UL study finds ‘brain-like’ computing is possible at the molecular level

The UL-led study involved creating a layer of molecules 2 nanometers thick – about 50,000 times thinner than a strand of hair.

Researchers at the University of Limerick (UL) have made a breakthrough in physics by discovering that “brain-like” computing activity is possible at the atomic and molecular scale.

An international team led by UL molecular modeling professor Damien Thompson has been able to create a new type of organic material that learns from past behavior – much like the synaptic behavior of our brains.

This discovery of the “dynamic molecular switch” is based on the development of a layer of molecules 2 nanometers thick – which is about 50,000 times thinner than a strand of hair and remembers its history when electrons cross.

Thompson explained that “the switching probability and values ​​of on/off states are continuously changing in the molecular material, providing a disruptive new alternative to conventional silicon-based digital switches that can only be on or off.”

He worked with Christian Nijhuis from the Center for Molecules and Brain-Inspired Nano Systems at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and Enrique del Barco from the University of Central Florida.

“It’s been a great lockdown project, with Chris, Enrique and I pushing each other through zoom meetings and gargantuan threads to bring our teams combined skills in materials modeling, synthesis and characterization to the point where we could demonstrate these new brain properties,” Thompson said of the study.

“The community has long known that silicon technology works completely differently from how our brains work, so we used new types of electronic materials based on soft molecules to emulate brain-like computer networks.”

It was published in the international journal Natural materials today (21 November).

The newly discovered dynamic organic switch displays all the mathematical logic functions needed for deep learning, successfully mimicking Pavlovian “call and response” brain-like synaptic behavior.

Some of the applications of this breakthrough range from sustainable and green chemistry to the development of new organic materials for high-density computing and memory storage in large data centers.

“This is just the beginning,” added Thompson, who is also director of SSPC, the Science Foundation Ireland’s pharmaceuticals research center based at UL.

“We are already busy developing this next generation of smart molecular materials, which enables the development of sustainable alternative technologies to address major energy, environmental and health challenges.”

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