Southampton Study: Nanotechnology Device which Mimics the Human Brain

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Losing data on an electronic device such as an unfinished essay on a computer when the power (suddenly) switches off is a common and infuriating occurrence in the life of a 21st century student. It’s a first world problem that is prevalent not just on computers but throughout the electronic community. Processing chips are also consistently being reduced in size to meet consumer demands, and only a  limited number of transistors can fit. However, scientists at the University of Southampton have recently had a breakthrough.

This breakthrough materializes in the form of a memristor: a device that is able to recall its past by remembering its most recent resistance setting, which is gauged from how much electric charge has recently circulated and in which direction. By being able to recall its resistance, memristors are able to retain data they have received even when they are switched off and on.

An example Memristor built into a chip. This chip is 600 times thinner than human hair.
                              Credit: Universitaet Bielefeld

Our computerised appliances are dependent on transistors. Current transistors, which pioneered the computing industry, are now reaching their physical limit as only so many can be packed onto the processing chips that power our gadgets. For instance, your smartphone contains roughly five billion transistors. Despite the fact transistors are nanoscopic and continuously being reduced in size to meet demand,  an alternative is clearly needed.

When compared to transistors, memristors are able to function at lower power and spatial demands whilst maintaining a fast performance rate. These qualities are very attractive when the modern world’s appetite for more efficient and intelligent technology is taken into account. They also possess the capacity to have several memory states, a property transistors lack due to their confinement to the cages of binary code. One possible application of memristors would be to allow computers to operate relatively similarly to the human brain, mimicking the brain’s synapse mechanism, which has seriously exciting implications for artificial intelligence. For example, the Mars 2020 Rover could benefit from this technology in its mission to record the composition of, you’ve guessed it, Mars! With memristors in place, the Rover could function and process data independently with a much lower power consumption.

Mars 2020 Rover
                                           Credit: NASA

The Southampton research group were able to design a new memristor technology, which could retain up to 128 distinguishable memory states per switch, approximately four times greater than previously reported. Speaking on the group’s work, Professor of Nanotechnology Themis Prodomakis said:

“This is a really exciting discovery, with potentially enormous implications for modern electronics. By 2020 there are expected to be more than 200 billion interconnected devices within the Internet of Things framework – these will generate an incredible amount of data that will need processing”

Whilst of course this news is creating waves within the nanotechnology field, it will require more research before memristor devices can reach their full potential and become commercially available. However, the discovery made by the University of Southampton team is most definitely a big step in the right direction.

You can read more in depth about the group’s research on memristors within this article from Scientific Report.

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Final year Masters in Chemistry student at the University of Southampton

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