Artificial Synapse Pic.jpeg

The new device is made of organic materials (mostly carbon and hydrogen), and is also more efficient and less expensive than its inorganic competitors. Two members of the team that helped create the artificial synapse device: Alberto Salleo, associate professor of materials science and engineering, and graduate student Scott Keene. (via L.A. Cicero)


The human brain is often compared to computers through analogy, and it represents the world’s most elegant and powerful supercomputer. Computer technology is a powerful asset because computers can often perform step-by-step procedures much more quickly and accurately than humans, but typically where they fall short is in the realms of pattern recognition, language capabilities, and creative thinking. There have been recent advancements in brain-inspired computer technology that seek to improve functioning in these areas such as the 100-synapse neural circuit developed by researchers at UC Santa Barbara, which performed successfully in an image classification task. There has also been IBM’s TrueNorth: a one million neuron brain-inspired processor that can perform 46 billion synaptic operations per second, per watt.


Though, according to Dharmendra S. Modha of IBM, the two factors that separate computers from the capability of the human brain are technology and architecture. Modha said that IBM focused on improving the architectural side of things for TrueNorth by, “...minimizing the product of power, area, and delay in a system that could be implemented in today’s state-of-the-art technology,” and now researchers from Stanford and Sandia National Laboratories have made a significant leap in the technology factor.


A synapse is a space through which neurons communicate, and neurons require less and less energy to traverse that space each subsequent time, which is how they can facilitate both learning new information and storing information into memory. The new artificial synapse is a vast improvement over traditional computing methods, according to Taylor Kubota of the Stanford New Service, because traditional methods involve processing information first, and then storing it into memory, whereas the artificial synapse simultaneously processes the information and creates the memory. So unlike typical computers today, where everything must be saved to the hard drive before turning it off, this new capability would allow for computers to recall their programming without additional actions or parts.


Every part of the device is composed of inexpensive organic materials that are compatible with the brain’s chemistry, and it is based on a battery design that consists of two thin flexible films and three terminals which are connected by a salty water electrolyte. The device works as a transistor in which one terminal controls the flow of electricity between the two others. According to Kubota, cells have been able to grow on these materials, they have been used to make artificial pumps for neural transmitters, and even the voltages applied to “train” the artificial synapses are the same as those that move through human neurons. All of which is to say that the development of this artificial synapse could enable computer technology to communicate with live neurons, and ultimately lead to improved brain-machine interfaces.


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