Brainy IBM Chip Packs One Million Neuron Punch

By Tiffany Trader

August 7, 2014

IBM researchers have developed a super-efficient chip inspired by the functioning of the human brain. Named TrueNorth, the chip features 5.4 billion transistors arranged in a network of 4,096 neurosynaptic cores, yielding the equivalent of one million neurons and 256 million synapses. Despite being one of the largest CMOS chips ever built, TrueNorth consumes just 70mW during real-time operation. The chip was built for IBM by Samsung Electronics using 28nm process technology.

This is the latest breakthrough to come out of the Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) program, which has received $53 million in funding since 2008 from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. A single core hardware prototype was announced in 2011, while the software ecosystem, programming language and chip simulator developed in 2013 enabled applications to be created for this new kind of device so different from the von Neumann architecture that has dominated computing since the 1940s.

The effort undertaken by IBM with help from Cornell Tech and researchers around the world is part of a new approach to computation, called cognitive computing, and TrueNorth represents a major step forward for the emerging science. The synaptic chip will be featured in tomorrow’s edition of Science.

“IBM has broken new ground in the field of brain-inspired computers, in terms of a radically new architecture, unprecedented scale, unparalleled power/area/speed efficiency, boundless scalability, and innovative design techniques. We foresee new generations of information technology systems – that complement today’s von Neumann machines – powered by an evolving ecosystem of systems, software, and services,” said Dr. Dharmendra S. Modha, IBM Fellow and IBM Chief Scientist, Brain-Inspired Computing, IBM Research. “These brain-inspired chips could transform mobility, via sensory and intelligent applications that can fit in the palm of your hand but without the need for Wi-Fi. This achievement underscores IBM’s leadership role at pivotal transformational moments in the history of computing via long-term investment in organic innovation.”

This a truly transformative approach with each core integrating memory, computation and communication. Cores operate without a clock in an event-driven fashion and the distributed mesh network supports very fast parallel processing that is inherently fault tolerant.

Perhaps most impressive is the device’s energy profile. The chip has a power density of 20mW/cm2, nearly four orders of magnitude less than today’s microprocessors. While it’s not quite as efficient as the human brain, it is a major step forward and could pave the way for next-generation supercomputers, which will be expected to output 100-1000X more compute power with only a 10X increase in energy draw.

To scale beyond the single-chip level, additional chips can be aggregated using a tile approach to build a foundation for future neurosynaptic supercomputers. IBM has already succeeded in building a 16-chip system with sixteen million programmable neurons and four billion programmable synapses. The next step is creating a system with one trillion synapses that requires only 4kW of energy. After that IBM has plans to build a synaptic chip system with ten billion neurons and one hundred trillion synapses that consumes only one kilowatt of power and occupies less than two liters of volume.

IBM has commercial ambitions for the new hardware and software ecosystem that extend to mobile, cloud, supercomputing and distributed sensor applications. Targeted fields for the neuro-inspired chips include public safety, vision assistance, home health monitoring and transportation.

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