Computers currently deal with processing and memory separately, resulting in a speed and power ‘bottleneck’ caused by the need to continually move data around. This is totally unlike anything in biology, for example in human brains, where no real distinction is made between memory and computation. To perform these two functions simultaneously the University of Exeter research team used phase-change materials, a kind of semi-conductor that exhibits remarkable properties. They have created synaptic-like functionality via the ‘memflector’, an optical analogue of the memristor.
Their study demonstrates conclusively that phase-change materials can store and process information simultaneously. It also shows experimentally for the first time that they can perform general-purpose computing operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. More strikingly perhaps it shows that phase-change materials can be used to make artificial neurons and synapses. This means that an artificial system made entirely from phase-change devices could potentially learn and process information in a similar way to our own brains.
This weekend nextbigfuture had covered Thomas N Theis, Program Manager, New Devices and Architectures for Computing IBM Watson Research Center He indicated that IBM is spending a lot of research effort and resources and within a few years of products for : New logic devices, new phase change memory and new silicon photonics for exaflop and zettaflop computers.
The Exeter University phase change logic devices and brain emulation systems would fit in with the IBM work for the next technological paradigm for computer technology.
Phase-change materials offer a promising route for the practical realisation of new forms of general-purpose and ‘brain-like’ computers. An experimental proof-of-principle of such remakable capabilities is presented that includes (i) the reliable execution by a phase-change ‘processor’ of the four basic arithmetic functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, (ii) the demonstration of an ‘integrate and fire’ hardware neuron using a single phase-change cell and (iii) the expostion of synaptic-like functionality via the ‘memflector’, an optical analogue of the memristor.