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Researchers at the MicroNano Research Facility (MNRF) have built one of the world’s first electronic multi-state memory cells capable of storing information in the same way as the brain.
The cell mirrors the brain’s ability to simultaneously process and store multiple strands of information.
The development brings researchers closer to imitating key electronic aspects of the human brain – a vital step towards creating a bionic brain – which could help unlock successful treatments for common neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Project leader Dr Sharath Sriram, co-leader of RMIT’s Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group said the groundbreaking development imitates the way the brain uses long-term memory.
“This is the closest we have come to creating a brain-like system with memory that learns and stores analogue information and is quick at retrieving this stored information,” Sriram said.
“The human brain is an extremely complex analogue computer… its evolution is based on its previous experiences, and up until now this functionality has not been able to be adequately reproduced with digital technology.”
Sriram said it was the first step in the process of building highly sophisticated artificial neuron networks.
The research builds on RMIT’s previous discovery where ultra-fast nano-scale memories were developed using a functional oxide material in the form of an ultra-thin film - 10,000 times thinner than a human hair.
Dr Hussein Nili, lead author of the study, said: “This new discovery is significant as it allows the multi-state cell to store and process information in the very same way that the brain does.
“Think of an old camera which could only take pictures in black and white. The same analogy applies here, rather than just black and white memories, we now have memories in full colour with shade, light and texture, it is a major step.”
While conventional digital storage, such as a USB, records data in a binary sequence of zeroes and ones, the nano memory cell can store information in multiple states because it is analogue.
It is the cell’s brain-like ability to remember and retain previous information that is exciting.
“We have now introduced controlled faults or defects in the oxide material along with the addition of metallic atoms, which unleashes the full potential of the ‘memristive’ effect – where the memory element's behaviour is dependent on its past experiences,” Nili said.
Nano-scale memories are precursors to the storage components of the complex artificial intelligence network needed to develop a bionic brain.
Nili said the research had myriad practical applications including the potential for scientists to replicate the human brain outside of the body which would remove ethical barriers in experimenting on humans.
“If you could replicate a brain outside the body, it would minimise ethical issues involved in treating and experimenting on the brain which can lead to better understanding of neurological conditions,” he said.
The discovery was published in the prestigious materials science journal Advanced Functional Materials.
The research, supported by the Australian Research Council, was conducted in collaboration with the University of California Santa Barbara.