4 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 30 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
by Sonya O. Wu
imitates nature for better computers
By RADHAKRISHNA RAO Bangalore
A Question of Quality:
China's local phone makers get no respect
IIn their quest to invent machines with more reasoning agility than an
electronic calculator, computer scientists are starting to borrow heavily
from the natural world. A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology and Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs in June unveiled a silicon
chip etched with electrical circuits that crudely duplicate the biological
wiring of neurons and synapses in the human brain. The goal of so-called
"neuromorphic engineering" projects is to build devices capable of the
complex reasoning and discriminative abilities of animals rather than
the simplistic "yes-no" logic of conventional computers. That could open
the door to dreamed-of applications such as artificial vision systems
and computers that can understand speech and recognize faces.
While some scientists are busily trying to mimic nature's wiring schematics,
others seek a merger. Scientists in Asia and North America are working
on "biological computers," hybrid machines that, like science-fiction
cyborgs, would blend the organic and the electronic in a single machine.
Indeed, some believe the information-processing and storage capabilities
of organic molecules are superior to anything man is able to create out
of silicon alone.
At the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, a physicist named K.P.J.
Reddy is developing a biochip that would use a protein found in bacteria
as a digital storage medium. The protein, called bacteriohodopsin, is
potentially useful because it is photo-sensitive -- it changes properties
when exposed to laser beams of differing wavelengths. Reddy, a laser specialist
in the institute's aerospace engineering department, reasons that by flashing
protein molecules with red and green laser light, he can switch them on
and off in a biological representation of the digital ones and zeros used
to store data on ordinary memory chips. Optical scanners would then be
used to read the data in much the same way a laser is used to play back
information burned into a CD.
Any real breakthroughs are likely to be years away. The practicality of
using organic material in electronic devices has yet to be demonstrated.
Reddy's protein molecules are inert and can function for more than 20
years when bound together with polymers. But to achieve the proper purity
and uniformity necessary for reliable operation, biochip production might
have to take place under zero-gravity conditions, Reddy reasons. The vision
of chip factories orbiting in outer space seems more than a little farfetched,
but there could be a worthwhile payoff: by substituting microscopic protein
molecules for transistors, the physicist believes he can increase the
storage capacity of desktop computers by a factor of 300 or more.
Even more ambitious biochip research programs are underway in the U.S.
and Israel. The process whereby DNA synthesizes protein involves the storage
and retrieval of millions of bits of data. Scientists are trying to figure
out how to harness those computational properties of life's basic building
block. Tapping the miraculous, little understood processing powers of
even simple organisms could give science a free ride on millions of years
of evolution, bringing about machines with not merely computational but
cognitive capabilities as well.
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November 30, 2000