Tag Archives: neuromorphic engineering

Predicting how a memristor functions

An April 3, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces a new memristor development (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers from the CNRS [Centre national de la recherche scientifique; France] , Thales, and the Universities of Bordeaux, Paris-Sud, and Evry have created an artificial synapse capable of learning autonomously. They were also able to model the device, which is essential for developing more complex circuits. The research was published in Nature Communications (“Learning through ferroelectric domain dynamics in solid-state synapses”)

An April 3, 2017 CNRS press release, which originated the news item, provides a nice introduction to the memristor concept before providing a few more details about this latest work (Note: A link has been removed),

One of the goals of biomimetics is to take inspiration from the functioning of the brain [also known as neuromorphic engineering or neuromorphic computing] in order to design increasingly intelligent machines. This principle is already at work in information technology, in the form of the algorithms used for completing certain tasks, such as image recognition; this, for instance, is what Facebook uses to identify photos. However, the procedure consumes a lot of energy. Vincent Garcia (Unité mixte de physique CNRS/Thales) and his colleagues have just taken a step forward in this area by creating directly on a chip an artificial synapse that is capable of learning. They have also developed a physical model that explains this learning capacity. This discovery opens the way to creating a network of synapses and hence intelligent systems requiring less time and energy.

Our brain’s learning process is linked to our synapses, which serve as connections between our neurons. The more the synapse is stimulated, the more the connection is reinforced and learning improved. Researchers took inspiration from this mechanism to design an artificial synapse, called a memristor. This electronic nanocomponent consists of a thin ferroelectric layer sandwiched between two electrodes, and whose resistance can be tuned using voltage pulses similar to those in neurons. If the resistance is low the synaptic connection will be strong, and if the resistance is high the connection will be weak. This capacity to adapt its resistance enables the synapse to learn.

Although research focusing on these artificial synapses is central to the concerns of many laboratories, the functioning of these devices remained largely unknown. The researchers have succeeded, for the first time, in developing a physical model able to predict how they function. This understanding of the process will make it possible to create more complex systems, such as a series of artificial neurons interconnected by these memristors.

As part of the ULPEC H2020 European project, this discovery will be used for real-time shape recognition using an innovative camera1 : the pixels remain inactive, except when they see a change in the angle of vision. The data processing procedure will require less energy, and will take less time to detect the selected objects. The research involved teams from the CNRS/Thales physics joint research unit, the Laboratoire de l’intégration du matériau au système (CNRS/Université de Bordeaux/Bordeaux INP), the University of Arkansas (US), the Centre de nanosciences et nanotechnologies (CNRS/Université Paris-Sud), the Université d’Evry, and Thales.

 

Image synapse


© Sören Boyn / CNRS/Thales physics joint research unit.

Artist’s impression of the electronic synapse: the particles represent electrons circulating through oxide, by analogy with neurotransmitters in biological synapses. The flow of electrons depends on the oxide’s ferroelectric domain structure, which is controlled by electric voltage pulses.


Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Learning through ferroelectric domain dynamics in solid-state synapses by Sören Boyn, Julie Grollier, Gwendal Lecerf, Bin Xu, Nicolas Locatelli, Stéphane Fusil, Stéphanie Girod, Cécile Carrétéro, Karin Garcia, Stéphane Xavier, Jean Tomas, Laurent Bellaiche, Manuel Bibes, Agnès Barthélémy, Sylvain Saïghi, & Vincent Garcia. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14736 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14736 Published online: 03 April 2017

This paper is open access.

Thales or Thales Group is a French company, from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Thales Group (French: [talɛs]) is a French multinational company that designs and builds electrical systems and provides services for the aerospace, defence, transportation and security markets. Its headquarters are in La Défense[2] (the business district of Paris), and its stock is listed on the Euronext Paris.

The company changed its name to Thales (from the Greek philosopher Thales,[3] pronounced [talɛs] reflecting its pronunciation in French) from Thomson-CSF in December 2000 shortly after the £1.3 billion acquisition of Racal Electronics plc, a UK defence electronics group. It is partially state-owned by the French government,[4] and has operations in more than 56 countries. It has 64,000 employees and generated €14.9 billion in revenues in 2016. The Group is ranked as the 475th largest company in the world by Fortune 500 Global.[5] It is also the 10th largest defence contractor in the world[6] and 55% of its total sales are military sales.[4]

The ULPEC (Ultra-Low Power Event-Based Camera) H2020 [Horizon 2020 funded) European project can be found here,

The long term goal of ULPEC is to develop advanced vision applications with ultra-low power requirements and ultra-low latency. The output of the ULPEC project is a demonstrator connecting a neuromorphic event-based camera to a high speed ultra-low power consumption asynchronous visual data processing system (Spiking Neural Network with memristive synapses). Although ULPEC device aims to reach TRL 4, it is a highly application-oriented project: prospective use cases will b…

Finally, for anyone curious about Thales, the philosopher (from his Wikipedia entry), Note: Links have been removed,

Thales of Miletus (/ˈθeɪliːz/; Greek: Θαλῆς (ὁ Μῑλήσιος), Thalēs; c. 624 – c. 546 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek/Phoenician philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from Miletus in Asia Minor (present-day Milet in Turkey). He was one of the Seven Sages of Greece. Many, most notably Aristotle, regard him as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition,[1][2] and he is otherwise historically recognized as the first individual in Western civilization known to have entertained and engaged in scientific philosophy.[3][4]

Does understanding your pet mean understanding artificial intelligence better?

Heather Roff’s take on artificial intelligence features an approach I haven’t seen before. From her March 30, 2017 essay for The Conversation (h/t March 31, 2017 news item on phys.org),

It turns out, though, that we already have a concept we can use when we think about AI: It’s how we think about animals. As a former animal trainer (albeit briefly) who now studies how people use AI, I know that animals and animal training can teach us quite a lot about how we ought to think about, approach and interact with artificial intelligence, both now and in the future.

Using animal analogies can help regular people understand many of the complex aspects of artificial intelligence. It can also help us think about how best to teach these systems new skills and, perhaps most importantly, how we can properly conceive of their limitations, even as we celebrate AI’s new possibilities.
Looking at constraints

As AI expert Maggie Boden explains, “Artificial intelligence seeks to make computers do the sorts of things that minds can do.” AI researchers are working on teaching computers to reason, perceive, plan, move and make associations. AI can see patterns in large data sets, predict the likelihood of an event occurring, plan a route, manage a person’s meeting schedule and even play war-game scenarios.

Many of these capabilities are, in themselves, unsurprising: Of course a robot can roll around a space and not collide with anything. But somehow AI seems more magical when the computer starts to put these skills together to accomplish tasks.

Thinking of AI as a trainable animal isn’t just useful for explaining it to the general public. It is also helpful for the researchers and engineers building the technology. If an AI scholar is trying to teach a system a new skill, thinking of the process from the perspective of an animal trainer could help identify potential problems or complications.

For instance, if I try to train my dog to sit, and every time I say “sit” the buzzer to the oven goes off, then my dog will begin to associate sitting not only with my command, but also with the sound of the oven’s buzzer. In essence, the buzzer becomes another signal telling the dog to sit, which is called an “accidental reinforcement.” If we look for accidental reinforcements or signals in AI systems that are not working properly, then we’ll know better not only what’s going wrong, but also what specific retraining will be most effective.

This requires us to understand what messages we are giving during AI training, as well as what the AI might be observing in the surrounding environment. The oven buzzer is a simple example; in the real world it will be far more complicated.

Before we welcome our AI overlords and hand over our lives and jobs to robots, we ought to pause and think about the kind of intelligences we are creating. …

Source: pixabay.com

It’s just last year (2016) that an AI system beat a human Go master player. Here’s how a March 17, 2016 article by John Russell for TechCrunch described the feat (Note: Links have been removed),

Much was written of an historic moment for artificial intelligence last week when a Google-developed AI beat one of the planet’s most sophisticated players of Go, an East Asia strategy game renowned for its deep thinking and strategy.

Go is viewed as one of the ultimate tests for an AI given the sheer possibilities on hand. “There are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible positions [in the game] — that’s more than the number of atoms in the universe, and more than a googol times larger than chess,” Google said earlier this year.

If you missed the series — which AlphaGo, the AI, won 4-1 — or were unsure of exactly why it was so significant, Google summed the general importance up in a post this week.

Far from just being a game, Demis Hassabis, CEO and Co-Founder of DeepMind — the Google-owned company behind AlphaGo — said the AI’s development is proof that it can be used to solve problems in ways that humans may be not be accustomed or able to do:

We’ve learned two important things from this experience. First, this test bodes well for AI’s potential in solving other problems. AlphaGo has the ability to look “globally” across a board—and find solutions that humans either have been trained not to play or would not consider. This has huge potential for using AlphaGo-like technology to find solutions that humans don’t necessarily see in other areas.

I find Roff’s thesis intriguing and is likely applicable to the short-term but in the longer term and in light of the attempts to  create devices that mimic neural plasticity and neuromorphic engineering  I don’t find her thesis convincing.

Ferroelectric roadmap to neuromorphic computing

Having written about memristors and neuromorphic engineering a number of times here, I’m  quite intrigued to see some research into another nanoscale device for mimicking the functions of a human brain.

The announcement about the latest research from the team at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory is in a Feb. 14, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Research published in Nature Scientific Reports (“Ferroelectric symmetry-protected multibit memory cell”) lays out a theoretical map to use ferroelectric material to process information using multivalued logic – a leap beyond the simple ones and zeroes that make up our current computing systems that could let us process information much more efficiently.

A Feb. 10, 2017 Argonne National Laboratory news release by Louise Lerner, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

The language of computers is written in just two symbols – ones and zeroes, meaning yes or no. But a world of richer possibilities awaits us if we could expand to three or more values, so that the same physical switch could encode much more information.

“Most importantly, this novel logic unit will enable information processing using not only “yes” and “no”, but also “either yes or no” or “maybe” operations,” said Valerii Vinokur, a materials scientist and Distinguished Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the corresponding author on the paper, along with Laurent Baudry with the Lille University of Science and Technology and Igor Lukyanchuk with the University of Picardie Jules Verne.

This is the way our brains operate, and they’re something on the order of a million times more efficient than the best computers we’ve ever managed to build – while consuming orders of magnitude less energy.

“Our brains process so much more information, but if our synapses were built like our current computers are, the brain would not just boil but evaporate from the energy they use,” Vinokur said.

While the advantages of this type of computing, called multivalued logic, have long been known, the problem is that we haven’t discovered a material system that could implement it. Right now, transistors can only operate as “on” or “off,” so this new system would have to find a new way to consistently maintain more states – as well as be easy to read and write and, ideally, to work at room temperature.

Hence Vinokur and the team’s interest in ferroelectrics, a class of materials whose polarization can be controlled with electric fields. As ferroelectrics physically change shape when the polarization changes, they’re very useful in sensors and other devices, such as medical ultrasound machines. Scientists are very interested in tapping these properties for computer memory and other applications; but the theory behind their behavior is very much still emerging.

The new paper lays out a recipe by which we could tap the properties of very thin films of a particular class of ferroelectric material called perovskites.

According to the calculations, perovskite films could hold two, three, or even four polarization positions that are energetically stable – “so they could ‘click’ into place, and thus provide a stable platform for encoding information,” Vinokur said.

The team calculated these stable configurations and how to manipulate the polarization to move it between stable positions using electric fields, Vinokur said.

“When we realize this in a device, it will enormously increase the efficiency of memory units and processors,” Vinokur said. “This offers a significant step towards realization of so-called neuromorphic computing, which strives to model the human brain.”

Vinokur said the team is working with experimentalists to apply the principles to create a working system

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Ferroelectric symmetry-protected multibit memory cell by Laurent Baudry, Igor Lukyanchuk, & Valerii M. Vinokur. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 42196 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep42196 Published online: 08 February 2017

This paper is open access.

Changing synaptic connectivity with a memristor

The French have announced some research into memristive devices that mimic both short-term and long-term neural plasticity according to a Dec. 6, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Leti researchers have demonstrated that memristive devices are excellent candidates to emulate synaptic plasticity, the capability of synapses to enhance or diminish their connectivity between neurons, which is widely believed to be the cellular basis for learning and memory.

The breakthrough was presented today [Dec. 6, 2016] at IEDM [International Electron Devices Meeting] 2016 in San Francisco in the paper, “Experimental Demonstration of Short and Long Term Synaptic Plasticity Using OxRAM Multi k-bit Arrays for Reliable Detection in Highly Noisy Input Data”.

Neural systems such as the human brain exhibit various types and time periods of plasticity, e.g. synaptic modifications can last anywhere from seconds to days or months. However, prior research in utilizing synaptic plasticity using memristive devices relied primarily on simplified rules for plasticity and learning.

The project team, which includes researchers from Leti’s sister institute at CEA Tech, List, along with INSERM and Clinatec, proposed an architecture that implements both short- and long-term plasticity (STP and LTP) using RRAM devices.

A Dec. 6, 2016 Laboratoire d’électronique des technologies de l’information (LETI) press release, which originated the news item, elaborates,

“While implementing a learning rule for permanent modifications – LTP, based on spike-timing-dependent plasticity – we also incorporated the possibility of short-term modifications with STP, based on the Tsodyks/Markram model,” said Elisa Vianello, Leti non-volatile memories and cognitive computing specialist/research engineer. “We showed the benefits of utilizing both kinds of plasticity with visual pattern extraction and decoding of neural signals. LTP allows our artificial neural networks to learn patterns, and STP makes the learning process very robust against environmental noise.”

Resistive random-access memory (RRAM) devices coupled with a spike-coding scheme are key to implementing unsupervised learning with minimal hardware footprint and low power consumption. Embedding neuromorphic learning into low-power devices could enable design of autonomous systems, such as a brain-machine interface that makes decisions based on real-time, on-line processing of in-vivo recorded biological signals. Biological data are intrinsically highly noisy and the proposed combined LTP and STP learning rule is a powerful technique to improve the detection/recognition rate. This approach may enable the design of autonomous implantable devices for rehabilitation purposes

Leti, which has worked on RRAM to develop hardware neuromorphic architectures since 2010, is the coordinator of the H2020 [Horizon 2020] European project NeuRAM3. That project is working on fabricating a chip with architecture that supports state-of-the-art machine-learning algorithms and spike-based learning mechanisms.

That’s it folks.

Memristive-like qualities with pectin

As the drive to create a synthetic neuronal network, as powered by memristors, continues, scientists are investigating pectin. From a Nov. 11, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Most of us know pectin as a key ingredient for making delicious jellies and jams, not as a component for a complex hybrid device that links biological and electronic systems. But a team of Italian scientists have built on previous work in this field using pectin with a high degree of methylation as the medium to create a new architecture of hybrid device with a double-layered polyelectrolyte that alone drives memristive behavior.

A Nov. 11, 2016 American Institute of Physics news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, defines memristors and describes the research,

A memristive device can be thought of as a synapse analogue, a device that has a memory. Simply stated, its behavior in a certain moment depends on its previous activity, similar to the way information in the human brain is transmitted from one neuron to another.

In an article published this week in AIP Advances, from AIP Publishing, the team explains the creation of the hybrid device. “In this research, we applied materials generally used in the pharmaceutical and food industries in our electrochemical devices,” said Angelica Cifarelli, a doctoral candidate at the University of Parma in Italy. “The idea of using the ‘buffering’ capability of these biocompatible materials as solid polyelectrolyte is completely innovative and our work is the first time that these bio-polymers have been used in devices based on organic polymers and in a memristive device.”

Memristors can provide a bridge for interfacing electronic circuits with nervous systems, moving us closer to realization of a double-layer perceptron, an element that can perform classification functions after an appropriate learning procedure. The main difficulty the research team faced was understanding the complex electrochemical interplay that is the basis for the memristive behavior, which would give them the means to control it. The team addressed this challenge by using commercial polymers, and modifying their electrochemical properties at the macroscopic level. The most surprising result was that it was possible to check the electrochemical response of the device by changing the formulation of gels acting as polyelectrolytes, allowing study of the ionic exchanges relating to the biological object, which activates the electrochemical response of the conductive polymer.

“Our developments open the way to make compatible polyaniline based devices with an interface that should be naturally, biologically and electrochemically compatible and functional,” said Cifarelli. The next steps are interfacing the memristor network with other living beings, for example, plants and ultimately the realization of hybrid systems that can “learn” and perform logic/classification functions.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Polysaccarides-based gels and solid-state electronic devices with memresistive properties: Synergy between polyaniline electrochemistry and biology by Angelica Cifarelli, Tatiana Berzina, Antonella Parisini, Victor Erokhin, and Salvatore Iannotta. AIP Advances 6, 111302 (2016); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4966559 Published Nov. 8, 2016

This paper appears to be open access.

US white paper on neuromorphic computing (or the nanotechnology-inspired Grand Challenge for future computing)

The US has embarked on a number of what is called “Grand Challenges.” I first came across the concept when reading about the Bill and Melinda Gates (of Microsoft fame) Foundation. I gather these challenges are intended to provide funding for research that advances bold visions.

There is the US National Strategic Computing Initiative established on July 29, 2015 and its first anniversary results were announced one year to the day later. Within that initiative a nanotechnology-inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing was issued and, according to a July 29, 2016 news item on Nanowerk, a white paper on the topic has been issued (Note: A link has been removed),

Today [July 29, 2016), Federal agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) released a white paper (pdf) describing the collective Federal vision for the emerging and innovative solutions needed to realize the Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing.

The grand challenge, announced on October 20, 2015, is to “create a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy efficiency of the human brain.” The white paper describes the technical priorities shared by the agencies, highlights the challenges and opportunities associated with these priorities, and presents a guiding vision for the research and development (R&D) needed to achieve key technical goals. By coordinating and collaborating across multiple levels of government, industry, academia, and nonprofit organizations, the nanotechnology and computer science communities can look beyond the decades-old approach to computing based on the von Neumann architecture and chart a new path that will continue the rapid pace of innovation beyond the next decade.

A July 29, 2016 US National Nanotechnology Coordination Office news release, which originated the news item, further and succinctly describes the contents of the paper,

“Materials and devices for computing have been and will continue to be a key application domain in the field of nanotechnology. As evident by the R&D topics highlighted in the white paper, this challenge will require the convergence of nanotechnology, neuroscience, and computer science to create a whole new paradigm for low-power computing with revolutionary, brain-like capabilities,” said Dr. Michael Meador, Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. …

The white paper was produced as a collaboration by technical staff at the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Intelligence Community. …

The white paper titled “A Federal Vision for Future Computing: A Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge” is 15 pp. and it offers tidbits such as this (Note: Footnotes not included),

A new materials base may be needed for future electronic hardware. While most of today’s electronics use silicon, this approach is unsustainable if billions of disposable and short-lived sensor nodes are needed for the coming Internet-of-Things (IoT). To what extent can the materials base for the implementation of future information technology (IT) components and systems support sustainability through recycling and bio-degradability? More sustainable materials, such as compostable or biodegradable systems (polymers, paper, etc.) that can be recycled or reused,  may play an important role. The potential role for such alternative materials in the fabrication of integrated systems needs to be explored as well. [p. 5]

The basic architecture of computers today is essentially the same as those built in the 1940s—the von Neumann architecture—with separate compute, high-speed memory, and high-density storage components that are electronically interconnected. However, it is well known that continued performance increases using this architecture are not feasible in the long term, with power density constraints being one of the fundamental roadblocks.7 Further advances in the current approach using multiple cores, chip multiprocessors, and associated architectures are plagued by challenges in software and programming models. Thus,  research and development is required in radically new and different computing architectures involving processors, memory, input-output devices, and how they behave and are interconnected. [p. 7]

Neuroscience research suggests that the brain is a complex, high-performance computing system with low energy consumption and incredible parallelism. A highly plastic and flexible organ, the human brain is able to grow new neurons, synapses, and connections to cope with an ever-changing environment. Energy efficiency, growth, and flexibility occur at all scales, from molecular to cellular, and allow the brain, from early to late stage, to never stop learning and to act with proactive intelligence in both familiar and novel situations. Understanding how these mechanisms work and cooperate within and across scales has the potential to offer tremendous technical insights and novel engineering frameworks for materials, devices, and systems seeking to perform efficient and autonomous computing. This research focus area is the most synergistic with the national BRAIN Initiative. However, unlike the BRAIN Initiative, where the goal is to map the network connectivity of the brain, the objective here is to understand the nature, methods, and mechanisms for computation,  and how the brain performs some of its tasks. Even within this broad paradigm,  one can loosely distinguish between neuromorphic computing and artificial neural network (ANN) approaches. The goal of neuromorphic computing is oriented towards a hardware approach to reverse engineering the computational architecture of the brain. On the other hand, ANNs include algorithmic approaches arising from machinelearning,  which in turn could leverage advancements and understanding in neuroscience as well as novel cognitive, mathematical, and statistical techniques. Indeed, the ultimate intelligent systems may as well be the result of merging existing ANN (e.g., deep learning) and bio-inspired techniques. [p. 8]

As government documents go, this is quite readable.

For anyone interested in learning more about the future federal plans for computing in the US, there is a July 29, 2016 posting on the White House blog celebrating the first year of the US National Strategic Computing Initiative Strategic Plan (29 pp. PDF; awkward but that is the title).

Memory material with functions resembling synapses and neurons in the brain

This work comes from the University of Twente’s MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology according to a July 8, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Our brain does not work like a typical computer memory storing just ones and zeroes: thanks to a much larger variation in memory states, it can calculate faster consuming less energy. Scientists of the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology of the University of Twente (The Netherlands) now developed a ferro-electric material with a memory function resembling synapses and neurons in the brain, resulting in a multistate memory. …

A July 8, 2016 University of Twente press release, which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,

The material that could be the basic building block for ‘brain-inspired computing’ is lead-zirconium-titanate (PZT): a sandwich of materials with several attractive properties. One of them is that it is ferro-electric: you can switch it to a desired state, this state remains stable after the electric field is gone. This is called polarization: it leads to a fast memory function that is non-volatile. Combined with processor chips, a computer could be designed that starts much faster, for example. The UT scientists now added a thin layer of zinc oxide to the PZT, 25 nanometer thickness. They discovered that switching from one state to another not only happens from ‘zero’ to ‘one’ vice versa. It is possible to control smaller areas within the crystal: will they be polarized (‘flip’) or not?

In a PZT layer without zinc oxide (ZnO) there are basically two memorystates. Adding a nano layer of ZnO, every state in between is possible as well.

Multistate

By using variable writing times in those smaller areas, the result is that many states can be stored anywhere between zero and one. This resembles the way synapses and neurons ‘weigh’ signals in our brain. Multistate memories, coupled to transistors, could drastically improve the speed of pattern recognition, for example: our brain performs this kind of tasks consuming only a fraction of the energy a computer system needs. Looking at the graphs, the writing times seem quite long compared to nowaday’s processor speeds, but it is possible to create many memories in parallel. The function of the brain has already been mimicked in software like neurale networks, but in that case conventional digital hardware is still a limitation. The new material is a first step towards electronic hardware with a brain-like memory. Finding solutions for combining PZT with semiconductors, or even developing new kinds of semiconductors for this, is one of the next steps.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Multistability in Bistable Ferroelectric Materials toward Adaptive Applications by Anirban Ghosh, Gertjan Koster, and Guus Rijnders. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201601353 Version of Record online: 4 JUL 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Artificial synapse rivals biological synapse in energy consumption

How can we make computers be like biological brains which do so much work and use so little power? It’s a question scientists from many countries are trying to answer and it seems South Korean scientists are proposing an answer. From a June 20, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

News) Creation of an artificial intelligence system that fully emulates the functions of a human brain has long been a dream of scientists. A brain has many superior functions as compared with super computers, even though it has light weight, small volume, and consumes extremely low energy. This is required to construct an artificial neural network, in which a huge amount (1014)) of synapses is needed.

Most recently, great efforts have been made to realize synaptic functions in single electronic devices, such as using resistive random access memory (RRAM), phase change memory (PCM), conductive bridges, and synaptic transistors. Artificial synapses based on highly aligned nanostructures are still desired for the construction of a highly-integrated artificial neural network.

Prof. Tae-Woo Lee, research professor Wentao Xu, and Dr. Sung-Yong Min with the Dept. of Materials Science and Engineering at POSTECH [Pohang University of Science & Technology, South Korea] have succeeded in fabricating an organic nanofiber (ONF) electronic device that emulates not only the important working principles and energy consumption of biological synapses but also the morphology. …

A June 20, 2016 Pohang University of Science & Technology (POSTECH) news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

The morphology of ONFs is very similar to that of nerve fibers, which form crisscrossing grids to enable the high memory density of a human brain. Especially, based on the e-Nanowire printing technique, highly-aligned ONFs can be massively produced with precise control over alignment and dimension. This morphology potentially enables the future construction of high-density memory of a neuromorphic system.

Important working principles of a biological synapse have been emulated, such as paired-pulse facilitation (PPF), short-term plasticity (STP), long-term plasticity (LTP), spike-timing dependent plasticity (STDP), and spike-rate dependent plasticity (SRDP). Most amazingly, energy consumption of the device can be reduced to a femtojoule level per synaptic event, which is a value magnitudes lower than previous reports. It rivals that of a biological synapse. In addition, the organic artificial synapse devices not only provide a new research direction in neuromorphic electronics but even open a new era of organic electronics.

This technology will lead to the leap of brain-inspired electronics in both memory density and energy consumption aspects. The artificial synapse developed by Prof. Lee’s research team will provide important potential applications to neuromorphic computing systems and artificial intelligence systems for autonomous cars (or self-driving cars), analysis of big data, cognitive systems, robot control, medical diagnosis, stock trading analysis, remote sensing, and other smart human-interactive systems and machines in the future.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Organic core-sheath nanowire artificial synapses with femtojoule energy consumption by Wentao Xu, Sung-Yong Min, Hyunsang Hwang, and Tae-Woo Lee. Science Advances  17 Jun 2016: Vol. 2, no. 6, e1501326 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1501326

This paper is open access.

X-rays reveal memristor workings

A June 14, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily focuses on memristors. (It’s been about two months since my last memristor posting on April 22, 2016 regarding electronic synapses and neural networks). This piece announces new insight into how memristors function at the atomic scale,

In experiments at two Department of Energy national labs — SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — scientists at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) [also referred to as HP Labs or Hewlett Packard Laboratories] have experimentally confirmed critical aspects of how a new type of microelectronic device, the memristor, works at an atomic scale.

This result is an important step in designing these solid-state devices for use in future computer memories that operate much faster, last longer and use less energy than today’s flash memory. …

“We need information like this to be able to design memristors that will succeed commercially,” said Suhas Kumar, an HPE scientist and first author on the group’s technical paper.

A June 13, 2016 SLAC news release, which originated the news item, offers a brief history according to HPE and provides details about the latest work,

The memristor was proposed theoretically [by Dr. Leon Chua] in 1971 as the fourth basic electrical device element alongside the resistor, capacitor and inductor. At its heart is a tiny piece of a transition metal oxide sandwiched between two electrodes. Applying a positive or negative voltage pulse dramatically increases or decreases the memristor’s electrical resistance. This behavior makes it suitable for use as a “non-volatile” computer memory that, like flash memory, can retain its state without being refreshed with additional power.

Over the past decade, an HPE group led by senior fellow R. Stanley Williams has explored memristor designs, materials and behavior in detail. Since 2009 they have used intense synchrotron X-rays to reveal the movements of atoms in memristors during switching. Despite advances in understanding the nature of this switching, critical details that would be important in designing commercially successful circuits  remained controversial. For example, the forces that move the atoms, resulting in dramatic resistance changes during switching, remain under debate.

In recent years, the group examined memristors made with oxides of titanium, tantalum and vanadium. Initial experiments revealed that switching in the tantalum oxide devices could be controlled most easily, so it was chosen for further exploration at two DOE Office of Science User Facilities – SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) and Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS).

At ALS, the HPE researchers mapped the positions of oxygen atoms before and after switching. For this, they used a scanning transmission X-ray microscope and an apparatus they built to precisely control the position of their sample and the timing and intensity of the 500-electronvolt ALS X-rays, which were tuned to see oxygen.

The experiments revealed that even weak voltage pulses create a thin conductive path through the memristor. During the pulse the path heats up, which creates a force that pushes oxygen atoms away from the path, making it even more conductive. Reversing the voltage pulse resets the memristor by sucking some of oxygen atoms back into the conducting path, thereby increasing the device’s resistance. The memristor’s resistance changes between 10-fold and 1 million-fold, depending on operating parameters like the voltage-pulse amplitude. This resistance change is dramatic enough to exploit commercially.

To be sure of their conclusion, the researchers also needed to understand if the tantalum atoms were moving along with the oxygen during switching. Imaging tantalum required higher-energy, 10,000-electronvolt X-rays, which they obtained at SSRL’s Beam Line 6-2. In a single session there, they determined that the tantalum remained stationary.

“That sealed the deal, convincing us that our hypothesis was correct,” said HPE scientist Catherine Graves, who had worked at SSRL as a Stanford graduate student. She added that discussions with SLAC experts were critical in guiding the HPE team toward the X-ray techniques that would allow them to see the tantalum accurately.

Kumar said the most promising aspect of the tantalum oxide results was that the scientists saw no degradation in switching over more than a billion voltage pulses of a magnitude suitable for commercial use. He added that this knowledge helped his group build memristors that lasted nearly a billion switching cycles, about a thousand-fold improvement.

“This is much longer endurance than is possible with today’s flash memory devices,” Kumar said. “In addition, we also used much higher voltage pulses to accelerate and observe memristor failures, which is also important in understanding how these devices work. Failures occurred when oxygen atoms were forced so far away that they did not return to their initial positions.”

Beyond memory chips, Kumar says memristors’ rapid switching speed and small size could make them suitable for use in logic circuits. Additional memristor characteristics may also be beneficial in the emerging class of brain-inspired neuromorphic computing circuits.

“Transistors are big and bulky compared to memristors,” he said. “Memristors are also much better suited for creating the neuron-like voltage spikes that characterize neuromorphic circuits.”

The researchers have provided an animation illustrating how memristors can fail,

This animation shows how millions of high-voltage switching cycles can cause memristors to fail. The high-voltage switching eventually creates regions that are permanently rich (blue pits) or deficient (red peaks) in oxygen and cannot be switched back. Switching at lower voltages that would be suitable for commercial devices did not show this performance degradation. These observations allowed the researchers to develop materials processing and operating conditions that improved the memristors’ endurance by nearly a thousand times. (Suhas Kumar) Courtesy: SLAC

This animation shows how millions of high-voltage switching cycles can cause memristors to fail. The high-voltage switching eventually creates regions that are permanently rich (blue pits) or deficient (red peaks) in oxygen and cannot be switched back. Switching at lower voltages that would be suitable for commercial devices did not show this performance degradation. These observations allowed the researchers to develop materials processing and operating conditions that improved the memristors’ endurance by nearly a thousand times. (Suhas Kumar) Courtesy: SLAC

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Direct Observation of Localized Radial Oxygen Migration in Functioning Tantalum Oxide Memristors by Suhas Kumar, Catherine E. Graves, John Paul Strachan, Emmanuelle Merced Grafals, Arthur L. David Kilcoyne3, Tolek Tyliszczak, Johanna Nelson Weker, Yoshio Nishi, and R. Stanley Williams. Advanced Materials, First published: 2 February 2016; Print: Volume 28, Issue 14 April 13, 2016 Pages 2772–2776 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201505435

This paper is behind a paywall.

Some of the ‘memristor story’ is contested and you can find a brief overview of the discussion in this Wikipedia memristor entry in the section on ‘definition and criticism’. There is also a history of the memristor which dates back to the 19th century featured in my May 22, 2012 posting.

Memristor-based electronic synapses for neural networks

Caption: Neuron connections in biological neural networks. Credit: MIPT press office

Caption: Neuron connections in biological neural networks. Credit: MIPT press office

Russian scientists have recently published a paper about neural networks and electronic synapses based on ‘thin film’ memristors according to an April 19, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

A team of scientists from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) have created prototypes of “electronic synapses” based on ultra-thin films of hafnium oxide (HfO2). These prototypes could potentially be used in fundamentally new computing systems.

An April 20, 2016 MIPT press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item (the date inconsistency likely due to timezone differences) explains the connection between thin films and memristors,

The group of researchers from MIPT have made HfO2-based memristors measuring just 40×40 nm2. The nanostructures they built exhibit properties similar to biological synapses. Using newly developed technology, the memristors were integrated in matrices: in the future this technology may be used to design computers that function similar to biological neural networks.

Memristors (resistors with memory) are devices that are able to change their state (conductivity) depending on the charge passing through them, and they therefore have a memory of their “history”. In this study, the scientists used devices based on thin-film hafnium oxide, a material that is already used in the production of modern processors. This means that this new lab technology could, if required, easily be used in industrial processes.

“In a simpler version, memristors are promising binary non-volatile memory cells, in which information is written by switching the electric resistance – from high to low and back again. What we are trying to demonstrate are much more complex functions of memristors – that they behave similar to biological synapses,” said Yury Matveyev, the corresponding author of the paper, and senior researcher of MIPT’s Laboratory of Functional Materials and Devices for Nanoelectronics, commenting on the study.

The press release offers a description of biological synapses and their relationship to learning and memory,

A synapse is point of connection between neurons, the main function of which is to transmit a signal (a spike – a particular type of signal, see fig. 2) from one neuron to another. Each neuron may have thousands of synapses, i.e. connect with a large number of other neurons. This means that information can be processed in parallel, rather than sequentially (as in modern computers). This is the reason why “living” neural networks are so immensely effective both in terms of speed and energy consumption in solving large range of tasks, such as image / voice recognition, etc.

Over time, synapses may change their “weight”, i.e. their ability to transmit a signal. This property is believed to be the key to understanding the learning and memory functions of thebrain.

From the physical point of view, synaptic “memory” and “learning” in the brain can be interpreted as follows: the neural connection possesses a certain “conductivity”, which is determined by the previous “history” of signals that have passed through the connection. If a synapse transmits a signal from one neuron to another, we can say that it has high “conductivity”, and if it does not, we say it has low “conductivity”. However, synapses do not simply function in on/off mode; they can have any intermediate “weight” (intermediate conductivity value). Accordingly, if we want to simulate them using certain devices, these devices will also have to have analogous characteristics.

The researchers have provided an illustration of a biological synapse,

Fig.2 The type of electrical signal transmitted by neurons (a “spike”). The red lines are various other biological signals, the black line is the averaged signal. Source: MIPT press office

Fig.2 The type of electrical signal transmitted by neurons (a “spike”). The red lines are various other biological signals, the black line is the averaged signal. Source: MIPT press office

Now, the press release ties the memristor information together with the biological synapse information to describe the new work at the MIPT,

As in a biological synapse, the value of the electrical conductivity of a memristor is the result of its previous “life” – from the moment it was made.

There is a number of physical effects that can be exploited to design memristors. In this study, the authors used devices based on ultrathin-film hafnium oxide, which exhibit the effect of soft (reversible) electrical breakdown under an applied external electric field. Most often, these devices use only two different states encoding logic zero and one. However, in order to simulate biological synapses, a continuous spectrum of conductivities had to be used in the devices.

“The detailed physical mechanism behind the function of the memristors in question is still debated. However, the qualitative model is as follows: in the metal–ultrathin oxide–metal structure, charged point defects, such as vacancies of oxygen atoms, are formed and move around in the oxide layer when exposed to an electric field. It is these defects that are responsible for the reversible change in the conductivity of the oxide layer,” says the co-author of the paper and researcher of MIPT’s Laboratory of Functional Materials and Devices for Nanoelectronics, Sergey Zakharchenko.

The authors used the newly developed “analogue” memristors to model various learning mechanisms (“plasticity”) of biological synapses. In particular, this involved functions such as long-term potentiation (LTP) or long-term depression (LTD) of a connection between two neurons. It is generally accepted that these functions are the underlying mechanisms of  memory in the brain.

The authors also succeeded in demonstrating a more complex mechanism – spike-timing-dependent plasticity, i.e. the dependence of the value of the connection between neurons on the relative time taken for them to be “triggered”. It had previously been shown that this mechanism is responsible for associative learning – the ability of the brain to find connections between different events.

To demonstrate this function in their memristor devices, the authors purposefully used an electric signal which reproduced, as far as possible, the signals in living neurons, and they obtained a dependency very similar to those observed in living synapses (see fig. 3).

Fig.3. The change in conductivity of memristors depending on the temporal separation between "spikes"(rigth) and thr change in potential of the neuron connections in biological neural networks. Source: MIPT press office

Fig.3. The change in conductivity of memristors depending on the temporal separation between “spikes”(rigth) and thr change in potential of the neuron connections in biological neural networks. Source: MIPT press office

These results allowed the authors to confirm that the elements that they had developed could be considered a prototype of the “electronic synapse”, which could be used as a basis for the hardware implementation of artificial neural networks.

“We have created a baseline matrix of nanoscale memristors demonstrating the properties of biological synapses. Thanks to this research, we are now one step closer to building an artificial neural network. It may only be the very simplest of networks, but it is nevertheless a hardware prototype,” said the head of MIPT’s Laboratory of Functional Materials and Devices for Nanoelectronics, Andrey Zenkevich.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Crossbar Nanoscale HfO2-Based Electronic Synapses by Yury Matveyev, Roman Kirtaev, Alena Fetisova, Sergey Zakharchenko, Dmitry Negrov and Andrey Zenkevich. Nanoscale Research Letters201611:147 DOI: 10.1186/s11671-016-1360-6

Published: 15 March 2016

This is an open access paper.