Documenting the Coming Singularity

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Memristors - The pathway to artificial intelligence?

Editor's Note: This is a story about two remarkable phenomena that cause quantum leaps is science and technology. First is the discovery, by pure mathematics, of a physical entity that should exist, but has never been seen. Einstein discovered black holes in this manner. The second phenomenon in the intuitive connection that is made from one set knowledge to another, sometimes across centuries, as when one scientist discovers an obscure set of equations in an old book and finds within it an answer to a modern-day problem. In this article is described a researcher's discovery, by pure mathematics, of a basic circuit element that should exist, but did not. He called it a memristor. Another scientist discovered that a slime mold was in fact an analogue of the memristor in nature. The connection? Biological memristors in the brain allowing for the existence of intelligence, hence the possibility of electronic memristors providing the breakthrough needed for artificial intelligence. Read on!

NewScientist - July 8, 2009, by Justin Mullins

Slime mould feeding on the surface of an almond. These cunning organisms could be the missing link in memory circuits (Image: Eye of Science/Science Photo Library

EVER had the feeling something is missing? If so, you're in good company. Dmitri Mendeleev did in 1869 when he noticed four gaps in his periodic table. They turned out to be the undiscovered elements scandium, gallium, technetium and germanium. Paul Dirac did in 1929 when he looked deep into the quantum-mechanical equation he had formulated to describe the electron. Besides the electron, he saw something else that looked rather like it, but different. It was only in 1932, when the electron's antimatter sibling, the positron, was sighted in cosmic rays that such a thing was found to exist.

In 1971, Leon Chua had that feeling. A young electronics engineer with a penchant for mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, he was fascinated by the fact that electronics had no rigorous mathematical foundation. So like any diligent scientist, he set about trying to derive one.

Were this an article about a conventional breakthrough in electronics, that would be the end of the story. Better memory materials alone do not set the pulse racing. We have come to regard ever zippier consumer electronics as a basic right, and are notoriously insouciant about the improvements in basic physics that make them possible. What's different about memristors?

And he found something missing: a fourth basic circuit element besides the standard trio of resistor, capacitor and inductor. Chua dubbed it the "memristor". The only problem was that as far as Chua or anyone else could see, memristors did not actually exist.

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