Posted in | Optics and Photonics

Scientists Make a Crucial Step Towards Unlocking the "Holy Grail" of Computing

A groundbreaking innovation in the development of photonic computer chips was brought about by a research team, including Professor C. David Wright from the University of Exeter. The photonic computer chips use light instead of electricity and they are capable of reproducing the way the brain’s synapses operate.

The research is published in Science Advances on Wednesday, September 27 2017. (Credit: University of Exeter)

The research, performed by Researchers from Oxford, Münster and Exeter Universities, incorporated phase-change materials – generally found in household items such as re-writable optical disks – with specifically designed and integrated photonic circuits capable of delivering a biological-like synaptic response.

Significantly, their photonic synapses can function at speeds a thousand times faster than those of the human brain. The team considers that the research will make way for a new age of computing, where machines both work and think in a similar manner to the human brain, while simultaneously exploiting the power efficiency and speed of photonic systems.

The research features in the September 27th 2017, edition of Science Advances.

The development of computers that work more like the human brain has been a holy grail of scientists for decades. 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.

Professor Harish Bhaskaran, Oxford University

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 human brain. We tackle both of these issues here – not only by developing not only 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.”

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.

Professor Wolfram Pernice, Co-author of the paper, the University of Münster

On-chip photonic synapse by Zengguang Cheng, Carlos Rios, Wolfram Pernice, C David Wright and Harish Bhaskaran has been published in Science Advances.

The UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) supported the work.

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