“Mind-Powered Chip”: Emulating the Brain’s Cognitive Powers

August 18th, 2011 by Erwin Gianchandani Post a comment »

As part of a multi-year cognitive computing initiative funded by DARPA and involving academic collaborators, Dharmendra Modha and his colleagues at IBM Research – Almaden have designed an experimental computer chip that emulates the brain’s cognitive powers. It’s a revelation that’s got the popular press abuzz today.

From the IBM press release:

In a sharp 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 and are currently undergoing testing.


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 brains structural and synaptic plasticity…


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).


IBM has two working prototype designs. Both cores were fabricated in 45 nm SOI-CMOS and contain 256 neurons. 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.


IBM’s overarching cognitive computing architecture is an on-chip network of light-weight cores, creating a single integrated system of hardware and software. This architecture represents a critical shift away from traditional von Neumann computing to a potentially more power-efficient architecture that has no set programming, integrates memory with processor, and mimics the brain’s event-driven, distributed and parallel processing.

Check out a past interview with Modha — in which he describes the motivations and goals for the cognitive computing initiative — after the jump…

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)