Could a University of Canterbury professor's research on computer chips that work like our brains be a global energy game-changer?

A University of Canterbury professor is working on computer chips that work like our brains. Not only could this be a game-changer for global energy consumption, but it just might help make New Zealand a major player in the semiconductor industry.

Top image: University of Canterbury professor Simon Brown.

For people living in the year 2018, it’s a universally accepted fact about as profound as what generations past said about the sky being blue: computers use power. And, given that the capabilities of computers are continuing to increase exponentially at an equally exponentially increasing speed, that’s a serious problem.

Some of the world’s sharpest minds, of course, are on this. And one of the most promising solutions is coming from none other than Aotearoa’s own University of Canterbury (UC).

Physics professor Simon Brown, of UC’s School of Physical and Chemical Sciences, is developing a neuromorphic computer chip that not only could solve the issue of power consumption, but also potentially create a New Zealand-based semiconductor industry.

Brown says that, in short, a neuromorphic computer chip is basically computer hardware that works like the brain. “Neuromorphic devices mimic the behaviour of the networks of neurons in the brain, using nanoscale switches that emulate synapses. These devices learn from their inputs, providing functionality that is difficult to implement even in software implementations of neural networks,” he says. “Computers built from neuromorphic devices are expected to be far superior to standard computers in some tasks, such as image recognition. Having discovered neuromorphic behaviour in simple devices composed of randomly deposited nanoparticles, we aim to demonstrate the commercial potential of this technology by building and optimising a next generation of more sophisticated devices.”

The need for what neuromorphic chips promises can’t be stressed enough if humanity is to continue to develop on its current trajectory. Demand for new technology innovations that rely on semiconductor chips has become ever greater – simple scaling and cost reductions based on Moore’s Law will soon no longer be enough to improve device performance. New growth areas – such as brain-inspired computing, the Internet of Things, energy-efficient sensing, automated devices, robotics, and artificial intelligence – are calling for new breakthroughs. Many experts say neuromorphic chips can run on much less power than traditional processors – allowing for more powerful computers to be built that aren’t as limited by the available power supply.

Neuromorphic computing is also used for deep learning applications, which include computer vision, natural language processing, data mining and artificial intelligence. And while conventional computers can implement neuromorphic computing in software, the last few years have heralded the arrival of neuromorphic chips – specialised silicon chips which work primarily in hardware rather than software.

Compared with conventional computers running neuromorphic software, neuromorphic chips promise huge advances in size, speed and power consumption. That’s important, since about eight percent of the world’s total electricity is used to power computers at present.

The UC Neuromorphic Computer Chip uses a network of nanoparticles to emulate neuromorphic processing directly in hardware – a radically different approach to the experimental neuromorphic chips currently available. “This has the potential for a huge impact on the world, by providing a low-cost computer chip that uses self-assembled nanocomponents to build brain-like structures that naturally support new approaches for solving highly complex tasks, including pattern and image recognition,” says Brown.

Brown’s Neuromorphic Computer Chip research has secured both research funding (from MBIE in 2016) and commercialisation funding (from KiwiNet in 2017). The project has also been supported by ongoing funding from the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

UC business development manager David Humm, who specialises in the ICT sector, describes Brown’s work as “unique and leading-edge research” taking place right at home in the Land of the Long White Cloud. “The core technology has extensive patent protection due to its uniqueness,” he says. “This could be the start of a New Zealand semiconductor industry.”

Brown says a number of large international corporations are looking at developing neuromorphic technologies. “This emerging technology field is diverse, with a number of commercial organisations – such as IBM, Qualcomm, HP and various international semiconductor companies – taking different approaches to the development of neuromorphic technologies,” he says. “Those companies are doing impressive things, but their technologies are based on the same processes that are used to make conventional silicon chips, and so they have the same limitations. Our chips are made in a completely different way which bypasses those problems.”

It comes without saying, but the potential is, quite literally, boundless.

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