UL study discovers ‘brain-like’ computing is possible at molecular level

21 Nov 2022

Image: © Leigh Prather/Stock.adobe.com

The study involved the creation of a 2 nanometre-thick layer of molecules – about 50,000 times thinner than a strand of hair.

Researchers at the University of Limerick (UL) have made a breakthrough in physics by discovering that ‘brain-like’ computing activity is possible at the atomic and molecular scale.

An international team led by UL professor of molecular modelling Damien Thompson were able to create a new type of organic material that learns from past behaviour – much in the same way as the synaptic behaviour in our brains.

This discovery of the ‘dynamic molecular switch’ is based on the development of a 2 nanometre-thick layer of molecules – about 50,000 times thinner than a strand of hair – which remembers its history as electrons pass through it.

Thompson explained that the “switching probability and the values of the on/off states continually change in the molecular material, which provides a disruptive new alternative to conventional silicon-based digital switches that can only ever be either on or off”.

He worked with Christian Nijhuis of the Centre for Molecules and Brain-Inspired Nano Systems at the University of Twente in The Netherlands and Enrique del Barco from University of Central Florida.

“This was a great lockdown project, with Chris, Enrique and I pushing each other through Zoom meetings and gargantuan email threads to bring our teams’ combined skills in materials modelling, synthesis and characterisation to the point where we could demonstrate these new brain-like computing properties,” Thompson said.

“The community has long known that silicon technology works completely differently to how our brains work and so we used new types of electronic materials based on soft molecules to emulate brain-like computing networks.”

The study was published in the international journal Nature Materials.

The newly discovered dynamic organic switch displays all the mathematical logic functions necessary for deep learning, successfully emulating Pavlovian ‘call and response’ synaptic brain-like behaviour.

Some of the applications of this breakthrough range from sustainable and green chemistry to the development of new organic materials for high-density computing and memory storage in big data centres.

“This is just the start,” said Thompson, who is also the director of SSPC, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for pharmaceuticals.

“We are already busy expanding this next generation of intelligent molecular materials, which is enabling development of sustainable alternative technologies to tackle grand challenges in energy, environment, and health.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic