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Phase change materials could be used to develop ‘brain-like’ computers


June 27, 2011

Researchers have developed a new technique that could lead to the development of "brain-like" computers (Image: pasukaru76 via flickr)

Researchers have developed a new technique that could lead to the development of "brain-like" computers (Image: pasukaru76 via flickr)

Unlike human brains that make no real distinction between memory and computation, computers currently deal with processing and memory separately. This means data has to be constantly moved around, resulting in a speed and power "bottleneck." Now, using phase change materials that can store and process information simultaneously, researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK have developed a new technique that could lead to the development of "brain-like" computers.

For their study, the researchers used a semi-conductor phase change material that they say exhibits remarkable properties. Not only did the study conclusively demonstrate that phase change materials can store and process information simultaneously. It also showed experimentally for the first time that they can perform general-purpose computing operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

Even more remarkable, the study showed that phase change materials could be used to make artificial neurons and synapses. This offers the prospect of an artificial system made entirely of phase change materials that could potentially learn and process information in a similar way to the human brain.

"Our findings have major implications for the development of entirely new forms of computing, including 'brain-like' computers. We have uncovered a technique for potentially developing new forms of 'brain-like' computer systems that could learn, adapt and change over time. This is something that researchers have been striving for over many years," says Professor David Wright of the University of Exeter and lead author of the study.

The paper, published in Advanced Materials, focused on the performance of a single phase change cell, but the next stage of the research will involve building a system of interconnected cells that can learn to perform simple tasks, such as the identification of certain objects and patterns.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Science doesn\'t stop to amaze me, even though our brain is the most complex and unknown part of the human body. The neuroscience has developed a lot in the past decades, but it is yet the biggest mistery in our lives - how the brain functions. Luckily not all is unknown.

The discovery of the neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to create and develop neurons and connections to decrease the natural cognitive decline and improve the brain capacity, has been breakthrough. It created a new form of training - the brain training programs. When scientifically validated, these programs may change your life for the better. I recommend one that is available online, it is for free: CogniFit. http://www.cognifit.com/

Peter Sharp

It\'s nice to see computer innovations still on the horizon. I was worried we were soon reaching the limit of what we could cram on to silicone and that near future computer advancements wouldn\'t be as dramatic as they have been in the last couple decades. But some creative juice such as that seen here and in many other articles I\'ve read seem willing to take things in a different direction for ever more efficient processing.

Samantha Renault
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