Tag Archives: The memristor as computing device

New path to viable memristor/neuristor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too many paths

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

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

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

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

A perfect mismatch

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

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

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

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

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

Writing, recognized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

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

January 22, 2018: Memristors at Masdar

January 3, 2018: Mott memristor

August 24, 2017: Neuristors and brainlike computing

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

May 2, 2017: Predicting how a memristor functions

December 30, 2016: Changing synaptic connectivity with a memristor

December 5, 2016: The memristor as computing device

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

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

Memristors at Masdar

The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Masdar Institute Wikipedia entry) featured its work with memristors in an Oct. 1, 2017 Masdar Institute press release by Erica Solomon (for anyone who’s interested, I have a simple description of memristors and links to more posts about them after the press release),

Researchers Develop New Memristor Prototype Capable of Performing Complex Operations at High-Speed and Low Power, Could Lead to Advancements in Internet of Things, Portable Healthcare Sensing and other Embedded Technologies

Computer circuits in development at the Khalifa University of Science and Technology could make future computers much more compact, efficient and powerful thanks to advancements being made in memory technologies that combine processing and memory storage functions into one densely packed “memristor.”

Enabling faster, smaller and ultra-low-power computers with memristors could have a big impact on embedded technologies, which enable Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, and portable healthcare sensing systems, says Dr. Baker Mohammad, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Dr. Mohammad co-authored a book on memristor technologies, which has just been released by Springer, a leading global scientific publisher of books and journals, with Class of 2017 PhD graduate Heba Abunahla. The book, titled Memristor Technology: Synthesis and Modeling for Sensing and Security Applications, provides readers with a single-source guide to fabricate, characterize and model memristor devices for sensing applications.

The pair also contributed to a paper on memristor research that was published in IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems I: Regular Papers earlier this month with Class of 2017 MSc graduate Muath Abu Lebdeh and Dr. Mahmoud Al-Qutayri, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.PhD student Yasmin Halawani is also an active member of Dr. Mohammad’s research team.

Conventional computers rely on energy and time-consuming processes to move information back and forth between the computer central processing unit (CPU) and the memory, which are separately located. A memristor, which is an electrical resistor that remembers how much current flows through it, can bridge the gap between computation and storage. Instead of fetching data from the memory and sending that data to the CPU where it is then processed, memristors have the potential to store and process data simultaneously.

“Memristors allow computers to perform many operations at the same time without having to move data around, thereby reducing latency, energy requirements, costs and chip size,” Dr. Mohammad explained. “We are focused on extending the logic gate design of the current memristor architecture with one that leads to even greater reduction of latency, energy dissipation and size.”

Logic gates control an electronics logical operation on one or more binary inputs and typically produce a single binary output. That is why they are at the heart of what makes a computer work, allowing a CPU to carry out a given set of instructions, which are received as electrical signals, using one or a combination of the seven basic logical operations: AND, OR, NOT, XOR, XNOR, NAND and NOR.

The team’s latest work is aimed at advancing a memristor’s ability to perform a complex logic operation, known as the XNOR (Exclusive NOR) logic gate function, which is the most complex logic gate operation among the seven basic logic gates types.

Designing memristive logic gates is difficult, as they require that each electrical input and output be in the form of electrical resistance rather than electrical voltage.

“However, we were able to successfully design an XNOR logic gate prototype with a novel structure, by layering bipolar and unipolar memristor types in a novel heterogeneous structure, which led to a reduction in latency and energy consumption for a memristive XNOR logic circuit gate by 50% compared to state-of the art state full logic proposed by leading research institutes,” Dr. Mohammad revealed.

The team’s current work builds on five years of research in the field of memristors, which is expected to reach a market value of US$384 million by 2025, according to a recent report from Research and Markets. Up to now, the team has fabricated and characterized several memristor prototypes, assessing how different design structures influence efficiency and inform potential applications. Some innovative memristor technology applications the team discovered include machine vision, radiation sensing and diabetes detection. Two patents have already been issued by the US Patents and Trademark Office (USPTO) for novel memristor designs invented by the team, with two additional patents pending.

Their robust research efforts have also led to the publication of several papers on the technology in high impact journals, including The Journal of Physical Chemistry, Materials Chemistry and Physics, and IEEE TCAS. This strong technology base paved the way for undergraduate senior students Reem Aldahmani, Amani Alshkeili, and Reem Jassem Jaffar to build novel and efficient memristive sensing prototypes.

The memristor research is also set to get an additional boost thanks to the new University merger, which Dr. Mohammad believes could help expedite the team’s research and development efforts through convenient and continuous access to the wider range of specialized facilities and tools the new university has on offer.

The team’s prototype memristors are now in the laboratory prototype stage, and Dr. Mohammad plans to initiate discussions for internal partnership opportunities with the Khalifa University Robotics Institute, followed by external collaboration with leading semiconductor companies such as Abu Dhabi-owned GlobalFoundries, to accelerate the transfer of his team’s technology to the market.

With initial positive findings and the promise of further development through the University’s enhanced portfolio of research facilities, this project is a perfect demonstration of how the Khalifa University of Science and Technology is pushing the envelope of electronics and semiconductor technologies to help transform Abu Dhabi into a high-tech hub for research and entrepreneurship.

h/t Oct. 4, 2017 Nanowerk news item

Slightly restating it from the press release, a memristor is a nanoscale electrical component which mimics neural plasticity. Memristor combines the word ‘memory’ with ‘resistor’.

For those who’d like a little more, there are three components: capacitors, inductors, and resistors which make up an electrical circuit. The resistor is the circuit element which represents the resistance to the flow of electric current.  As for how this relates to the memristor (from the Memristor Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

The memristor’s electrical resistance is not constant but depends on the history of current that had previously flowed through the device, i.e., its present resistance depends on how much electric charge has flowed in what direction through it in the past; the device remembers its history — the so-called non-volatility property.[2] When the electric power supply is turned off, the memristor remembers its most recent resistance until it is turned on again

The memristor could lead to more energy-saving devices but much of the current (pun noted) interest lies in its similarity to neural plasticity and its potential application on neuromorphic engineering (brainlike computing).

Here’s a sampling of some of the more recent memristor postings on this blog:

August 24, 2017: Neuristors and brainlike computing

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

May 2, 2017: Predicting how a memristor functions

December 30, 2016: Changing synaptic connectivity with a memristor

December 5, 2016: The memristor as computing device

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

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