Engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are leading a research team that is developing a new type of nanodevice for computer microprocessors that can mimic the functioning of a biological synapse—the place where a signal passes from one nerve cell to another in the body.
The work is featured in the advance online publication of Nature Materials.
Such neuromorphic computing in which microprocessors are configured more like human brains is one of the most promising transformative computing technologies currently under study.
J. Joshua Yang and Qiangfei Xia are professors in the electrical and computer engineering department in the UMass Amherst College of Engineering. Yang describes the research as part of collaborative work on a new type of memristive device.
Memristive devices are electrical resistance switches that can alter their resistance based on the history of applied voltage and current. These devices can store and process information and offer several key performance characteristics that exceed conventional integrated circuit technology.
“Memristors have become a leading candidate to enable neuromorphic computing by reproducing the functions in biological synapses and neurons in a neural network system, while providing advantages in energy and size,” the researchers say.
Neuromorphic computing—meaning microprocessors configured more like human brains than like traditional computer chips—is one of the most promising transformative computing technologies currently under intensive study. Xia says, “This work opens a new avenue of neuromorphic computing hardware based on memristors.”
They say that most previous work in this field with memristors has not implemented diffusive dynamics without using large standard technology found in integrated circuits commonly used in microprocessors, microcontrollers, static random access memory and other digital logic circuits.
The researchers say they proposed and demonstrated a bio-inspired solution to the diffusive dynamics that is fundamentally different from the standard technology for integrated circuits while sharing great similarities with synapses. They say, “Specifically, we developed a diffusive-type memristor where diffusion of atoms offers a similar dynamics and the needed time-scales as its bio-counterpart, leading to a more faithful emulation of actual synapses, i.e., a true synaptic emulator.”
The researchers say, “The results here provide an encouraging pathway toward synaptic emulation using diffusive memristors for neuromorphic computing.”
Narrowing the gap between biological brains and electronic ones
SINCE nobody really knows how brains work, those researching them must often resort to analogies. A common one is that a brain is a sort of squishy, imprecise, biological version of a digital computer. But analogies work both ways, and computer scientists have a long history of trying to improve their creations by taking ideas from biology. The trendy and rapidly developing branch of artificial intelligence known as “deep learning”, for instance, takes much of its inspiration from the way biological brains are put together.
The general idea of building computers to resemble brains is called neuromorphic computing, a term coined by Carver Mead, a pioneering computer scientist, in the late 1980s. There are many attractions. Brains may be slow and error-prone, but they are also robust, adaptable and frugal. They excel at processing the sort of noisy, uncertain data that are common in the real world but which tend to give conventional electronic computers, with their prescriptive arithmetical approach, indigestion. The latest development in this area came on August 3rd, when a group of researchers led by Evangelos Eleftheriou at IBM’s research laboratory in Zurich announced, in a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology, that they had built a working, artificial version of a neuron.
Neurons are the spindly, highly interconnected cells that do most of the heavy lifting in real brains. The idea of making artificial versions of them is not new. Dr Mead himself has experimented with using specially tuned transistors, the tiny electronic switches that form the basis of computers, to mimic some of their behaviour. These days, though, the sorts of artificial neurons that do everything from serving advertisements on web pages to recognising faces in Facebook posts are mostly simulated in software, with the underlying code running on ordinary silicon. That works, but as any computer scientist will tell you, creating an ersatz version of something in software is inevitably less precise and more computationally costly than simply making use of the thing itself.
Learn more: Artificial neurons – You’ve go a nerve
Chip-architecture breakthrough accelerates path to exascale computing; helps computers tackle complex, cognitive tasks such as pattern recognition sensory processing
The scalable platform will process the equivalent of 16 million neurons and 4 billion synapses and consume the energy equivalent of a hearing-aid battery – a mere 2.5 watts of power. Based on a breakthrough neurosynaptic computer chip called IBM TrueNorth, the scalable platform will process the equivalent of 16 million neurons and 4 billion synapses and consume the energy equivalent of a hearing aid battery – a mere 2.5 watts of power. The brain-like, neural network design of the IBM Neuromorphic System is able to infer complex cognitive tasks such as pattern recognition and integrated sensory processing far more efficiently than conventional chips.