Here's a headline you've probably seen before: "IBM creates brain-like computer chip." Here's a more exciting one: "New IBM circuit works in three dimensions, flips switches with atoms." Heck, both are exciting. The latter's just, for lack of a more appropriate cliché, a bit more mind-boggling.
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IBM scientists described a new kind of circuit in a paper published in Science on Thursday. There is no chip involve, per se. It's being described accurately as a "post-silicon transistor" and potentially paves the way for the most powerful and efficient computers the world has ever seen. This is possible largely because it mimics the behavior of another hyper-efficient computational marvel: the human brain.
The new so-called nanofluidic circuit works a little bit like a network of streams. A charged fluid moves over the surface of the circuit changing its properties (e.g. flipping a switch "on" or "off") with the positively and negatively charged atoms in the fluid. Like the synapses of the brain, the ions operate in three dimensions, a game changer in terms of efficiency and uncharted territory in terms of computing. "We could form or disrupt connections just in the same way a synaptic connection in the brain could be remade, or the strength of that connection could be adjusted," Stuart Parkin, a physicist and IBM Fellow, told The New York Times. It's a little bit easier to visualize. Below, the green represents the ionic fluid and the orange is the surface.
While there have been other efforts that attempt to build a brain-like computer — many of them from IBM — this nanofluidic circuit is a game changer. It pulls us out of the current evolutionary cycle of computers that commonly follows Moore's Law. (That's the one about computers becoming twice as powerful and half as big every two years or so.) "This is an alternative to a slowdown in Moore's Law," Parkin added. "Our inspiration is the brain and how it operates. It is full of liquids and ionic currents. We could build more brain-like devices."
More brain-like devices? Sounds intriguing. We can't wait until scientists start dropping installing them behind the eyes of automatons.