Saturday, July 25, 2020

Neuralink: Elon Musk’s quest to achieve a symbiosis of Brain and Artificial Intelligence

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Hardi Talwani

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Neuralink: Elon Musk’s quest to achieve a symbiosis of Brain and Artificial Intelligence


Global Views 360

Publication Date

July 25, 2020


Elon Musk introducing Neuralink

Elon Musk introducing Neuralink | Source: ApolitikNow via Flickr

The memory of using YouTube for the first time is still clearly etched in my mind. One day we heard the sound of a song coming from the other room, startled by the noise, my brother and I went to investigate. We saw our father surfing in the wondrous world of YouTube where you could play any song without having to buy CDs anymore. It just bewildered us.

What Elon Musk claimed recently shows the distance technology has covered since then. He made headlines recently claiming that  his latest innovation Neuralink,will make it possible to, streaming music directly into our mind. Yes, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX is back with the new episode of ‘Science fiction turned into reality.”

Musk describes Neuralink as a medium for a symbiosis of Brain with Artificial intelligence. The human brain is essentially an astonishingly powerful supercomputer which runs on power equivalent to the one used in a 20Watt electric bulb.

What Musk wants to do through Neuralink is to fit a tiny chip inside our brain, which can download all the processed information which is travelling from neuron to neuron. This chip with some threads that have the diameter of about tenth of human hair will have the potential to record and stimulate neurons across different brain areas. A Neuralink designed robot will fit electrodes containing threads using sewing technology into the brain. The technology is wireless, so at least you do not have to worry about wires hanging from your head.

Neuralink, launched as a Medical enterprise in 2016, aims to fix blindness, motor abilities, speech and much more. Although the purpose seems benevolent at first glance, we are talking about Elon Musk, the real-world Iron Man. Elon is anxious and fears Artificial Intelligence taking over Humans. He wants us to develop our intelligence potential by accessing our action potential, so that AI does not turn on its creators. For that sole reason (plus the monetization), the Brain-Machine Interface of Neuralink will be accessible to everyone.

Of course, every invention is at the centre of the doubt initially. The case of Neuralink is fascinating and problematic at times and is not different than any other path breaking innovation. Neuralink is going to change the course of human history and will literally turn us into Cyborgs and thus, causes cynicism among a large section of scientists fraternity.

The biggest and fundamental problem with the Neuralink is that it seeks to reach symbiosis of AI and the brain, an enigmatic organ about which we barely know anything. Those who support it argue that we do not need to understand how the brain works to develop Artificial intelligence while the sceptics say that while integrating the functions of Brain and AI, it is crucial to discern nature with precision. David Eagleman, in his book ‘Brain’, claims that a lot of what we see around is not even the whole picture; it is a mere description that Brain paints for us. A simple task as perception is not clearly defined yet. We still have the entire sea of discoveries to be made when it comes to neuroscience.

The other concern with Neuralink is the possible hacking of Neural networks. Though Neuralink technology is heavily dependent on Bluetooth which is supposed to be secure, there are threats from the tech like the Trojan Virus. The implications of hacking are beyond terrible and sound like an evil hacker-robot-zombie apocalypse depicted in sci-fi movies.

Another aspect of Neuralink which needs to be looked into is the classic social divide of haves and have nots. The surgery, although portrayed something as simple as a LASIK surgery, may not be affordable for everyone in the society. Are we looking at a new kind of discrimination in future? Is it even ethical and feasible to put a chip inside the brains of the entire human race? Every question leads to a new question.

It is an alien concept and thus, a scary one. It can help us learn a lot about the brain itself but will have huge repercussions. Figuring out the answers to the simple yet significant problems should probably be the next step for the Neuralink team.

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April 13, 2021 2:10 PM

Detecting The Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays With Smartphones

Smartphones have become the most commonplace objects in our daily lives. The unimaginable power that we hold in our hands is unrealized by most of us and, more importantly, untapped. Its creativity often gets misused but one can only hope that it’s fascinating abilities would be utilized. For example, did you know that the millions of phones around the globe can be connected to form a particle detector? The following article covers the CRAYFIS (Cosmic RAYs Found in Smartphones) phone-based application developed by the physicists from the University of California—Daniel Whiteson, Michael Mulhearn, and their team. CRAYFIS aims to take advantage of the large network of smartphones around the world and detect the cosmic or gamma rays bursts which enter the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly.

What Are Cosmic Rays?

Cosmic rays are high velocity subatomic particles bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere continuously. Cosmic ray bursts have the highest energy compared to all forms of electro-magnetic radiation. When we say ultra-high energy particles (energy more than 1018^eV), we mean two million times more energetic than the ones that can be produced by the particle colliders on Earth.  These rays are thought to be more powerful than typical supernovae and can release trillions of times more energy than the Sun. They are also highly unpredictable as they can enter Earth’s atmosphere from any direction and the bursts can last for any period of time ranging from a few thousand seconds to several minutes.

Despite many theoretical hypotheses, the sources of these ultra-high energy cosmic rays are still a mystery to us even after many decades of their discovery. These rays were initially discovered in the 1960’s by the U.S. military when they were doing background checks for gamma rays after nuclear weapon testing. Cosmologists suggest that these bursts could be the result of super massive stars collapsing - leading to hypernova; or can be retraced to collisions of black holes with other black holes or neutron stars.

How Do We Detect Them?

When the high-energy particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, the air and the gas molecules cause them to break apart and create massive showers of relatively low-energy particles. Aurora borealis i.e., the Northern and the Southern lights are the lights that are emitted when these cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, these particles are hitting the Earth at a rate of about one per square meter per second. The showers get scattered to a radius of one or two kilometers consisting mostly of high-energy photons, electrons, positrons and muons. But the fact that these particles can hit the Earth anytime and anywhere is where the problem arises. Since the Earth has a massive area, it is not possible to place a detector everywhere and catch them at the exact moment.

Energetic charged particles known as cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, where they collide with air molecules to produce a shower of secondary particle | Source: CERN

Detecting such a shower requires a very big telescope, which logically means a network of individual particle detectors distributed over a mile or two-wide radius and connected to each other. The Pierre Auger Observatory in South America is the only such arrangement where 1,600 particle detectors have been scattered on 3,000 square kilometers of land. But the construction cost of the same was about $100 million. Yet, only a few cosmic ray particles could be detected using this arrangement. How do we spread this network around the Earth?

In addition to being cost-effective, such a setup must also be feasible. The Earth’s surface cannot possibly be dotted with particle detectors which cost huge fortunes. This is where smartphones come into the picture.

Detecting The Particles Using Smartphones

Smartphones are the most appropriate devices required to solve the problem. They have planet wide coverage, are affordable by most people and are being actively used by more than 1.5 billion users around the planet. Individually, these devices are low and inefficient; but a considerably dense network of such devices can give us a chance to detect cosmic ray showers belonging to the highest energy range.

Previous research has shown that smartphones have the capability of detecting ionizing radiation. The camera is the most sensitive part of the smartphone and is just the device required to meet our expectations. A CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) device is present in the camera- in which silicon photodiode pixels produce electron-hole pairs when struck by visible photons (when photons are detected by the CMOS device, it leaves traces of weakly activated pixels). The incoming rays are also laced with other noises and interference from the surroundings.  Although these devices are made to detect visible light, they still have the capability of detecting higher-energy photons and also low-ionizing particles such as the muons.

A screenshot from the app which shows the exposure time, the events- the number of particles recorded and other properties

To avoid normal light, the CRAYFIS application is to be run during nighttime with the camera facing down. As the phone processor runs the application it collects data from its surroundings using a camera as its detector element. The megapixel images (i.e., the incoming particles) are scanned at a speed of 5 to 15 frames per second, depending on the frame-processing speed of the device. Scientists expect that signals from the cosmic rays would occur rarely, i.e., around one in 500 frames. Also, there is the job of removing background data. An algorithm was created to tune the incoming particle shower by setting a threshold frequency at around 0.1 frames per second. Frames containing pixels above the threshold are stored and passed to the second stage which examines the stored frames, saving only the pixels above a second, lower threshold.

The CRAYFIS app is designed to run when the phone is not being used and when it is connected to a power source. The actual performance would be widely affected by the geometry of the smartphone’s camera and the conditions in which the data is being collected. Further, once the application is installed and is in the operating mode, no participation is required from the user, which is required to achieve wide-scale participation. When a Wifi connection is available the collected data would be uploaded to the central server so that it could be interpreted.

There is much complicated math used to trace back the information collected from the application. The most important parameters for the app are the local density of incoming particles, the detection area of the phone and the particle identification efficiency. These parameters are used to find the mean number of candidates (photons or muons) being detected. Further, the probability that a phone will detect no candidates or the probability that a phone will detect one or more candidates is given by Poisson distribution. The density of the shower is directly proportional to the incident particle energy with a distribution in x and y sensitive to the direction in which the particle came from. An Unbinned Likelihood (it is the probability of obtaining a certain data- in this case the distribution of the cosmic rays including their energy and direction, the obtained data is arranged into bins which are very, very small) analysis is used to determine the incident particle energy and direction. To eliminate background interference, a benchmark requirement has been set that at least 5 phones must detect and register a hit to be considered as a candidate.

It is impossible to express just how mind-blowing this innovation is. As the days pass, Science and Technology around us keep on surprising us and challenge us to rack our brains for more and more unique ways to deal with complex problems. The CRAYFIS app is simply beautiful and it would be a dream-come-true to the scientists if the project works out and we are able to detect these high energy, super intimidating cosmic rays with smartphones from our backyard.

Further Reading

The paper by Daniel Whiteson and team can be found here.

An exciting book “We Have No Idea” by Daniel Whiteson and cartoonist Jorge Cham can be found here.

The CRAYFIS app can be found here.

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