Boise State Researchers to Build a Chip That Functions Like the Human Brain

The latest computing chips contain billions of nano-scale transistors that power fast, high-performance computers, tablets and smartphones. These devices far out-perform early desktop computers, but they still do not come close to the computing capabilities of the human brain.

For decades, researchers have worked to reverse-engineer the human brain’s computational capabilities.   Over time they have made some progress. Today, scientists are now poised to take the next step– to build the electrical connections and processing capabilities found in the human brain — into a computer chip.

New computer architecture

The National Science Foundation grant has awarded a grant to a Boise State University research team to build a microchip that work more like the human brain than a digital computer. The team of scientists consists of faculty from both the electrical and computer engineering fields and includes Elisa Barney Smith, Kris Campbell and Vishal Saxena.

The group has expertise in artificial intelligence, integrated circuit design and memristor devices. Barney Smith is the project’s lead researcher on the project titled “CIF: Small: Realizing Chip-scale Bio-inspired Spiking Neural Networks with Monolithically Integrated Nano-scale Memristors.”

The research team intends to manufacture a chip that replicates the neurons and synapses connections in the brain. “By mimicking the brain’s billions of interconnections and pattern recognition capabilities, we may ultimately introduce a new paradigm in speed and power, and potentially enable systems that include the ability to learn, adapt and respond to their environment,” Barney Smith remarked.

Memristors the key

The project’s success depends on the ability of researchers to create a special resistor called a memristor that can handle the task. This type of resistor can be encoded to a new resistance and retain the resistance value when it loses power.

The concept of memristor was discovered by Leon Chua in the 1960s. Memristor consist of nano-devices. The memristor concept was discovered by Leon Chua in the 1960s and is considered the fourth circuit element behind RAM and flash and disk.

Memristors have only been studied as a nano-scale device about ten years. It represents the next level for storage solutions.

By modifying voltage, which opens and closes switch, it allows the storage of data just like traditional flash drive chips. Memristors switch in nanoseconds, store double the amount of information as flash and operate 1000 times faster.

The Campbell’s Boise State lab has the honor of being home to one of the first memristors built. It is one of only five such facilities in the world.

Memristor technology evolving

The Boise State projects will build upon other advances made in this area. In 2009, scientists in Europe employed conventional chip manufacturing techniques to build computer circuits that imitate the architecture–structure and function, of the human brain. They build a prototype made of 200,000 neurons and 50 million synapses.

About two years ago, IBM announced that its researchers have built two prototype chips that process data similar to how humans handle information, which they claimed are being used power personal computers and supercomputers.

“By employing these models in combination with a new device technology that exhibits similar electrical response to the neural synapses, we will design entirely new computing chips that mimic how the brain processes information,” said Barney Smith.


The chips will have the physical dimensions of standard chips, but will consume far less power.  Barney Smith expects to start fabricating memristor chips within the next several weeks. The chip will have immediate applications in the space, environmental and biomedical industries.


Blog courtesy of Critical Systems, Inc.   A Boise, ID based company supporting breakthrough technologies.

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