Tag Archives: European Union (EU)

Brain-inspired computer with optimized neural networks

Caption: Left to right: The experiment was performed on a prototype of the BrainScales-2 chip; Schematic representation of a neural network; Results for simple and complex tasks. Credit: Heidelberg University

I don’t often stumble across research from the European Union’s flagship Human Brain Project. So, this is a delightful occurrence especially with my interest in neuromorphic computing. From a July 22, 2020 Human Brain Project press release (also on EurekAlert),

Many computational properties are maximized when the dynamics of a network are at a “critical point”, a state where systems can quickly change their overall characteristics in fundamental ways, transitioning e.g. between order and chaos or stability and instability. Therefore, the critical state is widely assumed to be optimal for any computation in recurrent neural networks, which are used in many AI [artificial intelligence] applications.

Researchers from the HBP [Human Brain Project] partner Heidelberg University and the Max-Planck-Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization challenged this assumption by testing the performance of a spiking recurrent neural network on a set of tasks with varying complexity at – and away from critical dynamics. They instantiated the network on a prototype of the analog neuromorphic BrainScaleS-2 system. BrainScaleS is a state-of-the-art brain-inspired computing system with synaptic plasticity implemented directly on the chip. It is one of two neuromorphic systems currently under development within the European Human Brain Project.

First, the researchers showed that the distance to criticality can be easily adjusted in the chip by changing the input strength, and then demonstrated a clear relation between criticality and task-performance. The assumption that criticality is beneficial for every task was not confirmed: whereas the information-theoretic measures all showed that network capacity was maximal at criticality, only the complex, memory intensive tasks profited from it, while simple tasks actually suffered. The study thus provides a more precise understanding of how the collective network state should be tuned to different task requirements for optimal performance.

Mechanistically, the optimal working point for each task can be set very easily under homeostatic plasticity by adapting the mean input strength. The theory behind this mechanism was developed very recently at the Max Planck Institute. “Putting it to work on neuromorphic hardware shows that these plasticity rules are very capable in tuning network dynamics to varying distances from criticality”, says senior author Viola Priesemann, group leader at MPIDS. Thereby tasks of varying complexity can be solved optimally within that space.

The finding may also explain why biological neural networks operate not necessarily at criticality, but in the dynamically rich vicinity of a critical point, where they can tune their computation properties to task requirements. Furthermore, it establishes neuromorphic hardware as a fast and scalable avenue to explore the impact of biological plasticity rules on neural computation and network dynamics.

“As a next step, we now study and characterize the impact of the spiking network’s working point on classifying artificial and real-world spoken words”, says first author Benjamin Cramer of Heidelberg University.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Control of criticality and computation in spiking neuromorphic networks with plasticity by Benjamin Cramer, David Stöckel, Markus Kreft, Michael Wibral, Johannes Schemmel, Karlheinz Meier & Viola Priesemann. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 2853 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16548-3 Published: 05 June 2020

This paper is open access.

OCSiAl becomes largest European supplier of single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs)

It’s time I posted news about OCSiAl as it’s been about five years since they were last mentioned here. An April 24, 2020 news item on AzoNano proclaims a new status for the company,

As from [sic] April 2020, OCSiAl is able to commercialize up to 100 tonnes annually of its TUBALL™ single wall carbon nanotubes [single-walled carbon nanotubes or SWCNTs] in Europe thanks to the company’s upgraded dossier under the EU’s [European Union’s] “Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals” (REACH) legislation, being additionally compliant with the new Annexes on nanoforms. OCSiAl will continue to expand markets for nanotubes and widen industrial applications by scaling-up its permitted volume in Australia and Canada in 2020, pending approval by the authorities.

An April 23, 2020 OCSiAl press release, which originated the news item, provides more details about the company and its customers in ‘marketingese’ (marketing language),

OCSiAl is now the only company in Europe able to commercialize up to 100 tonnes of single wall carbon nanotubes, also known as graphene nanotubes. This step allows the company to boost its presence in the region and to meet the growing market demand for industrial volumes of graphene nanotubes. The company’s current portfolio includes over 1,600 customers worldwide, with China and Europe as the two most rapidly expanding markets for nanotube applications in transportation, electronics, construction, infrastructure, renewable energy, power sources, sports equipment, 3D-printing, textiles, sensors and many more.

OCSiAl plays a leading role in improving the accessibility of information on the nature of graphene nanotubes and in forming the principles of their safe handling – the company has so far initiated 16 studies in these fields, including those required by the revised REACH annex. TUBALL nanotubes demonstrate no skin irritation, corrosion or sensitization, no mutagenic effect, and no adverse effect on reproductive toxicity. In addition, ecotoxicity studies have shown no toxic effect on Daphnia or algae. The typical exposure values of respirable fraction of TUBALL in the workplace is much less than 5% of the Recommended Exposure Limits (REL) as per NIOSH in the USA, which is of practical importance for manufacturers working with nanotubes. And end users can also be reassured that these studies have shown that no TUBALL nanotubes are released during utilization of products made with nanoaugmented materials. All these findings reflect the unique nature and morphology of TUBALL graphene nanotubes.

OCSiAl continues to accelerate the acceptance of this unique material in various markets by supplying high-quality nanotubes at an economically feasible price and in industrial volumes. TUBALL is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US, where it is also allowed to be commercialized in industrial volumes. The company’s near-term plans include scaling-up the permitted volume of industrial commercialization of graphene nanotubes in Australia and Canada.

The company appears to be trying to rebrand carbon nanotubes as graphene nanotubes. It can be done (e.g., facial tissue instead of Kleenex or photocopy instead of Xerox) but it can take a long time and, after a brief search (May 13, 2020), I was not able to find any other reference to ‘graphene nanotubes’ online.

Between the two of them, OCSiAl’s Wikipedia entry and the company’s Team webpage (scroll down past the smiling faces), you can find some company history.

Oldest periodic table chart and a new ‘scarcity’ periodic table of elements at University of St. Andrews (Scotland)

The University of St. Andrews kicked off the new year (2019) by announcing the discovery of what’s believed to the world’s oldest periodic table chart. From a January 17, 2019 news item on phys.org

A periodic table chart discovered at the University of St Andrews is thought to be the oldest in the world.

The chart of elements, dating from 1885, was discovered in the University’s School of Chemistry in 2014 by Dr. Alan Aitken during a clear out. The storage area was full of chemicals, equipment and laboratory paraphernalia that had accumulated since the opening of the chemistry department at its current location in 1968. Following months of clearing and sorting the various materials a stash of rolled up teaching charts was discovered. Within the collection was a large, extremely fragile periodic table that flaked upon handling. Suggestions that the discovery may be the earliest surviving example of a classroom periodic table in the world meant the document required urgent attention to be authenticated, repaired and restored.

Courtesy: University of St. Andrews

A January 17, 2019 University of St. Andrews press release, which originated the news item, describes the chart and future plans for it in more detail,

Mendeleev made his famous disclosure on periodicity in 1869, the newly unearthed table was rather similar, but not identical to Mendeleev’s second table of 1871. However, the St Andrews table was clearly an early specimen. The table is annotated in German, and an inscription at the bottom left – ‘Verlag v. Lenoir & Forster, Wien’­ – identifies a scientific printer who operated in Vienna between 1875 and 1888. Another inscription – ‘Lith. von Ant. Hartinger & Sohn, Wien’ – identifies the chart’s lithographer, who died in 1890. Working with the University’s Special Collections team, the University sought advice from a series of international experts. Following further investigations, no earlier lecture chart of the table appears to exist. Professor Eric Scerri, an expert on the history of the periodic table based at the University of California, Los Angeles, dated the table to between 1879 and 1886 based on the represented elements. For example, both gallium and scandium, discovered in 1875 and 1879 respectively, are present, while germanium, discovered in 1886, is not.

In view of the table’s age and emerging uniqueness it was important for the teaching chart to be preserved for future generations. The paper support of the chart was fragile and brittle, its rolled format and heavy linen backing contributed to its poor mechanical condition. To make the chart safe for access and use it received a full conservation treatment. The University’s Special Collections was awarded a funding grant from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust (NMCT) for the conservation of the chart in collaboration with private conservator Richard Hawkes (Artworks Conservation). Treatment to the chart included: brushing to remove loose surface dirt and debris, separating the chart from its heavy linen backing, washing the chart in de-ionised water adjusted to a neutral pH with calcium hydroxide to remove the soluble discolouration and some of the acidity, a ‘de-acidification’ treatment by immersion in a bath of magnesium hydrogen carbonate to deposit an alkaline reserve in the paper, and finally repairing tears and losses using a Japanese kozo paper and wheat starch paste. The funding also allowed production of a full-size facsimile which is now on display in the School of Chemistry. The original periodic table has been rehoused in conservation grade material and is stored in Special Collections’ climate-controlled stores in the University.

A researcher at the University, M Pilar Gil from Special Collections, found an entry in the financial transaction records in the St Andrews archives recording the purchase of an 1885 table by Thomas Purdie from the German catalogue of C Gerhardt (Bonn) for the sum of 3 Marks in October 1888. This was paid from the Class Account and included in the Chemistry Class Expenses for the session 1888-1889. This entry and evidence of purchase by mail order appears to define the provenance of the St Andrews periodic table. It was produced in Vienna in 1885 and was purchased by Purdie in 1888. Purdie was professor of Chemistry from 1884 until his retirement in 1909. This in itself is not so remarkable, a new professor setting up in a new position would want the latest research and teaching materials. Purdie’s appointment was a step-change in experimental research at St Andrews. The previous incumbents had been mineralogists, whereas Purdie had been influenced by the substantial growth that was taking place in organic chemistry at that time. What is remarkable however is that this table appears to be the only surviving one from this period across Europe. The University is keen to know if there are others out there that are close in age or even predate the St Andrews table.

Professor David O’Hagan, recent ex-Head of Chemistry at the University of St Andrews, said: “The discovery of the world’s oldest classroom periodic table at the University of St Andrews is remarkable. The table will be available for research and display at the University and we have a number of events planned in 2019, which has been designated international year of the periodic table by the United Nations, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the table’s creation by Dmitri Mendeleev.”

Gabriel Sewell, Head of Special Collections, University of St Andrews, added: “We are delighted that we now know when the oldest known periodic table chart came to St Andrews to be used in teaching.  Thanks to the generosity of the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, the table has been preserved for current and future generations to enjoy and we look forward to making it accessible to all.”

They’ve timed their announcement very well since it’s UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) 2019 International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements (IYPT2019). My January 8, 2019 posting offers more information and links about the upcoming festivities. By the way, this year is also the table’s 150th anniversary.

Getting back to Scotland, scientists there have created a special Periodic Table of Elements charting ‘element scarcity’, according to a January 22, 2019 University of St. Andrews press release,

Scientists from the University of St Andrews have developed a unique periodic table which highlights the scarcity of elements used in everyday devices such as smart phones and TVs.

Chemical elements which make up mobile phones are included on an ‘endangered list’ in the landmark version of the periodic table to mark its 150th anniversary. Around ten million smartphones are discarded or replaced every month in the European Union alone. The European Chemical Society (EuChemS), which represents more than 160,000 chemists, has developed the unique periodic table to highlight both the remaining availability of all 90 elements and their vulnerability.

The unique updated periodic table will be launched at the European Parliament today (Tuesday 22 January), by British MEPs Catherine Stihler and Clare Moody. The event will also highlight the recent discovery of the oldest known wallchart of the Periodic Table, discovered last year at the University of St Andrews.

Smartphones are made up of around 30 elements, over half of which give cause for concern in the years to come because of increasing scarcity – whether because of limited supplies, their location in conflict areas, or our incapacity to fully recycle them.

With finite resources being used up so fast, EuChemS Vice-President and Emeritus Professor in Chemistry at the University of St Andrews, Professor David Cole-Hamilton, has questioned the trend for replacing mobile phones every two years, urging users to recycle old phones correctly. EuChemS wants a greater recognition of the risk to the lifespan of elements, and the need to support better recycling practices and a true circular economy.

Professor David Cole-Hamilton said: “It is astonishing that everything in the world is made from just 90 building blocks, the 90 naturally occurring chemical elements.

“There is a finite amount of each and we are using some so fast that they will be dissipated around the world in less than 100 years.

“Many of these elements are endangered, so should you really change your phone every two years?”

Catherine Stihler, Labour MEP for Scotland and former Rector of the University of St Andrews, said: “As we mark the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, it’s fascinating to see it updated for the 21st century.

“But it’s also deeply worrying to see how many elements are on the endangered list, including those which make up mobile phones.

“It is a lesson to us all to care for the world around us, as these naturally-occurring elements won’t last forever unless we increase global recycling rates and governments introduce a genuine circular economy.”

Pilar Goya, EuChemS President, said: “For EuChemS, the supranational organisation representing more than 160,000 chemists from different European countries, the celebration of the International Year of the Periodic Table is a great opportunity to communicate the crucial role of chemistry in overcoming the challenges society will be facing in the near future.”

The new Periodic Table can be viewed online.

‘The Periodic Table and us: its history, meaning and element scarcity’ takes place at The European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium on 22 January 2019. The two-hour session features speakers from the chemical sciences as well as representatives from the European Parliament and the European Commission.

This year (2019) is the United Nations International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT2019) and the 150th anniversary of scientist Dmitri Mendeleev’s discovery of the periodic system as we now know it. Natalia Tarasova, Past-President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), will present the IYPT2019.

The Periodic Table of chemical elements is one of the most significant scientific achievements and is today one of the best-known symbols of science, recognised and studied by people around the globe.

EuChemS, the European Chemical Society, coordinates the work of 48 chemical societies and other chemistry related organisations, representing more than 160,000 chemists. Through the promotion of chemistry and by providing expert and scientific advice, EuChemS aims to take part in solving today’s major societal challenges.

Here’s what the ‘new’ periodic table looks like:

Courtesy: University of St. Andrews and EuChemS

Human Brain Project: update

The European Union’s Human Brain Project was announced in January 2013. It, along with the Graphene Flagship, had won a multi-year competition for the extraordinary sum of one million euros each to be paid out over a 10-year period. (My January 28, 2013 posting gives the details available at the time.)

At a little more than half-way through the project period, Ed Yong, in his July 22, 2019 article for The Atlantic, offers an update (of sorts),

Ten years ago, a neuroscientist said that within a decade he could simulate a human brain. Spoiler: It didn’t happen.

On July 22, 2009, the neuroscientist Henry Markram walked onstage at the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford, England, and told the audience that he was going to simulate the human brain, in all its staggering complexity, in a computer. His goals were lofty: “It’s perhaps to understand perception, to understand reality, and perhaps to even also understand physical reality.” His timeline was ambitious: “We can do it within 10 years, and if we do succeed, we will send to TED, in 10 years, a hologram to talk to you.” …

It’s been exactly 10 years. He did not succeed.

One could argue that the nature of pioneers is to reach far and talk big, and that it’s churlish to single out any one failed prediction when science is so full of them. (Science writers joke that breakthrough medicines and technologies always seem five to 10 years away, on a rolling window.) But Markram’s claims are worth revisiting for two reasons. First, the stakes were huge: In 2013, the European Commission awarded his initiative—the Human Brain Project (HBP)—a staggering 1 billion euro grant (worth about $1.42 billion at the time). Second, the HBP’s efforts, and the intense backlash to them, exposed important divides in how neuroscientists think about the brain and how it should be studied.

Markram’s goal wasn’t to create a simplified version of the brain, but a gloriously complex facsimile, down to the constituent neurons, the electrical activity coursing along them, and even the genes turning on and off within them. From the outset, the criticism to this approach was very widespread, and to many other neuroscientists, its bottom-up strategy seemed implausible to the point of absurdity. The brain’s intricacies—how neurons connect and cooperate, how memories form, how decisions are made—are more unknown than known, and couldn’t possibly be deciphered in enough detail within a mere decade. It is hard enough to map and model the 302 neurons of the roundworm C. elegans, let alone the 86 billion neurons within our skulls. “People thought it was unrealistic and not even reasonable as a goal,” says the neuroscientist Grace Lindsay, who is writing a book about modeling the brain.
And what was the point? The HBP wasn’t trying to address any particular research question, or test a specific hypothesis about how the brain works. The simulation seemed like an end in itself—an overengineered answer to a nonexistent question, a tool in search of a use. …

Markram seems undeterred. In a recent paper, he and his colleague Xue Fan firmly situated brain simulations within not just neuroscience as a field, but the entire arc of Western philosophy and human civilization. And in an email statement, he told me, “Political resistance (non-scientific) to the project has indeed slowed us down considerably, but it has by no means stopped us nor will it.” He noted the 140 people still working on the Blue Brain Project, a recent set of positive reviews from five external reviewers, and its “exponentially increasing” ability to “build biologically accurate models of larger and larger brain regions.”

No time frame, this time, but there’s no shortage of other people ready to make extravagant claims about the future of neuroscience. In 2014, I attended TED’s main Vancouver conference and watched the opening talk, from the MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte. In his closing words, he claimed that in 30 years, “we are going to ingest information. …

I’m happy to see the update. As I recall, there was murmuring almost immediately about the Human Brain Project (HBP). I never got details but it seemed that people were quite actively unhappy about the disbursements. Of course, this kind of uproar is not unusual when great sums of money are involved and the Graphene Flagship also had its rocky moments.

As for Yong’s contribution, I’m glad he’s debunking some of the hype and glory associated with the current drive to colonize the human brain and other efforts (e.g. genetics) which they often claim are the ‘future of medicine’.

To be fair. Yong is focused on the brain simulation aspect of the HBP (and Markram’s efforts in the Blue Brain Project) but there are other HBP efforts, as well, even if brain simulation seems to be the HBP’s main interest.

After reading the article, I looked up Henry Markram’s Wikipedia entry and found this,

In 2013, the European Union funded the Human Brain Project, led by Markram, to the tune of $1.3 billion. Markram claimed that the project would create a simulation of the entire human brain on a supercomputer within a decade, revolutionising the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders. Less than two years into it, the project was recognised to be mismanaged and its claims overblown, and Markram was asked to step down.[7][8]

On 8 October 2015, the Blue Brain Project published the first digital reconstruction and simulation of the micro-circuitry of a neonatal rat somatosensory cortex.[9]

I also looked up the Human Brain Project and, talking about their other efforts, was reminded that they have a neuromorphic computing platform, SpiNNaker (mentioned here in a January 24, 2019 posting; scroll down about 50% of the way). For anyone unfamiliar with the term, neuromorphic computing/engineering is what scientists call the effort to replicate the human brain’s ability to synthesize and process information in computing processors.

In fact, there was some discussion in 2013 that the Human Brain Project and the Graphene Flagship would have some crossover projects, e.g., trying to make computers more closely resemble human brains in terms of energy use and processing power.

The Human Brain Project’s (HBP) Silicon Brains webpage notes this about their neuromorphic computing platform,

Neuromorphic computing implements aspects of biological neural networks as analogue or digital copies on electronic circuits. The goal of this approach is twofold: Offering a tool for neuroscience to understand the dynamic processes of learning and development in the brain and applying brain inspiration to generic cognitive computing. Key advantages of neuromorphic computing compared to traditional approaches are energy efficiency, execution speed, robustness against local failures and the ability to learn.

Neuromorphic Computing in the HBP

In the HBP the neuromorphic computing Subproject carries out two major activities: Constructing two large-scale, unique neuromorphic machines and prototyping the next generation neuromorphic chips.

The large-scale neuromorphic machines are based on two complementary principles. The many-core SpiNNaker machine located in Manchester [emphasis mine] (UK) connects 1 million ARM processors with a packet-based network optimized for the exchange of neural action potentials (spikes). The BrainScaleS physical model machine located in Heidelberg (Germany) implements analogue electronic models of 4 Million neurons and 1 Billion synapses on 20 silicon wafers. Both machines are integrated into the HBP collaboratory and offer full software support for their configuration, operation and data analysis.

The most prominent feature of the neuromorphic machines is their execution speed. The SpiNNaker system runs at real-time, BrainScaleS is implemented as an accelerated system and operates at 10,000 times real-time. Simulations at conventional supercomputers typical run factors of 1000 slower than biology and cannot access the vastly different timescales involved in learning and development ranging from milliseconds to years.

Recent research in neuroscience and computing has indicated that learning and development are a key aspect for neuroscience and real world applications of cognitive computing. HBP is the only project worldwide addressing this need with dedicated novel hardware architectures.

I’ve highlighted Manchester because that’s a very important city where graphene is concerned. The UK’s National Graphene Institute is housed at the University of Manchester where graphene was first isolated in 2004 by two scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin (Kostya) Novoselov. (For their effort, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010.)

Getting back to the HBP (and the Graphene Flagship for that matter), the funding should be drying up sometime around 2023 and I wonder if it will be possible to assess the impact.