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New IBM computer chip is designed to work like the brain.

Byline: John Markoff

Inspired by the architecture of the brain, scientists have developed a new kind of computer chip that draws no more power than a hearing aid and may eventually excel at calculations that stump today's supercomputers.

The new processor, named TrueNorth, was developed by researchers at IBM and detailed in an article published Wednesday in the journal Science. The chip attempts to mimic the way brains recognize patterns, relying on densely interconnected webs of transistors similar to the brain's neural networks.

The new chip's electronic "neurons'' are able to signal others when a type of data -- light, for example -- passes a certain threshold.

5.4 billion transistors

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 reaching into a pocket and pulling out a quarter.

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.

Yet 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.

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

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.


IBM's research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a research arm of the Pentagon. According to Gill Pratt, the program manager, the agency is pursuing twin goals in its effort to design ultralow-power biological processors.

The first goal, he said, is to automate some of the surveillance done by military drones: "We have lots of data and not enough people to look at them.''

The second goal is to create a new kind of laboratory instrument to allow neuroscientists to quickly test new theories about how brains function.

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Title Annotation:Business
Author:Markoff, John
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 10, 2014
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