Tech: IBM Develops New Chip That Functions Like a Brain


Inspired by the architecture of the brain, scientists have developed a new kind of computer chip that uses no more power than a hearing aid and may eventually excel at calculations that stump today’s supercomputers.The chip, or processor, is named TrueNorth and was developed by researchers at IBM and detailed in an article published on Thursday in the journal Science. It tries to mimic the way brains recognize patterns, relying on densely interconnected webs of transistors similar to the brain’s neural networks.

The chip’s electronic “neurons” are able to signal others when a type of data — light, for example — passes a certain threshold. Working in parallel, the neurons begin to organize the data into patterns suggesting the light is growing brighter, or changing color or shape.

The processor may thus be able to recognize that a woman in a video is picking up a purse, or control a robot that is reaching into a pocket and pulling out a quarter. Humans are able to recognize these acts without conscious thought, yet today’s computers and robots struggle to interpret them.


                                                                  A schematic showing the layout of the new processor, named TrueNorth. Credit IBM


The chip contains 5.4 billion transistors, yet draws just 70 milliwatts of power. By contrast, modern Intel processors in today’s personal computers and data centers may have 1.4 billion transistors and consume far more power — 35 to 140 watts.

"Today’s conventional microprocessors and graphics processors are capable of performing billions of mathematical operations a second, yet the new chip system clock makes its calculations barely a thousand times a second. But because of the vast number of circuits working in parallel, it is still capable of performing 46 billion operations a second per watt of energy consumed, according to IBM researchers".

The TrueNorth has one million “neurons,” about as complex as the brain of a bee.

It is a remarkable achievement in terms of scalability and low power consumption,” said Horst Simon, deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

He compared the new design to the advent of parallel supercomputers in the 1980s, which he recalled was like moving from a two-lane road to a superhighway.

The new approach to design, referred to variously as neuromorphic or cognitive computing, is still in its infancy, and the IBM chips are not yet commercially available. Yet the design has touched off a vigorous debate over the best approach to speeding up the neural networks increasingly used in computing.

The idea that neural networks might be useful in processing information occurred to engineers in the 1940s, before the invention of modern computers. Only recently, as computing has grown enormously in memory capacity and processing speed, have they proved to be powerful computing tools.

In recent years, companies including Google, Microsoft and Apple have turned to pattern recognition driven by neural networks to vastly improve the quality of services like speech recognition and photo classification.

More on the report here


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