Researchers in the US have taken a big step towards creating a computer that works like a human brain. That might sound creepy, but the brain is already the most efficient computer that we know of - it's super-fast, has nearly limitless memory, doesn't need to 'boot up', and requires hardly any energy to run. If we could find a way to make a computer that works in the same way, it would revolutionise technology.
One of the keys to making these devices is improving something called the memory resistor, or 'memristor', which remembers how much current has flown through it. This means that, unlike the flash and RAM memory we currently rely on, it will be much faster, and able to recall data even if the system loses power.
"Memristors could be used as a memory element in an integrated circuit or computer," said one of the team, computer engineer Mark Hersam from Northwestern University in the US, in a press release. "Unlike other memories that exist today in modern electronics, memristors are stable and remember their state even if you lose power."
Memristors were first proposed back in 1971, but there's been one big thing holding them back so far - we've only managed to create two-terminal devices that can control just one voltage channel, and are incompatible with our current computing technology.
But now Hersam and his team have managed to add another electrode and transform the memristor into a three-terminal device, allowing it to be used in more complex electronic circuits and systems.
"With a memristor that can be tuned with a third electrode, we have the possibility to realise a function you could not previously achieve," Hersam said. "A three-terminal memristor has been proposed as a means of realising brain-like computing. We are now actively exploring this possibility in the laboratory."
The researchers achieved this by using a one-atom-thick nanomaterial semiconductor, called molybdenum disulfide. This allowed them to arrange the atoms of the molybdenum disulfide in a different direction to the memristors, creating a pattern sort of like the grains in wood and offering another place where the researchers could control electrical current.
"These grain boundaries influence the flow of current, so they can serve as a means of tuning resistance," said Hersam in the release. And this opens up a whole new level of control and complexity.
The research has been published in Nature Nanotechnology, and we say bring on these computers that work just like our far superior brains. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery...