Europe wants to have one exascale supercomputer by 2023

On March 23rd, in Rome, seven European countries signed a joint declaration on High Performance Computing (HPC), committing to an initiative that aims at securing the required budget and developing the technologies necessary to acquire and deploy two exascale supercomputers, in Europe, by 2023. Other Member States will be encouraged to join this initiative.

Exascale computers, defined as machines that execute 10 to the 18th power operations per second will be roughly 10 times more powerful than the existing fastest supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight, which clocks in at 93 petaflop/s, or 93 times 10 to the 15 floating point operations per second. No country in Europe has, at the moment, any machine among the 10 most powerful in the world. The declaration, and related documents, do not fully specify that these machines will clock at more than one exaflop/s, given that the requirements for supercomputers are changing with the technology, and floating point operations per second may not be the right measure.

This renewed interest of European countries in High Performance Computing highlights the fact that this technology plays a significant role in the economic competitiveness of research and development. Machines with these characteristics are used mainly in complex system simulations, in physics, chemistry, materials, fluid dynamics, but they are also useful in storing and processing the large amounts of data required to create intelligent systems, namely by using deep learning.

Andrus Ansip, European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market remarked that: “High-performance computing is moving towards its next frontier – more than 100 times faster than the fastest machines currently available in Europe. But not all EU countries have the capacity to build and maintain such infrastructure, or to develop such technologies on their own. If we stay dependent on others for this critical resource, then we risk getting technologically ‘locked’, delayed or deprived of strategic know-how. Europe needs integrated world-class capability in supercomputing to be ahead in the global race. Today’s declaration is a great step forward. I encourage even more EU countries to engage in this ambitious endeavour”.

The European Commission press release includes additional information on the next steps that will be taken in the process.

Photo of the signature event, by the European Commission. In the photo, from left to right, the signatories: Mark Bressers (Netherlands), Thierry Mandon (France), Etienne Schneider (Luxembourg), Andrus Ansip (European Commission), Valeria Fedeli (Italy), Manuel Heitor (Portugal), Carmen Vela (Spain) and Herbert Zeisel (Germany).

 

DNA as an efficient data storage medium

In an article recently published in the journal Science, Yaniv Erlich and Dina Zielinski showed that it is possible to store high density digital information in DNA molecules and reliably retrieve it. As they report, they stored a complete operating system, a movie, and other files with a total of more than 2MB, and managed to retrieve all the information with zero errors.

One of the critical factors of success is to use the appropriate coding methods: “Biochemical constraints dictate that DNA sequences with high GC content or long homopolymer runs (e.g., AAAAAA…) are undesirable, as they are difficult to synthesize and prone to sequencing errors.” 

Using the so-called DNA fountain strategy, they managed to overcome the limitations that arise from biochemical constraints and recovery errors. As they report in the Science article “We devised a strategy for DNA storage, called DNA Fountain, that approaches the Shannon capacity while providing robustness against data corruption. Our strategy harnesses fountain codes , which have been developed for reliable and effective unicasting of information over channels that are subject to dropouts, such as mobile TV (20). In our design, we carefully adapted the power of fountain codes to overcome both oligo dropouts and the biochemical constraints of DNA storage.”

The encoded data was written using DNA synthesis and the information was retrieved by performing PCR and sequencing the resulting DNA using Illumina sequencers.

Other studies, including the pioneering one by Church, in 2012, predicted that DNA storage could theoretically achieve a maximum information density of 680 Peta bytes per gram of DNA. The authors managed to perfectly retrieve the information from a physical density of 215 Peta bytes per gram. For comparison, a flash memory with about one gram can carry, at the moment, up to 128GB, a density 3 orders of magnitude lower.

The authors report that the cost of storage and retrieval, which was $3500/Mbyte, still represents a major bottleneck.

IBM TrueNorth neuromorphic chip does deep learning

In a recent article, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, IBM researchers demonstrated that the TrueNorth chip, designed to perform neuromorphic computing, can be trained using deep learning algorithms.

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The TrueNorth chip was designed to efficiently simulate the efficient modeling of spiking neural networks, a model for neurons that closely mimics the way biological neurons work. Spiking neural networks are based on the integrate and fire model, inspired on the fact that actual neurons integrate the incoming ion currents caused by synaptic firing and generate an output spike only when sufficient synaptic excitation has been accumulated. Spiking neural network models tend to be less efficient than more abstract models of neurons, which simply compute the real valued output directly from the values of the real valued inputs multiplied by the input weights.

As IEEE Spectrum explains: “Instead of firing every cycle, the neurons in spiking neural networks must gradually build up their potential before they fire. To achieve precision on deep-learning tasks, spiking neural networks typically have to go through multiple cycles to see how the results average out. That effectively slows down the overall computation on tasks such as image recognition or language processing.

In the article just published, IBM researchers have adapted deep learning algorithms to run on their TrueNorth architecture, and have achieved comparable precision, with lower energy dissipation. This research raises the prospect that energy-efficient neuromorphic chips may be competitive in deep learning tasks.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Algorithms to live by: the computer science of human decisions

This delightful book, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, provides a very interesting and orthogonal view on the role of computer science in our everyday lives.

The book covers a number of algorithms, which range from the best way to choose a bride (check the first 37% of the available candidates and pick the first one that is better than them) to the best way to manage your email ( just drop messages once you are over the top, don’t queue them for future processing, which will never happen).

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The book makes for a very enjoyable and engaging read, and should be required material for any computer science student, professor, or researcher.

The chapters include advice on when to stop looking for the best person for the job (e.g., your bride); how to manage the explore vs. exploit dilemma, as in picking the best restaurant for dinner; how to sort things in your closet; how to make sure the things you need frequently are nearby (caching); how to choose the things you should do first; how to predict the future (use Bayes’ rule); how to avoid overfitting and learn from the past; how to tackle difficult problems by looking at easier versions of them (relaxations); when rolling a dice is the best way to make a decision; how to handle long queues of requests, which are above and beyond your capacity; and how to avoid the tragedy of the commons that so commonly gets all of us into trouble, as in the prisoner’s dilemma.

Definitely, two thumbs up!

A review of Microsoft Hololens

By a kind invitation from Microsoft, I had the opportunity to experiment, from a user’s perspective, the new Microsoft Hololens. Basically, I was able to wear them for a while and to interact with a number of applications that were spread around a room.hololens

From the outside, the result is not very impressive, as the picture above shows. In a room, which was mostly empty (except for the other guests, wearing similar devices), you can see me wearing the lenses, raising my hand to pull-up a menu, using the menu-pull up gesture.

From the inside, things are considerably more interesting. During configuration, the software identifies the relevant features of the room, and creates an internal model of the space and of the furniture in it.

Applications, both 3D and 2D, can then be deployed in different spaces in the room, using a number of control gestures and menus. Your view of the applications is superimposed with the view of the room, leading to a semi-realistic impression of virtual reality, mixed with the “real” reality. You can move around the 3D holograms in the room (in this case an elephant, a mime and a globe, like the one below, among others).

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You can also interact with them using a virtual pointing device (basically a mouse, controlled by your head movements). 2D applications, like video-streaming, appear as suspended screens (or screens lying on top of desks and tables) and can be controlled using the same method. Overall, the impression is very different from the one obtained using 3D Virtuall Reality googles, like Google Cardboard or Oculus Rift. For instance, in a conversation (pictured below) you would be seating in a chair, facing an hologram of your guest, possibly discussing some 3D object sitting between the two.

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Overall, I was much more impressed with the possibilities of this technology than I was with Google glasses, which I tried a few years back. The quality of the holograms was quite good, and the integration with the real world quite convincing. The applications need to be developed, though.

On the minus side, the device is somewhat heavy and less than comfortable to wear for extended periods. This limitation could probably be addressed by future developments of the device.

Microsoft HoloLens merges the real and the virtual worlds

The possibility to superimpose the real physical world and the virtual world created by computers has been viewed, for a long time, as a technology looking for a killer application.

The fact is that, until now, the technology was incipient and the user experience less than perfect. Microsoft is trying to change that, with their new product, Microsoft HoloLens. As of April this year, Microsoft is shipping the pre-production version of HoloLens, for developers.

The basic idea is that, by using HoloLens, computer generated objects can be superimposed with actual physical objects. Instead of using the “desktop” metaphor, users will be able to deploy applications in actual physical space. Non-holographic applications run as floating virtual screens  that will stick to a specific point in the physical space or move with the user. Holographic enabled applications will let you to use the physical space for virtual objects as you would for physical objects. For instance, if you leave a report, say, on top of a desk, it will stay there until you pick it up.

hololensThe IEEE Spectrum report on the device, by Rod Furlan, provides some interesting additional information and gives the device a clear  “thumbs up”.

The HoloLens, a self-contained computer weighting 580 grams, is powered by a 32-bit Intel Atom processor and Microsoft’s custom Holographic Processing Unit (HPU).

The following YouTube video, made available by Microsoft, gives some idea of what the product may become, once sufficiently powerful applications are developed.

Image and video credits: Microsoft HoloLens website.

Pokemon Go: the first step in the path to Accelerando?

The recent release of Pokemon Go,  an augmented reality mobile game attracted much attention, and made the value of its parent company, Nintendo, raise by more than 14 billion dollars. Rarely has the release of a mobile game had so much impact in the media and the financial world.

In large part, this happened because the market (and the world) are expecting this to be the first of many applications that explore the possibilities of augmented reality, a technology that superimposes the perceptions of the real and the virtual world.

Pokemon Go players, instead of staying at home playing with their cellphones, walk around the real world, looking for little monsters that appear in more or less random locations. More advanced players meet in specific places, called gyms, to have their monsters fight each other. Pokemon Go brought augmented reality into the mainstream, and may indeed represent the first of many applications that merge the real and the virtual world. The game still has many limitations in what concerns the use of augmented reality. Exact physical location, below a few feet cannot be obtained, and the illusion is slightly less than perfect. Nonetheless, the game represents a significant usage of augmented reality, a potentially disruptive technology.

Charles Stross, in the novel Accelerando, imagines a society where the hero, Manfred Macx, is one of the first to live permanently in augmented reality, looking into the world through an always-on pair of digital glasses. The glasses integrate information from the real world and the always present web. This society provides just the starting point for the novel, which recounts the story of three generations of a family as the world goes into (and emerges out of) a technological singularity.

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It is not difficult to imagine a future where digital glasses keep you informed of the name (and history, interests, and marital status) of anyone you meet in a party, where to go for your next appointment, or what are the last relevant news. Such an augmented reality world does not really require much more technology that what is available today, only the right applications and the right user interfaces.

Until we have Manfred’s glasses, we can use Pokemon Go to imagine what the fusion of real and artificial worlds will look like.

Left picture: cover of Accelerando

Right picture: The author, posing with an Oddish Pokemon monster, found in a remote town, in Portugal.