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Bringing brains to computers

Agam Shah | Dec. 18, 2013
Silicon brains will create new computers that can use the human brain as a model to make decisions.

"It's the largest neuromorphic system that's been built to date," Imam said.

IBM, one of the lead researcher companies in Synapse, this year said that it ultimately wants to build a "chip system" that has 10 billion neurons and a hundred trillion synapses but draws just 1 kilowatt of power.

Another research project drawing interest is Qualcomm's Zeroth chip, which the company calls a "neural processing unit." By analyzing patterns of human behavior, the chip could make interaction with mobile devices easier by anticipating user actions, said company CEO Paul Jacobs during a speech last month.

Qualcomm has already demonstrated a robot based on Zeroth that can make navigation decisions. The company wants to expand Zeroth's capabilities and is researching possibilities, said Sameer Kumar , director of business development at Qualcomm.

The Synapse and Qualcomm research efforts are based on digital neurons, but one neuromorphic system due in Europe will be based on analog circuitry, which keeps it truer to the brain. The system, located at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, is part of the Human Brain Project, a 10-year, US$1.6 billion effort backed by the European Union to understand the brain's inner workings.

The university already has a neuromorphic computing system operational with a silicon wafer containing 200,000 neurons and 50 million synapses. In two years, researchers hope to offer a 20-wafer system with a combined 4 million analog neurons, said Meier, who is spearheading the project. The highly parallel chip design has configurable electronic neurons, and the goal is to understand the dependencies, synchronization and communication among neurons and synapses, and adopt them to computing.

The project's intent is not to develop the best neural chip, but to understand architectures, Meier said. That could pave the way for neuromorphic computing models .

Other neural chip research efforts include Stanford's Neurogrid and the University of Manchester's Spinnaker, which is part of the E.U.'s Human Brain Project. HP is developing memristor memory technology, which could bolster a computer's decision-making ability by understanding patterns from previously collected data, much like human brains collecting memories of and understanding a series of events.

It's easy to create theories, but what's important is to make the chips usable, said Guy Paillet, who holds a 1995 patent on neural circuit design, along with IBM and others. Paillet is the executive chairman of General Vision, which sells a chip called CM1K, based on a neural network design.

Research efforts under way are focused on so-called spiking neurons, which Paillet said are "close to biology to replicate the synapse model."

Copying features of the way the brain works and applying them to chip technology is easier said than done. Neuron behavior is hard to predict, and making a chip that rewires millions of connections is a challenge. Morever, the brain is yet to be fully understood, and neuroscience researchers are uncovering new facts everyday.


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