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Robots & Machines

Engineers Have Created Artificial Synapses That Mimic the Human Brain

They could be key to computers that work like the brain.

Jelor GallegoSeptember 29th 2016

Emulating Synapses

Some scientists suggest that, instead of working on artificial intelligence that functions better than the human brain, we should be making computers like the brain. We may well be on this path after engineers from University of Massachusetts Amherst demonstrated devices that emulate the behavior of the brain’s synapses.

Their device uses “memristors,’ components whose resistance relies on how much charge has passed through them in the past. That means they have the ability to store and process information, and have some characteristics that make them better than traditional integrated circuits.

These memristors have been used before, but what makes this study unique is that two different kinds of memristors are being combined to better emulate the brain. On their own, memristors have been made to mimic synapses, using electrical fields. But these are based on physical processes, not biological ones. When used with diffusion-type memristors, however, the whole set up becomes more like how a regular synapse fires up.

“In the past, people have used devices like transistors and capacitors to simulate synaptic dynamics, which can work, but those devices have very little resemblance to real biological systems. So it’s not efficient to do it that way, and it results in a larger device area, larger energy consumption and less fidelity,” said study leader Joshua Yang, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The best computer

If scientists can successfully replicate the synaptic functions of the brain, they are closer to that brain emulating computer. Just one brain has approximately 100 billion neurons and roughly one quadrillion of these synaptic connections.

While scientists have created computers as fast as the brain (the human brain can perform about 10 quadrillion operations per second, the world’s fastest supercomputer, Tianhe-2, can carry out up to about 55 quadrillion calculations per second), they have yet to create efficient ones (the brain needs just enough energy to light a lightbulb).

With that kind of power and efficiency, everything running on computers would get a boost, whether it be robots, self-driving cars, AI, data analysis, etc. In fact, some scientists see brain emulation as the key to achieving the Singularity.

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