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Sea snail smarts recreated in material with potential as AI hardware

American researchers have recreated the most basic signs of intelligence of a simple animal in a quantum material. This presents the tantalizing opportunity to build AI directly into the hardware, expanding the capabilities of AI processing.

Artificial general intelligence to rival human intelligence remains in the realm of science fiction. However, scientists have made strides in mimicking the intricacies of biology by mimicking the most basic intelligence traits of a sea snail.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tells how to mimic these intelligence functions in a material in a step towards building better hardware for AI applications.

“By studying sea snails, neuroscientists discovered the features of intelligence that are fundamental to the survival of any organism,” said Professor Shriram Ramanathan, a materials engineering expert at Purdue University. “We want to take advantage of that adult intelligence in animals to accelerate the development of AI.”

Two significant signs of intelligence that neuroscientists have identified in sea snails are habituation and sensitization. Habituation means getting used to a stimulus over time, such as turning off background noise while driving. Sensitization is the opposite; it means reacting strongly to an unexpected stimulus, such as food that smells rotten.

The researchers explain that AIs tend to struggle with learning and storing new information without overwriting information already learned and stored; this problem is known as the “stability-plasticity dilemma”. Habituation would allow AI to discard unnecessary information (allowing for greater stability), while sensitization could help retain new, more important information (enabling plasticity).

In this study, the researchers found a way to demonstrate both habituation and sensitization in nickel oxide. This material is described as a quantum material because it has certain properties that cannot be satisfactorily explained using classical physics.

If a quantum material can reliably mimic habituation and sensitization, it may be possible to embed AI directly into hardware; and if an AI could work through both hardware and software, it might be able to perform more complex tasks with less energy.

“We’ve basically mimicked experiments done with sea snails in quantum materials to understand how these materials could be important for AI,” Ramanathan said.

Neuroscientists have shown that the sea snail shows habituation when it stops retracting its gill in response to the tapping of the siphon. However, an electric shock to its tail causes its gill to retract much more dramatically, indicating sensitization. For nickel oxide, the equivalent of gill extraction is an increased change in electrical resistance. The researchers found that repeatedly exposing the material to hydrogen causes the resistance change of nickel oxide to decrease over time. However, introducing a new stimulus such as ozone increases the change in resistance.

A research group, inspired by these findings, attempted to model the behavior of this material and build an algorithm to exploit these habituation and sensitization strategies. They successfully used this simple form of “intelligence” to categorize data points into clusters.

“The stability-plasticity dilemma has not been solved at all, but we have shown a way to address it based on behavior we observed in a quantum material,” said Professor Kaushik Roy of Purdue University, who led the research group. “If we could turn a material that learns in this way into hardware in the future, AI could perform tasks much more efficiently.”

To find practical applications of quantum materials like AI in the future, engineers need to apply habituation and sensitization in large-scale systems and determine how a material can respond to stimuli while integrated into a chip. The research is a step towards more efficient AI hardware, with applications ranging from surgical robots to autonomous vehicles.