Category Archives: Engineering

Neuralink Hopes to Test their Brain-Machine Interface before the end of 2020

For many years communicating with your computer by thought has been science fiction. Today, that is coming closer to reality. Many significant advances have been made to manipulate prosthetics. Efforts to create a wider brain/machine interface are underway.

One of the major efforts in this area is being made by Neuralink. Elon Musk, among others, founded the company in 2016. Elon Musk has said that humans must become cyborgs if they are to survive in the robot and AI filled future. He has predicted that we must enhance our own intellectual abilities. If we do not, we will become redundant. According to Musk, Neuralink’s first goal is to help people deal with brain and spinal cord injuries or congenital defects.

Musk has said, “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.” The concept behind that is to integrate communications and computer processing power.

Neuralink is researching a direct link between the brain and computers. It has developed a system to feed thousands of electrical probes into a brain. According to Musk, it hopes to start testing the technology on humans sometime in 2020.

Neuralink has the potential to reshape both computing and humanity. The approach that Neuralink is taking uses a robot to insert tiny leads. Each of these leads is only a fraction of the width of a human hair.

First, sewing machine-like technology drills small holes. Ultra-thin electrodes called threads are inserted. A small chip is connected to a “wisp” of 1,024 threads. Up to 10 chips might be embedded under a user’s skin. Musk has said, “Ultimately, we can do a full brain-machine interfaces where we can achieve a sort of symbiosis with AI.” It might be possible for people to type 40 words per minute by thinking with such an interface.

Neuralink calls their approach a Neural Lace. The Neural Lace provides a technology layer above our brains. The expectation is for Neural Lace to increase our cognitive performance levels. The thought is that the closer we become to AI the less of a threat it will be. Neuralink hopes to have this in a human patient by the end of this year.

The Neuralink electrodes are being designed to both read and write data. The Neural Lace is a device that is intended to grow with your brain. Its major purpose is to optimize mental output.

In the long term, Neuralink sees brain-connected chips and wires placed under the skin. The user would wear a communications pod behind their ear like a hearing aid. The ‘pod’ would then use Bluetooth or WiFi to communicate with a phone or computer. The long-term goal is to build a “digital superintelligence layer”. It will provide a high bandwidth interface between the brain and machine intelligence. The distinction between humans and machines may become almost imperceptible.

The challenges to developing this technology are significant. There have been successes in tests with animals. According to Musk, “A monkey has been able to control a computer with his brain”. Many labs are researching brain-machine interface (BMI) technology. But some worry that Neuralink’s invasive method is risky.

The development of other non-invasive methods are underway. The hope is for these to not only read brain activity but also stimulate it. Using one of these technologies humans may someday be able to define what we want to become. It seems clear that humans are on a path to a more symbiotic relationship with our machines.

This is part of transhumanism. That is the enhancement of humans through the use of technology. At the low-end many of us have already taken a step along the transhumanism path. By wearing eyeglasses or a hearing aid we have augmented our bodies with technology. Other augmentations might enable us to ‘see’ wavelengths of light outside the usual visual spectrum. They might also include methods to accelerate the pace of learning. We might someday rapidly learn new skills or gain a better memory.
Further Reading

  1. Why Elon Musk’s transhumanism claims may not be that far-fetched
  2. Elon Musk: To Survive The Age of Artificial Intelligence, Humanity Must “Achieve Symbiosis With Machines”
  3. Elon Musk says Neuralink plans 2020 human test of brain-computer interface
  4. The merging of humans and machines is happening now
  5. An integrated brain-machine interface platform with thousands of channels

Robots Tasked to Help Control Coronavirus

The above video was uploaded to YouTube in October of 2016 by Blue Ocean Robotics

(See my other Robot related posts) – I came across the article “Autonomous Robots Are Helping Kill Coronavirus in Hospitals” a few days ago. It was published on the IEEE Spectrum website. Concern runs high with many that robots will take their jobs. The Coronavirus outbreak has emphasized the need to prevent the spread of the virus. In hospitals, keeping surfaces disinfected is incredibly important. This can take up manpower and time as well as exposing more people to the virus. Robots have stepped in to fill this need.

Some of these come from the Danish company UVD Robots.Their robots can disinfect patient rooms, operating theaters, and hallways. The robots carry an array of powerful short-wavelength ultraviolet-C (UVC) lights. They emit enough energy to destroy microorganisms exposed to them.

Exposing a surface to the UV light for a couple of minutes will disinfect it. Since the UV light can cause damage to human skin and eyes, they must avoid exposure. A room exposed to the UV light for about 15 minutes will disinfect it. This process kills 99.99% of the germs. The robots are better at this tedious process.

The robots consist of a mobile base with an array of UV lights mounted on top. The light array emits 20 joules per square meter per second of 254-nanometer light. Operators use a computer to teach the robot the route they should follow. The on-board Lidar sensors map the route. The route is then edited with detailed operational instructions. After that, the robots operate autonomously.

Robots leave their charging station to follow their programmed route. They will even use elevators if necessary before returning to their charging station. While traveling their route, onboard sensors detect the presence of people. The lights are shut down until the area is clear. The robots cost between US $80,000 and $90,000 each.

UVD spent years developing these robots and began sales in 2018. The robots are already in use in Chinese hospitals.

Holograms that you can Feel?

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Globe created by the Multimodal Acoustic Trap Display developed at the University of Sussex. Credit: Eimontas

I thought that this was something of interest. The article “From sci-fi to science lab: Holograms you can ‘feel’” describes a holographic system called Multimodal Acoustic Trap Display (MATD) which “can simultaneously deliver visual, auditory and tactile content”. This uses “acoustophoresis” to move and manipulate particles to create the hologram.

This work was written up in the article “A volumetric display for visual, tactile and audio presentation using acoustic trapping” that appeared on11/13/19 in Nature. This could bring some very interesting interactive displays in the future.

 

Uber Chooses Frisco, TX for Flying Taxis Tests

(See my other Robot related posts) – Earlier this week Uber announced that their Frisco Station helipad site would be the test site for Uber Elevate. Uber Elevate is their “flying car” division. The plan, per their website, is to develop:

shared air transportation—planned for 2023—between suburbs and cities, and ultimately within cities. We’re working with our Elevate Network partners to launch fleets of small, electric VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft in Dallas, Los Angeles, and our first international market in Melbourne.

The Frisco Station site is located on the Dallas North Tollway and is being built larger than the typical helicopter landing pad. Uber is estimating a 7 minute average flight time from the facility to their terminal at DFW.

Nuclear Rockets, ​the Future of Space Propulsion?

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(See my other Space and Propulsion related posts) – I came across the article “Earth To Mars In 100 Days? The Power Of Nuclear Rockets” today and wanted to share it.

 

 

The idea of a nuclear rocket engine was developed in the 1960s for NASA. The research was led by Werner von Braun and successfully tested in Nevada.

What is a nuclear thermal rocket?

A conventional chemical rocket carries combustible chemicals which are ignited, then the resulting gases flow out of a nozzle propelling the vehicle. In a nuclear rocket, a small marble size chunk of Uranium fuel undergoes fission. This energy released heats hydrogen to very high temperatures (nearly 2500 C). The hydrogen is then expelled from the vehicle in a nozzle like on chemical rockets. The difference is that nuclear propulsion is two to three times as efficient.  Tests were carried out starting in 1955 that have proven that this technique will work. Testing was discontinued in 1973.

Where are we Now? 

The original design required highly-enriched uranium. Current designs will most likely rely on low-enriched uranium.  This would make nuclear propulsion systems safer to work with. On May 22, 2019, the US Congress approved $125 million to fund new nuclear thermal propulsion development.

Another alternative being researched is using fusion instead of fission for propulsion. The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is working on what they call the Direct Fusion Drive. Applied Fusion Systems is also at work on a fusion alternative.

Whether it is fission in the short term or fusion in the long term, the prospects for nuclear-powered rockets looks very positive. Read the full article for more details.

Celebrate National Robotics Week!

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Robots – This week, actually it started yesterday, celebrates robotics in the US. Per the National Robotics Week website:

National Robotics Week (RoboWeek) is a series of grassroots events and activities during the month of April aimed at increasing public awareness of the strength and importance of the U.S. robotics industry and of the tremendous social and cultural impact that robotics will have on the future. Activities come in all shapes and sizes from a robot block party, university open house, or a robotics competition. The mission of RoboWeek is simple — to inspire students in STEM-related fields and to share the excitement of robotics with audiences of all ages. Celebrate RoboWeek by hosting an event in your community, sponsoring or attending a local event, or spreading the word on social media.

National Robotics Week was first celebrated in 2010 after university and industry leaders appealed to the Congressional Caucus on Robotics to create a “national roadmap” for robotics technology. On March 9, 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives passed resolution H.Res. 1055, officially designating the second full week in April as National Robotics Week.

Do You Really Know How to Learn?

51LIZ-CU64L._AC_UL436_Do you think you know how to best learn a subject? Even if you think you do you are probably wrong.

I came across the article “Learning how (and how not) to learn” which gave me some new insights into learning.

A team of Colorado State University Psychology Faculty has published the book “A Guide to Effective Studying and Learning” ($25 on Amazon) on how to learn. This is based upon their research. This book forms the basis for one of the most popular courses at Colorado State University.

So what are some of their findings?

  • learning styles exist, but no scientific evidence supports the popular myth that “people learn best according to their individual style”
  • spacing out shorter study sessions over time will improve learning outcomes
  • learning improves when you test yourself on the material
  • you will learn better if you elaborate on the material by forming associations

This is information all can apply, particularly engineers and others in the tech fields who are constantly having to update their knowledge. This is also something to share with High School and College students you know.

So Your iPhone XS Shows You Have 5G

Tech Tips – First, what is 5G? 5G stands for “Fifth Generation” and is the next generation of wireless communications. Most of our devices are operating on 4G at the moment. 5G will give us peak transmission speeds up to 20 Gb per second, far faster than what 4G provides. 5G will also provide reduced latency, energy savings, lower cost, higher system capacity, and massive device connectivity.

The first phase of 5G specifications in Release-15 is not scheduled to be released until April 2019, with the second phase (Release-16) scheduled for completion by April 2020. Even then it has to be approved by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). While most carriers have test networks in place in selected locations, the worldwide commercial launch of 5G is not expected until 2020.

So how are AT&T customers seeing a “5GE” icon on their phones now? This is best attributed to some marketing efforts by AT&T. Their “5GE” is simply an enhanced version of the 4G LTE network you have been using. Users with 5GE capable phones may see faster performance in some areas. iPhone users must have iOS 12.2 or newer installed to be 5GE capable. For Android users, they need Android Pie or newer.

Only the iPhone XS and XS Max, as well any Android phone that uses 4×4 MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output radio), have the hardware compatible with 5GE. No iPhones currently on the market are 5G compatible. 5G requires different hardware.

References

  1. Everything You Need to Know About 5G
  2. AT&T 5GE on iPhone and Android phones: What you need to know
  3. 5G

EM Drive Does Not Perform well in Tests

Propulsion – I have been watching the stories in the media on the EM Drive for a while now. If you are new to this, the EM Drive is a resonant cavity thruster. In simple terms, it is an electrically powered thruster that requires no fuel. It was proposed by Roger Shawyer in 2001. Most consider the EM Drive to be impossible as it defies currently known physics.

Previous tests of an EM Drive prototype by NASA showed some success. The EM Drive was subjected to more strict testing by a team at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany led by Martin Tajmar. They presented their results at the Aeronautics and Astronautics Association of France’s Space Propulsion conference on May 16, 2018. Their tests are not supportive of the claims made for the EM Drive.

The results presented by Tajmar is reviewed in the video above by Scott Manley. Tajmar and his team had not totally given up on the EM Drive at the time of their report. They plan further testing, but the prospect of this being the solution to propulsion hoped for is dim.

References:

  1. ‘Impossible’ EM drive doesn’t seem to work after all
  2. EmDrive: Not Quite (Yet?) the Answer to Space Travel