AI chip hailed as building block for sustainable technology

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created what they believe maybe the solution to a more sustainable technological future.

The MIT team have created a new type of AI chip which can be simply plugged into mobile phones, smartwatches, and other wearable devices meaning they do not have to be scrapped or discarded for a newer model. Instead, they could be upgraded with the latest sensors and processors that would snap onto a device’s internal chip — like LEGO bricks incorporated into an existing build. The team believe such reconfigurable chipware could keep devices up to date while reducing our electronic waste.

The MIT engineers have taken a step toward that modular vision with a LEGO-like design for a stackable, reconfigurable artificial intelligence chip.

The design comprises alternating layers of sensing and processing elements, along with light-emitting diodes (LED) that allow for the chip’s layers to communicate optically. Other modular chip designs employ conventional wiring to relay signals between layers. Such intricate connections are difficult if not impossible to sever and rewire, making such stackable designs not reconfigurable.

The MIT design uses light, rather than physical wires, to transmit information through the chip. The chip can therefore be reconfigured, with layers that can be swapped out or stacked on, for instance to add new sensors or updated processors.

“You can add as many computing layers and sensors as you want, such as for light, pressure, and even smell,” says MIT postdoc Jihoon Kang. “We call this a LEGO-like reconfigurable AI chip because it has unlimited expandability depending on the combination of layers.”

The researchers are now looking to apply the design to edge computing devices — self-sufficient sensors and other electronics that work independently from any central or distributed resources such as supercomputers or cloud-based computing.

“As we enter the era of the internet of things based on sensor networks, demand for multifunctioning edge-computing devices will expand dramatically,” says Jeehwan Kim, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “Our proposed hardware architecture will provide high versatility of edge computing in the future.”

The team’s design is currently configured to conduct basic image-recognition tasks. It does so via a layering of image sensors, LEDs, and processors made from artificial synapses — arrays of memory resistors, or “memristors,” that the team previously developed, which together function as a physical neural network, or “brain-on-a-chip.” Each array can be trained to process and classify signals directly on a chip, without the need for external software or an Internet connection.

“Other chips are physically wired through metal, which makes them hard to rewire and redesign, so you’d need to make a new chip if you wanted to add any new function,” says MIT postdoc Hyunseok Kim. “We replaced that physical wire connection with an optical communication system, which gives us the freedom to stack and add chips the way we want.”

The researchers plan to add more sensing and processing capabilities to the chip, and they envision the applications to be boundless.

“We can add layers to a cell phone’s camera so it could recognize more complex images or makes these into healthcare monitors that can be embedded in wearable electronic skin,” added Choi, who along with Kim previously developed a “smart” skin for monitoring vital signs.

Another idea, he adds, is for modular chips, built into electronics, that consumers can choose to build up with the latest sensor and processor “bricks.”

“We can make a general chip platform, and each layer could be sold separately like a video game,” Kim said. “We could make different types of neural networks, like for image or voice recognition, and let the customer choose what they want, and add to an existing chip like a LEGO.”

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