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Naoki Watanabe
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The power of the neuron (2017 update)

In the early 1950s neurons were thought of as basic switches (McCulloch and Pitts artificial neuron model). By the 70s that view had begun to change reflecting newly understood complex interplay between neuron, axons (connective nerve fibres), and dendrites (branches from a neuron).

Better equipment and more study continued to show previously unknown complexity. In Christof Koch's Biophysics of Computation (1999) he says, ‘that dendrites can indeed be very powerful, nontraditional computational devices, implementing a number of continuous operations.’ Again adding to the overall complexity and an idea still in play today. In 2000 'Neuroscience: A Mathematical Primer' writes "An individual neuron might be able to perform logical computations at its branching regions, making it more like an integrated circuit chip than a single switch".

The following decade saw evidence of quantum effects at work in biological systems; areas such as in energy transport in plant photosynthesis, magnetoreception. Some suggested the brain might be a quantum computer which would explain the incredible energy efficiency of it's operation (Ervin Laszlo).

A Nature published study in 2007 found that a single rat neuron was enough to deliver a sensation of touch. By stimulating a single neuron a sensation of touch through the whiskers was generated.

2009 an exciting idea began to be explored. What if a single neuron can understand an entire "concept"? What if the idea of your grandmother is in a single neuron, what if the thought, or elicited thought, of an actress exists in a single neuron. In one study a patient was shown seven different pictures of Jennifer Aniston and a single neuron fired in each case. Another single neuron fired when a patient was shown photographs, masked photographs, drawings, or even heard the name of Halle Berry.

- http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=one-face-one-neuron

In 2010 it was found that "single neurons, and indeed even single dendrites, the tiny receiving elements of neurons, can very effectively distinguish between different temporal sequences of incoming information". The take home message being "the basic components of the brain are exceptionally powerful computing devices in their own right";

- http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100812151632.htm

In the same year MIT found the discrete memories (engrams) are stored in small numbers of brain cells. Which builds on the 2009 work showing the power of single neurons;

- http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/123485-mit-discovers-the-location-of-memories-individual-neurons

We've come a long way from thinking of the neuron as simple switch and through techniques such as optogenetics we are looking through a window into the workings of these most fascinating cells.

Over the last 60 odd years our perception of the neuron's complexity has exploded exponentially and this in turn means that a functional microscale Connectome, the full map of brain cells and connections, remains completely impossible with existing computing systems. 

This month a UCLA team announced dendrites - making up a large overall percentage of brain tissue - generate signals at a rate ten fold higher than expected. Complementing work from institutes such as Salk.

- http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/ucla-research-upend-long-held-belief-about-how-neurons-communicate

Brains truly are amazing machines.


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Panasonic's new solar roof for the Prius can trickle charge your battery

It isn't much but you know I'll take an extra 10% efficiency. It would be great in places like Australia where instead of coming back to a nuclear hot car that you can't physically enter until you get the AC running, you've have had the sun powering the ventilation system. Plus you've got a little extra in the battery. It's a win-win even if the option price of <$2k is a little steep right now.

http://newatlas.com/panasonic-solar-car-roof-prius/48273/

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Some info on AMD Naples server variant CPUs

AMD hit a bit of a home run with their newly released Ryzen range of desktop CPUs but for the server heads out there the "Naples" chips coming a little later in the year are perhaps even more interesting;

- Eight channel DDR4 (ECC at 2400Mhz)
- Up to 2TB of RAM in a single socket server (double that for dual)
- 128 PCIe 3.0 lanes
- 32 cores, 64 threads (single CPU, double that for dual socket)

It is expected AMD will undercut intel on price but I don't yet have pricing information.

http://www.anandtech.com/show/11183/amd-prepares-32-core-naples-cpus-for-1p-and-2p-servers-coming-in-q2

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5G draft specifications from ITU

You've got your 4G wireless on your smart new smart phone and that's pretty cool. It'll get you 10-40Mbps out in the real world and compared to the single digit kilobyte speeds I started with when modems were a thing you kids are seriously living in the future.

But what if 4G just wasn't futuristic enough? Well you +1 that sucker and you get 5G of course. That's a lot of 'G'.

5G is expected to turn up around 2020 but for most areas it might not be available until 2022ish.

That's a long time away. Five years. We will probably have split into morlocks and eloi by then. But whether we are basking in the sun and being farmed like cattle or living underground tending ancient machines 5G is still cause to get excited.

The International Telecommunications Union has laid out a draft specifications for 5G systems and they are impressive:

- 20Gbps top-level download speeds (yoikes)
- 10Gbps uploads
- Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) services should have latency of 0.4ms (now it's more like 20ms)
- Ultra-reliable low latency communications (IoT, self-driving cars, etc) must be just 0.1ms
- Base stations should support one million devices (yoikes)
- Base station should cover ~1.5 square kilometers
- And 5G should work when connections are being made to vehicles moving up to 500mph (yoikes again!)

http://www.theinquirer.net/inquirer/news/3005441/5g-tech-specs-revealed-expect-20gbps-top-level-download-speeds

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Sweden sets global standard in committing to carbon neutrality by 2045

"We see that the advantages of a climate-smart society are so huge, both when it comes to health, job creation and also security. Being dependent on fossil fuels and gas from Russia is not what we need now" said Climate Minister Isabella Lovin.

They will reach their target largely though investment in renewable energy and remaining emissions will be offset by the planting of new trees and investments in other nations.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/sweden-pledges-greenhouse-gas-emissions-zero-2045-paris-agreement-a7561111.html

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IBM's Watson to help customers at 10,000 H&R Block branches

The advanced machine learning system now understands the 74,000 page US federal tax code and when fed a client's data can find deductions and credits that mere mortals might miss.

One of those cases where technology has the potential to level the playing field. Usually only people and corporations with the resources to hire teams of tax lawyers and accounts were able to maximally optimize their accounts. (One reason those groups might in fact prefer a complex tax code full of obscure loopholes.)

With any lucky the same advantage will be opened to everybody from freelancers to small business and families.

http://newatlas.com/ibm-watson-tax-hr-block/47701/

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The next generation of energy storage

Lithium-ion batteries have been improving on every level for years and that trend shows no signs of abating. That's not to say they are perfect - they aren't.

They can become dangerous when damaged either by external shocks or internal manufacturing defects requiring heavy or expensive housing. And we could still do with improved energy density, even lower cost, longer life and faster charge/discharge.

As you might expect clever people all over the world are working on improvements and alternatives.

One such alternative is lithium-metal with spin off companies coming out of places like MIT working aggressively on this since at least 2012.

Lithium-metal batteries, also known as solid state batteries, replace the liquid electrolyte with a solid material and apply it to a lithium-metal foil (as in the linked example).

This is good because we typically get a lighter battery that contains the same energy (or conversely the same size with twice the energy). And because we don't have a flammable liquid in the battery you can stab it and it still won't explode or ignite. Significant advantages to electric cars.

Historically though these types of batteries have suffered from a low number of charge/discharge cycles. In other words powerful but with a short life - the Roy Batty of batteries.

It has taken a while to overcome the challenges (as it so often does) but now there are at least two companies showing off working prototypes or even selling products for limited applications.

Large scale delivery of products may not happen until 2018-2020 but the promise is twice the energy density and far greater safety.

Imagine a $35,000 EV like the Tesla Model 3 with a 600 km range with the added bonus that it could suffer a horrific crash and not start a fire. This could also kickstart electric aviation which really needs to consider weight and has similar safety concerns in crash events.

So look forward to that. And then if you want to get a bit more speculative look forward to lithium-air batteries in 2020-2025 when batteries could have 5x+ higher energy densities than current generations.

http://hothardware.com/news/researcher-develops-ionic-battery-2x-energy-density

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Investigation into Tesla crash shows greatly decreased crash rates

Crash rates per million miles driven reduced from 1.3 to 0.8 (40%) after the introduction of 'Autosteer' (a part of Tesla's Autopiliot package).

Nice.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-19/tesla-s-autopilot-vindicated-with-40-percent-drop-in-crashes

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For the first time an electric car has completed the Dakar rally

It came dead last but that's still a lot better than a quarter of entrants who fail to even finish the formidable 5,600 km long event.

The Spanish made Acciona puts out 340 horses and the massive 150kWh battery pack in its belly gives 200km of range under racing conditions. The battery can be fully charged in 60 minutes. An hour seems like a long time but 150kWh is roughly what an average American house uses in a week.

I am very excited to see how EVs progress over time in this competition. If other races are any indication we are set to see rapid and solid progress.

In 2011 at the Pike's Peak Hill Climb Nobuhiro Tajima's electric race car set itself on fire. Not a great start. In 2015 electric cars placed first and second winning setting record times in all classes.

In the five years between 2010 and 2015 average speeds for electric motorcycles at The Isle of Man TT Zero race went up 23%.
We are going to see significant improvements to battery energy density and charge times in the next 4-5 years. Along with greatly reduced complexity and inherently better reliability of these types of vehicles they have the potential to be very competitive in this style of endurance racing.

http://www.treehugger.com/cars/electric-car-first-zero-emissions-vehicle-finish-dakar-rally.html

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All Dutch trains powered entirely by renewable energy

Completed a year ahead of schedule 100% of Dutch trains are now powered by energy from wind. One wind turbine operating for an hour provides enough power for a train to travel 200 kilometers.

Having moved the system entirely to renewable energy the goal is to reduce power usage by 35% (compared with 2005 by 2020).

Well done Netherlanders, well done.

http://phys.org/news/2017-01-dutch-powered-energy.html
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