Step aside Skynet, because IBM has readied a computer chip that is designed to mimic the manner by which our brains process information. The chip is part of a DARPA-funded program appropriately named SyNAPSE (System of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics). It features over a million “neurons” that communicate with each other via electrical spikes that is similar to the way neurons transmit information in a living brain. These neurons are organized into 4,096 blocks, with each holding 250, an arrangement similar to the brains of mammals.
Production on the chip, named TrueNorth, began three years ago when IBM first unveiled the SyNAPSE prototype, and a lot has changed, particularly the amount of power the chip consumes. Usually faster processing equates to greater power consumption, but that isn’t the case with TrueNorth. To give an example, in a presentation given at one of IBM’s research centers, they programmed TrueNorth and a nearby laptop to accomplish a similar task – to recognize cars, people, and bicycles in a video of an intersection. The laptop performed the task 100 times slower and required 100,000 times the power (with TrueNorth only consuming 63 milliwatts of power).
The numbers are impressive, but this also signifies the future of electronic devices that will soon have the ability to process sensory data in parallel just like the human brain. This is because the chip doesn’t have separate memory and processing blocks, it’s neurons and synapses intertwine the two functions.
So what does this mean for the future? Well, it’s going to take sometime before the IBM chip is in your mobile, as it requires an entirely new approach to programming. However, once the chip is readied for commercial production, it will pave the way for a whole host of features including a battery life that lasts for days, smarter and more efficient self-driving cars, and laptops that don’t overheat, among other things.