NSF, IARPA, and SRC Push into “Semiconductor Synthetic Biology” Computing

By John Russell

May 18, 2017

Research into how biological systems might be fashioned into computational technology has a long history with various DNA-based computing approaches explored. Now, the National Science Foundation has fired up a new program – Semiconductor Synthetic Biology for Information Processing and Storage Technologies – and just issued a solicitation in which eight to ten grants totaling around $4 million per year for three years are expected to be awarded.

The program is a joint effort between NSF, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), and Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) and has grand ambitions and was the subject of a Computing Community Consortium blog posted yesterday by Mitra Basu, the program director: “New information technologies can be envisioned that are based on biological principles and that use biomaterials in the fabrication of devices and components; it is anticipated that these information technologies could enable stored data to be retained for more than 100 years and storage capacity to be 1,000 times greater than current capabilities. These could also facilitate compact computers that will operate with substantially lower power than today’s computers.”

Five goals are specified and each submission must include elements of at least three (proposals are due in October 2017):

  • Advancing basic and fundamental research by exploring new programmable models of computation, communication, and memory based on synthetic biology.
  • Enriching the knowledge base and addressing foundational questions at the interface of biology and semiconductors.
  • Promoting the frontier of research in the design of new bio-nano hybrid devices based on sustainable materials, including carbon-based systems that test the physical size limit in transient electronics.
  • Designing and fabricating hybrid semiconductor-biological microelectronic systems based on living cells for next-generation information processing functionalities.
  • Integrating scaling-up and manufacturing technologies involving electronic and synthetic biology characterization instruments with CAD-like software tools.

The solicitation notes that “semiconductor and information technologies are facing many challenges as CMOS/Moore’s Law approaches its physical limits, with no obvious replacement technologies in sight. Several recent breakthroughs in synthetic biology have demonstrated the suitability of biomolecules as carriers of stored digital data for memory applications…[T]he (SemiSynBio) solicitation seeks to explore synergies between synthetic biology and semiconductor technologies. Today is likely to mark the beginning of a new technological boom to merge and exploit the two fields for information processing and storage capacity.”

As described in the solicitation the program’s goal is to “foster exploratory, multi-disciplinary, longer-term basic research leading to novel high-payoff solutions for the information technology industry based on recent progress in synthetic biology and the know-how of semiconductor technology. It is also anticipated that research in synthetic biology will benefit by leveraging semiconductor capabilities in design and fabrication of hybrid and complex material systems for extensive applications in biological and information processing technologies. In addition, the educational goal is to train new cadre of students and researchers.”

A bit tongue in cheek, and certainly not noticed for the first time, it’s safe to say nature has already figured out how to do this at least once, at high level (perhaps), with human computers conditioned by deep learning and programed to survive, explore, and continue learning.

Link to NSF solicitation: https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2017/nsf17557/nsf17557.htm

Link to CCC blog: http://www.cccblog.org/2017/05/17/new-nsf-program-solicitation-on-semiconductor-synthetic-biology-for-information-processing-and-storage-technologies-semisynbio/

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