IBM’s ‘Rodent Brain’ Chip Could Make Phones Hyper-Smart

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Dharmendra Modha walks me to the front of the room so I can see it up close. About the size of a bathroom medicine cabinet, it rests on a table against the wall, and thanks to the translucent plastic on the outside, I can see the computer chips and the circuit boards and the multi-colored lights on the inside. It looks like a prop from a ’70s sci-fi movie, but Modha describes it differently. “You’re looking at a small rodent,” he says.

He means the brain of a small rodent—or, at least, the digital equivalent. The chips on the inside are designed to behave like neurons—the basic building blocks of biological brains. Modha says the system in front of us spans 48 million of these artificial nerve cells, roughly the number of neurons packed into the head of a rodent.

Modha oversees the cognitive computing group at IBM, the company that created these “neuromorphic” chips. For the first time, he and his team are sharing their unusual creations with the outside world, running a three-week “boot camp” for academics and government researchers at an IBM R&D lab on the far side of Silicon Valley. Plugging their laptops into the digital rodent brain at the front of the room, this eclectic group of computer scientists is exploring the particulars of IBM’s architecture and beginning to build software for the chip dubbed TrueNorth.

Some researchers who got their hands on the chip at an engineering workshop in Colorado the previous month have already fashioned software that can identify images, recognize spoken words, and understand natural language. Basically, they’re using the chip to run “deep learning” algorithms , the same algorithms that drive the internet’s latest AI services, including the face recognition on Facebook and the instant language translation on Microsoft’s Skype . But the promise is that IBM’s chip can run these algorithms in smaller spaces with considerably less electrical power, letting us shoehorn more AI onto phones and other tiny devices, including hearing aids and, well, wristwatches .

“What does a neuro-synaptic architecture give us? It lets us do things like image classification at a very, very low power consumption,” says Brian Van Essen, a computer scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who’s exploring how deep learning could be applied to national security. “It lets us tackle new problems in new environments.”

The TrueNorth is part of a widespread movement to refine the hardware that drives deep learning and other AI services. Companies like Google and Facebook and Microsoft are now running their algorithms on machines backed with GPUs (chips originally built to render computer graphics), and they’re moving towards FPGAs (chips you can program for particular tasks). For Peter Diehl, a PhD student in the cortical computation group at ETH Zurich and University Zurich , TrueNorth outperforms GPUs and FPGAs in certain situations because it consumes so little power.

The main difference, says Jason Mars, a professor of a computer science at the University of Michigan, is that the TrueNorth dovetails so well with deep-learning algorithms. These algorithms mimic neural networks in much the same way IBM’s chips do, recreating the neurons and synapses in the brain. One maps well onto the other. “The chip gives you a highly efficient way of executing neural networks,” says Mars, who declined an invitation to this month’s boot camp but has closely followed the progress of the chip.

That said, the TrueNorth suits only part of the deep learning process—at least as the chip exists today—and some question how big an impact it will have. Though IBM is now sharing the chips with outside researchers, it’s years away from the market. For Modha, however, this is as it should be. As he puts it: “We’re trying to lay the foundation for significant change.”

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SOURCE: Wired, Cade Metz