A Giant Step Closer to Intelligent Computers that Mimic Human Brain — Based on a “Mammalian-Scale” System

IStock_000003942818XSmall "We now have the seeds of a new architecture that can allow us to mine the boundary between the physical and the digital world in an ever more efficient way."

Dharmendra Modha, IBM Research

IBM has created prototype chips that could mimic human brain functionality, which the company said is an "unprecedented" step forward in creating intelligent computers that collect, process, and understand data quickly. The prototype chips incorporate a simplified model of the human brain, which has billions of neurons and trillions of synapses. IBM said the chips are the foundation of what could eventually be a "mammalian-scale system," which will include 10 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses with the power consumption and size that rivals the human brain.


The revolutionary prototype will give mind-like abilities for computers to make decisions by collating and analyzing vast amounts of data, similar to humans gathering and understanding a series of events, according to Dharmendra Modha, project leader for IBM Research. The experimental chips, modeled around neural systems, mimic the brain's structure and operation through silicon circuitry and advanced algorithms.

IBM hopes reverse-engineering the brain into a chip could forge computers that are highly parallel, event-driven and passive on power consumption, Modha said. The machines will be a sharp departure from modern computers, which have scaling limitations and require set programming by humans to generate results.

"In today's computers, there are some key fundamental limitations that are projected to come to an end," Modha said. "The ever-increasing clock rates are unsustainable. In contrast, the brain is an ultimate computer."

Similar to the human brain, IBM's prototype chips can dynamically rewire to sense, understand and act on information fed via sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch, or through other sources such as weather and water-supply monitors. The chips will help discover patterns based on probabilities and associations, while rivaling the brain's compact size and low power usage, Modha said.

"We now have the seeds of a new architecture that can allow us to mine the boundary between the physical and the digital world in an ever more efficient way," Modha said.

IBM and its research partners have already generated some results from the project, such as walking through a maze, playing a game of Pong, or recognizing patterns in data. The researchers are gunning for better results that include image recognition in videos.

The company has built individual "digital neurons" in the chips as low-power processing units, and synapses to establish connections between neurons. The neurons and synapses are organized in cross-bar arrays and are supported by a communications infrastructure for neurons to exchange data in real time. The neurons remember recent activities, while the synapses remember the neurons they are associated with.

The chips contain 256 "digital neurons" running at slow speeds of 10MHz that are constantly blasting information to each other. One core contains 262,144 programmable synapses, while the other core contains 65,536 "learning" synapses. Like in the brain, the synapse establishes connections between digital neurons, and the more often a signal is sent to a synapse, the stronger the synapse gets.

Modha could not provide a time frame within which the computer would be made, but said results from the current research could change the way computers are built.

IBM developed the chips along with partners as part of a multiyear research initiative called Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE), which focuses on cognitive computing. IBM and its partners are bringing together the neuroscience, nanotechnology and supercomputing fields to create the new computing platform.

The Daily Galaxy via nyt.com and pcworld.com

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