Northwestern and University of Hong Kong develop computing device that emulates human brain


Daily file photo by Kelsey Carroll

The Weber Arch. Northwestern and University of Hong Kong researchers have developed a brain-like computing device.

Maia Pandey, Assistant Campus Editor

Northwestern researchers developed a computing device to associate light with pressure, according to a University release. The device operates like a human brain.

The study was published on April 30 in scientific journal Nature Communication and was conducted in collaboration with the University of Hong Kong. The National Science Foundation, the Hong Kong General Research Fund and the National Natural Science Foundation of China funded the project. 

The modern computer, while very capable, cannot measure up to the human brain’s ability to execute complex tasks like pattern recognition and motor control, co-author and McCormick Prof. Jonathan Rivnay said in the release. The plasticity of the brain’s synapses are key to these abilities, he added.

The newly developed computing device mimics the human brain by processing and storing information with electrochemical “synaptic transistors,” the release stated. 

“These synapses enable the brain to work in a highly parallel, fault tolerant and energy-efficient manner,” Rivnay said. 

The device’s organic, plastic transistors can function like a biological synapse, he added.

Inspired by the brain’s simultaneous computing and storing process, researchers sought to develop a device that emulates the network of neurons in the human brain, the release stated. 

“The way our current computer systems work is that memory and logic are physically separated,” NU postdoctoral fellow Xudong Ji said in the release. “If we can bring those two separate functions together, we can save space and save on energy costs.”

Researchers trained the device to associate the unrelated light and pressure inputs — similar to the human brain’s learning process.

The device’s soft, plastic-like polymers would allow researchers to integrate it into wearable electronics, the release stated.

“Because it is compatible with biological environments, the device can directly interface with living tissue, which is critical for next-generation bioelectronics,” Rivnay said in the release.

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