AI Chip Graphic
MIT engineers have created a reconfigurable AI chip that comprises alternating layers of sensing and processing elements that can communicate with each other. (Figure courtesy of the researchers and edited by MIT News)

Imagine a more sustainable future, where cellphones, smartwatches, and other wearable devices don’t have to be shelved or discarded for a newer model. Instead, they could be upgraded with the latest sensors and processors that would snap onto a device’s internal chip — like LEGO bricks incorporated into an existing build. Such reconfigurable chipware could keep devices up to date while reducing our electronic waste.

Now MIT engineers have taken a step toward that modular vision with a LEGO-like design for a stackable, reconfigurable artificial intelligence chip.

The design comprises alternating layers of sensing and processing elements, along with light-emitting diodes (LED) that allow for the chip’s layers to communicate optically. Other modular chip designs employ conventional wiring to relay signals between layers. Such intricate connections are difficult if not impossible to sever and rewire, making such stackable designs not reconfigurable.

The MIT design uses light, rather than physical wires, to transmit information through the layers of the chip. The chip can therefore be reconfigured, with layers that can be swapped out or stacked on, for instance to add new sensors or updated processors.

“You can add as many computing layers and sensors as you want, such as for light, pressure, and even smell,” says MIT postdoc Jihoon Kang. “We call this a LEGO-like reconfigurable AI chip because it has unlimited expandability depending on the combination of layers.”

The researchers are eager to apply the design to edge computing devices — self-sufficient sensors and other electronics that work independently from any central or distributed resources such as supercomputers or cloud-based computing.