Building High-Performance Systems Modelled on the Brain

CITEC researcher studying artificial nervous systems

Professor Dr. Elisabetta Chicca conducts research on information processing systems that are based on models of the human and animal brain. These systems are able to process information much more effectively than conventional computers. But first, the underlying principles for this have to be identified.

Professor Dr. Elisabetta Chicca studies artificial nervous systems, which can process natural information much more effectively than conventional computers.Computers have been getting faster and faster for a long time now. But in the meantime, development has reached its limits: chip manufacturers now calculate in nanometers when it comes to fitting in more transistors on chips. In contrast to the human brain, computers need significantly more energy and they are rarely as effective in terms of their processing power.

Professor Dr. Elisabetta Chicca is researching high-performance, energy-efficient computer chips at the Cluster of Excellence CITEC, where her research group is building information processing systems in which their structure is modelled after the brain. This is why such systems are also referred to as “neuromorphic systems” – and they function quite differently from a conventional computer. “Conventional systems take a comparatively long time to access or write to memory, or retrieve data,” explains Chicca. One of the reasons for this is that computer memory and the processor work independently of each other.

The situation is different in the brain, as well as in neuromorphic systems, since the memory and the processor are integrated together. Information is coded using so-called “pulses,” which function quite similarly to the action potentials along which neuronal cells transmit information. The problem here is that no one currently knows exactly how the brain actually works, which thus makes it difficult to model a system based on the brain’s functions. “My first priority is basic research,” says Chicca.
This is why Chicca and her “Neuromorphic Systems” research group are focusing their research on sub-areas, including modelling the visual system of insects in analog circuits. “Many small insects are highly effective at orienting themselves in complex environments,” as Chicca explains. Insects need surprisingly little computing power for this, as a subarea of their brain is specialized in this particular function and solves it very efficiently. Moreover, insects are also able to react very quickly while flying to changes in their environment – such as evading a fly swatter.

The biological basis of the insect visual system, however, has also still not been exhaustively researched. “We are working closely with biologists in order to develop our model,” says Professor Chicca. This also results in feedback loops: when the researchers do their technical tests on the models, they can then give the biologists feedback on what works and what could explain the functioning of the biological system.

At first, Elisabetta Chicca’s position as a professor was for six years. Since CITEC’s inception in 2007, the Cluster of Excellence announced and filled a total of four junior professorships in various disciplines: in 2009, it was Dr. Pia Knoeferle (Faculty of Linguistics and Literary Studies) and Dr. Friederike Eyssel (Faculty of Psychology and Sports Science, Department of Psychology); in 2010, it was Dr. Jacob Engelmann; and in 2011, a junior professorship was awarded to Dr. Elisabetta Chicca (Faculty of Technology). All four junior professors were given a tenure-track option, meaning that they could receive a lifetime appointment (tenure) as professor after a trial period lasting several years. The requirement for tenure is an evaluation review, which is conducted by the junior professor’s home faculty after three and six years of service. “This was very appealing to me,” says Chicca. “Otherwise, I would have had a hard time convincing my family that I should take this position. But with the tenure track option, we had the chance of being able to stay here permanently.” For Chicca, this was a significant advantage, since most positions for academics are temporary.

Meanwhile, all four junior professors at the Cluster of Excellence CITEC have been promoted to full professors. In 2014, Dr. Pia Knoeferle (who is now at the Humboldt University of Berlin) was appointed to the “Language and Cognition” professorship, and in winter semester 2015/2016, Dr. Friederike Eyssel was appointed to the professorship in “Gender, Emotion, and Cognitive Interaction Technology.” On 1 March 2016, Dr. Jacob Engelmann was appointed to the professorship in “Active Sensing,” and since June 2017, Elisabetta Chicca was appointed the professorship in the Faculty of Technology.

Prof. Dr. Elisabetta Chicca, Bielefeld University
Cluster of Excellence CITEC / Neuromorphic Behaving Systems research group
Telephone: 0521 106-12043

Written by: Maria Berentzen