From Aalto University [Aalto-yliopisto] (FI): “The smallest robotic arm you can imagine is controlled by artificial intelligence” 

From Aalto University [Aalto-yliopisto] (FI)


Adam Foster

Peter Liljeroth

Researchers used deep reinforcement learning to steer atoms into a lattice shape with a view to building new materials or nanodevices.

In a very cold vacuum chamber, single atoms of silver form a star-like lattice. The precise formation is not accidental, and it wasn’t constructed directly by human hands either. Researchers used a kind of artificial intelligence called “deep reinforcement learning” to steer the atoms, each a fraction of a nanometer in size, into the lattice shape. The process is similar to moving marbles around a Chinese checkers board, but with very tiny tweezers grabbing and dragging each atom into place.

The main application for “deep reinforcement learning” is in robotics, says postdoctoral researcher I-Ju Chen. “We’re also building robotic arms with deep learning, but for moving atoms,” she explains. “Reinforcement learning is successful in things like playing chess or video games, but we’ve applied it to solve technical problems at the nanoscale.” 

So why are scientists interested in precisely moving atoms? Making very small devices based on single atoms is important for nanodevices like transistors or memory. Testing how and whether these devices work at their absolute limits is one application for this kind of atomic manipulation, says Chen. Building new materials atom-by-atom, rather than through traditional chemical techniques, may also reveal interesting properties related to superconductivity or quantum states.

The silver star lattice made by Chen and colleagues at the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence [FCAI] and Aalto University is a demonstration of what ‘deep reinforcement learning” can achieve. “The precise movement of atoms is hard even for human experts,” says Chen. “We adapted existing “deep reinforcement learning’ for this purpose. It took the algorithm on the order of one day to learn and then about one hour to build the lattice.” The reinforcement part of this type of deep learning refers to how the AI is guided—through rewards for correct actions or outputs. “Give it a goal and it will do it. It can solve problems that humans don’t know how to solve.”

Applying this approach to the world of nanoscience materials is new. Nanotechniques can become more powerful with the injection of machine learning, says Chen, because it can accelerate the parameter selection and trial-and-error usually done by a person. “We showed that this task can be completed perfectly through reinforcement learning,” concludes Chen. The group’s research, led by professors Adam Foster and Peter Liljeroth, was recently published in Nature Communications [below].

Science paper:
Nature Communications
See the science paper for instructive material with images.

See the full article here.

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Aalto University [Aalto-yliopisto] (FI) is a university located in Espoo, Finland. It was established in 2010 as a merger of three major Finnish universities: the Helsinki University of Technology (established 1849), the Helsinki School of Economics (established 1904), and the University of Art and Design Helsinki (established 1871). The close collaboration between the scientific, business and arts communities is intended to foster multi-disciplinary education and research. The Finnish government, in 2010, set out to create a university that fosters innovation, merging the three institutions into one.

The university is composed of six schools with close to 17,500 students and 4,000 staff members, making it Finland’s second largest university. The main campus of Aalto University is located in Otaniemi, Espoo. Aalto University Executive Education operates in the district of Töölö, Helsinki. In addition to the Greater Helsinki area, the university also operates its Bachelor’s Programme in International Business in Mikkeli and the Metsähovi Radio Observatory Metsähovi Radio Observatory [Metsähovin radiotutkimusasema] Aalto University [Aalto-yliopisto](FI) in Kirkkonummi. in Kirkkonummi.

Aalto University’s operations showcase Finland’s experiment in higher education. The Aalto Design Factory, Aalto Ventures Program and Aalto Entrepreneurship Society (Aaltoes), among others, drive the university’s mission for a radical shift towards multidisciplinary learning and have contributed substantially to the emergence of Helsinki as a hotbed for startups. Aaltoes is Europe’s largest and most active student run entrepreneurship community that has founded major concepts such as the Startup Sauna accelerator program and the Slush startup event.

The university is named in honour of Alvar Aalto, a prominent Finnish architect, designer and alumnus of the former Helsinki University of Technology, who was also instrumental in designing a large part of the university’s main campus in Otaniemi.