Tag Archives: neuristor

Brain cell-like nanodevices

Given R. Stanley Williams’s presence on the author list, it’s a bit surprising that there’s no mention of memristors. If I read the signs rightly the interest is shifting, in some cases, from the memristor to a more comprehensive grouping of circuit elements referred to as ‘neuristors’ or, more likely, ‘nanocirucuit elements’ in the effort to achieve brainlike (neuromorphic) computing (engineering). (Williams was the leader of the HP Labs team that offered proof and more of the memristor’s existence, which I mentioned here in an April 5, 2010 posting. There are many, many postings on this topic here; try ‘memristors’ or ‘brainlike computing’ for your search terms.)

A September 24, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces a recent development in the field of neuromorphic engineering,

In the September [2020] issue of the journal Nature, scientists from Texas A&M University, Hewlett Packard Labs and Stanford University have described a new nanodevice that acts almost identically to a brain cell. Furthermore, they have shown that these synthetic brain cells can be joined together to form intricate networks that can then solve problems in a brain-like manner.

“This is the first study where we have been able to emulate a neuron with just a single nanoscale device, which would otherwise need hundreds of transistors,” said Dr. R. Stanley Williams, senior author on the study and professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “We have also been able to successfully use networks of our artificial neurons to solve toy versions of a real-world problem that is computationally intense even for the most sophisticated digital technologies.”

In particular, the researchers have demonstrated proof of concept that their brain-inspired system can identify possible mutations in a virus, which is highly relevant for ensuring the efficacy of vaccines and medications for strains exhibiting genetic diversity.

A September 24, 2020 Texas A&M University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Vandana Suresh, which originated the news item, provides some context for the research,

Over the past decades, digital technologies have become smaller and faster largely because of the advancements in transistor technology. However, these critical circuit components are fast approaching their limit of how small they can be built, initiating a global effort to find a new type of technology that can supplement, if not replace, transistors.

In addition to this “scaling-down” problem, transistor-based digital technologies have other well-known challenges. For example, they struggle at finding optimal solutions when presented with large sets of data.

“Let’s take a familiar example of finding the shortest route from your office to your home. If you have to make a single stop, it’s a fairly easy problem to solve. But if for some reason you need to make 15 stops in between, you have 43 billion routes to choose from,” said Dr. Suhas Kumar, lead author on the study and researcher at Hewlett Packard Labs. “This is now an optimization problem, and current computers are rather inept at solving it.”

Kumar added that another arduous task for digital machines is pattern recognition, such as identifying a face as the same regardless of viewpoint or recognizing a familiar voice buried within a din of sounds.

But tasks that can send digital machines into a computational tizzy are ones at which the brain excels. In fact, brains are not just quick at recognition and optimization problems, but they also consume far less energy than digital systems. Hence, by mimicking how the brain solves these types of tasks, Williams said brain-inspired or neuromorphic systems could potentially overcome some of the computational hurdles faced by current digital technologies.

To build the fundamental building block of the brain or a neuron, the researchers assembled a synthetic nanoscale device consisting of layers of different inorganic materials, each with a unique function. However, they said the real magic happens in the thin layer made of the compound niobium dioxide.

When a small voltage is applied to this region, its temperature begins to increase. But when the temperature reaches a critical value, niobium dioxide undergoes a quick change in personality, turning from an insulator to a conductor. But as it begins to conduct electric currents, its temperature drops and niobium dioxide switches back to being an insulator.

These back-and-forth transitions enable the synthetic devices to generate a pulse of electrical current that closely resembles the profile of electrical spikes, or action potentials, produced by biological neurons. Further, by changing the voltage across their synthetic neurons, the researchers reproduced a rich range of neuronal behaviors observed in the brain, such as sustained, burst and chaotic firing of electrical spikes.

“Capturing the dynamical behavior of neurons is a key goal for brain-inspired computers,” said Kumar. “Altogether, we were able to recreate around 15 types of neuronal firing profiles, all using a single electrical component and at much lower energies compared to transistor-based circuits.”

To evaluate if their synthetic neurons [neuristor?] can solve real-world problems, the researchers first wired 24 such nanoscale devices together in a network inspired by the connections between the brain’s cortex and thalamus, a well-known neural pathway involved in pattern recognition. Next, they used this system to solve a toy version of the viral quasispecies reconstruction problem, where mutant variations of a virus are identified without a reference genome.

By means of data inputs, the researchers introduced the network to short gene fragments. Then, by programming the strength of connections between the artificial neurons within the network, they established basic rules about joining these genetic fragments. The jigsaw puzzle-like task for the network was to list mutations in the virus’ genome based on these short genetic segments.

The researchers found that within a few microseconds, their network of artificial neurons settled down in a state that was indicative of the genome for a mutant strain.

Williams and Kumar noted this result is proof of principle that their neuromorphic systems can quickly perform tasks in an energy-efficient way.

The researchers said the next steps in their research will be to expand the repertoire of the problems that their brain-like networks can solve by incorporating other firing patterns and some hallmark properties of the human brain like learning and memory. They also plan to address hardware challenges for implementing their technology on a commercial scale.

“Calculating the national debt or solving some large-scale simulation is not the type of task the human brain is good at and that’s why we have digital computers. Alternatively, we can leverage our knowledge of neuronal connections for solving problems that the brain is exceptionally good at,” said Williams. “We have demonstrated that depending on the type of problem, there are different and more efficient ways of doing computations other than the conventional methods using digital computers with transistors.”

If you look at the news release on EurekAlert, you’ll see this informative image is titled: NeuristerSchematic [sic],

Caption: Networks of artificial neurons connected together can solve toy versions the viral quasispecies reconstruction problem. Credit: Texas A&M University College of Engineering

(On the university website, the image is credited to Rachel Barton.) You can see one of the first mentions of a ‘neuristor’ here in an August 24, 2017 posting.

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

Third-order nanocircuit elements for neuromorphic engineering by Suhas Kumar, R. Stanley Williams & Ziwen Wang. Nature volume 585, pages518–523(2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2735-5 Published: 23 September 2020 Issue Date: 24 September 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Neuristors and brainlike computing

As you might suspect, a neuristor is based on a memristor .(For a description of a memristor there’s this Wikipedia entry and you can search this blog with the tags ‘memristor’ and neuromorphic engineering’ for more here.)

Being new to neuristors ,I needed a little more information before reading the latest and found this Dec. 24, 2012 article by John Timmer for Ars Technica (Note: Links have been removed),

Computing hardware is composed of a series of binary switches; they’re either on or off. The other piece of computational hardware we’re familiar with, the brain, doesn’t work anything like that. Rather than being on or off, individual neurons exhibit brief spikes of activity, and encode information in the pattern and timing of these spikes. The differences between the two have made it difficult to model neurons using computer hardware. In fact, the recent, successful generation of a flexible neural system required that each neuron be modeled separately in software in order to get the sort of spiking behavior real neurons display.

But researchers may have figured out a way to create a chip that spikes. The people at HP labs who have been working on memristors have figured out a combination of memristors and capacitors that can create a spiking output pattern. Although these spikes appear to be more regular than the ones produced by actual neurons, it might be possible to create versions that are a bit more variable than this one. And, more significantly, it should be possible to fabricate them in large numbers, possibly right on a silicon chip.

The key to making the devices is something called a Mott insulator. These are materials that would normally be able to conduct electricity, but are unable to because of interactions among their electrons. Critically, these interactions weaken with elevated temperatures. So, by heating a Mott insulator, it’s possible to turn it into a conductor. In the case of the material used here, NbO2, the heat is supplied by resistance itself. By applying a voltage to the NbO2 in the device, it becomes a resistor, heats up, and, when it reaches a critical temperature, turns into a conductor, allowing current to flow through. But, given the chance to cool off, the device will return to its resistive state. Formally, this behavior is described as a memristor.

To get the sort of spiking behavior seen in a neuron, the authors turned to a simplified model of neurons based on the proteins that allow them to transmit electrical signals. When a neuron fires, sodium channels open, allowing ions to rush into a nerve cell, and changing the relative charges inside and outside its membrane. In response to these changes, potassium channels then open, allowing different ions out, and restoring the charge balance. That shuts the whole thing down, and allows various pumps to start restoring the initial ion balance.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper described in Timmer’s article,

A scalable neuristor built with Mott memristors by Matthew D. Pickett, Gilberto Medeiros-Ribeiro, & R. Stanley Williams. Nature Materials 12, 114–117 (2013) doi:10.1038/nmat3510 Published online 16 December 2012

This paper is behind a paywall.

A July 28, 2017 news item on Nanowerk provides an update on neuristors,

A future android brain like that of Star Trek’s Commander Data might contain neuristors, multi-circuit components that emulate the firings of human neurons.

Neuristors already exist today in labs, in small quantities, and to fuel the quest to boost neuristors’ power and numbers for practical use in brain-like computing, the U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a $7.1 million grant to a research team led by the Georgia Institute of Technology. The researchers will mainly work on new metal oxide materials that buzz electronically at the nanoscale to emulate the way human neural networks buzz with electric potential on a cellular level.

A July 28, 2017 Georgia Tech news release, which originated the news item, delves further into neuristors and the proposed work leading to an artificial retina that can learn (!). This was not where I was expecting things to go,

But let’s walk expectations back from the distant sci-fi future into the scientific present: The research team is developing its neuristor materials to build an intelligent light sensor, and not some artificial version of the human brain, which would require hundreds of trillions of circuits.

“We’re not going to reach circuit complexities of that magnitude, not even a tenth,” said Alan Doolittle, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Also, currently science doesn’t really know yet very well how the human brain works, so we can’t duplicate it.”

Intelligent retina

But an artificial retina that can learn autonomously appears well within reach of the research team from Georgia Tech and Binghamton University. Despite the term “retina,” the development is not intended as a medical implant, but it could be used in advanced image recognition cameras for national defense and police work.

At the same time, it would significantly advance brain-mimicking, or neuromorphic, computing. The research field that takes its cues from what science already does know about how the brain computes to develop exponentially more powerful computing.

The retina would be comprised of an array of ultra-compact circuits called neuristors (a word combining “neuron” and “transistor”) that sense light, compute an image out of it and store the image. All three of the functions would occur simultaneously and nearly instantaneously.

“The same device senses, computes and stores the image,” Doolittle said. “The device is the sensor, and it’s the processor, and it’s the memory all at the same time.” A neuristor itself is comprised in part of devices called memristors inspired by the way human neurons work.

Brain vs. PC

That cuts out loads of processing and memory lag time that are inherent in traditional computing.

Take the device you’re reading this article on: Its microprocessor has to tap a separate memory component to get data, then do some processing, tap memory again for more data, process some more, etc. “That back-and-forth from memory to microprocessor has created a bottleneck,” Doolittle said.

A neuristor array breaks the bottleneck by emulating the extreme flexibility of biological nervous systems: When a brain computes, it uses a broad set of neural pathways that flash with enormous data. Then, later, to compute the same thing again, it will use quite different neural paths.

Traditional computer pathways, by contrast, are hardwired. For example, look at a present-day processor and you’ll see lines etched into it. Those are pathways that computational signals are limited to.

The new memristor materials at the heart of the neuristor are not etched, and signals flow through the surface very freely, more like they do through the brain, exponentially increasing the number of possible pathways computation can take. That helps the new intelligent retina compute powerfully and swiftly.

Terrorists, missing children

The retina’s memory could also store thousands of photos, allowing it to immediately match up what it sees with the saved images. The retina could pinpoint known terror suspects in a crowd, find missing children, or identify enemy aircraft virtually instantaneously, without having to trawl databases to correctly identify what is in the images.

Even if you take away the optics, the new neuristor arrays still advance artificial intelligence. Instead of light, a surface of neuristors could absorb massive data streams at once, compute them, store them, and compare them to patterns of other data, immediately. It could even autonomously learn to extrapolate further information, like calculating the third dimension out of data from two dimensions.

“It will work with anything that has a repetitive pattern like radar signatures, for example,” Doolittle said. “Right now, that’s too challenging to compute, because radar information is flying out at such a high data rate that no computer can even think about keeping up.”

Smart materials

The research project’s title acronym CEREBRAL may hint at distant dreams of an artificial brain, but what it stands for spells out the present goal in neuromorphic computing: Cross-disciplinary Electronic-ionic Research Enabling Biologically Realistic Autonomous Learning.

The intelligent retina’s neuristors are based on novel metal oxide nanotechnology materials, unique to Georgia Tech. They allow computing signals to flow flexibly across pathways that are electronic, which is customary in computing, and at the same time make use of ion motion, which is more commonly know from the way batteries and biological systems work.

The new materials have already been created, and they work, but the researchers don’t yet fully understand why.

Much of the project is dedicated to examining quantum states in the materials and how those states help create useful electronic-ionic properties. Researchers will view them by bombarding the metal oxides with extremely bright x-ray photons at the recently constructed National Synchrotron Light Source II.

Grant sub-awardee Binghamton University is located close by, and Binghamton physicists will run experiments and hone them via theoretical modeling.

‘Sea of lithium’

The neuristors are created mainly by the way the metal oxide materials are grown in the lab, which has advantages over building neuristors in a more wired way.

This materials-growing approach is conducive to mass production. Also, though neuristors in general free signals to take multiple pathways, Georgia Tech’s neuristors do it much more flexibly thanks to chemical properties.

“We also have a sea of lithium, and it’s like an infinite reservoir of computational ionic fluid,” Doolittle said. The lithium niobite imitates the way ionic fluid bathes biological neurons and allows them to flash with electric potential while signaling. In a neuristor array, the lithium niobite helps computational signaling move in myriad directions.

“It’s not like the typical semiconductor material, where you etch a line, and only that line has the computational material,” Doolittle said.

Commander Data’s brain?

“Unlike any other previous neuristors, our neuristors will adapt themselves in their computational-electronic pulsing on the fly, which makes them more like a neurological system,” Doolittle said. “They mimic biology in that we have ion drift across the material to create the memristors (the memory part of neuristors).”

Brains are far superior to computers at most things, but not all. Brains recognize objects and do motor tasks much better. But computers are much better at arithmetic and data processing.

Neuristor arrays can meld both types of computing, making them biological and algorithmic at once, a bit like Commander Data’s brain.

The research is being funded through the U.S. Department of Defense’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiatives (MURI) Program under grant number FOA: N00014-16-R-FO05. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of those agencies.

Fascinating, non?