Scientists have devised a new type of electronic chip that mimics the human brain and could lead to a new generation of powerful, energy-efficient electronics.
Researchers at the University of Twente in The Netherlands have demonstrated working electronic circuits that have been produced in a radically new way, using methods that resemble Darwinian evolution.
The size of these circuits is comparable to the size of their conventional counterparts, but they are much closer to natural networks like the human brain.
One of the greatest successes of the 20th century has been the development of digital computers. During the last decades these computers have become more and more powerful by integrating ever smaller components on silicon chips.
However, it is becoming increasingly hard and extremely expensive to continue this miniaturisation. Current transistors consist of only a handful of atoms.
Researchers have used networks of gold nanoparticles for the execution of essential computational tasks. Contrary to conventional electronics, they have moved away from designed circuits.
By using ‘designless’ systems, costly design mistakes are avoided. The computational power of their networks is enabled by applying artificial evolution. This evolution takes less than an hour, rather than millions of years.
By applying electrical signals, one and the same network can be configured into 16 different logical gates.
The evolutionary approach works around – or can even take advantage of – possible material defects that can be fatal in conventional electronics, researchers said.
It is the first time that scientists have succeeded in this way in realising robust electronics with dimensions that can compete with commercial technology.
According to professor Wilfred van der Wiel, the realised circuits currently still have limited computing power.
“But with this research we have delivered proof of principle: demonstrated that our approach works in practice. By scaling up the system, real added value will be produced in the future,” said van der Wiel.
“Take for example the efforts to recognise patterns, such as with face recognition. This is very difficult for a regular computer, while humans and possibly also our circuits can do this much better,” he said.
The researchers anticipate a wide range of applications, for example in portable electronics and in the medical world.
The research was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.