Moore’s Law; Will it stop?

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Harpreet Thandi

In 1965, Gordon E Moore, an electrical engineer from America, wrote an article in Electronics magazine. It suggested that every two years the capacity of transistors would double. Later his prediction was updated to processor power doubling every two years and is now known as Moore’s Law. He then became the co-founder of one the biggest creators of microprocessors that figure the speed of laptops and PCs.

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This law has wider implications than simple processing power. Devices have become smaller and smaller. We went from a large mainframe to smartphones and embedded processors. This has resulted in a more expensive process where chips have become smaller.

In the larger scheme of things this two-year evolution is the underlying model for technology. It’s resulted in better phones, more lifelike computer games and quicker computers which we use every day. Maybe this effect came from goal setting: we must make processing power double every two-years, or maybe it was just a natural progression? Either way, Brian Krzanich-chief executive of Intel suggested this growth could be coming to an end but he still supports this; “we’ll always strive to get back to two years”. However, the firm still disproves the death of Moore’s Law, as future processors won’t be made so quickly. Technology users might realise their new phone or laptop is only a bit superior than the older model. There is a drastic need for Moore’s Law to be met again as this speed of development leads to more effective processors and save us so much money with efficiency.

To keep up with Moore’s law there have been some major compromises. Now we are at a crossroads, microprocessors are getting smaller and smaller but now they are reaching a fundamental limit due to their size. Transistors are a certain size for quantum effects to take place. “The number of transistors you can get into one space is limited, because you’re getting down to things that are approaching the size of an atom.”

A problem that started in the early 2000’s is overheating. As the devices have shrunk the electrons are more restricted and the resistance goes up dramatically in the circuits. This creates the heating problem in things such as phones and laptops. To counteract this the ‘clock rates’- the speed of microprocessors has not increased since 2004. The second issue is that we are reaching a limit the size and limit of a single chip. The solution is to have multiple processors instead of one. This means rewriting various programs and software to accommodate this change. As components get smaller they must also become much more robust and stronger.

Four and eight are standard quantities when it comes to the processors in our laptops. For example, “you can have the same output with four cores going at 250 megahertz as one going at 1 gigahertz” said Paolo Gargini-chair of the road mapping organisation. This lowers the clock speed of the processors also solving both problems at once. There are more new innovations being undertaken. However, many of these are simply too expensive to be effective.

According to the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) transistors will stop getting smaller by 2021. Since 1993 they have predicted the future of computing. After the hype in 2011 of graphene and carbon nanotubes, ITRS suggested it would take 10-15 years before these combine with logic devices and chips. Germanium and III-V semiconductors are 5-10 years away. The new issue is that transistors will not get smaller and move away from Moore’s Law.

Intel is struggling to make new breakthroughs. If they have not been resolved and they fall of the 2-year doubling target. However, there will be strong competition from their competitors. IBM have also started challenging them; a processor seven nanometres wide, 20 billion transistors and 4 times than today’s power. This will be available in 2017. “It’s a bit like oil exploration: we’ve had all the stuff that’s easy to get at, and now it’s getting harder, … we may find that there’s some discovery in the next decade that takes us in a completely different direction”-said Andrew Herbert who is leading a reconstruction of early British computers at the National Museum of Computing.

There is a new future for quantum computing. This works with qubits-quantum bits with values of 0 and 1. The nature of quantum mechanics can be to have multiple states in a system. We could get a quantum computer to work on multiple problems at once and come up with solutions in days that would naturally take millions of years traditionally.

  In May 2015 Moore spoke in San Francisco at an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of his article. He said “the original prediction was to look at 10 years…The fact that something similar is going on for 50 years is truly amazing…someday it has to stop. No exponential like this goes on forever.” At the time this was completely unknown that the total transistors in a computer chip would double every year. This has continued for a lot longer than expected and is now a major part of popular culture- Moore’s Law has become the underlying physical standard of the future that society has lived up to and has driven to meet.

 

Understanding the Four Forces

Harpreet Thandi

We want to understand the world around us. There are four theorized forces in our universe. These are the nuclear force (weak force), the strong force, gravity, and the electromagnetic force. These all act very differently around us.

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The weak force is responsible for processes such as fission (radioactive decay), particles like muons, leptons, and others with short lifetimes. This is the 3rd strongest force and only stronger than gravity. It counteracts the strong force. With a range of just,10-18m smaller than an atom (10-15m). It exchanges energy with the bosons, the particles that carry charge. The Weak force has a very short lifetime. This seems like a problem. However, due to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle it is possible to have a large amount of energy for a short time.

One way to put this is if you multiply numbers to make 9 or another fixed value like ℏ/2 or higher. We can of course do 3×3; but if one of numbers is bigger let’s say, 3000000 then the other must be 0.000003 to compensate, now we have achieved 3000000×0.000003=9 as before.

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The strong force binds (joins) the nucleus together. This has the 2nd   shortest range of 10-15m. This acts on quarks inside protons and neutrons equally to “glue it together”. The neutrons help control the atom and when they get too close this force keeps them apart. Like a sad romance. An analogy often given involves sellotape. First you feel nothing until, you get close and then it acts sticks “the strong force repels actually”. These two forces act inside of the atom. The outcome of these forces can be seen on the periodic table as the range is the size of a nucleus-this stops atoms from getting too big. In addition to this the larger atoms decay via the weak force.

Gravitation binds the universe together, keeps the planets in orbit, people grounded (well some of us!!), and acts on anything that has considerable mass, like Newton’s apple. In Einstein’s theory of general relativity, gravity causes a distortion of space and time. This is the weakest of the force, but has an infinite range and acts by using gravitons. These have never been observed yet, sadly.

Magnetism and Electricity were once thought of as separate concepts. However, after observations and mathematical reasoning were shown to be linked as a single force. Famously, in 1820 Hans Christian Ørsted saw a needle being deflected by a battery cable and James Clerk Maxwell proved the two waves were perpendicular to each other.

Electromagnetism binds atoms and anything else in the universe that has charge e.g. protons, electrons, muons. This is the 2nd strongest force and has an infinite range using photons. Another way of looking at this would be a fridge magnet. This is many magnitudes stronger than gravity-something to think about. These two forces act outside of the atom.

For the last 30 years of his life, Einstein tried to unify gravitation and electromagnetism without success. This seems possible, given the similarities with infinite range and both being the most visible to mankind. This pursuit was driven by a need to have things joined together which exist together. In a 1923 lecture stating “The intellect seeking after an integrated theory cannot rest content with the assumption that there exist two distinct fields totally independent of each other by their nature”. Back in the 1900s only protons, electrons and these two forces were known about. Einstein rejected the new quantum mechanics stating “god does not play dice”.  Over time Einstein became an outsider towards mainstream physics. Rather than using physical intuition “thought experiments” that birthed most of those great works, he now became obsessed with only mathematical understanding. Michio Kaku; professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, would consider Einstein to be thinking way ahead of his time. Most of the physics that Einstein would have needed as a base had not been discovered yet.

Physicists today take on this unification challenge. An idea called string theory is required. This requires 10 dimensions to explain the physics, and is a mathematical quest. It is an extension of Einstein’s 5 dimensions. This is hard to prove experimentally. However, researchers are constantly working on translating this into something observable. This is a very different and hard to imagine view of our universe. We must hope there is a way to translate these mathematical predictions into the real world.

 

How does an igloo keep you warm?

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Harpreet Thandi

The igloo, iglu ᐃᒡᓗ comes from the word Inuktitut often translated as “snow house” widely used to describe any type of house, including traditional tents, sod houses, and modern buildings. The Igluvijaq ᐃᒡᓗᕕᔭᖅ refers to the igloo specifically made from bricks of snow. This acts as a perfect shelter in conditions where snow is plentiful.

In terms of architecture, the igloo is constructed as a catenary, built in a spiral direction. This building method creates a self-supporting structure that balances the force on each brick evenly. The catenary shape is a very solid structure that allows the weight to be distributed.

However, without further work, the igloo is weak. A stone lamp can be placed inside, causing snow on the inside to melt. The temperature varies from -7C0 to 16C0 compared to the outside where the temperature is much lower at -45C0. This temperature gradient creates transitions between ice and snow making the igloo stronger. If done correctly, an igloo can support even the weight of a person standing on the roof! A ventilation hole is put in to allow this temperature shift and the passageway and storage act as a cold trap. This keeps the living and resting area warm for people to live in and allows the transfer of heat.

Inside an igloo, heat can transfer via three methods; conduction, convection, and radiation. Our bodies are an example of radiation as they transmit heat to the insides of the igloo, making it warmer. Convection acts like a current, allowing this radiated heat to circulate on the inside of the igloo, increasing its internal temperature. Conduction occurs when heat travels through a medium like the surface of an igloo. The ventilation hole, mentioned earlier, allows excess convection currents to leave the igloo and for heat to transfer. This hole also acts as a window. The igloo’s entrance allows cold air to be part of the igloo by lowering the temperature but keeping the living area warmer which is higher up.

Snow acts as an insulator due to the amount of air that forms between the spaces in the crystal structure of the snowflake. 95% of these crystals contain air within the structure that can trap heat, greatly reducing the amount of heat lost.

Questions of Consciousness

Harpreet Thandi

Consciousness is very deep and a very important aspect of life. It is very mystical and opens us a whole new area in understanding the complexity of the human mind. This fascinating new area in neuroscience is answering questions as it terms out to be connected to biology and not just a vague concept. These are as follows:

What are the critical brain regions for consciousness?

There are approximately 90 billion neurons that make up the human brain, with thousands more connections between them. This is not the complete picture as a high number of neurons does not correspond to consciousness.

Current thinking is that consciousness is primarily linked to the specific network of regions in the cortex (all the folded parts) and secondly the thalamus (a walnut-shaped structure deep inside). This can determine types of consciousness; being awake, dreamless sleep or the involvement in each experience.

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This also leads to new areas of research such as the brain’s densely connected frontal lobes, and questions about how valuable the information that travels between different regions of the brain really is.

What are the mechanisms of general anaesthesia?

There are many methods to induce general anaesthesia, including substances such as propofol – which can cause severe reactions in some people. The current evidence is that anaesthesia alters how different parts of the brain interact with each other (as mentioned in question 1). This creates an effect where the brains parts get interfered with – starting what is described as a “cognitive unbinding” process.

The goal is to understand how general anaesthesia is compared to unconsciousness-like dreamless sleep in the brain.

What is self?

This is a very fundamental concept – what it means to be us. The ‘I’ behind the eye. Our thoughts, words, actions, perspective, psychology, past, present, and future to name a few subjective aspects. These are all changed by the processes inside the brain. Which is a very scary idea that chemicals change and can modify our inner workings.

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An out of body spiritual experience can be replicated by various experimental factors. The aim is to understand this ‘I’ idea to be able to combat psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia. Which is a very exciting prospect for the future breaking down the meaning of self.

What determines experiences of volition and ‘will’?

Another interesting concept that verges into philosophy is this idea of “free will” or freedoms and their existence. This idea has been the topic of discussion since the 1980s. After looking for neural signatures of volition (the intention of action) and agency (experience of causing action).

The new school of thought is that volition does not exist and very clear actions involve the entire brain. This acts as a complete complex map of networks that conducts open decisions between different parts of the brain-an undivided system.

What is the function of consciousness? What are experiences for?

A large variety of cognitive functions, environmental perception, decision making and even voluntary actions can be carried out without consciousness.

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The key distinction is that consciousness can integrate information. This means from our life experiences a large amount of possibilities are removed. This changes the levels of functions that can be carried out with consciousness.

How rich is consciousness?

A big issue is that consciousness is almost subjective. Especially because, as previously mentioned, once you experience something then there is also a “self” bias. The current research reflects this limitation. The evidence leads to separating the effects on the brain of consciousness and our self-involvement. Emphasis is made to explore the interplay between these factors to deepen our understanding.

Are other animals conscious?

This is a very deep question that is very profound. Mammals have a lot of similar brain functions to a human, they carry out functions, and this helps us ask this very logical question.

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An animal’s consciousness is very different to a human as they don’t have the same concept of self as humans. However, there are distinctions in this level such as in birds and cephalopods, like an octopus, which are very smart with a high capacity of learning.  

Are vegetative patients conscious?

In the US alone 15,000 patients are in a ‘vegetative state’, from a huge brain injury. In this state the patient’s behaviour shows that these patients are awake but not aware.  From brain imaging, at least some of these patients are conscious, and even engaged in communication with their families and doctors. The next step is to diagnose and treat these patients.

These are just a few questions in current research in the neuroscience of consciousness. This field will start to shed some new light on areas within the vast areas of still unknown fundamental questions.

 

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What Are Soft Robotics?

Harpreet Thandi and Ashley Carley

The word robot comes from the wordrobota meaning forced labour in Czech. Traditionally robots are solid machines able to carry out tasks and help humans. This is now changing as the exciting new area of ‘soft robots’ is developing, where robots are made from materials such as silicone, plastic, rubber and mechanical springs. Merging soft and solid robotics could make robots more versatile and functional.

Marine Machines

Robots that already exist bare a resemblance to humans and even other animals. In 2007, after her dad caught her a live octopus, Professor Cecilia Laschi of the BioRobotics Institute at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy, built her own.

Multiple octopi prototypes have been developed with tentacles made from wires and springs which can recreate a tentacle’s natural motion. Each tentacle can bend, stretch, curl, and behave in a very lifelike way.

These robots could be used for marine research projects and even exploring unknown areas of the ocean. This is an amazing opportunity to understand more about marine life, biology, and evolution. After all, we know less about the ocean than we do about space.

The biggest challenge is to get the robot’s ‘arm’ to curl, scrunch and stretch. An octopus’ longitudinal muscles shorten or bend when they contract. To mimic this, springs in the constructed ‘arms’ bend and then return to their original size.

By having a combination of wires inside the ‘arm’, it can bend around a hand. Imagine if, in the future, a soft robot could locate humans in an emergency, remove rubble and rescue survivors. This technique could work on land or in the water.

But this isn’t the only soft octopus in development. The ‘Octobot’ is the world’s first totally soft-bodied autonomous robot. It propels itself using its rubbery legs, half at a time, in a movement powered by gas from an internal chemical reaction.

This new area of robotics has many products in their prototype stage, currently. There are some limitations due the ‘softness’ of the designs; their motions are often unpredictable. The Octobot is relatively floppy and needs improving to a point where its movements are precise and responsive to its surroundings. Practical tests are needed to prove they are durable.

Human helpers

Soft robots may even be able to aid the human body in medical contexts. Soft robots can get into small spaces and even perform surgical operations, although non-toxic substances are required if the robotics are intended for use in the body.

There are many other applications that are not water-based. One invention, the ‘gripper hand’, has a variety of features that change depending on the size, weight, and slipperiness of the gripped object. The robotic hands could function in shops and bars, handling slippery bottles, boxes and bags, and be integrated into manufacturing machines and production lines.

The soft nature of this design could improve on the functionality, flexibility and dexterity of the present technologies. The hands can grip objects of any shape, from mushrooms and strawberries to bottles, demonstrating both delicacy and strength like the octopus model. This is different from the force and feedback systems that we had before.

Fabrics

At Harvard University’s Biodesign Lab, a new wearable robotic suit has been developed; an important movement for soft robotics. This ‘superhero’ suit has advantages over conventional exoskeletons – or Exosuits – which are uncomfortable and ill-fitting.

Exosuits allow heavy loads to be carried over long distances. The new Exosuit is constructed of nylon, polyester and spandex, making it more comfortable. Additionally, there are position and acceleration sensors for monitoring gait. A further development will involve swapping these with ‘stretchy’ sensors for a softer, more comfortable experience.

A new robotic fabric moves in response to an electric current. Shape-memory alloy coils are sewn in and can compress by 60%. These alloys track the fabrics movements. The fabric consist of stretch-sensitive silicone filaments that contain liquid metal.

The technology could be put on a sleeve to help injured, elderly or disabled people with their movement. The robotics also have various applications for space technology.  

Soft robotics have many advantages: the technology is relatively cheap, strong, flexible, versatile, and able to fit into small spaces.

However, there are some problems and limitations. Soft robotics have not been fully tested in an industrial environment, they haven’t undergone in-depth strength tests and they still need to be attached to a power source.

Read more:

Nature: Meet the Soft Cuddly Robots of the Future

EPFL: Soft Robots that Mimic Human Muscles

Harvard Biodesign Lab: Soft Robotics

Tinnitus

Harpreet Thandi

‘Tinnitus’ is a term used to describe hearing sounds which are not actually present in the ‘real world’. As the result of miscommunication between the sounds the ears pick up and how they get translated to the brain, it is colloquially named, the ‘Music of the brain.’
These sounds can vary considerably, from buzzing and hissing, to more rarely music or noises in time with the sufferer’s pulse (pulsatile tinnitus). This creates sensitivity to daily sounds (hyperacusis) and reduced hearing overall.

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Photo Credit: Stephen Niemeier

Causes
The causes of tinnitus are far-ranging. Generally, anything that affects the brain or ears can cause tinnitus.
Common causes include damage to the inner ear and middle ear infection or a build-up.

Most cases occur from damage to the inner ear. This includes the cochlea and the auditory nerve. As fluid moves into the cochlea, its sensitive hair cells pick up the sound. The auditory nerve sends this signal to the brain.
If the cochlea gets damaged some parts stop sending information. Certain parts stop working and others still send information to the rest of the brain. This reduction creates ‘noise’ leading to tinnitus. This damage occurs naturally with age or due to excessive sound exposure.
Other cases include earwax build up or perforated eardrum, Middle ear infection-e.g. glue ear; because of fluid build-up. More rarely, Otosclerosis creates abnormal growth of bones, whilst Meniere’s disease leads to hearing loss and vertigo.
It can also be caused by gunfire, anaemia, high blood pressure, some medications, and unique genetic conditions
Rarer causes include head injury, exposure to loud or sudden noises-e.g. gunfire or fireworks, and anaemia, where the red blood cell count decreases so much that it interferes with sound perception.
Hypertension and atherosclerosis – high blood pressure and narrowing of the arteries are also potential causes – as are Hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism which are related to the thyroid glands. Some medications, including chemotherapy, antibiotics, diuretics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and aspirin in very high dosages may also lead to tinnitus.
Genetic conditions such as Paget’s disease, which affects bone renewal, and acoustic neuroma creates non-cancerous growth that affects hearing in the inner ear, have also been associated with tinnitus.

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Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Preventing Tinnitus
It’s very difficult to prevent tinnitus if the precise reasons for it are not obvious. If it comes from an underlying medical condition this needs solving. If there is earwax or build up within the ear, this needs treating. Generally, hearing protection needs to be worn and risks need assessing appropriately. The inner ear needs protecting. Exposure to loud music should be minimised if not avoided, and care should be taken to prevent damage to the cochlea. Obviously, this is a big issue for musicians.
You can wear hearing protection in loud environments as a safety precaution. Along with this, counselling is important to help a sufferer understand how to carry out specific procedures if they are less obvious.

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Photo credit: Flickr

Treatment for suffers
There are some treatments that can reduce damage, preserve hearing, and hopefully prevent tinnitus. These are typically reserved for people who are experiencing the more severe symptoms of hearing loss or ringing in their ears.
Correcting hearing loss reduces the extent of tinnitus by increasing the range of frequencies that are heard
Once you develop even the slightest amount of hearing loss, this must be taken seriously – otherwise the brain picks up sounds from the damaged inner ear – leading to tinnitus because of this mismatch. An audiologist or specialist will assess the hearing loss. A hearing aid and/or corrective surgery may then be required. The outcome of these corrections is the ability to hear more frequencies, which are now audible, minimising the sound of tinnitus.
Sound therapy involves creating background sound to distract suffers from tinnitus
Tinnitus is often heard almost like background noise. This is a big problem because it means you hear buzzing in a quiet environment. Sound therapy takes empty space and fills it with a neutral sound. This helps to drown out the tinnitus sound and has been very successful. The sampled sound varies from background noises to nature. White noise may also be used to help overcome tinnitus.
It’s often harder for suffers to sleep; in extreme cases the sound can be so distracting as to make sleep a difficulty. One option is pillows fitted with sound generators to aid sleep. Alternatively, hearing aids are sometimes used to create these sounds over the use of traditional headphones due to practicality.
CBT and TRT can change the way you think about your problems
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is traditionally used to overcome anxiety and depression. The idea is to change the way you think about certain behaviours. Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) helps you change your brain’s response to tinnitus.

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Photo credit: Flickr

Sources you can look at:
http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Tinnitus/Pages/Treatment.aspx
Useful NHS Tinnitus information
http://www.hearing.nihr.ac.uk/public/auditory-examples-sounds-of-tinnitus