According to researchers at Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf and the rest of the international team collaborating on the work, it’s time to look more closely at plasticity in the neuronal membrane,.
From the abstract for their paper, Intrinsic plasticity of silicon nanowire neurotransistors for dynamic memory and learning functions by Eunhye Baek, Nikhil Ranjan Das, Carlo Vittorio Cannistraci, Taiuk Rim, Gilbert Santiago Cañón Bermúdez, Khrystyna Nych, Hyeonsu Cho, Kihyun Kim, Chang-Ki Baek, Denys Makarov, Ronald Tetzlaff, Leon Chua, Larysa Baraban & Gianaurelio Cuniberti. Nature Electronics volume 3, pages 398–408 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41928-020-0412-1 Published online: 25 May 2020 Issue Date: July 2020
Neuromorphic architectures merge learning and memory functions within a single unit cell and in a neuron-like fashion. Research in the field has been mainly focused on the plasticity of artificial synapses. However, the intrinsic plasticity of the neuronal membrane is also important in the implementation of neuromorphic information processing. Here we report a neurotransistor made from a silicon nanowire transistor coated by an ion-doped sol–gel silicate film that can emulate the intrinsic plasticity of the neuronal membrane.
Especially activities in the field of artificial intelligence, like teaching robots to walk or precise automatic image recognition, demand ever more powerful, yet at the same time more economical computer chips. While the optimization of conventional microelectronics is slowly reaching its physical limits, nature offers us a blueprint how information can be processed and stored quickly and efficiently: our own brain.
For the very first time, scientists at TU Dresden and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) have now successfully imitated the functioning of brain neurons using semiconductor materials. They have published their research results in the journal Nature Electronics (“Intrinsic plasticity of silicon nanowire neurotransistors for dynamic memory and learning functions”).
Today, enhancing the performance of microelectronics is usually achieved by reducing component size, especially of the individual transistors on the silicon computer chips. “But that can’t go on indefinitely – we need new approaches”, Larysa Baraban asserts. The physicist, who has been working at HZDR since the beginning of the year, is one of the three primary authors of the international study, which involved a total of six institutes. One approach is based on the brain, combining data processing with data storage in an artificial neuron.
“Our group has extensive experience with biological and chemical electronic sensors,” Baraban continues. “So, we simulated the properties of neurons using the principles of biosensors and modified a classical field-effect transistor to create an artificial neurotransistor.” The advantage of such an architecture lies in the simultaneous storage and processing of information in a single component. In conventional transistor technology, they are separated, which slows processing time and hence ultimately also limits performance.
Silicon wafer + polymer = chip capable of learning
Modeling computers on the human brain is no new idea. Scientists made attempts to hook up nerve cells to electronics in Petri dishes decades ago. “But a wet computer chip that has to be fed all the time is of no use to anybody,” says Gianaurelio Cuniberti from TU Dresden. The Professor for Materials Science and Nanotechnology is one of the three brains behind the neurotransistor alongside Ronald Tetzlaff, Professor of Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering in Dresden, and Leon Chua [emphasis mine] from the University of California at Berkeley, who had already postulated similar components in the early 1970s.
Now, Cuniberti, Baraban and their team have been able to implement it: “We apply a viscous substance – called solgel – to a conventional silicon wafer with circuits. This polymer hardens and becomes a porous ceramic,” the materials science professor explains. “Ions move between the holes. They are heavier than electrons and slower to return to their position after excitation. This delay, called hysteresis, is what causes the storage effect.” As Cuniberti explains, this is a decisive factor in the functioning of the transistor. “The more an individual transistor is excited, the sooner it will open and let the current flow. This strengthens the connection. The system is learning.”
Cuniberti and his team are not focused on conventional issues, though. “Computers based on our chip would be less precise and tend to estimate mathematical computations rather than calculating them down to the last decimal,” the scientist explains. “But they would be more intelligent. For example, a robot with such processors would learn to walk or grasp; it would possess an optical system and learn to recognize connections. And all this without having to develop any software.” But these are not the only advantages of neuromorphic computers. Thanks to their plasticity, which is similar to that of the human brain, they can adapt to changing tasks during operation and, thus, solve problems for which they were not originally programmed.
I highlighted Dr. Leon Chua’s name as he was one of the first to conceptualize the notion of a memristor (memory resistor), which is what the press release seems to be referencing with the mention of artificial synapses. Dr. Chua very kindly answered a few questions for me about his work which I published in an April 13, 2010 posting (scroll down about 40% of the way).
Many computational properties are maximized when the dynamics of a network are at a “critical point”, a state where systems can quickly change their overall characteristics in fundamental ways, transitioning e.g. between order and chaos or stability and instability. Therefore, the critical state is widely assumed to be optimal for any computation in recurrent neural networks, which are used in many AI [artificial intelligence] applications.
Researchers from the HBP [Human Brain Project] partner Heidelberg University and the Max-Planck-Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization challenged this assumption by testing the performance of a spiking recurrent neural network on a set of tasks with varying complexity at – and away from critical dynamics. They instantiated the network on a prototype of the analog neuromorphic BrainScaleS-2 system. BrainScaleS is a state-of-the-art brain-inspired computing system with synaptic plasticity implemented directly on the chip. It is one of two neuromorphic systems currently under development within the European Human Brain Project.
First, the researchers showed that the distance to criticality can be easily adjusted in the chip by changing the input strength, and then demonstrated a clear relation between criticality and task-performance. The assumption that criticality is beneficial for every task was not confirmed: whereas the information-theoretic measures all showed that network capacity was maximal at criticality, only the complex, memory intensive tasks profited from it, while simple tasks actually suffered. The study thus provides a more precise understanding of how the collective network state should be tuned to different task requirements for optimal performance.
Mechanistically, the optimal working point for each task can be set very easily under homeostatic plasticity by adapting the mean input strength. The theory behind this mechanism was developed very recently at the Max Planck Institute. “Putting it to work on neuromorphic hardware shows that these plasticity rules are very capable in tuning network dynamics to varying distances from criticality”, says senior author Viola Priesemann, group leader at MPIDS. Thereby tasks of varying complexity can be solved optimally within that space.
The finding may also explain why biological neural networks operate not necessarily at criticality, but in the dynamically rich vicinity of a critical point, where they can tune their computation properties to task requirements. Furthermore, it establishes neuromorphic hardware as a fast and scalable avenue to explore the impact of biological plasticity rules on neural computation and network dynamics.
“As a next step, we now study and characterize the impact of the spiking network’s working point on classifying artificial and real-world spoken words”, says first author Benjamin Cramer of Heidelberg University.
A July 1, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces work which researchers are hopeful will allow them exert more control over neuromorphic devices’ speed of response,
“Neuromorphic” refers to mimicking the behavior of brain neural cells. When one speaks of neuromorphic computers, they are talking about making computers think and process more like human brains-operating at high-speed with low energy consumption.
Despite a growing interest in polymer-based neuromorphic devices, researchers have yet to establish an effective method for controlling the response speed of devices. Researchers from Tohoku University and the University of Cambridge, however, have overcome this obstacle through mixing the polymers PSS-Na and PEDOT:PSS, discovering that adding an ion conducting polymer enhances neuromorphic device response time.
Polymers are materials composed of long molecular chains and play a fundamental aspect in modern life from the rubber in tires, to water bottles, to polystyrene. Mixing polymers together results in the creation of new materials with their own distinct physical properties.
Most studies on neuromorphic devices based on polymer focus exclusively on the application of PEDOT: PSS, a mixed conductor that transports both electrons and ions. PSS-Na, on the other hand, transports ions only. By blending these two polymers, the researchers could enhance the ion diffusivity in the active layer of the device. Their measurements confirmed an increase in device response time, achieving a 5-time shorting at maximum. The results also proved how closely related response time is to the diffusivity of ions in the active layer.
“Our study paves the way for a deeper understanding behind the science of conducting polymers.” explains co-author Shunsuke Yamamoto from the Department of Biomolecular Engineering at Tohoku University’s Graduate School of Engineering. “Moving forward, it may be possible to create artificial neural networks composed of multiple neuromorphic devices,” he adds.
This is the second neuromorphic computing chip story from MIT this summer in what has turned out to be a bumper crop of research announcements in this field. The first MIT synapse story was featured in a June 16, 2020 posting. Now, there’s a second and completely different team announcing results for their artificial brain synapse work in a June 19, 2020 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),
Teams around the world are building ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence systems of a type called neural networks, designed in some ways to mimic the wiring of the brain, for carrying out tasks such as computer vision and natural language processing.
Using state-of-the-art semiconductor circuits to simulate neural networks requires large amounts of memory and high power consumption. Now, an MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] team has made strides toward an alternative system, which uses physical, analog devices that can much more efficiently mimic brain processes.
The findings are described in the journal Nature Communications (“Protonic solid-state electrochemical synapse for physical neural networks”), in a paper by MIT professors Bilge Yildiz, Ju Li, and Jesús del Alamo, and nine others at MIT and Brookhaven National Laboratory. The first author of the paper is Xiahui Yao, a former MIT postdoc now working on energy storage at GRU Energy Lab.
That description of the work is one pretty much every team working on developing memristive (neuromorphic) chips could use.
On other fronts, the team has produced a very attractive illustration accompanying this research (aside: Is it my imagination or has there been a serious investment in the colour pink and other pastels for science illustrations?),
A June 19, 2020 MIT news release, which originated the news item, provides more insight into this specific piece of research (hint: it’s about energy use and repeatability),
Neural networks attempt to simulate the way learning takes place in the brain, which is based on the gradual strengthening or weakening of the connections between neurons, known as synapses. The core component of this physical neural network is the resistive switch, whose electronic conductance can be controlled electrically. This control, or modulation, emulates the strengthening and weakening of synapses in the brain.
In neural networks using conventional silicon microchip technology, the simulation of these synapses is a very energy-intensive process. To improve efficiency and enable more ambitious neural network goals, researchers in recent years have been exploring a number of physical devices that could more directly mimic the way synapses gradually strengthen and weaken during learning and forgetting.
Most candidate analog resistive devices so far for such simulated synapses have either been very inefficient, in terms of energy use, or performed inconsistently from one device to another or one cycle to the next. The new system, the researchers say, overcomes both of these challenges. “We’re addressing not only the energy challenge, but also the repeatability-related challenge that is pervasive in some of the existing concepts out there,” says Yildiz, who is a professor of nuclear science and engineering and of materials science and engineering.
“I think the bottleneck today for building [neural network] applications is energy efficiency. It just takes too much energy to train these systems, particularly for applications on the edge, like autonomous cars,” says del Alamo, who is the Donner Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Many such demanding applications are simply not feasible with today’s technology, he adds.
The resistive switch in this work is an electrochemical device, which is made of tungsten trioxide (WO3) and works in a way similar to the charging and discharging of batteries. Ions, in this case protons, can migrate into or out of the crystalline lattice of the material, explains Yildiz, depending on the polarity and strength of an applied voltage. These changes remain in place until altered by a reverse applied voltage — just as the strengthening or weakening of synapses does.
The mechanism is similar to the doping of semiconductors,” says Li, who is also a professor of nuclear science and engineering and of materials science and engineering. In that process, the conductivity of silicon can be changed by many orders of magnitude by introducing foreign ions into the silicon lattice. “Traditionally those ions were implanted at the factory,” he says, but with the new device, the ions are pumped in and out of the lattice in a dynamic, ongoing process. The researchers can control how much of the “dopant” ions go in or out by controlling the voltage, and “we’ve demonstrated a very good repeatability and energy efficiency,” he says.
Yildiz adds that this process is “very similar to how the synapses of the biological brain work. There, we’re not working with protons, but with other ions such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, etc., and by moving those ions you actually change the resistance of the synapses, and that is an element of learning.” The process taking place in the tungsten trioxide in their device is similar to the resistance modulation taking place in biological synapses, she says.
“What we have demonstrated here,” Yildiz says, “even though it’s not an optimized device, gets to the order of energy consumption per unit area per unit change in conductance that’s close to that in the brain.” Trying to accomplish the same task with conventional CMOS type semiconductors would take a million times more energy, she says.
The materials used in the demonstration of the new device were chosen for their compatibility with present semiconductor manufacturing systems, according to Li. But they include a polymer material that limits the device’s tolerance for heat, so the team is still searching for other variations of the device’s proton-conducting membrane and better ways of encapsulating its hydrogen source for long-term operations.
“There’s a lot of fundamental research to be done at the materials level for this device,” Yildiz says. Ongoing research will include “work on how to integrate these devices with existing CMOS transistors” adds del Alamo. “All that takes time,” he says, “and it presents tremendous opportunities for innovation, great opportunities for our students to launch their careers.”
Coincidentally or not a University of Massachusetts at Amherst team announced memristor voltage use comparable to human brain voltage use (see my June 15, 2020 posting), plus, there’s a team at Stanford University touting their low-energy biohybrid synapse in a XXX posting. (June 2020 has been a particularly busy month here for ‘artificial brain’ or ‘memristor’ stories.)
Getting back to this latest MIT research, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Protonic solid-state electrochemical synapse for physical neural networks by Xiahui Yao, Konstantin Klyukin, Wenjie Lu, Murat Onen, Seungchan Ryu, Dongha Kim, Nicolas Emond, Iradwikanari Waluyo, Adrian Hunt, Jesús A. del Alamo, Ju Li & Bilge Yildiz. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3134 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16866-6 Published: 19 June 2020
In 2017, Stanford University researchers presented a new device that mimics the brain’s efficient and low-energy neural learning process [see my March 8, 2017 posting for more]. It was an artificial version of a synapse — the gap across which neurotransmitters travel to communicate between neurons — made from organic materials. In 2019, the researchers assembled nine of their artificial synapses together in an array, showing that they could be simultaneously programmed to mimic the parallel operation of the brain [see my Sept. 17, 2019 posting].
Now, in a paper published June 15  in Nature Materials, they have tested the first biohybrid version of their artificial synapse and demonstrated that it can communicate with living cells. Future technologies stemming from this device could function by responding directly to chemical signals from the brain. The research was conducted in collaboration with researchers at Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology — IIT) in Italy and at Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands).
“This paper really highlights the unique strength of the materials that we use in being able to interact with living matter,” said Alberto Salleo, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford and co-senior author of the paper. “The cells are happy sitting on the soft polymer. But the compatibility goes deeper: These materials work with the same molecules neurons use naturally.”
While other brain-integrated devices require an electrical signal to detect and process the brain’s messages, the communications between this device and living cells occur through electrochemistry — as though the material were just another neuron receiving messages from its neighbor.
The biohybrid artificial synapse consists of two soft polymer electrodes, separated by a trench filled with electrolyte solution – which plays the part of the synaptic cleft that separates communicating neurons in the brain. When living cells are placed on top of one electrode, neurotransmitters that those cells release can react with that electrode to produce ions. Those ions travel across the trench to the second electrode and modulate the conductive state of this electrode. Some of that change is preserved, simulating the learning process occurring in nature.
“In a biological synapse, essentially everything is controlled by chemical interactions at the synaptic junction. Whenever the cells communicate with one another, they’re using chemistry,” said Scott Keene, a graduate student at Stanford and co-lead author of the paper. “Being able to interact with the brain’s natural chemistry gives the device added utility.”
This process mimics the same kind of learning seen in biological synapses, which is highly efficient in terms of energy because computing and memory storage happen in one action. In more traditional computer systems, the data is processed first and then later moved to storage.
To test their device, the researchers used rat neuroendocrine cells that release the neurotransmitter dopamine. Before they ran their experiment, they were unsure how the dopamine would interact with their material – but they saw a permanent change in the state of their device upon the first reaction.
“We knew the reaction is irreversible, so it makes sense that it would cause a permanent change in the device’s conductive state,” said Keene. “But, it was hard to know whether we’d achieve the outcome we predicted on paper until we saw it happen in the lab. That was when we realized the potential this has for emulating the long-term learning process of a synapse.”
A first step
This biohybrid design is in such early stages that the main focus of the current research was simply to make it work.
“It’s a demonstration that this communication melding chemistry and electricity is possible,” said Salleo. “You could say it’s a first step toward a brain-machine interface, but it’s a tiny, tiny very first step.”
Now that the researchers have successfully tested their design, they are figuring out the best paths for future research, which could include work on brain-inspired computers, brain-machine interfaces, medical devices or new research tools for neuroscience. Already, they are working on how to make the device function better in more complex biological settings that contain different kinds of cells and neurotransmitters.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
A biohybrid synapse with neurotransmitter-mediated plasticity by Scott T. Keene, Claudia Lubrano, Setareh Kazemzadeh, Armantas Melianas, Yaakov Tuchman, Giuseppina Polino, Paola Scognamiglio, Lucio Cinà, Alberto Salleo, Yoeri van de Burgt & Francesca Santoro. Nature Materials (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41563-020-0703-y Published: 15 June 2020
Artificial Neural Network (ANN) is a type of information processing system based on mimicking the principles of biological brains, and has been broadly applied in application domains such as pattern recognition, automatic control, signal processing, decision support system and artificial intelligence. Spiking Neural Network (SNN) is a type of biologically-inspired ANN that perform information processing based on discrete-time spikes. It is more biologically realistic than classic ANNs, and can potentially achieve much better performance-power ratio. Recently, researchers from Zhejiang University and Hangzhou Dianzi University in Hangzhou, China successfully developed the Darwin Neural Processing Unit (NPU), a neuromorphic hardware co-processor based on Spiking Neural Networks, fabricated by standard CMOS technology.
With the rapid development of the Internet-of-Things and intelligent hardware systems, a variety of intelligent devices are pervasive in today’s society, providing many services and convenience to people’s lives, but they also raise challenges of running complex intelligent algorithms on small devices. Sponsored by the college of Computer science of Zhejiang University, the research group led by Dr. De Ma from Hangzhou Dianzi university and Dr. Xiaolei Zhu from Zhejiang university has developed a co-processor named as Darwin.The Darwin NPU aims to provide hardware acceleration of intelligent algorithms, with target application domain of resource-constrained, low-power small embeddeddevices. It has been fabricated by 180nm standard CMOS process, supporting a maximum of 2048 neurons, more than 4 million synapses and 15 different possible synaptic delays. It is highly configurable, supporting reconfiguration of SNN topology and many parameters of neurons and synapses.Figure 1 shows photos of the die and the prototype development board, which supports input/output in the form of neural spike trains via USB port.
The successful development ofDarwin demonstrates the feasibility of real-time execution of Spiking Neural Networks in resource-constrained embedded systems. It supports flexible configuration of a multitude of parameters of the neural network, hence it can be used to implement different functionalities as configured by the user. Its potential applications include intelligent hardware systems, robotics, brain-computer interfaces, and others.Since it uses spikes for information processing and transmission,similar to biological neural networks, it may be suitable for analysis and processing of biological spiking neural signals, and building brain-computer interface systems by interfacing with animal or human brains. As a prototype application in Brain-Computer Interfaces, Figure 2 [not included here] describes an application example ofrecognizingthe user’s motor imagery intention via real-time decoding of EEG signals, i.e., whether he is thinking of left or right, and using it to control the movement direction of a basketball in the virtual environment. Different from conventional EEG signal analysis algorithms, the input and output to Darwin are both neural spikes: the input is spike trains that encode EEG signals; after processing by the neural network, the output neuron with the highest firing rate is chosen as the classification result.
The second generation of the Darwin Neural Processing Unit (Darwin NPU 2) as well as its corresponding toolchain and micro-operating system was released in Hangzhou recently. This research was led by Zhejiang University, with Hangzhou Dianzi University and Huawei Central Research Institute participating in the development and algorisms of the chip. The Darwin NPU 2 can be primarily applied to smart Internet of Things (IoT). It can support up to 150,000 neurons and has achieved the largest-scale neurons on a nationwide basis.
The Darwin NPU 2 is fabricated by standard 55nm CMOS technology. Every “neuromorphic” chip is made up of 576 kernels, each of which can support 256 neurons. It contains over 10 million synapses which can construct a powerful brain-inspired computing system.
“A brain-inspired chip can work like the neurons inside a human brain and it is remarkably unique in image recognition, visual and audio comprehension and naturalistic language processing,” said MA De, an associate professor at the College of Computer Science and Technology on the research team.
“In comparison with traditional chips, brain-inspired chips are more adept at processing ambiguous data, say, perception tasks. Another prominent advantage is their low energy consumption. In the process of information transmission, only those neurons that receive and process spikes will be activated while other neurons will stay dormant. In this case, energy consumption can be extremely low,” said Dr. ZHU Xiaolei at the School of Microelectronics.
To cater to the demands for voice business, Huawei Central Research Institute designed an efficient spiking neural network algorithm in accordance with the defining feature of the Darwin NPU 2 architecture, thereby increasing computing speeds and improving recognition accuracy tremendously.
Scientists have developed a host of applications, including gesture recognition, image recognition, voice recognition and decoding of electroencephalogram (EEG) signals, on the Darwin NPU 2 and reduced energy consumption by at least two orders of magnitude.
In comparison with the first generation of the Darwin NPU which was developed in 2015, the Darwin NPU 2 has escalated the number of neurons by two orders of magnitude from 2048 neurons and augmented the flexibility and plasticity of the chip configuration, thus expanding the potential for applications appreciably. The improvement in the brain-inspired chip will bring in its wake the revolution of computer technology and artificial intelligence. At present, the brain-inspired chip adopts a relatively simplified neuron model, but neurons in a real brain are far more sophisticated and many biological mechanisms have yet to be explored by neuroscientists and biologists. It is expected that in the not-too-distant future, a fascinating improvement on the Darwin NPU 2 will come over the horizon.
I haven’t been able to find a recent (i.e., post 2017) research paper featuring Darwin but there is another chip and research on that one was published in July 2019. First, the news.
The Tianjic chip
A July 31, 2019 article in the New York Times by Cade Metz describes the research and offers what seems to be a jaundiced perspective about the field of neuromorphic computing (Note: A link has been removed),
As corporate giants like Ford, G.M. and Waymo struggle to get their self-driving cars on the road, a team of researchers in China is rethinking autonomous transportation using a souped-up bicycle.
This bike can roll over a bump on its own, staying perfectly upright. When the man walking just behind it says “left,” it turns left, angling back in the direction it came.
It also has eyes: It can follow someone jogging several yards ahead, turning each time the person turns. And if it encounters an obstacle, it can swerve to the side, keeping its balance and continuing its pursuit.
… Chinese researchers who built the bike believe it demonstrates the future of computer hardware. It navigates the world with help from what is called a neuromorphic chip, modeled after the human brain.
Here’s a video, released by the researchers, demonstrating the chip’s abilities,
The short video did not show the limitations of the bicycle (which presumably tips over occasionally), and even the researchers who built the bike admitted in an email to The Times that the skills on display could be duplicated with existing computer hardware. But in handling all these skills with a neuromorphic processor, the project highlighted the wider effort to achieve new levels of artificial intelligence with novel kinds of chips.
This effort spans myriad start-up companies and academic labs, as well as big-name tech companies like Google, Intel and IBM. And as the Nature paper demonstrates, the movement is gaining significant momentum in China, a country with little experience designing its own computer processors, but which has invested heavily in the idea of an “A.I. chip.”
If you can get past what seems to be a patronizing attitude, there are some good explanations and cogent criticisms in the piece (Metz’s July 31, 2019 article, Note: Links have been removed),
… it faces significant limitations.
A neural network doesn’t really learn on the fly. Engineers train a neural network for a particular task before sending it out into the real world, and it can’t learn without enormous numbers of examples. OpenAI, a San Francisco artificial intelligence lab, recently built a system that could beat the world’s best players at a complex video game called Dota 2. But the system first spent months playing the game against itself, burning through millions of dollars in computing power.
Researchers aim to build systems that can learn skills in a manner similar to the way people do. And that could require new kinds of computer hardware. Dozens of companies and academic labs are now developing chips specifically for training and operating A.I. systems. The most ambitious projects are the neuromorphic processors, including the Tianjic chip under development at Tsinghua University in China.
Such chips are designed to imitate the network of neurons in the brain, not unlike a neural network but with even greater fidelity, at least in theory.
Neuromorphic chips typically include hundreds of thousands of faux neurons, and rather than just processing 1s and 0s, these neurons operate by trading tiny bursts of electrical signals, “firing” or “spiking” only when input signals reach critical thresholds, as biological neurons do.
Tiernan Ray’s August 3, 2019 article about the chip for ZDNet.com offers some thoughtful criticism with a side dish of snark (Note: Links have been removed),
Nature magazine’s cover story [July 31, 2019] is about a Chinese chip [Tianjic chip]that can run traditional deep learning code and also perform “neuromorophic” operations in the same circuitry. The work’s value seems obscured by a lot of hype about “artificial general intelligence” that has no real justification.
The term “artificial general intelligence,” or AGI, doesn’t actually refer to anything, at this point, it is merely a placeholder, a kind of Rorschach Test for people to fill the void with whatever notions they have of what it would mean for a machine to “think” like a person.
Despite that fact, or perhaps because of it, AGI is an ideal marketing term to attach to a lot of efforts in machine learning. Case in point, a research paper featured on the cover of this week’s Nature magazine about a new kind of computer chip developed by researchers at China’s Tsinghua University that could “accelerate the development of AGI,” they claim.
The chip is a strange hybrid of approaches, and is intriguing, but the work leaves unanswered many questions about how it’s made, and how it achieves what researchers claim of it. And some longtime chip observers doubt the impact will be as great as suggested.
“This paper is an example of the good work that China is doing in AI,” says Linley Gwennap, longtime chip-industry observer and principal analyst with chip analysis firm The Linley Group. “But this particular idea isn’t going to take over the world.”
The premise of the paper, “Towards artificial general intelligence with hybrid Tianjic chip architecture,” is that to achieve AGI, computer chips need to change. That’s an idea supported by fervent activity these days in the land of computer chips, with lots of new chip designs being proposed specifically for machine learning.
The Tsinghua authors specifically propose that the mainstream machine learning of today needs to be merged in the same chip with what’s called “neuromorphic computing.” Neuromorphic computing, first conceived by Caltech professor Carver Mead in the early ’80s, has been an obsession for firms including IBM for years, with little practical result.
[Missing details about the chip] … For example, the part is said to have “reconfigurable” circuits, but how the circuits are to be reconfigured is never specified. It could be so-called “field programmable gate array,” or FPGA, technology or something else. Code for the project is not provided by the authors as it often is for such research; the authors offer to provide the code “on reasonable request.”
More important is the fact the chip may have a hard time stacking up to a lot of competing chips out there, says analyst Gwennap. …
What the paper calls ANN and SNN are two very different means of solving similar problems, kind of like rotating (helicopter) and fixed wing (airplane) are for aviation,” says Gwennap. “Ultimately, I expect ANN [?] and SNN [spiking neural network] to serve different end applications, but I don’t see a need to combine them in a single chip; you just end up with a chip that is OK for two things but not great for anything.”
But you also end up generating a lot of buzz, and given the tension between the U.S. and China over all things tech, and especially A.I., the notion China is stealing a march on the U.S. in artificial general intelligence — whatever that may be — is a summer sizzler of a headline.
ANN could be either artificial neural network or something mentioned earlier in Ray’s article, a shortened version of CANN [continuous attractor neural network].
Shelly Fan’s August 7, 2019 article for the SingularityHub is almost as enthusiastic about the work as the podcasters for Nature magazine were (a little more about that later),
The study shows that China is readily nipping at the heels of Google, Facebook, NVIDIA, and other tech behemoths investing in developing new AI chip designs—hell, with billions in government investment it may have already had a head start. A sweeping AI plan from 2017 looks to catch up with the US on AI technology and application by 2020. By 2030, China’s aiming to be the global leader—and a champion for building general AI that matches humans in intellectual competence.
The country’s ambition is reflected in the team’s parting words.
“Our study is expected to stimulate AGI [artificial general intelligence] development by paving the way to more generalized hardware platforms,” said the authors, led by Dr. Luping Shi at Tsinghua University.
Using nanoscale fabrication, the team arranged 156 FCores, containing roughly 40,000 neurons and 10 million synapses, onto a chip less than a fifth of an inch in length and width. Initial tests showcased the chip’s versatility, in that it can run both SNNs and deep learning algorithms such as the popular convolutional neural network (CNNs) often used in machine vision.
Compared to IBM TrueNorth, the density of Tianjic’s cores increased by 20 percent, speeding up performance ten times and increasing bandwidth at least 100-fold, the team said. When pitted against GPUs, the current hardware darling of machine learning, the chip increased processing throughput up to 100 times, while using just a sliver (1/10,000) of energy.
Shelly Xuelai Fan is a neuroscientist-turned-science writer. She completed her PhD in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, where she developed novel treatments for neurodegeneration. While studying biological brains, she became fascinated with AI and all things biotech. Following graduation, she moved to UCSF [University of California at San Francisco] to study blood-based factors that rejuvenate aged brains. She is the co-founder of Vantastic Media, a media venture that explores science stories through text and video, and runs the award-winning blog NeuroFantastic.com. Her first book, “Will AI Replace Us?” (Thames & Hudson) will be out April 2019.
Onto Nature. Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Towards artificial general intelligence with hybrid Tianjic chip architecture by Jing Pei, Lei Deng, Sen Song, Mingguo Zhao, Youhui Zhang, Shuang Wu, Guanrui Wang, Zhe Zou, Zhenzhi Wu, Wei He, Feng Chen, Ning Deng, Si Wu, Yu Wang, Yujie Wu, Zheyu Yang, Cheng Ma, Guoqi Li, Wentao Han, Huanglong Li, Huaqiang Wu, Rong Zhao, Yuan Xie & Luping Shi. Nature volume 572, pages106–111(2019) DOI: https//doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1424-8 Published: 31 July 2019 Issue Date: 01 August 2019
This paper is behind a paywall.
The July 31, 2019 Nature podcast, which includes a segment about the Tianjic chip research from China, which is at the 9 mins. 13 secs. mark (AI hardware) or you can scroll down about 55% of the way to the transcript of the interview with Luke Fleet, the Nature editor who dealt with the paper.
The pundits put me in mind of my own reaction when I heard about phones that could take pictures. I didn’t see the point but, as it turned out, there was a perfectly good reason for combining what had been two separate activities into one device. It was no longer just a telephone and I had completely missed the point.
This too may be the case with the Tianjic chip. I think it’s too early to say whether or not it represents a new type of chip or if it’s a dead end.
I’ve been meaning to get to this news item from late 2019 as it features work from a team that I’ve been following for a number of years now. First mentioned here in an October 17, 2011 posting, James Gimzewski has been working with researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and researchers at Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) on neuromorphic computing.
This particular research had a protracted rollout with the paper being published in October 2019 and the last news item about it being published in mid-December 2019.
UCLA scientists James Gimzewski and Adam Stieg are part of an international research team that has taken a significant stride toward the goal of creating thinking machines.
Led by researchers at Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science, the team created an experimental device that exhibited characteristics analogous to certain behaviors of the brain — learning, memorization, forgetting, wakefulness and sleep. The paper, published in Scientific Reports (“Emergent dynamics of neuromorphic nanowire networks”), describes a network in a state of continuous flux.
“This is a system between order and chaos, on the edge of chaos,” said Gimzewski, a UCLA distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA and a co-author of the study. “The way that the device constantly evolves and shifts mimics the human brain. It can come up with different types of behavior patterns that don’t repeat themselves.”
The research is one early step along a path that could eventually lead to computers that physically and functionally resemble the brain — machines that may be capable of solving problems that contemporary computers struggle with, and that may require much less power than today’s computers do.
The device the researchers studied is made of a tangle of silver nanowires — with an average diameter of just 360 nanometers. (A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.) The nanowires were coated in an insulating polymer about 1 nanometer thick. Overall, the device itself measured about 10 square millimeters — so small that it would take 25 of them to cover a dime.
Allowed to randomly self-assemble on a silicon wafer, the nanowires formed highly interconnected structures that are remarkably similar to those that form the neocortex, the part of the brain involved with higher functions such as language, perception and cognition.
One trait that differentiates the nanowire network from conventional electronic circuits is that electrons flowing through them cause the physical configuration of the network to change. In the study, electrical current caused silver atoms to migrate from within the polymer coating and form connections where two nanowires overlap. The system had about 10 million of these junctions, which are analogous to the synapses where brain cells connect and communicate.
The researchers attached two electrodes to the brain-like mesh to profile how the network performed. They observed “emergent behavior,” meaning that the network displayed characteristics as a whole that could not be attributed to the individual parts that make it up. This is another trait that makes the network resemble the brain and sets it apart from conventional computers.
After current flowed through the network, the connections between nanowires persisted for as much as one minute in some cases, which resembled the process of learning and memorization in the brain. Other times, the connections shut down abruptly after the charge ended, mimicking the brain’s process of forgetting.
In other experiments, the research team found that with less power flowing in, the device exhibited behavior that corresponds to what neuroscientists see when they use functional MRI scanning to take images of the brain of a sleeping person. With more power, the nanowire network’s behavior corresponded to that of the wakeful brain.
The paper is the latest in a series of publications examining nanowire networks as a brain-inspired system, an area of research that Gimzewski helped pioneer along with Stieg, a UCLA research scientist and an associate director of CNSI.
“Our approach may be useful for generating new types of hardware that are both energy-efficient and capable of processing complex datasets that challenge the limits of modern computers,” said Stieg, a co-author of the study.
The borderline-chaotic activity of the nanowire network resembles not only signaling within the brain but also other natural systems such as weather patterns. That could mean that, with further development, future versions of the device could help model such complex systems.
In other experiments, Gimzewski and Stieg already have coaxed a silver nanowire device to successfully predict statistical trends in Los Angeles traffic patterns based on previous years’ traffic data.
Because of their similarities to the inner workings of the brain, future devices based on nanowire technology could also demonstrate energy efficiency like the brain’s own processing. The human brain operates on power roughly equivalent to what’s used by a 20-watt incandescent bulb. By contrast, computer servers where work-intensive tasks take place — from training for machine learning to executing internet searches — can use the equivalent of many households’ worth of energy, with the attendant carbon footprint.
“In our studies, we have a broader mission than just reprogramming existing computers,” Gimzewski said. “Our vision is a system that will eventually be able to handle tasks that are closer to the way the human being operates.”
The study’s first author, Adrian Diaz-Alvarez, is from the International Center for Material Nanoarchitectonics at Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science. Co-authors include Tomonobu Nakayama and Rintaro Higuchi, also of NIMS; and Zdenka Kuncic at the University of Sydney in Australia.
An international joint research team led by NIMS succeeded in fabricating a neuromorphic network composed of numerous metallic nanowires. Using this network, the team was able to generate electrical characteristics similar to those associated with higher order brain functions unique to humans, such as memorization, learning, forgetting, becoming alert and returning to calm. The team then clarified the mechanisms that induced these electrical characteristics.
The development of artificial intelligence (AI) techniques has been rapidly advancing in recent years and has begun impacting our lives in various ways. Although AI processes information in a manner similar to the human brain, the mechanisms by which human brains operate are still largely unknown. Fundamental brain components, such as neurons and the junctions between them (synapses), have been studied in detail. However, many questions concerning the brain as a collective whole need to be answered. For example, we still do not fully understand how the brain performs such functions as memorization, learning and forgetting, and how the brain becomes alert and returns to calm. In addition, live brains are difficult to manipulate in experimental research. For these reasons, the brain remains a “mysterious organ.” A different approach to brain research?in which materials and systems capable of performing brain-like functions are created and their mechanisms are investigated?may be effective in identifying new applications of brain-like information processing and advancing brain science.
The joint research team recently built a complex brain-like network by integrating numerous silver (Ag) nanowires coated with a polymer (PVP) insulating layer approximately 1 nanometer in thickness. A junction between two nanowires forms a variable resistive element (i.e., a synaptic element) that behaves like a neuronal synapse. This nanowire network, which contains a large number of intricately interacting synaptic elements, forms a “neuromorphic network”. When a voltage was applied to the neuromorphic network, it appeared to “struggle” to find optimal current pathways (i.e., the most electrically efficient pathways). The research team measured the processes of current pathway formation, retention and deactivation while electric current was flowing through the network and found that these processes always fluctuate as they progress, similar to the human brain’s memorization, learning, and forgetting processes. The observed temporal fluctuations also resemble the processes by which the brain becomes alert or returns to calm. Brain-like functions simulated by the neuromorphic network were found to occur as the huge number of synaptic elements in the network collectively work to optimize current transport, in the other words, as a result of self-organized and emerging dynamic processes..
The research team is currently developing a brain-like memory device using the neuromorphic network material. The team intends to design the memory device to operate using fundamentally different principles than those used in current computers. For example, while computers are currently designed to spend as much time and electricity as necessary in pursuit of absolutely optimum solutions, the new memory device is intended to make a quick decision within particular limits even though the solution generated may not be absolutely optimum. The team also hopes that this research will facilitate understanding of the brain’s information processing mechanisms.
This project was carried out by an international joint research team led by Tomonobu Nakayama (Deputy Director, International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics (WPI-MANA), NIMS), Adrian Diaz Alvarez (Postdoctoral Researcher, WPI-MANA, NIMS), Zdenka Kuncic (Professor, School of Physics, University of Sydney, Australia) and James K. Gimzewski (Professor, California NanoSystems Institute, University of California Los Angeles, USA).
Here at last is a link to and a citation for the paper,
Emergent dynamics of neuromorphic nanowire networks by Adrian Diaz-Alvarez, Rintaro Higuchi, Paula Sanz-Leon, Ido Marcus, Yoshitaka Shingaya, Adam Z. Stieg, James K. Gimzewski, Zdenka Kuncic & Tomonobu Nakayama. Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 14920 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-51330-6 Published: 17 October 2019
It’s hard to believe that a brain-on-a-chip might need sleep but that seems to be the case as far as the US Dept. of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory is concerned. Before pursuing that line of thought, here’s some work from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) involving memristors and a brain-on-a-chip. From a June 8, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,
MIT engineers have designed a “brain-on-a-chip,” smaller than a piece of confetti, that is made from tens of thousands of artificial brain synapses known as memristors — silicon-based components that mimic the information-transmitting synapses in the human brain.
The researchers borrowed from principles of metallurgy to fabricate each memristor from alloys of silver and copper, along with silicon. When they ran the chip through several visual tasks, the chip was able to “remember” stored images and reproduce them many times over, in versions that were crisper and cleaner compared with existing memristor designs made with unalloyed elements.
Their results, published today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, demonstrate a promising new memristor design for neuromorphic devices — electronics that are based on a new type of circuit that processes information in a way that mimics the brain’s neural architecture. Such brain-inspired circuits could be built into small, portable devices, and would carry out complex computational tasks that only today’s supercomputers can handle.
This ‘metallurgical’ approach differs somewhat from the protein nanowire approach used by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst team mentioned in my June 15, 2020 posting. Scientists are pursuing multiple pathways and we may find that we arrive with not ‘a single artificial brain but with many types of artificial brains.
“So far, artificial synapse networks exist as software. We’re trying to build real neural network hardware for portable artificial intelligence systems,” says Jeehwan Kim, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “Imagine connecting a neuromorphic device to a camera on your car, and having it recognize lights and objects and make a decision immediately, without having to connect to the internet. We hope to use energy-efficient memristors to do those tasks on-site, in real-time.”
Memristors, or memory transistors [Note: Memristors are usually described as memory resistors; this is the first time I’ve seen ‘memory transistor’], are an essential element in neuromorphic computing. In a neuromorphic device, a memristor would serve as the transistor in a circuit, though its workings would more closely resemble a brain synapse — the junction between two neurons. The synapse receives signals from one neuron, in the form of ions, and sends a corresponding signal to the next neuron.
A transistor in a conventional circuit transmits information by switching between one of only two values, 0 and 1, and doing so only when the signal it receives, in the form of an electric current, is of a particular strength. In contrast, a memristor would work along a gradient, much like a synapse in the brain. The signal it produces would vary depending on the strength of the signal that it receives. This would enable a single memristor to have many values, and therefore carry out a far wider range of operations than binary transistors.
Like a brain synapse, a memristor would also be able to “remember” the value associated with a given current strength, and produce the exact same signal the next time it receives a similar current. This could ensure that the answer to a complex equation, or the visual classification of an object, is reliable — a feat that normally involves multiple transistors and capacitors.
Ultimately, scientists envision that memristors would require far less chip real estate than conventional transistors, enabling powerful, portable computing devices that do not rely on supercomputers, or even connections to the Internet.
Existing memristor designs, however, are limited in their performance. A single memristor is made of a positive and negative electrode, separated by a “switching medium,” or space between the electrodes. When a voltage is applied to one electrode, ions from that electrode flow through the medium, forming a “conduction channel” to the other electrode. The received ions make up the electrical signal that the memristor transmits through the circuit. The size of the ion channel (and the signal that the memristor ultimately produces) should be proportional to the strength of the stimulating voltage.
Kim says that existing memristor designs work pretty well in cases where voltage stimulates a large conduction channel, or a heavy flow of ions from one electrode to the other. But these designs are less reliable when memristors need to generate subtler signals, via thinner conduction channels.
The thinner a conduction channel, and the lighter the flow of ions from one electrode to the other, the harder it is for individual ions to stay together. Instead, they tend to wander from the group, disbanding within the medium. As a result, it’s difficult for the receiving electrode to reliably capture the same number of ions, and therefore transmit the same signal, when stimulated with a certain low range of current.
Borrowing from metallurgy
Kim and his colleagues found a way around this limitation by borrowing a technique from metallurgy, the science of melding metals into alloys and studying their combined properties.
“Traditionally, metallurgists try to add different atoms into a bulk matrix to strengthen materials, and we thought, why not tweak the atomic interactions in our memristor, and add some alloying element to control the movement of ions in our medium,” Kim says.
Engineers typically use silver as the material for a memristor’s positive electrode. Kim’s team looked through the literature to find an element that they could combine with silver to effectively hold silver ions together, while allowing them to flow quickly through to the other electrode.
The team landed on copper as the ideal alloying element, as it is able to bind both with silver, and with silicon.
“It acts as a sort of bridge, and stabilizes the silver-silicon interface,” Kim says.
To make memristors using their new alloy, the group first fabricated a negative electrode out of silicon, then made a positive electrode by depositing a slight amount of copper, followed by a layer of silver. They sandwiched the two electrodes around an amorphous silicon medium. In this way, they patterned a millimeter-square silicon chip with tens of thousands of memristors.
As a first test of the chip, they recreated a gray-scale image of the Captain America shield. They equated each pixel in the image to a corresponding memristor in the chip. They then modulated the conductance of each memristor that was relative in strength to the color in the corresponding pixel.
The chip produced the same crisp image of the shield, and was able to “remember” the image and reproduce it many times, compared with chips made of other materials.
The team also ran the chip through an image processing task, programming the memristors to alter an image, in this case of MIT’s Killian Court, in several specific ways, including sharpening and blurring the original image. Again, their design produced the reprogrammed images more reliably than existing memristor designs.
“We’re using artificial synapses to do real inference tests,” Kim says. “We would like to develop this technology further to have larger-scale arrays to do image recognition tasks. And some day, you might be able to carry around artificial brains to do these kinds of tasks, without connecting to supercomputers, the internet, or the cloud.”
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Alloying conducting channels for reliable neuromorphic computing by Hanwool Yeon, Peng Lin, Chanyeol Choi, Scott H. Tan, Yongmo Park, Doyoon Lee, Jaeyong Lee, Feng Xu, Bin Gao, Huaqiang Wu, He Qian, Yifan Nie, Seyoung Kim & Jeehwan Kim. Nature Nanotechnology (2020 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-020-0694-5 Published: 08 June 2020
This paper is behind a paywall.
Electric sheep and sleeping androids
I find it impossible to mention that androids might need sleep without reference to Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”; its Wikipedia entry is here.
As it happens, I’m not the only one who felt the need to reference the novel, from a June 8, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,
No one can say whether androids will dream of electric sheep, but they will almost certainly need periods of rest that offer benefits similar to those that sleep provides to living brains, according to new research from Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“We study spiking neural networks, which are systems that learn much as living brains do,” said Los Alamos National Laboratory computer scientist Yijing Watkins. “We were fascinated by the prospect of training a neuromorphic processor in a manner analogous to how humans and other biological systems learn from their environment during childhood development.”
Watkins and her research team found that the network simulations became unstable after continuous periods of unsupervised learning. When they exposed the networks to states that are analogous to the waves that living brains experience during sleep, stability was restored. “It was as though we were giving the neural networks the equivalent of a good night’s rest,” said Watkins.
The discovery came about as the research team worked to develop neural networks that closely approximate how humans and other biological systems learn to see. The group initially struggled with stabilizing simulated neural networks undergoing unsupervised dictionary training, which involves classifying objects without having prior examples to compare them to.
“The issue of how to keep learning systems from becoming unstable really only arises when attempting to utilize biologically realistic, spiking neuromorphic processors or when trying to understand biology itself,” said Los Alamos computer scientist and study coauthor Garrett Kenyon. “The vast majority of machine learning, deep learning, and AI researchers never encounter this issue because in the very artificial systems they study they have the luxury of performing global mathematical operations that have the effect of regulating the overall dynamical gain of the system.”
The researchers characterize the decision to expose the networks to an artificial analog of sleep as nearly a last ditch effort to stabilize them. They experimented with various types of noise, roughly comparable to the static you might encounter between stations while tuning a radio. The best results came when they used waves of so-called Gaussian noise, which includes a wide range of frequencies and amplitudes. They hypothesize that the noise mimics the input received by biological neurons during slow-wave sleep. The results suggest that slow-wave sleep may act, in part, to ensure that cortical neurons maintain their stability and do not hallucinate.
The groups’ next goal is to implement their algorithm on Intel’s Loihi neuromorphic chip. They hope allowing Loihi to sleep from time to time will enable it to stably process information from a silicon retina camera in real time. If the findings confirm the need for sleep in artificial brains, we can probably expect the same to be true of androids and other intelligent machines that may come about in the future.
Watkins will be presenting the research at the Women in Computer Vision Workshop on June 14  in Seattle.
The 2020 Women in Computer Vition Workshop (WICV) website is here. As is becoming standard practice for these times, the workshop was held in a virtual environment. Here’s a link to and a citation for the poster presentation paper,
Part of neuromorphic computing’s appeal is the promise of using less energy because, as it turns out, the human brain uses small amounts of energy very efficiently. A team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have developed function in the same range of voltages as the human brain. From an April 20, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,
Only 10 years ago, scientists working on what they hoped would open a new frontier of neuromorphic computing could only dream of a device using miniature tools called memristors that would function/operate like real brain synapses.
But now a team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has discovered, while on their way to better understanding protein nanowires, how to use these biological, electricity conducting filaments to make a neuromorphic memristor, or “memory transistor,” device. It runs extremely efficiently on very low power, as brains do, to carry signals between neurons. Details are in Nature Communications.
As first author Tianda Fu, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical and computer engineering, explains, one of the biggest hurdles to neuromorphic computing, and one that made it seem unreachable, is that most conventional computers operate at over 1 volt, while the brain sends signals called action potentials between neurons at around 80 millivolts – many times lower. Today, a decade after early experiments, memristor voltage has been achieved in the range similar to conventional computer, but getting below that seemed improbable, he adds.
Fu reports that using protein nanowires developed at UMass Amherst from the bacterium Geobacter by microbiologist and co-author Derek Lovely, he has now conducted experiments where memristors have reached neurological voltages. Those tests were carried out in the lab of electrical and computer engineering researcher and co-author Jun Yao.
Yao says, “This is the first time that a device can function at the same voltage level as the brain. People probably didn’t even dare to hope that we could create a device that is as power-efficient as the biological counterparts in a brain, but now we have realistic evidence of ultra-low power computing capabilities. It’s a concept breakthrough and we think it’s going to cause a lot of exploration in electronics that work in the biological voltage regime.”
Lovely points out that Geobacter’s electrically conductive protein nanowires offer many advantages over expensive silicon nanowires, which require toxic chemicals and high-energy processes to produce. Protein nanowires also are more stable in water or bodily fluids, an important feature for biomedical applications. For this work, the researchers shear nanowires off the bacteria so only the conductive protein is used, he adds.
Fu says that he and Yao had set out to put the purified nanowires through their paces, to see what they are capable of at different voltages, for example. They experimented with a pulsing on-off pattern of positive-negative charge sent through a tiny metal thread in a memristor, which creates an electrical switch.
They used a metal thread because protein nanowires facilitate metal reduction, changing metal ion reactivity and electron transfer properties. Lovely says this microbial ability is not surprising, because wild bacterial nanowires breathe and chemically reduce metals to get their energy the way we breathe oxygen.
As the on-off pulses create changes in the metal filaments, new branching and connections are created in the tiny device, which is 100 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, Yao explains. It creates an effect similar to learning – new connections – in a real brain. He adds, “You can modulate the conductivity, or the plasticity of the nanowire-memristor synapse so it can emulate biological components for brain-inspired computing. Compared to a conventional computer, this device has a learning capability that is not software-based.”
Fu recalls, “In the first experiments we did, the nanowire performance was not satisfying, but it was enough for us to keep going.” Over two years, he saw improvement until one fateful day when his and Yao’s eyes were riveted by voltage measurements appearing on a computer screen.
“I remember the day we saw this great performance. We watched the computer as current voltage sweep was being measured. It kept doing down and down and we said to each other, ‘Wow, it’s working.’ It was very surprising and very encouraging.”
Fu, Yao, Lovely and colleagues plan to follow up this discovery with more research on mechanisms, and to “fully explore the chemistry, biology and electronics” of protein nanowires in memristors, Fu says, plus possible applications, which might include a device to monitor heart rate, for example. Yao adds, “This offers hope in the feasibility that one day this device can talk to actual neurons in biological systems.”
That last comment has me wondering about why you would want to have your device talk to actual neurons. For neuroprosthetics perhaps?
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Bioinspired bio-voltage memristors by Tianda Fu, Xiaomeng Liu, Hongyan Gao, Joy E. Ward, Xiaorong Liu, Bing Yin, Zhongrui Wang, Ye Zhuo, David J. F. Walker, J. Joshua Yang, Jianhan Chen, Derek R. Lovley & Jun Yao. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 1861 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-15759-y Published: 20 April 2020
A May 11, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily provides a description of the current ‘memristor scene’ along with an announcement about a piece of recent research,
Scientists around the world are intensively working on memristive devices, which are capable in extremely low power operation and behave similarly to neurons in the brain. Researchers from the Jülich Aachen Research Alliance (JARA) and the German technology group Heraeus have now discovered how to systematically control the functional behaviour of these elements. The smallest differences in material composition are found crucial: differences so small that until now experts had failed to notice them. The researchers’ design directions could help to increase variety, efficiency, selectivity and reliability for memristive technology-based applications, for example for energy-efficient, non-volatile storage devices or neuro-inspired computers.
Memristors are considered a highly promising alternative to conventional nanoelectronic elements in computer Chips [sic]. Because of the advantageous functionalities, their development is being eagerly pursued by many companies and research institutions around the world. The Japanese corporation NEC installed already the first prototypes in space satellites back in 2017. Many other leading companies such as Hewlett Packard, Intel, IBM, and Samsung are working to bring innovative types of computer and storage devices based on memristive elements to market.
Fundamentally, memristors are simply “resistors with memory,” in which high resistance can be switched to low resistance and back again. This means in principle that the devices are adaptive, similar to a synapse in a biological nervous system. “Memristive elements are considered ideal candidates for neuro-inspired computers modelled on the brain, which are attracting a great deal of interest in connection with deep learning and artificial intelligence,” says Dr. Ilia Valov of the Peter Grünberg Institute (PGI-7) at Forschungszentrum Jülich.
In the latest issue of the open access journal Science Advances, he and his team describe how the switching and neuromorphic behaviour of memristive elements can be selectively controlled. According to their findings, the crucial factor is the purity of the switching oxide layer. “Depending on whether you use a material that is 99.999999 % pure, and whether you introduce one foreign atom into ten million atoms of pure material or into one hundred atoms, the properties of the memristive elements vary substantially” says Valov.
This effect had so far been overlooked by experts. It can be used very specifically for designing memristive systems, in a similar way to doping semiconductors in information technology. “The introduction of foreign atoms allows us to control the solubility and transport properties of the thin oxide layers,” explains Dr. Christian Neumann of the technology group Heraeus. He has been contributing his materials expertise to the project ever since the initial idea was conceived in 2015.
“In recent years there has been remarkable progress in the development and use of memristive devices, however that progress has often been achieved on a purely empirical basis,” according to Valov. Using the insights that his team has gained, manufacturers could now methodically develop memristive elements selecting the functions they need. The higher the doping concentration, the slower the resistance of the elements changes as the number of incoming voltage pulses increases and decreases, and the more stable the resistance remains. “This means that we have found a way for designing types of artificial synapses with differing excitability,” explains Valov.
Design specification for artificial synapses
The brain’s ability to learn and retain information can largely be attributed to the fact that the connections between neurons are strengthened when they are frequently used. Memristive devices, of which there are different types such as electrochemical metallization cells (ECMs) or valence change memory cells (VCMs), behave similarly. When these components are used, the conductivity increases as the number of incoming voltage pulses increases. The changes can also be reversed by applying voltage pulses of the opposite polarity.
The JARA researchers conducted their systematic experiments on ECMs, which consist of a copper electrode, a platinum electrode, and a layer of silicon dioxide between them. Thanks to the cooperation with Heraeus researchers, the JARA scientists had access to different types of silicon dioxide: one with a purity of 99.999999 % – also called 8N silicon dioxide – and others containing 100 to 10,000 ppm (parts per million) of foreign atoms. The precisely doped glass used in their experiments was specially developed and manufactured by quartz glass specialist Heraeus Conamic, which also holds the patent for the procedure. Copper and protons acted as mobile doping agents, while aluminium and gallium were used as non-volatile doping.
Record switching time confirms theory
Based on their series of experiments, the researchers were able to show that the ECMs’ switching times change as the amount of doping atoms changes. If the switching layer is made of 8N silicon dioxide, the memristive component switches in only 1.4 nanoseconds. To date, the fastest value ever measured for ECMs had been around 10 nanoseconds. By doping the oxide layer of the components with up to 10,000 ppm of foreign atoms, the switching time was prolonged into the range of milliseconds. “We can also theoretically explain our results. This is helping us to understand the physico-chemical processes on the nanoscale and apply this knowledge in the practice” says Valov. Based on generally applicable theoretical considerations, supported by experimental results, some also documented in the literature, he is convinced that the doping/impurity effect occurs and can be employed in all types memristive elements.
For anyone curious about the German technology group, Heraeus, there’s a fascinating history in its Wikipedia entry. The technology company was formally founded in 1851 but it can be traced back to the 17th century and the founding family’s apothecary.