Study makes brain-like computing a step closer to reality

Computers are kind of like brains, we rely on them to do a lot of thinking for us. New research has taken the “brain-like” aspect of computers to a whole new level.

The research was led by the University of Exeter in England, it was published in the journal Advanced Materials and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The study dealt with the first ever demonstration of simultaneous information processing and storage using phase-change materials.


This new information processing and storage method could change computing by making computers work faster and use less energy. It would make computers have more resemblance to biological systems as well.


Current computers deal with processing and memory functions separately, which usually results in a traffic jam of speed and power because of the need to constantly shift data from place to place. There is nothing like this in biology. Human brains for example make no distinction between memory and computation.  


To be able to carry out both functions at the same time the University of Exeter research team used phase-change materials. Phase-change materials are a type of semi-conductor that displays extraordinary properties.


This study shows overwhelmingly that phase-change materials can collect and process information simultaneously. It also shows for the first time that they can execute general-purpose computing operations, like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The most amazing thing the study showed is that phase-change materials can be used to make artificial neurons and synapses. This means that an artificial system made out of phase-change devices could possibly learn and process information. Just like our own brains can.


Lead author Professor David Wright of the University of Exeter said: “Our findings have major implications for the development of entirely new forms of computing, including ‘brain-like’ computers. We have uncovered a technique for potentially developing new forms of ‘brain-like’ computer systems that could learn, adapt and change over time. This is something that researchers have been striving for over many years.”


This study concentrated on the performance of a single phase-change cell. Exeter’s next research step will be to build systems of interconnected cells that can learn to do simple tasks, such as recognize certain objects and patterns.


Robot brains? Looks like there’s a future for that after all.