By integrating processing, memory, and communications on each core, IBM claims to have eliminated the dreaded von Neumann bottleneck that forces traditional microprocessors to resort to multiple levels of power-consuming caches. And since the cores all operate in parallel, they don't have to operate at power-consuming gigaHertz rates. In fact, the only clock on the chip is a 1kHz clock to discretize neuron dynamics. And by distributing the cores across the chip, the architecture is fault tolerant; any core can fail without affecting the outcomes of computations.
To demonstrate the ability to connect chip-to-chip communication seamlessly through tiling, IBM build a board where 16 chips were
tested as a single network.
The chip was fabricated using Samsung's 28-nanometer process known for its dense on-chip memory and low-leakage transistors. Modha said it worked flawlessly the first time it was powered up.
His company is busy creating a new simulator, a new programming language, a new programming environment, new libraries, new algorithms, and a new teaching curriculum aimed at creating a global ecosystem of applications. By moving the computing elements closer to the sensors and integrating different types of sensors, the hope is that neurosynaptic computers will be better equipped to deal with the ambiguity of real-time data streams.
"We are beginning to talk to university and industrial partners about all sorts of applications, such as object recognition built into cameras, or auditory processing using multi-sensor fusion," Modha said. "And in automobiles or medical devices, the data could be processed as it is being collected, or smartphones that are totally aware of their environment."
The low-power and sensory processing capabilities of this chip make it well suited for diverse applications (from left to right) in medicine (a smart thermometer that visually inspects the throat and sniffs for telltale odors of infection), robotics (an autonomous rolling robot studded with video cameras can inspect a disaster site), sensing (floating jellyfish-like sensors that measure water temperature, salinity, turbidity, and wave height) and personal navigation (assistive glasses that can help the visually impaired navigate complex environments).
IBM is also working to demonstrate on-chip learning capabilities that adapt to the real world. It plans to take advantage of CMOS advances in memory density, 3-D integration, and new sensor technologies to enable even lower power use, denser packaging, and faster speeds.
The funding totaled $53 million over four phases from DARPA. The program is exploring commercial possibilities that could be realized within the next five years.
— R. Colin Johnson, Advanced Technology Editor, EE Times