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IBM has helped create an electronic “brain chip” after a decade of research. If all goes as planned, it could be one of the greatest inventions of the computing era, and this is not an understatement.

IBM Synapse chip

Above: IBM Synapse chip

Image Credit: IBM

The IBM Synapse chip is like a modern supercomputer in the space of a postage stamp, outperforming today’s fastest microprocessors because it processes data in a more efficient way — similar to the way that the brain works. It weighs just a few grams, and something as small as a hearing-aid battery could power it. It could find use in a variety of mobile, cloud, and distributed-sensor applications.

IBM may be exaggerating its achievement. The real test will come when programmers learn how to use the chip and create new applications for it. But for now, it’s worth noting that IBM has been on the path of continuous improvement in its well-documented history of this research.

I got my first look at IBM’s previous chip back in 2011, when IBM created a prototype chip that had one core, 256 neurons, and had the scale of a worm’s brain. Now the new chip uses 15 times less area, 100 times less power, and it has more than 4,000 times more cores.

“I’m holding in my hand a new machine for a new era,” said Dharmendra Modha, principal investigator on a project that was created by the IBM Almaden Research Center and a bunch of other research institutions. “It’s the culmination of over a decade of our research. Ten years ago, many believed this was impossible. The impossible has become possible, and the possible will very soon be real applications.”

IBM Synapse chip

Above: IBM Synapse chip

Image Credit: IBM

The ambition is huge. IBM’s so-called cognitive computing chips could one day simulate and emulate the brain’s ability to sense, perceive, interact, and recognize — all tasks that humans can currently do much better than computers can.

Modha asked for permission to “geek out” as he explained the features of the chip. It has a million neurons (brain cells), 256 million synapses, and 4,096 neurosynaptic cores, arranged in a 64 x 64 array. It has 400 million bits of local on-chip memory. The cores can be connected via a network on a chip.

“You can tile these chips seamlessly, and it becomes twice the chip,” Modha said. “We have already tiled 16 of them in a 4 x 4 array, to create a 16 million neuron, 4 billion synapse core.”

The chip is the outcome of a $53.5 million project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Called Synapse (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics, or SyNAPSE), the chip is like a component of the human brain, and it can be paired with more than 4,000 other chips to form a thinking machine like no other we’ve seen.

“I believe that it is very significant, and would compare it to the Connection Machine,” said Horst Simon of the Lawrence Berkeley Labs government laboratory, who was not involved in the Synapse project. “When the CM-1 was developed in the late ’80s, it was an architectural breakthrough,as was the Caltech hypercube project, that demonstrated the feasibility of what was then called massively parallel computing [MPP].”

But it’s not just about parallel computing, Simon said: It’s about the need to fundamentally rethink what we mean by “computers.”

“I think we are on the threshold of a similar transition to new architectural paradigms as we approach the limits of performance in von Neumann architecture,” Simon said. “The IBM Synapse project is an indicator of that change in the next 10 years. It is a remarkable achievement in terms of scalability and low power consumption.”

Big Blue had Samsung use its low-power chip manufacturing process to fabricate the chip in a 28-nanometer process, where the average width between circuits is 28 billionths of a meter. The chip has 5.4 billion transistors, or basic electronic components. That makes it the largest chip IBM has ever made. But it consumes just 70 milliwatts.

Above: IBM’s Dharmendra Modha in 2011.

While other chips are measured in FLOPs, or floating point operations per second, IBM measures the chip in SOPs, or synaptic operations per second.

“This chip is capable of 46 billion SOPs per watt,” Modha said. “It’s a supercomputer the size of a postage stamp, the weight of a feather, and the power consumption of a hearing-aid battery.”

The power density of the chip is 20 milliwatts per square centimeter, or four orders of magnitude cooler than a microprocessor, he said.

“It is an astonishing achievement to leverage a process traditionally used for commercially available, low-power mobile devices to deliver a chip that emulates the human brain by processing extreme amounts of sensory information with very little power,” said Shawn Han, the vice president of foundry marketing for Samsung Electronics, in a statement. “This is a huge architectural breakthrough that is essential as the industry moves toward the next-generation cloud and big-data processing.”