Machines with a human touch

October 8, 2001 | Source: Economist

Perhaps the next stockmarket buzz will be neuromorphics. Instead of using the ones and zeros of digital electronics to simulate the way the brain functions, neuromorphic engineering relies on nature’s biological short-cuts to make robots that are smaller, smarter and vastly more energy-efficient, as a group of electronics engineers, neuroscientists, roboticists and biologists demonstrated recently at a three-week workshop held in Telluride, Colorado.
One of the many projects demonstrating this concept at the Telluride meeting was a robot that could drive in straight lines — thanks to electronics modelled on the optic lobe in a fly’s brain.

Another was a walking robot that used the principle of a “central pattern generator” (CPG) — a kind of flexible pacemaker that humans and other animals use for locomotion. Unlike most conventional robots, CPG-based machines can learn to walk and avoid obstacles without an explicit map of their environment, or even their own bodies.

As work advances, neuromorphic chips will doubtless evolve to be general purpose in a different sense. Instead of using, say, a camera or a microphone to give a machine some limited sense of sight and hearing, tool makers of tomorrow will be buying silicon retinas or cochleas off the shelf and plugging them into their circuit boards.

Neuromorphic chips are going to have enormous implications, especially in applications where compactness and power consumption are at a premium — as, say, for replacement parts within the human body.