Photonic microchips will process information like the human brain

Posted Oct 8, 2017 by Tim Sandle
University of Exeter scientists have made an important step towards unlocking a mystery of computing: constructing microchips that can mimic the way the human brain works to store and process information.
File illustration: Event recorded with the CMS detector in 2012. The event shows characteristics exp...
File illustration: Event recorded with the CMS detector in 2012. The event shows characteristics expected from the decay of the SM Higgs boson to a pair of photons (dashed yellow lines and green towers).
CERN:CMS Collection/T. McCauley, L. Taylor
This step forwards has come through the development of photonic computer chips. These microchips use light instead of electricity. The use of light allows the chips to imitate the way the brain's synapses operate, exploiting the speed and power efficiency of photonic systems..
The reason why this mattes is because the resultant photonic synapses are capable of operating at speeds several thousand times faster than those of the human brain. The technology has the potential to herald a new age of computing - the development of computers that can think in a similar way to the human brain, but in ways that are far faster.
As lead researcher Professor Harish Bhaskaran explains: "The development of computers that work more like the human brain has been a holy grail of scientists for decades. Via a network of neurons and synapses the brain can process and store vast amounts of information simultaneously, using only a few tens of Watts of power. Conventional computers can't come close to this sort of performance."
The researchers achieved the feat by combining phase-change materials (as would be found in common re-writable optical discs) together with integrated photonic circuits. This combination was capable of delivering a biological-like synaptic response.
The new research has been published in the journal Science Advances, in a paper titled "On-chip photonic synapse."
In related news, scientists have successfully stored light-based information in the form of sound waves. These sound recordings have been placed onto a computer and this presents an alternative route for the development of photonic computers. See the Digital Journal article "Light stored as sound for the first time."