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These prototype chips utilize digital silicon circuits inspired by neurobiology

Straying from the traditional von Neumann computing architecture, IBM researchers are now in the midst of developing cognitive computers, which mimic processes of the human brain, through the use of neurosynaptic computing chips.

Cognitive computing could open up a world of new technologies in the future. These systems, which would not be programmed like traditional computers, could learn through experiences like humans. They could create hypotheses, find correlations, remember, and learn from its environment while consuming less power and occupying less volume.

"Imagine traffic lights that can integrate sights, sounds and smells and flag unsafe intersections before disaster happens or imagine cognitive co-processors that turn servers, laptops, tablets and phones into machines that can interact better with their environments," said Dharmendra Modha, project leader for IBM Research.

Now, IBM has brought these hypothetical scenarios one step closer to reality with the creation of cognitive computer chips. These prototype chips utilize digital silicon circuits inspired by neurobiology, but do not contain biological elements. They contain a "neurosynaptic core," which consists of an integrated memory (mimicking synapses), communication (mimicking axons) and computation (mimicking neurons). Through silicon circuitry and advanced algorithms along with principles of neuroscience, nanoscience and supercomputing, these chips are capable of imitating biological processes such as those occurring in the human brain.

So far, IBM has developed two working prototypes that are currently undergoing testing. Both cores have 256 neurons and were fabricated in 45 nm SOl-CMOS. One core has 262,144 programmable synapses while the other contains 65,536 learning synapses. Researchers have already achieved applications like machine vision, associative memory, classification, navigation and pattern recognition.

"This is a major initiative to move beyond the von Neumann paradigm that has been ruling computer architecture for more than half a century," said Modha. "Future applications of computing will increasingly demand functionality that is not efficiently delivered by the traditional architecture. These chips are another significant step in the evolution of computers from calculators to learning systems, signaling the beginning of a new generation of computers and their applications in business, science and government."

IBM's cognitive chips are part of the Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) project, which aims to create a system that is capable of rewiring itself as it interacts with its environment while still analyzing complex information from several sensory modalities. In addition, the system must "rival the brain's compact size and low power usage."

Currently, IBM has completed Phases 0 and 1 with its cognitive chips for the SyNAPSE project. It was awarded $21 million in new funding for Phase 2 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

For Phase 2, IBM will work with researchers from Columbia University, Cornell University, the University of California - Merced, and the University of Wisconsin - Madison. The team will work to achieve a cognitive computing architecture consisting of an "on-chip network of lightweight cores," resulting in one integrated system of software and hardware.

Eventually, IBM would like to develop a chip system with ten billion neurons and one hundred trillion synapses that occupies less than two liters of volume and consumes one kilowatt of power.

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