Brain-Improving Computer Chips

 Brain-Improving Computer Chips

The new technique may enable computers to do complex tasks more swiftly and precisely while using significantly less energy.

Brain-Improving Computer Chips

Using electrical pulses, a novel microelectronics device can program and reprogram computer hardware on demand.

What if a computer could learn to rebuild its circuits based on the data it is fed?

A multi-institutional effort, including the United States Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, has developed a material that can be utilized to make computer chips that can do precisely that. It accomplishes this by replicating brain activities using "neuromorphic" circuitry and computer architecture. Shriram Ramanathan, a professor at Purdue University, headed the team.

"Learning new things may truly transform human brains," said Subramanian Sankaranarayanan, a research co-author with dual appointments at Argonne and the University of Illinois Chicago. "We have now developed a gadget that allows machines to reorganize their circuits in a brain-like manner."

With this capabilities, artificial intelligence-based computers may be able to do challenging tasks more rapidly and precisely while consuming significantly less energy. Analyzing complex medical pictures is one example. Autonomous autos and space robots that can rewire their circuits based on their experiences are more future examples.

The essential material in the new gadget is perovskite nickelate, which is composed of neodymium, nickel, and oxygen (NdNiO3). The researchers filled this material with hydrogen and connected electrodes to it, allowing them to apply electrical pulses of varying voltages.

"The electrical characteristics alter depending on how much hydrogen is in the nickelate and where it is," Sankaranarayanan explained. "With varied electrical pulses, we can vary its position and concentration."

"This material has a multifaceted personality," Hua Zhou, an Argonne scientist and article co-author, remarked. "It performs the two typical duties of common electronics: turning on and off electrical current, as well as storing and releasing power." What is truly novel and remarkable is the inclusion of two functions that are analogous to the distinct behavior of synapses and neurons in the brain." A neuron is a single nerve cell with which other nerve cells communicate via synapses. Neurons initiate sensory perception of the outside environment.

The Argonne team contributed by doing computational and experimental characterization of what happens in the nickelate device at various voltages. They used DOE Office of Science user resources at Argonne to do this, including the Advanced Photon Source, Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, and Center for Nanoscale Materials.

The results of the experiments showed that just changing the voltage affects the flow of hydrogen ions within the nickelate. A certain voltage concentration concentrates hydrogen at the nickelate core, resulting in neuron-like activity. A separate voltage transports the hydrogen from the core, resulting in synapse-like activity. At higher voltages, the resultant locations and concentrations of hydrogen cause computer chip on-off currents.

"Our simulations demonstrating this process at the atomic scale were quite demanding," said Sukriti Manna, an Argonne scientist. The team used not just the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, but also the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, a DOE Office of Science user facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Experiments at the Advanced Photon Source's beamline 33-ID-D helped confirm the process.

"We've had a really productive cooperation with the Purdue group over the years," Zhou added. "The scientists identified precisely how atoms assemble within the nickelate under different voltages here." It was especially critical to watch the material's atomic-scale reaction to hydrogen migration."

Scientists will use the team's nickelate gadget to build a network of artificial neurons and synapses that can learn and adapt based on experience. This network would expand or contract in response to new information, allowing it to operate with remarkable energy efficiency. And lower operational expenses result from increased energy efficiency.

Brain-inspired microelectronics, using the team's technology as a foundation, might have a promising future. This is especially true given that the device may be manufactured at room temperature using processes that are consistent with semiconductor industry norms.

The DOE Office of Basic Energy Sciences, as well as the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation, financed Argonne-related research.

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