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 recognise 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 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 recognise samples of handwriting, with 95% accuracy.
The design, published today 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.
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.”
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Image credit: MIT.