Learning from nature - The “Natural, Artificial, and Cognitive Information Processing” program

Most people would have a difficult time identifying the square root of a large number but can immediately recognize a familiar face in a crowd. With computers, it’s the other way around. Nevertheless, learning algorithms can be trained to recognize patterns. But simulating the natural learning process using software is time consuming and requires vast amounts of computing power and thus energy as well.

Nature manages this learning process much more efficiently. The human brain consumes hardly more energy than an LED light. In view of rapidly growing data volumes and increasingly complex tasks, there is a growing need for entirely new computer concepts whose hardware uses nature's tricks. In the “Natural, Artificial, and Cognitive Information Processing” program, we analyze how nature uses an incredibly elegant approach to process complex information in the brain, in biological cells, and in individual molecules and atoms. After all, even an individual cell works like a computer: it detects biochemical signals from the outside, processes them and emits new signals. We translate this knowledge into new hardware and software, which we integrate into our existing supercomputers in the form of modules. Using the best of both worlds, the aim is to create computers that are capable of meeting the challenges of digitalization.

Today, we know only the rudiments of what the new computers will look like. Science still has to work out the basics. It must better understand how cells or individual molecules process information. Quantum phenomena play an important role in this because they open up possibilities that extend far beyond the scope of classical physics. Quantum materials pave the way for disruptive innovations, and quantum computers will usher in a new era of technology – because quantum computers can process enormous quantities of data much more quickly. They can be used in a vast range of ways, from controlling traffic to developing drugs, from Earth observation to medical technology. We develop innovative technologies with the aim of making quantum computers even more powerful and demonstrating the advantages that quantum technologies offer in practice. As part of the European Quantum Flagship and national initiatives, we are working to set up a quantum computer in Europe.

Such new computers require new materials because this is the only way to provide new functionalities. In order to mimic a synapse in the human brain, for example, we are developing innovative electronic components whose electrical resistance changes during operation. Like a synapse, this so-called “memristor” can “remember” its history.

These new materials often have extremely fine structures, for example, layers that are just a few atoms thick. We are even working to position individual atoms like Lego blocks so materials can be designed according to a blueprint. Our goal is to use the knowledge, methods, and materials we acquire in this way for practical purposes, such as constructing chips that are wired like the brain and can speed up our supercomputers as a result.

Fact sheet:

  • In the “Natural, Artificial, and Cognitive Information Processing” program, we explore the incredibly elegant methods nature uses to process complex information.
  • Based on this, we develop new computing concepts and integrate them in our supercomputers in the form of modules.
  • We start by exploring natural principles and then use these insights to develop new materials for the computers of the future.
  • One potential result could be a chip that is wired like the human brain.
  • We work on new technologies with the goal of making quantum computers even more powerful and boosting their transfer into applications.
  • We collaborate with other researchers in interdisciplinary partnerships at the national and international level. To this end, we build new laboratories dedicated to specific topics, such as the Helmholtz Quantum Center at Forschungszentrum Jülich.
  • At the European level, we play a leading role in two flagship programs focusing on the human brain and quantum technology. We are part of the Human Brain Project, which is working to simulate what we know about the human brain in supercomputers. As part of the Quantum Flagship, we are exploring every facet of quantum technologies and collaborating with colleagues from across Europe to build one of the first quantum computers in Europe, called the “OpenSuperQ.”
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