IBM announces the most brain-like computer chip to date


IBM's new neurosynaptic processor integrates 1 million neurons and 256 million synapses on one chip. (IBM Research)

A computer that works like a brain has been the holy grail of data processing for awhile now. Today, IBM announced a flying leap in the right direction in Science. Called TrueNorth, the new chip throws away the traditional rules of chip design in favor of a "neuromorphic" model. The chip, IBM researchers wrote, will help computers handle tasks such as image and voice recognition with the alacrity of humans.

The chip is also extremely efficient - here it is thermally imaged (left) next to a traditional chip feeding it data. (IBM Research)
The chip is also extremely efficient. Here it is thermally imaged (left) next to a traditional chip feeding it data. (IBM Research)

"I'm holding in my hand a new machine for a new era," lead researcher Dharmendra Modha told GigaOm, describing the chip as "a supercomputer the size of a stamp, the weight of a feather."

The chip contains over 256 million "synapses," or neural connections, and 1 million "neurons." These trade electrical signals with one another, firing off information in much the way our own brains do. But given that our own brains have around 86 trillion neurons and 100 trillion synapses, a single chip is still puny in comparison.

But the chips can be linked together to create more powerful circuits, too. And it's possible that IBM will combine the chip with a conventional computer, allowing each processor to handle the tasks it's best suited for.

Science Magazine reports that IBM has set up a virtual school called Synapse University in the hope that computer scientists will learn to tinker with the new kind of chips. Giving TrueNorth brain-like capabilities is just the first step. Now someone needs to learn how to program it to its full potential.

Rachel Feltman runs The Post's Speaking of Science blog.
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Rachel Feltman · August 7