‘Wet’ Computing Systems to Boost Processing Power

Researchers at the University of Southampton have recently announced the development of a new kind of information processing technology. Their development is inspired by chemical processes in living systems, such as our brain, and it should enable the improvement of current information processing methods.
Sketch of artificial wet neuronal networks (Credit: University of Southampton)
Sketch of artificial wet neuronal networks
(Credit: University of Southampton)

Dr. Maurits de Planque and Dr. Klaus-Peter Zauner, from University of Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS), are working on this ambitious project. According to their preliminary study, they intend to adapt brain processes to a ‘wet’ information processing scenario by setting up chemicals in a tube which behave like the transistors in a computer chip.

When asked to explain about the team’s techniques, Dr Zauner said: “what we are developing here is a very crude, minimal liquid brain and the final computer will be ‘wet’ just like our brain. People realize now that the best information processes we have are in our heads and as we are increasingly finding that silicon has its limitations in terms of information processing, we need to explore other approaches, which is exactly what we are doing here.”

The project, entitled Artificial Wet Neuronal Networks from Compartmentalized Excitable Chemical Material, involves many participants. It is being coordinated by Friedrich Schiller University Jena, and includes also the University of the West of England, Bristol and the Institute of Physical Chemistry, Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.

Although some might question the project’s feasibility, respectable institutions such as the European Union’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Proactive Initiatives have identified the potential benefits of this research – recently the team was given 1.8 million Euros, in order to finance their future efforts.

According to plans, the project will run for three years and will involve three complementary objectives. The first is to engineer lipid-coated water droplets, inspired by biological cells, containing an excitable chemical medium and then to connect the droplets into networks in which they can communicate through chemical signals. The second objective is to design information-processing architectures based on the droplets and to demonstrate purposeful information processing in droplet architectures. The third objective is to establish and explore the potential and limitations of droplet architectures.

“Our system will copy some key features of neuronal pathways in the brain,” said Dr. de Planque. He continues on detailing the system’s abilities: “it will be capable of excitation, self-repair and self-assembly.”

TFOT has also covered the First Avalanche Photodetector, an inexpensive silicon-based device promises to revolutionize how multiple processor cores communicate within computing systems, and HP’s Memristor on a Chip, a development that could increase computing power and possibly reduce energy consumption. Another related TFOT story is the ‘Singing Brain’, a study showing that the unique way a person’s brain “sings” may provide insight into complex conditions such as schizophrenia and epilepsy.

For more information about the ‘Wet’ Computing Systems, see University of Southampton’s website.

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