A new area of artificial intelligence called analog deep learning promises faster computation with a fraction of the energy usage. Programmable resistors are the key building blocks in analog deep learning, just like transistors are the core elements for digital processors. By repeating arrays of programmable resistors in complex layers, researchers can create a network of analog artificial “neurons” and “synapses” that execute computations just like a digital neural network. This network can then be trained to achieve complex AI tasks like image recognition and natural language processing.
A multidisciplinary team of MIT researchers set out to push the speed limits of a type of human-made analog synapse that they had previously developed. They utilized a practical inorganic material in the fabrication process that enables their devices to run 1 million times faster than previous versions, which is also about 1 million times faster than the synapses in the human brain. This change has enabled fabricating devices at the nanometer scale and could pave the way for integration into commercial computing hardware for deep-learning applications.
The key element of MIT’s new analog processor technology is known as a protonic programmable resistor. These resistors, which are measured in nanometers (one nanometer is one billionth of a meter), are arranged in an array, like a chess board.
In the human brain, learning happens due to the strengthening and weakening of connections between neurons, called synapses. Deep neural networks have long adopted this strategy, where the network weights are programmed through training algorithms. In the case of this new processor, increasing and decreasing the electrical conductance of protonic resistors enables analog machine learning.
The conductance is controlled by the movement of protons. To increase the conductance, more protons are pushed into a channel in the resistor, while to decrease conductance protons are taken out. This is accomplished using an electrolyte (similar to that of a battery) that conducts protons but blocks electrons.
To develop a super-fast and highly energy-efficient programmable protonic resistor, the researchers looked to different materials for the electrolyte. While other devices used organic compounds, they focused on inorganic phosphosilicate glass.
These programmable resistors vastly increase the speed at which a neural network is trained, while drastically reducing the cost and energy to perform that training. This could help scientists develop deep learning models much more quickly, which could then be applied in uses like self-driving cars, fraud detection, or medical image analysis.