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Though 5G—a next-generation speed upgrade to wireless networks—is scarcely up and running (and still nonexistent in many places) researchers are already working on what comes next. It lacks an official name, but they’re calling it 6G for the sake of simplicity (and hey, it’s tradition). 6G promises to be up to 100 times faster than 5G—fast enough to download 142 hours of Netflix in a second—but researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how to make such ultra-speedy connections happen.
A new chip, described in a paper in Nature Photonics by a team from Osaka University and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, may give us a glimpse of our 6G future. The team was able to transmit data at a rate of 11 gigabits per second, topping 5G’s theoretical maximum speed of 10 gigabits per second and fast enough to stream 4K high-def video in real time. They believe the technology has room to grow, and with more development, might hit those blistering 6G speeds.
NTU final year PhD student Abhishek Kumar, Assoc Prof Ranjan Singh and postdoc Dr Yihao Yang. Dr Singh is holding the photonic topological insulator chip made from silicon, which can transmit terahertz waves at ultrahigh speeds. Credit: NTU Singapore
But first, some details about 5G and its predecessors so we can differentiate them from 6G.
Electromagnetic waves are characterized by a wavelength and a frequency; the wavelength is the distance a cycle of the wave covers (peak to peak or trough to trough, for example), and the frequency is the number of waves that pass a given point in one second. Cellphones use miniature radios to pick up electromagnetic signals and convert those signals into the sights and sounds on your phone.
4G wireless networks run on millimeter waves on the low- and mid-band spectrum, defined as a frequency of a little less (low-band) and a little more (mid-band) than one gigahertz (or one billion cycles per second). 5G kicked that up several notches by adding even higher frequency millimeter waves of up to 300 gigahertz, or 300 billion cycles per second. Data transmitted at those higher frequencies tends to be information-dense—like video—because they’re much faster.
The 6G chip kicks 5G up several more notches. It can transmit waves at more than three times the frequency of 5G: one terahertz, or a trillion cycles per second. The team says this yields a data rate of 11 gigabits per second. While that’s faster than the fastest 5G will get, it’s only the beginning for 6G. One wireless communications expert even estimates 6G networks could handle rates up to 8,000 gigabits per second; they’ll also have much lower latency and higher bandwidth than 5G.
Terahertz waves fall between infrared waves and microwaves on the electromagnetic spectrum. Generating and transmitting them is difficult and expensive, requiring special lasers, and even then the frequency range is limited. The team used a new material to transmit terahertz waves, called photonic topological insulators (PTIs). PTIs can conduct light waves on their surface and edges rather than having them run through the material, and allow light to be redirected around corners without disturbing its flow.
The chip is made completely of silicon and has rows of triangular holes. The team’s research showed the chip was able to transmit terahertz waves error-free.
Nanyang Technological University associate professor Ranjan Singh, who led the project, said, “Terahertz technology […] can potentially boost intra-chip and inter-chip communication to support artificial intelligence and cloud-based technologies, such as interconnected self-driving cars, which will need to transmit data quickly to other nearby cars and infrastructure to navigate better and also to avoid accidents.”
Besides being used for AI and self-driving cars (and, of course, downloading hundreds of hours of video in seconds), 6G would also make a big difference for data centers, IoT devices, and long-range communications, among other applications.
Given that 5G networks are still in the process of being set up, though, 6G won’t be coming on the scene anytime soon; a recent whitepaper on 6G from Japanese company NTTDoCoMo estimates we’ll see it in 2030, pointing out that wireless connection tech generations have thus far been spaced about 10 years apart; we got 3G in the early 2000s, 4G in 2010, and 5G in 2020.
In the meantime, as 6G continues to develop, we’re still looking forward to the widespread adoption of 5G.
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Nature is one of the most valuable sources of inspiration for researchers developing new robots and computational techniques. Over the past few decades, technological advances have enabled the creation of increasingly sophisticated systems replicating naturally occurring processes and phenomena, such as animal behaviors and biological mechanisms. Continue reading
In just half a decade, neuromorphic devices—or brain-inspired computing—already seem quaint. The current darling? Artificial-biological hybrid computing, uniting both man-made computer chips and biological neurons seamlessly into semi-living circuits.
It sounds crazy, but a new study in Nature Materials shows that it’s possible to get an artificial neuron to communicate directly with a biological one using not just electricity, but dopamine—a chemical the brain naturally uses to change how neural circuits behave, most known for signaling reward.
Because these chemicals, known as “neurotransmitters,” are how biological neurons functionally link up in the brain, the study is a dramatic demonstration that it’s possible to connect artificial components with biological brain cells into a functional circuit.
The team isn’t the first to pursue hybrid neural circuits. Previously, a different team hooked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one into a circuit using electrical protocols alone. Although a powerful demonstration of hybrid computing, the study relied on only one-half of the brain’s computational ability: electrical computing.
The new study now tackles the other half: chemical computing. It adds a layer of compatibility that lays the groundwork not just for brain-inspired computers, but also for brain-machine interfaces and—perhaps—a sort of “cyborg” future. After all, if your brain can’t tell the difference between an artificial neuron and your own, could you? And even if you did, would you care?
Of course, that scenario is far in the future—if ever. For now, the team, led by Dr. Alberto Salleo, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, collectively breathed a sigh of relief that the hybrid circuit worked.
“It’s a demonstration that this communication melding chemistry and electricity is possible,” said Salleo. “You could say it’s a first step toward a brain-machine interface, but it’s a tiny, tiny very first step.”
The study grew from years of work into neuromorphic computing, or data processing inspired by the brain.
The blue-sky idea was inspired by the brain’s massive parallel computing capabilities, along with vast energy savings. By mimicking these properties, scientists reasoned, we could potentially turbo-charge computing. Neuromorphic devices basically embody artificial neural networks in physical form—wouldn’t hardware that mimics how the brain processes information be even more efficient and powerful?
These explorations led to novel neuromorphic chips, or artificial neurons that “fire” like biological ones. Additional work found that it’s possible to link these chips up into powerful circuits that run deep learning with ease, with bioengineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.
As a potential computing hardware replacement, these systems have proven to be incredibly promising. Yet scientists soon wondered: given their similarity to biological brains, can we use them as “replacement parts” for brains that suffer from traumatic injuries, aging, or degeneration? Can we hook up neuromorphic components to the brain to restore its capabilities?
Buzz & Chemistry
Theoretically, the answer’s yes.
But there’s a huge problem: current brain-machine interfaces only use electrical signals to mimic neural computation. The brain, in contrast, has two tricks up its sleeve: electricity and chemicals, or electrochemical.
Within a neuron, electricity travels up its incoming branches, through the bulbous body, then down the output branches. When electrical signals reach the neuron’s outgoing “piers,” dotted along the output branch, however, they hit a snag. A small gap exists between neurons, so to get to the other side, the electrical signals generally need to be converted into little bubble ships, packed with chemicals, and set sail to the other neuronal shore.
In other words, without chemical signals, the brain can’t function normally. These neurotransmitters don’t just passively carry information. Dopamine, for example, can dramatically change how a neural circuit functions. For an artificial-biological hybrid neural system, the absence of chemistry is like nixing international cargo vessels and only sticking with land-based trains and highways.
“To emulate biological synaptic behavior, the connectivity of the neuromorphic device must be dynamically regulated by the local neurotransmitter activity,” the team said.
Let’s Get Electro-Chemical
The new study started with two neurons: the upstream, an immortalized biological cell that releases dopamine; and the downstream, an artificial neuron that the team previously introduced in 2017, made of a mix of biocompatible and electrical-conducting materials.
Rather than the classic neuron shape, picture more of a sandwich with a chunk bitten out in the middle (yup, I’m totally serious). Each of the remaining parts of the sandwich is a soft electrode, made of biological polymers. The “bitten out” part has a conductive solution that can pass on electrical signals.
The biological cell sits close to the first electrode. When activated, it dumps out boats of dopamine, which drift to the electrode and chemically react with it—mimicking the process of dopamine docking onto a biological neuron. This, in turn, generates a current that’s passed on to the second electrode through the conductive solution channel. When this current reaches the second electrode, it changes the electrode’s conductance—that is, how well it can pass on electrical information. This second step is analogous to docked dopamine “ships” changing how likely it is that a biological neuron will fire in the future.
In other words, dopamine release from the biological neuron interacts with the artificial one, so that the chemicals change how the downstream neuron behaves in a somewhat lasting way—a loose mimic of what happens inside the brain during learning.
But that’s not all. Chemical signaling is especially powerful in the brain because it’s flexible. Dopamine, for example, only grabs onto the downstream neurons for a bit before it returns back to its upstream neuron—that is, recycled or destroyed. This means that its effect is temporary, giving the neural circuit breathing room to readjust its activity.
The Stanford team also tried reconstructing this quirk in their hybrid circuit. They crafted a microfluidic channel that shuttles both dopamine and its byproduct away from the artificial neurons after they’ve done their job for recycling.
Putting It All Together
After confirming that biological cells can survive happily on top of the artificial one, the team performed a few tests to see if the hybrid circuit could “learn.”
They used electrical methods to first activate the biological dopamine neuron, and watched the artificial one. Before the experiment, the team wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Theoretically, it made sense that dopamine would change the artificial neuron’s conductance, similar to learning. But “it was hard to know whether we’d achieve the outcome we predicted on paper until we saw it happen in the lab,” said study author Scott Keene.
On the first try, however, the team found that the burst of chemical signaling was able to change the artificial neuron’s conductance long-term, similar to the neuroscience dogma “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Activating the upstream biological neuron with chemicals also changed the artificial neuron’s conductance in a way that mimicked learning.
“That’s when we realized the potential this has for emulating the long-term learning process of a synapse,” said Keene.
Visualizing under an electron microscope, the team found that, similar to its biological counterpart, the hybrid synapse was able to efficiently recycle dopamine with timescales similar to the brain after some calibration. By playing with how much dopamine accumulates at the artificial neuron, the team found that they loosely mimic a learning rule called spike learning—a darling of machine learning inspired by the brain’s computation.
A Hybrid Future?
Unfortunately for cyborg enthusiasts, the work is still in its infancy.
For one, the artificial neurons are still rather bulky compared to biological ones. This means that they can’t capture and translate information from a single “boat” of dopamine. It’s also unclear if, and how, a hybrid synapse can work inside a living brain. Given the billions of synapses firing away in our heads, it’ll be a challenge to find-and-replace those that need replacement, and be able to control our memories and behaviors similar to natural ones.
That said, we’re inching ever closer to full-capability artificial-biological hybrid circuits.
“The neurotransmitter-mediated neuromorphic device presented in this work constitutes a fundamental building block for artificial neural networks that can be directly modulated based on biological feedback from live neurons,” the authors concluded. “[It] is a crucial first step in realizing next-generation adaptive biohybrid interfaces.”
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Scientists have linked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one across multiple countries into a fully-functional network. Using standard internet protocols, they established a chain of communication whereby an artificial neuron controls a living, biological one, and passes on the info to another artificial one.
We’ve talked plenty about brain-computer interfaces and novel computer chips that resemble the brain. We’ve covered how those “neuromorphic” chips could link up into tremendously powerful computing entities, using engineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.
As Moore’s law is dying, we even said that neuromorphic computing is one path towards the future of extremely powerful, low energy consumption artificial neural network-based computing—in hardware—that could in theory better link up with the brain. Because the chips “speak” the brain’s language, in theory they could become neuroprosthesis hubs far more advanced and “natural” than anything currently possible.
This month, an international team put all of those ingredients together, turning theory into reality.
The three labs, scattered across Padova, Italy, Zurich, Switzerland, and Southampton, England, collaborated to create a fully self-controlled, hybrid artificial-biological neural network that communicated using biological principles, but over the internet.
The three-neuron network, linked through artificial synapses that emulate the real thing, was able to reproduce a classic neuroscience experiment that’s considered the basis of learning and memory in the brain. In other words, artificial neuron and synapse “chips” have progressed to the point where they can actually use a biological neuron intermediary to form a circuit that, at least partially, behaves like the real thing.
That’s not to say cyborg brains are coming soon. The simulation only recreated a small network that supports excitatory transmission in the hippocampus—a critical region that supports memory—and most brain functions require enormous cross-talk between numerous neurons and circuits. Nevertheless, the study is a jaw-dropping demonstration of how far we’ve come in recreating biological neurons and synapses in artificial hardware.
And perhaps one day, the currently “experimental” neuromorphic hardware will be integrated into broken biological neural circuits as bridges to restore movement, memory, personality, and even a sense of self.
The Artificial Brain Boom
One important thing: this study relies heavily on a decade of research into neuromorphic computing, or the implementation of brain functions inside computer chips.
The best-known example is perhaps IBM’s TrueNorth, which leveraged the brain’s computational principles to build a completely different computer than what we have today. Today’s computers run on a von Neumann architecture, in which memory and processing modules are physically separate. In contrast, the brain’s computing and memory are simultaneously achieved at synapses, small “hubs” on individual neurons that talk to adjacent ones.
Because memory and processing occur on the same site, biological neurons don’t have to shuttle data back and forth between processing and storage compartments, massively reducing processing time and energy use. What’s more, a neuron’s history will also influence how it behaves in the future, increasing flexibility and adaptability compared to computers. With the rise of deep learning, which loosely mimics neural processing as the prima donna of AI, the need to reduce power while boosting speed and flexible learning is becoming ever more tantamount in the AI community.
Neuromorphic computing was partially born out of this need. Most chips utilize special ingredients that change their resistance (or other physical characteristics) to mimic how a neuron might adapt to stimulation. Some chips emulate a whole neuron, that is, how it responds to a history of stimulation—does it get easier or harder to fire? Others imitate synapses themselves, that is, how easily they will pass on the information to another neuron.
Although single neuromorphic chips have proven to be far more efficient and powerful than current computer chips running machine learning algorithms in toy problems, so far few people have tried putting the artificial components together with biological ones in the ultimate test.
That’s what this study did.
A Hybrid Network
Still with me? Let’s talk network.
It’s gonna sound complicated, but remember: learning is the formation of neural networks, and neurons that fire together wire together. To rephrase: when learning, neurons will spontaneously organize into networks so that future instances will re-trigger the entire network. To “wire” together, downstream neurons will become more responsive to their upstream neural partners, so that even a whisper will cause them to activate. In contrast, some types of stimulation will cause the downstream neuron to “chill out” so that only an upstream “shout” will trigger downstream activation.
Both these properties—easier or harder to activate downstream neurons—are essentially how the brain forms connections. The “amping up,” in neuroscience jargon, is long-term potentiation (LTP), whereas the down-tuning is LTD (long-term depression). These two phenomena were first discovered in the rodent hippocampus more than half a century ago, and ever since have been considered as the biological basis of how the brain learns and remembers, and implicated in neurological problems such as addition (seriously, you can’t pass Neuro 101 without learning about LTP and LTD!).
So it’s perhaps especially salient that one of the first artificial-brain hybrid networks recapitulated this classic result.
To visualize: the three-neuron network began in Switzerland, with an artificial neuron with the badass name of “silicon spiking neuron.” That neuron is linked to an artificial synapse, a “memristor” located in the UK, which is then linked to a biological rat neuron cultured in Italy. The rat neuron has a “smart” microelectrode, controlled by the artificial synapse, to stimulate it. This is the artificial-to-biological pathway.
Meanwhile, the rat neuron in Italy also has electrodes that listen in on its electrical signaling. This signaling is passed back to another artificial synapse in the UK, which is then used to control a second artificial neuron back in Switzerland. This is the biological-to-artificial pathway back. As a testimony in how far we’ve come in digitizing neural signaling, all of the biological neural responses are digitized and sent over the internet to control its far-out artificial partner.
Here’s the crux: to demonstrate a functional neural network, just having the biological neuron passively “pass on” electrical stimulation isn’t enough. It has to show the capacity to learn, that is, to be able to mimic the amping up and down-tuning that are LTP and LTD, respectively.
You’ve probably guessed the results: certain stimulation patterns to the first artificial neuron in Switzerland changed how the artificial synapse in the UK operated. This, in turn, changed the stimulation to the biological neuron, so that it either amped up or toned down depending on the input.
Similarly, the response of the biological neuron altered the second artificial synapse, which then controlled the output of the second artificial neuron. Altogether, the biological and artificial components seamlessly linked up, over thousands of miles, into a functional neural circuit.
So…I’m still picking my jaw up off the floor.
It’s utterly insane seeing a classic neuroscience learning experiment repeated with an integrated network with artificial components. That said, a three-neuron network is far from the thousands of synapses (if not more) needed to truly re-establish a broken neural circuit in the hippocampus, which DARPA has been aiming to do. And LTP/LTD has come under fire recently as the de facto brain mechanism for learning, though so far they remain cemented as neuroscience dogma.
However, this is one of the few studies where you see fields coming together. As Richard Feynman famously said, “What I cannot recreate, I cannot understand.” Even though neuromorphic chips were built on a high-level rather than molecular-level understanding of how neurons work, the study shows that artificial versions can still synapse with their biological counterparts. We’re not just on the right path towards understanding the brain, we’re recreating it, in hardware—if just a little.
While the study doesn’t have immediate use cases, practically it does boost both the neuromorphic computing and neuroprosthetic fields.
“We are very excited with this new development,” said study author Dr. Themis Prodromakis at the University of Southampton. “On one side it sets the basis for a novel scenario that was never encountered during natural evolution, where biological and artificial neurons are linked together and communicate across global networks; laying the foundations for the Internet of Neuro-electronics. On the other hand, it brings new prospects to neuroprosthetic technologies, paving the way towards research into replacing dysfunctional parts of the brain with AI chips.”
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