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Abstract graphic of a microchip with brain neurons stemming upward
Texas A&M University researchers are collaborating to discover ways to emulate human neurons and synapses in electrical circuits to revolutionize computing. | Image: Dr. Sarbajit Banerjee

As society adjusts to become information-focused, conventional computing is approaching its fundamental limits. The need for computing to become faster and more energy-efficient is exponentially increasing.

Texas A&M University is set to lead its first Department of Energy (DOE) funded Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) that will focus on Reconfigurable Electronic Materials Inspired by Nonlinear Neuron Dynamics (REMIND), an initiative that strives to transform computing to behave more like a human brain for rapid and efficient processing.

Dr. R. Stanley Williams, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, will serve as the director of the EFRC, and Dr. Sarbajit Banerjee, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering as well as the Texas A&M Energy Institute, will serve as the associate director. Dr. Andrew Ferguson, group manager for spectroscopy and photoscience within the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), will serve as an additional associate director.

“We are at a crossroads for the future of computing,” Banerjee said. “Self-driving cars, networked grids and personalized medicine are on the rise, all of which require massive amounts of energy. A whole new approach that focuses on brain-like computing is essential to meet the needs of society.”

Modern computers excel at various essential functions, such as high-precision arithmetic and solving known equations. However, they perform poorly when it comes to natural human abilities, including real-time learning, concept identification and decision making.

This ability to process information is possible because human brains have nerve cells (neurons) that continuously compare incoming stimuli with previously learned data. Neurons communicate with one another via electrical and chemical signals through connections called synapses that store memories. Although the individual biological steps are slow compared to those in transistors, enormous numbers of them operate simultaneously to perform sophisticated computation with energy-efficient orders of magnitude superior to the most advanced electronic computers.

“Let’s say we are looking at a picture of a dog,” said Banerjee, a Davidson Chair in Science, inaugural 2019 Chancellor’s EDGES Fellow and 2021 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Fellow. “A human brain can almost immediately recognize the dog itself, its type and relative age. A computer will struggle with the basic recognition and may make a significant mistake while also using much more energy to do so.”

The researchers involved with the REMIND initiative are discovering ways to emulate human neurons and synapses in electrical circuits by designing, creating and assembling materials that exhibit tunable nonlinear responses to incoming electrical signals, such as thresholding, amplification, integration and embedded memory. In other words, they are emulating the human brain’s processing system and attempting to assemble it into a highly efficient and capable computer.

“Our center seeks to uncover the foundational science of artificial neurons and synapses,” Williams said. “We are looking forward to solving a generational challenge that will transform the future of computing.”

If successful in implementing these techniques, their findings could significantly reduce the amount of energy consumption used by computers, helping combat the energy crisis.

“We are focused on taking computers from calculating mathematical functions to learning and making decisions in uncertain and changing environments,” Banerjee said. “We’re discovering the fundamental chemistries and materials for manufacturing the next generation of brain-like computing.”

The DOE recently announced the EFRC awards to develop technologies that can transform energy production and reduce harmful emissions. The research efforts will have 54 universities and 11 national labs in 34 states contributing.

The EFRC program was established in 2009 by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences within the DOE Office of Science. The funding opportunity sponsors fundamental research to accelerate scientific breakthroughs needed to strengthen the U.S. energy economy. Centers bring together multidisciplinary teams from universities, nonprofits, industry and national laboratories to tackle challenges across promising areas for future energy technologies.

Texas A&M’s EFRC is a collaboration involving the College of Engineering, the Department of Chemistry, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, the NREL, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories. In addition to Banerjee and Williams, REMIND researchers include Dr. Marcetta Darensbourg and Dr. Kim Dunbar from Texas A&M Chemistry; Dr. Raymundo Arroyave, Dr. Matt Pharr, Dr. Xiaofeng Qian and Dr. Patrick Shamberger from Texas A&M Materials Science and Engineering; and Dr. Perla Balbuena from the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering. The team represents the breadth and depth of expertise needed to tackle this complex challenge spanning multiple disciplines.

See related news segments from KXXV-KHRD-TV (September 22) and The Battalion (September 22).

About Research At Texas A&M University

As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is at the forefront in making significant contributions to scholarship and discovery, including in science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M generated annual expenditures of more than $1.148 billion in fiscal year 2021. Texas A&M ranked 14th in the most recent National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development Survey based on expenditures of more than $1.131 billion in fiscal year 2020. Texas A&M’s research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting, in many cases, in economic benefits to the state, nation and world. To learn more, visit Research@Texas A&M.