AI could help make large data centres more energy efficient
Artificially intelligent computer software that can learn, adapt and rebuild itself in real-time could help combat climate change.
Researchers at Lancaster University’s Data Science Institute have developed a software system that can for the first time rapidly self-assemble into the most efficient form without needing humans to tell it what to do.
The system – called REx – is being developed with vast energy-hungry data centres in mind. By being able to rapidly adjust to optimally deal with a huge multitude of tasks, servers controlled by REx would need to do less processing, therefore consuming less energy.
REx works using ‘micro-variation’ – where a large library of building blocks of software components (such as memory caches, and different forms of search and sort algorithms) can be selected and assembled automatically in response to the task at hand.
“Everything is learned by the live system, assembling the required components and continually assessing their effectiveness in the situations to which the system is subjected,” said Dr Barry Porter, lecturer at Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications. “Each component is sufficiently small that it is easy to create natural behavioural variation. By autonomously assembling systems from these micro-variations we then see REx create software designs that are automatically formed to deal with their task.
“As we use connected devices on a more frequent basis, and as we move into the era of the Internet of Things, the volume of data that needs to be processed and distributed is rapidly growing. This is causing a significant demand for energy through millions of servers at data centres. An automated system like REx, able to find the best performance in any conditions, could offer a way to significantly reduce this energy demand,” Dr Porter added.
In addition, as modern software systems are increasingly complex – consisting of millions of lines of code – they need to be maintained by large teams of software developers at significant cost. It is broadly acknowledged that this level of complexity and management is unsustainable. As well as saving energy in data centres, self-assembling software models could also have significant advantages by improving our ability to develop and maintain increasingly complex software systems for a wide range of domains, including operating systems and Internet infrastructure.
REx is built using three complementary layers. At the base level a novel component-based programming language called Dana enables the system to find, select and rapidly adapt the building blocks of software. A perception, assembly and learning framework (PAL) then configures and perceives the behaviour of the selected components, and an online learning process learns the best software compositions in real-time by taking advantage of statistical learning methods known as ‘linear bandit models’.
The work is presented in the paper ‘REx: A Development Platform and Online Learning Approach for Runtime Emergent Software Systems’ at the conference ‘OSDI ‘16 12th USENIX Symposium on Operating Systems Design and Implementation’. The research has been partially supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and also a PhD scholarship of Brazil.
The next steps of this research will look at the automated creation of new software components for use by these systems and will also strive to increase automation even further to make software systems an active part of their own development teams, providing live feedback and suggestions to human programmers.
The paper’s authors are Dr Barry Porter, Matthew Grieves, Roberto Rodrigues Filho and Professor David Leslie.
The university was established by Royal Charter in 1964 and initially based in St Leonard’s Gate until moving to a purpose-built 300 acre campus at Bailrigg in 1968. Since its establishment Lancaster has expanded rapidly and now has the 11th highest research quality in the UK and is the 16th highest ranking research institution according to the latest Research Assessment Exercise. The university has an annual income of £180 million, 3,025 staff and 12,525 students.
Along with the universities of Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York, Lancaster is a member of the N8 Group of research universities. Lancaster was ranked 7th in the 2013 Guardian University Guide, 9th in the 2013 Complete University Guide, 8th in the Times Higher Education (THE) Table, and 9th in the 2012 Good University Guide. It was also ranked 124th internationally in The World University Rankings 2011 163rd in the 2012 QS World University Rankings, and 9th best university in the world under 50 years old.
Lancaster University research articles from Innovation Toronto
- Shape-shifting modular interactive device can change shape on demand – May 18, 2016
- An accurate emotion detector: Is this the kind of world we actually want? – May 12, 2016
- Trawling the net to target internet trolls – April 11, 2016
- Invention of forge-proof ID to revolutionise security – November 16, 2015
- Shedding light on the era of Dark silicon – September 8, 2015
- Intensive biofuel planting poses risk to human health – August 3, 2015
- Global taskforce calls for research into everyday chemicals that may cause cancer – June 29, 2015
- Shape changing display could spell the end for the 2D graph – April 14, 2015
- There’s a revolution brewing in the technology kitchen . . . – March 21, 2015
- Powering space craft of the future – December 9, 2014
- Sustainable green alternatives to fertilisers could boost food and energy security – August 16, 2014
- A new use for touchless technology in the operating theatre – June 28, 2014
- Devastating human impact on the Amazon rainforest revealed – May 23, 2014
- Now anyone can make their own 3D models and print them out
- “Unbreakable” security codes inspired by nature | secure electronic communications
- Treatment to prevent Alzheimer’s disease moves a step closer
- Study shows old adage ‘sleep on it’ is true – but only if it’s a really difficult problem
- Breakthroughs in agriculture research on insect pest management
- The Web Means the End of Forgetting
An international team of scientists have designed a new generation of universal flu vaccines to protect against future global pandemics that could kill millions.
The vaccine could give protection for up to 88% of known flu strains worldwide in a single shot, spelling the end of the winter flu season. The collaboration involving the universities of Lancaster, Aston and Complutense in Madrid have applied ground-breaking computational techniques to design the vaccine in a study published in the leading journal Bioinformatics.
The researchers have devised two universal vaccines;
- a USA-specific vaccine with coverage of 95% of known US influenza strains
- a universal vaccine with coverage of 88% of known flu strains globally
Dr Derek Gatherer of Lancaster University said: “Every year we have a round of flu vaccination, where we choose a recent strain of flu as the vaccine, hoping that it will protect against next year’s strains. We know this method is safe, and that it works reasonably well most of the time.
“However, sometimes it doesn’t work – as in the H3N2 vaccine failure in winter 2014-2015 – and even when it does it is immensely expensive and labour-intensive. Also, these yearly vaccines give us no protection at all against potential future pandemic flu.” Previous pandemics include the “Spanish flu” of 1918, and the two subsequent pandemics of 1957 and 1968, which led to millions of deaths.
Even today, the World Health Organisation says that annual flu epidemics are estimated to cause up to half a million deaths globally. Dr Gatherer said: “It doesn’t have to be this way. Based on our knowledge of the flu virus and the human immune system, we can use computers to design the components of a vaccine that gives much broader and longer-lasting protection.”
Dr Pedro Reche of Complutense University said: “A universal flu vaccine is potentially within reach. The components of this vaccine would be short flu virus fragments – called epitopes – that are already known to be recognized by the immune system. Our collaboration has found a way to select epitopes reaching full population coverage.
Dr Darren Flower of Aston University said: “Epitope-based vaccines aren’t new, but most reports have no experimental validation. We have turned the problem on its head and only use previously-tested epitopes. This allows us to get the best of both worlds, designing a vaccine with a very high likelihood of success.”
The team are now actively seeking partners in the pharmaceutical industry to synthesize their vaccine for a laboratory proof-of-principle test.
Learn more: Universal flu vaccine designed by scientists
Tiny magnetic particles from air pollution have for the first time been discovered to be lodged in human brains– and researchers think they could be a possible cause of Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers at Lancaster University found abundant magnetite nanoparticles in the brain tissue from 37 individuals aged three to 92-years-old who lived in Mexico City and Manchester. This strongly magnetic mineral is toxic and has been implicated in the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) in the human brain, which are associated with neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease.
Professor Barbara Maher, from Lancaster Environment Centre, and colleagues (from Oxford, Glasgow, Manchester and Mexico City) used spectroscopic analysis to identify the particles as magnetite. Unlike angular magnetite particles that are believed to form naturally within the brain, most of the observed particles were spherical, with diameters up to 150 nm, some with fused surfaces, all characteristic of high-temperature formation – such as from vehicle (particularly diesel) engines or open fires.
The spherical particles are often accompanied by nanoparticles containing other metals, such as platinum, nickel, and cobalt.
Professor Maher said: “The particles we found are strikingly similar to the magnetite nanospheres that are abundant in the airborne pollution found in urban settings, especially next to busy roads, and which are formed by combustion or frictional heating from vehicle engines or brakes.”
Other sources of magnetite nanoparticles include open fires and poorly sealed stoves within homes. Particles smaller than 200 nm are small enough to enter the brain directly through the olfactory nerve after breathing air pollution through the nose.
“Our results indicate that magnetite nanoparticles in the atmosphere can enter the human brain, where they might pose a risk to human health, including conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease,” added Professor Maher.
Leading Alzheimer’s researcher Professor David Allsop, of Lancaster University’s Faculty of Health and Medicine, said: “This finding opens up a whole new avenue for research into a possible environmental risk factor for a range of different brain diseases.”
New blood-testing technology that promises to improve healthcare treatments for cancer patients, post-operative care and monitor the health of babies in the womb is being developed by Lancaster academics.
A portable bedside blood diagnostics device is the focus of a collaborative research project involving Lancaster-based company eBiogen Limited, clinicians from Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust, and academics from Lancaster University’s Chemistry Department and Faculty of Health and Medicine.
The new small-scale technology, called ‘EBio-LacSens’, would rapidly measure blood characteristics to monitor for sepsis or toxins. It would be a good indicator of the success of treatments following operations and it could ensure the early detection of sepsis in chemotherapy patients. In addition it could help evaluate the status of foetuses.
The device does this by taking pinprick samples of blood and providing rapid chemical analysis – in less than a minute. This quick processing of samples, when compared to the traditional process where samples that have to be sent for analysis at hospital laboratories (a process that can take hours), enables medical staff to quickly adjust treatments in response to the improved data.
Michael Mumford, from eBiogen, said: “This project passed its feasibility stage and it is now progressing well in its prototype stage with encouraging results. We are starting the human blood testing soon before proceeding to market. Lancaster University has enabled us to develop a rich and supportive expert network.”
By bringing blood diagnostics closer to the patient there are additional benefits of reduced risk of contamination and cost savings.
Dr Mukesh Kumar, the project Research Fellow, said, “Although the existing point-of-care testing kits have resolved a few conventional problems, they have not had a great impact in most clinical testing. The new technology would circumvent many current problems through miniaturisation, enabling an economical, portable analyser to be used ‘by the bedside’. The prospect of being able to significantly reduce the time between taking a sample and the delivery of the analysis is exciting and rewarding.”
The point-of-care market has been estimated (by a Yole Development study in the US) at $38B (£28.7B) in 2017. This $38B represents 16 per cent of the whole in‐vitro‐diagnostic (IVD) market.
Professor Peter Fielden, Head of Chemistry at Lancaster University, said: “Working with eBiogen has given us a great opportunity to develop our academic ideas through technology transfer into real devices that will have significant impact in healthcare.”
An additional benefit to the technology is that it uses very small samples of blood plasma – a few microlitres (pinprick droplets) as opposed to several millilitres (a full vial) as required by current testing procedures. This is a significant improvement when dealing with young children and patients with poor blood vessels.
The researchers are also exploring additional future potential applications for the technology. These could include environmental monitoring and food security.
Dr David Telford, Consultant Microbiologist at Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust said: “A unique feature of this new project is the close links and networks developing between academics and clinical end-users at all stages of product development from concept to marketing. This ensures that our products are useful in the modern health care environment.”
A prototype for an interactive mobile device, called Cubimorph, which can change shape on-demand will be presented this week at one of the leading international forums for robotics researchers, ICRA 2016, in Stockholm, Sweden [16-21 May].
The research led by Dr Anne Roudaut from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bristol, in collaboration with academics at the Universities of Purdue, Lancaster and Sussex, will be presented at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s biggest conference.
There has been a growing interest toward achieving modular interactive devices in the human computer interaction (HCI) community, but so far existing devices consist of folding displays and barely reach high shape resolution.
Cubimorph is a modular interactive device that holds touchscreens on each of the six module faces and that uses a hinge-mounted turntable mechanism to self-reconfigure in the user’s hand. One example is a mobile phone that can transform into a console when a user launches a game.
The modular interactive device, made out of a chain of cubes, contributes towards the vision of programmable matter, where interactive devices change its shape to fit functionalities required by end-users.
At the conference the researchers will present a design rationale that shows user requirements to consider when designing homogeneous modular interactive devices.
The research team will also show the Cubimorph mechanical design, three prototypes demonstrating key aspects – turntable hinges, embedded touchscreens and miniaturisation and an adaptation of the probabilistic roadmap algorithm for the reconfiguration.
Dr Anne Roudaut, Lecturer from the University’s Department of Computer Science and co-leader of the BIG(Bristol Interaction Group), said: “Cubimorph is the first step towards a real modular interactive device. Much work still needs to be achieved to put such devices in the end-user hands but we hope our work will create discussion between the human computer interaction and robotics communities that could be of benefit to one another other.”
A 3D printed image of the Voight-Kampff machine with camera and ear-piece
An emotion detector which, potentially, can tell whether a person really finds you attractive on a first date has been created by researchers at Lancaster University.
The inspiration for the device came from a gadget featured in the 1982 sci-fi fantasy film, Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford and directed by Ridley Scott.
Replicating the Voight-Kampff machine, a fictional interrogation tool, the Lancaster team have created a device that mimics this emotion-detector.
But the plausibly real device is, at this stage, still pure fiction and, while creating it has sparked imaginative design skills and a little fun, it has been built to convey a serious message.
The design team, which includes the Centre for Spatial Analysis (CASA) at UCL, are keen to get people to think about the ethical implications of a world in which we use computers to monitor or even manipulate our emotions.
The polygraph-like Voight-Kampff machine was used by the Blade Runners police force to determine if an individual was a biorobotic android, detected by means of a test in which emotional responses were provoked.
It measured body functions such as blush response, respiration, heart rate and eye movement in response to questions dealing with empathy.
Designers at Lancaster are now researching technologies for their own Voight-Kampff machine including an ear-piece which measures skin and heart rate responses and a pupil-dilation measure.
The team’s fictional speculative device is set against an online dating backdrop and is designed, in theory, to determine if it’s love and sincerity at first sight or sound.
The machine takes on a whole new 21st century appearance – neat, bright and compact – and simply clips onto the bottom of a smartphone or tablet.
The research team, headed by Lancaster University’s design fiction expert Professor Paul Coulton, are set to present a paper on 11 May in San Jose at CHI, the world’s premier conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, the place to see, discuss and learn about the future of how people interact with technology.
“This machine looks and feels very real and has even prompted a film-making company in the States to request filming us manufacturing the device,” said Professor Coulton. “But this is actually a tool for creating some pretty serious discussions.”
Design fiction is, in broad terms, speculative design which heralds what might come about in the future world of human computer interaction, explains Professor Coulton.
“The factor that differentiates and distinguishes design fiction from other approaches is its novel use of ‘world building’ and, in this paper, we consider whether there is value in creating fictional research worlds through which we might consider future interactions.”
“As an example, we built this world in which rules for detecting empathy will become a major component of future communications. We take inspiration from the sci-fi film ‘Blade Runner’to consider what a plausible world, in which it is useful to build a Voight-Kampff machine, might be like.
“People are working towards this kind of thing,” he added. “What we are doing is questioning whether it has a place in our society – what kind of uses they have and what the world would actually be like with them. We want people to think about the ethical implications of what we do. Technically a lot of this is possible but is it actually what we want?”
Scientists have discovered a way to authenticate or identify any object by generating an unbreakable ID based on atoms.
The technology, which is being patented at Lancaster University and commercialised through the spin-out company Quantum Base, uses next-generation nanomaterials to enable the unique identification of any product with guaranteed security.
The research published today in Nature’s Scientific Reports uses atomic-scale imperfections that are impossible to clone as they comprise the unmanipulable building blocks of matter.
First author Jonathan Roberts, a Lancaster University Physics PhD student of the EPSRC NOWNANO Doctoral Training Centre, said: “The invention involves the creation of devices with unique identities on a nano-scale employing state-of-art quantum technology. Each device we’ve made is unique, 100% secure and impossible to copy or clone.”
Current authentication solutions such as anti-counterfeit tags or password-protection base their security on replication difficulty, or on secrecy, and are renowned for being insecure and relatively easy to forge. For example, current anti-counterfeiting technology such as holograms can be imitated, and passwords can be stolen, hacked and intercepted.
The ground-breaking atomic-scale devices do not require passwords, and are impervious to cloning, making them the most secure system ever made. Coupled with the fact that they can be incorporated into any material makes them an ideal candidate to replace existing authentication technologies.
Writing in Nature’s Scientific Reports, the researchers said: “Simulating these structures requires vast computing power and is not achievable in a reasonable timescale, even with a quantum computer. When coupled with the fact that the underlying structure is unknown, unless dismantled atom-by-atom, this makes simulation extremely difficult.
“While inhomogeneity in the fabrication of nanostructures often leads to unpredictable behaviour of the final device, which is normally undesirable, we have proposed and demonstrated a potential use for the quantum behaviour of atomically irreproducible systems.”
The reported Q-ID device, which uses an electronic measurement with CMOS compatible technology, can easily be integrated into existing chip manufacturing processes, enabling cost effective mass-production. The new devices also have many additional features such as the ability to track-and-trace a product throughout the supply chain, and individual addressability, allowing for marketing and quality control at the point of consumption.
Dr Robert Young, the research leader at Lancaster University and co-founder of Quantum Base said: “One could imagine our devices being used to identify a broad range of products, whether it is authentication of branded goods, SIM cards, important manufacturing components, the possibilities are endless.”
The use of inexpensive nanomaterials and their ability to be produced in large quantities has resulted in smaller, more power efficient devices that are future-proof to cloning.
Researchers at Lancaster University are racing against time to find smart solutions to the rapidly advancing era of ‘dark silicon’. We will soon live in an era where perhaps more than 80 per cent of computer processors’ transistors must be powered off and ‘remain dark’ at any time to prevent the chip from overheating.
Hardware design is rapidly evolving to prevent this need to ‘power down’ transistors and coming up with innovative solutions. But these improvements at hardware level bring with them complexities which are tricky for compilers to contend with. Unless we can find ways of helping compilers keep pace with these hardware changes they will no longer be able to efficiently translate high-level programming language or source code used by software into the machine code that computer hardware understands.
Until this problem is solved, the software industry will stagnate; software will no longer be able to communicate efficiently with hardware and efforts to resolve the dark silicone problem will have been in vein.
Thanks to a £98,000 Engineering and Physical Sciences Research council grant, researchers at Lancaster University are now working on new ‘smart’ compilers which use machine learning to self-educate and find more efficient ways of doing their job as the middle man between software and hardware.
Zheng Wang, Lecturer at Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications, said: “Software developers are struggling to cope with this dramatic increase in hardware complexity and the current tools are simply inadequate to the task. If we are unable to solve these problems then for the first time in decades, progress in the software industries will stagnate.
“Our project aims to provide enabling techniques at compiler-level using machine learning.
“Traditional compiler construction approaches that rely on human experts to spend many years on building an efficient compiler are no longer feasible. The new, emerging complex architecture of the hardware means it will take much longer time to build a decent compiler.
Read more: Shedding light on the era of Dark silicon
Fifty chemicals the public are exposed to on a daily basis may trigger cancer when combined, according to new research.
A global taskforce of 174 scientists from leading research centres across 28 countries studied the link between mixtures of commonly encountered chemicals and the development of cancer. The study selected 85 chemicals not considered carcinogenic to humans and found 50 supported key cancer-related mechanisms at exposures found in the environment today.
Longstanding concerns about the combined and additive effects of everyday chemicals prompted the organisation Getting To Know Cancer led by Lowe Leroy from Halifax Nova Scotia, to put the team together – pitching what is known about mixtures against the full spectrum of cancer biology for the first time.
Cancer Biologist Dr Hemad Yasaei from Brunel University London contributed his knowledge regarding genes and molecular changes during cancer development. He said: “This research backs up the idea that chemicals not considered harmful by themselves are combining and accumulating in our bodies to trigger cancer and might lie behind the global cancer epidemic we are witnessing. We urgently need to focus more resources to research the effect of low dose exposure to mixtures of chemicals in the food we eat, air we breathe and water we drink.”
Professor Andrew Ward from the Department of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Bath, who contributed in the area of cancer epigenetics and the environment, said: “A review on this scale, looking at environmental chemicals from the perspective of all the major hallmarks of cancer, is unprecedented”.
Professor Francis Martin from Lancaster University, who contributed to an examination of how such typical environmental exposures influence dysfunctional metabolism in cancer, endorsed this view.
He said: “Despite a rising incidence of many cancers, far too little research has been invested into examining the pivotal role of environmental causative agents. This worldwide team of researchers refocuses our attention on this under-researched area.”
In light of the compelling evidence the taskforce is calling for an increased emphasis on and support for research into low dose exposures to mixtures of environmental chemicals. Current research estimates chemicals could be responsible for as many as one in five cancers. With the human population routinely exposed to thousands of chemicals, the effects need to be better understood to reduce the incidence of cancer globally.
Lancaster University is about to take the concept of smart cities out of town. Computer scientists at Lancaster University are investigating how the Internet of Things could work in the countryside.
The Internet of Things – which enables object-to-object communication over the internet and real time data monitoring – has typically been associated with urban environments and until now the countryside has been left out in the cold.
Computer scientist Professor Gordon Blair of Lancaster University has won £171,495 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to lead a new project in Conwy, North Wales, which will investigate how the Internet of Things could work in the countryside.
Working with partners at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, The British Geological Survey and Bangor University, the project launched on December 1 and will run for 18 months.
Problems from flooding and agricultural pollution to animal movements and drought could all potentially benefit from smart technology in the sticks.
The Internet of Things, which takes everyday objects and hooks them up to the internet, represents a shift in the way we gather and engage with information. Applying this booming technology to the countryside presents challenges – for example how to build a network when there are mountains and trees in the way – but researchers believe the benefits could be huge.
Sheep with digital collars, sensors on riverbanks, rainfall and river flow monitors could all soon form part of the project.
Take me to the story: Move over smart cities – the Internet of Things is off to the country