science

Creators of modern rechargeable batteries share Nobel prize

Posted by | Batteries, battery, Gadgets, Lithium-Ion, Nobel prize, science | No Comments

If you had to slip a couple AAs into your smartphone every morning to check your email, browse Instagram, and text your friends, chances are the mobile revolution would not have been quite so revolutionary. Fortunately the rechargeable lithium-ion battery was invented — a decades-long task for which three men have just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The prize this year honors M. Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough, and Akira Yoshino, all of whom contributed to the development of what is today the most common form of portable power. Without them (and of course those they worked with, and those who came before) we would be tied to even more wasteful and/or stationary sources of energy.

Lead-acid batteries had been in use for nearly a century by the time people really got to thinking about taking things to the next level with lithium, a lightweight metal with desirable electrical properties. But lithium is also highly reactive with air and water, making finding suitable substances to pair it with difficult.

Experiments in the ’50s and ’60s laid the groundwork for more targeted investigations, in particular Whittingham’s. He and partner Fred Gamble showed in 1976 that lithium ions, after donating electrons to produce a charge, fit perfectly into a lattice of titanium disulfide — where they sit patiently (in their “van der Waals gaps”) until an electron is provided during recharging. Unfortunately this design also used a lithium anode that could be highly reactive (think fire) if bent or crushed.

John Goodenough and his team soon developed a better cathode material (where the lithium ions rested) with a much higher potential — more power could be drawn, opening new possibilities for applications. This, combined with the fact that the metallic lithium anodes could be highly reactive (think fire) if bent or crushed, led to increased research on making batteries safe as well as useful.

yoshino battery

In 1985 research by Akira Yoshino led to the discovery of several materials (whose names won’t mean anything to anyone without domain knowledge) that could perform as well while also being able to be physically damaged and not cause any major trouble.

Many, many improvements have been made since then, but the essentials of the technology were laid out by these teams. And soon after lithium-ion batteries were shown to be safe, capacious, and able to be recharged hundreds of times, they were found in laptops, medical devices, and eventually mobile phones. Today, after three more decades of enhancements, lithium batteries are now taking on gasoline as the energy storage medium of choice for human transportation.

The three scholars whose work most powerfully advanced this technology from theory to commercial reality were awarded equal shares of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, each taking home a third of the million and, more importantly, the distinction of being recognized in historic fashion.

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DARPA aims to make networks 100 times speedier with FastNIC

Posted by | DARPA, Gadgets, Government, hardware, networking, science | No Comments

Having a slow connection is always frustrating, but just imagine how supercomputers feel. All those cores doing all kinds of processing at lightning speed, but in the end they’re all waiting on an outdated network interface to stay in sync. DARPA doesn’t like it. So DARPA wants to change it — specifically by making a new network interface a hundred times faster.

The problem is this. As DARPA estimates it, processors and memory on a computer or server can in a general sense work at a speed of roughly 10^14 bits per second — that’s comfortably into the terabit region — and networking hardware like switches and fiber are capable of about the same.

“The true bottleneck for processor throughput is the network interface used to connect a machine to an external network, such as an Ethernet, therefore severely limiting a processor’s data ingest capability,” explained DARPA’s Jonathan Smith in a news post by the agency about the project. (Emphasis mine.)

That network interface usually takes the form of a card (making it a NIC) and handles accepting data from the network and passing it on to the computer’s own systems, or vice versa. Unfortunately its performance is typically more in the gigabit range.

That delta between the NIC and the other components of the network means a fundamental limit in how quickly information can be shared between different computing units — like the hundreds or thousands of servers and GPUs that make up supercomputers and datacenters. The faster one unit can share its information with another, the faster they can move on to the next task.

Think of it like this: You run an apple farm, and every apple needs to be inspected and polished. You’ve got people inspecting apples and people polishing apples, and both can do 14 apples a minute. But the conveyor belts between the departments only carry 10 apples per minute. You can see how things would pile up, and how frustrating it would be for everyone involved!

With the FastNIC program, DARPA wants to “reinvent the network stack” and improve throughput by a factor of 100. After all, if they can crack this problem, their supercomputers will be at an immense advantage over others in the world, in particular those in China, which has vied with the U.S. in the high performance computing arena for years. But it’s not going to be easy.

“There is a lot of expense and complexity involved in building a network stack,” said Smith, the first of which will be physically redesigning the interface. “It starts with the hardware; if you cannot get that right, you are stuck. Software can’t make things faster than the physical layer will allow so we have to first change the physical layer.”

The other main part will, naturally, be redoing the software side to deal with the immense increase in the scale of the data the interface will have to handle. Even a 2x or 4x change would necessitate systematic improvements; 100x will involve pretty much a ground-up redo of the system.

The agency’s researchers — bolstered, of course, by any private industry folks who want to chip in, so to speak — aim to demonstrate a 10 terabit connection, though there’s no timeline just yet. But the good news for now is that all the software libraries created by FastNIC will be open source, so this standard won’t be limited to the Defense Department’s proprietary systems.

FastNIC is only just getting started, so forget about it for now and we’ll let you know when DARPA cracks the code in a year or three.

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This prosthetic arm combines manual control with machine learning

Posted by | artificial intelligence, EPFL, Gadgets, hardware, machine learning, Prosthetics, robotics, science | No Comments

Prosthetic limbs are getting better every year, but the strength and precision they gain doesn’t always translate to easier or more effective use, as amputees have only a basic level of control over them. One promising avenue being investigated by Swiss researchers is having an AI take over where manual control leaves off.

To visualize the problem, imagine a person with their arm amputated above the elbow controlling a smart prosthetic limb. With sensors placed on their remaining muscles and other signals, they may fairly easily be able to lift their arm and direct it to a position where they can grab an object on a table.

But what happens next? The many muscles and tendons that would have controlled the fingers are gone, and with them the ability to sense exactly how the user wants to flex or extend their artificial digits. If all the user can do is signal a generic “grip” or “release,” that loses a huge amount of what a hand is actually good for.

Here’s where researchers from École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) take over. Being limited to telling the hand to grip or release isn’t a problem if the hand knows what to do next — sort of like how our natural hands “automatically” find the best grip for an object without our needing to think about it. Robotics researchers have been working on automatic detection of grip methods for a long time, and it’s a perfect match for this situation.

epfl roboarm

Prosthesis users train a machine learning model by having it observe their muscle signals while attempting various motions and grips as best they can without the actual hand to do it with. With that basic information the robotic hand knows what type of grasp it should be attempting, and by monitoring and maximizing the area of contact with the target object, the hand improvises the best grip for it in real time. It also provides drop resistance, being able to adjust its grip in less than half a second should it start to slip.

The result is that the object is grasped strongly but gently for as long as the user continues gripping it with, essentially, their will. When they’re done with the object, having taken a sip of coffee or moved a piece of fruit from a bowl to a plate, they “release” the object and the system senses this change in their muscles’ signals and does the same.

It’s reminiscent of another approach, by students in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, in which the arm is equipped with a camera in the palm that gives it feedback on the object and how it ought to grip it.

It’s all still very experimental, and done with a third-party robotic arm and not particularly optimized software. But this “shared control” technique is promising and could very well be foundational to the next generation of smart prostheses. The team’s paper is published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence.

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At-home blood testing startup Baze rakes in $6 million from Nature’s Way

Posted by | Baze, biotech, fda, funding, Gadgets, Health, labcorp, Nature's Way, nutrients, nutrition, Recent Funding, science, Startups, United States, vitamin-d, vitamins | No Comments

By now, the venture world is wary of blood testing startups offering health data from just a few drops of blood. However, Baze, a Swiss-based personal nutrition startup providing blood tests you can do in the convenience of your own home, collects just a smidgen of your sanguine fluid through an MIT manufactured device, which, according to the company, is in accordance with FDA regulations.

The idea is to find out (via your blood sample) which vitamins you’re missing out on and are keeping you from living your best life. That seems to resonate with folks who don’t want to go into the doctor’s office and separately head to their nearest lab for testing.

Most health professionals would agree it’s important to know if you are getting the right amount of nutrition — Vitamin D deficiency is a worldwide epidemic affecting calcium absorption, hormone regulation, energy levels and muscle weakness. An estimated 74% of the U.S. population does not get the required daily levels of Vitamin D.

“There are definitely widespread deficiencies across the population,” Baze CEO and founder Philipp Schulte tells TechCrunch. “[With the blood test] we see that we can actually close those gaps for the first time ever in the supplement industry.”

While we don’t know exactly how many people have tried out Baze just yet, Schulte says the company has seen 40% month-over-month new subscriber growth.

That has garnered the attention of supplement company Nature’s Way, which has partnered with the company and just added $6 million to the coffers to help Baze ramp up marketing efforts in the U.S.

Screen Shot 2019 08 30 at 2.27.12 PMI had the opportunity to try out the test myself. It’s pretty simple to do. You just open up a little pear-shaped device, pop it on your arm and then press it to engage and get it to start collecting your blood. After it’s done, plop it in the provided medical packaging and ship it off to a Baze-contracted lab.

I will say it is certainly more convenient to just pop on a little device myself — although it might be tricky if you’re at all squeamish, as you’ll see a little bubble where the blood is being sucked from your arm. For anyone who hesitates, it might be easier to just head to a lab and have another human do this for you.

The price is also nice, compared to going to a Quest Diagnostics or LabCorp, which can vary depending on which vitamins you need to test for individually. With Baze it’s just $100 a pop, plus any additional supplements you might want to buy via monthly subscription after you get your results. The first month of supplements is free with your kit.

Baze’s website will show your results within about 12 days (though Schulte tells TechCrunch the company is working on getting your results faster). It does so with a score and then displays a range of various vitamins tested.

I was told that, overall, I was getting the nutrients I require with a score of 74 out of 100. But I’m already pretty good at taking high-quality vitamins. The only thing that really stuck out was my zinc levels, which I was told was way off the charts high after running the test through twice. Though I suspect, as I am not displaying any symptoms of zinc poisoning, this was likely the result of not wiping off my zinc-based sunscreen well enough before the test began.

For those interested in conducting their own at-home test and not afraid to prick themselves in the arm with something that looks like you might have it on hand in the kitchen, you can do so by heading over to Baze and signing up.

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Softly, softly, catchy jelly: This ‘ultragentle’ robotic gripper collects fragile marine life

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, harvard, harvard university, robotics, science, Soft Robotics, TC, wyss institute | No Comments

The creatures of the depths live in a very different world — one lethal to us. But our world is lethal to them as well, all sharp edges and rapid movements. If we’re to catch and learn about the soft-bodied denizens of the deep, our machines too must be soft — and that’s what this Harvard robotics research is all about.

Collection of samples from the deep ocean is a difficult task to do safely: Although these animals are subject to pressures and temperatures well beyond what any surface creature could handle, they are nevertheless very easily damaged by handling. Existing methods to collect them for study often involve sucking them into little containers that are kept pressurized and brought to the surface. But it would be nice to be able to snatch an intriguing critter up and inspect it in vivo, wouldn’t it?

To that end, researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have been working on simpler, safer ways to entrap these creatures temporarily, letting them go seconds or minutes later once the collector has gotten some good images or (I don’t know) sampled some mucus.

A little more than a year ago, they created an “underwater Pokéball,” a kind of soft geodesic form that could close around something like a jelly or drifting fish. But even with that kind of method, there’s still the possibility that it could get squished during closure.

So they continued their work, pursuing instead “noodle-like appendages” that, when not activated, are as pliable and harmless as cooked spaghetti, or rather fettuccine, considering their shape.

Each “finger” is made of an “elastic yet tough silicone matrix,” and inside it are tiny fibers that remain slack when not in use, but which can be stiffened using a tiny amount of hydraulic pressure. This causes the whole finger to bend in a specific direction, in this case inward at the same time as the others, scooping whatever is in their range into the soft 3D-printed “palm.” The grip is soft enough that it won’t harm the creature, but firm enough that it can’t just wriggle out.

gripper1

Sinatra et al. / Science Robotics

At that point the researchers are free to do what they wish, though presumably after taking such care to catch the animal unharmed, they won’t be doing anything too rough with it.

There are few limitations on the size or length of the fingers, meaning they can be customized for different operations. The device you see pictured was made to be effective in catching common jellies, but the whole thing could easily be scaled up or down to handle bigger or smaller animals.

Of course, the whole thing can be attached to a submersible, but it’s small and simple enough that it also can be made into a handheld gadget for manual sampling, should that be what a given researcher prefers. They put together a prototype and “demonstrated the use of this hand-held soft gripper to successfully perform gentle grasping of three canonical jellyfish species.”

Here’s hoping this means less shredded jellies in our oceans, and perhaps one day you’ll be able to rent such a grabber while snorkeling and have a chance to examine fragile marine life closely without having to grab it with your hands (not recommended).

The researchers’ work was published today in the journal Science Robotics.

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Vape lung has claimed its first victim, and the CDC is investigating

Posted by | e-cigarettes, Gadgets, Government, Health, juul, science, vaping | No Comments

A person has died from what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention speculate is a vaping-related condition. Nearly 200 other cases of varying severeness have been reported nationwide, described by the CDC as “severe unexplained respiratory systems after reported vaping or e-cigarette use.”

No information was provided about the deceased other than that they were an adult living in Illinois, and that they had died of some sort of pulmonary illness exacerbated or caused by vaping or e-cigarette use. Others affected in that state have been between 17-38 and mostly men, the CDC doctor added on a press call earlier today.

As little is known for sure about this growing problem, the team was hesitant to go beyond saying there was good reason to believe that these cases were all vaping-related, although they differ in some particulars. They have ruled out infectious disease.

The CDC’s acting deputy for non-infectious diseases, Dr Ileana Arias, explained on the call after expressing their condolences:

CDC is currently providing consultations to state health departments about a cluster of pulmonary illnesses having to do with vaping or e-cigarette use… While some cases appear to be similar and linked to e-cigarette product use, more information is needed to determine what is causing the illnesses.

In many cases patients report a gradual start of symptoms, including breathing difficulty, shortness of breath and/or hospitalization before the cases. Some have reported gastrointestinal illnesses as well… no specific product has been identified in all cases nor has any product been conclusively linked to the illnesses

Even though cases appear similar, it isn’t clear if these cases have a common cause or if they are different diseases with similar presentations.

An FDA representative on the call said that his agency is also looking into this, specifically whether these are products that fall under its authority. It’s possible they were imported, for example, or sold under the table.

Everyone involved is still in the information-gathering phase, as you can tell, but it’s apparently serious enough that they felt the need to make this announcement. Meanwhile they are asking doctors to report cases they suspect might be related.

“Right now states are leading their own specific epidemiologic investigations and we’re providing assistance as needed,” explained the CDC’s Dr. Josh Schier. “CDC is working on a system to collect, aggregate, and analyze data at the national level to better characterize this illness.”

As the mechanism is unknown, it’s unclear what the actual danger is. Is it some byproduct of the nicotine cartidges, or THC ones? Is it the vapor itself? Is it only at certain temperatures or concentrations? Is it directly affecting the lungs or entering the bloodstream? No one knows yet — all they’ve seen is an sudden uptick in respiratory or pulmonary issues where the sufferer also uses vaping products.

The CDC’s Dr Brian King went into a bit more detail on the possibilities, explaining that while no specific chemical can be said to be the problem, that’s more for a want of study, not a want of potentially harmful chemicals.

“We do know that e-cigarettes do not emit a harmless aerosol,” he explained. “There’s a variety of harmful ingredients identified, including things like ultrafine particulates, heavy metals like lead and cancer causing chemicals. And flavoring used in e-cigarettes to give it a buttery flavor, diacetyl, it’s been related to severe respiratory illness.”

“We haven’t specifically linked any of those specific ingredients to the current cases but we know that e-cigarette aerosol is not harmless,” King concluded.

He also suggested, in response to a question why we were suddenly seeing lots of these cases, that the problems have been occurring all this time but only recently have hospitals and other organizations done the due diligence as far as linking them to e-cigarette use.

Few studies have been done on vaping’s potential health effects, and none on long-term effects, since the devices only recently gained popularity — well ahead of the possibility of regulation and years-long studies.

Research published just last month from Yale found that Juul vape pens produced chemicals not listed on the package, some of which are known to be irritants.

“People often assume that these e-liquids are a final product once they are mixed. But the reactions create new molecules in the e-liquids, and it doesn’t just happen in e-liquids from small vape shops, but also in those from the biggest manufacturers in the U.S.,” said Yale’s Hanno Erythropel in a news release. I asked Juul for comment at the time and received no response.

That vaping works as a way to quit smoking — which we know is absolutely disastrous to your health — seems clear. But it remains to be seen exactly how much less of a risk vaping offers.

If you use vaping products and have been experiencing coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, or chest pain, tell your doctor.

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Silicone 3D printing startup Spectroplast spins out of ETHZ with $1.5M

Posted by | 3d printer, 3d printing, AM Ventures Holding, ETHZ, Gadgets, hardware, Health, Recent Funding, robotics, science, spectroplast, Startups, TC | No Comments

3D printing has become commonplace in the hardware industry, but because few materials can be used for it easily, the process rarely results in final products. A Swiss startup called Spectroplast hopes to change that with a technique for printing using silicone, opening up all kinds of applications in medicine, robotics and beyond.

Silicone is not very bioreactive, and of course can be made into just about any shape while retaining strength and flexibility. But the process for doing so is generally injection molding, great for mass-producing lots of identical items but not so great when you need a custom job.

And it’s custom jobs that ETH Zurich’s Manuel Schaffner and Petar Stefanov have in mind. Hearts, for instance, are largely similar but the details differ, and if you were going to get a valve replaced, you’d probably prefer yours made to order rather than straight off the shelf.

“Replacement valves currently used are circular, but do not exactly match the shape of the aorta, which is different for each patient,” said Schaffner in a university news release. Not only that, but they may be a mixture of materials, some of which the body may reject.

But with a precise MRI the researchers can create a digital model of the heart under consideration and, using their proprietary 3D printing technique, produce a valve that’s exactly tailored to it — all in a couple of hours.

ethz siliconeprinting 1

A 3D-printed silicone heart valve from Spectroplast.

Although they have created these valves and done some initial testing, it’ll be years before anyone gets one installed — this is the kind of medical technique that takes a decade to test. So in the meantime they are working on “life-improving” rather than life-saving applications.

One such case is adjacent to perhaps the most well-known surgical application of silicone: breast augmentation. In Spectroplast’s case, however, they’d be working with women who have undergone mastectomies and would like to have a breast prosthesis that matches the other perfectly.

Another possibility would be anything that needs to fit perfectly to a person’s biology, like a custom hearing aid, the end of a prosthetic leg or some other form of reconstructive surgery. And of course, robots and industry could use one-off silicone parts as well.

ethz siliconeprinting 2

There’s plenty of room to grow, it seems, and although Spectroplast is just starting out, it already has some 200 customers. The main limitation is the speed at which the products can be printed, a process that has to be overseen by the founders, who work in shifts.

Until very recently Schaffner and Stefanov were working on this under a grant from the ETH Pioneer Fellowship and a Swiss national innovation grant. But in deciding to depart from the ETH umbrella they attracted a 1.5 million Swiss franc (about the same as dollars just now) seed round from AM Ventures Holding in Germany. The founders plan to use the money to hire new staff to crew the printers.

Right now Spectroplast is doing all the printing itself, but in the next couple of years it may sell the printers or modifications necessary to adapt existing setups.

You can read the team’s paper showing their process for creating artificial heart valves here.

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The five technical challenges Cerebras overcame in building the first trillion transistor chip

Posted by | Cerebras, Enterprise, hardware, Mobile, science, Startups | No Comments

Superlatives abound at Cerebras, the until-today stealthy next-generation silicon chip company looking to make training a deep learning model as quick as buying toothpaste from Amazon. Launching after almost three years of quiet development, Cerebras introduced its new chip today — and it is a doozy. The “Wafer Scale Engine” is 1.2 trillion transistors (the most ever), 46,225 square millimeters (the largest ever), and includes 18 gigabytes of on-chip memory (the most of any chip on the market today) and 400,000 processing cores (guess the superlative).

CS Wafer Keyboard Comparison

Cerebras’ Wafer Scale Engine is larger than a typical Mac keyboard (via Cerebras Systems)

It’s made a big splash here at Stanford University at the Hot Chips conference, one of the silicon industry’s big confabs for product introductions and roadmaps, with various levels of oohs and aahs among attendees. You can read more about the chip from Tiernan Ray at Fortune and read the white paper from Cerebras itself.

Superlatives aside though, the technical challenges that Cerebras had to overcome to reach this milestone I think is the more interesting story here. I sat down with founder and CEO Andrew Feldman this afternoon to discuss what his 173 engineers have been building quietly just down the street here these past few years with $112 million in venture capital funding from Benchmark and others.

Going big means nothing but challenges

First, a quick background on how the chips that power your phones and computers get made. Fabs like TSMC take standard-sized silicon wafers and divide them into individual chips by using light to etch the transistors into the chip. Wafers are circles and chips are squares, and so there is some basic geometry involved in subdividing that circle into a clear array of individual chips.

One big challenge in this lithography process is that errors can creep into the manufacturing process, requiring extensive testing to verify quality and forcing fabs to throw away poorly performing chips. The smaller and more compact the chip, the less likely any individual chip will be inoperative, and the higher the yield for the fab. Higher yield equals higher profits.

Cerebras throws out the idea of etching a bunch of individual chips onto a single wafer in lieu of just using the whole wafer itself as one gigantic chip. That allows all of those individual cores to connect with one another directly — vastly speeding up the critical feedback loops used in deep learning algorithms — but comes at the cost of huge manufacturing and design challenges to create and manage these chips.

CS Wafer Sean

Cerebras’ technical architecture and design was led by co-founder Sean Lie. Feldman and Lie worked together on a previous startup called SeaMicro, which sold to AMD in 2012 for $334 million. (Via Cerebras Systems)

The first challenge the team ran into according to Feldman was handling communication across the “scribe lines.” While Cerebras chip encompasses a full wafer, today’s lithography equipment still has to act like there are individual chips being etched into the silicon wafer. So the company had to invent new techniques to allow each of those individual chips to communicate with each other across the whole wafer. Working with TSMC, they not only invented new channels for communication, but also had to write new software to handle chips with trillion plus transistors.

The second challenge was yield. With a chip covering an entire silicon wafer, a single imperfection in the etching of that wafer could render the entire chip inoperative. This has been the block for decades on whole wafer technology: due to the laws of physics, it is essentially impossible to etch a trillion transistors with perfect accuracy repeatedly.

Cerebras approached the problem using redundancy by adding extra cores throughout the chip that would be used as backup in the event that an error appeared in that core’s neighborhood on the wafer. “You have to hold only 1%, 1.5% of these guys aside,” Feldman explained to me. Leaving extra cores allows the chip to essentially self-heal, routing around the lithography error and making a whole wafer silicon chip viable.

Entering uncharted territory in chip design

Those first two challenges — communicating across the scribe lines between chips and handling yield — have flummoxed chip designers studying whole wafer chips for decades. But they were known problems, and Feldman said that they were actually easier to solve that expected by re-approaching them using modern tools.

He likens the challenge though to climbing Mount Everest. “It’s like the first set of guys failed to climb Mount Everest, they said, ‘Shit, that first part is really hard.’ And then the next set came along and said ‘That shit was nothing. That last hundred yards, that’s a problem.’”

And indeed, the toughest challenges according to Feldman for Cerebras were the next three, since no other chip designer had gotten past the scribe line communication and yield challenges to actually find what happened next.

The third challenge Cerebras confronted was handling thermal expansion. Chips get extremely hot in operation, but different materials expand at different rates. That means the connectors tethering a chip to its motherboard also need to thermally expand at precisely the same rate lest cracks develop between the two.

Feldman said that “How do you get a connector that can withstand [that]? Nobody had ever done that before, [and so] we had to invent a material. So we have PhDs in material science, [and] we had to invent a material that could absorb some of that difference.”

Once a chip is manufactured, it needs to be tested and packaged for shipment to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) who add the chips into the products used by end customers (whether data centers or consumer laptops). There is a challenge though: absolutely nothing on the market is designed to handle a whole-wafer chip.

CS Wafer Inspection

Cerebras designed its own testing and packaging system to handle its chip (Via Cerebras Systems)

“How on earth do you package it? Well, the answer is you invent a lot of shit. That is the truth. Nobody had a printed circuit board this size. Nobody had connectors. Nobody had a cold plate. Nobody had tools. Nobody had tools to align them. Nobody had tools to handle them. Nobody had any software to test,” Feldman explained. “And so we have designed this whole manufacturing flow, because nobody has ever done it.” Cerebras’ technology is much more than just the chip it sells — it also includes all of the associated machinery required to actually manufacture and package those chips.

Finally, all that processing power in one chip requires immense power and cooling. Cerebras’ chip uses 15 kilowatts of power to operate — a prodigious amount of power for an individual chip, although relatively comparable to a modern-sized AI cluster. All that power also needs to be cooled, and Cerebras had to design a new way to deliver both for such a large chip.

It essentially approached the problem by turning the chip on its side, in what Feldman called “using the Z-dimension.” The idea was that rather than trying to move power and cooling horizontally across the chip as is traditional, power and cooling are delivered vertically at all points across the chip, ensuring even and consistent access to both.

And so, those were the next three challenges — thermal expansion, packaging, and power/cooling — that the company has worked around-the-clock to deliver these past few years.

From theory to reality

Cerebras has a demo chip (I saw one, and yes, it is roughly the size of my head), and it has started to deliver prototypes to customers according to reports. The big challenge though as with all new chips is scaling production to meet customer demand.

For Cerebras, the situation is a bit unusual. Since it places so much computing power on one wafer, customers don’t necessarily need to buy dozens or hundreds of chips and stitch them together to create a compute cluster. Instead, they may only need a handful of Cerebras chips for their deep-learning needs. The company’s next major phase is to reach scale and ensure a steady delivery of its chips, which it packages as a whole system “appliance” that also includes its proprietary cooling technology.

Expect to hear more details of Cerebras technology in the coming months, particularly as the fight over the future of deep learning processing workflows continues to heat up.

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Flexible stick-on sensors could wirelessly monitor your sweat and pulse

Posted by | Berkeley, flexible, flexible electronics, Gadgets, hardware, Health, science, stanford, Stanford University, uc-berkeley | No Comments

As people strive ever harder to minutely quantify every action they do, the sensors that monitor those actions are growing lighter and less invasive. Two prototype sensors from crosstown rivals Stanford and Berkeley stick right to the skin and provide a wealth of physiological data.

Stanford’s stretchy wireless “BodyNet” isn’t just flexible in order to survive being worn on the shifting surface of the body; that flexing is where its data comes from.

The sensor is made of metallic ink laid on top of a flexible material like that in an adhesive bandage. But unlike phones and smartwatches, which use tiny accelerometers or optical tricks to track the body, this system relies on how it is itself stretched and compressed. These movements cause tiny changes in how electricity passes through the ink, changes that are relayed to a processor nearby.

Naturally if one is placed on a joint, as some of these electronic stickers were, it can report back whether and how much that joint has been flexed. But the system is sensitive enough that it can also detect the slight changes the skin experiences during each heartbeat, or the broader changes that accompany breathing.

The problem comes when you have to get that signal off the skin. Using a wire is annoying and definitely very ’90s. But antennas don’t work well when they’re flexed in weird directions — efficiency drops off a cliff, and there’s very little power to begin with — the skin sensor is powered by harvesting RFID signals, a technique that renders very little in the way of voltage.

bodynet sticker and receiver

The second part of their work, then, and the part that is clearly most in need of further improvement and miniaturization, is the receiver, which collects and re-transmits the sensor’s signal to a phone or other device. Although they managed to create a unit that’s light enough to be clipped to clothes, it’s still not the kind of thing you’d want to wear to the gym.

The good news is that’s an engineering and design limitation, not a theoretical one — so a couple years of work and progress on the electronics front and they could have a much more attractive system.

“We think one day it will be possible to create a full-body skin-sensor array to collect physiological data without interfering with a person’s normal behavior,” Stanford professor Zhenan Bao said in a news release.

Over at Cal is a project in a similar domain that’s working to get from prototype to production. Researchers there have been working on a sweat monitor for a few years that could detect a number of physiological factors.

SensorOnForehead BN

Normally you’d just collect sweat every 15 minutes or so and analyze each batch separately. But that doesn’t really give you very good temporal resolution — what if you want to know how the sweat changes minute by minute or less? By putting the sweat collection and analysis systems together right on the skin, you can do just that.

While the sensor has been in the works for a while, it’s only recently that the team has started moving toward user testing at scale to see what exactly sweat measurements have to offer.

RollToRoll BN 768x960“The goal of the project is not just to make the sensors but start to do many subject studies and see what sweat tells us — I always say ‘decoding’ sweat composition. For that we need sensors that are reliable, reproducible, and that we can fabricate to scale so that we can put multiple sensors in different spots of the body and put them on many subjects,” explained Ali Javey, Berkeley professor and head of the project.

As anyone who’s working in hardware will tell you, going from a hand-built prototype to a mass-produced model is a huge challenge. So the Berkeley team tapped their Finnish friends at VTT Technical Research Center, who make a specialty of roll-to-roll printing.

For flat, relatively simple electronics, roll-to-roll is a great technique, essentially printing the sensors right onto a flexible plastic substrate that can then simply be cut to size. This way they can make hundreds or thousands of the sensors quickly and cheaply, making them much simpler to deploy at arbitrary scales.

These are far from the only flexible or skin-mounted electronics projects out there, but it’s clear that we’re approaching the point when they begin to leave the lab and head out to hospitals, gyms and homes.

The paper describing Stanford’s flexible sensor appeared this week in the journal Nature Electronics, while Berkeley’s sweat tracker was in Science Advances.

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Calling all hardware startups! Apply to Hardware Battlefield @ TC Shenzhen

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Got hardware? Well then, listen up, because our search continues for boundary-pushing, early-stage hardware startups to join us in Shenzhen, China for an epic opportunity; launch your startup on a global stage and compete in Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen on November 11-12.

Apply here to compete in TC Hardware Battlefield 2019. Why? It’s your chance to demo your product to the top investors and technologists in the world. Hardware Battlefield, cousin to Startup Battlefield, focuses exclusively on innovative hardware because, let’s face it, it’s the backbone of technology. From enterprise solutions to agtech advancements, medical devices to consumer product goods — hardware startups are in the international spotlight.

If you make the cut, you’ll compete against 15 of the world’s most innovative hardware makers for bragging rights, plenty of investor love, media exposure and $25,000 in equity-free cash. Just participating in a Battlefield can change the whole trajectory of your business in the best way possible.

We chose to bring our fifth Hardware Battlefield to Shenzhen because of its outstanding track record of supporting hardware startups. The city achieves this through a combination of accelerators, rapid prototyping and world-class manufacturing. What’s more, TC Hardware Battlefield 2019 takes place as part of the larger TechCrunch Shenzhen that runs November 9-12.

Creativity and innovation no know boundaries, and that’s why we’re opening this competition to any early-stage hardware startup from any country. While we’ve seen amazing hardware in previous Battlefields — like robotic armsfood testing devicesmalaria diagnostic tools, smart socks for diabetics and e-motorcycles, we can’t wait to see the next generation of hardware, so bring it on!

Meet the minimum requirements listed below, and we’ll consider your startup:

Here’s how Hardware Battlefield works. TechCrunch editors vet every qualified application and pick 15 startups to compete. Those startups receive six rigorous weeks of free coaching. Forget stage fright. You’ll be prepped and ready to step into the spotlight.

Teams have six minutes to pitch and demo their products, which is immediately followed by an in-depth Q&A with the judges. If you make it to the final round, you’ll repeat the process in front of a new set of judges.

The judges will name one outstanding startup the Hardware Battlefield champion. Hoist the Battlefield Cup, claim those bragging rights and the $25,000. This nerve-wracking thrill-ride takes place in front of a live audience, and we capture the entire event on video and post it to our global audience on TechCrunch.

Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen takes place on November 11-12. Don’t hide your hardware or miss your chance to show us — and the entire tech world — your startup magic. Apply to compete in TC Hardware Battlefield 2019, and join us in Shenzhen!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Hardware Battlefield at TC Shenzhen? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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