A team of scientists in Switzerland has managed to cram 11,011 electrodes onto a single two-millimeter-by-two-millimeter piece of silicon to create a microchip that works just like an actual brain. The best part about this so-called neuromorphic chips? They can feel.
Don’t over interpret the word “feel” though. The brain-like microchips built by scientists at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich are not a sentient beings, but they can carry out complex sensorimotor tasks that show off the network’s cognitive abilities. And what’s more impressive is that all of this happens in real time. Previous brain-like computer systems have been slower and larger, whereas the Swiss system is comparable to an actual brain in both speed and size. That’s exactly what the team was trying to do. “Our goal is to emulate the properties of biological neurons and synapses directly on microchips,” says University of Zurich professor Giacomo Indiveri.
The next step for these neuromorphic chips is to take on more and more complex tasks. In a paper published this week by the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers who built the chips suggest that they could connect the neuromorphic chips to sensory systems like an artificial retina. This is somewhat of a fascination for the community of scientists trying to build a brain-like computer. Stanford professor Kwabena Boahen rose to prominence after developing a silicon retina that behaved like a biological retina, and since then, he’s been working on ways to mimic the brain using artificial circuits.
A New Kind of Microchip Mimics the Human Brian in Real Time.
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On Tuesday, Intel demonstrated the world’s first practical data connection using silicon photonics – a 50 gigabit per second optical data connection built around an electrically pumped hybrid silicon laser. They achieved the 50 gigabit/s data rate by multiplexing 4 12.5 gigabit/s wavelengths into one fiber – wavelength division multiplexing. Intel dubbed its demo the “50G Silicon Photonics Link.”
Fiber optic data transmission isn’t anything new – it’s the core of what makes the internet as we know it today possible. What makes Intel’s demonstration unique is that they’ve fabricated the laser primarily out of a low-cost, mass-produceable, highly understood material – silicon.
For years, chip designers and optical scientists alike have dreamt about the possibilities of merging traditional microelectronics and photonics. Superficially, one would expect it to be easy – after all, both fundamentally deal with electromagnetic waves, just at different frequencies (MHz and GHz for microelectronics, THz for optics).
On one side, microelectronics deals with integrated circuits and components such as transistors, copper wires, and the massively understood and employed CMOS manufacturing process. It’s the backbone of microprocessors, and at the core of conventional computing today. Conversely, photonics employs – true to its name – photons, the basic unit of light. Silicon photonics is the use of optical systems that use silicon as the primary optical medium, instead of other more expensive optical materials. Eventually, photonics has the potential to supplant microelectronics with optical analogues of traditional electrical components – but that’s decades away.
Until recently, successfully integrating the two was a complex balance of manufacturing and leveraging photonics only when it was feasible. Material constraints have made photonics effective primarily as a long haul means of getting data from point to point. To a larger extent, this has made sense because copper traces on motherboards have been fast enough, but we’re getting closer and closer to the limit.