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Living neurons teach us about computers

A group of researchers at HiOA and NTNU believe that biological networks of nerve cells in the brain can teach us how to make better computers, robots and other computing solutions.

Olav Johan Øye Published: Updated:
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‘What happens when neurons – nerve cells in the brain – react to stimuli and create new patterns?’ asks Associate Professor Stefano Nichele at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HiOA).

‘When we have understood the properties of neurons and their networks, we try to recreate the same patterns in artificial computer systems using tiny nanomagnets that can interact with each other,’ explains Nichele, who is studying this together with colleagues at NTNU in the SOCRATES project.

In this way, we can create new solutions that work completely differently from today’s computers. Neurons in the brain process information in a completely different way than the computers that are currently in use.

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This is very significant, because there is a need for computers with much greater capacity, for example for new technologies like the ‘Internet of Things’. And to find an answer to this, researchers are studying the most efficient ‘computing device’ we know of: the brain.

In future, we can envisage computers that can grow in size, repair faults, optimise energy consumption and be energy-efficient.

If we can recreate the properties of living neurons, we need a different type of hardware to build computers.

Nanomagnets can have many of the same properties as neurons. They can communicate and self-organise, but do not die like cells do.

First, however, research must be conducted on biological cells.

A few years ago, it was common to use neurons from rats’ brains in experiments. Using what we now know about biotechnology, we can now make neurons from stem cells.

Preliminary results from Nichele and his colleagues’ research show that it is now possible for a robot to perform simple tasks using data from biological neurons, for example to avoid crashing into walls when it moves around (see an example of this in an article written by the team:  Towards Making a Cyborg.

And if the project succeeds going forward, it can also produce medical advantages. If we learn more about how we can communicate with neurons, how the cells grow and how they repair themselves, we may be able to develop solutions that can help people with brain damage to regain some of their functionality.

Stefano Nichele and his computer technology colleagues are collaborating with neuroscientists at St. Olav’s hospital in Trondheim, where there is a lab that can grow neurons and neural cultures for research purposes.

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‘The most important thing is to understand the difference between a biological network and an artificial network. Artificial networks must be trained; they don’t learn by themselves the way biological networks can,’ he says.

SOCRATES is a project that can produce ground-breaking results.

‘We hope that this research will give us better insight into how biological networks work in relation to artificial computer solutions,’ says Nichele.

In addition to funds from the Research Council of Norway for the SOCRATES project, Stefano Nichele has also received strategic funding from the Faculty of Technology, Art and Design (TKD) at HiOA for this research, which is a ‘lighthouse’ project involving several expert communities at TKD.

More information about the project:

The SOCRATES-project

Twitter @SocratesNFR