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Researchers: Zongfu Yu (left), Ang Chen (center) and Efram Khoram (right) developed the concept for a “smart” piece of glass that recognizes images without any external power or circuits.
Photo by Sam Million-Weaver

Sophisticated technology that powers face recognition in modern smartphones someday could receive a high-tech upgrade that sounds — and looks — very low-tech.

This window to the future is nothing more than a piece of glass.

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That is because University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers have devised a method to create pieces of “smart” glass that can recognize images without requiring any sensors or circuits or power sources.

“We’re using optics to condense the normal setup of cameras, sensors and deep neural networks into a single piece of thin glass,” said UW-Madison electrical and computer engineering professor Zongfu Yu.

Embedding artificial intelligence inside inert objects is a concept that, at first glance, seems like something out of science fiction. However, it’s an advance that could open new frontiers for low-power electronics.

Now, artificial intelligence gobbles up substantial computational resources (and battery life) every time you glance at your phone to unlock it with face ID. In the future, one piece of glass could recognize your face without using any power at all.

New Avenue
“This is completely different from the typical route to machine vision,” Yu said.

He envisions pieces of glass that look like translucent squares. Tiny strategically placed bubbles and impurities embedded within the glass would bend light in specific ways to differentiate among different images. That’s the artificial intelligence in action.

For their proof of concept, the engineers devised a method to make glass pieces that identified handwritten numbers. Light emanating from an image of a number enters at one end of the glass, and then focuses to one of nine specific spots on the other side, each corresponding to individual digits.

The glass was dynamic enough to detect, in real-time, when a handwritten 3 was altered to become an 8.

“The fact that we were able to get this complex behavior with such a simple structure was really something,” said Erfan Khoram, a graduate student in Yu’s lab.

Designing the glass to recognize numbers was similar to a machine-learning training process, except the engineers “trained” an analog material instead of digital codes. Specifically, the engineers placed air bubbles of different sizes and shapes as well as small pieces of light-absorbing materials like graphene at specific locations inside the glass.

“We’re accustomed to digital computing, but this has broadened our view,” Yu said. “The wave dynamics of light propagation provide a new way to perform analog artificial neural computing.”

One such advantage is the computation is completely passive and intrinsic to the material, meaning one piece of image-recognition glass could be used hundreds of thousands of times.

“We could potentially use the glass as a biometric lock, tuned to recognize only one person’s face” says Yu. “Once built, it would last forever without needing power or internet, meaning it could keep something safe for you even after thousands of years.”

Speed of Light
Additionally, it works at literally the speed of light, because the glass distinguishes among different images by distorting light waves.

Although the up-front training process could be time consuming and computationally demanding, the glass itself is easy and inexpensive to fabricate.

In the future, the researchers plan to determine if their approach works for more complex tasks, such as facial recognition.

“The true power of this technology lies in its ability to handle much more complex classification tasks instantly without any energy consumption,” said Ming Yuan, a collaborator on the research and professor of statistics at Columbia University. “These tasks are the key to create artificial intelligence: To teach driverless cars to recognize a traffic signal, to enable voice control in consumer devices, among numerous other examples.”

Unlike human vision, which is mind-bogglingly general in its capabilities to discern an untold number of different objects, the smart glass could excel in specific applications — for example, one piece for number recognition, a different piece for identifying letters, another for faces, and so on.

“We’re always thinking about how we provide vision for machines in the future, and imagining application specific, mission-driven technologies.” Yu said. “This changes almost everything about how we design machine vision.”

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