A simple circuit could offer an alternative to energy-intensive GPUs

For Dillavou, one fascinating aspect of the circuit is what he calls its “emergent learning.” In a human, “every neuron is doing its own thing,” he says. “And then as an emergent phenomenon, you learn. You have behaviors. You ride a bike.” It’s similar in the circuit. Each resistor adjusts itself according to a simple rule, but collectively they “find” the answer to a more complicated question without any explicit instructions. 

A potential energy advantage

Dillavou’s prototype qualifies as a type of analog computer—one that encodes information along a continuum of values instead of the discrete 1s and 0s used in digital circuitry. The first computers were analog, but their digital counterparts superseded them after engineers developed fabrication techniques to squeeze more transistors onto digital chips to boost their speed. Still, experts have long known that as they increase in computational power, analog computers offer better energy efficiency than digital computers, says Aatmesh Shrivastava, an electrical engineer at Northeastern University. “The power efficiency benefits are not up for debate,” he says. However, he adds, analog signals are much noisier than digital ones, which make them ill suited for any computing tasks that require high precision.

In practice, Dillavou’s circuit hasn’t yet surpassed digital chips in energy efficiency. His team estimates that their design uses about 5 to 20 picojoules per resistor to generate a single output, where each resistor represents a single parameter in a neural network. Dillavou says this is about a tenth as efficient as state-of-the-art AI chips. But he says that the promise of the analog approach lies in scaling the circuit up, to increase its number of resistors and thus its computing power.

He explains the potential energy savings this way: Digital chips like GPUs expend energy per operation, so making a chip that can perform more operations per second just means a chip that uses more energy per second. In contrast, the energy usage of his analog computer is based on how long it is on. Should they make their computer twice as fast, it would also become twice as energy efficient. 

Dillavou’s circuit is also a type of neuromorphic computer, meaning one inspired by the brain. Like other neuromorphic schemes, the researchers’ circuitry doesn’t operate according to top-down instruction the way a conventional computer does. Instead, the resistors adjust their values in response to external feedback in a bottom-up approach, similar to how neurons respond to stimuli. In addition, the device does not have a dedicated component for memory. This could offer another energy efficiency advantage, since a conventional computer expends a significant amount of energy shuttling data between processor and memory. 

While researchers have already built a variety of neuromorphic machines based on different materials and designs, the most technologically mature designs are built on semiconducting chips. One example is Intel’s neuromorphic computer Loihi 2, to which the company began providing access for government, academic, and industry researchers in 2021. DeepSouth, a chip-based neuromorphic machine at Western Sydney University that is designed to be able to simulate the synapses of the human brain at scale, is scheduled to come online this year.

The machine-learning industry has shown interest in chip-based neuromorphic computing as well, with a San Francisco–based startup called Rain Neuromorphics raising $25 million in February. However, researchers still haven’t found a commercial application where neuromorphic computing definitively demonstrates an advantage over conventional computers. In the meantime, researchers like Dillavou’s team are putting forth new schemes to push the field forward. A few people in industry have expressed interest in his circuit. “People are most interested in the energy efficiency angle,” says Dillavou. 

But their design is still a prototype, with its energy savings unconfirmed. For their demonstrations, the team kept the circuit on breadboards because it’s “the easiest to work with and the quickest to change things,” says Dillavou, but the format suffers from all sorts of inefficiencies. They are testing their device on printed circuit boards to improve its energy efficiency, and they plan to scale up the design so it can perform more complicated tasks. It remains to be seen whether their clever idea can take hold out of the lab.

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