Science and Technology links (May 18th, 2017)

Google has announced at its annual conference (I/O 2017) that it has computing pods capable of 11.5 petaflops. They are made of 64 customized TPU (processors specialized for deep learning/AI), each generate 180 teraflops. It is going to be available to other companies via Google cloud. Google has also announced Google.ai, a new website where Google presents its work on AI. It seems likely that Google wants to sell AI as a service. Interestingly, 11.5 petaflops is Ray Kurweil‘s estimate regarding the computing power needed to simulate the human brain. There are supercomputers exceeding 10 petaflops right now, like Sunway TaihuLight, but it takes a whole room to host them whereas Google’s computing pods look to be the size of a server rack. And, of course, you and I cannot have access to China’s Sunway TaihuLight whereas, for the right price, Google gives us access to its computing pods. So is Google capable of emulating the human brain yet? Some less optimistic people have estimated that the computing power of the human brain is around 1 exaflop. So take 100 computing pods at 11.5 petaflops each and, according to some, you have the computing power of the human brain. Of course, we do not really know. Maybe 1 pod is enough to match a brain, or maybe we would need thousands. However, it looks like Google is within striking distance of matching the human brain in raw computing power with a single rack of computers. I should add that not all petaflops are comparable: Google has designed specialized hardware. Their computing pods may not be great a simulating the weather, for example.

What if you are not Google and want to build your own computing pods? Nvidia just announced its Nvidia Volta GPU. It has 120 teraflops. That’s a lot less than Google’s TPUs, but Nvidia GPUs are available to the public. With 85 Nvidia Volta GPUs, you are hitting 10 petaflops and you too, according to some, is within striking distance of the computing capabilities of the brain. I don’t know how much Nvidia will charge of its GPUs but a reasonable estimate might be $1000 (the actual price might be less). So for $100,000, you can build your own computing pod.

How does that compare to Intel chips that we all rely upon? A lot of Intel chips deploy about 100 gigaflops, or 0.1 teraflops. So to get to 10 petaflops, you’d need 100,000 chips. Not very practical.

I should qualify, once more, these numbers: counting the number of flops is just a way to get a rough estimate of the possibilities behind the hardware. It is quite possible to have 100 theoretical petaflops, but be unable to make good use out of them.

By the way, next time you are in a bar, here is a great pick-up line: “You must have a lot of petaflops”. You read it here first.

Google rolled up its smart reply feature. Way ahead of you Google! My students have been getting only one of three answers for last few years: “That’s great”, “Can you rephrase that?”, “Don’t worry about it”.

Scientists have figured out how to create stem cells that can regenerate blood cells:

When the researchers injected these stem cells into mice that had been treated with radiation to kill most of their blood and immune cells, the animals recovered. The stem cells regenerated the blood, including immune cells, and the mice went on to live a full life—more than 1.5 years in the lab.

Half of all jobs will be replaced by Artificial Intelligence in 10 years according to Kai-Fu Lee. He is a smart and important man. He could still be very wrong. He makes some great points such that China rose tremendously in artificial intelligence, starting from nothing and rising up to levels comparable to the US in a few years.

Facebook’s CEO wants to cure all diseases by the end of the century. To this end, they are giving grant money to researchers. There is a condition though:

The CZI (…) ask that all code developed in support of CZI-funded studies be published on public code repositories such as GitHub.

I have mixed feelings about this. Forcing people to publish their code does not necessarily have the expected effects. I have had colleagues who trumpeted that their research software was “open source”. And, sure enough, you could download the software online. As for building upon it or using it? Well. Good luck with that. You can’t mandate culture, you can only hack it.

Researchers describe in a Nature article how they were able to restore ovarian function in sterilized mice using 3D printing.

Tony Seba, an economist at Stanford University, predicts that fossil-fuel vehicles will disappear in 8 years, according to reports. They will be replaced by electrical self-driving vehicles.

Determining the truth is hard:

I show that fact-checkers rarely fact-check the same statement, and when they do, there is little agreement in their ratings.

Reminds me of science.

Macular degeneration is a terrible disease where older people become progressively blind. It looks like it has to do with eating too much sugar:

Changing the diet to a low-glycemic-index diet, even late in life, arrested the development of AMD, (…)

As an aside, it also looks like Type 2 diabetes and obesity are largely preventable through diet and exercise. Sadly, this is not enough to make these problems easy ones.

Scientists have bioengineered a synthetic pancreas that was transplanted into a patient. It cured its diabetes. Could it be that we are about to cure diabetes for good?

According to CNBC, Apple has engineers working on better ways to monitor blood sugar. Even though I am not diabetic (to my knowledge), I would love an Apple watch that monitors my blood glucose.

The initiative is far enough along that Apple has been conducting feasibility trials at clinical sites across the Bay Area and has hired consultants to help it figure out the regulatory pathways, the people said. One person said about 30 people were working in this group as of a year ago. But speculation has been flying around since the company snapped up about a dozen biomedical experts from companies like Vital Connect, Masimo, Sano, Medtronic and C8 Medisensors. Some of these people joined the secretive team dedicated to glucose, sources said, while others are on Apple Watch team. One of the people said that Apple is developing optical sensors, which involves shining a light through the skin to measure indications of glucose.

The world faced a major cyber attack where attackers captured computers and asked for compensation to release them. The virus was called WannaCry and affected solely the Windows operating system. The English health organizations were hit hard. The attack was reportedly diffused by a 22-year-old dropout who found a hidden kill switch in the ransomware virus.

I love the power of simple mathematics! On this note, Maurer provides us with a nice analysis with respect to population growth. Currently, the world can be roughly divided in two. There are countries with low fertility but high longevity (e.g., Japan) and countries with high fertility and short lives (e.g., many countries in Africa). Which are more likely to exhibit overpopulation in the future? As an empirical observation, we should point out that many countries with high longevity, like Japan and Germany, are actually undergoing “de-population” in the sense that their population is falling. But what is the math telling us?

Assume an initial population of 1000 people. The fertility rate is 2, and the life expectancy is 80. Women give birth at 20. Now, let us consider two variations:

Case A: Death disappears. Nobody dies anymore!

Case B: The fertility rate slightly increases from 2 to 2.5.

Which of these two cases will lead to the greater population increase?

– After 1000 years, the population will be 51 000 in case A, and at least 206 000 000 in case B: more than 4000 times case A! The gap will be enormous.

The conclusion is clear: if you are worried at all about overpopulation, you must be concerned about fertility. And we know, empirically, that fertility falls when women have well-paid jobs, education, contraceptives, and freedom. The solution is clear. We must opt for prevention of the diseases of old age (to diminish the burden of care, mostly affecting women) and ensure that women are well educated, free and well remunerated (so that they have low fertility). This simple strategy alone is very likely to prevent overpopulation and it has the side benefits of making people (starting with women) better off.

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