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Next-Generation Embedded Computing: IBM Unveils Cognitive Computing Chips

On August 18, IBM researchers unveiled a new generation of experimental computer chips designed to emulate the brain’s abilities for perception, action and cognition. IBM believes this technology could yield many orders of magnitude less power consumption and space than used in today’s computing platforms. 

In a departure from traditional concepts in designing and building computers, IBM’s first neurosynaptic computing chips recreate the phenomena between spiking neurons and synapses in biological systems, such as the brain, through advanced algorithms and silicon circuitry. Its first two prototype chips have already been fabricated at its chip-making facility in Fishkill, New York and are currently undergoing testing at its research labs in Yorktown Heights, New York and in San Jose, Calif. 

In terms of technical specifications, one core contains 262,144 programmable synapses and the other contains 65,536 learning synapses. The IBM team has successfully demonstrated simple applications like navigation, machine vision, pattern recognition, associative memory and classification.  

Called cognitive computers, systems built with these chips won’t be programmed the same way traditional computers are today. Rather, cognitive computers are expected to learn through experiences, find correlations, create hypotheses, and remember – and learn from – the outcomes, mimicking the brain's structural and synaptic plasticity. 

To do this, IBM is combining principles from nanoscience, neuroscience, and supercomputing as part of a multi-year cognitive computing initiative, involving IBM's Dr. Dharmendra Modha, and leading academics at Stanford University,  University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Columbia University Medical Center, and University of California- Merced.

The company and its university collaborators also announced they have been awarded approximately $21 million in new funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for Phase 2 of the Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) project.  

Neurosynaptic Chips 

While they contain no biological elements, IBM’s first cognitive computing prototype chips use digital silicon circuits inspired by neurobiology to make up what is referred to as a “neurosynaptic core” with integrated memory (replicated synapses), computation (replicated neurons) and communication (replicated axons).  

VDC sees IBM and its cognitive computing initiative academic partners as achieving an important milestone in altering the future of the embedded computing landscape.  IBM’s overarching cognitive computing architecture is an on-chip network of light-weight cores, creating a single integrated system of hardware and software, a critical shift away from traditional, less power efficient embedded computing platforms. 

IBM’s long-term goal is to build a chip system with ten billion neurons and one hundred trillion synapses, while consuming merely one kilowatt of power and occupying less than two liters of volume. VDC applauds this advancement, but we also recognize practical application of such technology in the field to drive business and industrial process improvements is likely a decade away. 

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