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Scientists One Step Closer to Brain-Like Computer

Apr 07, 2015 12:17 PM EDT

Scientists at Northwestern University are one step closer to creating a brain-like computer, according to a new study.

Researchers are always searching for improved technologies, but there is none more efficient than the human brain. It can learn and adapt without needing to be programmed or updated, has nearly limitless memory, is difficult to crash, and works at extremely fast speeds. So naturally it has long been a goal in the scientific world to develop computers that mimic the function of the brain.

"Computers are very impressive in many ways, but they're not equal to the mind," Mark Hersam, the Bette and Neison Harris Chair in Teaching Excellence in Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering, said in a statement. "Neurons can achieve very complicated computation with very low power consumption compared to a digital computer."

Now, a team of Northwestern researchers could bring brain-like computing closer to reality. The team's work advances memory resistors, or "memristors," which are resistors in a circuit that "remember" how much current has flowed through them. Instead of operating like a conventional, digital system, these new devices could potentially function more like a network of neurons.

"Memristors could be used as a memory element in an integrated circuit or computer," Hersam explained. "Unlike other memories that exist today in modern electronics, memristors are stable and remember their state even if you lose power."

Current computers use random access memory (RAM), which moves very quickly as a user works but does not retain unsaved data if power is lost. Flash drives, on the other hand, store information when they are not powered but work much slower. Memristors could provide a memory that is the best of both worlds: fast and reliable.

However, the down side is that memristors are two-terminal electronic devices, which can only control one voltage channel. So this study aimed to transform it into a three-terminal device, allowing it to be used in more complex electronic circuits and systems.

During their research, Hersam and his colleagues used single-layer molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) - an atomically thin, two-dimensional nanomaterial semiconductor. Much like the way fibers are arranged in wood, this allowed atoms to be arranged in a certain direction - called "grains" - within a material.

"Because the atoms are not in the same orientation, there are unsatisfied chemical bonds at that interface," Hersam explained. "These grain boundaries influence the flow of current, so they can serve as a means of tuning resistance."

With this unique approach, the team successfully created a three-terminal memristor that could pave the way to brain-like computing in the future.

The results were published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

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