The brain is an enormously complex machine whose processing power is unmatched by even the most advanced supercomputer. In fact, as evidenced by IBM’s famed ‘cat brain’ project, the best supercomputers are required just to simulate the basic behavior of biological neural circuits.
A major difference between the brain and a supercomputer is that the brain handles memory and processing at the same time — on what is essentialy a parallel circuit. But even the best computers are built with physically separate ‘memory’ and ‘processing’ components. The back and forth transmission of data between these two subsystems makes the machines inherently non-parallel.
However, this month in the scientific journal Advanced Materials, a study led by David Wright of the University of Exeter in England has shown how semiconductor ‘phase-change materials’ have just the right properties to build a machine that can store memory and process information at the same time.
The curious property of phase-change materials — which can be designed to melt at one temperature and solidify at another, releasing enormous amounts of energy in the process — is not new. In fact, it's used in optical drive technology such as Blue-Ray discs.
In this latest application, phase change materials are used to create computationally sophisticated processors. The team built a 'phase-change processor' that was able to perform arithmetic operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. They hope that simulations of neurons that use these processors as artificial neurons will be able to more closely mimic the behavior of biological neurons.
Write tells PC Pro that in the next stage of project they are “planning on making a small demonstrator with 10 to 100 of these cells connected together to work on pattern recognition or maze solving.”
Credit: PASIEKA/Getty Images