Monday, August 11. 2014
Aiming to do for Machine Learning what MySQL did for database servers, U.S. and UK-based PredictionIO has raised $2.5 million in seed funding from a raft of investors including Azure Capital, QuestVP, CrunchFund (of which TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington is a Partner), Stanford University‘s StartX Fund, France-based Kima Ventures, IronFire, Sood Ventures and XG Ventures. The additional capital will be used to further develop its open source Machine Learning server, which significantly lowers the barriers for developers to build more intelligent products, such as recommendation or prediction engines, without having to reinvent the wheel.
Being an open source company — after pivoting from offering a “user behavior prediction-as-a-service” under its old TappingStone product name — PredictionIO plans to generate revenue in the same way MySQL and other open source products do. “We will offer an Enterprise support license and, probably, an enterprise edition with more advanced features,” co-founder and CEO Simon Chan tells me.
The problem PredictionIO is setting out to solve is that building Machine Learning into products is expensive and time-consuming — and in some instances is only really within the reach of major and heavily-funded tech companies, such as Google or Amazon, who can afford a large team of PhDs/data scientists. By utilising the startup’s open source Machine Learning server, startups or larger enterprises no longer need to start from scratch, while also retaining control over the source code and the way in which PredictionIO integrates with their existing wares.
In fact, the degree of flexibility and reassurance an open source product offers is the very reason why PredictionIO pivoted away from a SaaS model and chose to open up its codebase. It did so within a couple of months of launching its original TappingStone product. Fail fast, as they say.
“We changed from TappingStone (Machine Learning as a Service) to PredictionIO (open source server) in the first 2 months once we built the first prototype,” says Chan. “As developers ourselves, we realise that Machine Learning is useful only if it’s customizable to each unique application. Therefore, we decided to open source the whole product.”
The pivot appears to be working, too, and not just validated by today’s funding. To date, Chan says its open source Machine Learning server is powering thousands of applications with 4000+ developers engaged with the project. “Unlike other data science tools that focus on solving data researchers’ problems, PredictionIO is built for every programmer,” he adds.
Other competitors Chan cites include “closed ‘black box” MLaaS services or software’, such as Google Prediction API, Wise.io, BigML, and Skytree.
Examples of who is currently using PredictionIO include Le Tote, a clothing subscription/rental service that is using PredictionIO to predict customers’ fashion preferences, and PerkHub, which is using PredictionIO to personalize product recommendations in the weekly ‘group buying’ emails they send out.
Friday, August 08. 2014
Can a silicon chip act like a human brain? Researchers at IBM say they’ve built one that mimics the brain better than any that has come before it.
In a paper published in the journal Science today, IBM said it used conventional silicon manufacturing techniques to create what it calls a neurosynaptic processor that could rival a traditional supercomputer by handling highly complex computations while consuming no more power than that supplied by a typical hearing aid battery.
The chip is also one of the biggest ever built, boasting some 5.4 billion transistors, which is about a billion more than the number of transistors on an Intel Xeon chip.
To do this, researchers designed the chip with a mesh network of 4,096 neurosynaptic cores. Each core contains elements that handle computing, memory and communicating with other parts of the chip. Each core operates in parallel with the others.
Multiple chips can be connected together seamlessly, IBM says, and they could be used to create a neurosynaptic supercomputer. The company even went so far as to build one using 16 of the chips.
The new design could shake up the conventional approach to computing, which has been more or less unchanged since the 1940s and is known as the Von Neumann architecture. In English, a Von Neumann computer — you’re using one right now — stores the data for a program in memory.
This chip, which has been dubbed TrueNorth, relies on its network of neurons to detect and recognize patterns in much the same way the human brain does. If you’ve read your Ray Kurzweil, this is one way to understand how the brain works — recognizing patterns. Put simply, once your brain knows the patterns associated with different parts of letters, it can string them together in order to recognize words and sentences. If Kurzweil is correct, you’re doing this right now, using some 300 million pattern-recognizing circuits in your brain’s neocortex.
The chip would seem to represent a breakthrough in one of the long-term problems in computing: Computers are really good at doing math and reading words, but discerning and understanding meaning and context, or recognizing and classifying objects — things that are easy for humans — have been difficult for traditional computers. One way IBM tested the chip was to see if it could detect people, cars, trucks and buses in video footage and correctly recognize them. It worked.
In terms of complexity, the TrueNorth chip has a million neurons, which is about the same number as in the brain of a common honeybee. A typical human brain averages 100 billion. But given time, the technology could be used to build computers that can not only see and hear, but understand what is going on around them.
Currently, the chip is capable of 46 billion synaptic operations per second per watt, or SOPS. That’s a tricky apples-to-oranges comparison to a traditional supercomputer, where performance is measured in the number of floating point operations per second, or FLOPS. But the most energy-efficient supercomputer now running tops out at 4.5 billion FLOPS.
Down the road, the researchers say in their paper, they foresee TrueNorth-like chips being combined with traditional systems, each solving problems it is best suited to handle. But it also means that systems that in some ways will rival the capabilities of current supercomputers will fit into a machine the size of your smartphone, while consuming even less energy.
Wednesday, July 16. 2014
Tuesday, July 15. 2014
Monday, July 14. 2014
When you walk into the Shapeways headquarters in a sprawling New York City warehouse building, it doesn't feel like a factory. It's something different, somehow unforgettable, inevitably new. As it should be. This is one of the world's first full service 3D-printing factories, and it's not like any factory I've ever seen.
Founded in the Netherlands in 2007 as a spinoff of Philips electronics, Shapeways is a truly unique and delightfully simple service. If you want an object 3D-printed, all you have to do is upload the design's CAD file to Shapeways' website, pay a fee that mostly just covers the cost of materials, and then wait. In a few days, Shapeways will send the 3D-printed object to you, nicely bubble-wrapped and ready for use. It's effectively an on-demand manufacturing service, a factory at your fingertips in a way that's wonderfully futuristic.
Aside from the windows that look on to the factory floor, Shapeways HQ looks just like any other start-up office. Colorful chairs surround laptop-littered desks. Employees drinking seltzer linger around a long lunch table in the back. It's oddly quiet, and everything is coated in a fine layer of white dust, the cast-off material that didn't quite make it into an object of its own.
If you didn't know any better, you'd think it was some sort of art studio littered with hulking machines, perhaps for firing pottery or something. In fact, each of these closet-sized machines costs upwards of $1 million and can 3D print about 100 objects at a time. Shapeways names all of them after old women because they require lots of care. The entire cast of Golden Girls is represented.
There's actually not much to see inside the machines. A small window offers a peek into the actual printing area, an unassuming expanse of white powder that lights up every few seconds. Shapeways uses selective laser sintering (SLS) printers that enable them to print many objects at once and product higher quality products than some other additive manufacturing techniques.
That white powder lingering everywhere is the raw material for a 3D-printed object. The box lights up because a series of lasers are actually sintering the plastic in specific spots, as dictated by the design. An arm then moves over the surface, adding another layer of powder. Over the course of several hours, the sintered plastic becomes an object that's supported by the excess powder. The process look almost surgical if you're not familiar with the specifics of exactly what's going on.
But, the printers don't just spit out objects ready to go. The finished product is actually a large white cube that's carefully moved from the machine to a nearby cooling rack. After all, it was just blasted with a bunch of hot lasers. Eventually, it's up to a human to break apart the cube and find dozens of newly printed objects in the powder. It's almost like digging for dinosaur bones. As Shapeways' Savannah Peterson explained to me, "You feel like an archaeologist even if you're just watching."
She's right. After I made my way around the factory floor, which is roughly half the size of a basketball court, I got a peek at this process. The guy doing the digging was wearing a protective jump suit and a large ventilator to keep from inhaling the powder. And despite the fact that large plastic curtains contained the breakout room, the powder gets everywhere. Suddenly, the light coating of dust that covers the whole factory made even more sense. By the end of the tour, I looked like a baker covered in flour.
That's about as messy as it gets, though. The rest of the process is remarkably clean and streamlined, yielding some pretty incredible objects made not only out of plastic but also vari. The Shapeways website is full of curiosities, from delicate jewelry that can be printed in sterling silver to physical manifestations of internet memes that are printed in color using a special printer that can handle rainbow hues.
Tuesday, July 08. 2014
Ever since covering Fliike, a beautifully-designed physical ‘Like’ counter for local businesses, I’ve been thinking about how the idea could be extended, with a fully-programmable, but simple, ticker-style Internet-connected display.
A few products along those lines do already exist, but I’ve yet to find anything that quite matches what I had in mind. That is, until recently, when I was introduced to LaMetric, a smart ticker being developed by UK/Ukraine Internet of Things (IoT) startup Smart Atoms.
Launching its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign today, the LaMetric is aimed at both consumers and businesses. The idea is you may want to display alerts, notifications and other information from your online “life” via an elegant desktop or wall-mountable and glance-able display. Likewise, businesses that want an Internet-connected ticker, displaying various business information, either publicly for customers or in an office, are also a target market.
The device itself has a retro, 8-bit style desktop clock feel to it, thanks to its ‘blocky’ LED light powered display, which is part of its charm. The display can output one icon and seven numbers, and is scrollable.
But, best of all, the LaMetric is fully programmable via the accompanying app (or “hackable”) and comes with a bunch of off-the-shelf widgets, along with support for RSS and services like IFTTT, Smart Things, Wig Wag, Ninja Blocks, so you can get it talking to other smart devices or web services. Seriously, this thing goes way beyond what I had in mind — try the simulator for yourself — and, for an IoT junkie like me, is just damn cool.
Examples of the kind of things you can track with the device include time, weather, subject and time left till your next meeting, number of new emails and their subject lines, CrossFit timings and fitness goals, number of to-dos for today, stock quotes, and social network notifications.
Or for businesses, this might include Facebook Likes, website visitors, conversions and other metrics, app store rankings, downloads, and revenue.
In addition to the display, the device has back and forward buttons so you can rotate widgets (though these can be set to automatically rotate), as well as an enter key for programmed responses, such as accepting a calendar invitation.
There’s also a loudspeaker for audio alerts. The LaMetric is powered by micro-USB and also comes as an optional and more expensive battery-powered version.Early-bird backers on Kickstarter can pick up the LaMetric for as little as $89 (plus shipping) for the battery-less version, with countless other options and perks, increasing in price.
Thursday, July 03. 2014
Published on Jun 10, 2014The beauty of hackers, says cybersecurity expert Keren Elazari, is that they force us to evolve and improve. Yes, some hackers are bad guys, but many are working to fight government corruption and advocate for our rights. By exposing vulnerabilities, they push the Internet to become stronger and healthier, wielding their power to create a better world.
Wednesday, July 02. 2014
Via Tech Crunch
Online artists’ community deviantART is hoping to become responsible for the new .art web domains, and it recently sent a letter to ICANN (the organization responsible for managing top level domains) laying out its perspective on the stakes in the decision.
The letter also presents deviantART’s case for why it deserves a “community designation” in the application process, saying:
“We are on the cusp of an extraordinary opportunity with the simple use of a single word: a virtual place within the Internet for the arts and a virtual palace to the arts built site-by-site by millions of artists and art institutions each with an individualized artistic contribution gathered around the simple namespace of ‘.ART.’”
The letter adds that if the domain is exploited commercially, “it will only occasionally and haphazardly designate the arts themselves. It will not be a welcomed location for the arts.”
That may seem like an unusual argument coming from a for-profit business, but deviantART has created a new subsidiary called Dadotart (apparently that’s standard procedure when applying to manage a new top level domain), and it says it would create a policy board of “artists and art institutions” that would establish the standards for when the .art designation can be used.
deviantART says ICANN is currently deciding whether it deserves the community designation, which would give it priority in the application process. The initial signs may have not been entirely positive, as the letter states: “We believe preservation of the arts is at risk based upon the results of the initial community evaluations made by ICANN that clearly disfavor their approval with a resulting and evident bias towards commercialization.”
If you aren’t familiar with deviantART, the site showcases digital art, traditional art, photography — sometimes original and sometimes inspired by existing media properties — and it says it has 31 million registered users. (Software company Autodesk became an investor last year.)
e-flux, a network of art professionals, is also applying for a community designation, and although the applications can’t be combined, deviantART says the two groups support each other’s applications and would be involved in policy issues if either gets awarded the domain.
Thursday, June 26. 2014
NASA officially granted permission to a group of scientists and enthusiasts who want to do what NASA can't afford: Make contact with a 36-year-old satellite called ISEE-3 that's still capable of taking directions for a new mission. It's the first agreement of its kind—and it could hint at where the space industry is going.
So, a little back story. As our sister site io9 explained last month, ISEE-3 was launched back in 1978 to study the relationship between the Sun and Earth. It enjoyed many more missions over the next three decades, but NASA officially cut the cord in 1997. Still, ISEE-3 kept on trucking.
It wasn't until a decade later that NASA discovered she was still at it, despite the lack of commands from her benefactors at NASA. Why not send her on a new mission? Well, that's the trouble: We have no way of communicating. The antenna used to contact ISEE-3 had been removed.
Enter the group of scientists including SkyCorp, SpaceRef, Space College Foundation, and others. They want to use a different antenna, at Morehead State University, to contact ISEE-3. "Our plan is simple: we intend to contact the ISEE-3 spacecraft, command it to fire its engines and enter an orbit near Earth, and then resume its original mission," said Keith Cowing, a former Nasa engineer and owner of Nasa Watch, told the Guardian.
The ISEE-3, (later ICE), undergoing testing and evaluation.
Sounds good, right? Well, it's not so simple. The group, which calls itself ISEE-3 Reboot, needs to essentially rebuild the entire software used to communicate with ISEE-3 back in the 70s. That means digging through archives to find the original commands, then recreating them. With zero funding available from NASA and only a month or two until the little satellite makes a close pass in mid-June. The technical challenges are huge:
But, the creators of the project explained in their pitch letter on Rockethub, "if we are successful it may also still be able to chase yet another comet."
If there was any doubt about whether modern Americans were still enamored with space, the results of their crowdfunding campaign squash it. The group blew through their $100,000 goal, and are currently getting close to a $150,000 stretch goal. There are only two days left to donate—and you should—but the fact that they've raised so much money in so short a time is remarkable.
The ISEE-3 Reboot mission patch.
NASA announced it has signed an agreement with the group called a Non-Reimbursable Space Act Agreement (NRSAA), which is a contract it signs with its external partners to describe a collaboration. It gives the group the green light to go ahead and make its attempt at taking control of ISEE-3—it essence, it gives Skycorp the right to take over the operation of a satellite that NASA built almost 40 years ago.
Here's what astronaut John Grunsfeld had to say about the agreement:
It's an incredible development—and it tells us something about where space travel and research is going. NASA and other state-funded research entities are being strangled by downsized budgets, but the push into space amongst independent scientists, engineers, and citizens is booming. As Elon Musk sues to let commercial space companies compete for government contracts, students and scientists are launching their own satellites.
Over the next few decades, plenty of other NASA-built spacecraft will begin to age—just like ISEE-3. And unless something drastic changes about NASA's budget, it may not have the cash to keep them up. Imagine a future in which craft built by NASA in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, are inherited by independent groups of scientists and space companies who take over operations, just like Skycorp is. The privatization of space might not be so far away—and NASA might play a heavy role in its creation.
Wednesday, June 25. 2014
Early rumors may have hinted that Apple had a fully integrated smart home up its sleeve. But after today's WWDC, we know that's not the case. And it's unclear what developers are going to do with Apple's HomeKit, a piecemeal tease that implies you'll soon be able to control your smart toaster with your iPhone. But in the meantime, we have this Microsoft concept video from circa 1999, showing the amazing interconnected smart home of tomorrow.
The video shows things like the ability to scan a carton of eggs to automatically add them to a shopping list. Even throwing away an item allows your smart trash can to remind your home computer system that you may need to order that item soon. Many of these technologies actually have come to pass, in one way or another, like Amazon's trial of their Dash magic wand.
But again, it's a far cry from the fully integrated smart home INTERNET OF THINGS OMG THIS IS THE FUTURE OF THE HOUSE we've been promised for so very long.
Image: Screenshot from the circa 1999 concept video by Microsoft
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