OAK RIDGE — Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Tennessee and Texas A&M University demonstrated bio-inspired devices that accelerate routes to neuromorphic, or brain-like, computing.

Results published in Nature Communications report the first example of a lipid-based “memcapacitor,” a charge storage component with memory that processes information much like synapses do in the brain.

Their discovery could support the emergence of computing networks modeled on biology for a sensory approach to machine learning, an ORNL news release said.

“Our goal is to develop materials and computing elements that work like biological synapses and neurons — with vast interconnectivity and flexibility — to enable autonomous systems that operate differently than current computing devices and offer new functionality and learning capabilities,” said Joseph Najem, a recent postdoctoral researcher at ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences.

The novel approach uses soft materials to mimic biomembranes and simulate the way nerve cells communicate with one another.

The team designed an artificial cell membrane to explore the material’s dynamic, electrophysiological properties. At applied voltages, charges build up on both sides of the membrane as stored energy, analogous to the way capacitors work in traditional electric circuits.

But unlike regular capacitors, the memcapacitor can “remember” a previously applied voltage and — literally — shape how information is processed. The synthetic membranes change surface area and thickness depending on electrical activity. These shapeshifting membranes could be tuned as adaptive filters for specific biophysical and biochemical signals.

“The novel functionality opens avenues for nondigital signal processing and machine learning modeled on nature,” said ORNL’s Pat Collier, a CNMS cleanroom process engineer.

A distinct feature of all digital computers is the separation of processing and memory. Information is transferred back and forth from the hard drive and the central processor, creating an inherent bottleneck in the architecture no matter how small or fast the hardware can be.

Neuromorphic computing, modeled on the nervous system, employs architectures that are fundamentally different in that memory and signal processing are co-located in memory elements.

These “memelements” make up the synaptic hardware of systems that mimic natural information processing, learning and memory.

Systems designed with memelements offer advantages in scalability and low power consumption, but the real goal is to carve out an alternative path to artificial intelligence.

Tapping into biology could enable new computing possibilities, especially in the area of “edge computing,” such as wearable and embedded technologies that are not connected to a cloud but instead make on-the-fly decisions based on sensory input and past experience.

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