Throw Silicon Chips Away; New Approaches To Computer Power Are On The Way

July 22, 2004

New sources of computing power – derived from such novel areas as neuron-like cells and powerful chemical reactions – could form the heart of the next generation of computers. The University of the West of England and four research partners have just won £1.8 million in government funding to carry out research into computers that are inspired by nature. This means UWE is playing a key role in two out of only five nationally funded projects aimed at such exciting multidisciplinary research.

In the first, £1.2 million project, computer scientists, biologists and chemists at UWE will work with the universities of Sussex and Leeds to develop alternatives to the silicon chip. They will look at two new approaches that use real biological neurons and networks of chemical reactions.

Project leader Dr Larry Bull from UWE’s faculty of Computing, Engineering and Mathematical Sciences said:
“We will combine techniques from machine learning with those from cell culturing, neurobiology and experimental chemistry. We are using cultures of neuron-like cells that are stimulated electrically to form growing networks. The network’s responses to such stimuli are electrical signals that may be interpreted as a computation. Certain chemical reactions can be controlled by light and we can observe and measure the spontaneous waves they create across a suitable substrate within a network, again interpreting resultant behaviour as computation.

“With this research we aim to create novel computing devices from materials which have inherently complex properties that could therefore be capable of solving tasks of great complexity. There are many other potential beneficiaries in areas such as medicine.”

Professor Wendy Purcell, Dean of the Faculty of Applied Sciences and a key researcher in the team said:
“We are delighted to be part of this multidisciplinary team seeing our work on developing tissue models in the lab that behave as the in-life cells being used to drive machines. This work comes from our studies on producing cell cultures to replace animal use in research. Cells harvested from your breakfast egg may now power the computers of the future so machines can think!"

The second project, in which UWE and Edinburgh University are collaborating with the University of Sheffield, will investigate how the human brain is able to control and stabilize body movement so effectively, with the aim of applying the findings to robotic systems. Examples of possible uses are for small rough-terrain walking robots that could be used for operating in dangerous environments such as minefields, or for rescue missions in natural or human-created disaster sites such as plane crashes.

“We will be using the award to build a six-legged walking robot that guides its motion using a motorised vision system,” said Dr Tony Pipe. “We will embed an artificial cerebellum directly into electronic hardware to act as the core controller in guiding movement. The cerebellum is the part of the brain that acts as a regulator in the timing of movements. One example is known as the vestibulo-ocular reflex, where we compensate for the undulations of the walking motion in maintaining gaze stability on an object. This ability is crucial for maintaining the gaze on a remote object during ‘search and find’ operations.

“The research will bring about a significant advance in our understanding of how the cerebellum controls body stability and how this can be mimicked by robots. This means that robot engineers will benefit from new discoveries in neuroscience and vice versa.”

Professor Steve Hoddell, Dean of the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Mathematical Sciences at UWE, said:

“These are very exciting awards and show that UWE is at the forefront of interdisciplinary research into new and unconventional types of computing.
The applications of this work have a potential that could be felt across a wide range of areas including artificial intelligence, biology, engineering, medicine and neuroscience.”

Source: University of the West of England

Explore further: Blog comment, collab help man attack old maths problem

Related Stories

Blog comment, collab help man attack old maths problem

September 26, 2015

Chris Cesare in Nature reported on Friday that Terence Tao successfully attacked the Erdős discrepancy problem by building on an online collaboration. Tao is a professor in the math department at UCLA. He works primarily ...

Efficient operation of wastewater treatment plants

April 8, 2014

The German Federal Environmental Foundation (Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt) announces the launch of a groundbreaking project for which the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) is developing sophisticated measuring ...

Small drones hit US regulatory turbulence

February 14, 2014

Hovering like mechanical sparrows over a windswept Maryland field on a bright Saturday afternoon, small drones seem harmless—but they are at the center of an ardent dogfight over US regulations.

Recommended for you

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.

Internet giants race to faster mobile news apps

October 4, 2015

US tech giants are turning to the news in their competition for mobile users, developing new, faster ways to deliver content, but the benefits for struggling media outlets remain unclear.

Trade in invasive plants is blossoming

October 3, 2015

Every day, hundreds of different plant species—many of them listed as invasive—are traded online worldwide on auction platforms. This exacerbates the problem of uncontrollable biological invasions.

Fusion reactors 'economically viable' say experts

October 2, 2015

Fusion reactors could become an economically viable means of generating electricity within a few decades, and policy makers should start planning to build them as a replacement for conventional nuclear power stations, according ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.