• Thu. Dec 7th, 2023

    Critical Thought

    Critical thoughts on quantum technologies

    Quantum Materials and the Quest for Energy-Efficient Computing

    ByThemba Hadebe

    Nov 12, 2023
    Quantum Materials and the Quest for Energy-Efficient Computing

    In a groundbreaking development, scientists have made a significant breakthrough in the field of quantum materials, opening up new possibilities for energy-efficient computing systems that mimic the functions of the human brain. Recent research has revealed that these unique materials exhibit a phenomenon known as non-locality, where electrical signals transmitted between neighboring electrodes can influence non-neighboring electrodes. This discovery holds tremendous potential for the creation of brain-like computers that operate with minimal energy consumption.

    Challenging the Efficiency of Computers

    While computers are known for their speed and accuracy, they still fall short in comparison to the human brain when it comes to processing complex information efficiently and with minimal energy input. Tasks that seem effortless to us, such as recognizing faces or differentiating between objects, require significant computational power for computers, and even then, success is not guaranteed. This has led to a growing interest in the field of neuromorphic computing, which aims to replicate the intricate functionality of the brain.

    A Promising Consortium’s Research

    Leading the way in this innovative research is the Quantum Materials for Energy Efficient Neuromorphic Computing (Q-MEEN-C) consortium, led by the University of California San Diego and funded by the Department of Energy. Under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Physics Alex Frañó, the consortium has made significant progress in unraveling the mysteries of quantum materials and their potential applications in energy-efficient computing.

    Mimicking Brain Elements in Quantum Materials

    The initial phase of the consortium’s research involved collaborating with esteemed experts such as Professor Robert Dynes and Professor Shriram Ramanathan to replicate brain elements, including neurons and synapses, in quantum materials. This foundational work set the stage for their groundbreaking discovery.

    Unlocking Non-Local Interactions

    The recent breakthrough, published in the journal Nano Letters, demonstrates that electrical stimuli passed between neighboring electrodes can influence non-neighboring electrodes, a phenomenon known as non-locality. This closely mirrors the interactions observed within the human brain, where such non-local interactions are common and energy-efficient. This discovery represents a significant step forward, considering that such behaviors are rarely seen in synthetic materials.

    Pandemic-Inspired Discovery

    Interestingly, the idea to explore non-locality in quantum materials originated during the pandemic when physical lab spaces were closed. The research team turned to simulations using arrays that mimicked brain elements, which revealed the theoretical feasibility of non-local interactions. As lab facilities reopened, the concept was further refined and operationalized with the assistance of Associate Professor Duygu Kuzum from UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

    Creating Quantum Material Devices

    The practical implementation involved utilizing a thin film of nickelate, a ceramic material with unique electronic properties. By introducing hydrogen ions and placing a metal conductor atop the film, the researchers created a setup that allowed an electrical signal to be sent to the nickelate. This signal induced specific configurations in the hydrogen atoms, similar to memory retention even after the signal was removed.

    Simplifying Circuit Design

    Traditional electricity transport relies on complex circuits with continuous connections. In contrast, the design concept developed by Q-MEEN-C capitalizes on non-local behavior, enabling all wires in a circuit to influence each other without the need for constant connection. This innovative approach can be likened to a spider web, where movement at one point resonates across the entire structure.

    Brain-Inspired Learning

    Learning in the brain is characterized by complex, interconnected layers rather than linear progressions. The discovery of non-local behavior in synthetic materials aligns with this intricate pattern. While AI programs like ChatGPT and Bard simulate brain activities using advanced algorithms, they are limited by hardware constraints. Q-MEEN-C’s breakthrough paves the way for bridging this gap by replicating brain-like non-local behavior in synthetic materials.

    Revolutionizing AI

    The quest for energy-efficient, brain-like computers relies on the convergence of advanced hardware and software. Alex Frañó envisions a hardware revolution comparable to the strides made in software. Replicating non-local behavior in synthetic materials represents a significant step toward this vision. The next phase involves creating more elaborate arrays with intricate electrode configurations, further emulating the complexity of the human brain. According to President Emeritus Robert Dynes, understanding non-local interactions is crucial for unraveling brain functions and coherence.

    In a world where software potential is often hampered by hardware limitations, the breakthrough achieved by Q-MEEN-C provides hope for the future. The journey towards brain-inspired, energy-efficient computing has taken a monumental leap forward, bringing us closer to a new era of artificial intelligence.


    What are quantum materials?

    Quantum materials are substances that exhibit unique properties on a quantum scale. These materials often demonstrate unusual behaviors due to quantum effects, such as superconductivity or non-locality.

    What is non-locality?

    Non-locality refers to the phenomenon where electrical signals transmitted between neighboring electrodes can influence non-neighboring electrodes. This behavior mirrors the interactions observed within the human brain and holds potential for energy-efficient computing systems.

    How can this research revolutionize artificial intelligence?

    By replicating brain-like non-local behavior in synthetic materials, researchers hope to bridge the gap between advanced AI algorithms and hardware limitations. This could lead to more efficient and powerful AI systems that operate with minimal energy consumption.

    What is neuromorphic computing?

    Neuromorphic computing is a field in computer science that aims to develop computing systems that mimic the functions of the human brain. These systems strive for greater efficiency and the ability to process complex information with minimal energy input.