Phase change materials could be used to develop ‘brain-like’ computers

Researchers have developed a new technique that could lead to the development of "brain-like" computers (Image: pasukaru76 viaflickr)

Unlike human brains that make no real distinction between memory and computation, computers currently deal with processing and memory separately. This means data has to be constantly moved around, resulting in a speed and power "bottleneck." Now, using phase change materials that can store and process information simultaneously, researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK have developed a new technique that could lead to the development of "brain-like" computers.

For their study, the researchers used a semi-conductor phase change material that they say exhibits remarkable properties. Not only did the study conclusively demonstrate that phase change materials can store and process information simultaneously. It also showed experimentally for the first time that they can perform general-purpose computing operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

Even more remarkable, the study showed that phase change materials could be used to make artificial neurons and synapses. This offers the prospect of an artificial system made entirely of phase change materials that could potentially learn and process information in a similar way to the human brain.

"Our findings have major implications for the development of entirely new forms of computing, including 'brain-like' computers. We have uncovered a technique for potentially developing new forms of 'brain-like' computer systems that could learn, adapt and change over time. This is something that researchers have been striving for over many years," says Professor David Wright of the University of Exeter and lead author of the study.

The paper, published in Advanced Materials, focused on the performance of a single phase change cell, but the next stage of the research will involve building a system of interconnected cells that can learn to perform simple tasks, such as the identification of certain objects and patterns.

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