Proton-based computer chip can talk to living things

Researchers designed a proton-based transistor that could let machines talk with living things.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Flicks like "Source Code" introduce the concept of brain-machine interfaces. Though the notion of hooking your brain up to a machine has pretty much been "pure" fantasy.

This week, researchers at the University of Washington have announced that they've built a different kind of computer chip that could one day change the way prosthetics and biological sensors communicate with the human body.

What makes the chips different? Well, for one, the chips don't run on electrons. Instead, the researchers designed a prototype that is proton-based.

The idea is to mimic what nature already does already, and capture the electric spark sizzling inside a human body.

It's all those electronic goods such as light bulbs and iPods that require electrons to perform properly. In this case, the researchers built a system that involves field-effect transistors. Not only do the new computer chips allow the flow of protons, it also has an on-and-off switch that can control the current of protons.

Enter a new class of biocompatible solid-state devices. In it, the key material is called chitosan, which conducts protons.

Ultimately, scientists hope electronics evolve to communicate directly with living tissue. In this case, the chips would come in handy for directly sensing cells in a laboratory.

“So there’s always this issue, a challenge, at the interface – how does an electronic signal translate into an ionic signal, or vice versa?” UW's professor Marco Rolandi said in a statement. “We found a biomaterial that is very good at conducting protons, and allows the potential to interface with living systems.”

But heed this warning: The silicon based prototype should not be inserted into a human body. So in plain English, it's all about making it more human-friendly.

Developing a material that could directly talk to living tissues would dramatically change the game for implants. In the future, it's not far fetched to imagine how this integrated system could improve implants and be used to monitor and control embedded sensors in living things.

The discovery makes science fiction a little more real. The device could be implanted in a brain and hooked up to neural circuits. Beyond the science experiment, this computer chip may soon aid in treating patients with Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Ironically, as machines integrate more with man, the thought of uploading a person's brain to a computer is a wee bit scarey. Even if that's the case (and it's not), you could also remotely control it.

Until that time comes, you can sit back and watch the movie "Source Code" and imagine what a true brain-machine interfaces would be like.

Image appeared in the paper published in Nature.

viaKurzweilai.net and the University of Washington

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