Artificial intelligence light bulb brains

77-atom molecule key to brain-like computing architecture

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A team of scientists including researchers at the University of Limerick, Ireland, have discovered a new molecule which could boost ultra-fast decision making in computers.

The discovery unlocked the creation of a new type of computing architecture, which the researchers hope will have major implications in sectors ranging from bioinformatics to fintech. The findings have been reported in Nature.

In biological brains, the interconnections between neurons embed intricate logic structures which enables sophisticated decision-making far beyond anything that has been produced using electronics. Significantly, the network of neurons in a brain is constantly reconfiguring, providing flexibility and adaptability to different environments, unlike hard-wired logic circuits.

The researchers created an improved electronic analogue using a new molecule with just 77 atoms. The molecule was discovered by experts in predictive materials design from the University of Limerick’s Bernal Institute. Professor Damien Thompson carried out state-of-the-art computer simulations using the Irish Centre for High-End Computing's supercomputer to make the discovery. This molecule provides a new fundamental circuit element.

The molecule uses natural asymmetry in its metal-organic bonds to switch cleanly between five distinct states. Via interconnectivity among these states, the researchers are “re-imagining fundamental electronic circuit elements by expressing complex logic in nanometre-scale material properties”. This allowed them to embed a set of decision trees (composed of if-then-else conditional statements) within the circuit element and perform ultra-fast decision making.

“In the new device, everything is done in one place, so there is no need to keep reading or moving information around,” explained Thompson. “This removes the 'von Neumann bottleneck' - a problem that has plagued computing from the very beginning and still hampers technology development. The new molecular circuitry means the computer-processing unit no longer has to fetch data for every operation it performs and this saves enormously on time and energy costs.”

The molecules were subsequently synthesised at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Kolkata, and turned into films and tested by collaborators in Singapore and the US, respectively. Using simple circuits of only these new elements, they demonstrated reconfigurable logic in multivariable decision trees.

“We are excited about the possibilities because the devices show all the hallmarks of brain computing. First, a huge number of tiny, identical molecular processors are networked together and work in parallel. More importantly, they show both redundancy and reconfigurability, which means the device can solve problems even if the individual components do not all work perfectly all the time or in the exact same way every time,” Thompson explained. “The new circuit elements could provide computers that are smaller, faster and more energy efficient - exactly what is needed for edge computing, IoT, and AI applications.”

Professor Luuk van der Wielen, director of the Bernal Institute, welcomed the breakthrough: “This high-impact research reinforces the ambition of the Bernal Institute to impact the world on the basis of top science in an increasingly international context. This is a continuation of Bernal scientists’ world-leading contribution to the field of predictive materials modelling.”

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