silicon-based life system

Silicon chips may replace living things like neurons and cells in AI systems

This may sound like a dystopi­an sci­ence-fic­tion future, but the devel­op­ment of sophis­ti­cat­ed machine learn­ing algo­rithms will even­tu­al­ly enable sil­i­con chips to replace liv­ing things just like neu­rons and cells in AI systems.

What we think is going to be real­ly amaz­ing, and we’ve already seen this with some of our chips as well, is that the same chip can be imple­ment­ed in a mate­r­i­al that has sim­i­lar prop­er­ties to neu­rons and synapses.

For exam­ple, using flex­i­ble organ­ic mate­ri­als that even­tu­al­ly might even be capa­ble of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with bio­log­i­cal neu­rons, sci­en­tists are attempt­ing to repli­cate the extra­or­di­nary capa­bil­i­ty of the human brain, which can process and store infor­ma­tion a thou­sand times faster than the fastest supercomputer.

In the future, sil­i­con chips will be able to imi­tate liv­ing bio­log­i­cal sys­tems to such an extent that AI sys­tems will be capa­ble of gen­er­at­ing human-like intel­li­gence and even con­scious­ness.

When we are able to train a sil­i­con-based life to see, speak, hear, and gen­er­ate human-like emo­tions, it is also like­ly to be pro­grammed to become self-aware and use its intel­li­gence to design more pow­er­ful chips that will enable it to think even faster.

Then the real race for sil­i­con will begin.

How can silicon chips replace living things?

Sil­i­con, a tetrava­lent non­metal­lic ele­ment that is com­bined to form the sec­ond-most abun­dant ele­ment in the earth’s crust after oxy­gen, is per­fect for this task because it can be pro­grammed to imi­tate all of a liv­ing system’s func­tions.

On the peri­od­ic table, sil­i­con comes below car­bon. It can also form four cova­lent bonds with its four adja­cent atoms. And for this rea­son, sil­i­con may be used to make com­plex mol­e­cules just as easily.

Akin to the bio­log­i­cal neur­al net­work in the human body, arti­fi­cial neur­al net­works can even make deci­sions with­out the orig­i­nal bio­log­i­cal input.

When researchers made liv­ing cells from car­bon-sil­i­con bonds in 2016, it proved for the first time ever that nature could include sil­i­con into the build­ing blocks of life. This fur­ther showed that car­bon traces might not be the only signs of life we should be look­ing for.

Based on the same dis­cov­ery, sci­en­tists believe that under­stand­ing sil­i­con-based life has the poten­tial not only to replace liv­ing things on Earth, but also to be a miss­ing piece in oth­er parts of the universe.

The next evo­lu­tion­ary step of sil­i­con-based life is there­fore to cre­ate arti­fi­cial neur­al net­works sim­i­lar to those found in bio­log­i­cal systems. 

General procedure and probability

By going through a sophis­ti­cat­ed pro­ce­dure to gen­er­ate sil­i­con chips, engi­neers basi­cal­ly look into this tech­nol­o­gy, intend­ed to stand in the place of liv­ing things, by using bio­log­i­cal sim­u­la­tors on sil­i­con-based neur­al networks.

In 2019, a team from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bath has been able to get sil­i­con neu­rons to repli­cate the func­tion of a human brain sys­tem, which means that these sil­i­con chips will one day be capa­ble of mim­ic­k­ing the human brain and its func­tions. Sci­en­tists then made arti­fi­cial nerve cells, paving the way for new ways to repair the human body.

The tiny “brain chips” behaved like the real thing, and the chip design had to come up with a way to repli­cate in cir­cuit form what nerve cells (neu­rons) do nat­u­ral­ly. For exam­ple, neu­rons “car­ried sig­nals” to and from the brain and the rest of the body.

The research nec­es­sar­i­ly does not stop just at the point of mak­ing arti­fi­cial nerve cells. On the basis of ongo­ing research on the top­ic, the use of sil­i­con in cre­at­ing sil­i­con-based liv­ing things can be com­pre­hen­sive­ly enhanced even fur­ther, show­ing the ini­tial results prob­a­bly in the very near future.

Debates on silicon-based life system

Sci­en­tists have been debat­ing the prospects of the issue along with the first sci­en­tif­ic pro­pos­al for sil­i­con-based life, which extends back to the ideas of Ger­man astro­physi­cist Julius Schein­er in 1891.

How­ev­er, as a team of MIT astro­bi­ol­o­gists recent­ly point­ed out, no one has sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly and com­pre­hen­sive­ly assessed sil­i­con’s capac­i­ty to sup­port life in both a ter­res­tri­al envi­ron­ment and plau­si­ble non-ter­res­tri­al set­tings. They tack­led this prob­lem in a 2020 review arti­cle pub­lished in the jour­nal Life in which they pre­sent­ed a detailed eval­u­a­tion of silicon’s life-sup­port capacity.

The team from MIT not­ed that any life-sup­port­ing chem­i­cal ele­ment must dis­play suf­fi­cient chem­i­cal diver­si­ty. This chem­i­cal diver­si­ty is required to pro­duce the chem­i­cal com­plex­i­ty nec­es­sary to gen­er­ate the diverse col­lec­tion of mol­e­c­u­lar struc­tures and chem­i­cal oper­a­tions required to orig­i­nate and sus­tain liv­ing systems.

One argu­ment for why sil­i­con chips will start replac­ing liv­ing things soon­er rather than lat­er may be that “sil­i­con is bet­ter than car­bon.” Sil­i­con shares a num­ber of sim­i­lar­i­ties with car­bon, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the way they com­bine with oth­er ele­ments to form com­plex mol­e­cules. How­ev­er, sil­i­con bonds strong­ly with oxy­gen, and in many cas­es, sil­i­con com­pounds have high­er melt­ing points than their car­bon counterparts.

For exam­ple, sil­i­con-oxy­gen bonds can with­stand tem­per­a­tures as high as ~600 K and sil­i­con-alu­minum bonds at near­ly 900 K. But, car­bon bond­ing of any type breaks down at such high tem­per­a­tures, mak­ing car­bon-based life impossible.

Will silicon-based life be better?

Sil­i­con-based liv­ing things will invari­ably be bet­ter than liv­ing things that are cur­rent­ly on Earth. The new life-forms will be able to tol­er­ate much high­er lev­els of radi­a­tion than even the hard­est rocks on earth. Also, sil­i­con as an ele­ment is incred­i­bly sta­ble as it does not form reac­tive bonds with oth­er solids at ordi­nary pres­sures and temperatures.

If we com­pare this fact with the chem­i­cal diver­si­ty of sil­i­con and regard it as an essen­tial require­ment for sil­i­con-based life, it could lead to the con­clu­sion that sil­i­con must be capa­ble of pro­duc­ing a large spec­trum of liv­ing sys­tems con­tain­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of chem­i­cal species.

The MIT dis­cov­ery is extreme­ly impor­tant for mankind because, con­se­quent­ly, sil­i­con has to acquire the nec­es­sary liv­ing sys­tem char­ac­ter­is­tics to ulti­mate­ly play a cru­cial role in the devel­op­ment of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and for the cre­ation of an entire new line of life.

When sil­i­con chips replace liv­ing things com­plete­ly or even par­tial­ly, we will start see­ing that every­thing we know now can no longer be con­sid­ered human. Like sim­u­lat­ed neu­rons AI sys­tems, sil­i­con-based life will be inter­con­nect­ed, that with arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence under­pin­ning everything.

Sil­i­con can form a huge num­ber of pos­si­ble com­pounds, which are not found in the car­bon world, and this will pro­duce a very rare form of super life.

The ‘now’ is point­ing towards the “same”.

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