Scientists at the Universities of Exeter, Oxford and Münster in Germany have developed a chip that uses light to replicate the synapses in the human brain.

“We’re developing new brain-like computer architectures that make use of the huge speed advantages of the upcoming silicon photonics revolution”


It uses phase-change materials similar to those used in rewritable optical discs alongside optical circuits that provide a biological-like synaptic response.

These photonic synapses can operate at speeds a thousand times faster than those of the human brain and the team believes that the research could pave the way for a new age of computing, where machines work and think in a similar way to the human brain, while at the same time exploiting the speed and low power of photonic systems.

The weight of the synapse is controlled by the phase-change material and adjusted with a specific number of identical laser pulses, giving this speed of operation.

“Electronic computers are relatively slow, and the faster we make them the more power they consume. Conventional computers are also pretty ‘dumb’, with none of the in-built learning and parallel processing capabilities of the human brain,” said Professor C David Wright, co-author from the University of Exeter.

“We tackled both of these issues – not only by developing new brain-like computer architectures, but also by working in the optical domain to make use of the huge speed and power advantages of the upcoming silicon photonics revolution.”

Synapses outnumber neurons in the brain by around 10,000 to 1, so any brain-like computer needs to be able to replicate some form of synaptic mimic, says Professor Wolfram Pernice from the University of Münster.

The University of Exeter also hosts a world leading centre for the development of graphene