The brain as a model for data storage

The future of data storage will not be in the binary switching of electrical cells as in flash storage.

It may also not be in magnetism-based potential successors to flash such as Racetrack Memory, where one or a few bits per cell is replaced by 100 bits per physical unit of memory.

Instead, scientists are working on ways to mimic the way the human brain stores memories.

So far, things are still at the stage of trying to work out exactly how the brain does what it does, but the potential gains to be had of mimicking it are huge.

Current estimates are that the brain has a storage capacity of possibly several petabytes. Also, according to Professor Stuart Parkin, an experimental physicist, winner of the Millennium Prize in 2014 and IBM fellow, it is estimated the brain uses one million times less energy than silicon-based memory.

Science is still to come up with anything like a consensus for how memories are stored in the brain. It is thought – to simplify hugely – that it is the release and uptake of neurotransmitting chemicals (of different types) between brain cell (of different types, such as neurons) that are the vehicle for memories.

And that – a network of connections between which storage is shared and those connections are what defines the thing being stored – is the model for research by Professor Parkin, who is also director of research centres at Stanford University in the US and the Max Planck Institute at Halle in Germany.

He said: “What we’re looking to do is go beyond charge-based computing. We could be inspired by how biology computes, using neurons and sysnapses, with data stored in a distributed fashion and currents of ions manipulating information.”

“We believe the brain stores data by distributing it among synaptic connections,” he added. “We want to build a system of connections and learn how to store information on it.”

“That’s in contrast to how we do things now with individual devices. Instead it would be a network of connections and distributed storage of information among them, but built in a totally different way with, say, 1 bit of information stored between 20,000 different connections.”

Nominations are now open for The 2018 Millennium Technology Prize (also known as the Technology Nobels).

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