The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

March 1, 2014

Getting swept up in the promise of a tiny dust ball

LOS ANGELES. — LOS ANGELES — Jim Gimzewski grabs a silicon wafer with a pair of tweezers and raises it to the light, thinking about Jackson Pollock, snowflakes and Tibetan mandalas.

No bigger than a quarter, the wafer looks like a small circuit board with a dozen or so electrodes converging at a darkened center, which under a microscope is an ugly tangle of wires randomly crisscrossed and interwoven like hairs in a tiny dust ball.

He places it inside a box the size of a mini-fridge. He closes the lid, and one of his graduate students, Henry Sillin, begins to run electricity into the box. A nearby monitor shows a sine-wave. The dust ball, messy and anarchic as it is, has come to life.

Gimzewski is one step closer toward what he calls his final frontier: building a machine that can think.

His tousled hair, Scottish brogue and clandestine pack of Marlboros would give an impression of a hip madness to the claim - if the science wasn’t working so well.

Sillin adjusts his computer and picks up another series of pulses, an exercise not unlike measuring the electrical activity of the brain with an electroencephalogram.

“We should have walked away,” Sillin says, “but it never failed enough for us to give up.”

Gimzewski, a professor of chemistry at UCLA with more than 30 years working in the field of nanotechnology, believes that the tangled design of the chip is the reason for its resilience. The synapses of the brain are, after all, similarly organic and just as untidy.

Colleagues have been skeptical. Some thought the dust ball would melt down or stay permanently on or off. And compared with the conventional chip, with its orderly array of wires, it seems hardly capable of driving a pocket calculator.

Yet Gimzewski has faith in the nature of eccentric invention. “We’re operating somewhere between chaos and order, somewhere on the edge of chaos,” he says.

Conventional computers are ideal for making precise calculations, he says, but what about computing in less predictable environments? He speculates about the chip’s potential for predicting the patterns of a forest fire or the gyrations in the stock market, even for operating a driverless car.

If his claims seem premature, he has reason to be encouraged. In one test, the dust ball demonstrated one of the hallmarks of intelligence. Without a program, without an integrated circuit, no lines of code or algorithm to provide a timely prompt — it was able to remember.

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