It turns out that you don't need a computer to create an artificial intelligence. In fact, you don't even need electricity.
In an extraordinary bit of left-field research, scientists from the University of Wisconsin–Madison have found a way to create artificially intelligent glass that can recognize images without any need for sensors, circuits, or even a power source — and it could one day save your phone's battery life.
"We’re always thinking about how we provide vision for machines in the future, and imagining application specific, mission-driven technologies," researcher Zongfu Yu said in a press release. "This changes almost everything about how we design machine vision."
In a proof-of-concept study published on Monday in the journal Photonics Research, the researchers describe how they made a sheet of "smart" glass that could identify handwritten digits.
To accomplish that feat, they started by placing different sizes and shapes of air bubbles at specific spots within the glass. Then they added bits of strategically placed light-absorbing materials, including graphene.
When the team then wrote down a number, the light reflecting off the digit would enter one side of the glass. The bubbles and impurities would scatter the lightwaves in certain ways depending on the number until they reached one of 10 designated spots — each corresponding to a different digit — on the opposite side of the glass.
The glass could essentially tell the researcher what number it saw — at the speed of light and without the need for any traditional computing power source.
"We’re accustomed to digital computing, but this has broadened our view," Yu said. "The wave dynamics of light propagation provide a new way to perform analog artificial neural computing."
This "smart" glass might not be able to complete calculations complex enough for those uses, but the team does have one possible application for it in mind: smartphone security.
Currently, when you attempt to unlock a phone using face ID, an AI within the device has to run a computation, draining battery power in the process. Affix a trained sheet of this smart glass to the front of the device, and it'll be able to take over the task without pulling any power from the phone's battery.
"We could potentially use the glass as a biometric lock, tuned to recognize only one person’s face," Yu said. "Once built, it would last forever without needing power or internet, meaning it could keep something safe for you even after thousands of years."
READ MORE: AI made from a sheet of glass can recognise numbers just by looking [New Scientist]
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