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Electronic Devices Learn to Speak for Themselves
June 7, 2018

According to information provided by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), a research team led by Adam L. Anderson is teaching electronic devices how to speak for themselves.

Using novel machine learning techniques, a research team from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is teaching electronic devices how to speak for themselves. Credit: Jason Richards/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy.

This capability is vitally important, Anderson noted, because even though electronic communications take place over networks that are usually reliable, when connections are lost or disrupted by a physical or cyberattack, electronic devices immediately lose touch, and are not currently equipped to find another method of communication.

“The devices, pre-equipped with language and the ability to communicate, could begin sharing data of any kind over just about any physical medium,” said Anderson who leads a team specializing in computing, networking and cybersecurity. “They will initially go through a trial-and-error volley of information, developing their own patterns as they go, until they reach the most efficient and accurate mode of message transmission.”

While the resulting language, or machine speech, is unrecognizable to humans, the ORNL researchers explain that allowing computers to talk to each other, rather than telling computers how to communicate, is what gives them the intelligence to optimize their ability to maintain contact.

“In other words, we’re training and programming devices to figure out the best way to communicate for themselves rather than being overly prescriptive,” Anderson said.

One of the key issues ORNL researchers had to overcome was having the devices converge on an agreed speech without any back-channel assistance. “We felt it was ‘cheating’ if the devices learned anything from an outside, or unrealistic, source; they needed to converge all on their own,” Anderson said.

With funding provided by ORNL’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program, Anderson and his team connected two laptop computers to separate speakers and microphones facing each other to demonstrate machine speech. The researchers programmed the devices with language comprising sounds known as phonemes. The phonemes replaced the digital bits computers typically use to communicate.

Anderson input the numbers 1 through 5 on the transmitting computer and told it to “speak” them to the receiving computer. The receiving computer output the words “won, too, three, forr, five” on its screen. As they communicated back and forth, the two machines adjusted and corrected their speech until the receiving computer produced the numbers correctly.

“To us, the language emitting from the speakers is distorted, like pulsing static, yet the computers understand their speech as it becomes more refined through training,” Anderson said. “Ultimately, the technology demonstrated here can be used in high-speed digital communications between devices.”

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