Superconducting optoelectronics to scale up brain-inspired computing

Technology News |
By Rich Pell

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) say they have demonstrated a solution that may someday allow artificial neural systems to operate 100,000 times faster than the human brain. They have created a circuit that behaves much like a biological synapse yet uses just single photons to transmit and receive signals.

The computation in the NIST circuit occurs where a single-photon detector meets a superconducting circuit element called a Josephson junction – a sandwich of superconducting materials separated by a thin insulating film. If the current through the sandwich exceeds a certain threshold value, the Josephson junction begins to produce small voltage pulses called fluxons. Upon detecting a photon, the single-photon detector pushes the Josephson junction over this threshold and fluxons are accumulated as current in a superconducting loop.

Researchers can tune the amount of current added to the loop per photon by applying a bias (an external current source powering the circuits) to one of the junctions. This is called the synaptic weight.

This behavior, say the researchers, is similar to that of biological synapses. The stored current serves as a form of short-term memory, as it provides a record of how many times the neuron produced a spike in the near past. The duration of this memory is set by the time it takes for the electric current to decay in the superconducting loops, which the NIST researchers demonstrated can vary from hundreds of nanoseconds to milliseconds, and likely beyond.

This means the hardware could be matched to problems occurring at many different time scales — from high-speed industrial control systems to more leisurely conversations with humans. The ability to set different weights by changing the bias to the Josephson junctions permits a longer-term memory that can be used to make the networks programmable so that the same network could solve many different problems.

Synapses are a crucial computational component of the brain, say the researchers, so this demonstration of superconducting single-photon synapses is an important milestone on the path to realizing the vision of superconducting optoelectronic networks. Looking ahead, the researchers plan to combine these synapses with on-chip sources of light to demonstrate full superconducting optoelectronic neurons.

“We could use what we’ve demonstrated here to solve computational problems, but the scale would be limited,” says NIST project leader Jeff Shainline. “Our next goal is to combine this advance in superconducting electronics with semiconductor light sources. That will allow us to achieve communication between many more elements and solve large, consequential problems.”

The researchers have already demonstrated light sources that could be used in a full system, but further work is required to integrate all the components on a single chip. The synapses themselves could be improved by using detector materials that operate at higher temperatures than the present system, and the team is also exploring techniques to implement synaptic weighting in larger-scale neuromorphic chips.

For more, see “Superconducting optoelectronic single-photon synapses.”



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