Saturday, 09 January 2021 07:55

Melbourne researchers lead AI breakthrough Featured

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Mike Xu with the integrated optical microcomb chip Mike Xu with the integrated optical microcomb chip

An international team of researchers led by Swinburne University of Technology has demonstrated the world’s fastest and most powerful optical neuromorphic processor for artificial intelligence.

The processor operates at more than 10 trillion operations per second (TeraOPs/s) and is capable of processing ultra-large scale data. Published in the prestigious journal Nature, the breakthrough represents an enormous leap forward for neural networks and neuromorphic processing in general.

Artificial neural networks, a key form of AI, can learn and perform complex operations with wide applications to computer vision, natural language processing, facial recognition, speech translation, playing strategy games, medical diagnosis and many other areas. Inspired by the biological structure of the brain’s visual cortex system, artificial neural networks extract key features of raw data to predict properties and behaviour with unprecedented accuracy and simplicity.

Led by Professor David Moss (Swinburne), DrMike Xu (Swinburne, Monash University) and Professor Arnan Mitchell (RMIT University) the team achieved an exceptional feat in optical neural networks by dramatically accelerating their computing speed and processing power.

The team demonstrated an optical neuromorphic processor operating more than 1000 times faster than any previous processor, with the system also processing record-sized ultra-large scale images – enough to achieve full facial image recognition, something that other optical processors have been unable to accomplish.

“This breakthrough was achieved with ‘optical micro-combs', as was our world-record internet data speed reported in May 2020,” says Professor Moss, Director of Swinburne’s Optical Sciences Centre.

While state-of-the-art electronic processors such as the Google TPU can operate beyond 100 TeraOPs/s, this is done with tens of thousands of parallel processors. In contrast, the optical system demonstrated by the team uses a single processor and was achieved using a new technique of simultaneously interleaving the data in time, wavelength and spatial dimensions through an integrated micro-comb source.

Micro-combs are relatively new devices that act like a rainbow made up of hundreds of high-quality infrared lasers on a single chip. They are much faster, smaller, lighter and cheaper than any other optical source.

“In the ten years since I co-invented them, integrated micro-comb chips have become enormously important and it is truly exciting to see them enabling these huge advances in information communication and processing. Micro-combs offer enormous promise for us to meet the world’s insatiable need for information,” said Professor Moss.  

“This processor can serve as a universal ultrahigh bandwidth front end for any neuromorphic hardware —optical or electronic based — bringing massive-data machine learning for real-time ultrahigh bandwidth data within reach,” said Dr Xu, co-lead author of the study,and a postdoctoral fellow with the Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering Department at Monash University.

“We’re currently getting a sneak-peak of how the processors of the future will look. It’s really showing us how dramatically we can scale the power of our processors through the innovative use of microcombs,” Dr Xu explained.

“This technology is applicable to all forms of processing and communications – it will have a huge impact. Long term we hope to realise fully integrated systems on a chip, greatly reducing cost and energy consumption,” saud Dr Mitchell.

The paper in Nature magazine is here

The international research collaboration was led by Professor David Moss (Swinburne); Dr Xingyuan (Mike) Xu (Swinburne and Monash) and Distinguished Professor Arnan Mitchell (RMIT UNiversity) with key support from Mengxi Tan and Dr Jiayang Wu (Swinburne); Professor Damien Hicks (Swinburne and Walter and Elizabeth Hall Institute (WEHI)); Andrea Boes and Thach G Nguyen (RMIT University); Dr Bill Corcoran (Monash); Sai T Chu (City University of Hong Kong); Brent Little (Xi’an Institute of Optics); and Roberto Morandotti (INRS in Montreal, Canada).


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Graeme Philipson sadly passed away in Jan 2021 and a much valued senior associate editor at iTWire. He was one of Australia’s longest serving and most experienced IT journalists. He is the author of the only definitive history of the Australian IT industry, ‘A Vision Splendid: The History of Australian Computing.’

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