Graphene synapses advance brain-like computers

Computers that think more like human brains are inching closer to mainstream adoption. But many unanswered questions remain. Among the most pressing, what types of materials can serve as the best building blocks to unlock the potential of this new style of computing.

For most traditional computing devices, silicon remains the gold standard. However, there is a movement to use more flexible, efficient and environmentally friendly materials for these brain-like devices.

In a new paper, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin developed synaptic transistors for brain-like computers using the thin, flexible material graphene. These transistors are similar to synapses in the brain, that connect neurons to each other.

“Computers that think like brains can do so much more than today’s devices,” said Jean Anne Incorvia, an assistant professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineer and the lead author on the paper published today in Nature Communications. “And by mimicking synapses, we can teach these devices to learn on the fly, without requiring huge training methods that take up so much power.”

A combination of graphene and nafion, a polymer membrane material, make up the backbone of the synaptic transistor. Together, these materials demonstrate key synaptic-like behaviors — most importantly, the ability for the pathways to strengthen over time as they are used more often, a type of neural muscle memory. In computing, this means that devices will be able to get better at tasks like recognizing and interpreting images over time and do it faster.

Another important finding is that these transistors are biocompatible, which means they can interact with living cells and tissue. That is key for potential applications in medical devices that come into contact with the human body. Most materials used for these early brain-like devices are toxic, so they would not be able to contact living cells in any way.

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