IBM reveals ‘brain-like’ chip with 4,096 cores (Wired UK)


The human brain is the world’s most sophisticated computer,
capable of learning new things on the fly, using very little data.
It can recognise objects, understand speech, respond to change.
Since the early days of digital technology, scientists have worked
to build computers that were more like the three-pound organ inside
your head.

Most efforts to mimic the brain have focused on software, but in
recent years, some researchers have ramped up efforts to create
neuro-inspired computer chips that process information in
fundamentally different ways from traditional hardware. This
includes an ambitious
project inside tech giant IBM
, and today, Big Blue released a
research paper describing the latest fruits of these labours. With
this paper, published in the academic journal Science, the
company unveils what it calls TrueNorth, a custom-made “brain-like”
chip that builds on a simpler experimental system the company
released in 2011.

TrueNorth comes packed with 4,096 processor cores, and it mimics
one million human neurones and 256 million synapses, two of the
fundamental biological building blocks that make up the human
brain. IBM calls these “spiking neurones.” What that means,
essentially, is that the chip can encode data as patterns of
pulses, which is similar to one of the many ways neuroscientists
think the brain stores information.

“This is a really neat experiment in architecture,” says
Carver Mead, a professor emeritus of engineering and applied
science at the California Institute of Technology who is often
considered the granddaddy of “neuromorphic” hardware. “It’s a fine
first step.” Traditional processors — like the CPUs at the heart
of our computers and the GPUs that drive graphics and other
math-heavy tasks — aren’t good at encoding data in this brain-like
way, he explains, and that’s why IBM’s chip could be useful.
“Representing information with the timing of nerve pulses…that’s
just not been a thing that digital computers have had a way of
dealing with in the past,” Mead says.

IBM has already tested the chip’s ability to drive common
artificial intelligence tasks, including recognising images, and
according to the company, its neurones and synapses can handle such
tasks with usual speed, using much less power than traditional
off-the-shelf chips. When researchers challenged the thing
with DARPA’s
NeoVision2 Tower dataset
 — which includes
images taken from video recorded atop Stanford University’s
Hoover Tower — TrueNorth was able to recognise things like people,
cyclists, cars, buses, and trucks with about 80 percent accuracy.
What’s more, when the researchers then fed TrueNorth streaming
video at 30 frames per second, it only burned 63 mW of power as it
processed the data in real time.

“There’s no CPU. There’s no GPU, no hybrid computer that can
come within even a couple of orders of magnitude of where we are,”
says Dharmendra Modha, the man who oversees the project. “The chip
is designed for real-time power efficiency.” Nobody else, he
claims, “can deliver this in real time at the vast scales we’re
talking about.” The trick, he explains, is that you can tile
the chips together easily to create a massive neural network. IBM
created a 16-chip board just a few weeks ago that can process video
in real time.

Both these chips and this board are just research
prototypes, but IBM is already hawking the technology as something
that will revolutionise everything from cloud services,
supercomputers, and smartphone technology. It’s “a new machine for
a new era,” says Modha. “We really think this is a new landmark in
the history of brain-inspired computing.” But others question
whether this technology is all that different from current systems
and what it can actually do.

Beyond von Neumann

IBM’s chip research is part of the SyNAPSE project, short for
Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics, a
massive effort from Darpa, the US Defense Department’s research
arm, to create a brain-like hardware. The ultimate aim of the
project — which has invested about $53 million since 2008 in
IBM’s project alone — is to create hardware that breaks the von
Neumann paradigm, the standard way of building computers.

In a von Neumann computer, the storage and handling of data is
divvied up between the machine’s main memory and its central
processing unit. To do their work, computers carry out a set of
instructions, or programs, sequentially by shuttling data from
memory (where it’s stored) to the CPU (where it’s crunched).
Because the memory and CPU are separated, data needs to be
transferred constantly.

Big Blue envisions a world where its TrueNorth chip helps us find our way. But that may be years away


This creates a bottleneck and requires lots of energy. There are
ways around this, like using multi-core chips that can run tasks in
parallel or storing things in cache — a special kind of memory
that sits closer to the processor — but this buys you only so much
speed-up and not so much in power. It also means that computers are
never really working in real-time, says Mead, because of the
communication roadblock.

We don’t completely understand how the brain works. But in his
seminal work, The Computer and the Brain, as John von Neumann
himself said that brain is something fundamentally different from
the computing architecture that bears his name, and ever since,
scientists have been trying to understand how the brain encodes and
processes information with the hope that they can translate that
into smarter computers.

Neuromorphic chips developed by IBM and a handful of others
don’t separate the data-storage and data-crunching parts of the
computer. Instead, they pack the memory, computation and
communication parts into little modules that process information
locally but can communicate with each other easily and quickly.
This, IBM researchers say, resembles the circuits found in the
brain, where the separation of computation and storage isn’t as cut
and dry, and it’s what buys the thing added energy efficiency –
arguably the chip’s best selling point to date.

But can it learn?

But some question how novel the chip really is. “The good point
about the architecture is that memory and computation are
close. But again, if this does not scale to state-of-art
problems, it will not be different from current systems where
memory and computation are physically separated,” says Eugenio
Culurciello, a professor at Purdue University, who works on
neuromorphic systems for vision and helped develop the NeuFlow
platform in neural-net pioneer Yann LeCun’s lab at NYU.

So far, it’s unclear how well TrueNorth performs when it’s put
to the test on large-scale state-of-the-art problems like
recognising very many different types of objects. It seems to have
performed well on a simple image detection and recognition
tasks using used DARPA’s NeoVision2 Tower
. But as some critics point out, that’s only five
categories of objects. The object recognition software used at
Baidu and Google, for example, is trained on the ImageNet database,
which boasts thousands of object categories. Modha says they
started with NeoVision because it was a DARPA-mandated metric, but
they are working on other datasets including ImageNet.

Others say that in order to break with current computing
paradigms, neurochips should learn. “It’s definitely an
achievement to make a chip of that scale…but I think the claims are
a bit stretched because there is no learning happening on chip,”
says Nayaran Srinivasa, a researcher at HRL Laboratories who’s
working on similar technologies (also funded by SyNAPSE). “It’s not
brain-like in a lot of ways.” While the implementation does happen
on TrueNorth, all the learning happens off-line, on traditional
computers. “The von Neumann component is doing all the ‘brain’
work, so in that sense it’s not breaking any paradigm.”

To be fair, most learning systems today rely heavily on off-line
learning, whether they run on CPUs or faster, more
power-hungry GPUs. That’s because learning often
requires reworking the algorithms and that’s much
harder to do on hardware because it’s not as flexible. Still,
IBM says on-chip learning is not something they’re ruling out.

Critics say the technology still has very many tests to pass
before it can supercharge data centres or power new
breeds of intelligent phones, cameras, robots or Google Glass-like
contraptions. To think that we’re going to have brain-like computer
chips in our hands soon would be “misleading,” says LeCun, whose
lab has worked on neural-net hardware for years. “I’m all in
favour of building special-purpose chips for running neural nets.
But I think people should build chips to implement algorithms that
we know work at state of the art level,” he says. “This avenue of
research is not going to pan out for quite a while, if ever. They
may get neural net accelerator chips in their smartphones soonish,
but these chips won’t look at all like the IBM chip. They will look
more like modified GPUs.”

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8 August 2014 | 8:56 am – Source:

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