Computer scientists have long been searching for ways to mimic the human brain’s ability to store and process information. Well, now researchers have made a microchip that is closer to that goal, describing their creation as a step towards the “holy grail” of computing.
Reporting in Science Advances, a team led by the University of Exeter, UK, has made specialized photonic microchips that could one day help to create computers that store huge amounts of information whilst using little power. As their name suggests, they use light rather than electricity to mimic the way in which the synapses in the human brain work. Synapses are the junctions between nerve cells that brain impulses cross.
"Since synapses outnumber neurons in the brain by around 10,000 to 1, any brain-like computer needs to be able to replicate some form of synaptic mimic," explained Professor Wolfram Pernice from the University of Münster, who co-authored the research, in a statement. "That is what we have done here."
The team combined phase-change materials that are often found in household items, like re-writable optical discs (CDs and DVDs), with integrated photonic circuits. The resulting creation delivers a brain-like synaptic response. Using a photonic system also enhances speed and power efficiency.
Not only does the new microchip act like a brain, it can actually work a thousand times faster. The researchers think their discovery could lead us into a new age of computing, where machines can act, and even think, like brains do.
"The development of computers that work more like the human brain has been a holy grail of scientists for decades,” said Professor Harish Bhaskaran from Oxford University, one of the study’s authors. “Via a network of neurons and synapses the brain can process and store vast amounts of information simultaneously, using only a few tens of Watts of power. Conventional computers can't come close to this sort of performance.”
Professor C David Wright, co-author of the study, added: "Electronic computers are relatively slow, and the faster we make them the more power they consume. Conventional computers are also pretty 'dumb', with none of the in-built learning and parallel processing capabilities of the human. We tackle both of these issues here – not only by developing not only new brain-like computer architectures, but also by working in the optical domain to leverage the huge speed and power advantages of the upcoming silicon photonics revolution."
Obviously, we don’t know yet whether these kinds of computer chips could ever actually have a sense of consciousness like our brains do. To find that out, we’ll have to wait and see.