Neuronlike circuits bring brainlike computers a step closer


For the first time, my colleagues and I have built a single electronic device that is capable of copying the functions of neuron cells in a brain. We then connected 20 of them together to perform a complicated calculation. This work shows that it is scientifically possible to make an advanced computer that does not rely on transistors to calculate and that uses much less electrical power than today's data centers.

Our research, which I began in 2004, was motivated by two questions. Can we build a single electronic element—the equivalent of a transistor or switch—that performs most of the known functions of neurons in a brain? If so, can we use it as a building block to build useful computers?

Neurons are very finely tuned, and so are electronic elements that emulate them. I co-authored a research paper in 2013 that laid out in principle what needed to be done. It took my colleague Suhas Kumar and others five years of careful exploration to get exactly the right material composition and structure to produce the necessary property predicted from theory.

Kumar then went a major step further and built a circuit with 20 of these elements connected to one another through a network of devices that can be programmed to have particular capacitances, or abilities to store electric charge. He then mapped a mathematical problem to the capacitances in the network, which allowed him to use the device to find the solution to a small version of a problem that is important in a wide range of modern analytics.

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