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Do androids dream of fusion generators?

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It’s been called a fantasy, a pipe dream, a quixotic quest whose goal is always ten years away. And yet, there are those convinced that scalable fusion power generation could become a reality, allowing humanity to harness the energy of mini-suns, dramatically changing how we produce power.

As CEO of TAE Technologies, the world’s largest private fusion reactor company, Michl Binderbauer is one of those who believes that fusion power could be on the near horizon – and is using artificial intelligence co-developed with Google to help make it a reality.

A quest for power

Fusion power

– TAE Technologies

“A ballpark number of when you would see the first electrons on the grid from a system like ours is probably on the order of a decade. If we’re absolutely lucky, perhaps a little bit sooner, but I think that’s a good sort of mile marker,” Binderbauer told DCD.

TAE’s approach differs from that of supranational efforts to build enormous ‘tokamaks,’ like the 23,000-ton, €20 billion ($22bn) one under development by international body ITER. Instead, TAE aims to develop smaller systems that produce less energy, but are cheaper to build.

In its latest prototype machine, Norman, both ends of the cylindrical colliding beam fusion reactor (CBFR) heat hydrogen gas to form two smoke rings of plasma. These rings are then shot at each other at supersonic speeds, merging in the middle of the machine, forming a spinning plasma ball held together by self-created magnetic fields. Neutral-beams, consisting of neutral particles with no electric charge, are then used to stabilize the plasma and help make it hotter and last longer.

“That’s what the power plants will be all about – hot plasmas that live forever, and very highly efficiently use the energy you put in to produce more for the fusion process.”

We’re not there yet, not even close. Still much needs to be discovered and optimized, so every day TAE conducts around 50 ‘shots’ – small, short-lived tests that change numerous variables, including timing, voltage of power supplies, shape of magnetic field and more.

This is where artificial intelligence comes in. Norman, named after the company’s late co-founder Norman Rostoker, has approximately 80,000 different settings one could tweak, Binderbauer said. “This is like a many hundred dimensional cube that you have to go through – so as humans, you go one knob at a time, right?

“In the past, we did that. That’s where everybody started. And we used to do it here until about 2010/2011.”

Then the company began looking at advanced statistics and relatively basic forms of machine learning to speed up the process. It got serious results, Binderbauer said, just from TAE “looking at papers in the literature.” From there, they realized ”if we could get real experts involved, this could probably be turbocharged. And that actually was the initial reason that made me go and reach out to Google.”

Friends in high places


– TAE Technologies

The two companies – both founded just months apart 21 years ago, but now with vastly different resources – began working together in 2014. “And that eventually led, as we evolved and matured, to the Optometrist Algorithm.”

Officially revealed in 2017, the Optometrist Algorithm was named after the way eyeglass prescriptions are developed. Like an optometrist, the algorithm gives human operators a choice of two alternative experimental settings and associated outcomes, with the human choosing the one they believe better serves their needs, cutting down the time to find an optimum condition.

Since its christening, Optometrist has grown in scope, Binderbauer said. “We expanded in doing parameter searches around those optimal conditions to find, perhaps, new regimes, and really study science. And that then develops the algorithm further, whereby we would basically create a reference case, and then a newly suggested case.”

The company realized that, while humans were limited to changing one ‘knob’ at a time to be able to discern cause and effect, “when we started doing it with the computer, we could do perturbations of 60 knobs at a time, and then disentangle it – that’s a huge improvement. But then we went further, and we said, let’s compare the human by itself, computer by itself, and the combined human and computer.

“To our delight, we saw that when you use both machine learning and the human to introduce an element of some creativity and intuition, then you can actually exponentiate even faster.”

It is this, ahem, fusion of technology and human that could have a lasting impact on research and on businesses, even if TAE’s wider goals do not pan out. “I would call it almost doing science by Machine Learning Assistance,” Binderbauer said.

“This algorithm, it doesn’t just service fusion, it was written for noisy data, continuous data, and data of high dimensionality. And that those are all characteristics you find literally across the sciences and engineering.”

Take social studies as an example: “If you look at data sets of population statistics and stuff, you will find disjointed features, because in one area the people are either different genetics, or they live under different environment. So there’s certain impacts that are different. And then you have discontinuity, some things don’t exist here versus there.”

Optometrist, Binderbauer hopes, could find use among such field. Parts of the algorithm have already been shared with other researchers and businesses that don’t directly compete with TAE or Google.

Google, which jointly shares the Optometrist IP, declined to comment on what it uses the algorithm for. “Google is a data company,” Binderbauer said. “So they’re learning with this, we’re learning with this, and we’re each using it for our respective evolution in quite different markets. We continue building the tools, deploying it now in different veins. With Google specifically, we’re working together on the exploitation of much more sophisticated mining of interconnected data channels.”

Google is deeply involved in the project: TAE has its own in-house servers, but most of the post-processing work is done on GCP.

One of the benefits of the increased processing power the cloud brings is that TAE can use high-speed cameras that take more than 60,000 frames per second, “and now Google is actually helping the post-processing, taking these and turning the images into 3D resolved intensity data sets.”

Binderbauer added: “Google now knows a lot more about plasma physics than you would think, and our guys know a lot more about machine learning. The wonderful thing about is that that has helped us find breakthroughs.”

More tech developers should do this, he says: “Get a few people from a neighboring discipline, or maybe not so adjacent discipline, and throw them in the cauldron, mix them up, because that brings out a healthy new perspectives on things.”

With new insights and tools, TAE hopes its partnership and algorithm will shorten the time to achieve fusion power. But, even if that fails to happen, the company hopes that Optometrist itself will have a large impact. “I wouldn’t be surprised if at this point, some of this found critical use in completely areas that we couldn’t even dream of,” Binderbauer said.

“Sometimes when you have powerful tools like this that treat a class of problem that otherwise doesn’t have a good tool, it becomes a really nice advance for humanity in and of itself.”


9 Comments on "Do androids dream of fusion generators?"

  1. Nostradamus on Sun, 23rd Jun 2019 9:02 pm 

    “A ballpark number of when you would see the first electrons on the grid from a system like ours is probably on the order of a decade.” In other words, it’s only ten years away. LOL.

  2. Chrome Mags on Sun, 23rd Jun 2019 11:36 pm 

    “Michl Binderbauer is one of those who believes that fusion power could be on the near horizon – and is using artificial intelligence co-developed with Google to help make it a reality.”

    I think the recent private enterprise and government R&D investment interest in developing fusion is because educated people realize the writings on the wall for fossil fuels. We need lots more cheap energy to replace all that conventional oil getting tapped faster than it can be replaced.

    But just because there’s a need for fusion, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It’s as if one thing has led to the other, i.e. the need for fusion as oil eroei declines makes governments and businesses think its that much more possible.

    Fact is, it’s most likely already too late to save civilization in its current form. It would make a good movie to have civilization collapsing while scientists sequestered away finally get fusion right, but when they come out to do a press conference their vehicle is overturned and they are robbed of what little food they had with them.

    “I don’t understand. We’ve figured out fusion and can save the world but instead they steal our fast food?!”

  3. Sissyfuss on Mon, 24th Jun 2019 12:00 pm 

    Perhaps AI can solve the obstacles inhibiting cold fusion but I think if AI is truly I it will direct its attention to culling the human herd.

  4. Dredd on Mon, 24th Jun 2019 4:52 pm 

    Do androids dream of fusion generators?


    And they pray for them too (The Machine Religion, 2)

  5. Anonymouse on Tue, 25th Jun 2019 2:01 pm 

    I wonder how much energy has been expended trying to get fusion to ‘work’ to date? And I do not mean the direct energy used in experiments that create fusion for a few milliseconds. I am also referring to all the embedded energy in labs, places like ITER etc that to date, no matter how much has been ‘learned’, are still energy sinks. Not one milliwatt of net energy from fusion, or any usable energy of any kind, after 70 years give or take.

    That, and all the energy spent creating articles on the internet telling everyone how fusion will be clean-safe-unlimited. Now sure how many GW of energy has been expending telling us how awesome fusion is going to be, but I am sure it is non-trivial in itself.

  6. Duncan Idaho on Tue, 25th Jun 2019 6:52 pm 

    Life vs The Machine

  7. JuanP on Tue, 25th Jun 2019 9:56 pm 

    For the record. I am the real JuanP and I haven’t posted a single comment here since before Valentine’s Day. I’ve moved on to greener pastures. I would recommend you all do the same. Reading the comments here or posting something is a complete waste of your lives. This website is fucked beyond redemption. Get a life!

  8. Davy on Wed, 26th Jun 2019 12:11 am 

    Nice try FRAUD. I’m the real JuanP.


  9. Antius on Thu, 27th Jun 2019 6:34 am 

    Controlled, positive net energy fusion has been around for quite a long time. Unfortunately, it requires a nuclear fission explosion to build up the required temperatures and plasma pressures.

    Hybrid reactors are a practical way of using fusion to generate net energy, given that fusion fast neutrons can fission heavy uranium and thorium without any requirement for breeding, MOX fabrication or reprocessing. A dramatic simplification of the nuclear fuel cycle.

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