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CEA-Leti Scientist, Elisa Vianello, Receives €3 Million ERC Grant To Develop Nanoscale Memories Inspired by Insect Nervous Systems

R&D Targets Include First-of-a-Kind Intelligent Chip Able to Make Decisions Using Bayesian Inference and a Local Neural Module to Process Sensory Data in Real Time

GRENOBLE, France – March 22, 2021 – CEA-Leti today announced that Elisa Vianello, senior scientist and Edge AI program coordinator, has received a €3 million grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to build nanoscale memory devices inspired by insect nervous systems for such applications as consumer robotics, implantable medical diagnostic microchips and wearable electronics.

The artificial intelligence (AI) community recently has proposed powerful algorithms that will enable machines to learn from experience and interact autonomously with the environment. Fruit-picking robots and robots that rescue people from collapsed buildings are two potential examples of such machines.

But realizing this vision will require nanosystems with breakthrough architectures enabled by novel nanotechnologies, because current architectures are inefficient in handling AI tasks. Simply moving data between processors and memories uses up to 90 percent of the devices’ total energy consumption. Research groups have tried to overcome this limitation by developing in-memory computing architectures that use nanoscale memory devices for both processing and data storage. However, this ambitious approach requires very high-density, high-resolution, non-volatile memory with unlimited endurance. This capability does not exist today, despite a decade of focused efforts to create these memories in both industry labs and research centers.

“My project is to take inspiration from insects’ nervous systems to relax hardware requirements in terms of memory density and reliability, and to build the new nanosystems we need to enable learning from a very limited volume of noisy data,” said Vianello.

“Crickets make accurate decisions based on sluggish, imprecise, and unreliable neurons and synapses in order to escape their predators. Looking closely at their biology, we identified a diversity of memory-like functions at play in their sensory and nervous systems,” she said. “By combining these different functions, the cricket’s internal computing system achieves amazing performance and energy efficiency.”

“Our ERC-funded project will use these novel nanoscale memory technologies to mimic the biological mechanisms observed in insects and create high-performance, energy-efficient, silicon-based nanosystems.” Elisa Vianello

Vianello discovered that different functions of the insect’s nervous system closely resemble functions performed by deterministic, probabilistic, volatile and non-volatile memories that she is currently developing with fellow CEA-Leti scientists.

“Elisa’s work will open up new research perspectives towards more energy-efficient embedded intelligence capable of online learning,” said Jean-René Lequepeys, deputy director and CTO at CEA-Leti. “It is a real technological and application breakthrough that will combine the latest developments in microelectronics using new generations of non-volatile memories and drawing inspiration from the living world. This research work is fully in line with the priorities of the institute and will open up great opportunities for world premieres and commercialization.”

Specifically, her multi-disciplinary team for this project, which will include four PhD students and one post-doctorate student, will make networks of physical nanoscale memory devices that translate insect biological principles into physical principles to enable learning from very limited volumes of noisy data, such as data measured in real time from different sensors in video cameras, radar sensors, ECG, EMG, bio-impedance streams and potentially also brain signals through EEG sensors and neuro-probes.

“Since the ideal memory does not exist today, the project aims at building a hybrid synapse that co-integrates different memory technologies,” Vianello said.

ERC Consolidator Grants are highly competitive. Proposals are evaluated by selected international peer reviewers who assess them on the basis of excellence as the sole criterion. More than 2,600 proposals were submitted for this year’s grants and 313 will receive funding.

Comments from anonymous peer reviewers of the proposal include:

“Ground-breaking nature and potential impact of the research project is exceptional.”

“The project is extremely focused on what’s important: severe volume and energy limitations must explore the very physics of the devices and everything must be super optimized.”

“The proposed research is bold and timely. The objectives are ambitious and the overall research topics are interesting and innovative.”

About CEA-Leti (France)

Leti, a technology research institute at CEA, is a global leader in miniaturization technologies enabling smart, energy-efficient and secure solutions for industry. Founded in 1967, CEA-Leti pioneers micro-& nanotechnologies, tailoring differentiating applicative solutions for global companies, SMEs and startups. CEA-Leti tackles critical challenges in healthcare, energy and digital migration. From sensors to data processing and computing solutions, CEA-Leti’s multidisciplinary teams deliver solid expertise, leveraging world-class pre-industrialization facilities. With a staff of more than 1,900, a portfolio of 3,100 patents, 11,000 sq. meters of cleanroom space and a clear IP policy, the institute is based in Grenoble, France, and has offices in Silicon Valley and Tokyo. CEA-Leti has launched 71 startups and is a member of the Carnot Institutes network. Follow us on and @CEA_Leti.

Technological expertise

CEA has a key role in transferring scientific knowledge and innovation from research to industry. This high-level technological research is carried out in particular in electronic and integrated systems, from microscale to nanoscale. It has a wide range of industrial applications in the fields of transport, health, safety and telecommunications, contributing to the creation of high-quality and competitive products.

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