Inspired by the brain’s energy efficiency, copying its structure to create more powerful computers, a team of researchers from Politecnico di Milano, Empa and ETH Zurich has developed a memristor that is more powerful and easier to produce than its predecessors.
The researchers are developing computer architectures inspired by the functioning of the human brain through new components that, like brain cells, combine data storage and processing. The new memristors are based on nanocrystals of halogenated perovskite, a semiconductor material used in the production of solar cells.
Although most people can’t do mathematical calculations with computer precision, humans can effortlessly process complex sensory information and learn from their experiences – something that no computer can (yet) do. In doing so, the human brain consumes just half the energy of a laptop, thanks to its structure in synapses, which are capable of both storing and processing information.
In computers, the memory is separate from the processor and data must be continuously transported between these two units. The transport speed is limited and this makes the whole computer slower when the amount of data is very large.
‘Our goal is not to replace the classic computer architecture,’ explains Daniele Ielmini, a professor at Politecnico di Milano. ‘Rather, we want to develop alternative architectures that can perform certain tasks faster and more energy-efficiently. This includes, for example, the parallel processing of large amounts of data; today, this happens everywhere, from agriculture to space exploration.’
The researchers simulated a complex computational task that corresponds to a learning process in the visual cortex of the brain. The task was to determine the orientation of a light bar based on signals from the retina.
‘Halide perovskites conduct both ions and electrons,’ said Rohit John, a postdoc at ETH Zurich and Empa. ‘This dual conductivity allows for more complex calculations that are more similar to brain processes.’
The technology isn’t ready for use yet and it’s likely to prove difficult to integrate the new memristors with existing computer chips as perovskites are currently unable to withstand to the 400–500°C temperatures needed for silicon processing.
However, there are other materials with similar properties that could be considered for the production of high-performance memristors. ‘We can test the results of our memristor system with different materials,’ said Alexander Milozzi, PhD student at Politecnico di Milano. ‘Probably some of them are more suitable for integration with silicon.’
The research has been published in Science Advances.