A chip that uses a million digital neurons and 256 million synapses may signal the beginning of a new era of more intelligent computers. A new kind of computer chip, unveiled by IBM today, takes design cues from the wrinkled outer layer of the human brain. Though it is no match for a conventional microprocessor at crunching numbers, the chip consumes significantly less power, and is vastly better suited to processing images, sound, and other sensory data.
IBM’s SyNapse chip processes information using a network of just over one million “neurons,” which communicate with one another using electrical spikes—as actual neurons do. The chip uses the same basic components as today’s commercial chips—silicon transistors. But its transistors are configured to mimic the behavior of both neurons and the connections—synapses—between them. The SyNapse chip breaks with a design known as the Von Neumann architecture that has underpinned computer chips for decades. Although researchers have been experimenting with chips modeled on brains—known as neuromorphic chips—since the late 1980s, until now all have been many times less complex, and not powerful enough to be practical (see “Thinking in Silicon”). Details of the chip were published today in the journal Science.