Artificial brains are still considerably slower than the biological ones, could chalcogenide glass change that?

Special glass fibres pave way for brain-like computers

Optical fibres made of light-sensitive glass could be used to mimic neural synapsis paving the way for computers capable of learning and evolving, researchers have demonstrated.

In a joint project of the University of Southampton, the UK, and the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore (NTU), the researchers have used optical pulses as information carriers, transmitted through special fibres made from the so called chalcogenide glasses.

In an article published in the latest issue of the Advanced Optical Materials journal, the team has described how they induced equivalents of brain functions, including a neural resting state and changes in electrical activity in a stimulated nerve cell.

“Since the dawn of the computer age, scientists have sought ways to mimic the behaviour of the human brain, replacing neurons and our nervous system with electronic switches and memory,” said Professor Dan Hewak from the Optoelectronics Research Centre of the Southampton University and one of the authors of the paper.

“Now instead of electrons, light and optical fibres also show promise in achieving a brain-like computer.”

In the optical brain, properties of the glass change based on light impulses they receive and subsequently determine the electrical activity of a nerve cell.

The optical brain could be much faster than existing systems and offer lower power consumption and higher bandwidth than its electronic counterparts.

In the last decade, neuromorphic computing research has advanced software and electronic hardware that mimic brain functions and signal protocols. These systems, however, are still way behind natural biological systems. What takes a biological brain five seconds requires up to 500 seconds of electronic computing, and much more power than five seconds of human thinking.

“By going back to biological systems for inspiration and using mass-manufacturable photonic platforms, such as chalcogenide fibres, we can start to improve the speed and efficiency of conventional computing architectures, while introducing adaptability and learning into the next generation of devices,” said Behrad Gholipour from the Southampton team.

Professor Cesare Soci from the NTU, who led the research added:  “This work implies that ‘cognitive’ photonic devices and networks can be effectively used to develop non-Boolean computing and decision-making paradigms that mimic brain functionalities and signal protocols, to overcome bandwidth and power bottlenecks of traditional data processing.”

The project was funded through the Advanced Optics in Engineering programme funded by Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

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