Tag Archives: artificial synapses

Electronics begone! Enter: the light-based brainlike computing chip

At this point, it’s possible I’m wrong but I think this is the first ‘memristor’ type device (also called a neuromorphic chip) based on light rather than electronics that I’ve featured here on this blog. In other words, it’s not, technically speaking, a memristor but it does have the same properties so it is a neuromorphic chip.

Caption: The optical microchips that the researchers are working on developing are about the size of a one-cent piece. Credit: WWU Muenster – Peter Leßmann

A May 8, 2019 news item on Nanowerk announces this new approach to neuromorphic hardware (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers from the Universities of Münster (Germany), Oxford and Exeter (both UK) have succeeded in developing a piece of hardware which could pave the way for creating computers which resemble the human brain.

The scientists produced a chip containing a network of artificial neurons that works with light and can imitate the behaviour of neurons and their synapses. The network is able to “learn” information and use this as a basis for computing and recognizing patterns. As the system functions solely with light and not with electrons, it can process data many times faster than traditional systems. …

A May 8, 2019 University of Münster press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, reveals the full story,

A technology that functions like a brain? In these times of artificial intelligence, this no longer seems so far-fetched – for example, when a mobile phone can recognise faces or languages. With more complex applications, however, computers still quickly come up against their own limitations. One of the reasons for this is that a computer traditionally has separate memory and processor units – the consequence of which is that all data have to be sent back and forth between the two. In this respect, the human brain is way ahead of even the most modern computers because it processes and stores information in the same place – in the synapses, or connections between neurons, of which there are a million-billion in the brain. An international team of researchers from the Universities of Münster (Germany), Oxford and Exeter (both UK) have now succeeded in developing a piece of hardware which could pave the way for creating computers which resemble the human brain. The scientists managed to produce a chip containing a network of artificial neurons that works with light and can imitate the behaviour of neurons and their synapses.

The researchers were able to demonstrate, that such an optical neurosynaptic network is able to “learn” information and use this as a basis for computing and recognizing patterns – just as a brain can. As the system functions solely with light and not with traditional electrons, it can process data many times faster. “This integrated photonic system is an experimental milestone,” says Prof. Wolfram Pernice from Münster University and lead partner in the study. “The approach could be used later in many different fields for evaluating patterns in large quantities of data, for example in medical diagnoses.” The study is published in the latest issue of the “Nature” journal.

The story in detail – background and method used

Most of the existing approaches relating to so-called neuromorphic networks are based on electronics, whereas optical systems – in which photons, i.e. light particles, are used – are still in their infancy. The principle which the German and British scientists have now presented works as follows: optical waveguides that can transmit light and can be fabricated into optical microchips are integrated with so-called phase-change materials – which are already found today on storage media such as re-writable DVDs. These phase-change materials are characterised by the fact that they change their optical properties dramatically, depending on whether they are crystalline – when their atoms arrange themselves in a regular fashion – or amorphous – when their atoms organise themselves in an irregular fashion. This phase-change can be triggered by light if a laser heats the material up. “Because the material reacts so strongly, and changes its properties dramatically, it is highly suitable for imitating synapses and the transfer of impulses between two neurons,” says lead author Johannes Feldmann, who carried out many of the experiments as part of his PhD thesis at the Münster University.

In their study, the scientists succeeded for the first time in merging many nanostructured phase-change materials into one neurosynaptic network. The researchers developed a chip with four artificial neurons and a total of 60 synapses. The structure of the chip – consisting of different layers – was based on the so-called wavelength division multiplex technology, which is a process in which light is transmitted on different channels within the optical nanocircuit.

In order to test the extent to which the system is able to recognise patterns, the researchers “fed” it with information in the form of light pulses, using two different algorithms of machine learning. In this process, an artificial system “learns” from examples and can, ultimately, generalise them. In the case of the two algorithms used – both in so-called supervised and in unsupervised learning – the artificial network was ultimately able, on the basis of given light patterns, to recognise a pattern being sought – one of which was four consecutive letters.

“Our system has enabled us to take an important step towards creating computer hardware which behaves similarly to neurons and synapses in the brain and which is also able to work on real-world tasks,” says Wolfram Pernice. “By working with photons instead of electrons we can exploit to the full the known potential of optical technologies – not only in order to transfer data, as has been the case so far, but also in order to process and store them in one place,” adds co-author Prof. Harish Bhaskaran from the University of Oxford.

A very specific example is that with the aid of such hardware cancer cells could be identified automatically. Further work will need to be done, however, before such applications become reality. The researchers need to increase the number of artificial neurons and synapses and increase the depth of neural networks. This can be done, for example, with optical chips manufactured using silicon technology. “This step is to be taken in the EU joint project ‘Fun-COMP’ by using foundry processing for the production of nanochips,” says co-author and leader of the Fun-COMP project, Prof. C. David Wright from the University of Exeter.

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

All-optical spiking neurosynaptic networks with self-learning capabilities by J. Feldmann, N. Youngblood, C. D. Wright, H. Bhaskaran & W. H. P. Pernice. Nature volume 569, pages208–214 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1157-8 Issue Date: 09 May 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

For the curious, I found a little more information about Fun-COMP (functionally-scaled computer technology). It’s a European Commission (EC) Horizon 2020 project coordinated through the University of Exeter. For information with details such as the total cost, contribution from the EC, the list of partnerships and more there is the Fun-COMP webpage on fabiodisconzi.com.

Bad battery, good synapse from Stanford University

A May 4, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily announces the latest advance made by Stanford University and Sandia National Laboratories in the field of neuromorphic (brainlike) computing,

The brain’s capacity for simultaneously learning and memorizing large amounts of information while requiring little energy has inspired an entire field to pursue brain-like — or neuromorphic — computers. Researchers at Stanford University and Sandia National Laboratories previously developed one portion of such a computer: a device that acts as an artificial synapse, mimicking the way neurons communicate in the brain.

In a paper published online by the journal Science on April 25 [2019], the team reports that a prototype array of nine of these devices performed even better than expected in processing speed, energy efficiency, reproducibility and durability.

Looking forward, the team members want to combine their artificial synapse with traditional electronics, which they hope could be a step toward supporting artificially intelligent learning on small devices.

“If you have a memory system that can learn with the energy efficiency and speed that we’ve presented, then you can put that in a smartphone or laptop,” said Scott Keene, co-author of the paper and a graduate student in the lab of Alberto Salleo, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford who is co-senior author. “That would open up access to the ability to train our own networks and solve problems locally on our own devices without relying on data transfer to do so.”

An April 25, 2019 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert but published May 3, 2019) by Taylor Kubota, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

A bad battery, a good synapse

The team’s artificial synapse is similar to a battery, modified so that the researchers can dial up or down the flow of electricity between the two terminals. That flow of electricity emulates how learning is wired in the brain. This is an especially efficient design because data processing and memory storage happen in one action, rather than a more traditional computer system where the data is processed first and then later moved to storage.

Seeing how these devices perform in an array is a crucial step because it allows the researchers to program several artificial synapses simultaneously. This is far less time consuming than having to program each synapse one-by-one and is comparable to how the brain actually works.

In previous tests of an earlier version of this device, the researchers found their processing and memory action requires about one-tenth as much energy as a state-of-the-art computing system needs in order to carry out specific tasks. Still, the researchers worried that the sum of all these devices working together in larger arrays could risk drawing too much power. So, they retooled each device to conduct less electrical current – making them much worse batteries but making the array even more energy efficient.

The 3-by-3 array relied on a second type of device – developed by Joshua Yang at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who is co-author of the paper – that acts as a switch for programming synapses within the array.

“Wiring everything up took a lot of troubleshooting and a lot of wires. We had to ensure all of the array components were working in concert,” said Armantas Melianas, a postdoctoral scholar in the Salleo lab. “But when we saw everything light up, it was like a Christmas tree. That was the most exciting moment.”

During testing, the array outperformed the researchers’ expectations. It performed with such speed that the team predicts the next version of these devices will need to be tested with special high-speed electronics. After measuring high energy efficiency in the 3-by-3 array, the researchers ran computer simulations of a larger 1024-by-1024 synapse array and estimated that it could be powered by the same batteries currently used in smartphones or small drones. The researchers were also able to switch the devices over a billion times – another testament to its speed – without seeing any degradation in its behavior.

“It turns out that polymer devices, if you treat them well, can be as resilient as traditional counterparts made of silicon. That was maybe the most surprising aspect from my point of view,” Salleo said. “For me, it changes how I think about these polymer devices in terms of reliability and how we might be able to use them.”

Room for creativity

The researchers haven’t yet submitted their array to tests that determine how well it learns but that is something they plan to study. The team also wants to see how their device weathers different conditions – such as high temperatures – and to work on integrating it with electronics. There are also many fundamental questions left to answer that could help the researchers understand exactly why their device performs so well.

“We hope that more people will start working on this type of device because there are not many groups focusing on this particular architecture, but we think it’s very promising,” Melianas said. “There’s still a lot of room for improvement and creativity. We only barely touched the surface.”

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

Parallel programming of an ionic floating-gate memory array for scalable neuromorphic computing by Elliot J. Fuller, Scott T. Keene, Armantas Melianas, Zhongrui Wang, Sapan Agarwal, Yiyang Li, Yaakov Tuchman, Conrad D. James, Matthew J. Marinella, J. Joshua Yang3, Alberto Salleo, A. Alec Talin1. Science 25 Apr 2019: eaaw5581 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw5581

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone interested in more about brainlike/brain-like/neuromorphic computing/neuromorphic engineering/memristors, use any or all of those terms in this blog’s search engine.

If only AI had a brain (a Wizard of Oz reference?)

The title, which I’ve borrowed from the news release, is the only Wizard of Oz reference that I can find but it works so well, you don’t really need anything more.

Moving onto the news, a July 23, 2018 news item on phys.org announces new work on developing an artificial synapse (Note: A link has been removed),

Digital computation has rendered nearly all forms of analog computation obsolete since as far back as the 1950s. However, there is one major exception that rivals the computational power of the most advanced digital devices: the human brain.

The human brain is a dense network of neurons. Each neuron is connected to tens of thousands of others, and they use synapses to fire information back and forth constantly. With each exchange, the brain modulates these connections to create efficient pathways in direct response to the surrounding environment. Digital computers live in a world of ones and zeros. They perform tasks sequentially, following each step of their algorithms in a fixed order.

A team of researchers from Pitt’s [University of Pittsburgh] Swanson School of Engineering have developed an “artificial synapse” that does not process information like a digital computer but rather mimics the analog way the human brain completes tasks. Led by Feng Xiong, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, the researchers published their results in the recent issue of the journal Advanced Materials (DOI: 10.1002/adma.201802353). His Pitt co-authors include Mohammad Sharbati (first author), Yanhao Du, Jorge Torres, Nolan Ardolino, and Minhee Yun.

A July 23, 2018 University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides further information,

“The analog nature and massive parallelism of the brain are partly why humans can outperform even the most powerful computers when it comes to higher order cognitive functions such as voice recognition or pattern recognition in complex and varied data sets,” explains Dr. Xiong.

An emerging field called “neuromorphic computing” focuses on the design of computational hardware inspired by the human brain. Dr. Xiong and his team built graphene-based artificial synapses in a two-dimensional honeycomb configuration of carbon atoms. Graphene’s conductive properties allowed the researchers to finely tune its electrical conductance, which is the strength of the synaptic connection or the synaptic weight. The graphene synapse demonstrated excellent energy efficiency, just like biological synapses.

In the recent resurgence of artificial intelligence, computers can already replicate the brain in certain ways, but it takes about a dozen digital devices to mimic one analog synapse. The human brain has hundreds of trillions of synapses for transmitting information, so building a brain with digital devices is seemingly impossible, or at the very least, not scalable. Xiong Lab’s approach provides a possible route for the hardware implementation of large-scale artificial neural networks.

According to Dr. Xiong, artificial neural networks based on the current CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) technology will always have limited functionality in terms of energy efficiency, scalability, and packing density. “It is really important we develop new device concepts for synaptic electronics that are analog in nature, energy-efficient, scalable, and suitable for large-scale integrations,” he says. “Our graphene synapse seems to check all the boxes on these requirements so far.”

With graphene’s inherent flexibility and excellent mechanical properties, these graphene-based neural networks can be employed in flexible and wearable electronics to enable computation at the “edge of the internet”–places where computing devices such as sensors make contact with the physical world.

“By empowering even a rudimentary level of intelligence in wearable electronics and sensors, we can track our health with smart sensors, provide preventive care and timely diagnostics, monitor plants growth and identify possible pest issues, and regulate and optimize the manufacturing process–significantly improving the overall productivity and quality of life in our society,” Dr. Xiong says.

The development of an artificial brain that functions like the analog human brain still requires a number of breakthroughs. Researchers need to find the right configurations to optimize these new artificial synapses. They will need to make them compatible with an array of other devices to form neural networks, and they will need to ensure that all of the artificial synapses in a large-scale neural network behave in the same exact manner. Despite the challenges, Dr. Xiong says he’s optimistic about the direction they’re headed.

“We are pretty excited about this progress since it can potentially lead to the energy-efficient, hardware implementation of neuromorphic computing, which is currently carried out in power-intensive GPU clusters. The low-power trait of our artificial synapse and its flexible nature make it a suitable candidate for any kind of A.I. device, which would revolutionize our lives, perhaps even more than the digital revolution we’ve seen over the past few decades,” Dr. Xiong says.

There is a visual representation of this artificial synapse,

Caption: Pitt engineers built a graphene-based artificial synapse in a two-dimensional, honeycomb configuration of carbon atoms that demonstrated excellent energy efficiency comparable to biological synapses Credit: Swanson School of Engineering

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

Low‐Power, Electrochemically Tunable Graphene Synapses for Neuromorphic Computing by Mohammad Taghi Sharbati, Yanhao Du, Jorge Torres, Nolan D. Ardolino, Minhee Yun, Feng Xiong. Advanced Materials DOP: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.201802353 First published [online]: 23 July 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

I did look at the paper and if I understand it rightly, this approach is different from the memristor-based approaches that I have so often featured here. More than that I cannot say.

Finally, the Wizard of Oz song ‘If I Only Had a Brain’,

New path to viable memristor/neuristor?

I first stumbled onto memristors and the possibility of brain-like computing sometime in 2008 (around the time that R. Stanley Williams and his team at HP Labs first published the results of their research linking Dr. Leon Chua’s memristor theory to their attempts to shrink computer chips). In the almost 10 years since, scientists have worked hard to utilize memristors in the field of neuromorphic (brain-like) engineering/computing.

A January 22, 2018 news item on phys.org describes the latest work,

When it comes to processing power, the human brain just can’t be beat.

Packed within the squishy, football-sized organ are somewhere around 100 billion neurons. At any given moment, a single neuron can relay instructions to thousands of other neurons via synapses—the spaces between neurons, across which neurotransmitters are exchanged. There are more than 100 trillion synapses that mediate neuron signaling in the brain, strengthening some connections while pruning others, in a process that enables the brain to recognize patterns, remember facts, and carry out other learning tasks, at lightning speeds.

Researchers in the emerging field of “neuromorphic computing” have attempted to design computer chips that work like the human brain. Instead of carrying out computations based on binary, on/off signaling, like digital chips do today, the elements of a “brain on a chip” would work in an analog fashion, exchanging a gradient of signals, or “weights,” much like neurons that activate in various ways depending on the type and number of ions that flow across a synapse.

In this way, small neuromorphic chips could, like the brain, efficiently process millions of streams of parallel computations that are currently only possible with large banks of supercomputers. But one significant hangup on the way to such portable artificial intelligence has been the neural synapse, which has been particularly tricky to reproduce in hardware.

Now engineers at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] have designed an artificial synapse in such a way that they can precisely control the strength of an electric current flowing across it, similar to the way ions flow between neurons. The team has built a small chip with artificial synapses, made from silicon germanium. In simulations, the researchers found that the chip and its synapses could be used to recognize samples of handwriting, with 95 percent accuracy.

A January 22, 2018 MIT news release by Jennifer Chua (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

The design, published today [January 22, 2018] in the journal Nature Materials, is a major step toward building portable, low-power neuromorphic chips for use in pattern recognition and other learning tasks.

The research was led by Jeehwan Kim, the Class of 1947 Career Development Assistant Professor in the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, and a principal investigator in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics and Microsystems Technology Laboratories. His co-authors are Shinhyun Choi (first author), Scott Tan (co-first author), Zefan Li, Yunjo Kim, Chanyeol Choi, and Hanwool Yeon of MIT, along with Pai-Yu Chen and Shimeng Yu of Arizona State University.

Too many paths

Most neuromorphic chip designs attempt to emulate the synaptic connection between neurons using two conductive layers separated by a “switching medium,” or synapse-like space. When a voltage is applied, ions should move in the switching medium to create conductive filaments, similarly to how the “weight” of a synapse changes.

But it’s been difficult to control the flow of ions in existing designs. Kim says that’s because most switching mediums, made of amorphous materials, have unlimited possible paths through which ions can travel — a bit like Pachinko, a mechanical arcade game that funnels small steel balls down through a series of pins and levers, which act to either divert or direct the balls out of the machine.

Like Pachinko, existing switching mediums contain multiple paths that make it difficult to predict where ions will make it through. Kim says that can create unwanted nonuniformity in a synapse’s performance.

“Once you apply some voltage to represent some data with your artificial neuron, you have to erase and be able to write it again in the exact same way,” Kim says. “But in an amorphous solid, when you write again, the ions go in different directions because there are lots of defects. This stream is changing, and it’s hard to control. That’s the biggest problem — nonuniformity of the artificial synapse.”

A perfect mismatch

Instead of using amorphous materials as an artificial synapse, Kim and his colleagues looked to single-crystalline silicon, a defect-free conducting material made from atoms arranged in a continuously ordered alignment. The team sought to create a precise, one-dimensional line defect, or dislocation, through the silicon, through which ions could predictably flow.

To do so, the researchers started with a wafer of silicon, resembling, at microscopic resolution, a chicken-wire pattern. They then grew a similar pattern of silicon germanium — a material also used commonly in transistors — on top of the silicon wafer. Silicon germanium’s lattice is slightly larger than that of silicon, and Kim found that together, the two perfectly mismatched materials can form a funnel-like dislocation, creating a single path through which ions can flow.

The researchers fabricated a neuromorphic chip consisting of artificial synapses made from silicon germanium, each synapse measuring about 25 nanometers across. They applied voltage to each synapse and found that all synapses exhibited more or less the same current, or flow of ions, with about a 4 percent variation between synapses — a much more uniform performance compared with synapses made from amorphous material.

They also tested a single synapse over multiple trials, applying the same voltage over 700 cycles, and found the synapse exhibited the same current, with just 1 percent variation from cycle to cycle.

“This is the most uniform device we could achieve, which is the key to demonstrating artificial neural networks,” Kim says.

Writing, recognized

As a final test, Kim’s team explored how its device would perform if it were to carry out actual learning tasks — specifically, recognizing samples of handwriting, which researchers consider to be a first practical test for neuromorphic chips. Such chips would consist of “input/hidden/output neurons,” each connected to other “neurons” via filament-based artificial synapses.

Scientists believe such stacks of neural nets can be made to “learn.” For instance, when fed an input that is a handwritten ‘1,’ with an output that labels it as ‘1,’ certain output neurons will be activated by input neurons and weights from an artificial synapse. When more examples of handwritten ‘1s’ are fed into the same chip, the same output neurons may be activated when they sense similar features between different samples of the same letter, thus “learning” in a fashion similar to what the brain does.

Kim and his colleagues ran a computer simulation of an artificial neural network consisting of three sheets of neural layers connected via two layers of artificial synapses, the properties of which they based on measurements from their actual neuromorphic chip. They fed into their simulation tens of thousands of samples from a handwritten recognition dataset commonly used by neuromorphic designers, and found that their neural network hardware recognized handwritten samples 95 percent of the time, compared to the 97 percent accuracy of existing software algorithms.

The team is in the process of fabricating a working neuromorphic chip that can carry out handwriting-recognition tasks, not in simulation but in reality. Looking beyond handwriting, Kim says the team’s artificial synapse design will enable much smaller, portable neural network devices that can perform complex computations that currently are only possible with large supercomputers.

“Ultimately we want a chip as big as a fingernail to replace one big supercomputer,” Kim says. “This opens a stepping stone to produce real artificial hardware.”

This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation.

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

SiGe epitaxial memory for neuromorphic computing with reproducible high performance based on engineered dislocations by Shinhyun Choi, Scott H. Tan, Zefan Li, Yunjo Kim, Chanyeol Choi, Pai-Yu Chen, Hanwool Yeon, Shimeng Yu, & Jeehwan Kim. Nature Materials (2018) doi:10.1038/s41563-017-0001-5 Published online: 22 January 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

For the curious I have included a number of links to recent ‘memristor’ postings here,

January 22, 2018: Memristors at Masdar

January 3, 2018: Mott memristor

August 24, 2017: Neuristors and brainlike computing

June 28, 2017: Dr. Wei Lu and bio-inspired ‘memristor’ chips

May 2, 2017: Predicting how a memristor functions

December 30, 2016: Changing synaptic connectivity with a memristor

December 5, 2016: The memristor as computing device

November 1, 2016: The memristor as the ‘missing link’ in bioelectronic medicine?

You can find more by using ‘memristor’ as the search term in the blog search function or on the search engine of your choice.

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.

Brain-like computing with optical fibres

Researchers from Singapore and the United Kingdom are exploring an optical fibre approach to brain-like computing (aka neuromorphic computing) as opposed to approaches featuring a memristor or other devices such as a nanoionic device that I’ve written about previously. A March 10, 2015 news item on Nanowerk describes this new approach,

Computers that function like the human brain could soon become a reality thanks to new research using optical fibres made of speciality glass.

Researchers from the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at the University of Southampton, UK, and Centre for Disruptive Photonic Technologies (CDPT) at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, have demonstrated how neural networks and synapses in the brain can be reproduced, with optical pulses as information carriers, using special fibres made from glasses that are sensitive to light, known as chalcogenides.

“The project, funded under Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Advanced Optics in Engineering programme, was conducted within The Photonics Institute (TPI), a recently established dual institute between NTU and the ORC.”

A March 10, 2015 University of Southampton press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the nature of the problem that the scientists are trying address (Note: A link has been removed),

Co-author Professor Dan Hewak from the ORC, says: “Since the dawn of the computer age, scientists have sought ways to mimic the behaviour of the human brain, replacing neurons and our nervous system with electronic switches and memory. Now instead of electrons, light and optical fibres also show promise in achieving a brain-like computer. The cognitive functionality of central neurons underlies the adaptable nature and information processing capability of our brains.”

In the last decade, neuromorphic computing research has advanced software and electronic hardware that mimic brain functions and signal protocols, aimed at improving the efficiency and adaptability of conventional computers.

However, compared to our biological systems, today’s computers are more than a million times less efficient. Simulating five seconds of brain activity takes 500 seconds and needs 1.4 MW of power, compared to the small number of calories burned by the human brain.

Using conventional fibre drawing techniques, microfibers can be produced from chalcogenide (glasses based on sulphur) that possess a variety of broadband photoinduced effects, which allow the fibres to be switched on and off. This optical switching or light switching light, can be exploited for a variety of next generation computing applications capable of processing vast amounts of data in a much more energy-efficient manner.

Co-author Dr Behrad Gholipour explains: “By going back to biological systems for inspiration and using mass-manufacturable photonic platforms, such as chalcogenide fibres, we can start to improve the speed and efficiency of conventional computing architectures, while introducing adaptability and learning into the next generation of devices.”

By exploiting the material properties of the chalcogenides fibres, the team led by Professor Cesare Soci at NTU have demonstrated a range of optical equivalents of brain functions. These include holding a neural resting state and simulating the changes in electrical activity in a nerve cell as it is stimulated. In the proposed optical version of this brain function, the changing properties of the glass act as the varying electrical activity in a nerve cell, and light provides the stimulus to change these properties. This enables switching of a light signal, which is the equivalent to a nerve cell firing.

The research paves the way for scalable brain-like computing systems that enable ‘photonic neurons’ with ultrafast signal transmission speeds, higher bandwidth and lower power consumption than their biological and electronic counterparts.

Professor Cesare Soci said: “This work implies that ‘cognitive’ photonic devices and networks can be effectively used to develop non-Boolean computing and decision-making paradigms that mimic brain functionalities and signal protocols, to overcome bandwidth and power bottlenecks of traditional data processing.”

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

Amorphous Metal-Sulphide Microfibers Enable Photonic Synapses for Brain-Like Computing by Behrad Gholipour, Paul Bastock, Chris Craig, Khouler Khan, Dan Hewak. and Cesare Soci. Advanced Optical Materials DOI: 10.1002/adom.201400472
Article first published online: 15 JAN 2015

© 2015 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This article is behind a paywall.

For anyone interested in memristors and nanoionic devices, here are a few posts (from this blog) to get you started:

Memristors, memcapacitors, and meminductors for faster computers (June 30, 2014)

This second one offers more details and links to previous pieces,

Memristor, memristor! What is happening? News from the University of Michigan and HP Laboratories (June 25, 2014)

This post is more of a survey including memristors, nanoionic devices, ‘brain jelly, and more,

Brain-on-a-chip 2014 survey/overview (April 7, 2014)

One comment, this brain-on-a-chip is not to be confused with ‘organs-on-a-chip’ projects which are attempting to simulate human organs (Including the brain) so chemicals and drugs can be tested.