The human brain is the world’s most sophisticated computer, capable of learning new things on the fly, using very little data. It can recognize objects, understand speech, respond to change. Since the early days of digital technology, scientists have worked to build computers that were more like the three-pound organ inside your head.
The technology company IBM has developed a microchip that simulates functions of neurons, synapses and other features of the brain to perform calculations. IBM says the chip, a sharp break from the fundamental design used in most computers, excels at chores like recognizing patterns and classifying objects while using much less electrical power than conventional hardware.
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TrueNorth, a custom-made “brain-like” chip that builds on a simpler experimental system the company released in 2011.
TrueNorth comes packed with 4,096 processor cores, and it mimics one million human neurons and 256 million synapses, two of the fundamental biological building blocks that make up the human brain. IBM calls these “spiking neurons.” What that means, essentially, is that the chip can encode data as patterns of pulses, which is similar to one of the many ways neuroscientists think the brain stores information.
“This is a really neat experiment in architecture,” says Carver Mead, a professor emeritus of engineering and applied science at the California Institute of Technology who is often considered the granddaddy of “neuromorphic” hardware. “It’s a fine first step.” Traditional processors—like the CPUs at the heart of our computers and the GPUs that drive graphics and other math-heavy tasks—aren’t good at encoding data in this brain-like way, he explains, and that’s why IBM’s chip could be useful. “Representing information with the timing of nerve pulses…that’s just not been a thing that digital computers have had a way of dealing with in the past,” Mead says.
Watson a supercomputer already made by IBM
“There’s no CPU. There’s no GPU, no hybrid computer that can come within even a couple of orders of magnitude of where we are,” says Dharmendra Modha, the man who oversees the project. “The chip is designed for real-time power efficiency.” Nobody else, he claims, “can deliver this in real time at the vast scales we’re talking about.” The trick, he explains, is that you can tile the chips together easily to create a massive neural network. IBM created a 16-chip board just a few weeks ago that can process video in real time.
Though it is providing few details on timing, IBM says it is already talking to potential partners about ways to bring the chip to market. The company has connected multiple chips together to test potential system designs, and sees applications of the technology ranging from room-size supercomputers to floating jellyfish-shaped devices that could sense tsunamis or other aquatic conditions.
Other companies, including chip giants Intel Corp and Qualcomm Inc have their own designs for what engineers call "neuromorphic" chips.