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28th September 2017

Brain-like photonic microchips developed

Researchers from Oxford, Münster and Exeter Universities have created photonic computer chips – that use light rather than electricity – to imitate the way a brain's synapses operate.


brain like photonic chips
A photonic synapse in a neuron network. Credit: Harish Bhaskaran


Scientists have made a crucial step towards unlocking the “holy grail” of computing – photonic microchips that mimic the way the human brain works to store and process information. The work, by researchers from Oxford, Münster and Exeter Universities, combined phase-change materials – found in common household items such as re-writable optical discs – with specially designed circuits, to deliver a biological-like synaptic response.

Crucially, their photonic synapses can operate at speeds 1,000 times faster than those of the human brain. The team believe that the research could pave the way for a new age of computing, where machines work and think in a similar way to the human brain, while at the same time exploiting the speed and power efficiency of photonic systems.

“The development of computers that work more like the human brain has been a holy grail of scientists for decades,” said Professor Harish Bhaskaran from Oxford University, who led the team. “Via a network of neurons and synapses, the brain can process and store vast amounts of information simultaneously, using only a few tens of Watts of power. Conventional computers can’t come close to this sort of performance.”


brain like photonic chips

Schematic of a photonic synapse mimicking the biological synapse connecting neurons. Credit: Harish Bhaskaran


Professor C David Wright, co-author from the University of Exeter, also explained: “Electronic computers are relatively slow, and the faster we make them the more power they consume. Conventional computers are also pretty ‘dumb’, with none of the in-built learning and parallel processing capabilities of the brain. We tackle both of these issues here – not only by developing new brain-like computer architectures, but also by working in the optical domain to leverage the huge speed and power advantages of the upcoming silicon photonics revolution.”

Professor Wolfram Pernice, a co-author of the paper from the University of Münster added: “Since synapses outnumber neurons in the brain by around 10,000 to 1, any brain-like computer needs to be able to replicate some form of synaptic mimic. That is what we have done here.”

A paper – On-chip photonic synapse – was published yesterday in Science Advances.


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