The Missing 'Switch' for Artificial Brains


Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have built a superconducting switch that “learns” like a biological system and could connect processors and store memories in future computers operating like the human brain.

What do you call this superconducting switch?

Like its biological counterpart, it is called a Synapse.


Illustrations showing the basic operation of NIST’s artificial synapse

A synapse is a connection or switch between two brain cells. NIST’s artificial synapse is a tiny metal cylinder that processes incoming electrical spikes to customize spiking output signals based on a tunable internal design. Researchers apply current pulses to control the number of nanoclusters pointing in the same direction, as depicted in the “disordered” versus “ordered” illustrations. This design, in which different inputs alter the alignment and resulting output signals, is inspired by how the brain operates.

The NIST synapse is said to be able to fire 1 billion times per second – compared to a brain cell's 50 times per second – using just a whiff of energy, about one ten-thousandth as much as a human synapse.

Having that said, the new synapse would be used in neuromorphic computers made of superconducting components, which can transmit electricity without resistance, and therefore, would be more efficient than other designs based on semiconductors or software. Data would be transmitted, processed and stored in units of magnetic flux. Superconducting devices mimicking brain cells and transmission lines have been developed, but until now, efficient synapses—a crucial piece—have been missing.

The NIST team hope that its synapse could pave the way for a more complex neuromorphic system, than the ones which have already been demonstrated with other technologies.

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