I.B.M. Research Points to Circuits That Mimic the Brain’s Design

I.B.M. scientists said Thursday that they had developed a fluidic electronic system that mimics the circuits in the human brain and potentially offers a new direction for ultra-low-power microelectronics and artificial intelligence.
A group of researchers at the company’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., reported in the journal Science that they had pioneered a novel mechanism for transforming an insulating material into a metallic conductor by placing it in contact with a charged fluid. In contrast to conventional semiconductors, which use electric currents to switch materials between insulating and conducting states, the new method uses what the researchers describe as “ionic currents” — mobile charged atoms rather than electrons — as a switching mechanism.
“I’m particularly excited by our findings,” said Stuart Parkin, a physicist and I.B.M. Fellow, “because a lot of how the brain operates is by the flow of ions and ion channels. In some sense what we want to do is mimic those components of the brain.”
While the individual components of the brain work far more slowly than modern microelectronic transistors, the brain’s circuits are arranged in three dimensions and operate in parallel. That allows the brain to do complex computing using only a fraction of the energy of today’s computers.
The I.B.M. researchers hope that their approach could be used to build more brain-like computers.
The advantage of the new method is that it is both nonvolatile — it requires only a small amount of electricity to change the materials from one state to another, and they then remain in that state — and is potentially reversible, meaning that it could be used to build a device like a transistor.
The researchers noted that while the switching speed of the new materials might never match the raw speed of today’s transistors, their biological-like qualities might make them appropriate for building a new generation of sensors or memories.
Although the initial I.B.M. results are based on simply exposing oxidized materials to fluids, the researchers said that if systems were built upon the new mechanism, they could exploit fields that are known as nano- or microfluidics. These technologies use tiny channels and pipes to control and mix fluids for a variety of industrial and scientific applications.
The next step for the I.B.M. research team would be to make “fluidic” circuits in which it would be possible to move the charged fluids over surfaces to change their properties, much as a conventional microelectronic semiconductor is switched “on” and “off.”
“We could form or disrupt connections just in the same way a synaptic connection in the brain could be remade, or the strength of that connection could be adjusted,” Dr. Parkin said.
Analysts said I.B.M.’s announcement was likely to touch off broader interest in the field within the scientific community.
“This could have applications from fluidics to nonvolatile electronics to chips that are immune from radiation,” said Richard Doherty, an analyst at the Envisioneering Group, a technology research firm.
Dr. Parkin said the I.B.M. scientists were still considering which direction to pursue with their new materials. “Probably initially we’ll build a small memory array or something like that,” he said.
The I.B.M. research is in a field known as correlated electron systems, which explores a wide range of materials that exhibit unusual electronic or magnetic behavior.

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