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New technology uses light, polymer cube for computing

A polymer cube that reacts to light and shadow is actually a nature-inspired computer that can perform basic addition and subtraction.

Researchers at McMaster University were inspired by how plants turn to capture sunlight and cuttlefish change their skin for camouflage when they created the tiny cube, about the size of a die used in board games.

The translucent cube is filled with an amber-colored polymer that transforms from a liquid to a gel when researchers shine bands of layered light into the cube’s sides.

“These are autonomous materials that respond to stimuli and do intelligent operations,” Dr. Kalaichelvi Saravanamuttu, who supervised the project, said in a press release. “We’re very excited to be able to do addition and subtraction this way, and we are thinking of ways to do other computational functions.”

The polymer cube is the basis for an entirely new form of computing. While the cube can only perform some very basic functions now, the team believes it can form the foundation for a much more complex and useful technology, perhaps one that would be organized like a neural network.

The team shined a neutral carrier beam through the cube to a camera that would read how the polymer refracted the light. The light would be refracted through the polymer in a variety of complex patterns; interpreting those patterns gave the team the results of their simple equations.

“Data input as binary (dark-bright) strings generate a unique distribution of filament geometries, which corresponds to the result of a specific operation,” the team wrote in their paper.

The students used a branch of chemistry called nonlinear dynamics – which engineers light-reactive materials – to conceive of the new polymer.

They’re not the only researchers looking at light as a potential way to improve computer technology. Researchers at Dartmouth College are looking at how to use light to speed data transfers.

“We don’t want to compete with existing computing technologies,” said graduate student Fariha Mahmood, who co-authored the study. “We’re trying to build materials with more intelligent, sophisticated responses.”

Their research has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

Image credit: McMaster University

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