IBM's new supercomputing chip mimics the human brain with very little power

A lot has changed in the three years since IBM first unveiled a prototype of its human brain-inspired SyNAPSE (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics) chip. That single-core prototype has now been significantly scaled up, leading to a new, production-ready SyNAPSE chip that blows past its predecessor with 1 million neurons, 256 million synapses and 4,096 neurosynaptic cores, all the while only requiring 70mW of power. Though the numbers are impressive, it's what they translate to that holds even greater prominence: the ability for devices to process various sensory data in parallel just like the human brain, by merging memory and computing.

Traditionally, faster processing has always meant greater power consumption, but IBM's new SyNAPSE chip flips that paradigm on its head. To give you some perspective of just how low-powered this supercomputing chip is, IBM's Chief Scientist Dr. Dharmendra S. Modha says it requires power equivalent to that of a battery from a hearing aid. It's an achievement that's merited IBM the cover of the journal Science; it also has the potential to drastically alter conventional approaches to computing. In fact, the new SyNAPSE chip is so disruptive to the current computing landscape that IBM's created a new programming language to go along with it and an educational outreach program called SyNAPSE University. It's no wonder why the project received $53 million in funding from DARPA.

IBM's Chief Scientist Dr. Dharmendra S. Modha says [the new SyNAPSE chip] requires power equivalent to that of a battery from a hearing aid.

IBM hasn't publicly announced any partnerships to leverage its new SyNAPSE chip yet, though discussions are surely taking place. Currently, the company's been able to build a programmable, working board with 16 of these chips working in concert -- that represents 16 million neurons capable of processing instructions that, Modha says, would traditionally be carried out by "racks and racks of conventional computers." Again, this is all done at an extremely low-powered state, which means the chips produce way less heat. It's not hard to imagine some of the immediate benefits this could bring to consumers: for instance, laptops that don't burn your lap; or even mobile phones that run for days and can process extreme amounts of environmental data.

But Modha sums up the magnitude of IBM's new SyNAPSE chip best with this simple analogy: "You can carry our board in your backpack. You can't carry four racks of conventional computers in your backpack."

[Image credit: IBM]