The so-called “neurosynaptic” chip is a breakthrough that opens a wide new range of computing possibilities from self-driving cars to artificial intelligence systems that can be installed on a smartphone, the scientists say.
The researchers from IBM, Cornell Tech and collaborators from around the world said they took an entirely new approach in design compared with previous computer architecture, moving toward a system called “cognitive computing.”
“We have taken inspiration from the cerebral cortex to design this chip,” said IBM chief scientist for brain-inspired computing, Dharmendra Modha, referring to the command center of the brain.
He said existing computers trace their lineage back to machines from the 1940s which are essentially “sequential number-crunching calculators” that perform mathematical or “left brain” tasks but little else.
The new chip dubbed “TrueNorth” works to mimic the “right brain” functions of sensory processing ― responding to sights, smells and information from the environment to “learn” to respond in different situations, Modha said.
It accomplishes this task by using a huge network of “neurons” and “synapses,” similar to how the human brain functions by using information gathered from the body’s sensory organs.
The researchers designed TrueNorth with 1 million programmable neurons and 256 million programmable synapses, on a chip with 4,096 cores and 5.4 billion transistors.
A key to the performance is the extremely low energy use on the new chip, which runs on the equivalent energy of a hearing-aid battery.
This can allow a chip installed in a car or smartphone to perform supercomputer calculations in real time without connecting to the cloud or other network.
“The sensor becomes the computer,” Modha said in a phone interview. “You could have better sensory processors without the connection to wi-fi or the cloud.”