set of common hardware and have it automatically deployable in seconds to minutes once powered on.

And operating these systems has to be drastically simplified. On any public cloud there’s really no tuning required, almost minimal configuration, and then it’s just load your data and go. Yes there’s a market place to select, (virtual) hardware, (virtual) storage hardware, (virtual) networking hardware, (virtual server) O/S and (virtual?) open source applications.

Yes there’s a lots of software behind all that virtualization. And it’s fundamentally different than today’s virtualized systems. It’s made to operate only on commodity hardware and only with open source software.

The CAPex financial model is less of a problem. Today. I find many vendors are offering their hardware (and some software) on a CAPex, pay as you go model. More of this needs to be made available but the IT vendors see this, and are already aggressively moving in this direction.

The clouds are not standing still what with Azure Stack, AWS and GCP all starting to provideversions of their stack on prem in the enterprise. This looks to be a strategic battleground between the clouds and IT vendors.

Making everything IT can do in the cloud available in the data center, with common hardware and software and with the speed and ease of deployment, operations and support (maintenance) should be on every IT vendors to do list.

Unfortunately, this is not going to stop the public cloud completely, but it has the potential to slow the growth rate. But time is short, momentum has moved to the public cloud and I don’t (yet) see the urgency of the IT vendors to make this transition happen today.

Focus on low-latency, high data throughput and high performance work

This is somewhat unfair as all the IT vendors are already involved in these markets in a big way. But, there are some trends here, that indicate this low-latency market will be even more important over time.

For example, more and more of commercial IT is starting to take advantage of big data and AI to profit from all their data. And big science is starting to migrate to IT, where massive data flows and data analysis tools are becoming important to the data center. If anything, the emergence of IoT and the edge will increase data flows that need to be analyzed, understood, and ultimately dealt with.

DNA genomics may be relegated to big pharma/medical but 3D visualization is becoming so mainstream that I can do it on my desktop. These sorts of things were relegated to HPC/big science just a decade or so ago. What tools exist in HPC today that the IT data center of the future will deam a necessary part of their application workload.

Is this a sizable TAM, probably not today. In all honesty it’s buried somewhere in the IT TAM above. But it can be a growing niche, where IT vendors can stake a defensive position and the cloud may have a tough time dislodging.

I say the cloud “may have trouble dislodging” because nothing says that the entire data flow/work flow couldn’t migrate to the cloud, if the responsiveness was available there. But, if anything (guaranteed) responsiveness is one of the few achilles heels of the public cloud. Security may be the other one.

We see IBM, Intel, and a few others taking this space seriously. But all IT vendors need to see where they can do better here.

Focus on services

This not really out-of-box thinking. Some (old) IT vendors have been moving into services for over 50 years now others are just seeing there’s money to be made here. Just about every IT vendor has deployment & support services. most hardware have break-fix services.

But standalone IT services are more specialized and in the coming cloud apocalypse, services will revolve around implementing cloud applications and functionality or migrating work from the cloud or (rarely in the future) back to on prem.

TAM for services is buried in the total IT spend but industry analysts estimate that in 2019 total worldwide TAM for IT services will be about $1.0 in 2019 and growing by 2.6% CAGR.

So services are already a significant portion of IT spend today. And will probably not be impacted by the move to the cloud. I’d say that because implementing applications and services will still exist as long as the cloud exists. Yes it may get simpler (better frameworks, containerization, systemization), but it won’t ever go away completely.

Robots, the endgame

Ok laugh now. I understand this is a big ask to think that Robot spending could supplement and maybe someday surpass IT spending. But we all have to think long term. What is a self driving car but a robotic data center on wheels, generating TB of data every day it’s driven.

Robots over the next century will invade every space, become ever present and ever necessary to modern world functioning . They will have sophisticated onboard computing, motors, servos, sensors and on board and backend processing requirements. The real low-latency workload of the future will be in the (computing) minds of robots.

Even if the data center moves entirely to the cloud, all robotic computation will never reside there because A) it’s too real time and B) it needs to operate well even disconnected from the Internet.

Is all this going to happen in the next 10 or 20 years, maybe not but 30 to 50 years out this world will have a multitude of robots operating within it. .

Who’s going to develop, manufacture, support and sustain these mobile computing data centers on wheels, legs, slithering and flying bodies?

I would say IT vendors of today are uniquely positioned to dominate this market. Here to the industry is very fragmented today. There are a few industrial robotic companies and just about every major auto manufacturer is going after self driving cars. And there are many bit players today. So it’s ripe for disruption and consolidation. .

Yet, none of the major IT vendors seem to be going after this. Ok Amazon (hardware & software) and Microsoft (software) have done work in this arena. If anything this should tell IT vendors that they need to start working here as well.

But alas, none have taken up the mantle. In the mean time robot startups are biting the dust left and right, trying to gain market traction.

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That seems to be about it for the major viable out of the box approaches to the public cloud threat. I have a few other ideas but none seem as useful as the above.

Let me know what you think.

Picture credit(s):

DNA IT, the next revolution

I’ve been writing about DNA computing and storage for quite awhile now (see DNA computing and the end of natural evolution, DNA storage and the end of evolution part 2, & Random access DNA object storage system). But in the last few months there’s been a flurry of activity in this space that seems worthy of note.

DNA programing language

First up, A logic programing language for computational nucleic acid devices, a research article in ACS Synthetic Biology magazine. The research describes a new approach to programming DNA computers, that’s uniquely designed to mimic molecular algorithmic capabilities for DNA devices. T\

The language uses logical statements and predicates (reminds me of Prolog). Indeed, the language was modeled after Prolog with equational and molecular extensions to represent DNA functionality. As with Prolog, output is a function of declarative, predicate logic rather than control flow and assignment in normal programming languages. Logic programming takes a different mind set and demands an understanding of formal logic.

The article talks about applications for DNA computing for in vitro (chemical/protien) manufacturing, diagnosis, and therapeutics (operating inside living cells) devices (cells).

DNA storage device

Next up, a recent article in Scientific Reports, Demonstration of end-to-end automation of DNA data storage.

The intent here is to create a fully automated data storage device that uses DNA as its recording media. The current device (seen in the bottom right above) is a lab prototype, that fits on a bench and costs $10K that can store 5 bytes of data with error correction.

The system has three hardware modules: synthesis (writing), storage and sequencing (reading). It also includes encoding and decoding software that translates bits to nucleic acid bases and adds error correction to it. They need to add more bases to be compatible with the sequencing (reading) process.

The limits to storage may have something to do with the size of the storage vessel as well as the size of the DNA string that can be synthesized/sequenced. . Error correction is based on a 6 base (bit) hashing code (less than a byte for 5 bytes). The systems write to read-back time is ~21 hrs.

The device creates many copies of the DNA (data) strand. The 5 byte (“HELLO”) string took 4 micrograms of liquid and yielded 3469 DNA strands, 1973 of which aligned properly to their adapter sequence. Of those properly aligned DNA strands, 30 had extractable payload regions of which 1 was correct, the other 29 were corrupted.

This is a very poor BER (bit error rate). For comparison LTO-7/8 has a BER of 1:10**19 bits, and enterprise disk has a BER of 1:10**15 bits. This DNA storage device has a BER of 3469:1 or ~99.9% of all bits written were lost.

To get a better understanding of the BER, they stored a 100 base (~12 byte) data payload. Of the 25,592 strands created, 286 aligned properly and of those 251 were corrupted, 11 had invalid hashes, and 8 were corrupted but correctable (valid hashes invalid data) and 16 were perfect reads. So 25592 strands had 24 proper reads ~1K:1 BER (not entirely correct because the correctable strands actually had bit errors but we can give them that).

DNA computer architecture

Last up, an IEEE Spectrum article, discussing CalTech Research, DNA computer shows programmable chemical machines are possible, reporting on an article in Nature, Diverse and robust molecular algorithms using reprogrammable DNA self-assembly (paywall). This DNA computer system is made of just DNA and salt water. It computes algorithms on 6 bits of input and uses DNA logic gates.

The Caltech team created 2 input-2-output boolean gates out of DAN sequences, five of these gates are connected to form a computation layer. It supports 6 input and 6 output bits. But you can layer multiple computational levels on top of one another where the output of one layer can be fed in as input to the layer on top of it.

One key, is that the DNA computer self assemblies the computational layer. They use a seed layer as a starter DNA strand and then the input (mixed inside a vial) is attached to this seed layer and then the computational layers are attached one by one until the output is generated.

Each computational layer is made up of DNA computational tiles that attach together sort of like a circuit. they were able to create a 355 instruction set for their DNA computer. In comparison the IBM 360 had a one byte op code (at most 256 instructions).

They have a compiler that allows researchers to write a software algorithm and this translates code into DNA circuit tiles, computational layers and ultimately into a DNA computer.

According to the article, it takes 1-2 hours to grow the computational DNA crystal and another day or so for the computation to complete.

An interesting approach to DNA computation but it’s unclear if they have any branching mechanisms in their “instruction set”. And 6 bit input/output seems a bit limiting. However, by creating boolean gates with DNA, they could recreate any type of electronic computer that exists today.

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Put it all together and someday you could have a DNA compute server and storage.

One thing that’s missing is a (packet switched or token ring) network for transferring data between cells (and maybe into and out of DNA storage). They could probably use some sort of vascular (network) system with a way to transfer data from inside a cell to the network and into another cell .

That way they could gang a number of DNA compute servers (cells) together and maybe create a cellular automata machine.

The future of computation looks wetter now.

Photo Credit(s):

IT in space

Read an article last week about all the startup activity that’s taking place in space systems and infrastructure (see: As rocket companies proliferate … new tech emerges leading to a new space race). This is a consequence of cheap(er) launch systems from SpaceX, Blue Origin, Rocket Lab and others.

SpaceBelt, storage in space

One startup that caught my eye was SpaceBelt from Cloud Constellation Corporation, that’s planning to put PB (4X library of congress) of data storage in a constellation of LEO satellites.

The LEO storage pool will be populated by multiple nodes (satellites) with a set of geo-synchronous access points to the LEO storage pool. Customers use ground based secure terminals to talk with geosynchronous access satellites which communicate to the LEO storage nodes to access data.

Their main selling points appear to be data security and availability. The only way to access the data is through secured satellite downlinks/uplinks and then you only get to the geo-synchronous satellites. From there, those satellites access the LEO storage cloud directly. Customers can’t access the storage cloud without going through the geo-synchronous layer first and the secured terminals.

The problem with terrestrial data is that it is prone to security threats as well as natural disasters which take out a data center or a region. But with all your data residing in a space cloud, such concerns shouldn’t be a problem. (However, gaining access to your ground stations is a whole different story.

AWS and Lockheed-Martin supply new ground station service

The other company of interest is not a startup but a link up between Amazon and Lockheed Martin (see: Amazon-Lockheed Martin …) that supplies a new cloud based, satellite ground station as a service offering. The new service will use Lockheed Martin ground stations.

Currently, the service is limited to S-Band and attennas located in Denver, but plans are to expand to X-Band and locations throughout the world. The plan is to have ground stations located close to AWS data centers, so data center customers can have high speed, access to satellite data.

There are other startups in the ground station as a service space, but none with the resources of Amazon-Lockheed. All of this competition is just getting off the ground, but a few have been leasing idle ground station resources to customers. The AWS service already has a few big customers, like DigitalGlobe.

One thing we have learned, is that the appeal of cloud services is as much about the ecosystem that surrounds it, as the service offering itself. So having satellite ground stations as a service is good, but having these services, tied directly into other public cloud computing infrastructure, is much much better. Google, Microsoft, IBM are you listening?

Data centers in space

Why stop at storage? Wouldn’t it be better to support both storage and computation in space. That way access latencies wouldn’t be a concern. When terrestrial disasters occur, it’s not just data at risk. Ditto, for security threats.

Having whole data centers, would represent a whole new stratum of cloud computing. Also, now IT could implement space native applications.

If Microsoft can run a data center under the oceans, I see no reason they couldn’t do so in orbit. Especially when human flight returns to NASA/SpaceX. Just imagine admins and service techs as astronauts.

And yet, security and availability aren’t the only threats one has to deal with. What happens to the space cloud when war breaks out and satellite killers are set loose.

Yes, space infrastructure is not subject to terrestrial disasters or internet based security risks, but there are other problems besides those and war that exist such as solar storms and space debris clouds. .

In the end, it’s important to have multiple, non-overlapping risk profiles for your IT infrastructure. That is each IT deployment, may be subject to one set of risks but those sets are disjoint with another IT deployment option. IT in space, that is subject to solar storms, space debris, and satellite killers is a nice complement to terrestrial cloud data centers, subject to natural disasters, internet security risks, and other earth-based, man made disasters.

On the other hand, a large, solar storm like the 1859 one, could knock every data system on the world or in orbit, out. As for under the sea, it probably depends on how deep it was submerged!!

Photo Credit(s): Screen shots from SpaceBelt youtube video (c) SpaceBelt

Screens shot from AWS Ground Station as a Service sign up page (c) Amazon-Lockheed

Screen shots from Microsoft’s Under the sea news feature (c) Microsoft

Hardware vs. software innovation – round 4

We, the industry and I, have had a long running debate on whether hardware innovation still makes sense anymore (see my Hardware vs. software innovation – rounds 1, 2, & 3 posts).

The news within the last week or so is that Dell-EMC cancelled their multi-million$, DSSD project, which was a new hardware innovation intensive, Tier 0 flash storage solution, offering 10 million of IO/sec at 100µsec response times to a rack of servers.

DSSD required specialized hardware and software in the client or host server, specialized cabling between the client and the DSSD storage device and specialized hardware and flash storage in the storage device.

What ultimately did DSSD in, was the emergence of NVMe protocols, NVMe SSDs and RoCE (RDMA over Converged Ethernet) NICs.

Last weeks post on Excelero (see my 4.5M IO/sec@227µsec … post) was just one example of what can be done with such “commodity” hardware. We just finished a GreyBeardsOnStorage podcast (GreyBeards podcast with Zivan Ori, CEO & Co-founder, E8 storage) with E8 Storage which is yet another approach to using NVMe-RoCE “commodity” hardware and providing amazing performance.

Both Excelero and E8 Storage offer over 4 million IO/sec with ~120 to ~230µsec response times to multiple racks of servers. All this with off the shelf, commodity hardware and lots of software magic.

Lessons for future hardware innovation

What can be learned from the DSSD to NVMe(SSDs & protocol)-RoCE technological transition for future hardware innovation:

  1. Closely track all commodity hardware innovations, especially ones that offer similar functionality and/or performance to what you are doing with your hardware.
  2. Intensely focus any specialized hardware innovation to a small subset of functionality that gives you the most bang, most benefits at minimum cost and avoid unnecessary changes to other hardware.
  3. Speedup hardware design-validation-prototype-production cycle as much as possible to get your solution to the market faster and try to outrun and get ahead of commodity hardware innovation for as long as possible.
  4. When (and not if) commodity hardware innovation emerges that provides  similar functionality/performance, abandon your hardware approach as quick as possible and adopt commodity hardware.

Of all the above, I believe the main problem is hardware innovation cycle times. Yes, hardware innovation costs too much (not discussed above) but I believe that these costs are a concern only if the product doesn’t succeed in the market.

When a storage (or any systems) company can startup and in 18-24 months produce a competitive product with only software development and aggressive hardware sourcing/validation/testing, having specialized hardware innovation that takes 18 months to start and another 1-2 years to get to GA ready is way too long.

What’s the solution?

I think FPGA’s have to be a part of any solution to making hardware innovation faster. With FPGA’s hardware innovation can occur in days weeks rather than months to years. Yes ASICs cost much less but cycle time is THE problem from my perspective.

I’d like to think that ASIC development cycle times of design, validation, prototype and production could also be reduced. But I don’t see how. Maybe AI can help to reduce time for design-validation. But independent FABs can only speed the prototype and production phases for new ASICs, so much.

ASIC failures also happen on a regular basis. There’s got to be a way to more quickly fix ASIC and other hardware errors. Yes some hardware fixes can be done in software but occasionally the fix requires hardware changes. A quicker hardware fix approach should help.

Finally, there must be an expectation that commodity hardware will catch up eventually, especially if the market is large enough. So an eventual changeover to commodity hardware should be baked in, from the start.

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In the end, project failures like this happen. Hardware innovation needs to learn from them and move on. I commend Dell-EMC for making the hard decision to kill the project.

There will be a next time for specialized hardware innovation and it will be better. There are just too many problems that remain in the storage (and systems) industry and a select few of these can only be solved with specialized hardware.

Comments?

Picture credit(s): Gravestones by Sherry NelsonMotherboard 1 by Gareth Palidwor; Copy of a DSSD slide photo taken from EMC presentation by Author (c) Dell-EMC