77-atom molecule key to brain-like computer architecture

A team of scientists, including researchers at the University of Limerick, Ireland, have discovered a new molecule that could power ultra-fast decision-making in computers.

The discovery unlocked the creation of a new type of computing architecture, which the researchers hope will have major implications in sectors ranging from bioinformatics to financial technology. The findings have been reported in Nature.

In biological brains, the interconnections between neurons incorporate intricate logical structures that enable sophisticated decision-making far beyond anything ever produced by electronics. Significantly, the network of neurons in a brain constantly reconfigures itself, providing flexibility and adaptability to different environments, unlike hardwired logic circuits.

The researchers created an improved electronic analog using a new molecule with just 77 atoms. The molecule was discovered by experts in predictive materials design at the Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick. Professor Damien Thompson carried out state-of-the-art computer simulations using the Irish Center for High-Level Computing’s supercomputer to make the discovery. This molecule provides a new fundamental circuit element.

The molecule uses the natural asymmetry in its metal-organic bonds to switch cleanly between five different states. Through the interconnectivity between these states, the researchers are “reimagining fundamental elements of the electronic circuit by expressing complex logic in nanometer-scale material properties.” This allowed them to embed a set of decision trees (composed of conditional if-then-else statements) within the circuit element and perform lightning-fast decision making.

“On the new device, everything is done in one place, so there’s no need to keep reading or moving information around,” Thompson explained. “This eliminates the ‘von Neumann bottleneck,’ a problem that has affected computing from the beginning and still hampers technological development. The new molecular circuitry means that the computer processing unit no longer has to fetch data for every operation it performs and this saves huge time and energy costs.”

The molecules were subsequently synthesized at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Kolkata, and made into films and tested by collaborators in Singapore and the US, respectively. Using simple circuits of just these new elements, they demonstrated reconfigurable logic in multivariable decision trees.

“We are excited about the possibilities because the devices display all the hallmarks of brain computing. First, a large number of identical tiny molecular processors are networked and work in parallel. More importantly, they exhibit redundancy and reconfigurability, meaning the device can solve problems even if individual components don’t work perfectly all the time or in exactly the same way every time,” Thompson explained. “The new circuit elements could provide computers that are smaller, faster and more energy efficient – ​​exactly what is needed for edge computing, IoT and AI applications.”

Professor Luuk van der Wielen, Director of the Bernal Institute, welcomed the breakthrough: “This high-impact research reinforces the Bernal Institute’s ambition to impact the world based on the most advanced science in an increasingly international context. This is a continuation of Bernal scientists’ world-leading contribution to the field of predictive modeling of materials.”

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