16 May 2014

Are synchronized ‘wacky oxide’ chips the key to brain-like computers?

A neuromorphic chip

Researchers at Penn State have created a new kind of computer chip that could be the key to creating neuromorphic (brain-like) computers that can solve incredibly complex problems while consuming just 1% of the power of current chips. These new chips contain a special “wacky oxide” (that’s the scientific term) material that oscillates at certain frequency, and synchronizes with other nearby wacky chips much in the same way that nearby neurons often fire in synchrony.

As you probably know, all modern computers are based on Boolean logic a strict set of logical rules (AND, OR, NOT) that always result in a true or false answer. In a modern processor, every functional unit is a collection of Boolean logic gates made out of transistors. A transistor (and thus the logic gate) can either be on or off true or false and no state in between. So far, as you can see from all the computers and digital interfaces that surround us, binary and Boolean computing has been rather successful.

Tianhe-2, with the lights on
Tianhe-2. The world’s fastest computer still struggles to process even a fraction of the human brain in real time.

Boolean computers aren’t perfect, though. Even the most powerful examples supercomputers like China’s 33-petaflop Tianhe-2 can’t keep up with the squishy lump of fat that we call the human brain. Brains do not use Boolean logic and they do not perform binary computation and yet they’re still capable of performing massively complex tasks, while processing just a tiny amount of power (the human brain uses around 50 watts; Tianhe-2 uses 17 megawatts, or 340,000 times more).

Truth be told, we’re not entirely sure how brains are capable of such massive computational prowess, but it probably comes down to parallelism, and the fact that it deals with fuzzy logic rather than the exact certitude of Boolean/binary computation. When your brain processes some data whether an observed face matches your memory of that friend’s face, for example it doesn’t produce and exact yes or no answer. What seems to occur is that, each observation (or smell or experience) creates a very specific pattern of synchronized neuron spikes in your brain.

Oscillating “wacky oxide” switch
Oscillating “wacky oxide” switch. Vanadium dioxide is the secret sauce.

The Penn State researchers believe that, by connecting up millions of these “wacky oxide” elements, that the same kind of (small-world network) synchronization that occurs between neurons in your brain could occur inside a computer chip. [doi:10.1038/srep04964 - "Synchronized charge oscillations in correlated electron systems"]. The idea is that you’d have multiple sets of oscillating elements. Each area would oscillate in a certain way, depending on the data that it stored. If another area then stored the same or similar data, then it would begin to synchronize with the other area and the degree of synchronization can be read. All of these processes consume very small amounts of power, according to the researchers (about 1% of the energy used by digital computers).

As you can tell, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but there’s a lot of exciting possibility there. Work on neuromorphic computer chips has really picked up over the last few years, and it will only accelerate as try to imbue small computers and robots with close-to-human levels of intelligence.

Courtesy Extremetech


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