New radio chip mimics human ear

MIT engineers have built a fast, ultra-broadband, low-power radio chip, modeled on the human inner ear, that could enable wireless devices capable of receiving cell phone, Internet, radio and television signals.

Rahul Sarpeshkar, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and his graduate student, Soumyajit Mandal, designed the chip to mimic the inner ear, or cochlea. The chip is faster than any human-designed radio-frequency spectrum analyzer and also operates at much lower power.

"The cochlea quickly gets the big picture of what's going on in the sound spectrum," said Sarpeshkar. "The more I started to look at the ear, the more I realized it's like a super radio with 3,500 parallel channels."

Sarpeshkar and his students describe their new chip, which they have dubbed the "radio frequency (RF) cochlea," in a paper in the June issue of the IEEE Journal of Solid-State Circuits. They have also filed for a patent to incorporate the RF cochlea in a universal or software radio architecture that is designed to efficiently process a broad spectrum of signals including cellular phone, wireless Internet, FM, and other signals.
Copying the cochlea

The RF cochlea mimics the structure and function of the biological cochlea, which uses fluid mechanics, piezoelectrics and neural signal processing to convert sound waves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain.

As sound waves enter the cochlea, they create mechanical waves in the cochlear membrane and the fluid of the inner ear, activating hair cells (cells that cause electrical signals to be sent to the brain). The cochlea can perceive a 100-fold range of frequencies - in humans, from 100 to 10,000 Hz. Sarpeshkar used the same design principles in the RF cochlea to create a device that can perceive signals at million-fold higher frequencies, which includes radio signals for most commercial wireless applications.

The device demonstrates what can happen when researchers take inspiration from fields outside their own, says Sarpeshkar.