Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Synaptic transistor learns while it computes

04.11.2013
First of its kind, brain-inspired device looks toward highly efficient and fast parallel computing

It doesn't take a Watson to realize that even the world's best supercomputers are staggeringly inefficient and energy-intensive machines.

Our brains have upwards of 86 billion neurons, connected by synapses that not only complete myriad logic circuits; they continuously adapt to stimuli, strengthening some connections while weakening others. We call that process learning, and it enables the kind of rapid, highly efficient computational processes that put Siri and Blue Gene to shame.

Materials scientists at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have now created a new type of transistor that mimics the behavior of a synapse. The novel device simultaneously modulates the flow of information in a circuit and physically adapts to changing signals.

Exploiting unusual properties in modern materials, the synaptic transistor could mark the beginning of a new kind of artificial intelligence: one embedded not in smart algorithms but in the very architecture of a computer. The findings appear in Nature Communications.

“There’s extraordinary interest in building energy-efficient electronics these days,” says principal investigator Shriram Ramanathan, associate professor of materials science at Harvard SEAS. “Historically, people have been focused on speed, but with speed comes the penalty of power dissipation. With electronics becoming more and more powerful and ubiquitous, you could have a huge impact by cutting down the amount of energy they consume.”

The human mind, for all its phenomenal computing power, runs on roughly 20 Watts of energy (less than a household light bulb), so it offers a natural model for engineers.

“The transistor we’ve demonstrated is really an analog to the synapse in our brains,” says co-lead author Jian Shi, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS. “Each time a neuron initiates an action and another neuron reacts, the synapse between them increases the strength of its connection. And the faster the neurons spike each time, the stronger the synaptic connection. Essentially, it memorizes the action between the neurons.”

In principle, a system integrating millions of tiny synaptic transistors and neuron terminals could take parallel computing into a new era of ultra-efficient high performance.

Synaptic transistorSeveral prototypes of the synaptic transistor are visible on this silicon chip. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications.)

While calcium ions and receptors effect a change in a biological synapse, the artificial version achieves the same plasticity with oxygen ions. When a voltage is applied, these ions slip in and out of the crystal lattice of a very thin (80-nanometer) film of samarium nickelate, which acts as the synapse channel between two platinum "axon" and "dendrite" terminals. The varying concentration of ions in the nickelate raises or lowers its conductance—that is, its ability to carry information on an electrical current—and, just as in a natural synapse, the strength of the connection depends on the time delay in the electrical signal.

Structurally, the device consists of the nickelate semiconductor sandwiched between two platinum electrodes and adjacent to a small pocket of ionic liquid. An external circuit multiplexer converts the time delay into a magnitude of voltage which it applies to the ionic liquid, creating an electric field that either drives ions into the nickelate or removes them. The entire device, just a few hundred microns long, is embedded in a silicon chip.

The synaptic transistor offers several immediate advantages over traditional silicon transistors. For a start, it is not restricted to the binary system of ones and zeros.

“This system changes its conductance in an analog way, continuously, as the composition of the material changes,” explains Shi. “It would be rather challenging to use CMOS, the traditional circuit technology, to imitate a synapse, because real biological synapses have a practically unlimited number of possible states—not just ‘on’ or ‘off.’”

The synaptic transistor offers another advantage: non-volatile memory, which means even when power is interrupted, the device remembers its state.

Additionally, the new transistor is inherently energy efficient. The nickelate belongs to an unusual class of materials, called correlated electron systems, that can undergo an insulator-metal transition. At a certain temperature—or, in this case, when exposed to an external field—the conductance of the material suddenly changes.

“We exploit the extreme sensitivity of this material,” says Ramanathan. “A very small excitation allows you to get a large signal, so the input energy required to drive this switching is potentially very small. That could translate into a large boost for energy efficiency.”

The nickelate system is also well positioned for seamless integration into existing silicon-based systems.

“In this paper, we demonstrate high-temperature operation, but the beauty of this type of a device is that the 'learning' behavior is more or less temperature insensitive, and that’s a big advantage,” says Ramanathan. “We can operate this anywhere from about room temperature up to at least 160 degrees Celsius.”

For now, the limitations relate to the challenges of synthesizing a relatively unexplored material system, and to the size of the device, which affects its speed.

“In our proof-of-concept device, the time constant is really set by our experimental geometry,” says Ramanathan. “In other words, to really make a super-fast device, all you’d have to do is confine the liquid and position the gate electrode closer to it.”

In fact, Ramanathan and his research team are already planning, with microfluidics experts at SEAS, to investigate the possibilities and limits for this “ultimate fluidic transistor.”

He also has a seed grant from the National Academy of Sciences to explore the integration of synaptic transistors into bioinspired circuits, with L. Mahadevan, Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology, and professor of physics.

“In the SEAS setting it’s very exciting; we’re able to collaborate easily with people from very diverse interests,” Ramanathan says.

For the materials scientist, as much curiosity derives from exploring the capabilities of correlated oxides (like the nickelate used in this study) as from the possible applications.

“You have to build new instrumentation to be able to synthesize these new materials, but once you’re able to do that, you really have a completely new material system whose properties are virtually unexplored,” Ramanathan says. “It’s very exciting to have such materials to work with, where very little is known about them and you have an opportunity to build knowledge from scratch.”

“This kind of proof-of-concept demonstration carries that work into the ‘applied’ world,” he adds, “where you can really translate these exotic electronic properties into compelling, state-of-the-art devices.”

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Army Research Office’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The team also benefited from the facilities at the Harvard Center for Nanoscale Systems, a member of the NSF-supported National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network. Sieu D. Ha, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS, was the co-lead author; additional coauthors included graduate student You Zhou and Frank Schoofs, a former postdoctoral fellow.

Caroline Perry | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.seas.harvard.edu

More articles from Interdisciplinary Research:

nachricht Investigating cell membranes: researchers develop a substance mimicking a vital membrane component
25.05.2018 | Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

nachricht New approach: Researchers succeed in directly labelling and detecting an important RNA modification
30.04.2018 | Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

All articles from Interdisciplinary Research >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Powerful IT security for the car of the future – research alliance develops new approaches

The more electronics steer, accelerate and brake cars, the more important it is to protect them against cyber-attacks. That is why 15 partners from industry and academia will work together over the next three years on new approaches to IT security in self-driving cars. The joint project goes by the name Security For Connected, Autonomous Cars (SecForCARs) and has funding of €7.2 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Infineon is leading the project.

Vehicles already offer diverse communication interfaces and more and more automated functions, such as distance and lane-keeping assist systems. At the same...

Im Focus: Molecular switch will facilitate the development of pioneering electro-optical devices

A research team led by physicists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed molecular nanoswitches that can be toggled between two structurally different states using an applied voltage. They can serve as the basis for a pioneering class of devices that could replace silicon-based components with organic molecules.

The development of new electronic technologies drives the incessant reduction of functional component sizes. In the context of an international collaborative...

Im Focus: LZH showcases laser material processing of tomorrow at the LASYS 2018

At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.

At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...

Im Focus: Self-illuminating pixels for a new display generation

There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?

At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...

Im Focus: Explanation for puzzling quantum oscillations has been found

So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics

Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

In focus: Climate adapted plants

25.05.2018 | Event News

Save the date: Forum European Neuroscience – 07-11 July 2018 in Berlin, Germany

02.05.2018 | Event News

Invitation to the upcoming "Current Topics in Bioinformatics: Big Data in Genomics and Medicine"

13.04.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

In focus: Climate adapted plants

25.05.2018 | Event News

Flow probes from the 3D printer

25.05.2018 | Machine Engineering

Less is more? Gene switch for healthy aging found

25.05.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>