HP scientists move closer to brain-like memristors

A research team has taken a big step towards the production of electronic circuits which behave in a similar way to neurons and synapses in the human brain.

A team of scientists at Hewlett Packard and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have been able to accurately analyse the way memristors work in minute detail. It means that semi-autonomous robots could be within reach, ignoring the warnings of numerous big budget Hollywood blockbusters.

While memristors have been hypothesised since the early seventies, the circuit is a relative newcomer compared with the traditional circuit basics of capacitors, resistors and inductors.

What is fascinating about memristors is that they allow switching between states of resistance while being able to ‘remember’ what charge has passed through them. Scientists are theorising how they could be used to mimic the human brain’s network of neurons and interconnecting synapses to think and remember.

Memristors have been produced successfully before – with one researcher aiming to create a replica kitty brain as well as merging electronics and biological material in true cyborg style. But scientists have not yet understood what is happening within the memristors on a fundamental level.

They have a simple structure, usually consisting of a thin film of titanium dioxide between two electrodes, however scientists have been unable to observe the physical workings of the memristor by hitting it with tiny x-rays.

This means that the researchers will now be able to gain much more detailed insight into how the one hundred nanometre switching that occurs in a memristor actually happens real time, in terms of its chemistry and structure.

According to John Paul Strachan of the nanoElectronics Research Group, Hewlett-Packard Labs understanding how such devices work, for example how they heat up while in use and how they reverse resistance, is “one of the biggest hurdles” to actually producing a functioning model fit for commercialisation

This means that the devices, which retain data when switched off and so offering a number of advantages to existing DRAM and flash memories, could be commercialised in the not too distant future, with HP well placed to capitalise on the success.