Revolution: circuit evolution

Monday 21st September 2015
Schematic of a nanoparticle network (about 200 nanometres in diameter). By applying electrical signals at the electrodes (yellow), and using artificial evolution, this disordered network can be configured into useful electronic circuits.

Researchers of the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology and the CTIT Institute for ICT Research at the University of Twente in The Netherlands have demonstrated working electronic circuits that have been produced in a radically new way, using methods that resemble Darwinian evolution.

The size of these circuits is comparable to the size of their conventional counterparts, but much closer to natural networks like the human brain and promise a new generation of powerful, energy-efficient electronics. 

One of the greatest successes of the 20th century has been the development of digital computers. During the last decades these computers have become more and more powerful by integrating ever smaller components on silicon chips.

However, it is becoming increasingly difficult and extremely expensive to continue this miniaturisation. Current transistors consist of only a handful of atoms. It is a major challenge to produce chips in which the millions of transistors have the same characteristics, and thus to make the chips operate properly. 

Another drawback is that energy consumption is reaching unacceptable levels. It is obvious that one has to look for alternative directions, and it is interesting to see what we can learn from nature.  Natural evolution has led to powerful ‘computers’ like the human brain, which can solve complex problems in an energy-efficient way. Nature exploits complex networks that can execute many tasks in parallel.

Move away from designed circuits
The approach of the researchers at the University of Twente (above left)  is based on methods that resemble those found in nature. They have used networks of gold nanoparticles for the execution of essential computational tasks. 

Contrary to conventional electronics, they have moved away from designed circuits. By using 'designless' systems, costly design mistakes are avoided. The computational power of their networks is enabled by applying artificial evolution. This evolution takes less than an hour, rather than millions of years. By applying electrical signals, one and the same network can be configured into 16 different logical gates. The evolutionary approach works around - or can even take advantage of - possible material defects that can be fatal in conventional electronics.

Powerful and energy-efficient
It is the first time that scientists have succeeded in this way in realising robust electronics with dimensions that can compete with commercial technology. According to Prof. Wilfred van der Wiel, the realised circuits currently still have limited computing power. “But with this research we have delivered proof of principle: demonstrated that our approach works in practice. By scaling up the system, real added value will be produced in the future. Take for example the efforts to recognise patterns, such as with face recognition. This is very difficult for a regular computer, while humans and possibly also our circuits can do this much better."  

Another important advantage may be that this type of circuitry uses much less energy, both in the production, and during use. Published in  Nature Nanotechnology the researchers anticipate a wide range of applications, for example in portable electronics and in the medical world.

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