Category Archives: Technology

US Is Second Place in HPC, and Soon In Everything

Much of my career orbited supercomputing one way or another, so I know the significance of the headlines this week from the Top500 list: “China Pulls Ahead of U.S. in Latest TOP500 List”.

The Top500 is a perennial ranking of the performance top supercomputers in the world. For several decades, the US dominated the list. This was not just a matter of pride, it was considered an urgent national and national security priority.

Now, I know as well as everyone that the Top500 ranking isn’t particularly significant in itself. Benchmarks of any kind are deceptive at best, and totally gamed at worst, and the traditional TOP500 doesn’t represent real life performance. [2]

But these systems represent the peak of the mountain, and generally reflect the size and capabilities of the rest of the mountain. These top end systems are built on top of vast amounts of computing, networking, and human talent.

Equally important, as Sensei Larry Smarr used to say, supercomputing is a time machine. HPC technology today will spread through out all of computing and the economy in a decade or so. Domination of the Top500 means that there is a lot of technology in the pipeline for the coming decade.

The news that China has passed the US in this list reflects the efforts of the Chinese, and the lagging efforts of the US. It also is a clear sign that China will likely be the leader in many aspects of IT and other technology in the coming decade.

China’s success is scarcely a fluke. They have been pouring resources, including government support, into many kinds of technology, as well as training and supporting research and development.

The US, in contrast, has been lagging badly. In particular, the government, by which I mean congress, has been cutting financial support for science and technology of all kinds. This week we learn of a plan to massively increase the income tax for graduate students—a brilliant way to empty out US research labs, if I ever saw one.

If you want to make America great, you need to increase support for research and development, not end it. And it would help to hire a lot more scientists, rather than harass, abuse, and purge them.

The Top500 is just one of many indications that these bone-headed policies are bearing predictable fruit. Congress and the administration are working hard to help make China number one.

  1. TOP500 News Team, China Pulls Ahead of U.S. in Latest TOP500 List, in Top500 – News. 2017.
  2. David Schneider, Two Different Top500 Supercomputing Benchmarks Show Two Different Top Supercomputers, in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk. 2017.


The Neverending Ethereum Disaster

This month Bitcoin almost split in two, pulling back from the brink at the last minute. Of course, there is no solution in sight for the dire scaling problems of Bitcoin, but who cares as long as the exchange rate keeps rising against the weakening US dollar?

Etherereum should be so lucky. After the DAO disaster in 2016, followed by several hard forks that rewrote history, you would think that sensible people would have headed for the hills. Of course that’s not happening.

This fall has seen yet another disaster. One of the most used wallets experienced a bug which led to the freeze of a large amount of Ethereum. I don’t really understand the bug itself, but somehow the coins were consigned to accounts that can no longer be managed. You can see your money, but no one can get it.

Just as baffling as the bug, there seems to be little urgency to fix it. It’s been a week now, and there seems to be little idea of what can be done, and shockingly little indication that anything will be done soon.

Stan Higgens writes in Coindesk that “Parity Floats Fix for $160 Million Ether Fund Freeze”, but the actual text indicates that there is no fix in sight except maybe a hard fork due in 2018 [2]. In other words, you are out of luck if you are wanting to use some of those millions of Ether any time soon.

The good ship Ethereum is like the Titanic, except when it sinks they roll back time and sail again—to sink all over again.

It is important to point out that these disasters in Ethereum are mostly not due to the core protocols and cryptography that define the distributed ledger itself. The DAO went down with all hands because of a bug in executable contract code, and the Parity Wallet ran aground due to the wallet code (related to executable contract code, I think), not the ledger itself.

The point is, security is an end-to-end thing <<link>>. People who talk about how invulnerable the core ledger is supposed to be are missing the point: Ethereum or any cryptocurrency is only as secure as the weakest link between two users. And there are a lot of links: wallets, APIs, servers, networks, mobile devices, and OS code, to name a few. And there are people in the chain, too, heaven help us.

At some point, you have to ask whether Ethereum is creating more problems than it is solving.

  1. Stan Higgins, Parity Floats Fix for $160 Million Ether Fund Freeze. Coindesk.November 13 2017,
  2. Parity Technologies, Parity Technologies Multi-Sig Wallet Issue Update, in Parity Technologies Blog. 2017.


Cryptocurrency Thursday


Biomimetic Robotic Zebrafish

Bioinspired and Biomimetic systems are the bees knees (sometimes, literally! [1]).

In some cases, taking bio inspiration leads to designs and design principles for human purposes (e.g., crawly robots inspired by Earthworms [2], or nets inspired by spiderwebs [4]).

Other times, creating a biomimetic robot teaches us about nature.

A group of European researchers from Ecole Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne and Sorbonne report this fall on a project that has created a robot zebrafish (Danio rerio) that joins the school of live zebrafish [3].

This is actually pretty difficult, because zebrafish are kind of loosey-goosey about schooling, coming together as needed in different situations. Today’s successful zebrafish must pay attention to the other fish, and play nicely with others.

The result is a robot not only looks and swims like a zebrafish, it learns the social signals of the fish, and behaves correctly I.e., it mimics the anatomy, the movement, the behavior, and the social signaling of the natural fish.


This seemingly rather simple result required analysis of how zebrafish school. The researchers developed a two level model, a high level strategy (where the school is going) and a more detailed movement model (how to move in the school).

They also had to quantify the “social integration” achieved by the robot and other fish, which is a measure of how zebrafish-like the robot is, compared to observations of the real zebrafish.

And, of course, they used a fishbot that looks and swims like a zebrafish. For some reason, zebrafish aren’t fooled by a lure that is a very abstract fish shape.

The researchers emphasize that all three forms of mimicry are important for successful schooling.  She’s gotta look like a zebrafish, swim like a zebrafish, and follow along like a zebrafish.

These results suggest that it should be possible to create robots that not only join in, but persuade and lead a school via the natural signaling of the fish. Such a robot or group of robots presumably would be a low-stress method to herd fish. (I’m not completely sure why one would need to herd zebrafish, per se.)

This study is pretty awesome.

It does to seem like kind of a one-off case, though. It took a lot of work to observe and model these small groups of zebrafish. It isn’t clear how well these techniques might apply to larger groups, longer time periods, other environments, or other species.

Obviously, it will be useful to automate the learning of the social signals and so on as they suggest. Eventually, this might lead to a theory of fish—metaknowledge of different cognitive models in fish. Now that would be cool.

  1. J. Amador Guillermo, Matherne Marguerite, Waller D’Andre, Mathews Megha, N. Gorb Stanislav, and L. Hu David, Honey bee hairs and pollenkitt are essential for pollen capture and removal. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, 12 (2):026015, 2017.
  2. Fang Hongbin, Zhang Yetong, and K. W. Wang, Origami-based earthworm-like locomotion robots. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, 12 (6):065003, 2017.
  3. Leo Cazenille, Bertrand Collignon, Yohann Chemtob, Frank Bonnet, Alexey Gribovskiy, Francesco Mondada, Nicolas Bredeche, and José Halloy, How mimetic should a robotic fish be to socially integrate into zebrafish groups ? (accepted). Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, 2017
  4. Zheng, L., M. Behrooz, and F. Gordaninejad, A bioinspired adaptive spider web. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, 12 (1):016012, 2017.



Robot Wednesday


PS. Wouldn’t  “Biomimetic Robotic Zebrafish” be a good name for a band?

Semantic Aware Framework for 3D Tele-Immersion

One of the latest products from Sensei Klara Nahrstedt’s teleimmersion lab is Shannon Chen’s prize-winning thesis, “Semantics-Aware Content Delivery Framework for 3D Tele-Immersion[1].

Nahrstedt’s group has been developing 3D Tele-immersion (3DTI) technology for a decade or so. 3DTI allows “full-body, multimodal interaction among geographically dispersed users,” for a decade and more now.

Chen’s dissertation is about optimizing the trade-offs that are inherent in the end-to-end transmission of 3DTI. This is a recent refinement of the quality of service concepts this group has developed over many years.

The basic challenge is that 3DTI sucks CPU, memory, and bandwidth like crazy, and user experience suffers badly from latency or inadequate bit rates. Managing the network very critical, and very difficult.


Chen’s contribution is to introduce semantic information into the system, to manage resource usage and trade-offs, “to bridge the gap between high-level semantics and low-level data delivery”, specifically “by injecting environmental and user-activity semantic information “.

The thesis considers several aspects of 3DTI, capture, dissemination, and receiving. In each phase, resource limitations challenge the ability to deliver a satisfactory user experience.

The semantics to be considered are computing environment, activity, and user role. From a high level understanding of these, the system can tune performance at many levels.

The overall design is a set of modules that use the elements of the semantics to adjust the parameters of the 3DTI phases.

I’ll refer the reader to the dissertation for full details. Briefly,

  • Activity semantics are used to optimize data capture, helping identify the most important data based on the user’s task and behavior.
  • User semantics are used to optimize The user’s role is used to help identify the most important flows of data and required QoS.
  • Activity + Environment semantics are used to optimize The user’s environment determines his or her view point and also the capabilities of the local device.

The thesis reports on analysis of three prototypes for different use cases that emphasize these three types of optimization.

I note that these systems he tackled present very difficult technical problems. For example, the 3DTI is not only all around (i.e., multiple simultaneous video streams), it may include on body and other sensors (that must be synchronized with the video). 3DTI can be synchronous or asynchronous, and might need to be archived for analysis and replay.

In short, the data is diverse and voluminous, and generally needs to be synchronized. The trick, of course, is that there are slews of data that might be needed at any moment, but only some of it is actually needed at any particular time in a particular part of the system. The idea is to use semantics to deliver what is needed when and where it is needed, to improve the experience.

This is a nice piece of work. He hits on a lot of important themes.

For one thing, it shows again the importance of end-to-end design. In this case, his “semantics” come from the requirements and constraints on the whole system, from human to human, though many systems and links. In my view, he could have called it “An end-to-end framework….

I also endorse his call that:

we need a formalized scripting language to describe the dynamics in the cyber-physical regime to the digital computing entities” (p. 98)

Absolutely. (See McGrath (2003) [2] : – ), which is woefully out of date, but outlines the general idea.)

More generally, I think there is a lot of use for logical description languages which can combine both manual assertions (e.g., this user is a patient or is a doctor) and automated inferences (e.g., a doctor is likely to need to access archives at full resolution if possible). These systems can also (in principle) reason and produce inferences, e.g., suggestions about optimization based on perceived similarity previous sessions.

Dr. Chen is reportedly now working with a large social media company, so I’m sure his future systems could have access to slews of interesting metadata, including social networks, and histories of digital behavior.

Nice work.

  1. Chien-nan Chen, Semantics-Aware Content Delivery Framework for 3D Tele-Immersion, in Computer Science. 2016, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: Urbana.
  2. Robert E. McGrath, Semantic Infrastructure for a Ubiquitous Computing Environment, in Computer Science. 2005, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: Urbana.
  3. August Schiess, CS alumnus Shannon Chen receives SIGMM Outstanding PhD Thesis Award, in CS@Illinois – News. 2017.


More on Gita, Personal Cargo Bot

Earlier this year, I noted the interesting personal cargo bot, Gita (coming Real Soon Now?)

Development seems to be progressing, and the company released video of Gita in some more real world settings.

It seems to be working pretty well, at least in the “follow” mode.   Evan Ackerman points out “looks like they may have ditched that SLAM belt thing”.  I assume that they are using computer vision which is the basis for their navigation, but can also follow one target. (Their technology is not documented.)

Also, the video suggests that they have a nice, simple operation: stand “in front of the eyes” and press the “follow me” button. Then it follows (and presumably learns the route). I like that interface—it’s clear, and it’s real hard to hack.

In my earlier post, I commented that this plain, simple device is kind of cool, but very utilitarian. I still think there is a call for customization (everything is better with flames pained on it!) and unauthorized racing and acrobatic modifications.

Just how many Gitas can a (modified) Gita jump over? Show me a Gita that tips up and drives on one tire! And so on.

From earlier post :

“First of all, they simply have to come in different colors (duh!). Second, I strongly recommend the company encourage customization, including hand painted decorations, decal kits (e.g., flames, team logos), and even plastic and foam 3D decorations (Fins! Shark’s teeth! Ray gun pods!).

“Third, there should be (unsanctioned) modifications to hot rod them. 35 KMH? Not good enough!

“For that matter, there should be rodeos and shows, with trick jumps (I’m seeing flaming hoops), motocross, ski races, etc. For these Gita-X Games, it would be cool to be able to stream out the video, a la drone racing, no”

Finally, I still want to see similar behavior, but in a raptor-like bot. Cross Gita with, say Michigan’s Cassie, and you’ll really have a personal cargo bot!


Robot Wednesday

Government Blockchains Coming This Year

Around the world, various governments are experimenting with Blockchain technology. The classic use case is for public records, such as property titles (e.g., the Swedish Lantmäteriet), where the blockchain serves as a cryptographically secured bulletin board.

The general use case is to make these records easy (and cheap) to access via the Internet, while maintaining the integrity of the information. In the classic case of the land registry, the government agency performs its traditional role as authenticator, certifying the record, date, and identities of the parties and assets. Blockchain replaces (more likely duplicates) other forms of records, including databases. In principle, this could be really cheap and really reliable (assuming the records are correct to begin with).

Many governments are trying similar ideas, including my local government in Illinois. (Heaven protect us from these clowns! If anyone can mess up blockchain technology, it’s the Illinois state government.)

Amy  Nordrum reports in IEEE Spectrum about the different approaches in Dubai and Illinois [1]. Both jurisdictions are looking at a variety of uses, generally involving public record keeping. One big hope is that a blockchain can be a really fast and cheap way to publish these records, redusing both public expenditure and friction on commerce.

Nordrum calls attention to the different approaches. Dubai is building a single system (using Ethereum and Fabric from Hyperledger). Illinois is floating multiple pilots, and letting the projects select what technology to use. Illinois is in a “try anything” stage, and explicitly assumes that integration can be done later with no particular cost or problems. (Does Illinois have the remotest clue what it is doing?)

What impact are these innovations likely to have?

Robert Charette, an expert in IT risk management, doubts blockchains will prove to be more effective than a simple cloud database in most cases. “It’s kind of like solving a problem that’s already been solved,” he argues.

First of all, the imagined benefits are pretty unambitious. They are tackling easy problems (for example, land registries have been around since Babylonia, the Lantmäteriet itself is 390 years old), and the main goal is to reduce overhead from existing systems, which maintaining or improving “transparency”. Thus, as long as a blockchain based system at least ties the performance of conventional system, and costs less for all parties, it will be called a success.

On the other hand, the problems are not only already solved, they are scarcely a choke point in the economy or everyday life. Having a property deed appear on line in 30 minutes instead of 30 days matters little to most transactions. Sure, this will make property flipping a bit easier, but why do we care about that? Why do we really want to do that?

Much will depend on how the cost accounting is done. Most governments, and Illinois for sure, will be interested in the reduction of expenses for IT infrastructure. If a blockchain based system eliminates the need for leasing servers and IT support, that would be an important advantage.

Just how much will blockchain technology reduce IT requirements?

It’s hard to predict precisely. The blockchain itself replaces a networked database, e.g., running in a cloud. That’s a good thing, because public facing databases are a significant security risk and also quite costly. Blockchain technology also uses cryptographic signatures, which is a very good thing. Of course, you could use cryptography the same way in any system, but blockchain is a quick and easy way to get this technology deployed more widely.

On the other hand, the rest of the infrastructure will still need to exist. The blockchain records themselves would be used by lots of other software—that’s the whole point.  There will have to be network forms and APIs for getting data in and out of the system, and these run on conventional infrastructure with concomitant risks and costs. In fact, if the blockchain is working well, users will not know that the blockchain is there—everything else will look the same as before.

It seems to me that the blockchain replaces one cloud database and concomitant APIs. This might actually be one part of a larger centralized system. Replacing the database will mean that at least some software will have to be replaced to use the blockchain.

Note that the agency still needs to do its non-digital work, such as  certifying identities, verifying records, and so on.  Publishing the results in only one part of their work, and frankly, it’s the easy part.

If, as seems likely, the organization needs to keep the database (e.g., for auditing and other internal activities, or simply out of caution), then the blockchain software is actually duplicating code, not replacing it. Worse, the parallel systems have to be kept in sync, which is extra code.

However cheap blockchain may be, the cost savings could be quite complicated to assess. I’m sure that politics will simplify the assessment, providing rosy assessments.

My own guess is that the blockchain solutions will no worse than what they replace. They may be better (e.g., because they have newer technology), though they could be worse (e.g., if quality control suffers).

But I guarantee you that the governor of Illinois will declare it a success no matter what.

  1. Amy Nordrum, Illinois vs. Dubai: Two Experiments Bring Blockchains to Government, in IEEE Spectrum – Features. 2017.


Cryptocurrency Thursday

Hurricanes are bad for solar arrays

In case anyone wondered, solar arrays are not particularly Hurricane-proof:


After Maria:

Photo: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images Hurricane Maria scrambled Puerto Rico’s Humacao solar power plant

I’m sure there are similar images from Texas and Florida. Wind farms may have fared a bit better, but I bet they still took damage.

In the wake of hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico and other islands are struggling to repair the electric grid, which was total destroyed. It’s a monumental task: every meter of transmission line needs to be repaired and reconnected.

At this point, a number of solar microgrid companies are rushing to install PV plus battery systems. As always, Elon Musk got the headlines, though there are a number of efforts ongoing.

Peter Fairley reports that some advocates suggest that this blank slate is an opportunity for PR to jump to renewable energy [1]. If enough PV and batteries can be installed, then the old grid will not need to be fully rebuilt. Some say that PR could be nearly 100% PV.

At this point, every little bit helps, for sure. But it’s not clear how much PV microgrid tech will be possible.

By definition, the technology is installed at the point of use, which means it has to get out into the whole island. The places farthest from the central power plants will take longer to restore, but they are also the hardest for microgrid installers to reach as well (though PV doesn’t need to repair everything along the way). In some cases, the PV will be up long before the grid can be repaired.

Despite some enthusiastic hopes, these systems aren’t likely to replace the conventional grid. Setting aside the cost, solar power stops generating when the sun isn’t shining, so batteries or other storage is needed. Even if it was cheap enough, I’m not sure there are enough batteries even for Puerto Rico.

Maria also illustrated that PV is as vulnerable to storm damage as any other infrastructure. Island wide reliance on microgrids would need some form of backup generation for such events. This probably means some kind of conventional generators, requiring fuel (and some engineering).

It  be nice to connect the local microgrids to the main grid as co-generation, but that takes time and, oh, wait! The grid is down. (And we need power back on, like yesterday.)

My own view is that there are certainly interesting opportunities to explore, though I hate to see all these companies making PR events while claiming to be helping (I’m talking to you, Mr. Musk.) We need to get PR up and running, and then let’s talk about redesigning the infrastructure.

  1. Peter Fairley, Why Solar Microgrids May Fall Short in Replacing the Caribbean’s Devastated Power Systems, in IEEE Spectrum – Energywise. 2017.