Optical fibres light the way for brain-like computing

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Researchers from the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Photonics at the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) in Southampton and the Centre for Disruptive Photonic Technologies (CDPT) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore have demonstrated how neural networks and synapses in the brain can be reproduced, with optical pulses as information carriers, using special fibres made from glasses that are sensitive to light, known as chalcogenides. The new research published in the journal, Advanced Optical Materials, could soon make computers that function like the human brain, using optical fibres made of speciality glass, become a reality. 

The project was conducted within The Photonics Institute (TPI), a recently established dual institute between NTU and the ORC, under Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Advanced Optics in Engineering programme. Co-author Professor Dan Hewak from the ORC, says: “Since the dawn of the computer age, scientists have sought ways to mimic the behaviour of the human brain, replacing neurons and our nervous system with electronic switches and memory. Now instead of electrons, light and optical fibres also show promise in achieving a brain-like computer. The cognitive functionality of central neurons underlies the adaptable nature and information processing capability of our brains.”

In the last decade, neuromorphic computing research has advanced software and electronic hardware that mimic brain functions and signal protocols, aimed at improving the efficiency and adaptability of conventional computers.
However, compared to our biological systems, today’s computers are more than a million times less efficient. Simulating five seconds of brain activity takes 500 seconds and needs 1.4 MW of power, compared to mere calories burned by the human brain.

Using conventional fibre drawing techniques, microfibres can be produced from chalcogenide (glasses based on sulphur) that possess a variety of broadband photoinduced effects, which allow the fibres to be switched on and off. This optical switching or light switching light, can be exploited for a variety of next generation computing applications capable of processing vast amounts of data in a much more energy-efficient manner.

Co-author Dr Behrad Gholipour explains: “By going back to biological systems for inspiration and using mass-manufacturable photonic platforms, such as chalcogenide fibres, we can start to improve the speed and efficiency of conventional computing architectures, while introducing adaptability and learning into the next generation of devices.”

By exploiting the material properties of the chalcogenides fibres, the team, led by Professor Cesare Soci at NTU, has demonstrated a range of optical equivalents of brain functions. These include holding a neural resting state and the changes in electrical activity in a nerve cell as it is stimulated. In the proposed optical version of this brain function, the changing properties of the glass act as the varying electrical activity in a nerve cell, and light provides the stimulus to change these properties. This enables switching of a light signal, which is the equivalent to a nerve cell firing.

This paves the way for scalable brain-like computing systems that enable ‘photonic neurons’ with ultrafast signal transmission speeds, higher bandwidth, and lower power consumption than biological and electronic counterparts.
Professor Cesare Soci said: “This work implies that ‘cognitive’ photonic devices and networks can be effectively used to develop non-Boolean computing and decision-making paradigms that mimic brain functionalities and signal protocols, to overcome bandwidth and power bottlenecks of traditional data processing.”

The paper, ‘Amorphous Metal-Sulphide Microfibers Enable Photonic Synapses for Brain-Like Computing’ by Behrad Gholipour, Paul Bastock, Chris Craig, Khouler Khan, Dan Hewak and Cesare Soci is published in Advanced Optical Materials; DOI: 10.1002/adom.201400472.

UK website for the International Year of Light

International Year of Light 2015
The UK website for the international year of light is now live. Featuring a rapidly expanding list of events around the UK for all ages covering the whole cross section of light based applications and technology from light base art installations to lasers for manufacturing.

If you are interested in organising or supporting an event contact Toby Shannon, UK National Coordinator or submit your event online.

Chalcogenide Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Open Day 9 March 2015

ChAMP is a new 5 year EPSRC funded partnership between the Universities of Southampton, Exeter, Oxford, Cambridge and Heriot-Watt. The partnership includes 15 industrial companies with an interest in advanced materials, particularly chalcogenides; from material fabrication to the use of these materials in their products with more welcome to join.

International Year of Light 2015Celebrating the International Year of Light 2015, the project will start with an open day on 9 March featuring presentations from the academic and industrial partners gathering further industrial input to steer the direction of the project over the next 5 years and presenting insights on wide impact of chalcogenide technology.

Photonex Southampton, the Photonics Technology Roadshow will run alongside the ChAMP launch meeting featuring an exhibition of 30 photonics companies.  Free registration is now open.

Celebrating the International Year of Light 2015

The UK Photonics Portal, through the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Photonics, has become an official sponsor of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies 2015 (IYL 2015) the United Nations observance that aims to raise awareness of the achievements of light science and its applications, and its importance to humankind.

The International Year of Light brings together a multitude of stakeholders including UNESCO, scientific societies and unions, educational and research institutions, technology platforms, non-profit organisations and private sector partners to promote and celebrate the significance of light and its applications during 2015.

Dr Gilberto Brambilla, Director for the EPSRC Centre, based at the University of Southampton said, “We see this as an important opportunity to educate and engage with the public to demonstrate the impact that light and light technologies make to our world. We are planning a host of outreach events and conferences aimed at making our research accessible and sharing our enthusiasm for this fascinating subject – the exploration of light and the solutions it provides to problems faced by humanity. We want to to inspire the next generation of engineers.”

Find out more about EPSRC CIMP and Photonics.org sponsored events planned during the International Year of Light.

Learn more out the International Year of Light

Public launch of UK Photonics Portal

A new national web portal for photonics is being launched today with a key aim of mapping the UK’s activity in the sector so that industry and academia can discover resources and collaborators. Photonics technology is used in a wide range of manufacturing processes, telecommunications, healthcare, defence, data storage and renewable energy.

UK Photonics.org is a knowledge-driven portal that makes use of semantic web technologies to draw together the breadth of UK photonics research capability including: organisations, techniques, people and equipment, to facilitate collaboration in this growing industry.

Hosted by the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Photonics at the University of Southampton, the site is being launched to coincide with Horizon 2020 where the EU Commission is announcing calls for photonics research projects.

The site works by collating information from a host of sources including universities and industry sites such as the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC). Data on the site is dynamic and is automatically refreshed from source.  The flexible nature of the underlying technology allows for the easy integration of additional data sources and portal content will be enriched with on-going collaboration.

Dr Gilberto Brambilla, Director for the EPSRC Centre based in Southampton said: “This national photonics gateway is the first port of call for anyone who has a question concerning photonics in the UK.

“The site will enable users to match their requirements to expertise or capabilities offered by UK photonics organisations: we’ve drawn together the best sources and made this information accessible. It’s the perfect starting point to finding your next collaboration opportunity.”

Susan Peacock, EPSRC Information and Communications Technologies ICT Portfolio Manager, said: “This site is important as it will give UK companies and research prominence across Europe.  Photonics is central to many modern day technologies and is a sector that is continuing to grow, with new applications emerging that offer solutions to many global societal challenges, including medical technologies for health, and security.”

A guide to Freebase

Freebase is an open, collaborative graph-based database containing over 40 million entities covering topics such as people, places, organisations, music/film/tv/media, and many more.

You may wish to jump to one of the following sections


It is in many ways similar to the popular and well known Wikipedia – especially in the collaborative editing approach, as anyone can sign up and contribute. However there are a two key reasons why we prefer Freebase over Wikipedia: firstly Freebase is a database, rather than a text-based wiki, and represents data in a much more rigorously structured manner; and secondly the editorial policy is much more inclusive in Freebase (Wikipedia has strong notions of what it considers to be verifiable “encyclopedic content”, and articles on topics that are deemed to have insufficient “notability” are often removed).

It is worth reading about the basic concepts in Freebase, though at the most basic level the organisational structure can be summarised as follows:

  •  There are a number of top level Domains (eg business, people, music), each containing a large number of Topics (entities within those domains).
  • Each Topic is described using properties, which associate it with other Topics or text/numeric values

This graph based data model is very similar to that used in the Linked Data technologies employed within this portal (see data sources, exposed).

Searching freebase

Anyone can use Freebase as a reference resource without having to register or log in.

The header section on each page has a search box in the upper left corner, next to the Freebase logo. From here you can search for names or topics, and begin browsing.

Editing existing topics in Freebase

Editing in Freebase is quite straightforward, however it is not immediately obvious how to do so within the interface (sadly the help/documentation is a little lacking as well…)

If you have found an existing topic that you wish to edit, first you must register via the “Sign in or Sign up” link at the top right. This will require the creation of a Google account, if you do not already have one, but this is a simple sign-up with your email address.

Once signed in and you have navigated to the required page, locate the property which you wish to edit. For a given property you can both add new values, or edit existing ones. By hovering your pointer over the name of the property (eg Official website) a pop-up will appear detailing the purpose of that property, and a small yellow drop down arrow will appear from the left hand side, as shown below

Clicking on the drop down icon presents a menu from which you can select to edit existing values, or add new ones.

Once you have found this relatively hidden function, editing is straightforward, though do remember to click “save” after adding/editing each entry, and “done” once finished with a particular property.

Note that some descriptions are automatically imported into Freebase from Wikipedia. These are shown with a light grey Wikipedia tag at the end of the text, and are not editable in Freebase, rather they are automatically kept in sync with their source at Wikipedia. Unfortunately, if you want to change these values you must do so by editing Wikipedia, though by doing so you will update in (at least) three places for the price of one 🙂

Adding new topics to Freebase

If you wish to add a new Topic, such as an organisation, person or research area, you must first find the most appropriate Domain and type for the topic in question. Typically these are


Selecting either of the above links will show the properties available for these types of entity, and (bizairely hidden) the option to add a new entity of this type. On the far right hand side of the dark bar separating the header section from the main page content there is a settings or “cog” icon, which reveals a drop down menu containing “Add topic”.

When adding a topic you must fill out the mandatory values (usually just name) before clicking “create”. You can then edit this topic and it’s properties as you would any other.

If you do add new topics to Freebase, please drop us a note at photonics-support@seme4.com with a link to your new topic to ensure we don’t miss your addition and that the data is included in the portal as soon as possible. Generally it takes a couple of days before Freebase pushes changes through to their Linked Data representations, and then it should be incorporated into the Photonics Portal almost immediately after that.

Freebase and the Google Graph

Google’s “knowledge graph” is the latest advancement in empowering their search engine technology, and helps populate the summary boxes you often see to the right hand side of search results describing people, organisations, books, films, etc. You can find out more on the Google blog.

Adding data about your organisation (or even yourself) to Freebase may well help inform the results returned via the knowledge graph, and/or improve prominence in search results, so is well worth the effort.

If you do add new topics to Freebase, please drop us a note at photonics-support@seme4.com to ensure we don’t miss it and your data is included in the portal as soon as possible.

Data included within the Portal

We currently utilise the following fields from Freebase pages…

  • common.topic.description
  • common.topic.image
  • common.topic.official_website

Data sources… exposed

In response to feedback from early beta testers, we have added the capability to view the sources of each fact within the portal. This is particularly helpful identifying the source for a specific value or relationship you believe to be incorrect.

The “view sources” link can be found at the bottom of every page that describes a capability/technique, person or organisation, and exposes the raw data within the portal, broken down by source.

Within the portal all information is held (and published) in accordance with Linked Data principles, using RDF as the data representation language. Without getting too technical, the main points to note are

  • all data is represented in “triples” – two concepts and a relationship between them
  • we use URIs (web addresses) to identify each concept
  • with Linked Data, to find out about a given concept all you need to do is visit it’s web address

Using the simple principles of associating concepts (be they real world entities such as people or places, or more abstract notions such as a topic or expertise) with well defined relationships allows us to form powerful graph structures.

Take the following model as an example…

Example RDF Graph

The orange rectangles represent concepts – people, organisations, areas of expertise – and each one would be represented by a web page describing all the information about that concept. Names, labels, email addresses, telephone numbers, etc are simply text values associated with a concept.

The key point to note is that the concepts are identified by their unique web address, not an ambiguous name. As more and more simple facts are added to the portal, the resulting graph based data representation becomes increasingly integrated as common occurrences map to the same concepts – that is to say, if more people are declared a having an expertise in a particular concept, then all of those people will have an association with the same concept node in the graph. (for a more complete representation of the graph, please see here).

Finally, within in the portal we have a system for mapping between equivalent concepts, as it would be rather idealistic to presume that every source will use the same terminology or identifiers. This also allows us to associate concepts from external sources, such as Freebase, with those within the portal. Any applicable equivalent terms (synonyms) are listed at the top of each “view source” page.

Refinements to search

Based on early feedback, we have made a number of changes to searching within the portal.

Experience has shown that, wherever possible, using the more specific searches for capabilities/techniques, people and organisations generally yield better results if the user knows what they are looking for. As a result, the general site-wide search has been “demoted” to an advanced search page and three explicit search boxes added prominently to the top right of the website.

We have also enabled an improved ordering of search results in each sub-section, presenting those which are closest to the input search terms first.

Finally, a number of common synonyms have been programmed into the search index. For example, if you look for equipment and facilities you should get the same results back by searching analyser as you do for analyzer.

In other news, the automated data acquisition is now being run periodically, refreshing personnel and contact information from photonics organisations which publish such details on their websites. Work also continues on the consolidating similar or equivalent terms within the portal, via the application of sameAs alignments in the underlying linked data repository.

Feedback is very welcome via photonics-support@seme4.com.

Example Queries

The UK Photonics portal combines a wide variety of information from many different sources. If you know what you are looking for, then using the sub-categories on the menu to the left under Photonics Resources will usually bring more targeted results. Conversely, if you want to search a broader range of resources, then Advanced Search allows to to do just that… but depending on your search terms the results can be more varied and harder to interpret.

The following sections provide some examples and guidance of how the portal can be used to address typical scenarios

Finding collaborators

A company looking to participate in a TSB / EU project needs to find a partner organisation with special expertise in handling optical fibre…

  • Given this requirement is about a specific capability, the best place to start is in the Capabilities and Techniques section.
  • Enter term fibre in search box for the most basic search. Note that this section only searches for capabilities and techniques, not people, equipment or the names of organisations.
  • UK / US spelling variations are not automatically searched. Basic UK / US spelling variations are automatically handled, however to be sure you can search both variations by entering fibre OR fiber. Note capitalisation of OR is required.
  • After searching a list will be returned of all the capability entries containing the search terms ‘fibre’ or ‘fiber’. This will include the many variations by which organisation/groups describe themselves e.g. optical fibre, fiber sensor etc.
  • Click through on any of the returned terms to find the organisation(s) and/or experts(s) citing each capability.
  • Click through on an organisation or person name to find out more detail about them, including all capabilities that have been registered for them, contact details, collaborators, etc.

Finding an expert

  • If you know the name (or part of) the person in question, start from the researchers section. Either browse, or searching by surname is often best.
  • If you know where the person works, or are looking for a contact person at a given establishment, you can browse or search for organisations.
  • If you are searching for someone with expertise in a particular area, then proceed as in the first example above.

Finding equipment or facilities

Some organisations publish information about the facilities or equipment they have, though initially this is quite limited and for equipment is often very specific. SMEs or organisations seeking to outsource or collaborate with partners who have specific equipment or facilities (eg, microscope, ellipsometer, or various types of laboratory) can search or browse here.