IBM unveils chips that mimic the human brain

By Stuart Sumner
18 Aug 2011 View Comments
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IBM has unveiled a new experimental computer chip that it says mimics the human brain in that it perceives, acts and even thinks.

It terms the machines built with these chips "cognitive computers", claiming that they are able to learn through experience, find patterns, generate ideas and understand the outcomes.

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In building this new generation of chip, IBM combined principles of nanoscience, neuroscience and supercomputing.

It has been awarded $21m (£12.7m) of new funding by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the next phase of the project, which it terms "Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics" (SyNAPSE).

"This is a major initiative to move beyond the von Neumann paradigm that has been ruling computer architecture for more than half a century," said Dharmendra Modha, project leader for IBM Research.

Modha added that the chip may see applications in business, science and government.

"Future applications of computing will increasingly demand functionality that is not efficiently delivered by the traditional architecture.

"These chips are another significant step in the evolution of computers from calculators to learning systems, signalling the beginning of a new generation of computers and their applications in business, science and government."

IBM states that the chips, while certainly not biological, are inspired by the architecture of the human brain in their design. Digital silicon circuits make up what it terms the "neurosynaptic core".

The scientists have built two working prototype designs. Both cores contain 256 neurons, one with 262,144 programmable synapses and the other with 65,536 learning synapses. The team has successfully demonstrated simple applications like navigation, machine vision, pattern recognition, associative memory and classification.

But what are the potential real-world applications of this technology? Tsunami warnings for one, claims IBM:

"A cognitive computing system monitoring the world's water supply could contain a network of sensors and actuators that constantly record and report metrics such as temperature, pressure, wave height, acoustics and ocean tide, and issue tsunami warnings based on its decision making," said IBM in a statement.

Going slightly more Minority Report, IBM goes on to suggest an instrumented glove that a grocer could use to flag bad or contaminated produce.

On a more practical note, IBM has said that this technology could result in computers that take up far less space and use less power than those in use today.

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